Guides for the liminal spaces: On queerness, neurodivergence, and the boxes that don’t fit us anymore

Listen to Heather read the post:

There’s a place I love to walk. I discovered it at the beginning of the summer, when my daughters and I rented a little house in a different neighbourhood of the city than where we’d lived before. It’s a low-lying area along the Red River, ending where it meets the Seine River. It’s an area that’s frequently flooded in Spring when the rivers swell their banks. You can see the marks of past floods on the trunks of the trees that are rooted there.

I love this place because it feels liminal – a space between two realities. Sometimes it is solid land, sometimes it is part of the river, and sometimes it is covered in thick, gooey mud after the water has subsided. It’s special (and somewhat mystical) partly because I can only navigate it when Mother Nature gives me permission. Whenever it is wet, I have to walk a different path on higher ground.

I have a greater propensity for liminality than most people. I go seeking it in nature and in life because I want to understand it, to know it as deeply as I can even though its very nature is to remain always somewhat unknowable. There’s a mystery that draws me to it, and so I make choices that seem baffling to many because a strange siren call beckons me toward this mystical place. 

In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage. It’s a space of transition, threshold, ritual, and quest. In most of the literature about it, liminality is a temporary place that has an end-point – a place we eventually emerge out of when our new story begins. It’s what happens when we lose our job, a loved one dies, or we move through puberty into adulthood.

According to Victor Turner, one of the pre-eminent early writers on the subject, liminality can have three dimensions – a moment, a period, or an epoch. Momentary liminal spaces are sudden events, like death, divorce, or illness. Periodic liminal spaces are stages of life, like puberty or the shift into elderhood. Epochal liminal spaces are those that last a lifetime, like when someone steps out of or is exiled from society (monkhood, for example). (Source: The Uses and Meaning of Liminality)

At least in Turner’s early work, there is some apparent judgement of epochal liminality. He talks of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger”. These qualifying words seem to miss out on the beauty of what is offered from this place of suspended liminality. What about those of us who feel called to lives of liminality? Those of us who live as edgewalkers and wanderers, always witnessing society but never being fully part of it? What about the value of the lessons we learn there? What of the gifts we offer to those who don’t spend their lives in quest as we do?

I don’t know why liminality is so deeply embedded in who I am. I don’t know why I seek it out in such an intentional way that I sold my home last year (as soon as my daughters moved away) and have been nomadic ever since. Perhaps if I were more connected to my own ancient indigeneity, if it hadn’t been so intentionally trained out of me by colonization, religion, and patriarchy, I would have a better understanding of the purpose and calling in this restlessness. Perhaps I would see myself (and the society I live in would see it too) as some kind of medicine woman, explorer, alchemist, or guide. Perhaps there would have even been a ritual way of commissioning me into it – a robe placed across my shoulders, perhaps, and a walking stick offered for the journey.

What I DO know, after years of doubting my purpose, years of wondering why I didn’t fully know what it meant to fit in, and years of judging my restlessness, is that there is value in this calling. It may not be fully understood, in a culture that centres capitalism, colonization and consumerism and distances itself from spirituality and indigeneity, but it is necessary. Perhaps now more than ever, it is of value.

Now, when the world feels increasingly wobbly and the systems we’ve created that used to make us feel secure only add to the wobbliness, we need guides for the liminal spaces. We need people who have the resilience, resources, and capacity to skillfully navigate what is unknown and unknowable, people who understand the quest and aren’t afraid to lead other people through it. We need people with courage and strength to face the uncertainty.

Several years ago, around the time I was leaving my full-time employment to set off on this quest called self-employment, I heard a speaker at a conference say, “The world needs more people who know how to navigate in the dark.” In that instant, the whole world went still and everyone else in the room disappeared. I knew she was talking directly to me. I was very much “in the dark” at that moment, having quit my job just after my then-husband attempted suicide. As much as I felt lost and overwhelmed at that time, though, I had a strong sense that there was something in me that was being strengthened by the darkness for a higher purpose. I’d felt it years earlier, too, when my stillborn son Matthew was born and I felt oddly at peace and empowered as I navigated the darkness and grief of that time.

