The spiritual wisdom imbedded in Lewis Carroll’s tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Part: I
‘Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.’– Sir Arthur Eddington.
I have watched Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tens if not hundred times with my two daughter Lara and Sevan. As children it was one of their favorite. I alway knew that this story was not just for children, but it is full of esoteric “spiritual” metaphors and lessons.
The ‘White Rabbit,’ symbolized purity, spiritual awakening and new beginnings, also a shaman or a guide of some sorts leading you to ‘Source Awareness’ or towards the use of one’s intuition.
Then there is my favorite character, the hookah-smoking mind-reading Caterpillar on top of the mushroom, red roses and the Alice-like flower with its crown of thorns used to crown Jesus.
There are calls to acton: ‘Drink me’ and ‘Eat me,’ the riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?.
According to Dr IAN ELLIS-JONES, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) had a great interest in the ‘occult’ and, in particular, in Rosicrucianism and in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Ancient Wisdom’ (or the ‘perennial philosophy’), and what we have in both Alice and Through the Looking-Glass is a literary outworking of the archetypal story of the hero or initiate’s journey, as well as the Gnostic redeemer myth, and the allegory of the descent (‘involution’) and ascent (‘evolution’) 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.’
Whooooo Are You? asks the hookah-smoking mind reading Caterpillar as he puffs circles of smoke toward Alice. In ancient spiritual thinking 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’s quest is also ours—‘Who in the world am I? Ah!
Who am I?’ is the big questions all students on the path of self-enlightenment ask. Its is the entry point.
Well, Alice she answers which from Greek for ‘truth’—a name must mean something, as Humpty Dumpty pointed out in Through the Looking-Glass) learns, in the course of her journey—the ‘fall’ or ‘descent’ into Wonderland—that there is no such thing as an unchanging ‘self.’ Take, for example, this piece of wisdom: ‘I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then.’ All through 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 inherently unstable and constantly changing.
Lewis 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.’ Lewis Carroll is fascinated with the mind and its workings, and with ‘altered’ states of perception.
In Through the Looking-Glass the author has the Knight say, ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be? My mind goes on working all the same.’ Not only that, but, if the Alice books ‘prove’ anything, the conscious mind can at times become completely ‘lucid’ to the unconscious. At any rate, the Alice books make it clear that we need to see things in a different way—or at least see things as they really are—in order to find ourselves. The connection with mindfulness meditation (vipassanā) is clear—there are different ways of seeing. That is what the word vipassanā means. The word is composed of two parts – vi, meaning ‘in various ways’, and passanā, meaning seeing. So, vipassanā means ‘seeing in various ways’ … as well as seeing things as they really are.
Back to the ever-vanishing Cheshire Cat. (I will be like the proverbial kid in the lolly shop in this post. Forgive me.) It is the Cat—a symbol of divine wisdom in Ancient Egypt—who tells Alice to take a ‘short cut’ and go to the Queen. (‘Some go one way, and some go another way, but I always take the short cut.’) Very sound advice, this Cat gives. Now, remember when Alice plays croquet with the Queen of Hearts? 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 ‘don’t mess with me’ mentality.
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 and psychological 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 true 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—like the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. Alice looks through the keyhole—remember, no matter how far we have fallen or strayed, we can always get a glimpse of the way out—and she sees … herself … asleep under a tree. Alice 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 float 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 (all of whom are ‘mirrors to the mind’ in one way or another)? They are celebrating an ‘un-birthday’ (or ‘non-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.
Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
Notes: 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.