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The Transformation of Chuang Chou


Once Chaung Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou… This is called the transformation of things.

- Chuang Tzu


I still have no adequate interpretation of this story and yet it has been twenty years since I first read it. I remember that moment well because I cried the tears of cathartic recognition of a profound paradox. As I reflect on these words now, I can see how the effect of the story was one of finally giving up all the ways I was trying in life, all the performances of this and that, all the ways I was knotted up inside, carrying this trauma and that story.


I won’t attempt to say any more, to do so might muddy your own experience of the story, it’s an important one, and I can’t say why.


There’s a doctor I met once who told me, “If you want to live a longer life, don’t take a run, take a nap.” He knew what endless striving does to health.


We are all called to push hard in life, no pain no gain, get those muscles, make that money, level up and ride or die! - All pithy colloquialisms we take for granted and yet so much of our lives are performed through these types of ideologies. It hardly needs to be said how obsessed we are with forward momentum, maximizing benefits and fixing all that we can. Can has replaced should, as we elect voluntarily to squander our life force in the name of achievement.


We elect to do this because we cannot adequately understand the coercive forces at play which act on us thoroughly, shaping the way we move, how to relate to the body, what types of environments we find pleasant, etc... Our “drives” are created by shadow forces.


More than that, there’s a curious relationship we have to receptivity and states of restoration. Someone who “goes with the flow” is not only seen as a sheep, but also lazy. And meditation? Oh that’s something we also do for a perceived “benefit”.


Have you ever had the experience that some problems resolve themselves on their own? Have you experienced a sudden windfall of favorable weather? To plant a tree, you get the seed, obtain adequate soil and water, and let it do its cosmic dance upward and downward. If we intervene with too much maintenance, the growth is stunted. As the tree grows, you remove some material once in a while, but too much of this will lead to over-trimming and trauma to the little seedling.


Different plants need different things, but mostly, the above holds true. A quieter, more still approach to life, begets more, not less.


My father used to say, “Easy does it.” This was one of his refrains that as a child, my brothers and I couldn’t understand. We were brimming with testosterone in a world of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Skateboards and distorted guitars.


Can you see the wisdom in this statement? It was only after we squander chi, spirit rung out like a wet towel that one smashes into wits end - after trying to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. The spirit becomes mired in hopelessness, with negative identity conclusions, because no matter how hard you try, you’re left feeling like there is something in life you are missing, didn’t understand and could therefore, insufficiently practice.


It wasn’t until I began to practice life like the butterfly, that I found one of the keys to life, and it was found in free and easy wandering. When we unclench our fists, give more freely and learn deeply that the specter of scarcity is much a mentality, that we begin a different journey, a “pathless land” in the words of Krishnamurti.


If you watch the endless cycles of nature, the rampant verdancy of landscapes and plants, much of what you’ll perceive is that most things are taken care of and that there is a difference between reaction and responsiveness. When the land gets parched, the leaves respond by thickening and water is retained. When there’s floods, monoliths trickle down mountains like smooth, tiny marbles. A maple leaf floats down to earth after its job is done, it decends through the wind with ubiquitous grace and eloquence. When the sun sets you retreat with peace, when it rises again, with peace, also rise.


And curiously, if you start to seek nonsense you will find sense.


Chuang Chou could no longer distinguish between himself and the butterfly.


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