Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the Threshold

Whenever we’re about to venture into something new – moving across country, getting married again, taking on a new job, finally fixing the leaky shower head – we often feel a hesitancy, a pull-back within. An unconscious somatic marker of “Uh oh! Strange territory! Don’t know if I should be doing this!” even though, consciously, we might very well want to do this.

We can get ourselves over the somatic threshold between the comfort of the familiar and the discomfort of the new and uncertain by the effects of oxytocin – someone holding our hand or evoking the sense that someone “has our back” as we step forward into the unknown. The resonance of “calm and connect” down-regulates the cortisol of the fight-flight-freeze response to trust and ease again.

Dopamine – the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward – is another powerful gatekeeper of crossing that threshold in our brains. Dopamine is released whenever we experience something pleasurable or rewarding, triggering our wanting more of what has brought us pleasure and reward before. Dopamine is released even in anticipation of a reward, when the memory circuits “trained” by dopamine expect a reward before one has even happened. The disruption of what’s predicted, i.e., something “new”, not what we expected, switches off the dopamine and generates a slight un-ease in the body, which we can readily interpret as anxiety in the face of something foreign.

We need to know how to work skillfully with our dopamine system so that we are not stopped in our tracks every time we need to venture into new territory.

“You’re probably 99.9% unaware of dopamine release, but you’re probably 99.9% driven by the information and emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.”
– Read Montague, Baylor University

May these reflections and tools prove useful to you and yours.

Reflections on
Crossing the Threshold

Dopamine is fundamental to learning. Neurons that release dopamine act as prediction neurons – they release dopamine when what is expected match what actually happens. This predictability is part of what is pleasurable or rewarding to our brains. When what we expect and what actually happens match, dopamine levels stay steady; the sense of pleasure of reward is uninterrupted. We know what’s coming, we know what to expect, so our brain can relax its vigilance about what’s going to happen – good or bad. Predictability creates a sense of ease or safety in the brain, thus in our psyches, and when we enjoy that safety; we remain open and undefended.

Dopamine neurons also function as error detectors. Because dopamine neurons create memory circuits of what’s expected, when something unexpected happens – anything new or different, no matter how benign – the dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brainstem “notice” the difference and signal, through the amygdala and the thalamus of the limbic system, the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex to pay attention. A “mistake” has been detected. (The ACC is the brain’s primary structure for focusing attention and is also densely populated with dopamine neurons.)

The detection of error, and the ACC’s immediate focusing of attention on that error, temporarily inhibits the release of dopamine. No more goodies until we can figure out what’s going on. No more moving forward until we determine it’s OK to move forward. The ACC is also densely populated with spindle cells that very quickly communicate any emotional valence – including this instant unease of “error” – to all parts of the brain. According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, neuroscientists call this capacity of our brain the “Oh, shit!” circuit.

We can so easily interpret that unease as anxiety that can automatically lead to “no” or “later”. It feels like a risk to try something new. Bill Bowen, developer of psycho-physical psychotherapy, has studied the creative process for 30 years. He suggests that our body-brains move on a continuum in the face of any new from the survival responses of fight-flight-freeze that would de-rail any positive activation completely, all the way to adaptive activation and the free flowing expression of creativity. Somewhere on that continuum there is a somatic threshold that we feel viscerally in our body, where the body-brain stops us from going forward even though consciously – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – we are ready to dive in. I.e., writer’s block; cold feet the morning of the wedding; the last-minute justification “I don’t know anybody at the party and I’m too tired anyway.” This somatic marker is the disruption of the dopamine which is letting us know, “ Uh oh, this is not what was expected.” It’s not; it’s new.

In order to work skillfully with our dopamine system and get ourselves across that somatic threshold, we have to notice the marker, too. We have to recognize that it’s our somatic marker of the new, not necessarily a mistake, not necessarily dangerous. We do assess the situation with all the wise discernment of our Wise Self. Then, when the new really is about wholesome wise effort, we can consciously, deliberately choose to override the un-ease we experience when the dopamine cycle is disrupted. And we have to override the unease long enough to get us to the next experience of pleasure and reward that can then become the new predictable.

