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Threshold

THE THRESHOLD


I stand on the terrible threshold, and I see the end and the beginning in each other's arms.

        Stanley Kunitz

 Beneath this rubble, beneath this mound, lost like an insignificant blemish upon the earth's coruscated surface, there is an entranceway. Sheep and goats have picked their way over and around it for centuries but it has yielded up a sign of its presence to the old archaeologist who, moving more slowly than his ungulate predecessors, hovers over chipped stones and tell-tale intrusions in the strata. Centuries of disregard for the old legends that told of this opening had protected its secrecy, but the aged observer listened to them and noted their subtle landmarks. He reasoned that the ancients knew something and that their knowledge had been passed down through the unquestioned memory of an oral tradition. So he looked for the landmarks and traced their converging lines. Hovering before the opening, he paused, sensing that once begun, the excavation would lead him into a labyrinth from which there might be no easy return. The legends had spoken of cavernous passageways of unknown length and depth where one could become lost forever and no one in the world the wiser of it. He paused but not for long, for there was that in him which burnt for the search. His tools of excavation put to work, he soon bared the jambs and lintels of the entranceway and stepped across the first threshold into the opening tunnel beyond. Here and there were barriers of rubble and silted tailings from above, but he picked and trenched his way through these and pressed forward into thickening darkness. The flame of the carbide lamp upon his brow stretched and withered with the chemical changes in the air, and the lantern that he carried revealed textured walls with strange inscriptions and forms that folded up and disappeared as the light passed over them. Some of these leered and inspired a spasm of fear within his heart, but he continued on, probing and penetrating into successive chambers until he reached a branching of several corridors marked by thresholds of varying designs. He stood before them and searched his mind.

 All of his experience and his science of conditioned time and space could not quell the fear in his heart or indicate the way to go. The broad and the narrow thresholds puzzled him, and the graceful pattern of one confused his evaluation of the fearful shapes decorating another, and he found he could not move. He stood there and a heavier darkness snuffed the light from the carbide lamp while a chilling gust of foreboding extinguished his lantern's blaze. He felt the pressure of an intensification of atmosphere and sensed its force collecting itself before him as though to throw itself up before some terrible abyss, but he could not move away from it. He could move neither backwards nor forwards, for he had lost all sense of direction and knew not where he was. He had penetrated the labyrinth but failed to understand its design, and so he stood before the thresholds on the brink of some dark and irrational unknown, immobilized with fear. He had stepped along the corridors, crossing thresholds leading to earlier and more primitive epochs, and he had plunged into them with the enthusiasm of his profession, but he had not suspected the magnitude of the loss of orientation and the danger that awaited him.

 While a progression of thresholds may be crossed and an array of them cause confusion, the idea of the threshold endures all shifts of time and number. This symbol of great antiquity can be traced back through the ruins of previous civilizations to the very idea of beginnings and endings. A threshold in idea or form marks a transition and a separation out of two distinct conditions in life. The word 'thresh' is related to 'thrash' and has been commonly used in Indo-European languages to indicate a separation by beating of the wheat from the chaff. The idea of thrashing emphasizes the aspect of beating or forcing one's way against opposing elements or of making wild, flailing movements. Indeed, in threshing or thrashing grain one does cause it to be flailed about by the wind or some other force in an effort to separate out two distinct parts. The activity of the threshing thus marks the transition from the state of combined parts to the separation out of the more valuable part, thus providing thinking man with a powerful symbol for progressive purification. The threshold acts as a symbol for both the separation and reconciliation of two distinct conditions, and in this lies its complexity.

 In architecture the symbolic significance of the threshold is acknowledged by special embellishments and enrichment of its structure. This has been conveyed over the centuries by means of porches, perrons, tympana and porticos of varying designs which reflected metaphysical significance as well as human vanities. Often the threshold was meant to mark the passage from the natural to the supernatural world, from waking to sleep and from the profane to the sacred realms. At the meeting place of the natural and supernatural, a ritual may take place like that called the Beating of the Bounds, which involves a redefinition of time and space. The old time with its recognizable pattern or sequences comes to an end and the new time begins. Likewise with space; the old relations and landmarks are buried with the birth of the new, and the reference point for all relative experience is radically shifted. That this shift is often fraught with terror is reflected in the mythical traditions that cause the hero, like Gilgamesh in the Sumerian epic, to seek out the threshold by sinking in water, by entering into a dark forest or wasteland or by disappearing into a small door in a great expanse of wall. These are all symbolic of the perilous unknown and point to an awesome possibility which was light-heartedly intimated in the shifting experiences of Alice in her journey through Wonderland.

