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What is a Liminal Space? Examples, Definition, and Art

Time to Define “Liminal Space”

If there is any vocabulary definition you need to understand right NOW, it is liminal space. Why? Liminality is defined as the in-between area between two situations, times, or places. The term is derived from the latin word for “threshold” (or doorway), limen. Being in a liminal space can feel strange, eerie, magical, uncomfortable, or even sacred — but above all, this “middle zone” is an essential and too-often overlooked part of the human experience.

The term “liminal space” was first used in the early 20th century by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner in studying the rites of passage that help humans move from one state of being or situation to another. In any such shift or change in our lives, a term is needed to describe the in-between time between the two states: thus the label “liminal space” was born. Read on for how this concept can help YOU, accompanied by my hand-drawn liminal art…

Liminal space definition
When something has ended but the new hasn’t begun… that’s liminal!

Feeling Strange? You’re Likely in Liminal Land.

If you’re feeling strange or confused right now (and who ISN’T feeling strange and confused right now?) it’s likely because you are currently inside the world of liminality. An old situation is behind you, but the new situation is unclear. You are in suspense, meaning you’re suspended between two states, not sure of what’s next. You are in between and at sea on the voyage to the next thing.

While a liminal space can be scary or unsettling (so much unknown!), it’s also a massive opportunity, so I urge you to take heart. To more fully conceptualize the gifts of liminality now that we know the definition, let’s look at some examples of the liminal definition in action.

Liminal time
Liminal space art: Teenage years are a liminal time.

Liminal Examples: Ages and Stages

Several time periods of life are liminal, but none is clearer than teen years. Being an adolescent is a liminal time because it’s between two states of being. As a teenager, you’re not a child, but not an adult. This can be a frustrating and bizarre stage of life — but the growth, discoveries, and learning that occur in these years shape us for the rest of our lives… and can also be quite exhilarating!

Think how many coming-of-age stories there are in literature and media, and how satisfying it can be to see the development of a human spirt as it passes from youth to (increasing) adulthood. Traditional ceremonies and rites of passage can help ease the transition and celebrate its specialness.

Though you may not be a teenager right now, I invite you to embrace your current situation (if you are indeed feeling liminal) as a similar stage of recalibration and growth to the teenage years. There may be mood swings, anger, and pain, but this in-between time is necessary to move forward. Can you imagine moving from being a child to an adult in a single day?! It couldn’t be done without going insane. Likewise, we need this current liminal time to gradually but steadily shift to the next thing.

Liminal art
Between your departure and arrival is liminality.

Liminal Spaces and Places

If you’re going from one place to another, physically or geographically, the journey between the departure and arrival destination is all liminality. On a small scale, sitting in a waiting room before seeing a doctor puts you in a liminal space because you are in-between your home and your actual appointment. On a larger scale spanning more miles, the regions passed during a train, plane, or car trip make up the liminal space during travel.

As I wrote in a previous article about appreciating each liminal space in travel, people all too often ignore this beautiful middle place. What opens up if we love the liminality of the plane’s take-off as much as the destination beach? It’s important to honor the gift of that transitional time, and the exhilaration of leaving the old to head towards the new. Heck — there are even some great sights from the car window on the highway!

VIDEO: See My Liminal Space Art…

Watch all the things I sketched and erased to make these drawings!

The Liminal Space Between Quitting and Starting Anew

One of the most difficult liminal times to endure is when you’re trying to quit an old habit (especially a negative one), but haven’t yet solidified the positive new habit which will replace the former, ingrained one. A perfect example of this is the process of how to quit coffee — one I just completed, so can speak to from experience!

When I was in the liminal space of tapering down how much caffeine I drank each morning (decreasing the coffee amount every few days), the withdrawal effects walloped me: headaches, fatigue, irritability… it was not fun. After two months of gradual work, however, I was able to emerge to the other side: my goal of just one cup of green tea in the morning. Once the headaches stopped, I knew I’d left the liminal space of transition, and landed safely on the shores of the next stage.

Mystical or Spiritual Liminal Spaces

I was recently interviewed by the popular site, Bored Panda, as I’ve become somewhat of an obsessive expert in the concept of liminality. Reading the resulting interview made me realize that liminal spaces feature prominently in the spiritual and mystical sphere, as they often have a magical — or sometimes even eerie — quality.

This in turn made me realize with a start that all of my investigations about seeing purple light during meditation, seeing red chakra energy during Reiki, and the general healing chakra colors that I visualize behind my eyes when in certain states of spiritual focus are actually all occurring in the LIMINAL SPACE between full consciousness and sleep that is known as meditation or energy healing work! Wow!

Liminality in Ideas and Beliefs

Let’s get conceptual now to explore one of the most important questions of our time: What do we make of liminal space between one set of beliefs and actions, and a new one??? This in-between realm is essential to examine if we are to move the world into a better and more loving direction, because what we do during that liminal time dictates our individual and collective futures.

