In Essays & Poems

Transition through the Liminal Space

(This article appeared Friday, May 5, 2023 in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung)

Change cannot be avoided. If we decide to ignore it, no matter. Transitions seem to be built into the large universal plot of life itself. So how do we deal with change, flux, impermanence, even the deeper mysteries that permeate these patterns?

A term used in the fields of anthropology and psychology to describe transitions is liminality. Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep used the term in his 1909 book, Rites of Passage. Psychologist Murray Stein writes in Myth and Psychology that liminality comes from the Latin limen, meaning “doorway or threshold.” Stein uses the simple example of when one enters or leaves a room, one crosses a limen, if only for a few seconds. 

Essentially, it is a borderline where one crosses from one bounded space to another. In liminal space, we find ourselves loosened from fixed views, open, vulnerable, confronted at times with ambiguity. Our fixed positions are moderated, however briefly, which can create unsettling anxiety in their uncertainty. In extreme cases, they can even cultivate fear and acrimony. 

Yet, being in liminal space can invite entertaining new ways of thinking about what has been familiar, safe, and protected. Liminal space is creative space, but it requires courage to risk listening to other viewpoints, ways of thinking, and new beliefs or angles on what has been taken for granted. It requires that we risk something.

An example: Every Thursday morning I drive from New Braunfels to Wimberly to be instructed in painting classes where I have learned the mediums of watercolor, acrylic and gouache paints. I am in year 11 of entering this liminal space. My art teacher, Linda Calvert Jacobson, has created an inviting liminal place for us students. Like them, I cross over into this cosmos of creativity.

I compare it to sacred space. My painting instructions are important because they contribute to my spiritual life. Here I turn myself over to being instructed as I struggle with crafting something that, in the end, gifts me with a feeling of achievement, even joy. Creating is a joyful gift in liminal space.

In a similar way, we as a culture are deeply enmeshed in liminal space. The rate of change today, fueled by media in all its varied forms, and other sources that cry to be heard or seen—all comprise liminal terrains. 

Sometimes it feels overwhelming when our values are challenged by new forms of creation that may rustle against our many fixed positions. Yet, in liminal settings we are invited to awaken to a larger cultural landscape by crossing over from the familiar into what seems foreign, other, and alien. Of course, we can build barriers against these invasions that we interpret as threats to our familiar, fixed life decisions. Doing so is a choice.

But liminal spaces can touch us more deeply with situations that are outside our circle of certainty. Stein suggests at one point that liminal space may occasion feelings of grief, for example, over realizing one’s life path has been lost or misinterpreted. 

Liminality is a creative space that rests on what may initially appear unclear, uncertain, and unseen. Yet, in our creative imagination, which is often stimulated by liminal spaces, new information may bring forward a transformation in our settled views.

Liminal space is a place, even a condition, of being conscious, where we may experience a “shake-up call.” Being called often happens within liminality. These bound spaces may create new life by inviting us to imagine what we have taken for granted and yield revelations that what is possible is already present. 

Being called forth or called to, can open us to a deeper, more vital life by witnessing what still needs to be lived. Such discoveries are moments of renewed vitality. Entering and exploring liminal spaces seems worth the risks that accompany them. 

Dennis Patrick Slattery is Emeritus professor in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California, as well as a resident of New Braunfels.

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