You stand at the threshold, present and lucid.
One foot in the known and one in the unknown.
There is no judgment. There is no force. There is no rush.
You are safe and aware of your freedom to be yourself.
Even if you do not know who you are.
Rays of amber light were arriving in our kitchen. It was that in-between time, dusk, when the war of New York City gives way to its peace.
My wife was stirring a boiling pot of coconut curry soup, and we were having a sweet-spot conversation — intense and gentle at the same time.
That past weekend we had hosted a young couple seeking marital advice, so she asked, “What did you notice about the evening?” An issue emerged, namely my propensity to fill up space with words.
Talking limited me professionally, relationally, and spiritually. Secretly, I was ashamed of it. So, the conversation hit a nerve.
I stood in the middle of the kitchen seen and accepted. There was an urgent calm.
She moved away from the stove and, as if putting a line on the kitchen floor for me to cross, said: “Is it time? For you. To tell yourself, ‘I’m done with the life of talking. I am a listener now.’?”
I stepped forward, picked up a handful of basil leaves from the counter, and dropped them into the soup. I turned off the flame, grabbed two kitchen towels, and took the boiling pot to the kitchen table.
It was done.
The life of talking.
No, I did not become a listening pro in that instant. But I knew that I would.
* * *
I started my working career as a structural engineer. For the last 40 years, I’ve been a pastor, a comparative religion teacher, a workshop and retreat facilitator, and a leadership coach. This is all to say that my job has been to witness people transform, whether in a hospital, under an open sky, or during a conflict in a boardroom.
When each of the many doors of one’s life opens — sometimes by patience, sometimes by force — a threshold appears.
A door opening is one thing, threshold-crossing is quite another.
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. . . . It is a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold, a great complexity of emotions come alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossings were always clothed in ritual.
In the past, these moments, days, weeks, or months of crossing a threshold were ritualized. People took time, held space, and supported one another in the process.
These experiences of endings and beginnings are how we learn to trust ourselves and the world around us.
If you find yourself at the same place over and over again—whether professionally, relationally, or spiritually—you might want to consider doing something different.
Here are four practices that will propel you forward:
In our culture, the idea of change is a lot more attractive than the realities of what is involved.
Everywhere we turn, we hear praises to change. All of us, entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders of all sorts are preaching about the divinity of the day: innovation.
We need it, I get it. Change is what happens when we are alive, our human genius.
What goes on now, however, is different. Never before our time have we been this enamored with the promise of innovation as disruption and so neglectful of innovation as integration.
Consider the politics of disruption, as the latest example, violating the invisible lines of connections between us.
You and I are a part of the culture of hacking. We are seriously engaged with the experiment of hacking our own lives. (For what possible purpose?)
Your secret question is, “Can I have different results without being changed?”
It is my secret question too.
There must be a better question to ask.
How about “How can I recognize, approach, and cross my next threshold?”
In book Change: What Really Leads to Lasting Transformation, published by Oxford University Press, social scientist Jeffrey A. Kottler reviews our vast knowledge about how we change. In the chapter Mystery of Change, section Even Experts Are Confused, he writes:
It is during conditions of vulnerability and feeling lost that our self-deceptions are confronted, and new insights are generated.
We know this about ourselves and experience it on daily basis. Yet, when we group ourselves into businesses, political parties, or religious communities, we immediately switch into pretending. We pretend that we know, that experts are not confused, and that feeling lost is abnormal.
The mystic Rumi once sang about the threshold between two worlds:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where two worlds touch.
Don’t go back to sleep.
There are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
You are not an Ikea dresser. You are a being that is capable of kneeling and kissing the ground!
Practice that fine state of not knowing and you will be in good company. Mystics and scientists have been ridiculed (let me also mention here, killed) for treating not knowing as a human capacity instead of a human weakness.
Whatever you do, don’t hack your human.
It’s the best thing you’ve got.
Imagine that everything you know is a small sphere in a vast space. The more the sphere of what you know expands, the larger the surface where you touch the unknown. The point here is that you cannot know more without increasing your capacity to not know.
If you feel bewildered with all that is available to know these days, you are not alone. We are standing at the abyss of knowledge.
It is coming at us so vast and so fast, questioning every single piece of our personal and shared lives, all at the same time. Everything is so damn complex. We are trapped with too much data and frazzled with too many stories. How do we survive this?
By letting go, that’s how.
You don’t have to live everything at once. That’s what culture is insisting you must do. There are thousands of lives you might wish to live, but there is only one that is your own. Live that one.
Narrow it down further. You don’t have to improve yourself all the time and in all ways. Instead, consider poet David Whyte’s verses:
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Too many self-improvement projects crowd out what the threshold requires: your presence, your story, and your kindness to yourself.
Some people are rehearsing their fantasies. Others are working on their dreams. The difference here is that later are willing to live their own lives and thus be inside the change that is occurring. They know that dream is not about what you will have or achieve, but who you will become.
In The Real Work, Wendell Berry lays out what occurs as we first catch a glimpse of an approaching threshold:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Here, you are not a leader acting as a change agent. An entrepreneur championing change. A coach or a consultant helping others change. Nor a parent, lover, or a friend who knows.
Here, you don’t know. And when you don’t know, you fear. Some nights, perhaps, anxiety — a fear of being more and more afraid — sits on your chest. Some days, it does not let you walk out into the world.
Rather than instigating, observing, or managing change, you are now actually inside the change that is occurring.
Is this darkness of a tomb or a womb?
An ending or a beginning?
If not there already, soon enough you will find yourself between two stories. The one you are in is not true anymore or is not working anymore. And the other one has not been brought to life yet.
You have the freedom, however, to take a break from what you have been doing and from who you have been while doing it.
Stop for a moment and recognize your neural system rebelling against letting the old story go. Feel yourself being frightened by the prospect of walking a path you cannot see yet. Hear the fear. Acknowledge the part of you that is afraid.
You think you don’t want to or don’t have to step into the unknown. But you see, you actually do. The unknown hides dangers — that’s for sure — but it also hides joys, and delights, and your future self.
At your threshold, your not knowing is not optional. It is as vital as your knowing.
To be a great lover, leader, or—for that matter—great human, you have to get lost a little.
If you have to, leave your maps and GPS device behind for a while and get lost on purpose.
Maps and GPS devices force us to have our heads down. With your head down you know where you are but you lose the sight of new terrain appearing, dangerous and beautiful.
* * *
Humans have the capacity to inhabit the astonishing awareness of being alive and finding one’s own way to be. You are one of these humans.
Most of the time, you don’t know who you are. Most of the time, you don’t know what is about to happen. Get as good at not knowing as you are good at knowing.
Millions of years of evolution, thousands of school lunches, and getting up this morning are all proof that life is on your side. To help you find your way, life places real and (often) obvious thresholds before you.
Give yourself space, give yourself time, and find a witness to your crossings.
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