Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Connecting Alice's Experiences in Wonderland in Tim Burton's Movie with the Problem-Solving Power of Sleeping Dreams

The other night, my wife, Christine, and I went to see Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Walking out of the theater, I found myself thinking of one scene, in particular. At the end, soon after Alice emerges from the rabbit hole, she walks into the ongoing Garden Party. Because of her adventures down the rabbit hole, she is now certain and decisive and confident, addressing each person, one by one, resolutely solving the problem that had been left irresolute. This is quite a contrast to her state of mind at the beginning when she was uncertain and indecisive and passive. Her new-found confidence is demonstrated in the following scenes, contrasting her behavior before and after her descent into Wonderland.


HAMISH. Alice Kingsley, will you be my wife? The question hangs in the air. The musicians' bows are poised. The party has fallen silent. It seems the whole world is listening. Unsure of herself, unsure of her future, unsure of anything in that moment, Alice stammers.

ALICE. I. . .I. . .would have to say. . .everyone thinks I should. . .and there's no reason not to. . .so I suppose my answer would have to be. . .I would have to say. . . She trails off as she sees the White Rabbit leaning against a pillar, glaring at her with undisguised impatience.


Alice turns to Hamish, her adventure, although unremembered, has given Alice unwavering confidence and self-awareness.

ALICE. I'm sorry Hamish, I can't marry you. You're not the right man for me.


Alice continues to look for the elusive rabbit. She hears rustling ahead and peeks around a tree. . surprising a man and a woman kissing. The woman gasps and runs off. The man turns. It's Margaret's husband, Lowell.

ALICE. Lowell?

LOWELL. Alice. We were. . .Katrina is an old friend.

ALICE. (upset) I can see you're very close. He's caught and he knows it. So he goes on the offensive.

LOWELL. You won't tell your sister about this, will you?

ALICE. I don't know. I need time to think.

LOWELL. Think of Margaret. This would be devastating to her.

ALICE. I know!

LOWELL. Marriage is based on trust. She would never trust me again. You don't want to ruin your sister's marriage, do you?

ALICE. But I'm not the one. . .

LOWELL. She must never know about this.

ALICE. (to her sister) You shouldn't act so smug, Margaret. Your life may not be as perfect as you think it is. She whispers the truth about her husband in Margaret's ear. Margaret gasps and glares at the suddenly sheepish Lowell.


IMOGENE. Alice? What's this I hear that you don't want to marry Hamish?

ALICE. I didn't say that. I'm not certain. .

IMOGENE. Marry him, Alice. If you don't, you'll lay awake at night in your cold, cold bed, growing older and older waiting for the perfect man.


ALICE. (gently to Aunt Imogene) There is no prince, Aunt Imogene. You need to talk to someone about these delusions.

Strolling with Alice in the garden, Lady Ascot sees something off.

LADY ASCOT. Incompetence The gardeners planted white roses when I specifically asked for red.

ALICE. I like white roses.

LADY ASCOT. You couldn't possibly. They're too bland.


ALICE. (to Lady Ascot) I happen to love white roses, Lady Ascot, as well as rabbits.


MARGARET. Such an embarrassment. And now that Father is gone, you can't depend on Mother to support you. You don't want to be a burden, do you?
She's succeeded in making Alice feel not only insecure but guilty as well.


ALICE. (turning to her mother) Don't worry, Mother. I won't be a burden. I'll find something useful to do with my life.

ALICE (looks around) Is that everyone?

LORD ASCOT. You've left me out.

ALICE. No, I haven't. You and I have business to discuss. sir. They're all surprised to hear the word coming out of a young woman's mouth.

When we arrived home that evening after the movie, I was still musing about the connection between Alice's dreams in Wonderland, and her new state of mind that enabled her to solve the problems in her life. We decided to watch a television program, and "by chance" we watched a NOVA program entitled, "What are dreams?"

It just so happens that the theme of the program is that sleeping dreams prepare us for solving problems in our waking life, or rather, as Teachers of A Course in Miracles, we refer to it as a waking dream. There's not really any difference between sleeping dreams and waking dreams.

