I have had this article, originally published in a small northwest magazine called Common Ground, and written by Melissa West, since sometime in the early 80’s. It spoke to me then and it still does now. Its subject is in keeping with our conversations over the last couple of weeks, so I wanted to share some excerpts:
Our culture gives us impossible operating instructions for change: After you’ve left behind the old, head for the new post-haste. Our speedy, product-not-process-oriented culture tells us that if we’re leaving something behind, we’d better know where we’re going, and how to get there, fast.
The trouble is that important transitions take time. There is almost always an in-between time when you’ve left behind your old way of being in the world, your old beliefs and dreams, and you’ve not yet moved into the new. This in-between time is a time of not knowing, a time of incubating your life-to-be.
Our culture’s fear of in-between-ness stands in marked contrast to indigenous cultures that have important ways of marking profound life transitions, or rites of passage. The middle stage in a rite of passage—called “liminal” by anthropologists, after the Greek word for “threshold”—is the “betwixt and between” time, after the initiate has left behind the old, and before he or she has taken on a new identity. The liminal stage is honored as the most sacred and important in tribal rites of passage, acknowledged as the time when the initiate, stripped of former roles and self, is most open to transformation.
We move into liminility during any major change when our old ways of looking at the world don’t work anymore…
Being liminal is akin to a snake shedding its skin, a common symbol both in tribal rites and in many contemporary liminal persons’ dreams. In order to make space for the new, we must shed the old, too-tight skin of our former lives…
Given the rewards of acknowledging liminility, why is American culture so afraid of it? [Because] our culture is afraid of death, claims Michael Meade, ritualist and co-founder of Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage. “Rebirth always passes through the doors of death. We need to acknowledge that for the new to come, something has to die. The purpose of a rite of passage is to become more alive by dying to the old. When our culture denies death, we cannot become more alive through liminility.”
American society, Meade also notes, is afraid of alive, passionate, idiosyncratic people. “Rites of passage are about becoming real, and enlivened, and self-knowing. Our society just can’t handle that. Can you imagine IBM celebrating this? They can’t; they need workers.”
Just as a bear hibernates during winter, so is drawing inward necessary during this winter-stillness of liminility, descending into the “soul-realm” of dreams, images, and Big Questions about the meaning of one’s life. During liminility, writes Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in Close to the Bone: Illness and the Soul, “The soul realm is a place of great inner richness… This is the psychological layer that contains the potentials we have not developed, the talents and inclinations that once mattered to us… the deep core of meaning that dreams and creativity draw from. Here are the wellsprings of the soul.”
Make liminility your ally and new life, authentic life, will be yours at the end of your transition. David Whyte, poet, celebrated this in his poem Tilicho Lake:
In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.
Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.
Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow
the true shape of your own face.
Love to you all,