Several years ago, as I sat in a darkened theatre with my children at Syracuse Stage, awaiting the start of Looking-glass Alice, a play adapted by David Catlin, I knew that I was in for something very special. What I never anticipated was that the evening’s entertainment would strike such a resounding cord in me.
I was poised to be transported, for the span of an hour and one half, into another world, to be whisked away for a brief time from what we might call “reality” into a world where nothing is as it appears. Game for adventure, I was oh so willing to go along for the ride.
The production, a highly stylized adaptation, traced the arc of Alice’s journeys down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass into Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s themes and metaphors, adapted by the playwright and expressed in visual terms by the designers and actors, resonated with me deeply, and clearly reflected my own spiritual journey back to me. The experience ultimately inspired me to revisit the books that informed the play and to see Tim Burton’s film, which I also attended with my children, and finally to write about my insights here. This blog will only scratch the surface, though I have intentions of exploring these notions further at some point.
Imagine for a moment a few select scenic elements artfully arranged on a stage that create the impression of a Victorian drawing room. A high winged-backed chair and end table sit to the right of a large marble fireplace, topped by an enormous, ornate gilt framed mirror, which commands center stage. Long, black curtains hang from the grid above, extending to the stage floor, either side of the fireplace, creating the appearance of a wall. Two delicate statuettes, also under glass, flank a domed chime clock, centered on the mantle. A chessboard lies on the floor in front of the chair, the game already underway. Downstage left a tasseled ottoman rounds out the stage picture.
As the house went to black, sweet youthful laughter, underscored by a child’s tinkling piano, punctuated a montage of well-known nursery rhymes. A gentle man’s voice then wove into the soundscape expressing that “Alice, in her later years, would keep the dream of Wonderland alive in her simple and loving heart.”
The lights came up, and there was Alice sitting in the chair, legs flung over the side, scolding a stuffed animal named Kitty, who was all tangled up in a ball of yarn.
In due course, I came to learn that the disembodied voice belonged to Mr. Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, Alice’s friend, to whom she and her siblings played muse for his seemingly nonsensical tales of whimsy. Alice then offered the suggestion to the stuffed cat that they pretend to be queens. Kitty would be the Red Queen and Alice, the White.
As Alice explained to her friend that when pretending “shutting one’s eyes tighter and tighter is always of some use”, the mantle clock began to chime. With 11 o’clock Alice began counting the chimes aloud. Dodgson’s voice joined in at 12. There was a slight pause and then…one final chime. “Thirteen? Curious?”
Struck by the oddity of the extra toll of the bell, Alice proceeded to the mantle to look at the clock, shocked to find Dodgson gazing back at her from the other side of the mirror.
Alice and Dodgson, each needing a closer look, began to climb up onto the mantle, movements perfectly synchronized. Hands outstretched, just shy of touching, they mirrored each other in a choreographed pantomime, until they simultaneously passed through the looking glass to the other side.
At that moment the work lights on stage came up, the curtains were torn asunder by the stage crew, and the stage manager’s voice, giving sound and light cues, came over what we is ironically call the ‘God’- mic. The 4th wall, a theatrical convention, which creates the illusion of time and space, had been completely shattered.
The world of theatre, in which I spent over 20 years working as a designer and actor, is one of imagination and illusion. Through a series of stage conventions we co-create whole worlds that begin with the power of the word.
From those mere words of the script, we theatre artists begin to visualize all of the possible expressions for the author’s intent. We then begin to make choices from the inspiration we have gathered in our research. We weed out the images that don’t support the author’s intent, and we hold onto only those concepts that serve the good of the play. From those visions we formulate pictures, fine tuning as we go, always returning to the source, the word, for our inspiration and guidance, and finally from those pictures the world of the play becomes manifest.
This world is complete, a unified whole, a sensory symphony of component parts, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and even sometimes oral. It is the perfect environment, created specifically for a particular cast of characters to unfold their story in space and time.
We have all heard the phrase, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” The beginning words of a much longer monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Essentially, these words point to the fact that like the world of the theatre, what we consider the “reality” of our lives is, in effect, an illusion. It is just as ephemeral, transitory, and impermanent, a fabrication born in the mind of the creator. And each of us is that creator.
The English poet and aesthetic philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, coined the term “willing suspension of disbelief.” In the context of the theatre, it refers to the willingness of the audience member to overlook the limitations of the form, and agree, for the duration of the play, to accept what he or she is viewing as truth or “real.”
Is this not exactly what we do in every moment of our existence in this physical form we call a body? Are we not all authors and artists, each creating in every moment the reality of our experience? I say, “Yes!” emphatically. However, most of us just aren’t doing it consciously. As I watched the play and film, and reread these Lewis Carroll stories, it became clear to me that Alice represents us, or more specifically, our souls.
Before incarnation we are one with Source, or God, until that Divine essence decided it wanted to know itself more fully, at which time it scattered itself into myriad forms, the un-manifest became manifest in the act of creation, and our souls were “born.” Something within our souls stirs us to go forth into the realm of duality, and we enter into a world of time and space, cause and effect. Thus we begin the cycle. We step onto the Wheel of Fortune, the wheel of karma, the circle of life.
