~Esoteric Analisys of Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland is a literary outworking of the archetypal story of the initiate's journey and the allegory of the descent and ascent of the human soul.
Much has been written about Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Suffice to say that we have more here than just stories for children. The books are full of ancient symbology. (Take, for example, the symbolism of the 'White Rabbit,' with its connotations of purity, spiritual awakening and new life. Then there's the 'golden key,' and so on. I must stop there for the time being. I digress.) Before I get started—yes, I know, I already have—here (courtesy of the BFI National Archive) is a 2-minute selection of clips from the first-ever film version of Lewis Carroll's tale Alice in Wonderland. Made in 1903—just 37 years after Lewis Carroll wrote his novel and 8 years after the birth of cinema—this film was the longest film produced in England at that time:
Lewis Carroll—real name, Charles Dodgson—had a great interest in the 'occult' and, in particular, in what is sometimes referred to as the 'Ancient Wisdom' (or the 'perennial philosophy'), and what we have in Alice is a literary outworking of the archetypal story of the hero's journey, as well as the gnostic redeemer myth, and the allegory of the descent and ascent of the human soul.
One version of the Gnostic redeemer myth goes like this. Sophia is said to have accidentally created the physical world but, in so doing, she becomes trapped and unable to return to the heavens. We, too—along with our heroine Alice who falls into a rabbit-hole—are trapped in time and space. In that sense—and that sense alone—we are 'fallen' souls. That is the price one pays for 'spirit' descending into 'matter.'
Perhaps more significantly, we are trapped by the delusion of 'self,' that is, the misbelief that there is, at the core of our being, a separate, independent, unchanging 'self' or 'personality.' Alice learns, in the course of her journey (the 'fall' or 'descent' into Wonderland) that there is no such 'self.' Take, for example, this piece of wisdom: 'I can't go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then.' All though the Alice books we see Alice changing in 'size,' which is a way of saying that our sense of self (the thousands of ever waxing and waning 'I's' and 'me's' in us) is constantly changing.
Carroll makes it clear that there is a 'way out' of existential confusion. There is a 'golden key.' We must discard the whole idea of 'self' or 'ego.' Remember the Cheshire Cat? The Cat vanishes, leaving nothing but a grin. What a wonderful image of the illusory nature of the 'self' as well as the impermanence of all things! No wonder the great physicist, astronomer and mathematician Sir James Jeans wrote, 'The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.'
Back to the ever-vanishing Cheshire Cat. (I will be like the proverbial kid in the lolly shop in this blog. Forgive me.) It is the Cat—a symbol of divine wisdom in Ancient Egypt—who tells Alice to go to the Queen. Good advice, this Cat gives. Now, remember when Alice plays croquet with the Queen of Hearts (the 'Red Queen')? Croquet—with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. Quaint. Well, the Queen is in all of us. (No, not in that sense. Sorry.) The Queen has that mentality held by so many of us—she must always win or succeed, no matter what. She gets terribly angry even at the thought of 'losing' the game. That is why the Queen's playing card guards make sure the Queen's ball goes through the hoops every time. That is the way the ego-self 'works'—self-will run riot.
The Queen is our ego-self, and our identification with that 'self' as being supposedly who we really are. Later, there is the trial—to determine who stole the tarts from the King and Queen—and Alice learns a very important spiritual truth. 'You're nothing but a pack of cards,' Alice accuses the characters, who rise up and fly at her. Wow! Alice has a spiritual epiphany of sorts, and comes to know the truth nature of existence—namely, everything is impermanent.
When Alice first meets the Queen, she says to the Queen, 'I've lost my way.' The Queen retorts, 'Your way? … All the ways round here belong to me!' Ha! The tragedy of self-obsession and self-absorption. When the Queen trips over her own mallet—such is the nature of self-centredness—she must always blame someone else (in this case, Alice). Alice sees through the nature of the Queen, and shrinks back to normal size. Ego deflation at great depth has occurred. That is always the essential prerequisite for true spiritual growth and development. It is the hallmark of the 'conversion' or 'initiation' experience. Alice finds herself in a maze. She runs and runs, and eventually sees a tiny door. The 'door' is always tiny. She looks through the keyhole—no matter how far we have fallen, we can always get a glimpse of the way out—and sees … herself … asleep under a tree. She hears a familiar voice calling her name. She opens her eyes. She 'awakens.' What powerful imagery! The ego-self has gone. In its place, there is the authentic self—the person that each of us really is.
