Liminal space (a term coined by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 book The Rites of Passage) refers to a threshold or in-between state or place, such as a transitional period or a state of ambiguity. It is often used in the context of rituals or ceremonies to describe the point at which participants are in a state of transition between their everyday lives and a new state of being or understanding.
In depth psychology, liminal space can refer to a state of mind or a phase of personal development characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of being "in between" different states or phases. It can be a time of transition from one developmental stage of life to another and/ or a specific event or experience, such as a loss or significant change. Any experience that disrupts one's sense of identity and causes a period of confusion and re-evaluation.
During liminal space, we may feel a sense of disorientation and a loss of control. We might feel unmoored or disconnected from our usual sense of self (what we identify with and/or what is familiar to us and any beliefs/assumptions we hold about ourselves or the world). Depending on how we approach these times, it can also be a time of personal growth and self-discovery as we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world in new ways.
Perhaps this transitional space shows up in you as a feeling of stuckness, a void, a lostness, a not knowing, a lack of motivation, unsure what direction to move in …. you may find yourself in the aftermath of a relationship, job or role that has ended or changed form … any loss, ending or significant change may catapult you into the territory of a desert or wasteland where there are no maps and no markers (or you glimpse them briefly and then they disappear) … you may feel as though you have been abandoned here in this place which appears barren, lifeless and devoid of other inhabitants … the environment and conditions may seem harsh and available resources scarce … with few distractions in these isolated and uncultivated lands the invitation may be to befriend your solitude and the silence, spacious emptiness and mystery … to discover in your bareness, rawness, nakedness and vulnerability ... What strengths, capacities, qualities endure?
“Drop your maps and listen to your lostness like a sacred calling into presence. Here, where the old ways are crumbling and you may be tempted to burn down your own house. Ask instead for an introduction to that which endures. This place without a foothold is the province of grace. It is the questing field, most responsive to magic and fluent in myth. Here, where there is nothing left to lose, sing out of necessity that your ragged heart be heard. Send out your holy signal and listen for the echo back.”
- Toko-Pa Turner
Although this space may not readily offer up answers, guarantees or comfort there is life in this place beneath the surface, hidden for now. It’s understandably a challenging space for our everyday thinking minds that crave familiarity and certainty and the perceived safety that accompanies these.
What if we used our deep imaginations for a few moments to explore aspects of our experience that lie further away from our conscious awareness (this could be through imagery, movement, sound or making markings on paper) to engage with this inner terrain as if we were an adventurer on a quest in a new unfamiliar land. To practice an openness and curiousity to these seemingly foreign and barren lands and what they offer up to you … and to wait with wonder, heartfulness and respect for the life that is in the process of becoming and the wisdom emerging.
What can support this kind of imaginal inner work?
If you have meditated before you might already be familiar with ways that support an embodied connection with presence and spontaneous expression. You could experiment with this as your entry point into exploring these unknown lands and noticing what imagery, feelings, sensations arise as you allow yourself to journey into the vastness and experience the apparent emptiness of this terrain.
Some people find it helpful to bring awareness to the breath, so if that feels deepening for you, start there.
For other folk, a connection with presence may be found through inner or outer imagery. If using imagery as a gateway into an inner work experience see if you can also stay close to any feelings and/or sensations in the body.
Our capacity to dream (both while sleeping and awake in daydream/fantasy) is natural. You may find you need to give yourself permission to explore your sensory experience in this way as a child might, knowing that it's inevitable your everyday thinking mind will comment on or attempt to analyse or interpret your experience along the way. That's ok, just notice it's happening and gently return your attention to the focus of your practice (image, feeling, sensation).
“A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognise and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross”.
- John O'Donohue
These are creative invitations and explorations that can support self-awareness, understanding and meaning making. Rather than a prescriptive formula or suggested way of approaching these states and ways of being, see if you can follow your own direct experience in the moment and let yourself be surprised.
As always, safety of all kinds (physical/emotional and psychological) matters. Here is a link to a basic grounding practice that can support your connection to the present moment and offer some stability and steadiness if you feel strongly overwhelmed by or disconnected from your body/sensory experience or are new to inner work, meditation and mindfulness.
Photo 1 by Johannes Plenio and Photo 2 by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels
At this time of year I wanted to offer an alternative to new years resolutions and goal setting. Although many people find these helpful, for others they can be fuelled by shame and if unmet, inevitably a source of disappointment and self-judgement. What I’m offering here is a reflection on how an archetypal figure can be a guide to cultivating qualities that might support you in your relationship with the unknown.
The concept of archetypes as developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, approaches archetypes as inheritances from ancestral memories that play a central role in shaping human behaviour and experience. Jung believed that archetypes were universal patterns or themes expressed through symbols, myths, and stories found in different cultures.