As sparks of divinity wanting to experience ourselves through creation, we choose to separate from Source, the One, to descend, or lower our vibration, and enter into this world of infinite contrast, into a world that we create in every moment through our sense perceptions. Why, you might ask, would we do such a thing? Curiosity. We are just like Alice.
Sitting in her garden, rather bored with her idyllic, ordered life, she takes the fall. “Burning with curiosity” upon spying a waistcoat wearing white rabbit carrying a pocket watch, (a metaphor for space and time), she, like the Fool of the Tarot, takes the leap, willingly plunging down the rabbit hole after him, “never once considering how in the world she was going to get out again.”
Thump, she hits bottom and finds herself in a darkened room, or is it a womb? Before her are a number of doors, all of which are locked. There is seemingly no way out. Then she spies a curtain, behind which is a tiny little door. It too is locked, but there is a key resting on a glass table. At her size, how will she ever get through?
Beneath the table she sees a little bottle, with the words “Drink Me.” written on it. Without question Alice quaffs it down, and the transformation begins… Expansion and contraction, evolution, first too big, so we try the little cake, then too small, until finally we find the right size and shape.
As Source Energy, we are too vast, infinite in fact, to enter into this world, so we lower our vibration and come into a state of being, the human form, which evolved over millennia, a body perfectly fit for our entry into our lives on planet Earth.
All that life force contained in such a tiny package makes the passage out a rough one. Key in hand, we make our way to the door, unlock it, and squeeze our way through into the light of day, into a world of duality, a world of opposites, where nothing is what it seems, where everything is upside down and backwards.
Only, in all the activity and commotion of our entry into this strange and magical world, we leave the key behind. This golden key is the knowledge that we are Source Energy, we are God, and that we chose to come forth to co-create our own experience.
Throughout these fantastical Alice stories, our young heroine holds several specific intentions. In each story she is trying desperately to make her way to a garden she sees off in the distance. She also wishes to be a queen, and in the end to make her way home.
When we begin to wake up and to walk the spiritual path we come to realize that this is what each of us is attempting to do. But like Alice we encounter various obstacles we need to overcome, in order to become the sovereign of our own lives, and find our way home to the garden. The biggest one of these is our own mind. For it is from here that all our impediments emanate.
These seemingly nonsensical tales hold great wisdom. Quite often truth is shown to us through unconventional means. The language of the soul is very often not heard by the rational mind. Generally, it comes to us in dreams, in visions, in “out of the way” experiences, as Alice would say, and through a curious cast of unlikely characters, just like those she encounters in her Adventures in Wonderland.
There's a story in which a professor visited a Japanese master to inquire about the nature of Zen. While the master quietly prepared and served tea, the professor spoke about his understanding of Zen. The master began to pour tea for his guest. Though the visitor's cup became full, still the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup, and onto the table.
The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer contain himself. "Master,” he cried, “the cup is full!" "It will hold no more!", he blurted. "You are like this cup," said the master, “full of your own opinions, concepts, and perceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
For Alice the journey through Wonderland is a process of unlearning, of letting go of her attachment to everything she ever believed about herself and the world around her, in order to finally embrace a world of unlimited possibility. She must step through the looking glass, leaving behind her firmly rooted concepts of reality, so she can ultimately claim her full power and crown herself creator of her own dream.
Not long after Alice arrives in Wonderland, she is mistaken for somebody else. The White Rabbit takes her for his maid. And not being one to question his authority, and fearful of what might happen should she contradict him, she accepts the role that is thrust upon her. In no time, she is expanding and contracting again, trying to conform to the wishes and desires of someone else. She becomes so misshapen that she gets stuck inside the rabbit’s house.
Most of us, at some point in our lives have fallen into this same trap. Not firm in our own sense of who we really are, we accept other’s opinions about us, thus giving away our power. Like Alice, we are made prisoners of our own fear, afraid to be our true selves. Real authority, which comes from the root word, author, means we take control and responsibility for writing the scripts of our lives. When we consciously begin to create our destiny, authority will come.
Alice is repeatedly asked a series of questions. The most critical comes by way of a hookah-smoking caterpillar. This peculiar little guru asks of Alice“ Who are you?” She responds rather shyly, “I~ I hardly know, Sir, just at present~ at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” The caterpillar replies rather sternly, “Explain yourself!” “ I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir” says Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
You see, when we get into a pattern of changing ourselves, morphing and adapting to meet the needs and wishes of others, we lose sight of who we really are, until we don’t even recognize ourselves anymore.
As she makes her way onward, Alice next encounters a friendly, toothy grinned feline, whom she asks, “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the Cheshire Cat replies. “I don’t much care where,” says Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” is the reply.
The truth is, when we are unspecific or confused about our intentions, we cannot claim the help the universe and our Higher Self are continually and consistently offering us. We only get back what we put out. So, if we are ambivalent, our experience will lack focus and be filled with confusion. We must know our intentions, stand firm in them, and only then will the path unfold to lead us in the direction we want to go.
