Usually I don't pay much attention to my dreams.
They seem to be the brain's way of processing waking life events, albeit in a often disconnected and bizarre fashion. But last night I experienced a dream that was coherent enough to be philosophically quite interesting.
I suspect some of the content had to do with my going through some old files yesterday, keeping some folders and discarding others. I also drove my Mini Cooper to town and back, taking turns on our rural road the way I usually do: vigorously.
My dream started out with me driving on what seemed like a freeway, or at least a wide two-lane road. I saw a sweeping turn ahead and glanced at the speedometer: 55 or 60. I knew that I was going plenty slow enough to easily make the turn.
However, when my car (which seemed to be a BMW, the owner of Mini) started into the turn, the steering wheel wouldn't respond correctly. I kept trying to turn it left, while the car kept drifting right. Speed wasn't the problem; I was simply being inexorably swept up in a dream accident.
Suddenly my car was high up on a very steep embankment. I was looking almost straight down at the road below from an exceedingly unstable height. The car was about to tip over and roll down the slope.
The last thing I saw in this portion of my dream were some tire tracks in soft ground that looked like barkdust (a few weeks ago we had barkdust applied to our yard, so bark has been on my mind). I thought: "Other people have crashed exactly this way before."
Then my dream shape-shifted into an entirely different environment. I can't remember as many details of this second part of my dream, just the overall theme and feeling within it.
I could move normally. I felt normal. I was engaged in some everyday activities. I remeber opening a file drawer and pulling out a report. It was from BMW. It had something to do with a technical analysis of their steering mechanisms.
As I thumbed through the report, wondering what it was all about and why it was in my file drawer, some intuitive flashes started breaking into my "everything is normal" dream life. I started to recall some memories of an accident, though I couldn't be sure that they were genuine.
At some point I had a stark realization: "Actually I might not be here in my home, reading a BMW report that I found in a file drawer. I might be unconscious in a hospital, barely hanging on to life after a serious car accident that led to some serious legal wrangling."
This jangled my dreaming psyche.
More accurately, my wondering whether I was dreaming within a dream psyche. Initially I was disturbed by the possibility that the reality I thought I was in was a figment of my imagination (remember, of course, that all of this was occurring in a dream, which truly was an imagining).
Soon, though, that jangly feeling passed. I recall having a sensation of "Oh, well, what I'm experiencing now seems real, so how else can I view it? If it's a dream, that's what it is; if it isn't, it isn't."
Then I woke up.
One of my first thoughts upon waking, as I laid in bed pondering the dream, was Chuang Tzu's famous story about a butterfly.
Once upon a time, I Chuang Tzu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again.
But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I was now Chuang Tzu?
However, there must be some sort of difference between Chuang Tzu and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things.
There's a lot that can be said about the butterfly story, some (or all) of which seems to apply to my wondering if I was dreaming within a dream.
I'll let Hans-Georg Moeller do the saying for me. Here's an excerpt from his book, "Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory."
The butterfly dream allegory speaks to both the sage and the nonsage: For those who are not sages, it is appropriate to be fully content with one's reality -- to be fully alive without doubting one's "being" or reflecting on one's I.
If one is fully awake while being awake and fully asleep while being asleep, one will always be fully present. Like in a political or physical organism, one should just naturally live up to one's position within an ongoing process.
If one has become a sage (and the Buddhists will later call this step the attaining of "enlightenment" or wu), if one is no longer either asleep or awake, either alive or dead, one has lost all identifications.
One is then equally close to all phases, but never present in any, and nonpresent in the midst of a changing presence. From the zero-perspective one observes the spinning of the circle -- like Zhuangzi observes the change from Zhuang Zhou to the butterfly.
While everything else is what it is, the sage lets it be. In this way the sage can be identified with the whole process of change, just as the hub can be identified with the whole wheel, or the heart with the whole body, or the sage ruler with the whole state.
In the midst of changes, the sage is no longer a distinct phase, but the core of the whole process of Dao.