Sometimes, when you’ve read too many deep thinkers and thought too many deep thoughts, you just have to go back to Dr. Seuss for some clarity. While writing the first three chapters of my book on holding space in the last few weeks, I was puzzling over how to describe liminal space. I finally went back to this…
You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
In the first chapter of the book, I wrote about the liminal space we were in when we were expecting Mom’s death (an expansion of the blog post that was the catalyst for this book). Mom was in that liminal space herself (not quite dead, but no longer quite alive) and we were in that space with her) not quite bereaved and yet no longer able to participate in full relationship with her).
Inspired by Dr. Seuss, I wrote my own version…
We were waiting.
Waiting for her breath to change
or the pain to come
or the song to end
or the light to change
or the birds to visit
or the night to come
or the nurse to say “it’s almost over”.
Ironically, (or perhaps serendipitously), while I’ve been writing these chapters, I’ve been in another kind of Waiting Place. This time, I am “not quite divorced and yet no longer in a marriage”. It’s been a summer of waiting. Waiting for divorce lawyers to draw up separation papers, waiting for the bank to clear the mortgage, waiting for the real estate lawyer to draw up new papers for the house, waiting for the land transfer title to go through so that I own the house. Each waiting period has been compounded with at least one of the parties involved going on vacation, so what should have taken a few weeks has dragged on for six months.
Last winter, I decluttered and repainted the interior of my house. Anticipating the new flooring that we badly need, I moved all of the living room furniture into the garage before painting. But then it took months longer than I expected to push all of the paperwork through, so the floors still aren’t finished and the furniture is still in the garage. My living room, quite literally, feels like The Waiting Place. (In fact, a friend dropped in to pick something up and thought she had the wrong place because it looked like we’d moved out.) “Waiting for the bank to call. Waiting for the lawyer to return from a month-long vacation. Waiting for the old carpet to be torn out. Waiting for the furniture to be moved back in. Everyone is just waiting.”
It’s been frustrating and what little patience I had at the beginning of the summer has been stretched to the limit. A person can only take so much of The Waiting Place. It’s been wreaking havoc with my emotions, bringing up old fears and frustration, and getting in the way of my most important relationships.
Finally, today, I decided it was time to do what I tell my coaching clients to do when they’re in the liminal space between what was and what is yet to come – stay present for what’s right now, find the tools and practices that help with processing, and open myself to what wants to emerge out of the liminal space.
For the first time in a long time, I took out my mandala journal and created a new mandala for the liminal space. It helped. Here’s a mandala journal prompt that I created out of my own process…
Liminal Space – a mandala journal prompt
In anthropology, a liminal space is a threshold. It’s an ambiguous space 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. That liminal space finds us between who we once were and who we are becoming. It’s disorienting, uncomfortable, and it almost always takes far longer than we expect.
Much like The Waiting Place in “Oh The Places You’ll Go“, it feels like “a most useless place”, but it’s not. It’s a time of hibernation, a time of transformation, a time of resting, and a time of deep learning.
Nobody teaches us more about liminal space than the lowly caterpillar. Not knowing why, and not having the capacity to imagine its future as a butterfly, a caterpillar knows only that it must surrender, shed its skin, create the shell of a chrysalis, and then dissolve into a formless, gel-like substance awaiting rebirth.
The liminal space is about surrender. It’s about releasing the caterpillar identity before we have the vision for the butterfly. It’s about falling apart so that we can rebuild. It’s about daring to go into the darkness so that we can, one day, emerge into the light. It’s about trusting Spirit to direct the transformation.
One of the most critical things that the caterpillar teaches us in its transformation is that we need the shell of the chrysalis to hold space for us when we fall apart.
We need a protective shell that holds us in our formless state. It keeps us safe in the midst of transformation. It protects us from outside elements so that we can focus on the important internal work we need to do. It believes in the possibility for us even before we have the capacity to believe it ourselves.
When we enter our own chrysalis, whether that is the waiting place of divorce, grief, pregnancy, job loss, career change, graduation, children moving away, or any number of human experiences, we must build our own chrysalises that hold the space for our transformation. Like a patchwork quilt, we stitch together the people or groups who hold space for us (family, friends, pastors, therapists, coaches, churches, sharing circles, etc.), the practices that help us hold space for ourselves (journaling, artwork, prayer, body work, meditation, etc.), and the spaces which make us feel safe for transformation (our home, the park, a church, etc.)
