Threshold, noun: the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.
Just last week I was laying half-naked on my side on my rolfer’s bodywork table and staring at the series of images he has on the wall while my fascia received some much needed attention in an attempt to organize my body better in gravity. On the wall is a series of photos of a butterfly’s metamorphosis. I’ve been mesmerized by these images for years. My favorite is the photo at the beginning: a solo chrysalis attached to a twig. The enclosure looks at once calm and intense; the pressure cooker where meltdown and change is securely taking place.
Metamorphosis is the ultimate journey of transformation. It’s a remarkable feat of heeding the call of something beyond yourself, enduring a process of dissolution, and emerging into a wholly new, brilliant, fluttering thing. “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly,” wrote Chuang Tse. What emerges is not only a wholly new being, but also a wholly different view of things and way of being in the world.
I feel like I’ve been there before: cocooned, turned on my head, restricted but not resisting all while my old self dissolves, becoming nutritious soup for the newly forming structure of me. In fact, I feel like I’ve been there numerous times before, each at turning points in my life. Some of those turning points were matters of circumstance, others were more organic changes in direction, as if my inner compass was turning me towards the future that was mine beyond the horizon line. Each of them seemed to require an entirely new wardrobe by the end of it all.
Transformation in the human realm is a more drawn-out process than what Lepidopterae go through. It seems we have more than one chrysalis moment to hold and morph us into newer versions of ourselves. (Or, as I read somewhere on the internet yesterday: “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.”)
Just prior to my rolfing session I was thinking about this latest podcast episode with Henry May, CEO of CoSchool, who’s using his work as a journey into self. “Being an entrepreneur is not necessarily about all the tools you have access to around you. It is about going inwards, and finding out what you’ve got inside,” he says. Much like a caterpillar no longer content with inching around on the ground eating grass all day, Henry is heeding the call with the courage to look within in for his precious budding wings, echoing these words from John O’Donohue’s Blessing at the Threshold of Manhood:
Always have the courage
To change, welcoming those voices
That call you beyond yourself.
This kind of looking inward is far from navel gazing. This kind of looking inward is the work that shapes and reshapes our perceptions so that we encounter and sense the world differently than before. This is not indulgent philosophical meandering along the pathways of your mental formations. It is embodied knowledge. This isn’t an upleveling you can hack. Ala Keats, it’s about living into “the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.” It requires a journey into the heart and trusting the mystery of what’s unfolding. As Wendell Berry wrote in The Unforeseen Wilderness:
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. It is a journey we can make only by the acceptance of mystery and of mystification—by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there.”
I think this describes a metamorphosis perfectly: a journey of one inch, arriving at the ground at our own feet and accepting the mystery by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there – as if our imaginal cells have consumed us and are forming us anew. Yet, how often do you rush past or delay this process within yourself?
How often does a reliance on intellect get in the way of the depth of change that’s possible for us? Often, I wonder if the magical part of being human is sadly being picked over in favor of soylent-strategies for “being the best you.” The force of the intellect is too violent for the process of coming home to ourselves. John O’Donohue encourages we work with a different rhythm:
“It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more importantly, it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.”
Are we ready to arrive home, to find our authentic self, to align with our soul?
“We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by,” says writer A. S. Byatt.
Failing to look inward is settling for the status quo. It’s settling for life as a caterpillar. Regardless of your choice to inquire within or not, the unconscious is having it’s way with you. As Parker Palmer reminds us about our lives on the mobius strip, “Whatever is inside of us continually flows outward, helping to form or deform the world — depending on what we send out. Whatever is outside us continually flows inward, helping to form or deform us — depending on how we take it in. Bit by bit, we and our world are endlessly re-made in this eternal inner-outer exchange.”
When a leader doesn’t create coherence of inner and outer, the tendency to use the outerworld to ease your inner world and status still happens. In other words, what remains unexplored inside you may be showing up within your organization in a confining or non-beneficial way. To bring it out of the shadows, it’s important to bring light to what’s happening for you, what you’re really up to in those moments, in order to move towards awakening. At Reboot, we call this “Using the work to do our work.”
A practice of radical self inquiry allows you notice what happens in your experience from a different vantage point–one of curiousity. For example, you may discover that your company is a reaction to a childhood trauma/drama or designed to save a younger version of yourself. An important question to get curious about then, is: What are you creating and for whom?
“Reclaiming our Shadow not only brings personal reward, it also helps us to support transformation in our teams, organizations, communities – and beyond,” wrote my colleague Elle Harrison, in her book Wild Courage: A Journey of Transformation for You and Your Business.
“Working with our shadow can bring up questions that take us on a journey of transformation into what Elle calls courageous leadership: “It’s not an easy journey, but the rewards are immense. As we venture through the shadows of our unconscious, we come deeper into our selves. We make contact with our essence and we allow it to re-express itself in new and creative ways. We discover a new center of gravity: our inner truth, our authentic and wild self–our soul. Realigning our life and work around our wild self, we come ‘home’ to ourselves–and we find renewed passion, purpose and meaning in our leadership, life, and work.”
The result of looking inward, of ‘doing your inner work,’ is essential to transforming more than just ourselves. Our personal journeys ripple through our work in the world, as Elle adds:
“Engaging in a personal Journey of transformation is perhaps our most powerful way of supporting these wider changes. As Albert Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve the problem with the consciousness that created the problem. We must learn to see the world anew.’ When we integrate our shadow, we do indeed see the world anew. With our fresh eyes, we find new insight, new innovation and radically creative solutions to the challenges of our time. Ripples of our own personal journeys reach out across politics, education, business, the environment, healthcare and every other human system, paving the way for a vibrant and sustainable future. These changes begin in the innerworld of each leader. They begin with you.”
Radical self inquiry is part of a continual practice of growth and self-actualization. Coming home to the ground at our own feet, we can see so much more of ourselves, and heed the changes with awareness. From there, with practice, we notice our own process of becoming. We can sense our wholeness: our light that we willingly shine outward, and all the stuff we’re not proud of that we put down into the deep dark place behind us. We see more clearly what parts of us (beliefs, habits, personas) are old, not serving us and are ready to die. We can see where we are resistant or holding ourselves back from awakening more and more into our own lives. And we can begin to let life meet us, as we emerge more fully than ever before.
It’s a journey best done with a guide. Someone to hold you “not too tight, not too loose.” Someone who will stalk you and keep you at your edge, and not force a methodology down your throat. Someone who can help you hear your own heart. Sometimes life does this for us, if we allow it. In The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life, Mark Nepo writes:
“Our chance to be real often depends on whether we can stay open and present to time, whether we can let the urgent press of circumstance settle. Our chance to form inwardly, to become an authentic person, often depends on our willingness to let the winds of life shape us as they move on through. And sometimes, if we are blessed, life moves through us anyway, breaking all the pretty walls we’ve spent so long building.”
Then we emerge with brilliant, glistening wings.
What thresholds are at your feet?