I’ve been writing about liminality for my doctorate – that in-between space when a person is not quite one thing any more, but nor are they yet what they are becoming. It often refers to the state of transition during a tribal rite of passage, when the initiand usually absents themselves from their society to go into the wilderness and undergo some kind of trial, like sacrificing a wild animal, to mark their transition from childhood to adulthood.

Richard Rohr

Spaces can also be liminal, as a place of transition. Author and theologian Richard Rohr describes this liminal space as:

“where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.”

For me, my liminal space was the ocean, particularly the Atlantic – my first crossing, and the voyage when I was most keenly aware of being removed from everything that was familiar and thrust into a place of intense fear, leading to exponential growth and transformation.

It strikes me that we generally don’t pay enough attention to these in-between places and states. The last few centuries of reductionist, mechanistic science have trained us to focus on things, rather than the spaces in between them. Even the word “space” is usually defined as empty, unoccupied, an absence rather than a presence.

I wonder what it would be like if we paid more attention to the liminal aspects of reality, and focused on….

…oceans as well as than continents

…relationships as well as than individuals

…boredom/not doing as well as busyness/tasks

…waiting as well as progressing

…who are we when nobody is looking, as well as when everybody is looking.

It feels to me that we need to develop this practice to help bring the world back into balance – to appreciate the yin as well as the yang, the receptive as well as the active, the right brain as well as the left – not just as a spiritual “nice to have” practice, but in order to connect with what science is increasingly telling us is the nature of reality. We inhabit a holistic universe, that can’t be fully explained by cutting it into little pieces, analysing them, and then putting them back together again. It is a synergistic universe, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is a universe composed mostly of dark energy and dark matter, which we can’t see or measure. According to the NASA Science website:

More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called “normal” matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe.”

How mind-blowing is that?!

So if we think that what we see is all there is (Daniel Kahneman’s WYSIATI), we are very much mistaken. To even begin to grasp the nature of reality, we need to pay attention to the invisible, the interstitial, the liminal. Seems like that’s where all the juicy stuff is. So I’m going to make a conscious effort to be less thingist, and more betweenist.


Other Stuff:

Speaking of liminality, I’ve just finished reading The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn, a wonderful and moving memoir about the journey she and her husband took, walking 630 miles along the South West Coast Path through Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall, after they lost their home and business, and he was diagnosed with a terminal disease. It includes some interesting reflections on the nature of the homeless, those people who have fallen into the liminal spaces of our society. I highly recommend the book (although I found the Audible narration rather annoying – the actor’s voice sounded too old and too posh when I wanted to pretend it was the author speaking).

These thoughts on liminality also remind me of the Japanese practice of naming blocks, rather than streets. So in a way they focus on the things (blocks) rather than the in-betweens (the streets), which is interesting given that, in general, “when processing visual scenes, Westerners attend to salient objects and East Asians attend to the relationships between focal objects and background elements”, so you might have thought they would name the streets, while we in the west would name the blocks. Anyhow, the main point is that there are different ways of looking at things, and holding the awareness that we have been enculturated to see things one way is a crucial first step to being able to see them a different way.

And finally, I’d like to recommend a short-but-sweet book called Liminal Thinking, by Dave Gray. If you don’t have time to read even that (184 pages, with lots of pictures), there is a good Q&A here, a 20-min video here, and my own summary in a previous blog post here.





    • Sorry to disappoint you, Lorne, but no I’m not! Just reflecting on it and finding more meaning in it. I think I’ve done more than enough rowing for one lifetime!

  • Interestingly, you introduced me to the word liminal in this blog. Today I visited the Anderson Collection, a gallery of modern art on the campus of Stanford University for its 5th anniversary. I enjoyed one of the special exhibitions by MIT mathematician, Jim Campbell, who has art featuring LED lights. He did the lights at the top of the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. I see he has written a book – Quantizing Effects: The Liminal Art of Jim Campbell.

    • So now you’ll be seeing liminality everywhere!
      I’m going to be teaching a class at Stanford while I’m in the US – Leslie Field invited me.

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