For example, imagine a person who is moving from racist beliefs and actions towards active anti-racism and racial equity. During that in-between time, stumbles will be made, and support will be needed (especially by white allies so the burden doesn’t fall on BIPOC). Depending what happens during this transitional time, the person may decide to turn back and walk away from anti-racism and back to where they started. It is essential that we help support that forward anti-racist progress, and to do that, love of — and patience for — liminality is required.

Yet — We MUST Move Forward

Though we know we will always be in some form of liminality and learning, I do not want the takeaway of this article to be that we should STAY in a liminal space forever. In the case of anti-racist liminality, for example, this can be deadly. The need for absorbing the liminal space’s function must be balanced with the urgency of moving forward to better effectiveness — and less harm to others.

As my Boston colleague Sung-Joon Pai pointed out after reading a first draft of this piece, “As an educator, the longer we linger in the liminal space, the more damage we do to Black and Brown students and colleagues. We must be responsible for and recognize the loss of trust and faith that we accrue (cumulatively) as we linger in this space. We need to recognize that patience and trust of our Black and Brown students and colleagues is finite, as it should be.”

“At some point we may exhaust it and we must be responsible that the onus for that is on us not them. And know sometimes the damage is irreparable. Not a small thing. What kind of audacity do we possess to think we can do good work if we are in this liminal space? Would we want a surgeon to operate on us who is existing in a liminal space between 100% effectiveness and 90%? Would we want a car mechanic to work on our car who is in a liminal space with a new technology? Would we want food prepared by a chef who is in a liminal space learning to avoid cross-contamination?”

So what is there to do in work where it’s harmful or even deadly to linger in liminality, and YET it’s neurologically necessary to take that time and in-between space to integrate mindset shifts? We know change between stages rarely happens overnight, meaning if we don’t allow this liminal time, change may not happen at all. Further, complex work such as anti-racism can’t “arrive” at completion and be “done” like a travel destination — it often requires stepping between liminality and the next stage periodically to work.

So what to do during this liminal dance of growth? Pai wisely suggests being open-eyed about when you are in a liminal stage that is necessary but has the very real potential to harm others. If that’s the case, step aside from positions of power (temporarily or permanently) to protect those around you and while you take time for the necessary growth phase. Alternately (and this option is used to train the aforementioned surgeons) make sure there is a guide from the next stage — an honored and fully compensated guide or ten — there to mitigate harm as you learn.

Liminal and Liminality in a Sentence

Here are some ways you can use liminal and liminality in a sentence that may very well be true to your life:

  • “Please forgive me if I seem somewhat disoriented — I’m in a very liminal place in my life as things shift from one era to another, and it’s throwing me for a bit of a loop!”
  • “I’m in that liminal space and time of waiting for the phone to ring with a call I know is coming. The call hasn’t started yet, but I’m waiting and ready — in that expectant in-between state where I know vaguely what’s coming next, but it hasn’t begun.”
  • “The liminality of so many things in society today can feel very uncomfortable. Numerous aspects of our world are shifting from one state of being and set of beliefs to another, and while in the middle of it, it can be difficult and even scary — wondering how it will be on the other side of this transformation. We can only hope and work for it to be the best possible trajectory!”

Liminality in Learning Self Love

After reading this article, I hope you understand that you WILL find yourself in a liminal space at some point in your life (likely numerous times)… and if it’s approached constructively, that’s a good thing. It is essential for growth. Breathe, look around, and see what can be developed despite the discomfort. Know that the time for turning back has passed — and shifting to that next stage will help everyone, yourself included.

Then, show yourself love by allowing that in-between space to steadily work its transformative powers. This may take time, guides, stumbles, revelations, and a LOT humility… but without liminality, there is no progress — and WOW is progress ever needed right now!

What Are YOUR Thoughts on Liminal Spaces?

What are your reactions after these thoughts on liminality, and my liminal art cartoons? Which liminal spaces have you found yourself in? What are your thoughts on these liminal meaning examples? Do share!

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Dalya

Saturday 11th of July 2020

This was honestly so new to me, and I learned so much reading through this. I've never heard of this term but it makes so much sense and exactly how I'm feeling right now (and I'm sure many others too!)

Lillie Marshall

Saturday 11th of July 2020

So glad to help put a name and definition to the liminal space that so many of us are in right now!

Harmony, Momma To Go

Tuesday 30th of June 2020

wow thats deep - and so relevant to many things on our mind right now. I do love these reflections on this crazy 2020... although Im ready to get back to the grind

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 30th of June 2020

I hear you!!!

Keri | Bon Voyage With Kids

Tuesday 30th of June 2020

Very interesting, both in terms of how we are all feeling during this time, and as it relates to travel. Great post.

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 30th of June 2020

Thanks Keri!

Rhonda Albom

Monday 29th of June 2020

This is an interesting concept and I like how it can be applied to current events.

Lillie Marshall

Monday 29th of June 2020

Yes!

Emma

Monday 29th of June 2020

Interesting stuff. I hadn't heard of liminality before but this not only taught me something new but explained it in a great way. I think that's a great description for what is going on now too.

Lillie Marshall

Monday 29th of June 2020

It is SOOOO where we are right now!