Perhaps that moment, when the whole room went still and I heard the words of the speaker as a clarion call, was my modern-day version of a commissioning into this work. Perhaps that was my invitation to stop doubting myself and step fully into the confidence that this work was calling me. Not long afterward, I started the work that would eventually lead to my first book and the Centre for Holding Space. I have been faithful to the calling ever since.

Lately I’ve had some new thoughts about liminality and about the value and purpose of this space. It occurs to me that liminality is not just the space in between “what was” and “what will be”, but it’s the space between polarities. It’s the space between black and white, good and bad – even male and female. It’s the space of “transition”, “transcendence” and “transness”. It’s the curved line on the yin-yang symbol

In liminality, old boxes, definitions, polarities, beliefs, and dogmas fall apart. That can feel like a scary and destabilizing place to be. We can’t make sense of this new space from within the limitation of our old version of sense-making. We try but we always fail. Often, we try to put the genie back in the bottle but the genie refuses. The genie is a lover of freedom.

I believe this is part of the reason why the rights of trans people have become such a focal point recently (at least here, in North America). Trans people represent liminality – the space in between male and female – and many people want to put “the genie back in the bottle”. For those people, the world makes more sense, and it feels safer if gender exists only on a binary. 

Many people bemoan the fact that more and more people are coming out as trans and that there is greater and greater demand for gender-affirming care. These people have constructed a belief that there is a “gay agenda”, that drag queens are grooming young children into gay lifestyles, and that providing more supportive spaces in schools for trans youth is a threat to family rights. I hear the fear of liminality in these people – they want to return to what they believe was a world that made sense and where they could keep their children safe.

I have a very different view of this issue. I feel hopeful that more and more people are seeing themselves for who they truly are, outside of the definitions and binaries that once boxed them in (and that we, as a culture, were addicted to). I am encouraged by those who find themselves in “epochal liminality”, outside of the limitations of linear, binary thinking. Just as I resisted the language of “stuckness”, “failed ritual” and “danger” in the anthropological literature, I am much more inclined to see the beauty and value of what is transpiring and to challenge the resistance.

This form of liminality is not without precedent among non-human animal species. In an episode of the podcast, You’re Wrong About, there’s a fascinating exploration of queer animals, including an island with an unusually high percentage of lesbian seagulls. According to the research done by the podcast host, our awareness of how much queerness shows up in animals is limited largely because there is fear and lack of funding that limits the research.

I am hopeful that that is changing and that, despite the political push to “put the genie back in the bottle”, there is increasing openness to the liminality of queerness. I am delighted to be witness, for example, to the ways that my daughters and their circles of friends explore gender and sexuality. There’s a playfulness there, an openness to possibility. They inspire me to explore it for myself as well, to step into liminality with them. I don’t feel any of the fear that I might have in my younger, more religious days (or that I witness in some of my friends).

I believe that trans people, and all others across the 2SLGBTQIA+ spectrum, have a gift to offer the world from their place of liminality. I believe that many have gained wisdom from their own personal quests that the rest of us can benefit from. By removing themselves from the boxes that once confined them, they are modeling what it can look like to no longer be confined by the systems we’ve created and that now harm us. I believe that instead of resisting and marginalizing them, we should be listening and paying attention.

I feel similarly about the number of us who are now identifying as neurodivergent. There is freedom in exploring what it means to remove ourselves from what is seen as “normal”. There is gift and possibility when we step out of the frame ourselves, or when we listen to those who do.

Bayo Akomolafe once said, in a conversation in which he talked about the neurodivergence of his son, that “whiteness attempts to flatten everything” and I hear the truth of that. Systems of dominance, like white supremacy, colonization, and patriarchy, attempt to flatten us, to put us all in boxes and to keep us there. Those of us who live in the liminal spaces are forced to reside in spaces that feel more safe for the dominant culture. We lose our uniqueness, we lose the ceremonies that celebrate and empower us to step into our special areas of giftedness, and we are forcibly distanced from our own internal sources of wisdom.