 The journey, when ventured seriously, invariably involves a passage from outer profane to inner sacred space. The word 'profane' is suggestive in that it comes from the Latinprofanus, which means 'lying before a temple' (pro= before, fanum= temple or holy place). Therefore, that which is profane is outside the sacred precinct which is the place of holy (sacer) sacrifice (sacrum). The sacred realm is sacred relative to the profane and, in crossing a series of thresholds, that space which was sacred will in turn become profane as one passes into a more sacred realm. Thus the domestic arena is sacred relative to the streets outside it, but the inner chambers are sacred relative to the vestibule, hallway or sitting room. The temple, however, is more sacred than the domestic realm and its boundaries are marked by an increasingly complex series of thresholds. These mark territorial passages back and forth between sacred and profane space and they clearly signify both a separation and reconciliation of two worlds. In many of the older religious traditions of the world this transition is marked by complex rituals involving elements such as the cutting of the cord at the doors of the inner sanctum, the removal of the seal, the ritual sliding of the bolts and crossing over the threshold. The deity within is then slowly approached in order to wash, dress and anoint it as part of the supplicant's attempt to realize a reconciliation between two worlds.

 Great care is often shown in such a transition to step over and not upon the threshold. Many are the vestal goddesses of the threshold who inspire this observation. Some are distinctly benevolent and act as protectors of those who pass in and out of the inner realm, but there are those believed to be capricious and capable of mischief. Their antics are like frivolous precursors in human imagination and in the elemental kingdom of the dread dwellers on a threshold that lies beyond, but which is dimly sensed by most people. The benevolent goddesses of the door usually live under the threshold like the Uksakka of the Lapps and the Dorr-Karing ('Door old woman') of the Swedes who received all infants at the time of their birth into the world. That they are female and connected with childbirth significantly suggests a passing back into the primordial Self, a crossing back into the womb. This is reflected in the vulva-shaped doorways found in African architecture and echoed in the key-shaped entrances to temples in the Islamic tradition. The moon doorways to Chinese monasteries also reiterate this theme and suggest the relationship between the spiritual journey and a passing back through the female energy of manifestation to the father that dwells in silence beyond.

 In Taoist tradition the rite of Passing through the Door was repeated until a child had reached an age when it was safe from infantile diseases and less likely to be taken by death. Portable doorways were built and moved to the four corners of a room so that the child could cross back and forth over their threshold and experience increasing ease of transition between worlds. In effect, the child was practising for entrance into further phases in life as well as gaining an acquaintance with protective threshold spirits. At the gate leading to the courtyard before a house wherein rests a newly deceased, Greeks stop and take a sip of liquor offered them by a relative of the dead one. Each man, woman or child who would join the wake inside first partakes of this glass and, drinking only part of the liquid, throws the remainder down upon the threshold as they cross over. With this precaution do they traverse the zone between the living and the dead, placating the inevitable guardian who waits there, marking the passing of the living into the realm of death and the coming of the newborn into life.

 It has been suggested that the house, the doorway and the threshold took form because the potentiality of these existed in man already. While this could be true of every material cultural expression, it is particularly fitting in relation to man's abode and the entrance in and out of it. The doorway itself assumes a highly personal aspect in houses where the tenant has had any say in the construction, and throughout the lifetime of the structure the threshold marks the joy and sorrow of those who pass over it. But the entrance into a house takes on more of the complexity of human psychology when one considers the traditional Japanese domicile with its series of entrance stages. A visitor passing through the outside gate separating the courtyard from the profane world outside crosses only the first of several thresholds which will lead him through a garden, over a moat, into a porch structure where he takes off his shoes, up one step to an entrance hall and up two more to the house level, where he is met by a screen inscribed with symbols of protection. Only after going around this is the visitor met by his host, who draws him into the inner and sacred realm of the family.

The lintel low enough to keep out pomp and pride:

The threshold high enough to turn deceit aside.

