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Grief in Butterfly Dreams: On Shifting Perspectives


“Zhuangzi’s wife died.

When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. ‘You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,’ said Huizi. ‘It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing – this is going too far, isn’t it?’

Zhuangzi said, ‘You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

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Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'”

–Zhuangzi, Chapter 18 – Perfect Happiness

We like to believe that there is something fundamentally special about our existence. We are the apex predators armed with tools to subdue any foe, equipped with the ability to learn the patterns of nature to eventually conquer it. We fight beasts with fire, diseases with vaccine, famine with agriculture, climate with building. Suddenly, we can afford dreams and ambitions. We learn that we can own things and some things are not ours unless we earn it. We create distinctions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, through our own perspectives. To protect ‘us’ from ‘them’, we believe our perspectives to be special and sacred. We empower ourselves with strength, numbers, wealth, love, and achievements. Then when the time comes, we lose and die, where in death we are suddenly no different from a wilting plant.

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Zhuangzi’s philosophy sees the limitations of human perspectives as a great cause of human suffering. In order to experience life in its entirety, we have to know how is it like to see the world from different perspectives.

From this philosophy, if we see grief as a response to loss, then a way to alleviate the suffering of grieving is to suspend the distinctions we created for ourselves, distinctions of ‘gain’ and ‘loss’, of ‘life’ and ‘death’. One way to grieve is to transform our perspectives by seeing from the perspective of other beings and understanding the circle of life.

“Once upon a time, Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, and came to himself as Zhuangzi. Now he does not know whether it was then he dreamt he was a butterfly, or whether he is now a butterfly dreaming that he is a man.”

–Zhuangzi, Chapter 2 – Discussion on Making All Things Equal

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The world is always in flux, but the categories humans create for ourselves are rigid. We see ‘death’ as ‘loss’, but do not comprehend that the essence or energy of our lives is not really lost. When plants get eaten, their energy gets dissipated into the life of the being that consumes them (and into the surroundings too). This being will too, eventually die and have its energy dissipated into the surrounding soil, fertilizing it allowing another plant to live and grow. Our lives are not much different in this respect: we are also energy in constant flux, flowing through our movements and relationships. Close friends can one day become business partners, which can also become bitter rivals. Playful school children can also one day become the strict homeroom teacher they once feared. Romantic love turns to companionate love. Ambitions for greatness turns to ruthless greed. Great religions become obscure mythologies. Music and films that we believe to be timeless classics become broken corrupt files in a corner of abandoned museums.

Dying from a purely human perspective is terrifying: it is the destruction of all meaning. Dreams, love, bonds, achievements, wealth, comfort and all the other things that we held on for meaning, all gone with that last breath. But from a greater perspective, life and death is just a phase of all the transformations in the universe. The departed will become part of the earth that supports us, become part of seeds, trees, insects, birds, and eventually into us again. All the meaningful things the departed accumulated will also not be lost to the world but rather flow into the lives of others. If we see everyone as a part of a greater picture.

Adapted from //

Living and dying are not rigid distinct categories in the perspective of the universe, just like how inhalation and exhalation is to us. Perhaps they are just two sides of the same coin, or they are just two points of a process of being, or seasons in a person’s life. Whatever that may be, the point is that shifting and transforming your perspective is vital to overcome the pain that accompanies grief, which can be done through suspending our arbitrary distinctions of life and death. That does not mean to not grieve. Zhuangzi himself was also just a mortal being who missed and loved when his life partner passed on, but that did not stop him from appreciating the big picture and embracing the seasons of life. What he did differently was really spontaneously appreciating the transforming world, by being in the flow state of accepting his and her position as part of a greater world.

If there is anything that makes us special as a species, I daresay it is our ability to imagine. Imagination helps us cope with the every changing state of the world by temporarily suspending categories that bind us to suffering. So go forth and imagine yourself and the grieved as part of a ever-changing greater world.

This piece was inspired by Chapter 7 from The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (authored by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh).

Translations of Zhuangzi can be assessed at //


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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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