Thursday, February 4, 2016

Navigating the Liminal: The Secret of Standing Naked between Two Thresholds

For many years, I've had a passionate love affair with the word "liminal."  The word itself derives from the Latin "limen" -- that bottom part of a doorway (otherwise known as a "threshold") that we cross to enter a new place.

If you look further into its historical usage, you'll see that the word "liminal" was first written in a publication by European Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in 1909 to describe the second stage of a rite of passage like marriage, graduation or retirement.  For Van Gennep, the liminal stage of a transition occurs for the initiate (the person going through the ritual) after the "separation" period, when an individual has been stripped of a role or social status marker.  So, the liminal stage begins on the back end of a major loss that marks you with the raw experience of ego-nakedness.  Ego-nakedness is the experience that happens after the social markers that give you a sense of mobility and power in the world fall away and you're left with the stark vulnerability of standing naked between two thresholds with little to hold onto to give you a sense of efficacy.  So then, the central challenge of navigating the liminal stage of growth is this: To allow the radical mystery of this uneasy space to carve a bold, new vitality in you.

Naturally then, the liminal stage is the most anxiety producing phase of any transition because we resist being seen without our most prized ego accoutrements (that is, our social clothing). Such nakedness often evokes the difficult emotions of fear, grief, embarrassment and disappointment.  As a result, the tendency here to "act out" is significant because this stage, by nature, demands you to increase your tolerance of not only standing naked, but standing naked in an exposed place where you, in your vulnerability, become a focal point.  In liminal space, the anchored ego-security of identifying with one side of a threshold over another must be relinquished and give way to a very counter-intuitive stance -- that is "standing naked between two thresholds." Herein lies the most poignant creative tension of liminal space where the soul is summoned to embrace the perceived poverty of being exposed (with nothing to hold onto), trusting that such exposure actually reveals an interior wealth worth waiting for!

So, one important inquiry becomes, "What kind of engagement does standing in the creative tension of liminal states require of you?" Let me describe one way to engage here by sharing the narrative of a recent client still navigating this tricky territory.

Dave began his inner work nearing the "separation" stage of career transition as a middle-aged corporate professional that has had varying degrees of success in the digital media sector with some experiences leaving him very satisfied and others leaving him wanting.  In his latest job in the same field, Dave found himself welcomed into a heart-breaking split where the gap between his soul and role (and the accompanying tasks that came with it) for this company were at odds.  The pain rising up through this gap grew into such a significant depression that he had no choice but to take the "liminal leap" and respond to this internal imperative by breaking ties with the company -- a courageous act indeed when considering that he has a family to support and given that this job definitely provided a sense of ego support.

Dave's departure announcement to this company marked his entrance into liminal space. Stripping himself of his previous role, he initiated himself into soul-searching liminal territory where his primary quest becomes one of seeking deep alignment between who he is and what he does in the working world.  Not surprisingly, his entrance into this territory was signaled by an onslaught of various illnesses, injuries and profound exhaustion. Liminality has a way of accentuating the "stripping" process because it knows that in our greatest vulnerability we actually begin to see ourselves more clearly!

So, how does Dave and others that relate to his story navigate this liminal space skillfully? As I've shared with Dave, the next step begins with anchoring your inner ship.  With Dave, this has been a process of identifying what resources he already has in his life that help him to be centered.  For Dave, the fitness realm has offered him a deep and satisfying relief from stress for many years, so this became an obvious starting point.  However, the key here is to help Dave to do his movement practice from a different vantagepoint.  This means utilizing a "mindfulness approach" to his movement practice where he can pay specific attention to inner cues (emotions, body sensations and thoughts) that reveal a sinking inner ship.  During his movement practice, Dave can name the unrest that is occurring in the moment and right his inner ship before things go too awry.  Here, Dave's movement practice becomes the stage for working with the various challenges that arise in the liminal stage.  Further, in this liminal stage, Dave must resist the impulse to be defined by old or more comfortable narratives that provide momentary self-soothing.  Dave also must also refuse to engage old strategies for self-medicating that keeps him from really feeling the unrest of this state.  The key here is to learn how to stay with the harrowing anxiety of being exposed in a manner that allows the creative tension of liminal space to possess you.  Your most important work is to let liminality do its thing, without reacting or trying to get control.  Herein lies the secret of navigating the creative tension of liminal space - that in fact, there is nothing for you to do, make, or produce here.  Rather, standing naked between two thresholds is a "being only" space that calls you to hold a silent vigil for your soul, amidst the threatening torrent of the liminal storm.

So, the anchor you must establish in this place (meditation also works really well, by the way) has one purpose -- that is to keep you grounded, vigilant, and coming back to a place of purposeful inaction time and time again.  Keep in mind that the time to act will come, but liminality necessitates a sitting still that is not like any other transitional state. Once the anchor is firmly rooted, then begins engagement with the heart of liminal space -- that is, the creative tension that summons us to step forward with boldness.  The creative tension of liminality will often lead us to grapple with the polarities that lie within us in a manner that we first observe their oppositional dynamics, then sink into their conflictual emotional interplay and finally resolve the inner tension with creativity and commitment.  We actually need to fully feel the breakdown and chaos that lies in the tension because therein lies the most potent teaching of liminal space --- that leaning into the chaotic storm of liminality forces us to relinquish our most preciously held defenses leaving the raw brutality of its creative force to carve a new response to life in us!

May you and Dave drop into the creative tension of liminal space with courage today so that tomorrow you may see the way open for you with poise, purpose and precision.

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