Archetypes can be a useful tool for understanding the unconscious influences on human behaviour and for exploring the deeper meanings and motivations behind our actions and experiences.
The fool archetype is a figure that appears in various cultures and literary traditions. In literature and mythology, the fool is often portrayed as a wise but unconventional figure who uses humour, wit, and absurdity to challenge social norms and conventions. Often associated with spontaneity, creativity, and being free from the constraints and expectations of society.
A complex and multidimensional figure that embodies and expresses both wisdom and absurdity, mischief and paradox. The fool dimension of our own psyches merges the innocence of the child and the wisdom of the elder. Both draw on the capacity to perceive simply and purely, to be fully present to the moment and to all things arising, expressing and dissolving within it. The fool serves as a source of potential inspiration and insight for those who are willing to be in relationship with it.
You might explore how you could approach this new year with an openness and curiosity towards the unknown or unfamiliar (setting aside any preconceptions or assumptions as if encountering it for the first time). Perhaps it might mean supporting yourself to go in a direction that may be less conventional than ones you would usually choose or taking a risk by beginning a new relationship, activity, role, journey or project where there are no guarantees of a preferred outcome.
From the perspective of the Fool you may sense that you are embarking on an adventure into an expansive field of possibility and potentialities without any certainty or knowing.
Where in your life are you already living the fool’s way of being in the world?
Qualities of spontaneity, unconventional ways of thinking and/or being in the world (creative, visionary and/or non-conformist), humour, innocence merged with wisdom & a willingness to move into the unknown without certainty.
What areas of your life could benefit from you living any of these qualities even more?
It’s a natural part of being human to feel fear or uncertainty when faced with the unknown. The unknown can be intimidating because it heralds the possibility of change and the potential for things to unfold differently to what we had hoped for. It can also be scary when we feel like we have less control over a situation when we don't have all the information ahead of time. For many of us this can leave us feeling unsafe, activating our instinctual threat response (flight, flight, freeze or fawn) and learned survival strategies that have helped keep us safe in the past.
Navigating unknowns can be particularly challenging as it brings us closer to uncomfortable feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and fears around whether we can survive/cope or adapt to what the unknown will ask of us.
It’s important to first attend to any feelings of fear and cultivate a felt sense of safety and stability as a foundation to explore from through present moment sensory awareness (I’ve created a brief grounding through your 5 senses and the breath handout for you which can help you to do this). If you already are familiar with how to connect with what feels grounding, anchoring, stabilising and steadying for you, then you might also explore a “Don’t know” meditation as part of your fool’s entry into this new year.
Don't know meditation
"Don't know" meditation is a form of mindfulness meditation (from the Zen lineages) that involves gently repeating the phrase "Don't know". The idea behind "Don't know" meditation is to cultivate a sense of openness and curiosity by letting go of the need to know or understand everything. To cultivate these qualities we practice while noticing and allowing thoughts, feelings and sensations to come and go, without trying to label or judge them, gently repeating the phrase "Don't know”. This is one of many ways that might help you to cultivate a sense of acceptance towards your inner experience, support you to be more present in the moment and open up a little more to new experiences and perspectives that emerge. It doesn’t mean we forget everything we know or no longer interpret our inner and outer experiences, it just means we create more space around them.
May your journey into the new year be filled with the spirit of the fool in whatever way feels most inspiring for you.
Traveler, there is no road
By Antonio Machado
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.
I wanted to write something that might be supportive at this time of year in response to what I see emerging through many people I work with and have intimate experiences with myself …. loneliness.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the diversity of experiences, feelings, perspectives and ways of being in relation to this time of year depending on our lived experience, present circumstances, beliefs and relationship dynamics.
When loneliness arises we might experience feelings of isolation and disconnection, even when surrounded by other people. These feelings may come and go or be ongoing over a long period of time. This can feel deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, as if there is something “wrong”. Inwardly we may notice thoughts that judge, shame and/or blame ourselves for the circumstances we find ourselves in and/or for feeling this way. Inevitably this inner criticism activates an instinctual threat response (fight, flight, freeze or fawn) that has evolved in all species to detect and alert us to danger making it even harder to reach out to others and risk potential rejection. Most of us have learned habitual strategies that help us to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
It’s important to recognise that loneliness is a natural human emotion. It might be felt as a sadness born out of an absence of and a longing for connection, intimacy, understanding, acceptance, comfort and/or meaningful companionship. Understandably we most often yearn for these longings to be fulfilled by another. Perhaps loneliness is also intermingled with loss and disappointment from unmet hopes and ideals. From a biological perspective, the need to feel a sense of connection and belonging to others is a safety seeking instinct that all humans share. It makes sense that loneliness feels like a threat to our survival.