When we break out of those boxes and see ourselves outside of the lenses of those systems, when we enter the liminality of a world that’s less definable, we bring dimension and possibility back to a flattened world. Instead of marginalizing those people who live in liminality, we should be embracing them, calling on their wisdom and gathering around them in the public square.

I want to say to those people who find themselves embracing their own liminality (whether that is in their queerness, their neurodivergence, or some other way), in much the same way as I heard from that speaker several years ago, that “the world needs more people who know how to navigate liminality”.

The world needs YOU, my friend, even if you’re currently feeling lost and overwhelmed and wounded by frightened people. The world needs you to continue to be true to yourself despite the efforts to put you back in a box (or a closet). The world needs you to be courageous and strong even when there are those who fear for your safety.

The world is changing and we need new skills for this changing world. One of those skills is the ability to navigate liminal spaces. Who better to guide us than those who are, by their very nature, liminal?

****

Strengthen your capacity for liminal spaces in our online program, How to Hold Space Foundation Program

Rethinking Liminality: evolving my understanding of “the space in between”

“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control.” – Richard Rohr
 
The first time I came across the concept of liminal space (I believe it was in the book Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr), I felt an instant connection to the concept. Liminality helped to explain so much of my life at the time. I’d let go of some of the stories of my past and was stepping into the unknown, not yet knowing what lay on the other side. I was leaving things that felt relatively firm and familiar – marriage, career, church, etc. – assuming I’d find something that felt similarly firm and familiar on the other side once I’d gotten through the wobbliness of the liminal space in between.
 
Readers of my book, The Art of Holding Space, will know that I use the metaphor of the chrysalis to explain the concept of liminal space. A caterpillar leaves the life she has known, surrenders to the gooey mess of the chrysalis, and waits to become something new, not really knowing that the butterfly life is in her future but trusting the process nonetheless.
 
That metaphor made a lot of sense to me then, when I was releasing old stories and trusting that there would be an “other side”. But now… well, my understanding of liminality continues to evolve and I’m no longer as attached to that metaphor as I once was. I think it tells only part of the story of liminality and it’s time for the next iteration.
 
Last summer, after my children had moved away, I sold my house and intentionally thrust myself into liminal space, becoming a digital nomad in Europe and Central America, not knowing for certain what would be the “butterfly” version of the “end” of my journey. I thought at some point, I’d have an epiphany about where I wanted to live for the next part of my life and what my life would be like. Just like in the past, when I left my marriage, church, and career, I assumed I’d find something that felt firm and familiar on the other side. In the meantime, I spent time exploring different places and paying attention to what the “soft animal of my body” loves.

What I didn’t anticipate, when I set out on my liminal quest, is that the greatest value in the experience would have nothing to do with the butterfly life on the other side, but everything to do with liminality itself.

In other words, liminality is THE WHOLE POINT. Liminality isn’t just the process, it’s the new destination. I wasn’t preparing myself for an end point, I was becoming more liminal.  

What I’m beginning to understand, on a deeper level, is that ALL OF LIFE is liminal and the best we can do is learn to accept the liminality and become more adapted to it. Instead of telling ourselves “this wobbliness is temporary and there will be something stable, familiar, and predictable on the other side”, we are better off finding stability within ourselves so that the instability of liminality does not cause as much disruption and struggle in our lives.
 
This has probably always been true, on some level, but it is especially true in this moment in history when things like climate change, a pandemic, and increasing political unrest are causing almost daily disruptions in our lives and will likely do more and more so in the future. Our lives are wobbly and unpredictable. We can’t find solid ground on which to land. So, what’s the alternative? Learning to adapt to liminality.
 
