Archives: liminality

Liminality

Seed

Last week, I wrote about “personal space” and the various ways I find myself needing it. It’s a topic I think about often. And, apparently, I’m not alone…. Several of you reached out to me, sharing the importance of finding and creating personal space in your own lives, as well.

One reader who saw the post on LinkedIn’s Mindfulness Group expressed his enthusiasm about the value of personal space and brought my attention to a term I’d never heard before—“liminal space.” He was introduced to this concept when in recovery from his divorce.

“Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual….The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. It is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.” (Definition from Askdefine.com)

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this space. Hell, I feel like I’ve been experiencing one long liminal space for years (beginning when my mom passed away in 2001).

In his essay, Liminal Spaces and Transformation, Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. captures the feeling of liminality and describes how mindfulness can be especially helpful during these periods.

“Sometimes life is a lot like this. We get kicked in the gut. Nothing works. We can’t even tell what is up and what is down. All of our familiar and cherished ways of making sense of the world have flown out the window. We feel completely in the dark….As I look back over my life it is usually such times that are associated with major life transitions. Is that true for you too? Isn’t this the dying that has to take place for us to learn new ways to see?

In Buddhism there is something called “the middle way.” In the middle way there are no reference points. We chose to let go of habitual responses and the usual attachments and things to grasp and see in the world. Instead, we embrace uncertainty and become more and more curious about a world where things can be both up and down, good and bad, bright and dark at the same time.

If we can practice resting in the middle, we learn new ways of orienting in our world that draw on other senses we didn’t even know we had. As we exercise these new senses—intuition, beginner’s mind, faith – the world takes on a new shape and we can see things with new eyes. This gives us a way to stay centered in the tumult, to see possibilities where before we might have been mired in despair. Above all, it gives us ways of being with those feelings that nag at us most insistently when we feel caught in those painful liminal spaces—loneliness, boredom, anxiety.

It seems so basic to our conditioning that we seek some form of resolution from painful emotions. We feel more secure in the familiar world of praise or blame, victory or defeat, feeling good or feeling bad than in the liminal world where we sit with what we feel and do not rush to resolution. When we cultivate different practices that allow us to rest in the middle, we discover over time a growing ability to relax into the unfamiliar and eventually turn our usual fear driven patterns upside down. That, to me, is the essence of transformation.”

Life’s in-betweens can sometimes feel endless—a long chain of one liminal space after the other. Yet, it’s these in-between spaces that create the opportunities for us to grow and evolve—to shed the previous ways of being that no longer serve us and to mindfully embody the person we endeavor to become.