During the program, I was struck by one of the commentators in particular, Dr. Deidre Barrett, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who has studied extensively the connection between dreams and problem-solving. She demonstrated this connection by citing examples of musicians and writers and scientists who solved problems in their dreams that they were unable to solve during the day. For example, Stravinsky dreamed essential elements of Rite of Spring; Robert Lewis Stevenson dreamed two key scenes of his novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Mendeleev described dreaming the periodic table of the elements in its completed form.

In fact, Barrett did a scientific study entitled, "The 'Committee of Sleep': A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving." The title comes from a statement by John Steinbeck, " It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it."

This is how the study was set up:

Seventy-six college students (47 women, 29 men, ages 19-24) were asked to incubate their dreams. They were instructed to select a problem of personal relevance. They were asked to write out the problem in a simple fashion. Subjects followed this procedure nightly for one week. Two raters then judged all dreams in the week's journals. (Journal of the Association of the Study of Dreams, 1993, The "Committee of Sleep": A Study of Dreams Incubation for Problem Solving, pp. 115-123, p. 1)

Here is one example of a problem and its solution:

Problem: I have applied to two clinical psychology programs and two in industrial psychology because I just can't decide which field I want to go into. Dream: A map of the United States. I am in a plane flying over this map. The pilot says we are having engine trouble and need to land and we look for a safe place on the map indicated by a light. I ask about Massachusetts which we seem to be over right then and he says all of Massachusetts is very dangerous. The lights seem to be further west. Solution: I wake up and realize that my two clinical schools are both in Massachusetts where I have spent my whole life and where my parents live. Both industrial programs are far away, Texas and California. That was because originally I was looking to stay close to home and there were no good industrial programs nearby. I realize that there is a lot wrong with staying at home and that, funny as it sounds, getting away is probably more important than which kind of program I go to. (Committee, p. 4)

Here is another:

Problem: I'm trying to decide whether to be on the softball team again this spring. I love it, but practice does take time away from my studies. I could just go to watch the games this year and still see my friends from the team. Dream: I'm camping in an open place in a tent that doesn't come all the way to the ground. People are all around staring at me. I feel very uncomfortable and exposed: Solution: The dream reminded me of the phrase "a watcher rather than a doer" which has very negative connotations for me. I don't think I'd be happy with just going to the games. (Committee, p. 5)

Here is a summary of her study:

Subjects incubated dreams addressing problems chosen by the dreamer nightly for one week. Approximately half recalled a dream which they judged to be related to their problem; a majority of these believed their dream contained a solution. Problems of a personal nature were much more likely to be viewed as solved than ones of an academic or general objective nature. (Committee, p. 2)

(I recently experienced a problem-solving dream, and I invite you to read my account in my blog post immediately preceding this one, entitled, "Learning to Move Mountains by Saying to Myself, "Yes, and.")

Alice's experience in Wonderland and the study subjects' problem-solving dreams provide powerful analogies. Alice emerges from the rabbit hole confident, and the subjects solve problems in their sleeping dreams. Nevertheless, in both cases they are still left in the waking dream, i.e., Alice returns to the ongoing Garden Party, and the subjects return to their daily lives.

As Teachers of A Course in Miracles, we know that we are walking around in a waking dream of our own making. It's just a matter of remembering to ask for help to forgive the thought-images that make up the waking dream. These two sentences towards the end of the study lead me to think that, at some level, Dr. Deirde Barrett, is also aware that something else is going on.

Perhaps the "committee of sleep" may have workers outside of the dream state. This experiment occurred at a religious college and several of the responses indicated a firm conviction that the dreams came from God. (Committee, p. 7)

There is no perhaps about it. As Teachers of God we know that there is a worker outside of the dream state. Here is the analogy: Just as Alice's experiences in Wonderland prepare her to emerge from the rabbit hole with certainty and decisiveness and confidence, so can my waking dreams be used to enable me to be more certain that I am the Holy Son of God. That is why we often use the phrase, "Utilize, don't analyze."

We can learn to give our waking dreams over to the worker, the Holy Spirit, who translates our illusory dreams into truth. We can ask, we must ask, the Holy Spirit to be the mediator.