1. Draw a large circle and a second slightly smaller circle inside it.
2. At the centre of the mandala, glue or draw an image or words that represent the liminal space. (I used an image from The Waiting Place in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”. Another idea might be an image of a chrysalis.)
3. In the space between the image and the next largest circle, write sentences, words, or phrases that represent what The Waiting Place is like. Explore your emotions, fears, resistance, etc., and also explore your wishes, your opportunities for learning, etc. You can use the following as prompts for starting your sentences:
– I feel…
– I am…
– I fear…
– I want…
– I will…
– I am learning…
– I wish…
(Note: I blurred mine in the image above, since it was a little too personal to share.)
4. Imagine that the outer rim (between the two outer circles) is your chrysalis. Inside the rim, write down all of the people who hold space for you, all of the practices that help you hold space, and all of the places you go when you need to hold space for yourself.
5. Colour/decorate your mandala however you wish. As you are doing so, set an intention for what you wish to invite in as you surrender to the chrysalis. For example, I whispered an intention for more patience and grace as I wait for the next story to emerge.
Want more prompts like this? Sign up for Mandala Discovery and you’ll receive 30 prompts on topics such as grief, fear, play, grace, community, etc.
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“Treating ourselves like appliances that can be unplugged and plugged in again at will or cars that stop and start with the twist of a key, we have forgotten the importance of fallow time and winter and rests in music. We have abandoned a whole system of dealing with the neutral zone through ritual, and we have tried to deal with personal change as though it were a matter of some kind of readjustment.” – William Bridges
One of the women in my women’s circle shared recently that she has a hard time explaining to her husband where she goes every Thursday. “He just doesn’t get it,” she said. “He keeps asking ‘But… what do you do there? What’s the purpose?’ He can’t understand why we’d want to sit in a circle and share stories of our lives when we’re not accomplishing anything or learning anything.”
This is a common story in my work. “But what will we do?” people ask when I talk about my retreats, workshops, or even coaching sessions. I talk about making mandalas, walking labyrinths, and sitting in conversation circles, but that’s often not enough for people who believe life is only valuable when we’re doing/accomplishing/fixing/building/growing/learning something.
We have created a culture in which busy = important, accomplishment = valuable, and idleness = wasting time. Even when we go away for retreat or sit in circle, we think we have to be able to name what we accomplished in our time away. If we don’t have a checklist of “things we got done” then the time wasn’t valuably invested. To say we simply wandered in the woods for a few days is the equivalent of admitting we’re lazy and unproductive and that we can’t be trusted to contribute to society.
We fear laziness, we chafe at lack of productivity, and we hide in shame when we take too long to “get over things”.
We have become a society that has lost the capacity for spaciousness in our transitions.
Take grief, for example. We think if we can name the “five stages of grief”, then we’ll be able to clean up the process, hide the messiness, and get through it faster.
Birth is the same. In many cultures, a mother is expected to return to “productive” work only weeks after the biggest life-changing event she’s ever gone through.
And those are the “big” ones. When it comes to “smaller” transitions (changing careers, ending relationships, having a car accident, etc.), we’re hardly even given permission to talk about them, let alone experience the full weight of them in our lives. There are more important things to do than to sit around in sharing circles talking about the hard things life has thrown our way.
In one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, Transitions, William Bridges calls the space between the ending of one phase of our lives and the beginning of another “the neutral zone”. Some time around the industrial revolution, we lost touch with the neutral zone.
“In other times and places the person in transition left the village and went out into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert. There the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality. This was a time ‘between dreams’ in which the old chaos from the beginnings welled up and obliterated all forms. It was a place without a name – an empty space in the world and the lifetime within which a new sense of self could gestate.”
Again and again in my coaching work, I find myself in conversation with people who fear the neutral zone. When we begin the conversation, they talk about some big change they feel they need to make in their lives and they express frustration about their lack of ability to get there quickly and easily. “What’s wrong with me?” they almost always say. “I know that it’s time for change, but I can’t seem to find clarity or drive to get me to the next stage of my life. I feel like I’m stuck in quicksand.” Again and again they beat themselves up for not living up to some arbitrary expectation they’ve placed on themselves or they feel others are placing on them.
Somewhere in the middle of the first conversation, I nudge them to give themselves permission to “just be lost” for awhile. Usually, there s some resistance to this. Lostness is not something they’ve ever been taught to value. Lostness = unworthiness.
By the second or third conversation, most have spoken aloud their desire for more spaciousness. “I just feel like making art for awhile” or “I just need to learn to give myself permission to feel this grief deeply” or “I’m going to take a few months just to ‘be’ and not ‘do’.”