Alice then meets up with the Mad Hatter, March Hare and the Door Mouse. They only serve to unravel her sense of reality even more, challenging her concepts of language, time and space, and ultimately of her self. The Mad Hatter says of Time, “If you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you like with the clock.”
We continually speak of wasting time, losing time, and being out of time. Is it any wonder we never seem to have enough of it? The truth is that time is an illusion too. When we begin to understand this we realize there is enough time for everything we could possibly need or desire to do. It is malleable like clay, we can mold it to our needs and no longer be a slave to it.
In Through The Looking Glass, Alice happens upon Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee and is presented with probably the most confounding and troubling information yet from this dynamic duo. The peculiar pair directs her attention toward the Red King, who is sleeping under a tree. Tweedle-dee asks, “What do you think he is dreaming about?” When Alice says she couldn’t possible know, he goes on to tell her, the King is dreaming about her. “And if he left off dreaming, Tweedle-dee continues, where do you suppose you’d be?” “Where I am now of course.” says Alice. “Not you! You’d be nowhere.” he replies. “Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream! If that thing were to wake, you’d go out – bang- just like a candle!”
In the Hindu tradition, the God Vishnu is pictured as the divine dreamer of the world dream. Vishnu sleeps on a great, coiled serpent named Ananta, which means "Endless." The serpent floats on the cosmic ocean, called the Milky Ocean. The ocean, the serpent and the sleeping god: these are all aspects of the same thing, Mind. It is from the One Mind that all creation is born.
The God Vishnu sleeps and the activity of his mind stuff creates dreams, and we, and everything in the material plane, are components of that dream. Just as all the images that we perceive and all the people who appear in our dreams are really manifestations of our own sub-conscious mind, so are we all manifestations of Vishnu or God’s dreaming power. We and everything in our environment are no more “real” than the characters in our own dreams.
Tweedle-dee really begins to strike a raw nerve with Alice. She becomes mightily defensive, because now he is threatening her concept of her very existence. Not her physical existence, mind you, but that of her ego. It is the ego-mind that resists the notion that we all thoughts in the mind of God, cells in the body of God. It is the ego that clings to the illusion that we are unique, separate individuals with limited means and a finite shelf life.
One of the most memorable characters in these tales, and certainly the loudest, is the Queen of Hearts, also referred to as The Red Queen, who is oft-times heard screaming, “Off with their heads!”
The Red Queen in all her brazen bluster is the representation of the ego mind, or the false self. Alice, in both tales, comes up against, and firmly butts heads with this mad Queen, whose reaction to anyone who threatens her authority is to relieve them of their crown. Neither does Alice escape her ire.
It is only by facing her head on, pun intended, and challenging her authority that Alice comes into her full power and finally sees how insignificant and puny the Red Queen really is.
This is our ticket home. Only when we let go the strangle hold our ego minds have on us, can our souls begin to regain their strength and sing. When the voice of the ego is finally subdued and brought into balance, we will hear the still small voice within that tells us we need not look outside ourselves for directions to the garden.
Paradoxically, the Queen of Hearts actually had something there. We, in fact, must lose our heads in order to regain awareness of our souls and our true nature. The costume design in Tim Burton’s movie, depicting the Red Queen with an outsized head is brilliant, indeed.
I love the message on my Uncle Paul’s voice mailbox. He is a Jesuit and a brilliant, profoundly funny man. When I call, and he is unable to answer, I hear his rich baritone voice say, “I’m either out of my room, out of the country, or out of my mind.”
It is ironic that the character in these stories that is the least kind, the most selfish, and un-evolved, is the Queen of Hearts. The irony is not lost here, the message is very clear; in order to rediscover who we really are we need to “lose our minds;” we need to move out of our heads and into our hearts.
The heart is the gateway to our creative, intuitive and spiritual centers, the home of the sub-conscious mind, fertile ground from which springs our imagination, and all that we ultimately create. This is where our souls reside. When we turn inward, and turn off the Jabberwocky in our conscious minds we can begin to open our hearts and hear the inner word, our true song that will sing us home.
We are often told we need to follow or chase after our dreams. However, this implies that they are somewhere out ahead of us or beyond our reach. This is why Alice was having so much difficulty making her way to the garden. The fact is our dreams and the garden dwell within us. We do not need to look without for the answers. They already exist right where we are. All we need do is turn our focus inwardly… return to the home of the Word, the Source. Only then will the garden, and our dreams reveal themselves to us. We too, like Alice, must “keep them alive in our simple and loving hearts.”
Katrin Naumann worked for 20 years as a Theatre Artist, both behind the scenes as a Costume and Scenic Designer, and on stage, film and TV, as an Actor. She has been a lifelong adventurer on the path of Self discovery, which has led to her current role as Director of Inner Balance Life Works. Her holistic healing practice focuses on offering pathways toward (R)evolutionary Self Transformation. Katrin serves the community as an Energy Healer, Intuitive Spiritual Guide, Qigong & Yoga Instructor, Author, Public Speaker, and Workshop Creatrix.