When Alice first falls into the rabbit-hole, there is darkness. Naturally. Cupboards, bookshelves, pictures, lamps and mirrors all flat past Alice as she falls. These things represent everything that holds us back. If we would travel far, we must travel light. Material and earthly things—and even our intellect and sense of 'self'—hold us back. We must let go of all these things if we want to 'see' and 'know' things as they really are. Like Alice, we must remain forever 'curious,' for curiosity—one of the important features of a 'mindful' mind—is essential if we would see things choicelessly as they really are. There is so much in Alice of lasting importance. Remember the Mad Hatter's tea-party, attended also by the March Hare and the Doormouse? They are celebrating an 'un-birthday,' which is any day that's not one's birthday. What a powerful image of the nature of unreality (that is, the illusory nature of existence). An un-birthday is when nothing happens, but nothingness—that is, 'no-thing-ness'—is everything! When we come to know the no-thing-ness of all reality, we can truly say we have come to know the Self—that is, the very self-livingness of life—as one. And what of 'time'? The watch-carrying White Rabbit provides a launching pad for an exploration of the nature of time and eternity. 'Time' and 'space'—which are really one—are no more than mediums in which all things exist. Life itself is timeless and spaceless, with everything contained within 'the Now.' All duration—or time—is total and complete in the Now. There is an 'eternal' quality about the Now. It is forever new.
And what of the 'path'? Well, there are lots of paths in Alice, but none of them really lead anywhere. Funny, that. The paths taught by so-called experts—the priests, teachers and gurus—are not the true path. They represent other persons' versions or 'understanding' of reality, and they are of no use to us. At one point—one of many such points—Alice has had enough of Wonderland, and wants to go 'home.' However, she can't find her way out. She finds a path to follow, but a dog with a broom comes along and sweeps the path away. Ha! Isn't that always the case? But that's a good thing, really.
Alice then hears the voice of the Cheshire Cat, telling her to go to the Queen. The Cat refers to a 'short cut,' and it is that which I have referred to above—namely, the letting go of the notion of self altogether, with all that entails. That is indeed the short cut, and mindfulness is a wonderful means of freeing oneself from the bondage of self. In a very profound sense there is no path, for a path presupposes that there is a distance or separation between the person that each of us is and reality (or truth) itself. There is no such distance or separation—except the illusion of self, which we must eliminate. The Queen constantly shrieks, 'Off with her head!' However, it is the Queen's head—the ego self—which must be topped.
Alice learns that not only is there no 'path' as such—except the 'short cut' referred to above—there are also no 'rules.' Alice's encounters demonstrate that. Words tend to mean whatever we want them to mean. Yes, we invariably get lost in our own self-constructed mental prisons. However, as Dr Norman Vincent Peale used to say, there is in each of us a spiritual giant which is always trying to burst its way out of the prison we have made for it. This spiritual giant—as I see it—is not something 'supernatural' (whatever that means) but nothing other than the recognition that 'self cannot change self.'
Along the 'way' Alice finds some spiritual nourishment in some bits of mushroom. Love it! Then there's the associated Zen kōan in the form of the Caterpillar's advice about the mushroom, 'One side will make you grow bigger and the other side will make you grow smaller.' Alice asks, 'One side of what? The other side of what?" 'Of the mushroom,' says the Caterpillar.
That reminds me of the old Buddhist story, 'You are on the Other Side.' Reason, intellect, and book knowledge—not unimportant things by any means—are not the 'short cut' described by the Cheshire Cat. Indeed, they are hindrances to spiritual growth, as are all the things that the world deems important. The latter—along with those who seek worldly fame and success—are not only deluded, they're 'nothing but a pack of cards.'
Choose—like Alice—to be different. And don't forget the short cut. Note. Some of the scenes described in this post come from Lewis Carroll's writings while others come from other literary as well as cinematic versions of Carroll's works.