I was so taken with this quote of Lao Tzu that I stumbled across "by chance" many years ago, that I did a photography project based on it.

Quote "Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, then I awoke. But now I do not know
whether I am a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now
dreaming he is a man."

What are your thoughts?

asked 11 Oct '09, 18:04

Rebecca's gravatar image


I love your quote from the Old Sage, the Father of Taoism. I also came across it some years ago. It's a wonderful way to provoke thought about how we can know what is real. What is real for me is what I experience as real, whether that's real for someone else or not. In counseling there's the concept of "felt-needs" which means that it doesn't matter if something is an actual need as judged by others. If a person "feels" it is a need, then in his or her experience, it is in fact a need. So for me, what is real is what I am experiencing. If I am experiencing life as a butterfly who dreams he is a man, then I am really a butterfly. And the converse would be true as well.

If Taoism regards the fundamental as the essence (Chuang Tzu), then my fundamental experience is the essence of my reality. Consistent with my view of reality is my choice not to challenge what others say is their reality. If they say something is real for them, how can I say it's not? I suppose the effect of this is an essential approach to life of "live and let live" with the understanding that such a philosophy does not mean that I should not get involved if I believe another person is attempting to harm someone. After all, my experience would be telling me that I must intervene. But insofar as your reality is not depriving me of my reality, then I say let each have their own reality. It is ultimately impossible to prove anything as "objective" reality.


answered 11 Oct '09, 19:41

John's gravatar image


edited 12 Oct '09, 05:23

Thanks for your insight John. I don't remember how this quote found me but it had a profound effect on me, and got my questioning my perceptions of reality. Appropriately, I was doing my photography degree in London at the time, and it became the subject for a project.

(11 Oct '09, 19:55) Rebecca

I went to the Butterfly House at Kew Gardens and took photographs of some of the butterflies and then took the film and while I had it in the developer, I solarized it - an imprecise and risky process that involved exposing pulling the film out and exposing it to light then putting it back in the dev again. I have one of the resulting prints even now, which makes some of the pattern of the butterfly and some of the leaves seem to be made from the background, and a sense of unreality to the image. A good physical reminder that our lives are based on our perceptions.

(11 Oct '09, 20:03) Rebecca

The photo sounds fascinating. My son is taking some photography classes at Penn State and is interested in photojournalism (majoring in Communications). In my answer, I had thought to go on with further comments pertaining to the inadequacy of our human senses to grasp all the fullness of reality. I didn't want to go on and on at that point, but now I'll add just this. It occurred to me how we watch a car wheel spinning and it often appears to be turning backwards. As you certainly know, this is due to the slowness of the eye in processing visual stimuli.

(12 Oct '09, 05:43) John

The eye sees at a speed equivalent to around 60 frames per second. When the observed wheel is spinning faster than that, the eye is missing some of the information. Say the tire stem was at 12 o'clock position. The image is processed by the brain and we see it. The next image that is processed, though, is of the tire stem in the 11 o'clock position. Though the wheel has actually traveled forward (12 to 1 to 2, etc. all the way to 11 o'clock), the eye sees what was at 12 o'clock now at 11 o'clock, then 10, then 9, etc., so it appears to be moving backwards.

(12 Oct '09, 05:56) John

Bottom line: how can we really trust our senses to tell us what is real?

(12 Oct '09, 05:56) John

As James Ray says in The Secret, if we believed our senses we would think the sun sank into the ground and went through the earth and re-appeared in the morning, or that a dog whistle is silent, ... it is up to us to overcome our limiting senses and act on what we know from experience to be true now. Ergo, this also applies to other examples that we are learning ...

(16 Oct '09, 02:08) Rebecca
showing 2 of 6 show 4 more comments

We can be sure of nothing except that we exist. Cogito ergo sum. "I think, therefore I am." So if we can be sure of nothing else, how can we know that our beliefs are accurate and true?

I cannot know if I am a man or a butterfly, but I can believe whatever I choose to believe. Generally, I will believe what best suits the reality I am experiencing, or as I put it in another answer, "We will hold our beliefs as long as they "work" for us."

So I have little choice but to work within the context of my perceived reality. This is as it should be. If life's journey has brought me to this particular awareness, then it is from this point that I must move on. So I take action based on this reality. Whether it is right or wrong, it is right for me. It's what I have to work with.

My reality is the sum of what I believe, in this moment, based on the experiences that have brought me to this point. Reality grows, expands and changes. It is the stimulus that moves me to action, hence to never ending development and growth.


answered 16 Oct '09, 05:27

John's gravatar image


You have the choice to change your beliefs about your reality. If you do not like your 'reality' you can change your position, your perceptions about it and reposition yourself from somewhere better that will lead to better. You have the freedom to think differently - and your beliefs are just habits of thought and perception - so you can change your reality by changing your thinking. Your reality grows expands and changes according to your beliefs and expectations.

(16 Oct '09, 15:27) Rebecca

Reality is life, and life is Enigma. we are part of it, and it's part of us. at the same time there is no ''it'' and there is no ''us'', we are all one. I think reality as we know it is illusion. but it's a ''real'' illusion! .. paradox? of course :D like any paradox I think there is no point in understanding it. we can learn as much as we can, and the more we learn the more we realize that we know nothing at all. the best thing to do is to ''be'' .. to enjoy our being. not who we are, or what we are, because there is no such thing. but only to allow life to experience itself through us, instead of forcing it to experience ourselves. when that happens, our realization and understanding of reality will be reformed and replaced with absolute freedom, joy, peace and harmony. reality is a dream, but this not the point. the point is, who is the dreamer ? .. ''we'' are part of the dream. not the dreamer. when we know who is the one dreaming about us and reality as we know it .. we will be free. that is our salvation. at this point I know that the word ''God'' would jump in many minds as an answer or ''THE'' answer. but as it does, it also becomes part of the same dream! .. what happens when you realize that you are actually dreaming ? .. you wake up! .. if God is the naswer, then the dream should end right now. did it ? so what is this answer? .. I think this is a trick question. actually I think that the trick IS the question. because whatever answer you would think of, it will automatically becomes part of the dream. it could not be the dreamer. so the answer would be .. to drop the question. drop the mind. the mind is designed to guide us through the dream, it was not designed to guide us to the dreamer. in fact there is nothing within this dream that could lead us to the dreamer. it would only lead us to another part of the dream! .. we are too busy with reality. with the dream. that is part of the design, because this keeps us dreaming, and life goes on and on. but at some moments, we feel the need to stop. we feel that we are just tired of dreaming. tired of trying to change the dream. we look up, and start to look for the face of the one behind all of this. the dreamer. we always look up .. the more we open our eyes and search we get deeper in the same dream. we never think of just close our eyes, stop thinking, stop searching , stop asking.. and join the dreamer, within.


answered 16 Oct '09, 07:04

Adel's gravatar image


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Asked: 11 Oct '09, 18:04

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