One day around sunset, Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he became a butterfly.
He flapped his wings and sure enough he was a butterfly.
What a joyful feeling as he fluttered about, he completely forgot that he was Zhuangzi.
Soon though, he wondered if the butterfly was really Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or if he was the butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi!
This existential conundrum is from the Taoist sage, Zhuangzi (Chuang Tze) penned over 2,000 years ago. His fable of the frog in the well was the inspiration behind my upcoming book of the same name. The butterfly parable is a beautiful metaphor for the transformative power of dreams, and the metamorphosis that we must undergo to liberate our selves from the imprisonment of the past.
Unlike the butterfly, most of us live our entire lives in cocoons. This is the confining material world dominated by ego, fear, control, and separation from the larger spiritual world which we cannot easily perceive. We are safe and comfortable in the confines of our cocoon, passing time with little thought to the possibilities that exist outside it, or our potential for transformational change. We are too distracted by our petty concerns and the constant bombardment of media messages that seek to convince us that we are defined by what we consume and own. We subconsciously assimilate these messages and make them real; they become part of our cocoon.
Welcome to the matrix.
We devote the majority of our lives building this cocoon. We believe that the bigger and stronger it is, the safer we will be. Ironically, it’s the strength of our self-made boundaries that imprison and separate us from our true selves. Most of our mental bandwidth is taken up with activities dedicated to the accumulation and protection of our worldly possessions. This keeps us trapped in getting & spending mode, forever building a better cocoon.
We dream of being free, of becoming a butterfly, but this freedom often eludes us, because we are afraid to give up the protected self we have spent so much time and effort to build. The caterpillar has to die to become a butterfly. This is not a physical death, it’s the casting off of the past; past fears, self-limiting beliefs, and defeatist behaviors. Metamorphosis is the liberation from the self, so that we can become who we dream ourselves to be.
In our dreams we forget who we are and are temporarily free. When we return to waking reality, we remember who we are again, confining ourselves in the predictability of familiar routines. The interesting thing to me about Zhuang Zi’s story is the blurring of distinctions between dreams and reality. Most people would argue that dreams occur during sleep, and waking hours are reality. But what if this reality is a dream that we are unconsciously dreaming; that we’re all actually free, but fears of the unknown and desire for control traps us in protective cocoons. Isn’t it possible that what appears to us as the material world is nothing more than a manifestation of our collective dream? The more I learn about quantum physics, the more I believe that consciousness creates matter and not the other way around.
The caterpillar doesn’t know what he will become, he just becomes. His flight of a million colors is only possible because he leaves behind a shell that has lost its usefulness. Who we were and the beliefs associated with that past, are no longer useful to us, but we cling to them forever because they satisfy our desire for predictability, comfort and control. Giving up our attachment to the past doesn’t mean selling our house and abandoning our families to go live in the woods. Losing everything means giving up fear, control, and especially, the right to be right. This last one is hardest, but giving up being right doesn’t make us wrong; it makes us free. We’re free to form new empowering beliefs, explore possibilities and become who we dream ourselves to be.
“It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.” Tyler Durden, Fight Club