Engaging in life with full-on interest and attention brings the strangest surprises. For instance, I never could have predicted that my vocabulary would increase as a result of mindfulness practice.
These days, the new (to me) word “liminal” shows up in my mind so often. Do you know this idea? It is the state of being on a threshold, and therefore being neither what has been nor what is yet to be. Digging into an online dictionary, I find one definition talks about the liminal as existing on both sides of a threshold. For example, consider a fetus crowning. The new being is both exiting the mother’s womb and entering the airborne world; this being could be said to exist in the liminal.
I have a 17-year-old still at home with us who much of the time attends a residential high school. This summer, she’ll travel for a language study program, further away from home than I have ever been. To me, she is with us, and not with us. Our family is transforming. Of course, this is true at all times really, but right now the changing is more prominent. Transitions are frequent; I find many opportunities for dwelling in the transitory. Being in change of this size feels like rending, stretching and re-birthing. Life can be beautiful and destabilizing, mysterious and painful, in this liminal state. It can be quiet, or just as easily filled with a rushing roar in the ears.
In my larger world, forces are in play that are causing changes to some familiar settings. The old is shimmering, quaking and downright disappearing, and the new is only barely glimpsed down any number of possible roads. Here I stand, somewhere along the spectrum of this threshold I don’t understand, can’t control and might influence in only the subtle ways that are possible with such chaos and cloudiness.
Sometimes, I’m saying that it’s all feeling “messy,” but that word vastly undersells the reality. I insist more these days on a vocabulary that gets closer, with the appropriate size and weight. But how to get at such a vocabulary? Walking in the dark is an analogy for the liminal. When I bring that experience to mind, or better yet, as I stand up, close my eyes and try it out, I know that the liminal feels exciting, fear-inducing, unsettling… and when I really slow down and pay very close attention, it feels empty of anything concrete and simultaneously full to the brim with potential.
The liminal shares a root with the word sublime, in the sense of sublime as raising up, and with passion. An ancient Greek, Longinus, wrote on the sublime as “a thing of the spirit, a spark that leaps from the soul of the writer to the soul of his reader.”* What is it about the liminal that is not messy at all, but instead, elevating, alive? I feel my attention widen and sharpen; my senses are tuned up to 11 on the Spinal Tap scale. My practice: Can I hang out in this pulsing, unsettling neither-nor state, waiting for the spark?
’ * http://www.wdog.com/brian/Scriptorium/sublime_etym.htm