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Down the Rabbit Hole

Just like Alice in Wonderland fell down a rabbit hole in pursuit of a fantastical-looking rabbit, we regular humans also have a tendency to run after thoughts that lead us straight into a mental ‘rabbit hole’ – an endless dark tunnel of fruitless musings, self-sabotaging criticism, and irrelevant hypothesizing. We fall down these holes again and again, either because they promise pleasure (e.g. memories of better times), or because we are looking for something (for example the reason why a relationship didn’t work out) or someone (perhaps a loved one who has passed).

Some of these rabbit holes are disguised as productive reflection and analysis, but spiral into obsessive comparison of the self to others, or a ceaseless audio commentary of self-criticism. Going down your personal rabbit hole won’t bring you closer to finding who or what you’re looking for, and down there is nothing you can do to heal your wounds or work on yourself. This sort of work can only be done from a mind that is firmly rooted and awake in the here and now.

What's the danger?

These rabbit holes violate the principles of harmonious and purposeful living, known in Yoga philosophy as the Yamas and Niyamas. The Yamas in particular tend to be left behind whenever we descend into a rabbit hole. The Sanskrit word translates literally as “restraints” and includes nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, nonexcess, and nonpossessiveness.

  • Ahimsa - Nonviolence: Whenever you drift into a negative rabbit hole of self-criticism or of reliving painful memories, you are committing an act of violence against yourself: You are disturbing your peace of mind and the balance of your emotions, causing very tangible reactions in your body and negatively impacting your social environment.

  • Satya - Truthfulness: So often, we use our rabbit holes as places of refuge from reality, where we can make up a kinder, happier, more prosperous alternative reality. When we are called out of our rabbit holes though, we are brought face to face with a world that refuses to comply with our fictions. We can only change the world if we first see it for what it really is.

  • Asteya – Nonstealing: As I’m sure you have experienced, mental rabbit holes eat your time and energy. Before you know it, you’ve spent minutes, maybe even hours down there, time that you won’t get back and that you then can't spend on what really matters.

  • Brahmacharya – Nonexcess: A mental rabbit hole is often a den of excess. Here we can obsess freely about our flaws, past mistakes, missed opportunities, and lost connections. But dwelling on the past and excessively reliving the pain often breeds shame and won’t help us act better in the here and now.

  • Aparigraha – Nonpossessiveness: Whenever a rabbit hole forms around an experience, an event, a person, or a thought, it is a signal that we are unable to let go. For reasons that we often only understand once we have let go, we keep grasping for and clinging on to that experience, person, or thought. But holding on to something that no longer belongs with you takes immense strength and energy, energy that you could more productively, and to greater satisfaction, use to help others. When you're holding on to stuff, you have no strength to allow others to hold on to you for comfort, advice, or companionship.

What can we do?

We must accept that 1), these rabbit holes are of our own making, and 2), only we can close them. The first step away from any type of rabbit hole is always becoming aware of it, looking it right in the eye, acknowledging its presence, registering how close we were to falling in, tracing its shape and depth, and feeling its lure. So often we stumble into these abysses unawares, and only realise our situation when rattled by something or someone exterior.

Next, identify your personal rabbit – the thought or memory that typically lures you down the abyss. You won’t be able to prevent these thoughts or memories from popping up in the first place, but when they do, you can practice making a conscious decision not to follow them down into the dark. This is what meditation is all about: Creating a space between stimulus and response that is just wide enough for you to reassess and perhaps change direction.

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