The Holy Spirit mediates between
illusions and the truth. Since He must bridge
the gap between reality and dreams,
perception leads to knowledge through the grace
that God has given Him, to be His gift to
everyone who turns to Him for truth.
Across the bridge that He provides are dreams
all carried to the truth, to be dispelled
before the light of knowledge. There are sights
and sounds forever laid aside. And where
they were perceived before, forgiveness has
made possible perception's tranquil end.

(W-p11.7. What is the Holy Spirit? 1)

If Alice were to become a Teacher of God, she would find that she may still find herself in the duality, i.e., asking herself whether to marry Hamish, or not; to stand up to her mother, or not; to tell her sister the truth, or not. However, she would learn that choosing this dream over that dream will not lead to truth. But asking the Holy Spirit for help to forgive these dreams, recognizing their unreality, can lead to the truth that she is a Holy Son of God, and that she is in the world, but not of the world, thereby learning to "Wear the world like a loose garment." (St, Francis)

The goal the Holy Spirit's teaching sets
is just this end of dreams. For sights and sounds
must be translated from the witnesses
of fear to those of love. And when this is
entirely accomplished, learning has
achieved the only goal it has in truth.
For learning, as the Holy Spirit guides
it to the outcome He perceives for it,
becomes the means to go beyond itself,
to be replaced by the eternal truth.


What is helpful for her, and for us, is that the phantasmagorical figures that appear in Wonderland, like the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, and the White Queen, are, in fact, only slightly more exaggerated and distorted than the thought-images that we seem to see in our waking dreams, or what we consider the "outside" world.

"Phantasmagoria" is defined as: a shifting series of phantasms, illusions, or deceptive appearances, as in a dream or as crated by the imagination. It is a great reminder that Alice's dreams in Wonderland and those that we seem to see in our waking dream are really not different at all. For example, you could take your thought-image of your "worst" enemy and give him red, curly hair, a lot of eye make-up, and a hat, and he becomes only a slight exaggeration of your own image that you are projecting onto him. This is how we people our world.

In this manner, Alice could come to know the truth that what appears to be without comes entirely from what is within.

Your picture of the world can only mirror what is within. The source of neither light nor darkness can be found without. Grievances darken your mind, and you look out on a darkened world. Forgiveness lifts the darkness, reasserts your will, and lets you look upon a world of light. We have repeatedly emphasized that the barrier of grievances is easily passed, and cannot stand between you and your salvation. The reason is very simple. Do you really want to be in hell? Do you really want to weep and suffer and die? (W-p11.73.5)

Alice can learn moment to moment, that she can look outside, and if she is feeling pain, she can look inside and ask for help to forgive painful thoughts. Instead of saying "Nonsense" to the Queen, she can say "Nonsense" to her own grievances, her own thought-images, recognizing the illusory nature of what she pictured before. And when she experiences a moment of light, of clarity, she will see that light reflected in her world.

If you but knew how much your Father yearns
to have you recognize your sinlessness,
you would not let His Voice appeal in vain,
nor turn away from His replacement for
the fearful images and dreams you made.
The Holy Spirit understands the means
you made, by which you would attain what is
forever unattainable. And if
you offer them to Him, He will employ
the means you made for exile to restore
your mind to where it truly is at home.

So it all comes down to forgiveness, forgiving thoughts in your mind that have no source in reality, leading to knowing exactly who you are.

From knowledge, where He has been placed by God,
the Holy Spirit calls to you, to let
forgiveness rest upon your dreams, and be
restored to sanity and peace of mind.
Without forgiveness will your dreams remain
to terrify you. And the memory
of all your Father's Love will not return
to signify the end of dreams has come.


Accept your Father's gift. It is a Call
from Love to Love, that It be but Itself.
The Holy Spirit is His gift, by which
the quietness of Heaven is restored
to God's beloved Son.

For Alice, now, there is no way that she could possibly refuse to take on her function, and I can just hear her emphatic answer to this question that ends the passage:

Would you refuse to take the function of completing God, when all He wills is that you be complete?

ALICE. "Nonsense!"