Sunday, July 3, 2011

BHJ: The Ambiguous Gatekeeper Within

Greetings Birth Peeps!
Last week I told you we would take another look at the Gatekeeper, the Guardian of the Threshold. It has taken me longer than usual to compose this posting, partly because I am possessed by the Gatekeeper of my Kidney, and everything takes longer these days. Tonight, I had a window of clarity and am eager to write you.

GATEKEEPERS are ambiguous, archetypal figures in myths, fairytales, and most importantly within our psyche. A Gatekeeper might be represented as masculine or feminine, human (e.g., Bidu in the myth of Inanna) or animal (e.g., Cerberus, the three-headed dog in the myth of Psyche). It may be protective, benevolent, or fiendish, and ultimately has the power to turn away the journeyer who is not ready to pass, or let through the one who is.

Meeting the Gatekeeper at a Threshold represents a psychic confrontation with an unconscious force that has previously held us back; it represents the embodied, almost ritual, experience of a mini-death, a mini-initiation.
You do not have an ordinary conversation with the Gatekeeper; the Gatekeeper is not your pal and will not be swayed by small talk and bargaining. The Gatekeeper must be given Something—something symbolic and specific, something hard to come by—that represents Knowledge, Sacrifice, and Readiness. This exchange is the Key that allows the journeyer to pass, e.g., the small cake Psyche gave Cerberus.
Or, perhaps as in the story of Inanna’s Descent, the Gatekeeper, Bidu, “takes” Something from Inanna--without bargaining and without her permission—not once, but seven times! At no Gate does Inanna ever “get it” and willingly “give up” her attachment to her identity, power, protections, and treasures. She believes she can have it all because she “believes” she is special, the master of her destiny, and uniquely deserving. Power and time have confused Inanna; she has misidentified what she knows and what she does with who she is. So, each time Something valued is seized, Inanna’s sense of self and the order of things is deeply confronted, and she shouts, “What is this? Give it back, that is mine, that is me…!
Each time Inanna is further disrobed and walks away from a Gate, she must inquire, “Who am I without my ‘crown of beliefs’?,” “Who am I without my birth plan [being followed or honored]?” It is only when things fall apart and we are confronted by the illusion of “choice” that we find out who we really are.

As the initiate, the would-be hero, travels deeper into the Unknown, into the Ordeal, she will pass several, Seven, thresholds. Seven represents hardship, endurance, and determination.
In modern day birth as a hero’s journey, an essential part of the would-be hero’s preparation includes gathering up seven Things and Beliefs she believe will protect her in the Unknown of Labor. On some level, mothers, fathers, and birth peeps all must do this.
When the Child, the would-be hero, Prepares for her Ordeal—for her long-awaited Day—part of that preparation involves daydreaming, creating an “intention,” a do-able fantasy of how it is, will be, or should be; this is how the “birth plan” fits in. This fantasy, imagining, role-playing is part of the Preparation.
We cannot try to be superior to other hapless would-be hero's (who planned and brought all their stuff and ideals only to lose them) by not gathering our seven Things and Beliefs of Protection. Even having that thought, that self-important strategy, to outsmart the Way is the gathering of at least one prideful Belief… “I” am so clear and fearless, “I” do not need to bring along any intentions or secret hopes, or beads, or anything.” Hmpf.
If there is a "plan" to not have any such “plan” that means there is still a bargaining “I,” an identification with “I,” and an idea of what it means to be a good enough, smart enough, strong enough, loveable enough “I.”
Can you see that the power of the hero’s journey is here… in the “disrobing” of our illusions and masks at these Thresholds?

Can you see that the Thresholds we are talking about here are not built by the institution in a place “out there?” No! These illusive Thresholds are constructed, and maintained, by our own minds.
We have all spent time, often years, being “locked out,” left out, waiting at a Gate for the Gate to open, for someone to open it, waiting until we knew enough, made more money, until the time was right … and then one day, in a moment of Clarity… we laugh to realize that all along it was a Gateless Gate, it was open all along. We laugh and weep: the cosmic joke is on us. Then the inquiry begins: What kept us from passing through? Something “out there?” No! The mind. The heart.
This week the soul elves and Gates began to float between the two worlds, naturally blending into the background as layers of dots appeared…but the Question Marks remain, the Deep Questions are still being asked, whispered…..

And with a genuine change of mind, a change of heart, suddenly the Gate does not open, it literally disappears. There is no leap across the Threshold, it’s just that the illusion of a separation disappears and we are of new mind, of new knowing, new stature, role, or service in society.

Some people think of the underworld as dark, cold, cruel, or punishing (and they don’t want to go there, not in their imagination, not even with me in this painting), but I do not find it so. In the underworld/ innerworld our sense of perception heightens and priorities shift. When things are not as they seem, when we play a game where we are blindfolded, suddenly we hear more acutely—not only with our ears but with our body, too. The rare light in the underworld allows some things that had been in the foreground of our plans to fade into the shadows while mysteriously illuminating, enlarging, and making to sparkle small things and moments that would go unnoticed in our hectic, have-it-our- way lives. In the altered state of Laborland and other underworld journeys, time changes, the future is out of reach, and we cannot mentally or physically function at full speed. Suddenly, cracked open, we want to, and we must, see and to hear deeply, take in and savor the moment whether it is one called bliss or one …. completely and digest each bit slowly. Here we see and feel what we overlook in our ego-driven, full-speed-ahead lives.
I was thinking about all this when I covered parts of the underworld in dots the same color as the “underpainting”—so you could see the object or figure, but if you look closely, it is all held together by separate dots.

If we look only at our problems, our inner world dissolves; if we look only at the world, it begins to dissolve. If we want to create art, we have to stitch together the
inner world and the outer world.” –Robert Bly

OUR TASK, BIRTH PEEPS, is to prepare women and men for birth in our culture. This taks is unique and complex; both parents and professionals desperately need soulful preparation and initiation by those who have done their work, who have been scattered and mended, who know Great Stories and who have come to know their own hearts and stories during their own Return. There is a great need for mature childbirth mentors and birth story-listeners who can simultaneously embrace and present the physical/medicalized worlds of birth and, at the same time be immersed in, and grounded by, a rich inner world.

A personal note about the process of painting in the last two weeks: When I began this mandala painting, I was not well, but I was not yet immersed in the “underworld” (or my inner-world) of uncertainty. Before last week, I had been feeling that the underworld figures, colors, symbols, and images in the Ordeal phase were initially flat and too rational. In recent weeks, inspired by a new descent into my own health/medical underworld, I am sourcing from my immediate experience and painting more authentically, not so much from what I know but what I am feeling into.

In-Love, in Celebration of your Personal Freedom,

2 Bly, Robert (1986). The Winged Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Pp. 3-5.


  1. I really like the words 'scattered and mended', thanks for giving them to me.

  2. I love your writings and thoughts. Thank you for helping me to reevaluate my place on the journey, powerful words are powerful medicine.

  3. Threeish years after my initial reading I am rereading this with new eyes and heart tonight!...Truly brilliant insight for birth prep for birth peeps! Thank you for making the journey and Returning again and again, and passing this along!