A caution here about overriding the disruption of the dopamine. Neuroscientists have identified dopamine as the neurotransmitter that makes us vulnerable to addiction. We do more and more of what has brought our brains pleasure in the past, even when it is catastrophically not good for us. Breaking an addiction means breaking the dopamine pleasure reward cycle, often by substituting the pleasure of a natural opioid (endorphins from exercise) or the sense of ease and safety generated by oxytocin (the hormone of feeling loved and lovable).

According to neuropsychologist Gerald Huther, we can so easily get stuck in a rut, doing what we already feel competent doing, because that’s what feels pleasurable and rewarding. We do want to take advantage of the dopamine system rewarding expectations being met. We learn and become very competent at more than several things. But if we can tolerate the unease of the new, we can also learn by taking advantage of the error detection capacities of the dopamine system. Learning depends just as much on our dopamine system updating the memory system of our higher brain, adjusting our expectations in light of real events.

“Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Learning is rooted in the predictions of highly flexible (dopamine) brain cells which are constantly adjusting their connections to reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Dopamine turns a negative feeling into a teachable moment. Over time, the brain’s flexible cells become the source of expertise.”
– Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide

Stable is good. Predictability and reliability are very good. Resourcing ourselves by remembering where we already feel competent is very, very good. Developing the resilience to recover our stability and competence when the new goes awry is extremely good. And, honestly, sometimes we know we don’t have the energy to do one more new thing today, or this week, or in this direction. We’re saturated and really need respite and renewal before we move forward again. We can be mindful and self-compassionate in choosing the timing for crossing a threshold.

But sometimes we can talk ourselves out of trying a new entrée at a new restaurant in a new city, or visiting a foreign country, or venturing into the “foreign-ness” of a new career or the intimacy of a new relationship. Sometimes we have to talk ourselves into moving forward. Previous experiences of moving into something new and feeling the reward of succeeding in that new can help us “trick’ our brains into anticipating that this next new experience will feel good, too. Role models who show us the positives of the new possibilities can help us get across that threshold. Louis Cozolino lists “52 Ways to Avoid Hardening of the Categories” in his Healthy Aging Brain. We deliberately seek the new to stimulate the growth of new neurons in our brains as we age, and become comfortable in that practice.

In order to keep growing, we have to keep overcoming the anxiety that precedes crossing a threshold. Developing that capacity often brings its own reward, and keeps our brains flexible and growing, too. We can learn that skillfully crossing a threshold, venturing into the new, does bring reliable reward and pleasure. We can become comfortable with the unknown; we can learn to find ease in risk.


Not where you have already attained mastery should you exert yourself further, but there where such mastery has still yet to appear.
– Chinese proverb

* * * * *

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck

* * * * *

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.
– Alan Cohen

* * * * *

Take the whole kit with the caboodle.
Experience life; don’t deplore it.
Shake hands with time; don’t kill it.
Open a lookout; dance on a brink;
Run with your wildfire.
You are closer to your glory
leaping an abyss
than upholstering a rut.
– James Broughton

* * * * *

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
– Anais Nin

* * * * *

New ideas stir from every corner. They show up disguised innocently as interruptions, contradictions, and embarrassing dilemmas. Beware of total strangers and friends alike who shower you with comfortable sameness, and remain open to those who make you uneasy, for they are the true messengers of the future.
– Rob Lebow

* * * * *

To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly.
– Henri Bergson

Stories to Learn From

Every hero’s journey is the story of one error-teachable moment after another. We experience the release of dopamine when the expected “happy ending” or triumph occurs, yes. And, we can resonate when the hero or heroine courageously meets those “Oh, shit!” moments and perseveres, too.

This month’s hero’s journey is a tribute to a beloved friend, Lee Lipsenthal, who died last week of esophageal cancer. A wise and skillful integrative-medicine physician who dedicated his long career to helping people find life balance in the face of life’s stresses and errors, Lee met his diagnosis two years ago so in the spirit of “What can I learn from this? What can I teach others?”

You can view Lee’s inspiring teachings directly and become entrained in his heroic spirit through two videos:

Enjoy Every Sandwich: a touching 3-minute trailer for Lee’s latest book about crossing the threshold between living and dying in the spirit of gratitude, love, and play. (Book to be released by Random House November 8, 2011

Lee’s inspiring keynote address to the American Association of Family Physicians in October 2010. Full of heartful wisdom and solid science about learning to find ease in risk. (one hour)

Lee was renowned for his warmth, compassion, humor, emotional intelligence, playfulness, dignity and generosity of spirit, so dedicated to living fully, richly, and courageously. Treat yourself to the videos and be touched by the teachings of a true master.

