It's as if something from deep within us is compelling us, calling us, or perhaps our lives have somehow conspired to bring us to this point. And we step across. Into the unknown. It can look like whimsy or irresponsibility. It can look like insanity. This is what it can look like from the outside – and we can even internalize this image and judge ourselves, even prevent ourselves from crossing over. But eventually, nothing can stop us. We do step. One leg led by one foot, moves forward and places itself on unknown soil – or into thin air.
The journey into the unknown has been called by many names and how we approach that step has a lot to do with how we name it, how we experience it. The dark night of the soul, the period of lunacy, the caldron, the topsy turvey, neither twixt nor tween, the void, the liminal.
We may do everything in our power to avoid it – scolding ourselves for thinking we can have more, diverting ourselves from the call with the details of day-to-day life, drinking or eating or doing any number of a thousand things to hold ourselves back. But there comes a time when holding back is no longer an option. So we step across. Or are yanked or pulled or shoved. We may look back with longing or dread or deep grief or relief, but whatever we were, whatever we knew is now definitely behind us. That much is clear.
What is not clear is what we are stepping toward. It is this that interests me. Not only what causes us to finally make the move, but what we do once we have taken the step. This time is so full of mystery and magic that there isn’t much written about it. It's so intensely personal, not many can share it. The poets attempt to describe it. In fact, this space is perhaps best written in the language of poetry because it isn't linear, not of the rational, it sits outside the constructs of normal life and living. It is necessarily so.
This liminal time is exactly for that: the time to be with not knowing, to reside within profoundest uncertainty. The mind yearns for clarity, for a way to understand and classify, to organize into steps. But after that first step across the threshold from the known into the unknown, the whole idea is for the steps to disappear. It must be this way if we are to reach the far shore. It is not a commute; it is an adventure. The definition of which is not knowing how to proceed, where to go and how to get there – perhaps even how to know when one has arrived.
We humans have done quite a lot to demystify life. We have studied things at smaller and smaller scales, and named them, ordered them into meaning so we can know where we are. We carry GPS around on our phones so we can locate ourselves on maps, and those same phones enable us to communicate with anyone at any time no matter where we are. This gives us a sense of comfort. But it also deadens us, robs us of what we crave from deep inside ourselves: the mystical journey. Simply put, existing without knowing why or for what purpose, without the moorings of identity through those we call friends and family. There's nothing wrong with any of that, for we need times of rest and community. We find a certain sanctuary there, where we can suspend the feeling of uncertainty. But a life lived only there is one missing what is essential to us as humans: the tremendous gift of knowing that we do not know.
I have occupied this liminal space with myself and with others as the defining focus of my life. I am drawn to the transition places, because they feel to me like the locus of where things are born, where possibility resides. I am fascinated and humbled by the journey we make that causes us so much pain. The kind of pain that is distinguished from the other pain that comes from habit. The first enlivens us, the other deadens. One awakens us to an entirely new level of experience and being; the other needs to be drunk away into abeyance. It seems to me that our ability to use this pain, this angst, this anguish for our own expansion is what it means to truly live life.
Unfortunately, much of our suffering comes from thinking that somehow this crossing of the threshold from the known to the unknown is bad or wrong – somehow not “normal.” We seem to have forgotten how to greet and use this liminal space in ourselves or in others. It scares us, like dark moonless night. So we try to “light” it up with distractions, with the familiar, with our endless lists of preferences. And having things the way we “like” them makes us feel at home. But even the most comfortable and beautiful of homes can begin to feel like a prison after a while.
We want to rush each other out of the liminal space, or banish ourselves from its threshold, so as to avoid what comes of residing in it. Or we set time limits – it’s okay to be “in transition” for a certain period of time, after which it begins to look like laziness, depression, or insanity. We rush ourselves along simply because we do not know how to find comfort there. The idea of not knowing at our deepest level brings sadness. A chasm of unending sadness and fear from which we look up as if from the bottom of a deep well.
But what if we could reclaim the liminal space as one of creation and joy? Where true possibility resides, from which a deeper experience of love and communion can be found? What if we can befriend the unknown and come to trust that it is the seed of all beginnings, rather than a sign of weakness, failure, abnormality or cursedness? Why is living in the known, the familiar, the certain so much more preferable to our brains? To our societies? Why have we built monuments to knowledge at the expense of the vast territory of its opposite?
It's not an either or proposition, in my mind. While there is much we can know and the search for knowledge is meritorious, it is equally valuable to acknowledge, revel and welcome the opposite. Uncertainty leads to exploration, and that is the real adventure. Reaching the destination is grand and worthy of celebration, but it is a temporary respite only. Life is more lived in the liminal space than on the shores on either side of it.
I do not mean that most people live more often in the liminal space. No, civilization seems to mean building larger and larger monuments to the shores themselves. Few like to admit to not knowing; this is cause for despair and shame. What I mean is that actual life, life signaled by growth, expansion, greater comfort with what is rather than what should be, is lived more in the liminal space and as a result of it. This means that we could live a more enlivened life if we could find a way, not only to accept the liminal, but to embrace it. To learn how to recognize it and use it. To honor it in ourselves and in others.
In addition to celebrating achievement, we would commemorate experience. We would look for what is new in each moment, what that experience has to teach us, how we are being reborn through the happenings of our lives – which we do not dictate, but rather receive. We do not dictate our lives; we receive them. We do not make things happen. Instead, we tap into our deepest yearnings and attractions, we notice where we are intrigued and joyful, and we follow them. We follow them where they lead us, confident not that we know each step of the way or even the final destination, but that the journey is ours for the taking and that is what makes life worthwhile.
We worry much less about arriving and much more about what happens along the way. We practice the act of noticing our lives, and being present to them in each moment, rather than at some distant time when we reflect back upon them – or even worse, where we never experience them at all. As so many have said - Buddha, de Bingen, Nietzsche, King Jr., and more - we each have the possibility of becoming a full human being, but few of us will use the raw material we are given to become one.
Over the ages of human existence, the Liminal has called and we have answered, each age and each person facing the threshold and understanding it anew. This is our great occupation: learning to cross over and embrace our own experience of the vast empty void from which everything is born. We can do this because it is, simply, ours to do. We do this by letting go of the "I know" mind, reawakening in each moment to what life is creating before our very eyes, and with curiosity and gratitude, we experience in full the life we have been given.
Click here for more about the Liminal and the Cycle of Change.