It’s remarkably hard to get to that place of spaciousness and acceptance. Sometimes it’s even hard for me, as a coach, to invite them into that place. The voices in my head often remind me “They’re paying you good money for this – shouldn’t you help them accomplish something? Shouldn’t you do something more valuable than give them permission to just be for awhile?”
That moment of doubt always passes though, when I remember how crucial it is for us to transition well and to honour the neutral zone before we step into the new beginning. If I give my clients nothing else but the permission to honour their own timing in their transitions, then I have done well.
What we don’t realize, when we rush through the neutral zone, is that we’re short-circuiting real growth. If we deny ourselves of the fallow time, the winter season when seeds lie dormant underground, then our growth will be stunted and unhealthy, and, more often than not, the emotions we denied ourselves will emerge in less healthy ways later in our lives.
We need the neutral zone and we need to honour and give space for it in others as well.
A bamboo plant spends three or four years growing a good root system before anything emerges above the ground. In the same way, we need to invest in our rootedness before the growth will be obvious to anyone else. We need to create the space and time to “just be” before we are ready to “do”.
Learn to create spaciousness in your life by giving yourself permission to wander in the woods, to make messy art, to stare into space, to sit in long conversations with friends, to feel emotions deeply, to savour good food, to say no to some of your commitments, or to go on a pilgrimage or vision quest.
This is not time “wasted”, it’s time well invested in your own growth and well-being.
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“Something is shifting in my life. I feel lost. Everything I once depended on and believed in feels unstable and unreliable. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
I hear some version of this story almost every week in my coaching work. Somewhere in the middle of their lives, women (and men, though I hear fewer of those stories) go through a period of transition when their world shifts and the ground feels wobbly under their feet. They’ve left behind an old story but haven’t found themselves in the new story yet. They don’t know how to define themselves anymore and they’re not even sure they have much value.
The stories are almost always accompanied with tears and some measure of shame. They think they’re doing it wrong. They think everyone else has it figured out. They think there’s supposed to be a straight path between the old story and the new story. Or they think they were foolish and selfish for no longer being satisfied with the old story that once felt comfortable.
They’ve been fed a false narrative.
While still in high school, they were told that they’re supposed to figure out “what they want to be when they’re older” and then they’re supposed to follow a straight path to the “American dream.” They’re pretty sure that means that once they’re forty, they should have everything figured out and the question that once plagued them will have all been answered or at least have faded in importance.
But once they get to a midlife point, they realize that the questions are getting bigger and more urgent. They don’t know what to believe anymore. They don’t really know who they are. They don’t understand the meaning of their lives. They discover that motherhood, or their career, or the book they got published, or the dream they brought to fruition doesn’t satisfy them as much as they’d hoped. They’re feeling empty and lost, like a boat adrift at sea.
It’s such a common story that if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it, I could go on a very lovely vacation to the Caribbean.
The first thing I do when I hear this story is give them permission to cry and feel the grief. The second thing I do is tell them “This is where you’re supposed to be. This is a woman’s journey. You have to give yourself permission to be lost for awhile. It’s the only way you’ll find the path to your more authentic self.”
We all need to go through the empty place in order to connect with our deeper selves.
Every woman I know who has found her way into a deepened wisdom and a deeper sense of calling has gone through the empty place between stories. They’ve all found themselves adrift at sea somewhere in the middle of their lives, where they had to let go of old paradigms, old belief systems, and old ways of defining themselves. It was only when they let go of the resistance and the need to “be productive” and “be successful” that they were able to sink into the deep stillness of the empty place between stories.
Nobody wants the complexity of real transformation.
The mess and the grief of letting go of the old story is scary and uncomfortable. We want the simple solution that many of the self-help books are selling us. We want ten easy bullet points.
But real transformation is more like the labyrinth. Real transformation invites us to step off the path into a complex, labyrinthine journey.
“Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free “travel packages” sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – ‘a transformative journey to a sacred centre’ full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” – Parker Palmer, Let your Life Speak
The labyrinth teaches us much about the journey through transition.
When we enter the labyrinth, we are invited to release. We let go of Story A. We let go of our expectations, our “American dream”, our comfort level.
Once we reach the centre, we are ready to receive. But our cups can only be filled up again if we reach that place empty and open. We’ve emptied ourselves of the old story so that the new story can begin to grow. At the centre, we receive guidance from Spirit, we receive grace, and we receive the strength we need to continue the journey.
