As I anticipate my upcoming birthday, I’ve been reflecting on the symbolism of crossing the threshold into another year of life. A friend once wrote me a beautiful message in a birthday card, sharing that her spiritual teacher had taught her that on our birthdays our soul nature comes to the fore reminding us of our purpose with renewed enthusiasm and inspiration.
What a lovely framework to mark the passage of time between birthdays, poised on the threshold of another year of life. Yet this is not a missive on birthdays; rather, one in which I want to explore the significance of the many threshold experiences in our lives.
Historically, the universal wisdom passed down through generations of mythological and cultural traditions repeatedly reveals images of thresholds and gates symbolizing passageways into new worlds.
A threshold represents the place or moment where transformation, learning, or integration occurs. When we find ourselves at another threshold in our lives, we instinctively recognize that we are required to let go of what is familiar and prepare to open to the unknown. This is a time when we face the uncomfortable challenge of identifying and releasing what is no longer necessary or aligned with our essential nature.
Nature reveals this process through infinite examples of metamorphosis. Bring to mind the classic transformational image that illustrates the dissolution of the caterpillar held tightly in the dark chrysalis, yielding to profound cellular reorganization that magically materializes when new life emerges from the cocoon as the butterfly.
So, a threshold suggests we’ve reached a doorway that we must face and then be willing to cross over. It indicates where one thing ends and another begins. The border that marks the end of the old makes possible entry into the new.
What are some of the threshold experiences as we go through life?
- A new life emerges as the newborn crosses the threshold from the dark warmth and security of its mother’s womb to the realities of the external world beginning with glaring lights and loud sounds in the hospital delivery room.
- The proud groom gallantly scoops up his bride, carrying her over the threshold of the doorway of the house or room where they will officially reside for the first time as husband and wife.
- The marathon runner with one last burst of adrenaline sprints across the finish line, the threshold demarcating the boundary where the race is won.
- The new college graduate with credentials in hand, walks through the doorway into the office for an interview with a prospective employer – crossing the threshold from adult student to adult with a vocation.
- The couple whose marriage is over cross a life-changing threshold as they walk in and out of the lawyer’s office who has finalized the dissolution of their marital contract.
- An aging man or woman courageously moves to a new city to begin their next chapter of life.
- The painful threshold that the family and friends cross when they walk through the doorway of the building where the memorial service is held for the loved one they’ve just lost through death.
The significance of thresholds appears as we reach a new level of understanding, compelling a willingness to move into something new and unfamiliar. To arrive at and then cross a threshold is often associated with a rebirth, some type of psychological and/or spiritual regeneration. This is where we leave behind some part of our past or who we’ve known ourselves to have been to move into something unprecedented and not yet known.
When we are at a threshold moment in our lives, we have reached a boundary, a point where two worlds come together, the seen (known) and the unseen (not yet known).
Thresholds can be challenging in that they thrust us into increasingly complex situations, demanding that we trust the emergence of new skills, internal resources, and qualities. It can be both a transformational and troubling experience.
“Every positive change–every jump to a higher level of energy and awareness–involves a rite of passage. Each time to ascend to a higher rung on the ladder of personal evolution, we must go through a period of discomfort, of initiation. I have never found an exception” ~ Dan Millman
In transformation we have often reached a point in our personal development where we have greater agency in manifesting new experiences. But in crossing the boundary, we leave behind the comfort and safety of what’s familiar to step into an unknown future which can activate much anxiety and doubt.
The portal between the known and the unknown has been called liminal space. This suggests a transitional and intermediate experience, such as the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness.
The psychological and spiritual thresholds that present themselves throughout life are accompanied by a deep, often barely perceptible realization that we need to move beyond where we have been. This can be about making a physical move, but not always. Rather, it is driven by an internal knowing that we are ready to progress to a new life circumstance which is preceded by a shift in consciousness.
In contemplating a completely unfamiliar life circumstance we necessarily must let go of an identity that is no longer adequate to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead. An example of this would be the individual who is facing the difficult decision to leave a marriage. This is almost always an emotionally-charged process. An integral part of this process is the transition in identity that results from leaving the role of married person behind to ease into the unfamiliar terrain of being single again.
Letting go of who we’ve known ourselves to be and ending a chapter in life that was familiar is not generally easy! What precedes this is almost always a level of tension or discord that can manifest as boredom, melancholy, loneliness, or resignation – maybe with a job or relationship in which you feel stuck. It can also be signaled by a sudden or gradual decline in one’s own or loved one’s health.
As with the shifting of tectonic plates prior to an earthquake, our threshold experiences tend to arise from movement in our unconscious preparing to shake us and wake us up to face our need and readiness for some significant change.
“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were when we were born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock” ~ James Baldwin
Facing monumental change can provoke fear and self-doubt as we find ourselves in the liminal zone, that transitional place between two worlds. Yet, if we resist crossing these thresholds we are at risk of staying locked in the past, attached to what is called a ‘fixed mindset vs a growth mindset’, per the research of Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck.
When we choose to foster a growth mindset, we are heeding those soul-level messages that emerge in multiple ways, some of which include abiding discontent, apathy, or chronic melancholy that may represent low-level depression.
When you feel a restlessness, an underlying sense that something needs to change, a stagnation that may occur due to loss of enthusiasm or inspiration for life – consider the following questions:
- Where have I stopped growing?
- Am I eagerly engaged in learning something new? When I awaken in the morning, do I look forward to the new day?
- How am I experiencing fulfillment, personally and/or professionally?
- Are my significant relationships thriving?
- In what ways am I aware that I’m stuck in the past?
- Do I feel mostly alone in the world?
- At which threshold am I now standing?
- What or whom do I need to leave?
- Do I have a glimpse of what I am about to enter?
- What is preventing me from crossing this threshold?
- What do I need to trust in myself that would enable me to make this transition?
If you believe you’re approaching a threshold experience in your life, know there will be a complex network of emotions that arises, ranging from confusion, fear, and sadness to excitement and hope. Let yourself meet these highly-charged states with curiosity, respect, and patience because they represent something in you that wants to come alive.
Remember the words of Howard Thurman as the impetus to propel you across your next threshold: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive”
The unfolding of the potential inherent in your human nature depends on your willingness to embrace life’s thresholds. It is not uncommon to feel utterly alone during these transitions as you stand on the precipice of the unknown. But take heart in these lines from the poem Sweet Darkness by David Whyte:
“Sometimes it takes darkness
And the sweet confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you”