Illustration by Peter Newell, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1968
When was the last time you read Alice in Wonderland? And, have you ever thought of using this classic tale as a lens for viewing what the journey of death and dying actually might be like? I found this exercise to be inspiring and comforting as I prepared for a presentation called "Down the Rabbit Hole: Death Through the Lens of Alice, Mystics and Indigenous Teachers" for the Tucson conference on End of Life.
You may remember that Alice was skipping along through the grass, when she spotted a rabbit hurrying by, carrying a pocket watch and muttering that he was going to be late. When he disappeared down a hole and Alice leaned over to try to spot him, she fell in. And fell, and fell, and fell.
At first she tried grasping at the walls of the tunnel, but when that didn't work, she relaxed into the experience a little, relying on her curiosity. "I wonder how far I've fallen ... why, I must be getting close to the center of the earth, which would be by my calculations ... 4,000 miles!" She tried applying the logic from her usual world, but that didn't really give her any control over this uncharted territory.
When she hit bottom, she met a series of characters who made no sense and gave her no help. So, she sat down and began to cry. Before she knew it, she had cried a pool of tears and had to swim in it.
When she reached the shore, she found a room with a table, and a small bottle of liquid that said, "Drink me." She did, and grew very big, and then found another bottle that made her smaller. Along the way she got a peek at the entrance to a garden, and knew that was now her goal. How would she become the right size to get through that door, and where would she find the key to it?
So far, this might be similar to the journey we'll experience when we leave our bodies, especially if we consult mystics and indigenous teachers about the important passage we'll all make one day.
First, if death were to overtake us by surprise, we might feel we're falling. People who have had near-death experiences tell us about a tunnel, which is similar to a rabbit hole. And many ancient, sacred ceremonial places are holes in the earth: the Celtic cairns of Ireland; the kivas in Native American villages; and the ceremonial holes often covered over by churches in Central America. Shaman and author Martin Prechtel describes one of these in his memoir, Long Life Honey in the Heart, about his life in Guatemala.
We emerge through a birth canal from our mother, and indigenous tradition is to return us to our spiritual Mother, the Earth, by being buried back inside her. We can be comforted by this when remains of loved ones are buried. Like birth, death is probably a process that is deeply feminine. And like other sacred feminine traditions, its roots were pushed underground by the early church and are now being brought back to our consciousness.
Alice finds that her old logic and speech doesn't translate in this new land, and she is grief-stricken at the loss. Maybe we'll grieve too if our bodies start to fail us and we have to part from those we love.
Alice meets all sorts of characters in Wonderland. You may remember the rough, rude Duchess, who mishandles the baby Alice rescues. The caterpillar who sits on the mushroom smoking a hookah instructs her in nibbling from two sides of the mushroom, so that she can become either larger or smaller. Now she has the perfect recipe for getting into the garden.
When we die, there may be a process of relinquishing some of our "bigness" and also what we perceive to be our "smallness." I remember how my mother's body got smaller as her spirit got bigger, until she was quite radiant. And the garden could be whatever heaven or paradise or place of peace, beauty and rest we imagine on the other side. We're all looking for the key to that!
Alice has to go through many adventures before the garden. Remember the Mad Tea Party with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter? She decides they are, indeed, all mad, as the Cheshire Cat has warned her. "You are too," he adds, "or you wouldn't be here!"
Many mystical traditions point to the work we'll have to do when we cross over. Even within the garden, Alice finds herself with the Queen, who yells, "Off with your head!" at anyone who doesn't fulfill her every demand. Whether the Queen represents your mother or a part of yourself, you may have to reckon with her even after you've become a spirit yourself.
Buddhism presents us with the idea that we'll have bardos or levels of consciousness, and will have to focus on the Clear Light to make it past these. The Peruvian shamanic tradition tells of five upper worlds: the mineral, the plant, the animal, the world of humans, whales and dolphins, and the luminous world. If we die with work to do, we may have to finish it in one of these worlds before progressing to the next. The ancient rishis spoke of "lokas," or astral planes.
If all this sounds overwhelming, Alice's story gives us hope. When she gets called as a witness in a trial to see if the King of Hearts really stole the tarts, the Queen yells, "Sentence first; then the verdict!" Alice, who has grown larger and more confident, yells, "Absurd!" The Queen shouts, "Hold Your Tongue!" And Alice retorts, "I won't!" "Off with her head!" responds the Queen. And Alice draws herself up and shouts back, "Who cares about you anyway? You're all nothing but a pack of cards!"
She's recognized the Queen and King and all their soldiers as playing cards. And when she does, the all rise up into the air, becoming pieces of paper. Alice awakens, back in the meadow, lying in the grass with her head in her sister's lap.
In his important book, Life After Death: the Burden of Proof, Deepak Chopra draws on science as well as mysticism to paint a convincing picture of life as one process, seemingly divided by birth and death, which are really just portals to different chapters. All are opportunities for us to raise our consciousness, recognizing illusions until we know the The One Being, and know also that we are just part of The One.
In the meantime, as my mother said on her death bed, "We are just characters on a stage." So let's look at ourselves with compassion, humor, and gratitude as we make our way through our many adventures.