The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself lying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”
There are times when I experience an intense empathetic state. I have a simultaneous awareness of both connectedness and suffering in the world. Yet, I don’t simply feel others’ pain. I feel a deep sense of guilt and responsibility for their pain. All at once, I fully grasp my indirect complicity by just living in this modern world, within our affluent country.
Every choice and action has millions of tiny threads attached. They pull at my skin, creating thousands of invisible wounds. I ache, uncertain of the source. If I settle here, in this reality, I become frozen. Even taking no action is painful because it creates its own consequences.
I have always interpreted this “experience” as the true reality. I accepted that if I faced it, there would be anxiety and depression. When the practicalities of life pushed me forward and I was able to blunt some of the intensity, I saw it as hiding from the truth, even if I did feel better. What most would term “coping” felt like acquiescing to a cruel, unfair world. I became another mindless human, trampling others in my efforts to create a comfortable bubble for myself.
However, I was pondering the butterfly story recently. Is my perception of reality accurate?
Our time on earth is a journey toward remembering our wholeness. A butterfly has no sense of individuality and implicitly knows this truth. I have viewed the world as the dreaming butterfly, experiencing a human reality where a sense of separateness creates pain, and believing it is true.
If I switch perspectives, I become a lucid dreamer. A human who can access this primal memory of being a butterfly, unencumbered by the burden of individual suffering. I can see that this pain is temporary and serves a purpose. My role in both feeling and causing pain is part of the process.
I am caught within this dream, yet aware. I can now act.
Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson