Day 38: My Butterfly Dream

Once upon a time, Zhuangzi dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. It did not know that it was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Zhuangzi again. He did not know whether it was Zhuangzi dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is a case of what is called the transformation of things.

The above passage is from C. W. Chan’s analysis of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream.I have heard of it many times, but have never understood what the ancient Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi was talking about: When Zhuangzi said the thing about how he wasn’t sure that in his dream one night he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi, or the other way around. I was lying on my bed, and was not even realizing that I was there. I was someone else who was doing something else — what I was doing I do not remember.

All I remember was that, I was “doing something” for a while. As I wrote in my previous post about some of my very secret techniques I believe that whoever wish to methodically document his or her dream need to learn, this time I failed at all fronts because when I got up in the middle of night I wasn’t sure whether or not I was still dreaming. I wasn’t even sure where I was. I didn’t feel as though I was lying on my bed, even. I wasn’t sure how long I was dreaming, but it felt as though it was as long as a lifetime (as if I know what lifetime means, well, “lol”). It took me a while to suddenly get up, and realized that the entire thing that I had been doing — whatever that was — was just a dream that happened in a fraction of my sleeping hours which weren’t that great lately. It could have been two hours, but why did I feel as though I was completely a different person (or a being, an animal, or a thing) doing something for a really long period of time. And whatever I was doing there wasn’t any association with my waking life, at all. Maybe this was what Zhuangzi experienced when he was dreaming that he was a butterfly, especially when he writes, “Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

After having this experience myself, it was clear to me that the question that Zhuangzi was wrestling with was not just about oneness of the world, or the metaphysics of transformation — it’s about consciousness.

Yes, consciousness, or the state of being aware that, as I would like to define here: 1) one is not being deceived by anyone; 2) that one, as defined by the New England Journal of Medicine, is “not being in the state of full awareness of self and one’s relationship to the environment” (as in sleeping); and, 3) or that one is not being fully aware of the unconventional things, despite how pleasing they may seem, around one’s body (or non-body).

Dream-like settings are often understood as deviating us away from the state of being conscious. After having the dream that night, consciousness was the first word that came my mind when I woke up sideways realizing that I was not a thing in the dream, but a man who was about to be late for his errand. What, to me, constitutes consciousness? I asked myself then since the definitions above could only do so much good when I even doubt my own ability to understand what seems real and what’s not. Can we be conscious when we were dreaming? The answer is both a yes and a no (although I am convinced that it should be no). Again, according to the neuroscientists, there is still awareness of the environment during sleep. And for them, the main evidence to support this claim is that we have to still be aware of the environment otherwise we won’t be able to be woken up by an arousal (e.g., an alarm clock) at all. The other evidence of this quasi-awareness is somnambulism — oops, sorry for wanting to use my GRE vocabulary, meaning, simply, sleepwalking (from Latin somnus, meaning “sleep,” as in insomnia, or inability to sleep, and ambulare, meaning to “to walk,” as in ambulate or moving about). When one sleepwalks, one is not completely detached from the physical environment in which one resides, but one is also dwelling in one’s own state of unconscious imaging the physical terrain through which one walks to be something else rather different from what it physically presents. The differences between being in the complete state of coma, and simply sleeping or sleepwalking is that in the state of come, there’s no consciousness what soever that would allow the person in coma to be aware of the fact that he is lying on a bed, which is the environment into which he could wake up.

Yet, as I realize how real it was being a thing, and doing a thing (I tried and tried and still don’t remember what it was) in my dream, I should, as suggested by the neuroscientists above, leave some room for the yes as well. I wasn’t conscious enough to realize that I was dreaming, and when my conscious hit me the moment I open my eyes, I realized that I was conscious and that what just happened to me happened to me when I was not conscious. There has to be some overlaps between the state of complete unconscious, and the state of conscious enough to know that one is unconscious, and the complete consciousness. It’s getting confusing here…

The difference between being in the conscious state and being in the unconscious state is that in the former you are responsible for whatever you do — whether or not you are fully conscious. In the latter, you can easily get away with things because it could only last as long as you are able to sleep. Zhuangzi, I believe, was not that naive when he said that by having that butterfly dream one night he could begin to seriously question his existence. That would be absurd. Was he responsible for himself being the butterfly in his dream? Did he remember where he went and what he did? Did he remember how many immoral things he’d left behind when he was the butterfly? He distinguishes very clearly the differences about being Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, and about being a butterfly dreaming that he was a Zhuangzi. For that matter, I see two separate terrains to be discussed here: first, the importance of realizing that in the unconscious state, you are not and never alone, so every action of your action counts — otherwise why would Zhuangzi wrote about it anyway once he woke up? Second, long story short, sleeping is important, and we have many scientific evidences to support this claim. We can only be fully conscious once we how to appreciate the unconscious state, which we called sleeping.

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