When I started to examine the metaphor I’ve been using for liminality, I realized that even while embracing the concept wholeheartedly, I was still attached to a linear, binary view, where there is a “here” and a “there”, an “old story” and a “new story”. That doesn’t feel sufficient anymore. Perhaps a better metaphor, one that I’ve explored in the last few months as I’ve spent a lot of time by the ocean, is the shoreline, where you can be standing on dry land in one moment, and up to your knees in water the next. It is neither land nor sea, but both/and. Liminality is a place of flux, where you are always becoming and releasing, evolving and adapting.
 
Not only does an expanded understanding of liminality help us make sense of a world that feels unstable and unpredictable, it can also help us evolve our thinking in areas where we tend to get stuck in binary thinking. Take gender, for example. If we learn to become liminal thinkers, we no longer need to see all people divided into two clear genders, male and female. We can accept that there is, in fact, a broad spectrum of genders and to try to fit people into boxes is to deny them of their full humanity.
 
Alok, one of the wisest teachers on this topic that I know of, said in this short video clip, “It’s not just that the binary reduces the complexity of the world, but that it forces us into oppositional thinking. We’re taught that there is one side and another side, but I think non-binary thinking allows us to hold harmony where other people see dissonance, to be able to say we can be both/and. We can experience incredible grief and sorrow and joy inside of that. We can feel so certain about something and still incorporate doubt. And that’s, I think, what we need now in this world more than ever – to reject parsing the world into dichotomies, like here or there or like us or them. They hold us back from a more intimate and honest encounter with how the world is already both/and.”
 
How, then, do we become more liminal? How do we adapt to the shoreline, accepting that we will live in that place indefinitely rather than assuming eventually the land will be stable again? I’ve given that a lot of thought, and instead of attempting to answer that question in this blog post, I’ve created a new course and a community where we can have conversations to explore it together. We are very near to launching that program (it should be available next week) and I look forward to exploring these questions with you

Holding liminal space

IMG_6166

 

“I’m holding space for you.” That phrase has become more and more common in our vernacular lately, and there’s a part of me that delights in hearing it and a part of me that sometimes cringes.

The part that cringes is the part that hears the cliché that that phrase has become. Those words are said (especially on social media) sometimes far too glibly and casually. It’s become a throw-away phrase, not unlike “thoughts and prayers”, that makes us feel like we’re being supportive without requiring that we get our hands dirty. If I’m holding space for you, we seem to think, you can’t accuse me of being an absent friend, but you also can’t expect me to do any of the messy work with you.

When we toss those words out too casually, the space we’re holding becomes a shallow one. “If I just drop this ‘I’m holding space for you’ comment on your anguished Facebook post, I can come back later when your problems are resolved and we can celebrate together. No fuss, no mess.”

There is an element of spiritual bypassing to this understanding of holding space.

Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by John Welwood. “Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves,” he says, “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.   

“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”

There is something in our nature and/or culture (especially in the West) that has conditioned us to want the easy path. We want to get to “spiritual” without taking the journey through “messy”. We search for those tools and practices that will help us avoid the darkness, the brokenness, and the rawness. And, in the ways that we hold space for each other, we hope to avoid other people’s rawness and darkness too. It is our unspoken fear that if we have to be too present for their darkness, then we will have no choice but to see our own.

For the last few months, as I prepare to write a book on what it means to hold space, I’ve been wrestling with these concerns around shallowness and spiritual bypassing. If I am to be so closely associated with the concept of holding space (ie. Google the term and my name pops up at or near the top), then I need to be clear about what I mean by it, and what I mean by it is far from shallow.

In order to deepen the term, I started to consider what kind of space I wanted to talk about holding. Is it safe space? Not entirely – sometimes it feels frightening and unclear and requires that we step into that which makes us uncomfortable. Is it brave space? Sometimes, but other times it just feels like soft space that doesn’t require bravery. Is it deep space? Often it is, but then there are those times when shallow is good enough, at least for a first step.

Finally I came up with this… It’s about holding liminal space.