        Henry van Dyke

 In temples these thresholds and blinds become like gateways leading to the inner Self. Their design is structured to match that of the human psyche, which reflects a general plan that every disciple rediscovers in the course of spiritual disciplines pursued in order to bring one back to the unity to be found at the centre of oneself. This is particularly true in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition which, through its great knowledge of psychology, has been able to codify the structure of the collective psyche. This can be seen in the mandala patterns in tankas with their four thresholds at the gates as well as in the plan of their temples. Likewise, in the typical Hindu temple as well as some temples in ancient Egypt, the entire body of man is laid out architecturally with a movement indicated over thresholds leading ultimately from the gateway of the feet to the door of the sanctum sanctorum at the head. Psychologically, the neutral zone separating two realms shrinks as the individual approaches the transition. There is a mental threshold that is crossed over which, at its centre, must be a line as thin as a hair. This is symbolized in the stone or beam at the base of the temple door leading to a further stage of worship. The process of these sanctified transitions is known as the Threshold Covenant in which worshippers will variously prostrate themselves before the threshold, kiss it, touch it or remove shoes before passing over it. Some are carried over it as in the case of the bride crossing into her new world and some sacrifice to it their own blood which they smear along its base and up its jambs. In the Mosaic account of the plagues visited upon Egypt, sacrificial blood on the posts and lintels of the Hebrews prevented the Angel of Death from crossing the threshold to seize the first-born child. Sanctified by the transition, the Hebrews were protected from divine wrath.

 The rites of the threshold are thus rites of preparation for immersion in a new realm. They are preceded by ritual separation and purification and followed by incorporation into a new condition. The separation involves sacrifice, a giving up of one's possessions, be they material or psychological. In many primitive societies this preparation to begin the crossing of the threshold involves a ritual death of the former personality, a burial or disappearance from the realm of the living and a stripping away of all the accoutrements belonging to the old condition. It is only after this severance has been fully completed that the beginnings of purification can take place. This will usually involve fasting and an earnest pursuance of sacred activities, prayers and meditation. There must be an emptying out of all the residue of the old together with the development of a receptivity to the new and relatively sacred condition which it anticipates. The great forces that course through all life are neither stifled nor snuffed out but rather alchemized and converted into the energy needed to complete the transition and fully realize the new realm. The erotic energy symbolized by the loving couples gracing the outside of the doorways of some ancient Hindu temples is converted into a pure life-force which is drawn up within the androgynous centres of the brain and heart.

 At some point in the purification, an awakening of the forces at the threshold takes place and the novice will feel the presence of their power. Some will beneficently indicate the way, but there will be others who, like the leering faces seen by the archaeologist, will strike a vague fear in the heart. Against the opposition of forces the novice will thrash and flail about, unsure of their position and nature. If he were a worshipper of Lord Shiva struggling to cross the threshold guarding the place where the symbol of that god is cloistered, he would prostrate himself before Ganesh, who is the Remover of Obstacles and the offspring of the lord. Worshipping for years at the feet of Ganesh, he might hope to overcome the opposition and approach closer to the realm of the Mahayogin. But the guardians protect well the inner realms and will unleash their opposing forces against all elements within the novice that cannot resonate with the sacred world they protect. The novice knows within his heart where he would rather be, but he must strip away the clinging vestures of his entire worldly persona before he can slip through that barrier unopposed.

Like one that stands upon a promontory,

And spies a far-off shore

Where he would tread,

Wishing his foot were equal with his eye.

        William Shakespeare

 One may envision the goal and intuitively catch glimpses of its inner nature, but getting there requires a skillful alignment of theory and practice. A series of tests will accompany the attempted crossing of a spiritual threshold and the whole of one's nature will experience the trial. These trials correspond variously with the Dvara in Hindu tradition, which is the entranceway divided into a number ofsakhasor powers which must be met and mastered. H. P. Blavatsky wrote that "the real 'Path' to esoteric knowledge is very different [from the golden road one may have imagined]", "Its entrance", she said, "is overgrown with the brambles of neglect, the travesties of truth during long ages block the way, and it is obscured by the proud contempt of self-sufficiency and with every verity distorted out of all focus.To push over the threshold alone, demands an incessant, often unrequited labour of years." Each effort to cross this threshold involves a conversion or alchemization of energy within the disciple's nature, a conversion which is purchased through sacrifice and the release of compassion alone.