When we are ready, we return. But we don’t go back to Story A. We return with the new story that has begun to grow at the centre. We return with a deeper connection to our authentic selves. We return ready to step into Story B.
What’s surprising, though, and always somewhat unsettling, is that Story B bears little resemblance to Story A. Story A fit into a much cleaner box. Story B has a lot of loose ends and a permeable border. Story A was black and white. Story B has a lot of complex shades of grey.
We are invited into a place of non-duality.
As Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward, the story for the second half of life is one of non-duality. When we are in a story of duality (the first half of our lives), we see the word in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.
Rohr describes non-dual thinking as “our ability to read reality in a way that is not judgmental, in a way that is not exclusionary of the part that we don’t understand. When you don’t split everything up according to what you like and what you don’t like, you leave the moment open, you let it be what it is in itself, and you let it speak to you. Reality is not totally one, but it is not totally two, either! Stay with that necessary dilemma, and it can make you wise.”
Many people resist the invitation into Story B. They want to stay in a place where the world feels secure and safe. They hang onto a black and white world and they judge those who introduce them to shades of grey. Those people often become the fundamentalists who fight with all their might to resist change. They close themselves off in a box of self-preservation rather than step into a place of ambiguity.
But there is little value in hanging onto Story A when the new story wants to emerge. Your comfort will soon turn to bitterness, your safe home will become your prison.
Our world wants us to move, individually and collectively, into Story B.
There are many thought leaders who believe that our world is in that empty place – the place of chaos – between Story A and Story B.
Yesterday, I participated in the first session of ULab, hosted by Otto Scharmer of MIT and Presencing Institute. On this MOOC (massive open online course) there are 25,000 people who are connecting to talk about the transformation of business, society, and self. We’re learning what it means to be in that “place of disruption” between stories. While on the webinar, thousands of us were tweeting from all over the world about what is ending and what is emerging. There’s a general consensus that the world can’t continue to function unless we step into a new story, a new way of connecting with ourselves, each other, and the world. But before getting to that new story, we have to let ourselves be lost for awhile.
In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein talks about The Story of Separation that the world has been living in. That’s a story that keeps us locked in a financial economy that demands growth and the pillaging of the earth for the resources that feed that growth. It’s a story that has us living as separate, self-sufficient individuals instead of in community. It’s a story that requires a greater and greater investment in military actions that help us protect our resources and our self-sufficiency.
The new story that the world is longing for is a Story of Connection.
It’s a story that brings us back to a healthy relationship with each other and the earth. It’s a story of trust and compassion, community and spirituality.
As the diagram above shows, we won’t get to the Story of Connection until we are ready to release the Story of Separation, step into the centre of the labyrinth, and receive the new thing that wants to be born in each of us.
If you find yourself in that empty place between stories, know this – you are not alone. You are living a story that is playing itself out all over the world.
We are all trying to find our way into the new story. Some of us are desperately hanging onto the old story, some of us are ready to hospice the old story into its death, and some of us are ready to midwife the new story into its birth.
In the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, there are a few cells, called imaginal cells, that hold the dream of the butterfly alive while all of the other cells see only the end of the world that was once their caterpillar life. Those imaginal cells lead the transformation into the new, more beautiful thing that is meant to emerge.
In my work, I am blessed to be in connection with many imaginal cells – people who sense the end of Story A has come and who believe that there is something new and better emerging. Perhaps you are one such cell.
Perhaps you have been invited into the difficult stage of transformation so that you can serve as a model for others coming after you.
I invite you to consider that whatever you are going through right now, you are going through something that is helping you emerge into the more beautiful world. And your transformation is part of the transformation of the world around you.
Step into the labyrinth. Let yourself be changed.
Need some support on this journey through transformation? Registration is now open for The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself. In this 21 lesson course, you’ll be guided through the three stages of the labyrinth journey.
Note: Read all the way to the end of this post to find out how to enter to win free registration to Spectrum: A holistic visual journaling workshop.
“All transitions are composed of an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning” – William Bridges
In my last post, I talked about how the journey from Story A to Story B is almost always longer and more complex than we expect it to be. As the second diagram suggests, we must enter the labyrinth of transformation, release the old story on the journey in, sit quietly at the centre and wait patiently to receive what is there for us, and then make the return journey out of the labyrinth and into the new story that’s ready to emerge.
Several people have contacted me to say that the post resonated and that they find themselves in that in-between place. Some of them express their discomfort and want to know “what should I be doing in the in-between place?”
