In the Western world, we spend a lot of time talking about boundaries, about how to hold on, contain, and protect. Boundaries are fixed in time (school year, work day, weekend, seasons) and in space (national borders, property lines). We also speak of personal boundaries, of not letting someone ‘get to us,’ of creating guidelines and limits between ourselves and other people. Boundaries provide structure, shape, form and safety to our lives – or at least an effective illusion of it. Thoughts of boundaries tend to dictate and rule in our society. Consequently, far less time is devoted to considering liminality; to the places, spaces and experiences that lie in between the boundaries.
Liminality is often overlooked, and yet is just as important to us as the concept of boundaries. Originally an anthropological term, it was first used by Arnold van Gennep to identify the basic structures that underlie all initiatory ‘rites of passage’ in human cultures. Later, the concept was expanded and deepened by fellow anthropologist Victor Turner, who introduced the concept to other fields. As Van Gennep first observed, all rites of passage have a three-part structure:
- Liminal period
Turner focused his work on describing the importance of the middle phase, the liminal period. In his estimation, the term liminal relates to the transitional stage of a process, and is something that occupies a position at, on, or in between both sides of a boundary. It is that uncanny place, space or experience that lies betwixt and between, neither here nor there, and yet remains all the more potent and attractive for it. For Turner, liminality represents the midpoint of transition between two recognised, fixed positions. (1)
So when we think of liminality – especially as it was originally conceived of in anthropology – we think of passage (i.e. rites of passage). This makes sense because liminal is originally derived from the Latin limen, meaning ‘threshold’. Anything liminal is, therefore, enabling us shift and move from one place to another. This is the crux of why liminality is so important for us to seek out. If boundaries keep us safe and known, they also constrain and restrain us over time. Boundaries can easily turn into a prison if left to fossilize, for nothing remains the same forever. Birth, death, puberty, marriage may all be thought of as major transitions in life, though there are many others such as retirement, illness, moving, break ups and divorce, etc. Liminality helps us move transitionally from one position in life to the next by allowing us to shift gears within ourselves.
Earlier traditions and societies understood this quite well, how liminality encourages flow and movement between two states. The ancient Celts held this view especially close, and identified liminal times and places all throughout their world. For them, the liminal marked the boundaries between heaven and earth, the mundane world and the spiritual world. Dusk, dawn and twilight were emphasised as times when the borders dissolve and mix, allowing for enhanced communication with the spirit world. For example, during these specific times it was believed possible to hear music from the Otherworld and converse with spirits. (2)
The Celts also identified what they termed as ‘thin places,’ areas in nature where the boundaries between the spirit world and the physical world are less delineated and more permeable. There are still many such spots around to visit. What’s noticeable about these locations is not just a feeling of sacredness, but also the meeting of elements like earth, air, fire and water. Beaches, wells, volcanoes, caves, moors and mountains are all good examples. In the Ancient world, crossroads were also thought to be some of the most magical and liminal places around. Crossroads, aside from being impromptu burial grounds, also marked out the borders of different towns and signified different directions to take. Their inherent liminality makes sense, especially when we consider what it means to say we’re ‘at a crossroads’ in life.
It’s important to remember that liminal places in the physical world help effect internal change. Personally, I’m drawn to ‘thin places’ for just this reason, and often feel shifts just by being in these places. Acting as catalysts, they enable my own internal boundaries to dissolve and loosen, allowing new insights and experiences to come through. I had such an experience on Lindisfarne earlier this year (a thin place if ever there was one), and had arrived on the island feeling depressed and self-critical. For two afternoons I sat on the Emmanuel Head shoreline, listening to the ocean tides rake rocks over each other, again and again, like a giant washing machine. I found this produced a similar effect within me, where I was cleansed, tumbled and honed from the inside. The experience changed me, and I left in a completely different ‘space’ than when I had arrived.
Perhaps that’s just it. The liminal not only represents transition and change, but it is the very process and act of change itself. In order to change, we must leave the familiar behind and enter liminal territory – be neither here nor there in order to get somewhere. This means entering strange territory. It’s a bit like the mind experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat , where the cat in the box is both dead and alive at the same time. Both positions will meet and exist at the same time. It seems absurd and paradoxical, but only to our left brained, rational minds. There’s a whole other side to life that doesn’t respond well to being tightly boxed in or categorised. Liminality is a reminder of the in-between states and the thresholds that signify all new potential. In other words, it’s not all about boundaries!
Life can seem like a fixed point, a dull routine that we know inside and out. And then whether we want it or not, change comes, and rips the carpet out from under, knocking us over. If we’re unprepared for transition in life this can be incredibly painful. Seeking out liminality, and the liminal in life, is a way to prepare, to initiate ourselves into the inevitability of change. Playing with inner world liminality means actively seeking out the places within us that need bridging: head and heart, thoughts and emotions, conscious and unconscious, past and present. It is healthy to let go of the categorisations that plague us and the boundaries that surround us, at least for a while, so we can go explore.
1. Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, edited by Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster & Meredith Little, Open Court Publishing
2. Music and the Celtic Otherworld: From Ireland to Iona by Karen Ralls-Macleod, Edinburgh University Press