What are we, really? Are we the human, or are we the butterfly? Our cognitive reasoning is definitely limited to our mere mortal senses, and so this question is actually quite difficult -- if not impossible -- to ask. One thing that is certain, the brain has a degree of complexity that is perplexing. According to the philosophy of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, we are connected to the universal life force and thus all other living creatures. This is part of our most basic foundations of existence, thus residing deep within what modern psychologists would label the unconscious. Dreaming, as seen in modern psychology, is a way to allow that unconscious much more freedom to explore and grow. Ultimately, it is the mind's increased flexibility that occurs during sleep that allows us to better connect with the universal Tao and be able to so realistically experience life as a butterfly.
Taoism is a very deep, yet oddly simple philosophy that believes all beings to share an essential connection through a universal life force known as the Tao. Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and the founder of Taoism. His philosophies differ greatly from the religious dogmas emerging from further west that latter developed into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Lao Tzu himself usually used paradoxes and strange analogies to explain his ideas and philosophies. Thus, a paradox such as the current case of the butterfly dreams is in a typical style of a Taoist teaching. It is a much more natural and universal way of looking at our role within the world. Tao is the notion of all existence and awareness, being the foundation for all living creatures. It is the natural balance that rules over everything within the natural world. By following the path of the Tao, individuals are willingly looking for their way back to the origin of all existence. Finding this eternal balance is reawakening ziran, the sense of harmony with Tao. This allows them to return to a natural state that is in harmony with nature and other creatures. There are several ways the individual can better connect him or herself back with the universal Tao that is at the basic root of existence. By reconnecting to this Tao, humans can be better intertwined with the natural order of the world. Zuowang is the notion of emptying the mind of all overpowering thoughts of the self. Essentially, this is an action of disembodying the self from the body so that the mind can connect with something much more universal than the self. Through doing this, the individual can reach out and connect with all other beings. Taoism emphasizes a sense of interconnectedness between all living creatures, since they share the basic component of existence in common, the Tao.
Dreaming can be a way for this to happen, which ten allows us to detach from our limited human selves and become more intertwined with the natural world around us. Dreams allow the individual to step out of the normal state of consciousness, which is essentially limited to coherent awareness of ourselves and the environment we inhabit. By dreaming, the consciousness can fade away, thus decreasing the strength of boundaries that we normally limit ourselves to. Our subconscious can come out in much greater strength. Since Lao Tzu would say that this same subconscious is what is connected to the Tao and thus the rest of beings n the universe, it would be a natural progression to believe that during reams, we humans can share the experiences of other beings, such as a butterfly. Connecting with the Tao would also give the opportunity for us to lose strict boundaries between the experiences of being entirely different creatures. An individual who has truly follow the Tao will not find it conflicting to have the consciousness of two separate beings because both of those beings stemmed from the Tao itself. Dreaming can thus become a way for the individual to reach out to fellow creatures and the basic root of life itself. This is what Lao Tzu would most likely posit as the answer to the conundrum of the butterfly dreams presented here.
As part of our Circadian Rhythm, sleep is an essential process that does tend to connect us with our most basic functioning and thus deep within our psychological roots. Dreaming seems like a very quiet and calm concept, but in reality we experience what is known as paradoxical sleep, where the outside of the body looks calm and serene, but the internal workings are still highly active. Studying dreams has been an long obsession of Cognitive Neuroscience. J. Allan Hobson is a psychologist who studied dreams and their potential for psychological meaning. Essentially, Hobson dreams to be the mind trying to make sense of the random images generated by rapid eye movement sleep (REM). REM sleep is a type of biological rhythm, which is a period where psychological functioning fluctuates. Our first dream within this period only lasts about five minutes in length. However, the longer we are in REM sleep, the longer our dreams become, thus presenting more of a chance to truly intertwine with their contents. The plot content of our dreams is thus the mind trying to make a cohesive story out of the random images it believes it is perceiving. These storylines can become quite complex and often help expose some intimate elements about the individual psyche. Unlike Sigmund Freud, who believed that dreams were repressions of our hidden desires deep into the unconscious, Hobson believed that the story lines created could essentially shed light on who we are as individuals. The motives behind certain plotlines and twists can be analyzed as telling evidence for our emotional and psychological states in general.
The given scenario is also an example of a lucid dream, where the individual cannot determine where the boundaries of dreaming and waking actually lie. In lucid dreams, one is aware of the ream as it is occurring and can make alterations or changes to the dream as it unfolds. Not only is the boundary between consciousness and sleep blurred even more than in normal dreaming, there is an increased sense of control or empowerment. In such dreams, there are strange gray areas, where the line between awake and asleep is often not definite. Some part of the consciousness is awake, for it is self-aware of its own actions. Yet, it is allowed to act within a dream world, where the boundaries of what are possible are far more flexible than in real life. The individual can choose to act within the context of their own dream, creating a much more decisive self that is more knowledgeable of things not always tangible. In this sense, the individual is also learning to become empowered over his or her own dreaming function.
The act of learning is a natural process of humanity. Human beings have the capability to learn from their experiences and grow towards more highly developed, conscious beings. There is an inherent tendency to learn and grow towards a more fully functioning individual within all human beings. Given support and nurturing, humans are capable of growing far beyond their limited understanding they have when they are first born into this world. When we connect with other beings outside of ourselves and remember that experience, we may then be able to teach ourselves how to replicate the experience even further. Essentially, the ability for us to enjoy both experiences as a butterfly and human can generate growth towards us as conscious and knowledgeable beings. This essentially brings us closer to the Tao and the universal experiences that are so fundamental to Taoism and the philosophy of Lao Tzu.