Liminal originates from the Latin word “limen” which means “a threshold”. In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” (from Wikipedia)

A liminal space, then, is a period in which something (social hierarchy, culture, belief, tradition, identity, etc.) has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. It’s the space between, when a trapeze artist let’s go of one swing and doesn’t yet know whether she’ll be able to reach the other swing. There is nothing shallow about liminal space.

In the article Grieving as Sacred Space, Richard Rohr describes liminal space as “…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.”

It was that liminal space that I talked about when I first described the kind of holding space that happened at my mom’s deathbed. It was messy and raw and it lead us into the depths of our darkest grief when Mom finally breathed her last breath. It was also a time when we were “finally out of the way” and had to surrender to the God of our understanding.

It’s that liminal space that I talked about when I was in a place of burnout from the demands of a growing business and the ending of a marriage. Or when I was stepping into complex, trauma-informed, race relations work where I was challenged with my own bias.

This weekend, along with millions of Canadians, I watched some of that liminal space unfold in front of me on stage as Gord Downie performed what was probably his final concert. In a remarkable show of courage and strength, he went out on tour with his band, The Tragically Hip, despite the fact that he has inoperable brain cancer that will probably kill him in less than a year.  In a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget (watch the video clip here), with pure anguish written on his face and tears rolling down his cheeks, he screamed a primal scream that ripped through the air and left a scar across the whole country. This was not a scream that could be resolved. It was not a cry for help or for pity. It was a scream that emerged from the deepest place in him and touched into the deepest places in us.

When we hold liminal space, we are willing to hold that kind of scream, to witness it and not judge or resolve it. We are willing to be in both the darkest and lightest of places with each other, to be alongside that kind of anguish and terror in tandem with the profound joy and celebration of a life well-lived. We are willing to crack open and be at our rawest and most vulnerable and we are willing to hold each other in that unresolved place.

That is what I mean when I talk about holding space. There is no spiritual bypassing in that place and no shallowness. It can rip you apart and leave you breathless. It can require much more of you than you knew you had to give. It takes strength and courage and resilience and a fierce commitment to love.

Holding that kind of space is one of the most sacred acts we can do for each other. When we do it, we are standing on holy ground.

I have the great privilege of coaching and sometimes creating ceremony for people who are in that liminal space. This is not a task I take lightly and sometimes I fail at it (especially when I let my ego get in the way). I need to be spiritually and emotionally prepared for the darkness to show up and for the anguish to overwhelm people as they take this journey. I also need to be prepared for the most powerful kind of light and love to emerge. It’s what coaches, therapists, pastors, hospice workers, healers, spiritual directors, nurses, and midwives must all do. It’s humbling, beautiful, and exhausting work.

I had the privilege of creating a “liminal space” ceremony for a couple of people recently, and I can tell you that it was one of the most beautiful and yet energetically draining things I’ve done in a long time. I created a metaphoric journey that invited them, over the course of a couple of hours, to peer into both their shadow and their light. When they dove into their own darkness, I held them both physically and emotionally. When they stepped into the light, I was there to steady them. At the end of the ceremony, we celebrated what they are about to birth.

For hours after the ceremony, I suffered from a powerful headache. That night, I had frightening and disorienting dreams. It took me a few days of intentional self-care and gentleness to shake off the weariness. While it was an amazing experience for all of us, it took a lot out of me both physically and emotionally.

That’s why I am so insistent that self-care needs to be a high priority for anyone who holds liminal space. We can’t do this well unless we are well-grounded and supported.

The next time you say to someone “I’m holding space for you,” ask yourself if you’re only willing and able to hold shallow space, or if you’re truly willing to be there for the liminal space. If it’s shallow space you’re holding (and, to be clear, that is necessary too – when we’re in that liminal space, we don’t need everyone in our circles to hold the depth of it), perhaps better words would be “I love you and am standing by you.”

If, on the other hand, you want to hold liminal space, make sure you’re prepared for the primal scream.

P.S. If you’re in the midst of that primal scream and need someone to hold that space with you, check out my coaching page. If you host liminal space, consider joining us in The Helper’s Circle

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.

Pin It on Pinterest