The Guardians

Someone asked me if I could recall a significant moment in my life when I was aware that I was crossing a threshold. I’m not talking about when you look back on your life and recognise with hindsight that a particular event was actually the moment where a transformation began; I’m talking about when you are actually in the moment. You are aware with every cell in your body that change is happening right before your eyes and that you will never be the same person again.

One such moment I vividly recall was being with someone when they died. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to halt the process. Something far greater than medical expertise, spiritual faith or good old fashion hard work is at play. The Angel of Death cannot be dodged, ignored nor bargained against. Your grief and love can sweep you up in a tsunami of emotion, but simultaneously you are  aware that something significant and transformative is taking place. You become increasingly aware of what the dying person needs. Their departure is no longer about you and it is wholly about them being allowed this magnificent moment of moving on. You become their guardian as they cross their final earthly threshold.

This got me thinking about the ‘mini’ thresholds we cross. The change of jobs and recycling of relationships. Loss of health and wellbeing; the end of things. As we shed ways of thinking and being and evolve into what’s next for us, we cross thresholds, leaving behind old versions of ourselves and awkwardly try on new skills and thinking styles to costume these new ways of being. The moments of crossing the threshold require someone to bear witness – a confidant, a guardian who will challenge us and act as the ultimate judge that permits passage through to the next stage.

In stories these guardian can be monstrous, like the troll under the bridge or the three headed Cerberus guarding the gates of Hades. They can also take on a more benevolent form like Glinda the good witch compassionately guiding Dorothy, or there’s the mystical Yoda: the space-age samurai providing esoteric wisdom to the young Jedi, Luke Skywalker. The role of the guardian is to ask the difficult questions and to cause the tests: mental, spiritual and emotional, that will ensure the readiness of the hero to cross the threshold. If you are not ready there’s no point venturing on.

Threshold comes from the German word meaning to thrash grain – beating the nutrient hull from the husk – manifesting the hidden gem of richness from within. When we cross thresholds we are acknowledging that there is a deeper potentiality abiding in us that needs unveiling. The guardians of the threshold will sniff out fakes and protect you from unnecessary and potentially harmful failure.

If you have ever entered any Japanese Shinto shrines, or Buddhist temples, even noble residences and sometimes private homes, you may have noticed the lion-like creatures guarding the entrance. They are the ‘komainu’ and they serve as guardians warding off evil spirits and protecting all that enter that space from harm. Typically one statue will be open mouthed; the other closed. The open mouthed lion is pronouncing the first letter of the sanskrit alphabet, “a”, whilst the closed mouth lion is uttering the last letter pronounced “um’; representing the beginning and end of all things. United they create the sound “Aum” the sacred sound of Ultimate Reality.

I love the idea that there are these guardian forces protecting us as we step into unchartered territories. I am aware of guardians in my own life who have ensured I was ready to face the challenges that awaited me on the other side of thresholds I have crossed. It’s those people who ask you the difficult questions: “Are you sure that’s what you want?”, “Do you think she’s right for you?”, “What will you tell your family?” They are also the ones that give you the feedback that cuts you to your core: “You aren’t ready for that role” , “No, I can’t marry you”, “You can’t have children”, “Your visa has been rejected.” They are also the ones telling us that the path we want and think is for us, in truth, is not ours. They turn us away, deaf to our pleading begging, sorry selves.

As I witnessed my father preparing for his last physical breath I was aware that I was in a sacred space. I found the inner wisdom to say, “you’re free to go”; “you’re work is done” and I stayed behind on this side of the threshold, a guardian of his memory. I bore witness to the truth that he was ready for the next adventure and he passed.

I think we perform a similar duty in ordinary, everyday acts when our friends and family bring to us versions of themselves from which they require release and guidance into a new form of being. They can no longer be the young child – they need to grow up. They can’t love us they way they used to, because we have changed; they are ill and need a different kind of love from us.

Certainly as a coach I see this time and again. People come to coaching with distress or frustration. A manager they can’t work with; a colleague who won’t pull his weight; an unfair system, a personal style that seems to grate against others. The point they always get to is that something within them has to die. Some old version of who they are and how they choose to be in the world needs to be caste off  and a new form needs to be born. But are they ready?

There’s an alchemy taking place at thresholds. An homunculus of an embryonic self is present and the guardian must ask the questions or provide a reflection that allows the person to birth this new version of self. If the new form isn’t ripe it must say on the other side. Crossing over can only happen when the guardian recognises that the person is ready.

Being a guardian is a tough job, and like the ‘komainu’ sometimes our mouths are open: asking, guiding, testing. Sometimes they are closed: refusing, ignoring, denying passage across the threshold. Guardians are the delegated authority of the Ultimate Reality permitting us progress only where we need to go in order to grow and release that inner potential and they are protecting us from harm.

When you don’t get what you want thank those guardians!

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  • Paul
    May 29, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks Cal. As always. On point and on time…

    • Cal McDonnell
      May 30, 2016 at 5:58 am

      Thank you and that was a beautiful Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. You are always the one connecting me back to that great work!

  • Nat Kowol
    June 11, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you Cal. So much resonating with me at this very moment in my life as I read this beautifully articulated story.
    Nat 🙂

    • Cal McDonnell
      June 11, 2016 at 5:21 pm

      Glad it hit the mark!


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