from The Theosophist April 1977
The Dweller on the Threshold
The expression "the dweller on the threshold" was used by Madame Blavatsky to refer to a particular and rather rare phenomenon; but it may very properly be used to indicate a universal law of human experience
which is often too lightly regarded.
In old folktales, the hidden treasure, the sleeping beauty, the imprisoned princess - or whatever might be the object of desire and aspiration - was represented as guarded by a dragon or some other fearsome creature. Or if there was no living guardian, there was at least an obstacle of very formidable character.
In the experiences of life we find repeatedly that this is true, either psychologically and within ourselves, or in simple external material fact. At the threshold of any new thing that we undertake, there is an obstacle to be encountered.
In terms of the laws of physics, the basis of this experience is the law of momentum or of the conservation of kinetic energy. If we have momentum causing an object to move in a particular direction, and we want to stop it or make it change course, we have first to neutralise that momentum. Or, in psychological terms, if we want to take some new course in thought, feeling or action, then we are brought into confrontation with everything in our natures that is incompatible with that new course.
In our personal lives, this works at every level. Once we have followed for a while a certain course of living, we have acquired a momentum which carries us along, the momentum of habit. A great part of this is unconscious. We are not aware of all the forces in our natures which we have mobilised by our pattern of repeated daily habit in thought, feeling and action. Then for some reason we decide to change direction , to abandon old habits and adopt new ones, to direct our live in some new way. At once we find that we are up against the accumulated momentum or our past, which we had hitherto been hardly aware of.
So, at the beginning of every new enterprise or the taking of any fresh resolve in a person's life, there is a dweller on the threshold - an obstacle made up of al the tendencies in his habits and personality which are incompatible with this new undertaking.
This appears, on the face of it, fairly obvious. What is not so obvious is the complex nature of this obstacle, made up as it is of forces working at many levels of our personalities, some of them levels of which we are not normally conscious at all. People make good resolves to change some commonplace physical habit; but we know what difficulties can arise for the person who decides to give up drugs, alcohol or smoking or even to stop taking the occasional unnecessary cup of tea.
Consider the nature of the apparently simple problem of giving up the habit of taking a dietetically quite unnecessary cup of tea at a particular time each day. The resolve is made, and at first all seems well. But when the time at which tea is normally consumed comes round, the physical organism asserts the habit that has been implanted in it and demands tea. The emotional nature does the same thing, probably at several levels at the same time. There is likely to be a subtle and deeply rooted urge to have the cup of tea because it symbolises the satisfaction of the oral cravings of infancy, the instinctual satisfaction of the baby at its mother's breast, a satisfaction which is emotional as well as physical and is closely identified with the child's whole feeling of security and the enhancement of its sense of individuality.
At the same time a cup of tea would provide a pretext for resting from some other activity, abandoning perhaps some anxiety, ceasing from some work which does not bring satisfaction. The result of all this is that a clamour for the cup of tea is set up at many levels of our personal being. And at this point the mind is activated and offers the comment that we might as well take a cup of tea today, and that if we want to give it up, we can do that tomorrow instead.
This sort of encounter with a dweller on the threshold invites us to reconsider the nature of the resolve which brought us into confrontation with it. When we decide to take some new course of action, or abandon an old one, how much of our nature is committed to the resolve? This is really the question of how much new momentum we are bringing into the situation to neutralise the old momentum, and at what levels this new momentum is capable of being effective.
Much has been said and written about this. It has been shown that if we make up our "minds", we are liable to fail; but, if we make up our imaginations and our feelings, we are much more likely to succeed. At least it is necessary to be aware that there is a dweller on the threshold of our new resolve and that to ignore it, or to mistake it for something else, is only foolish and ineffective.
For some purposes, people work on the principle of actually calling up a dweller on the threshold so as to force it out into the open and have done with it. This would appear to be the technique adopted by certain schools of "nature cure". The patient is put on an austere and scanty diet and may begin to feel rather poorly. Then there comes a crisis, or a succession of crises, in which the body, perhaps through a heavy cold or some other form of illness, throws off poisons and purifies itself' and in the end the patient can achieve a relatively purified body and a higher level of health.
Of course what often happens in this, as in other enterprises involving the surfacing of poisons and incompatibles, is that the individual says, "This is terrible. This course of treatment is no good. I shall stop it at once". And this he does, abandoning the regime and doing all he can to put the poisons back into his system and get them to say quiet there.
This is very much what often happens when people embark on some "occult" or merely ethical way of living. The dweller that they evoke by trying to cross this threshold is made up of all the elements in their own personalities or characters which are incompatible with their new enterprise or aspiration. If, for example, they have set themselves the goal of becoming peaceful, then every element of conflict and turbulence that is in them is liable to emerge. And often they will not see that this is indeed an element in their own natures. They will look out through that turbulence in themselves and claim that it is really in other people.
When people take "steps" and enter, or achieve some promotion in, an occult or mystical organisation or brotherhood, they can sometimes become very upset and hard to deal with. Madame Blavatsky used to warn people against lightly taking occult pledges, because in her experience this was so often followed by an acute fir of what she called "pledge fever", a condition of great emotional tension in which the pledged person often did something extremely foolish or broke down altogether.
