It was easily the widest threshold I have come across in an interior doorway – a beautifully finished piece of Pippy Oak stretching more than half a foot on either side of the door. It was sanded smooth as a riverbed stone and varnished like a sacred text written in the script of the tree’s grain and punctuated by its large knots.
I first saw this beautiful threshold entering the sanctuary of Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, and I approached it with reverent curiosity, shoeless in keeping with sangha customs. Remembering ancient taboos against walking on a threshold, I took as big a step as my legs allowed to stretch across it. Then, I noticed the sangha members, every one of them stepping right on that threshold as if it were an arboreal doormat specifically meant for the soles of their stocking-clad feet. Later, I learned the threshold was purposely designed to require that you step on it. It was meant to make you notice, a reminder to pay attention as you enter the sanctuary for meditation and as you leave after meditation is over.
Today, in these pandemic times, we are all living on a threshold so wide we can’t help stepping on it – and paying attention to it, having no idea when we’ll reach the other side.
Thresholds, physically and metaphorically, are places of encounter and transition – between inside and outside, the known and unknown, here and there, and then and yet to come. In its literal sense, a threshold is a raised strip at the base of a doorway that keeps the mud or snow and cold from coming inside. Just as I did in the sangha, we typically step over it as we come and go, focusing on one side or the other rather than on the place in between.
Not surprisingly, if we can, we often do the same thing when crossing our metaphorical thresholds. We try not to linger in the uncertainty and chaos found there. Whether it’s a passage we have desired and chosen (graduation; new relationship, baby, or identity; new job, opportunity or capacity), or one wholly unbidden and unwanted (the end of a job, relationship, role or ability, or onset of illness or decline), we often avoid dwelling in the risk and dangers in between.
Thresholds require us to leave something, someone, perhaps even some part of ourselves behind. They are marked by vulnerability as we face the possibilities of transformation, in our surroundings and often in identity. Moving across them to the other side, we might be required to take on challenges we’ve never done before, to face fears we have shunned for years, to discover our limitations as well as new abilities, gifts and opportunities, to change and grow into some new form of ourselves.
Honoring the risks and challenges present on the threshold, many cultures have stories, rituals, blessings and even deities offering protection and safe passage. In ancient Rome, the god Janus reigned over comings and goings. His image, carved over the gates of Roman cities, showed two faces connected at the back and pointed in opposite directions. With one face looking out from the city gate and the other looking in, Janus promised protection while reminding those passing below to notice what they were leaving and where they were going.
On the wide threshold of the pandemic, we don’t know yet where we are headed. Already we have left much behind, without knowing how long this will last and what the world will be like when the crisis is past. What will help you to stay present on this expansive, sometimes frightening but potent threshold of not knowing? What practices, relationships, teachings, inner resources, ancestors or communities can offer you protection or comfort in this passage? How will you pay attention both to what you’re leaving and where you are going?
The spiritual practice of writing can be an important part of pausing and paying attention. Noticing the threshold beneath the soles of your feet. Asking what is happening inside you and around you as you leave the familiar behind and enter a new way of being. Take some time to consider the questions above. Begin with the prompt below and follow wherever it leads:
Pausing on this threshold, one choice I am making now . . . .
To register for an online writing session in May reflecting on the theme of thresholds, visit this link.
Adapted from a reflection published in CommUNITY.