Ours is a world where each moment offers the potential of ecstasy or despair. Humans are not the only inhabitants of Earth who savor the bliss of a beautiful spring day when the sun is warm and the breeze cool. We are not the only ones who mourn.
The Dweller on the Threshold first appears in Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni. Here is its first appearance, from chapter four:
Amidst the dwellers of the threshold is ONE, too, surpassing in malignity and hatred all her tribe,—one whose eyes have paralyzed the bravest, and whose power increases over the spirit precisely in proportion to its fear. Does thy courage falter?”
This Medusa later crawls into bed with the seeker offering him answers to the mysteries of life. Horror and revulsion overcome him but he surrenders to her amorous promises. Most literature professors agree that the Dweller on the Threshold is a symbol of the fear humans suffer when we face the raw reality of the unknown. The otherness that can make deep forest, or even night, terrifying to the lonely, the silence of space, the anonymity of disaster.
Blavatsky took up the theme:
Our Dweller is about us all the time. Everything which conflicts with good is an operation of that dweller. Everything which prevents us from taking those steps which we can see would be the better ones for us to take is a dweller…the greatest Dweller we have is doubt, suspicion, fear, lack of faith.
She writes that the Dweller is an amalgam of the residue of past lives, the karmic consequences of past actions, the momentum of the sum total of all misdeeds of a particular soul in myriad bodies including lives as animals and insects. It’s all floating around like the satellites bumping into each other in the junkyard of orbit. And each of us is a magnet attracting what is ours.
Alice Bailey elaborated on Blavatsky’s theme:
Each life sees some progress made; some personality defects straightened out, and some real advance effected. But the unconquered residue, and the ancient liabilities are numerous, and excessively potent, and – when the soul contact’s adequately established – there eventuates a life wherein the highly developed and powerful personality becomes, in itself, the Dweller on the Threshold.
One must rise above the ego to find the truth about being, yet the most spiritually advanced often have the biggest egos. When the Buddhist practices detachment in non-abiding, meditating on the transiency of self and world, is he slaying the Dweller on the Threshold?
To understand a different way of viewing the Dweller on the Threshold we can ask why when the simplest moments provide feelings of ecstatic satisfaction, why are human beings driven to destroy what they love? It was going on long before violent video games, television, long before Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Why do so many people choose to live bitter, horrible lives? Among the wealthy and the poor, among the religious of every stripe and the irreligious, among every race, human beings hurdle or fall through their lives in a cloud of unknowing.
Many reasons for this have been offered. The work of the Devil. The consequences of free choice. The mischief of Loki and Pandora’s curiosity, Eve’s apple, the remnant of the bodies of the Titans baked into our bodies by the lightning of Zeus. Freud theorized about thanatos, the death instinct. Jung pondered the shadow. Wilhelm Reich blamed orgasm denial. Marx thought it was all about economics.
Ask yourself what does a person gain by hating life?
Have you ever had a moment so blissfully aware, so filled with joy of life, that you suffered the pang of knowing it must pass? To truly love another, deeply and constantly and completely is to wrestle with this terrible truth. Our consciousness, so accustomed to timelessness, can never quite grasp this. Fear of absence, grief of loss, whisper constantly in our ears and it is equally wrong and dangerous to ignore or obsess.
Life lived with an awareness of its frail temporal nature can be a highly meditative state where ecstasy and poignancy together create something greater than existential terror, a spiritual awareness that illuminates every crossroads, the awakening to a reverence for the sacredness of life, to be treasured for it’s delicate transformations.
To hate one’s life, to hate work, to hate who we pretend to love, to hate ourselves, can also, in the extremes of depression and melancholy, become a meditative detachment, an awareness of the futility of the play of everyday life .
But for most people anger and depression, sadism and masochism, obstruct suchness and compassion. Envy replaces wonder. Their relief from fear of mortality is to welcome the end of the farce. They deny loss by welcoming it. They refuse to know the deep happiness possible here so they will not have to face the terrible doom that must accompany it.
What awe inspiring efforts humans have made to avoid awareness of this threshold in every life! We lose it ourselves in the worlds of our jobs, celebrity gossip, politics, war, all the supposedly important things that must be done, and all the variety of compulsions and obsessions, the addictions and their cycles of longing and guilt. People fill their lives with drama, with children, with objects, with collections, all to forget. If they remembered how different might their decisions be? What if they cherished every moment of life and every creature in this moment was loved as a fellow traveller through the unknown?
The Dweller on the Threshold we all must face is death. The death of loves ones. The death of what we love in life. Our own deaths. This is the mystery that Buddha wandered and starved to understand. To learn the lessons of death before we must die. To live deeply every moment with who and what we love. To make decisions knowing time is running out. Death has so many lessons for us, and one ultimate lesson.
One of my teachers used to allow me to sit in a wooden chair by a slightly cracked open door so I could listen to his conversations with people who relied on him for wisdom. One poignant occasion an old fellow who had long studied with our teacher sat before him sharing cookies and tea. Expecting death, the student wanted to know if he had learned enough to stay conscious, to hold on to his sense of self as he crossed to the other side. The student didn’t feel he had. He expected some extra sensory perception or other new radical awareness to accompany his readiness. My teacher reassured him that indeed he had. To die is simple. The habit of consciousness persists.