Here are some of my thoughts on how to live in the in-between place:
1. Let go of the mindset that you have to DO something. We are products of a culture that has convinced us that in order to have value, we must be active, we must produce things, and we must – at all costs – stay busy. I know it’s hard to break away from old patterns, but that mindset will not serve you well in this journey. New seeds do not grow on ground that is plowed every day. Nor can the land continue to be fruitful if it is not allowed to lie dormant through the winter. We need to learn a lesson from trees, release our fruit in the harvest season, release our leaves so that our trunks do not need to keep pumping sap through them and risk freezing, and simply lie dormant over the quiet season. Only then will we be ready to receive what is waiting for us at the centre. Only then can the new story begin to grow.
2. Be quiet. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3) The in-between place is not a time for a lot of noise or conversation. It’s a more introverted time – a time to sit in your own silence and wait patiently for the wisdom to come. Turn off social media, cancel the parties, and just be quiet with yourself for awhile. The deepest wisdom in our hearts can’t be heard above the noise. If you can, go away for a silent retreat for a few days, or at least find time regularly to wander in the woods or in labyrinths.
3. Find the practices that sustain you and take you to a deeper place. This may be the time to bring in a new practice – dancing, yoga, meditation, Mandala Discovery, art journaling, walking, photography, etc. Find something that helps you get in touch with yourself and release the old stories.
4. Find an incubator where the new story can begin to grow in safety. It’s hard to believe in the new story that’s emerging if everyone you know is still stuck in old stories. To nurture your new story, find places where you feel safe trusting in what is possible. Find people (online or in person) who are also inviting in new stories and be intentional about supporting each other and growing new stories together.
5. Break away from the things that keep you stuck in the old story. This may mean you have to walk away from old jobs and unhealthy relationships. It may mean giving up some of your volunteer commitments that keep you too busy to walk the labyrinth. Be courageous in seeking what you know you need to get through this. Practice saying “no, this is not what I need right now”.
6. Be as honest as you need to be with the people around you. Be clear about your needs. You may need to tell your life partner “I need to be by myself for awhile. This is not about you – it’s about what I need for this transition I’m going through. I would appreciate your support.” It may mean you’ll need to tell your Mom “This is what is now true for me. It might make you uncomfortable, and it might not be true for you, but I’m asking you to respect my journey anyway.”
7. Allow yourself to grieve and to hospice the old story into its death. You’re letting go of something important. It’s a story that has sustained you for a long time. Don’t take that lightly. Allow yourself to properly grieve its loss. Don’t rush through the sadness or any of the other emotions that show up. Offer respect and gratitude to the old story for the role it played in your life. Give yourself permission to really feel this pain.
8. Be patient. The most difficult thing about this in-between place is that it doesn’t end as quickly as we want it to. Old stories need time to die. New stories need time to germinate. You won’t serve either story well if you rush from one to the next. You won’t serve yourself well if you don’t take the time that’s needed in between.
9. Remember that your journey is your own. No two journeys through this will look the same, so you’ll need to trust your own wisdom to get you through. You can seek advice from other people, read books about it, or take classes, but at the end of the day, nobody can know exactly what you need except for you. Trust that. Learn to listen for the voice of intuition.
10. Lean on a Higher Power. You’re not walking through this alone. God/dess wants to walk the journey with you, supporting you and holding you up when you get weary. Practice doing the things that help you get in touch with the God of your understanding – pray, meditate, be in nature, go to the synagogue, etc. Trust that something bigger than you wants this new story to emerge just like you do.
What’s your experience of the in-between place? Do you have any other points you’d like to add or any questions you’d like to ask? Add a comment to this post for your chance to win free registration to Spectrum: A holistic visual journaling workshop (where I’ll be teaching a workshop related to this post, on an art journal process inspired by labyrinths). Contest closes Friday, February 28 at 8:00 p.m. central.
Also, don’t forget that you have until Saturday morning to register for Mandala Discovery.
Note: All links to Spectrum are affiliate links, which means I’ll get a portion of the registration fees if you register through these links.
(a poem inspired by this news story)
You, in the second story window,
look not to the concrete beneath you,
look not to the fire behind you,
look not to the impossibility around you.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Your past is burning,
and the next step will cause you pain, but
you must choose, this moment, to live.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Look to my eyes for courage.
Look to my body for softening.
Look to my arms for kindness.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Commit to this moment
and my body will commit with you.
Commit to your future
and I won’t let you start alone.
Commit to this choice
and I’ll absorb some of your pain.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.