Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crossing Thresholds

The time between Christmas and New Year’s can feel a bit strange. After the bustle and rush of preparations and socializing, there’s a lull, a week where some of our normal activities are slowed down, if not suspended. Of course, lots of folks are back at work. But many manage to take the whole week off, so business as usual is not generally resumed at full speed until after the new year dawns.

This week, the week before we start a new year, is a liminal time, a time in-between what was and what is to come. The word liminal comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold. My Oxford English Dictionary published in 1995 does not include liminal, and I laughed out loud when my spell check kept automatically changing the word to luminal. How perfect! Our culture has little tolerance for the in-between times, wants to rush ahead with an eye on the hoped for or imagined future light (productivity, accomplishments, spiritual evolution, increased awareness- whatever version of progress you value.)

Life includes a variety of liminal times: after I submit a finished manuscript but before it is published; after a death and before the funeral; when a divorce is decided upon but is not yet finalized; after engagement but before the marriage; when the sun is below the horizon at dawn or dusk but the sky is light. Of course many of these times are experienced individually, not collectively, and those we have in common in our geographical area- dusk and dawn- are generally filled with sleep or the frantic activity of beginning or ending the day. The days between Christmas and New Years, even for those who do not celebrate Christmas, is probably the closest we come to a shared liminal time.

In many shamanic traditions these liminal times are seen as times when the “crack between the worlds,” between the seen and unseen levels of reality (dreams and everyday reality; our conscious and unconscious awareness) is open. In these times we can access a prespective that is greater than our own. But this requires a willingness to go to a place of not-knowing, and for most of us not-knowing raises anxiety. It’s hard not to fill the spaces in-between with distractions, plans, and resolutions that quell our anxiety.

But what if we didn’t fill the space? What if individually and collectively we let ourselves be in-between what was and what is to come, without trying to control the outcome? What if we started to value this time as one of waiting and dreaming- not just now, but at the start and end of every day, allowing ourselves to come back to some kind of stillness, alone or with others?

I know what I am asking, because the outcome of being fully with the liminal times is unpredictable. And if there is one thing I know, it’s how hard unpredictability can be. I have had a chronic illness for twenty-six years (CF/ME.) While I know some of the things that can forseeably make it worse (staying up late, doing too much etc.) the truth is, even when I do all the things I know should help, I can find myself flat on my back with exhaustion and pain for a day, or two, or four. The hardest part of this is not the physical disability- it’s the unpredictability that repeatedly challenges my ego’s illusion of control. This is not to say that the choices I make do no not matter, do not shape the events of my life and how I respond to them. They do, but unpredictability remains.

When we are present in liminal times, when we take advantage of the pause after the exhale before the next inhale begins, we don't know what will happen, what will be asked of us. Sometimes we can see how unpredictability and our lack of absolute control have brought and can continue to bring blessings, gifts, challenges and heart ache. And maybe, sometimes, for a moment we can let something deeper than our discomfort with not-knowing, our fear of the unpredictable guide us over the threshold.


  1. Dearest Oriah...

    I have decided to no longer include the following in my comments to you: 'Oh my God! You were--yet again--on the same wavelength as me' for every single post of yours and exclaim that it as a source of Divine Intervention or Affirmation! Haha! :) Because it seems like that is ALWAYS the case! Maybe we are all on the same wavelength, always, and it is just that some of just overlap frequencies more frequently...if we allow ourselves the tune-up...

    This is to say that, having just returned from Johannesburg to be with my family for the holidays in California, I have been working on an update for my dearest friends (and others) as to what I had been up to and what 'next' etc. and I have been at a loss for words. I worried that closest friends are beginning to think that I am ignoring their texts, calls, or emails when that is not at all the case, it is just that I don't know what to say about any of it; so I thought, maybe, I can try to write some words of hope as to what I WISH to happen in the next upcoming months (regarding work, writing, etc.) and then I just couldn't fake the excitment. All I have is the glorious in-be-tween. So, that is what I decided to title my email to them...which I am working on now...

    this update being constructed as I finish reading chapters from Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart.

