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Brick walls, bottomless wells, and psychological edges

Not all edges are alike.

In my experience, there are the hard edges — impenetrable, brick walls — that resist our efforts to climb over, around, or through and leave us scraped and bloodied and crumpled in a heap.

And then there are the amorphous edges — bottomless wells — that swallow and drown us with the lack of orienting ground. We may drift submerged for a while.

Have you met one of these edges?

The edge is a psychological limit we hit inside ourselves. What edges have in common is there's no way to cross the edge in which the “I” as we’ve known ourselves to be can stay the same. We’re on the brink of something unknown and new.

Most edges are consciously felt in the face of loss. Perhaps we’ve lost a job or a loved one. Perhaps we’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness. Maybe we’re questioning the point of it all, tired of the life we’ve cobbled together that has never worked particularly well. We don’t know how to go on, how to survive. Our usual sense of self does not hold up.

While our path to an edge and our experience of an edge is uniquely our own — the universal consequence is an encounter with our core vulnerability.

Our core vulnerability is where we come face to face with the fact that our lives are impermanent. It’s one thing to know this truth intellectually, it’s something else altogether to know it viscerally and in our bones. Inescapable. At the edge we realize no amount of grasping, controlling, do-gooding, running, fighting, or numbing will alter the reality that everybody and everything we love — including ourselves — will change and ultimately cease to be.

While our hardwired response at this edge will be to fight for survival, somewhat paradoxically, our best response is to befriend the edge. To stop. To get curious. Really curious. We may need to adopt this open and compassionate stance with ourselves over and over again. These edges are not wrong. (Although we can easily get stuck in limbic system hijack if fear at the edge takes over.)

Our edges are an invitation to notice something new. To pay attention in a new way. To die before we die. As Goethe warns “so long as you have not experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on this dark earth.”

The edge is fertile ground if we can tolerate the groundlessness. We break open. We open to the possibility of a more inclusive self. We open to our inherent, tender presence. We open to vast, awake silence. We break alive.

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