A liminal state is a condition of being suspended inside a strange world of ambiguity, confusion, and uncertainty. Liminality transforms the feeling of being alive. It conjures adversity in body, mind, and spirit. Inside a liminal state, we are required to grapple with torrents of anxiety, depression, and despair. Liminality means that we have been severed from the comfort of our familiar assumptions, routines, and patterns of living. The life we once knew is lost, and we must cross a threshold toward a life we cannot yet imagine. A liminal state is the essence of mystery. How can we find our way?
Liminality is the place of in-betweenness, of no longer belonging to the old and not yet of the new. Liminality is also the place of ambiguity and uncertainty, of anxiety and hope, as we are suspended in the betwixt and between. – Gisela Wendling: Understanding Change Through the Rites of Passage Framework
Our Fear of Change
We fear change, even when we know that it may have benefit.
Human beings innately prefer stability, constancy, and consistency. A great deal of our physical, mental, and spiritual energy is expended on maintaining habits and familiar routines that create the illusion of control over our immediate surroundings. The way in which we schedule our lives is an essential element in establishing a “normal” existence.
A strange characteristic of human beings is that they can effortlessly engage in behaviors known to harm our health and wellbeing while expending significant amounts of energy in self-justification, rationalization, and denial.
On a collective level, we expend outrageous amounts of effort justifying patho-adolescent beliefs and lifestyles that are a source of harm to self, others, and the environment. We are conditioned by education to engage in careers and lifestyles that are exhausting and often unfulfilling. We consume things that bring us no happiness and place stress on the earth’s capacity to sustain life. As a society, we are addicted to impoverished notions of wealth, power, success, progress, achievement, and competition.
We tend to avoid deep change that demands a shift in the underlying ground of our being. We try to find ways to “manage” change at arm’s length as if it was something external. We strive to maintain the facade of feeling safe and secure inside the familiar habits, patterns, routines, schedules, and lifestyles that create the illusion of stability. In this sense, a basic requirement of life inside modern society is physical, mental, and spiritual somnambulism.
When forms of change emerge that threaten our sense of control, we attempt to place a heroic chokehold on the familiar. We shield ourselves behind denial to protect the fragile illusion of constancy. We exhaust ourselves in Herculean efforts to preserve a sense of identity, purpose, and motivation that has already lost its relevance.
Strangely, we attempt to move through life as if the unknown will never come to claim us.
Inside a Liminal State
A liminal state is a period of deep change that offers no retreat.
Liminality hacks away at our former identity until it becomes unrecognizable. We find ourselves in a situation in which we exhaust ourselves trying to maintain our public facade, while our inner life is thrown into a chaotic state. Even though we may still move through familiar routines, everything about life begins to feel very strange.
Liminality means that what once was can no longer be. Simultaneously, it does not direct us toward the life that is waiting for us. And we feel abandoned and alone in the midst of a crowd.
The Dark Night of the Soul is a liminal state that threatens our survival. Darkness is a core element of liminality; that is, when we are inside a liminal state we can no longer find our sense of self. The feeling of darkness permeates the feeling of being alive, and we become wholly lost. Moreover, the liminality of the night also means that others cannot find us and we are abandoned, isolated, and alone in the midst of a crowd.
Liminality is a natural and normal experience; it is also a painful, volatile, and threatening terrain permeated with adversity, existential angst, and mystery. A liminal state is an in-between state that connects a life that can no longer be with a life that has yet to be imagined. In this sense, liminality is a force of internal creative destruction that necessitates creative self-renewal.
Entanglement: Betwixt and Between
Liminality turns each one of us into a humble apprentice of our own disillusionment. There is no guarantee that we will find safe passage; that is, we may remain confined inside liminality to the end of days.
A liminal state is an environment, a total surround, in which our body, mind, and spirit are trapped in a crucible of ambiguity. We are entangled betwixt and between that which can no longer be and the impenetrable mystery of that which is yet to come.
Genuine creativity is, I believe, our most trusted resource for finding our way through the humbling labyrinths of liminality. I use the term “genuine” to refer to a natural form of creativity that comes from deep within. It is a form of authentic interaction with a liminal state that grapples with the nature of our suffering.
Genuine creativity is the endeavor to improvise our way inside the mercurial surround of liminality to try to generate movement – in any direction.
It is not too harsh to say that education is the antithesis of creativity. We are conditioned to be “creative” in superficial ways that do not challenge core assumptions, fundamental beliefs, and, most especially, the existing structure of authority. Status quo creativity always serves to perpetuate the same old innovation.
Any form of creative work that is prevented from treating assumptions, beliefs, and structures of authority as raw material for change is a mere novelty.
There is a frightening sense of beauty inside a liminal state. The assumptions, beliefs, and sources of authority that held us in a trance are annihilated. We enter a painful state of unknowing. And yet, it is our existential angst and despair that becomes the essential element of genuine creativity. A liminal sense of beauty emerges in the struggle for self-renewal.
Creatively Inhabiting the Space In Between
Liminal states permeate the human condition. They are natural, normal, and perhaps even necessary. A basic requirement for becoming more fully human is to learn to navigate liminal states that conjure grief, anxiety, and despair. Exploring the experiences of others can broaden and expand our creative resources, but the only source that can help us find our way to the other side is our own creativity that lies deep within.
Transformative writing is one way to inhabit the space in between. The act of writing directly into the source of our trauma is a merciful break for freedom; turning away from our suffering is an act of self-deception. We struggle to find a way to name our experiences, but gradually our assumptions begin to shift, new meaning begins to reveal itself, and the potential for self-renewal emerges. Creativity, in this sense, is an act of survival.
The visual artist Jane Francis in Fife, Scotland, has embarked on a project based on the concept of liminality, which I look forward to following over the coming months. I was struck by a quote from Nigerian artist Ijeoma Umebinyuo featured on Jane’s site that is permeated with the essence of liminality:
Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are, with what you have. Just….start.
A liminal state deserves our fear; it is a horrific condition of existential isolation and abandonment. Our angst is the only raw material we must begin with. Creativity demands that we turn directly into, not away from, the source of our suffering.
Finding our way through a liminal state requires each one of us to embrace the art of improvisation, and to start now, to start where you are, to start with fear, and to start with pain.
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