We had gathered to celebrate our friend’s 60th birthday. Between sips of chai tea and bites of dhal, I was catching up with the woman sitting next to me. We hadn’t talked in 6 months. She was relating her recent relationship adventures.
“When I met him,” she said, “I knew at some level that he wasn’t a fit. But, I thought ‘it’s better-than-nothing’. So, I started dating. After a few weeks I began to wonder, ‘Is this really better-than-nothing?’ After another month I decided that nothing was actually better than better-than-nothing. Now, that I’m experiencing nothing . . . it’s not bad.”
This is the choice that we confront at the threshold of change.
It’s the choice between nothing and better-than-nothing.
Nothing is the unknown. The void. The uncontrollable mystery that awaits you on the other side of the threshold. To step across the threshold is to enter into uncharted territory. Into nothing.
Better-than-nothing is the known.
It’s the recognizable choice that allows you to preserve the strategies, behaviors, beliefs and identity of the past. To choose better-than-nothing protects you from the anxiety of fathomless nothing. Better-than-nothing provides and perpetuates the familiar boundaries that define the world you know.
It’s like those old maps of the world.
On those ancient maps, drawn before explorers had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, cartographers would write in the middle of the ocean “Beyond here there be dragons.” And those dragons weren’t envisioned as welcoming. Now, we smile at those images of dragons. But, at one time, they were warnings.
The mind recoils from the unknown . . . from nothing.
But, what it recoils from isn’t the experience of nothing. Rather, it’s the ideas and images of nothing that are so terrifying. In other words, when the mind thinks of nothing – it’s not really nothing. It’s images and ideas of nothing. The mind creates a story of what it will mean to you – if you cross the threshold and venture into the territory where there be dragons.
The mind tells you a scary story.
A story that is designed to keep you from letting go of the known and opening your life to that which lies beyond the threshold.
It’s a story that’s activated whenever you approach the threshold of change.
Whether that change is focused on work, relationship, money, your body, health, children . . . it matters not. The mind’s strategy of telling scary stories is the same. We each have one (maybe two) key areas of life where we repetitively sidle up to the threshold of change and then . . . pull back. Were do you find yourself – repeatedly – at the threshold of change?
What causes you to pull back isn’t the nothing that lies across the threshold.
Check it out. Move your mind to the threshold of change – in your imagination. Just think about crossing the threshold into the unknown . . . into the nothing. And watch how your mind reacts. It will quickly fill the open, undefined experience of nothing with ideas and images. Here are two common examples:
As you approach the threshold of change in terms of your love/relationship life – the mind flashes warnings.
“Step away from the threshold,” the mind screams “Warning, warning . . . If you cross over you will be consigning yourself to a life of loneliness and isolation. You’ll wander endlessly down draughty hallways wishing for a companion . . . Do not proceed any further. Stay with the known – no matter how painful it’s better-than-nothing. “
As you move towards the threshold of change in terms of your work life – the mind sends up flares.
“What are you thinking? Stop where you are. Do you really want to lose your house, your reputation, the respect of your kids and your peers, as well as all your savings? Stick with what you know – regardless of how deadening and soul-sucking it may be. All the propaganda about living your dreams is fantasy. What lies on the other side of the threshold is endless failure. Stop while you still can.”
It’s these ideas and images of nothing that your mind uses to maintain its sovereignty.
The mind uses its powers of memory and projection to keep you from experiencing nothing. Because, the mind is a big fan of better-than-nothing.
But, your soul longs for something deeper.
Something more truthful and generative than the safe haven of better-than-nothing. Your soul has a taste for nothing. What is this nothing that the soul longs for? It’s given many names in the wisdom tradition – Spirit, God within, Essence, Buddha nature, Atman, the list goes on . .
All these names are pointing at the un-nameable but not un-knowable reality of your life.
If you’re still reading this article, you know what I mean. You’ve already – perhaps many times – stepped over the threshold and opened your life to the presence of that holy nothing. Maybe you didn’t even know you were doing so until it happened.
Maybe you just found yourself – for a brilliant, peace-drenched moment – standing on the other side of the threshold without the encumbrance of images and ideas weighing you down. Such freedom!
But, the momentum of the mind persists.
At every moment the mind confronts you with this dilemma: will you choose nothing or will you choose better-than-nothing? In other words, will you live according to the memories of the past and the projects of the future or will you cross the threshold of change and encounter your life in the present moment?
This moment-by-moment choosing is the essence of spiritual practice.
It’s the essence of meditation.
Formal meditation or spiritual practice offers a structured way of discovering how see through the false choices presented by the mind – in order to live in the on-going revelation of the present moment. Through practice, you develop your capacity to catch the mind in the act of projecting - and to let it go. As your practice matures, you relish the taste of nothing more and more.
The fruit of formal practice ripens in the daily experiences of relationship, work, health, etc – as you stop running from anxiety-based images and ideas of nothing and instead embrace the fire of the present moment.
In that fire, the outmoded beliefs and assumptions that kept you frozen at the threshold turn to ash.
And once again, you find that you haven’t been annihilated – that the mind-made threats of your certain doom (to paraphrase Mark Twain) were greatly exaggerated.
So, where in your life are you standing at the threshold? Where are you debating between choosing nothing and better-than-nothing? Take a breath. What’s your next move?
Love & Shanti,
E & D