    Thought this would be appropriate to share from Chapter Two, also titled "When Things Fall Apart":

    "We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. They they come together again and fall apart again...Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all...when things fall apart and we're on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize...

    Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don't get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit....Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic--this is the spiritual path."

    The glorious inbetween. You can't really fall off the horizon, if you ever get there. :)

    The journey continues in 2010..."happy YOU year" as my friend, younger brother, Zain has been saying.

  2. Would our lives then be a "liminal" time? After we are born but before we die...


  3. WOW what a sentence "it's the unpredictability that continually challenges my ego's illusion of control" ... means a lot to where I am at. As I am working through the healing of my recent diagnosis of breast cancer, and knowing that it has something to do with that "nurturing" thing -the most amazing thing has happened to me during this "liminal" time (dig that word btw). I have realised during this time of "resting and being" that I have been living in a fantasy world of how things should be between a mother and child. My own mother is visiting and the first 2 days of her visit I cried through the disappointment of my illusional fantasy. Then I just let it go and accepted her for who she is. Since my willingness to "let things be" we have had the most amazing chats where she has told me things about her life I never knew before and I have a new perspective on how much she actually protected us as kids. I have renewed compassion and really believe that this visit could be part of my healing process. I am powerless over how people are ... I cannot control this ... but I can be willing to change my perspective to be open about seeing things differently. This liminial time, together with the breast cancer and my mom's visit has provided this opportunity - where normally I would be the one trying to use this time to do, do, do ... thanks for the wisdom - I feel blessed beyond words to be part of your community.

  4. Ah, one of my favourite authors, Pema. Thanks for sharing your in-between struggles and her wisdom.

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  6. Oh good grief, now I am deleting my own comments! Robin, yes, I think we could say life, in one sense is a liminal time- a kind of hologram or fractal of unfolding within a wholeness, between the borders of birth and death. . . .

    And Laurie- congratulations. What a gift to discover we can in fact release a fantasy to embrace the human before us. Now that's a threshold worth crossing!

  7. Last week, in a moment of upset and frustration, I wrote in my Journal: At what point did I forget how to dream? Did I ever have a dream? What has happened to me? Reading this, I suspect I have never created a sacred space for a dream to emerge. I gift my Self times of quiet and stillness - at least once per day ... now I'm wondering if I'm truly honouring the 'nothingness' or if it's weighted with an overlay of expectation. Your posts always take me to reflection - thank you ...

  8. one of my gifts of this liminal time was a beautiful death dream last night in which i remained conscious throughout the dying process. this was a first but not for my conscious mind as i have spent some time contemplating and working with the death process. anyway this dream created such excitement in me to have revealed that i have opened a space in my subconscious mind to allow a window of my faith and belief to be visited in dreamtime. or vice-versa, or some merge of conscious/subconscious, or awakening that feels wonderful. what a gift! loving your blog oriah! Laurel

  9. pausing..after the exhale..before the next inhale...I need to do this more.

  10. I've spent the last hour or so compiling my routine for the next 6 months - fitting in when to exercise, when to finish work, when to do the domestic chores, and all at a time when my body and my mind have been crying out for rest and silence from the craziness of the last 6 months. I felt as if i was wasting this time in between christmas and new year by not forward planning. And then i read your blog, about this liminal time, and i realise that the best gift to myself is that of allowing myself a deep breath, and just being. Your words over the years have been life changing for me, your books all dog-eared and written on, circled, under-lined. Thank you for touching my life and continuing to do so.

  11. When losing control I like to think I am giving control to something else. Something like chance or coincidence perhaps has the freedom to take over `my` life and surprise me with a path or direction I would not have chosen myself.

    Even trusting in that, I still get scared by the loss of control now and then.. haha