Word of the Month – February 2015

Liminality

David Zapatka

There is a modern scholarly concept known as liminality. Interestingly enough you may not be able to find this word in your dictionary. You may be able to find liminal, limen, supraliminal and subliminal. Liminal means of or relating to a sensory threshold; barely perceptible; of or relating to being an intermediate state, phase or condition. Limen means threshold; “She sensed it smoldering below the limen of awareness.” Supraliminal means existing above the threshold of consciousness. Subliminal means relating to things that influence your mind in a way that you do not notice. Liminality deals with the evolving flow of consciousness from one state of realization to another.

Liminality was developed by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in the early 1900’s. This term describes the rituals that mark an individual’s transition from one state to another. Examples might include the rituals that shuttle the adolescent from puberty to adulthood, birth, marriage, baptism, graduation and burial. These ceremonies all center on the liminal or the fluid in-between phase that allows for the dissolution of the old state by creating a transition where a new order can be established; a crossing over from one state of being to another. The third and final stage of liminality only occurs when the individual crosses over and becomes established in the new state of awareness. Pain by design for the purpose of disorientation, as in some tribal rituals, often accompanies liminal situations.

Liminal situations often occur when social structures break down such as when young people go to war and return a different person. Some people have a liminal experience when on vacation, during a natural disaster or while on a pilgrimage when they are separated from their normal environment. You may recognize this theme in a movie you have seen where the character goes on a road trip or comes of age.

In a microcosmic sense you may experience liminality in prayer or meditation when you let go of your self-reference, dissolve into contemplative intuition and return renewed with fresh understanding and insight. You may have had a disorienting liminal experience while experiencing war, a natural disaster or an economic crash. As a civilization we may be experiencing a liminal period of uncertainty today standing somewhere between destruction of the old and construction of the new.

As parents we taught our children to recognize that space of time between stimulus and response and to use that in-between space, accessing their inner compass, to choose actions and words as opposed to reacting without thought. Choosing to live with this awareness is not a destination but a presence, a consciousness, a point of balance and equilibrium. These liminalities move us from one state of being to another.

What liminalities have you experienced? Want to share them?

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