Exercises to Practice
Crossing the Threshold

Jack Kornfield, clinical psychologist, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and author of Wise Heart, teaches that any time we mindfully notice anxiety, we can whisper to ourselves, “About to grow!” May these exercises help you learn to find ease in risk and move reliably cross the threshold into the new.

1. Noticing the error message as a teachable moment.

Dopamine sends its signals of both reward and error rapidly, outside of our awareness, 24/7. With mindfulness practice, we become more and more adept at catching those signals and bringing them to consciousness. Indeed, research has demonstrated that mindfulness practice specifically strengthens the functioning of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is how we can focus attention on anything. And the ACC is saturated with dopamine neurons – the locus of the “Oh, shit!” circuit.

Mindfulness allows us to notice the “feeling” of error, the unease of “what’s wrong?” and to hold that moment of unease without reactivity, without impulsively doing something to “fix it.” Mindfulness allows us to tolerate the sensation of the error without having to believe the story of the error. This noticing and holding is what slows down the processing of the error long enough to allow it to become a teachable moment.

There are no mistakes when there is learning.
– Julia Butterfly Hill

2. Assessing

We then have time to consciously assess – is this unease that I’m experiencing on the brink of this new a valid warning of danger? Or am I actually experiencing excitement, passion, enthusiasm which I could interpret as trepidation if I’m not accustomed to it? (When our sympathetic nervous system revs us up to take action, either through fear or through excitement, the feeling of both in the body can be remarkably similar and we need to cultivate our capacity to discern which is which.) Now that the moment has my attention, what am I noticing? Am I mobilized here to act from fear or from purpose? To survive or to thrive? Is it safe, appropriate, growthful to move forward and cross this threshold? (Frankly, the more resourced we are, with people who believe in us, with role models to show us possibilities, with a track record of previously successful crossings, the easier it is for our body to let our mind cross any threshold, especially high-stakes thresholds.)

3. Choosing

Our courage quickens and we choose to cross. If we can trust our dopamine system to continue to detect errors and course correct, if we remain open to that course correction and allow new adjustments to new realities every step of the way, we can transform every moment into a teachable moment. We can learn to find ease in risk. We can learn to trust the crossing of the threshold. We can expand our horizons and fulfill the potential of our lives.

To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly.
– Henri Bergson

Books and Websites

For cogent, accurate, easy to access info about dopamine and other fascinating neuroscience as well:

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PhD, with Richard Mendius, M.D. New Harbinger Publications, 2009

Buddha’s Brain skillfully leads the reader through the neuroscience of brain change, applying specific practices from Western cognitive psychology and the Buddhist contemplative tradition to “learn to use the mind to change your brain – and thus your life – for the better.” A national best-seller; deservedly so.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Mariner Books, 2009

A well-researched exploration of the neuroscience of decision making, written in a breezy, accessible style. Full of dramatic stories and useful factoids.

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman, PhD. (Bantam, 2006)

Dr. Goleman uses the latest discoveries from modern brain science to describe clearly what goes on in our brains when we relate to other people – the biological mechanisms of our interacting skillfully with others. Dr. Goleman delineates eight specific capacities of this “social intelligence” and reveals how our history of interactions with others determines whether or not the neural structures and circuits that support these capacities fully mature in our brains. Dr. Goleman vividly illustrates the positive benefits of social intelligence on our lives and the disastrous impacts the lack of it has on our relationships, our health, in business, and in government.

…and others…

The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence by Gerald Huther, PhD. Shambala Publications, 2006.

A humorous and engaging (not technical!) user’s manual that explains clearly how the brain works, how behavior directly changes the circuitry of the brain, and how behaviors that promote the fullest development of the brain are those which balance emotions and intellect, dependence and autonomy, openness and focus, and emphasize heart qualities such as sincerity, humility and love.

The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom by Louis Cozolino, PhD. W.W. Norton, 2008

Cozolino provides a concise review of how brain structures are formed and matured through interactions with other people throughout the lifespan, and then explores how brain structures change, maintaining themselves, deteriorating, or even improving, as we age. Appendix Two is an excellent reading list of other books on successful aging.


Especially relevant to clinicians, Bill Bowen’s integrative approach to somatic psychotherapy focuses on building somatic resources in support of the creative process.