If you’ve ever stood in the ocean, diving under the rising waves, you will know well the scene I am remembering. It begins for me as a girl about the same age as my 11 year old daughter, on the threshold of something beautiful and scary. I am in my very favorite place in the world – standing in the ocean, out of reach of my family on shore. I can’t put words to why, but I want to be alone with myself, my thoughts. There is so much in me that feels like it’s changing too fast, and I don’t understand any of it. I am a pre-teen; these feelings aren’t uncommon, but I don’t know that yet. As I face into the coming waves, I feel certain that I won’t be swept away by what comes so long as I dive beneath each rising force. It’s there, under the surface, that I find the quiet stillness that doesn’t sweep me away or pummel me into the rocking force of the wave itself. I can still sense the tumult above me, but its churning doesn’t wash me over. I go under again and again, knowing it’s in this quiet place that I am safe and that somehow, each time I return to the surface, I feel more certain of myself.
Fast forward now some 30 years, to the same (albeit older) me, standing in the same ocean, with my 11 year old daughter’s hand in mine, diving wave after wave under the surface. This year’s summer trip to the beach came during a particularly challenging period in our family, and in the world at large. Though I’m not the child this time around, so much is changing faster than I can understand or keep up with again. It can be overwhelming. While holding onto my daughter in the that restless ocean, I knew there was a way of crossing into a stillness, if but for a moment. Submerging beneath the unpredictable waves meant we had a pause –and that was enough to keep us steady.
During this same trip, I discovered the Irish poet, John O’Donohue. He was a philosopher of beauty and describes the way that beauty is a calling. The English term “to call” can be traced back to the Greek term “To Kalon” which means “the beautiful,” or the call of beauty. O’Donohue’s definition of beauty resonates with me: beauty, he says, is that in the presence of which we feel more alive. It’s this call from beauty that pulls me back to myself, more deeply alive and present. And it’s not just the lovely, easy, nice things that call out as beautiful. In an interview with Krista Tippett, O’Donohue said,
“Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. And when we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”
When I heed the call to something deeply beautiful, I feel myself cross into this threshold that seems to slow time and brings me into a more fully alive place. It’s in the quiet space I submerge into, when I sink below the restless surfaces that are part of life, that I feel the stirrings of natural courage and trust rising out of fear.
I think these are the threshold moments – when we cross into a territory where everything that seemed so important on one side is suddenly changed and extracted down to the essential. This can happen in the momentous places that still us – finding out someone we love is dying. But it can also happen in the face of daily, seasonal or life changes when we make a choice to go beneath the surface of all our external stimuli so that we can cross into the new thresholds with integrity and grace.
In his article Thresholds, John O’ Donohue writes,
“The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities. This accounts for the sureness with which one season succeeds another. It is as though they were moving forward in a rhythm set from within a continuum…To change is one of the great dreams of every heart…to change the limitations,the sameness, the banality, or the pain…We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long enduring winter mentality beings to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.”
I am firmly in the midst of a threshold, a time in which I can feel there are fermentations happening in which nature is taking its time unfolding the beautiful within and around me. Perhaps this is why some days I feel that I must go deeply below the restless surface of life to a space in which time feels more limitless and where I can get my bearings. It seems to me that the world around me is also in the midst of an emergence, a cultural collective threshold. There are moments of difficult ugliness from which great beauty rises to the surface. Some of these moments I can hardly breathe for the overwhelm of it all. I am thinking of the deaths of loved ones, the Charlottesville tragedy, the hurricanes in Texas, Caribbean, and Florida, and the fires out west. I am also thinking of the blossoming woman that my daughter’s body holds, and the old woman that is ripening just below the surface of my own skin. All of it calls to me, beautiful and richly alive, asking of me that I open my eyes and heart wider, that I show up and keep showing up for all of life. What I’ve learned is that a threshold, a moment of beauty, may not be still in and of itself. The waves that rise and rise again may be tumultuous. If I only remember to go below the surface, through the stillness of my work both in postures and meditation, I can return from the work, back to the surface, more steady. In this steadiness, I can be in the midst of change and challenge and not close my eyes or turn away from this call that wants me awake and courageous.
The German 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart said,
“There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor no created thing can touch.”
I nearly weep with the weight and beauty of this, knowing it is true that there is a place within us that has not been wounded, is not scared or lonely, doesn’t fear love. This is the place to which we draw near when we choose to submerge within ourselves. I’d like to know that place more deeply, to answer this call toward all that is most beautiful and alive within me. This is how I cross with grace and integrity into these thresholds of life – not being rolled over by the waves that come but rather going deep below those waves and allowing stillness to guide me into the right time to rise.