 The Dvara could be seen as an extended threshold made up of several portals of passage where virtues or powers were mastered, or it could be seen as a series of thresholds. These would be like the transit points of the sevenparamitaswhich begin with broad and inviting passages that become narrower and more difficult with each progression. At the centre of these isviraga, the power of indifference to pleasure and pain which sees through illusion and perceives only truth. This is the place of Janus, the twin-faced god who looks before and behind and marks the beginning of the new. He stands between the past and the future, between the profane and sacred realms, and he balances on the threshold of the timeless present which ultimately transcends all the worlds and cycles thereof.

As they draw near to their eternal home.

Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,

That stand upon the threshold of the new.

        Edmund Waller

 To exist in that timeless present is to cross over the archetypal threshold of manifestation, but any being who sustains any kind of vesture, whether ethereal or physical, must do this again and again. In the progress of this cyclic endeavour there will come a time when the variables of growth within the individual will call forth the more terrifying dwellers of the threshold. Shakespeare alluded to this in terms of the whole process of entering into an enterprise, when he wrote inKing Henry VIof the many who, stumbling at the threshold, are forewarned of the danger that awaits them. Spying the far-off shore does not ensure that the feet may not stumble or that the light of erstwhile vision will not be snuffed out like the archaeologist's lantern. When oppressive darkness gathers and a sense of disorientation engulfs the mind, all of the balance hard won by the disciple will be required to stave off the overwhelming terror inspired by those dwellers. H. P. Blavatsky described them as those "vicious beings which move in the astral waters like fish in the water". At a critical point in spiritual development, the profane elements still harboured in one's nature are projected out and serve as a focal point around which all that is evil in the lower astral matrix can cluster and take on monstrous form. This horror is presaged as human beings cross over the threshold of the astral on their way into deep sleep. We often jump back from the monster by waking ourselves up, but sometimes we confront the horror in our dreams and shout out our knowledge of its false existence. If we are able to do this, it invariably disappears and one crosses intosushupti, having passed a test in the long struggle over the spiritual threshold. In Bulwer Lytton's remarkable novelZanoni, Mejnour the adept explains to the novice Glyndon that there are millions of beings in space, some of surpassing wisdom and some of horrible malignity. He tells him that, "amid the dwellers of the threshold is one, too, surpassing in malignity and hatred all her tribe; one whose eyes have paralysed the bravest, and whose power increases over the spiritprecisely in proportion to its fear".

 If the residues of the profane self are not spewed forth by the disciple himself, the arch-dweller on the threshold will sense a resonating sympathy in the approaching novice and straightway find its opening. Any element in his nature which is not firmly anchored in the truth of immortality will prove fuel to enhance the power of this fiend. Any vestigial fear of death will provide the stranglehold by which the great evil will overwhelm the mind and stifle the heart. This arch-dweller is met only by those who have travelled far along the path and met and mastered many of its lesser kind. It is of surpassing malignity and hatred because it is made up of the lofty failings of black adepts who fell to their perdition from high up along the mountainside where the threshold grows higher and narrow in extreme. They too had mastered dwellers on lesser thresholds below and made the powers thus won their own. But at some point the seed of selfishness within them rendered them incapable of the greater sacrifices and they could not pass on. Thrown back upon themselves, they raged at the universe and left behind them a black and diseased impression on the astral light which is attracted to the malign place of their momentous failure.

 All the forces of the macrocosm as they manifest in the microcosm of the disciple must be consciously alchemized and perfectly marshalled if he is to cut through the paralysing power of those malignant eyes and cross over that lofty threshold. He must embody the purity of complete selflessness in order to dissolve that putrid miasma and relegate it to the realm of falsehood where it belongs. If he can do this, he will have perfected the transition between the worlds and understood the design of the labyrinth he has left behind him. He can look back across many thresholds and see the poor archaeologist wrapped in fear and overwhelmed by confusion. Knowing the way, he is able to extend a pure ray of compassionate light along those winding corridors and show the lost seeker the correct path to follow. He cannot remove the obstacles for another but he can guide him by signs until he gains the wisdom and strength to cross over the first threshold that leads back to the Spiritual Self. Then does the fearless seeker begin the difficult but noble journey that will lead through many stages until the disciple finally stands before that awesome threshold where the end and the beginning meet.

Upon this threshold

Let no tainted foot descend

For it is the timeless marker

Of my sacred spiritual home.

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