Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about happily, completely forgetting he was Chou. Soon he awoke, and was very much Chou again. Was Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or was a butterfly dreaming he was Chou? –Chuang-tse
When I was a child, before video games were invented, I spent hours and hours playing with my marble collection. I remember them vividly from those long afternoons when I was deeply absorbed in the stories I created around my marbles. Since they were all unique, the remnants of old Christmas gifts and board games, or plucked one at a time, as a special treat, from my father’s 1940s marbles that he’d won in games with his playmates, I was able to invest each one with its own personality and its own relationships to the other marbles. They were my friends.
One day when I was perhaps seven or eight, I took out my box of marbles and discovered a large, clear marble that I’d never seen before. To this day I don’t know how it got there: it wasn’t from my father’s collection, nor can I remember having found it. Maybe it had been there all along and somehow slipped my attention. But from that day that I first noticed it, it held an increasing fascination for me. I integrated it into my games, joining it into my marble society as a kind of respected outsider. It was the most special marble of all, too special even to be their king, much less to occupy any lesser role.
I spent increasing amounts of time just gazing into the clear marble, fascinated with the way it contained a distorted image of my entire bedroom and everything in it, even myself. One afternoon I looked into it more deeply than ever before, immersing myself in its interior world. It was as if my attention inhabited the marble. Its inner world became more real to me than my own room, my own world. So deeply, in fact, did I enter this distorted but complete inner world that I forgot myself. In the marble, I imagined or perceived myself living out my life, playing with the other marbles, moving on to a different toy. The distortions seemed less distorted as I forgot that there was anything else. I even imagined myself leaving my room, going downstairs for dinner. I had completely forgotten that I was lost in a world of my imagination, that I was actually in my room gazing into a distorted image of reality.
My trance did not end with that imaginary day. Days went by in fact, weeks, months, years. My immersion in this world was so complete that time outside it stood still. There was only one discrepancy, far below the surface of my consciousness: something was missing. That something was the one thing that the clear marble could not reflect: itself. That day, and indeed for days and years after that, I remember searching for something. I didn’t know what it was. At first I had some inkling that it was to be found in my marble box, but as the subjective years passed, I gave up such a childish notion, and displaced my search onto other things, looking for something that would reveal the truth of this world. With each discovery I made, a secret hope sprung up, “Maybe this is it.” But it never was.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for, nor could I say why I was looking for it; indeed, I was only half-aware that I was searching at all. I had a vague sense that the world I was living in was unreal, an image or a projection, and a distorted one at that. I had a sense of a wrongness in the world, an incongruity. Little did I know that the one object that was the key, the one object I was trying to find to reveal and unlock the matrix, was unfindable. It didn’t exist in the world I’d immersed myself in.
Thirty-five years passed. Finally, quite recently I was cleaning out my basement when I came across an old box. It was my long-forgotten marble collection. I opened it up, reminiscing about my happy times absorbed in play, recalling the stories and personalities of each marble, when I remembered! A marble was missing — and I remembered which one. It was that clear marble. And in that instant I remembered the whole course of events, remembered dropping into my trance, entering this world, getting so absorbed in my play that I couldn’t be bothered to leave, and eventually forgetting that anything else existed.
Yet, even this realization didn’t break my trance. By now, decades of subjective time later, my trance was so deep that nothing could shake it. Even the realization of trance was happening within the trance. To exit my trance and return to the real world, I would have to somehow communicate with that child gazing into a marble. And what a shock it would be to him, to realize that he’d just imagined a whole life, that decades of experiences weren’t even real, but were just a figment of a few hours’ imagination.
No, I thought, I’d better let him discover the truth gradually. I would not interrupt his game. I would let him play through his trance till completion. I would be in this world, and of it.
I put my box of marbles back into the basement.
The world still seems distorted — more now then ever before. The feeling of wrongness has lifted though. The missing thing is everywhere.