Self-compassion is the practice of extending understanding, acceptance and warmth towards ourselves, especially when we experience discomfort, difficulty or distress. It involves actively responding to ourselves with the same sensitivity, care and concern that we would offer someone we care about who is struggling, rather than with criticism or judgment. In adulthood when so often there is no external ‘other’ to hold or comfort us, self-compassion can be a powerful way to resource and learn to befriend ourselves.
A compassionate approach to loneliness may include:
Being aware of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and accept them rather than trying to suppress, diminish, deny or ignore them (mindfulness). Acceptance doesn’t mean you invited, chose or like that this experience is here, it just means you acknowledge this is the reality of your experience in this moment.
Recognition that struggling, suffering and uncomfortable feelings, including loneliness, are a universal human experience and other people feel this way too. Remembering this can sometimes help us to feel less alone in our suffering and more connected with the greater web of life (common humanity).
Responding to any feelings of sadness, isolation or disconnection with understanding, support and comfort (nurturing compassion).
An active compassionate response might be offering yourself a word or phrase that feels comforting or reassuring to hear e.g. “I’m here with you”, “This is really hard right now”, “Your suffering matters to me” … It’s important that we experiment with a few options until we discover what we most need to hear in this moment.
If this feels tricky for you, imagine what you would say to someone you deeply care about if they came to you for comfort when they were feeling lonely. This is probably what you most need to hear yourself.
So even if it feels strange at first, have a go at either silently or out loud speaking these words or phrases to yourself and notice how it feels to receive this. What is most important here is following through on your intention to respond to your pain with compassion rather than how strongly you feel this sense of compassion within yourself.
Sometimes, instead of or as well as words, being physically held is what would feel most reassuring. You could explore placing one hand or both on your chest, or one or both hands on your cheeks or both hands resting in one another or holding yourself in a self hug. Wrapping yourself in a blanket, hugging a pillow to your chest or creating a ‘nest’ with pillows you can lie or sit in can be other ways that feel comforting. See if you can sense in to any warmth or reassuring steadiness through the light pressure of touch.
Self-compassion can help us to soothe our nervous system and access our mammalian caregiving system through the comforting warmth of physical touch, a caring tone of voice and reassuring words. There are a variety of ways to access a part of us (our compassionate self) that instead of responding to our difficulties and suffering with criticism and judgment, offers warmth, understanding and a caring responsiveness. It doesn’t mean we won’t continue to experience discomfort, difficulty and suffering, it just means we are learning to relate differently to our suffering when it arises and connect with a felt sense of acceptance, care and safety.
There is no one way to respond to what feels difficult for you and self compassion may feel less familiar to you than compassion for others. Experimentation and adaptation is helpful to discover what can potentially be helpful and gentle perseverance is often needed to explore a practice often enough to know if it will be supportive for you at this time. As always, you are the expert of your own direct experience so please take good care of yourself, take what is helpful and leave what is not, nourish what feels meaningful for you, including any experiences and/or relationships that feel like they support connection and reach out to a trusted mental health practitioner or free helpline (see useful resource links below) if what you are experiencing feels beyond your capacity to cope with right now.
"Solitude is one of the most precious things in the human spirit. It is different from loneliness. When you are lonely, you become acutely conscious of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging. One of the lovely things about us as individuals is the incommensurable in us. In each person, there is a point of absolute nonconnection with everything else and with everyone. This is fascinating and frightening. It means that we cannot continue to seek outside ourselves for things we need from within. The blessings for which we hunger are not to be found in other places or people. These gifts can only be given to you by yourself. They are at home at the hearth of your soul".
Excerpt from his book, Anam Cara
Free National Helplines (Australia)
Free National Helplines
Free Self-Compassion Resources
You can learn more about different approaches to cultivating self-compassion and experience a variety of practices (guided audio and written exercises) through these two not for profit organisations. There are also many therapists skilled and experienced in working with mindfulness and self-compassion approaches, including myself, that can support you if you feel a more individualised process would be helpful.
Compassionate Mind UK
The information provided in this article is purely educational to support your mindfulness and/or self compassion practice and is not a substitute for therapy or medical advice. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional support from qualified health care practitioners. If you or the person you are concerned about appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate assistance from emergency services, a registered mental health practitioner or organisation in your area or a crisis care helplines.
Hi I'm Morgan. I’m a qualified Psychotherapist, Meditation & Mindfulness Facilitator & Mentor. I work with people who want to explore their inner worlds, understand themselves more deeply, cultivate self-compassion for their wounds & develop trust in connection with their own inner wisdom.
The information provided in my writings are purely educational to support your mindfulness and/or self compassion practice and are not a substitute for therapy or medical advice. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional support from qualified health care practitioners in your area. If you or the person you are concerned about appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate assistance from your local emergency services, a registered mental health practitioner or organisation in your area or a crisis care helpline in your country.
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