When I was a little girl, probably about seven or eight years old, my family took a camping trip. We loaded up the olive green Chevy station wagon and headed to the Adirondack mountains in Upstate New York. I still remember the smell of the woods—the sweetness of decaying fall leaves, which blanketed the ground, mingled with the resin of pine and spruce, and the scent of incoming rain. The evening was cold, and, after we had set up our tent, my father built a fire. After dinner, we drank hot chocolate out of camping mugs and watched the sparks from the fire float upwards, like lightening bugs.
My father, a Philosophy professor at SUNY in Buffalo, was my hero, the smartest man I knew, and he loved to make me think about things that I hadn’t thought of thinking about before. He prodded the fire with a stick, and a shower of sparks rained upwards towards the pitch blackness of the heavily overcast sky. “Have you ever wondered if you might be asleep right now, just dreaming that you are awake?” he asked me. At first, I thought this was a ridiculous idea, but, no matter which way I turned it around, I could not find a way to prove that I was actually awake. He added, “You might even be a butterfly, dreaming that you are a human.” I rather liked the idea of being a butterfly, so I mulled this over for a while.
Then he asked me, “how do you know that the color blue that you see is the same as the blue that I see?” This seemed easier to me. Eyes all worked the same, didn’t they? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that although we may respond to the same color spectrum, our inner representation of the color blue might be different.
These two queries have stayed with me all of my life. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that the dreaming butterfly conundrum came from the classical Chinese Daoist philosopher, Zhuang Zi, who lived from approximately 369-286 B.C.E.. His famous Butterfly Parable has evoked many philosophical debates over the years:
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt—and then he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly, self-content and in accord with its own intentions. The butterfly did not know about Zhou. Suddenly, it awoke—and then it was fully and completely Zhou. One does not know whether there is a Zhou becoming a butterfly in a dream or whether there is a butterfly becoming Zhou in a dream. There is a Zhou and there is a butterfly, so there is necessarily a distinction between them. This is called: the changing of things.[i]
So, which is real: the butterfly or Zhou, or both? We think we know exactly who and what we are when we are awake. But, at times, in dreams, we are certain of who and what we are, even though that “self” may be completely different than our waking self. And, sometimes, in dreams, it may even appear that we are watching ourselves from outside of ourselves. Are any of these states any more “real” in the moment than the others? Or should we affirm them all equally, but identify with none of them?
In the Butterfly Parable, there is an absence of an “I.” Each phase transforms into the next, like a river of consciousness. Commentator Lu Zhi (1527-1602) says that “we cannot say…that this one is awake and that one is dreaming, that Zhou is right and the butterfly is wrong.”[ii] Evan Thompson, author of Waking, Dreaming, Being, explains that “in the Daoist vision, accepting each phase as equally real, along with accepting the natural distinction between waking and dreaming, is what enables us to be fully present in the here and now.”[iii]
There is no answer for the conundrum posed in this parable. But, perhaps the lesson to be learned is that it is possible to be a “witness” of different phases of consciousness, whether they be waking , dreaming, or meditative states, or any other state in between. And, we should not necessarily put more value on one state than another. They all have value. And, they are all parts of “us”… or maybe, we are a part of them.
[i] Thompson, Evan, Waking, Dreaming, Being (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). P. 199.
[ii] Thompson, p. 200.
[iii] Thompson. P. 200.