Since, in courtesy, we tend to accept people at their own level of professed aspiration, we are perhaps too unwilling to give a warning that this kind of upset is liable to occur when they join certain activities and fraternities. A formidable dweller, with great disintegrative psychological power, can be melt at the threshold of many highminded undertaking. Many a man has been staggered, rocked on his heels emotionally, after being ordained a priest. Some people have been quite deeply and apparently inexplicably upset after being initiated into a masonic or other fraternal body. It can happen when somebody joins the Theosophical Society.
Probably much depends on the depth and completeness with which a person gives himself to the new thing that he enters. Yet it has always to be remembered that joining something that seems relatively superficial and taking on what seems a relatively shallow commitment, may nevertheless have quite deep unconscious roots and motivations.
There are people who give talks and lectures which are only descriptions in words or minor exercises in speculation or emotionalism; and they can go through life giving such talks. But those who speak with a depth of sincerity, trying to convey the essence of true experience; will sooner or later be brought to the testing of their own teaching; and, if they pass that test, getting past the dweller on that threshold, they acquire a certain authority, even they are not accomplished speakers.
The dweller on the threshold that is evoked by those who try to approach the occult world sometimes takes the form of external circumstances; but very often there is an acute emotional storm, some deep depression or sense of desolation or failure or loneliness, perhaps a bitter aversion to some other person, or a jealous and possessive personal attachment. The residue of incompatibles that surface in such a case can be complex and very crippling. The most important safeguard is the honesty and humility to recognise what it is that is happening. Then we can wait patiently and watch the storm blow itself out over a longer or shorter period. This can be a very distressing experience, and many suffer a great deal. But it is possible to go through it without collapsing and without striking some foolish attitude and then imagining that one has to lay claim to self-consistency on the basis of our folly.
It is certainly vanity that leads to a fall. There is a kind of person who makes heroic entries upon new undertakings, only to collapse each time a dweller on the threshold is to be faced. The more personally and self-consciously, if not actually ostentatiously, we approach the new undertaking, the more certain it is that the testing will be sharp and revealing. Perhaps this is what is referred to in that petition in the Lord's Prayer in the Christian Scriptures : "Lead us not into temptation". That word "temptation" must be taken in its seventeenth century sense as meaning a testing. Indeed the Greek words of the prayer mean, "Bring us not to a testing".
Nobody can restrain or set limits to the ambitions or aspirations of another, but the insight of a Master will instantly perceive whether an individual may be encouraged to advance boldly or whether he would be better to be humble in his expectations lest he should evoke such a mass of psychological conflict as will be likely to cripple his future usefulness.
There come to mind two "K.H" letters. In one, addressed to C.W. Leadbeater, the writer said, " Force any one of the "Masters" you may happen to choose; do good works in his name and for the love of mankind; be pure and resolute in the path of righteousness (as laid down in our rules); be honest and unselfish; forget yourself but remember, the good of other people - and you will have forced that "Master" to accept you".
But, to another unnamed person, not seen to have Leadbeater's potential, a letter over the same initials said, "Sigh not for chelaship; pursue not that, the dangers and hardships of which are unknown to you. Verily many are the chelas offering themselves to us, and as many have failed this year as were accepted on probation. Chelaship unveils the inner man and draws forth the dormant vices as well as the dormant virtues. Latent vice begets active sins and is often followed by insanity".
Probably the greatest danger in crossing threshold is that most of those who seek to cross them do so with a motive which is, in a refined and subtle form, a desire for gain for themselves. For humanity, the final dweller on the threshold seems to be the great illusion that there is any self at all for whom gain can accrue from anything. The encounter with this last incompatible is symbolised as the crucifixion, and it is to this that anything that can truly be called "theosophy" is intended to lead us.
As well as clarifying many experiences of our lives, this occult principle of what it is convenient to refer to as the dweller on the threshold can help to a better understanding of other people. No doubt it applies to whole communities and nations, or to humanity as a whole, now seeking so greedily to cross certain thresholds whatever the cost to other human beings or other creatures or to nature as a whole.
And if we credit the possibility of a long series of incarnations, then the same law that brings masses of conflict to the surface at some stage of single life must also be thought of as bringing up long phases of conflict that might occupy an entire life or several lives, as the individual traverses some of the thresholds along the occult path.
From time to time in the Theosophical Society, we have been blessed with the company of great people who have gone far along that occult path; but many of us may feel that we might not really have wanted to live in the same house with some of them, for, along with great insight and wisdom, some of them had strange and difficult personalities and qualities obviously open to adverse criticism.
In certain works of fiction the mental image has been created of advanced individual who are calm and wise and can pick their way through life with stately detachment. No doubt there are people like that. But, at the personal level, many of the greatest people in humanity's history have been difficult to deal with and rather tormented in their lives. Crossing many thresholds, they have surfaced more conflict than other less bold and creative people.
A person was once heard to say of another, "Well, if he is really an occultist, he ought to know how to achieve good physical health". But many will remember how Mr. Jinarajadasa, a former president of the Theosophical Society, used sometimes to say that one of the greatest blessings of the occult life can be ill health, particularly if it involves physical pain. For the purpose of life is not to create conditions which respond to personal hopes and desires but rather to liberate consciousness from imprisonment in conditioned existence.
This liberation is a great and splendid work, to be accomplished, not for any individual participating in it apart from others, but for the whole. Like any great work it involves grave tensions for the creative artists who is the worker. If we can cope with these in our lives we are contributing to the great work; and we may then be rewarded by being given further and greater tension to cope with, until in the end we find that there has all along been only one Artist at work.