• Richard Hughes

Liminal Life

Updated: Nov 14

In my practice room, I have a framed photograph by a local Walthamstow artist called Paul Tucker which people often comment on. It is an intriguing image of an interior, looking through a doorway into a panelled room that is being renovated. It is the William Morris Gallery. The tones are muted apart from a hint of ripped red wallpaper in the distance. I am curious about this image and what draws me and so many others to it.

I have come to understand that the doorway and the promise of something beyond, represents a liminal space, which is highly appropriate for my psychotherapy practice.

The adjective liminal means ‘of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process’. The word derives from the Latin ‘limen’ which can be translated as ‘threshold’ and it was this idea that the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep popularised in his book Les Rites de Passage (1909) about the rituals and ceremonies that mark cultural transitions in our lives. Gennep proposed that there were three phases to a rite of passage: a separation phase, a liminal phase and an incorporation phase. In the 1960s, the anthropologist Victor Turner, wrote about Gennep’s middle liminal phase, describing it as ‘betwixt and between’ when ‘the cognitive schemata that gives sense and order to every day life no longer apply, but are, as it were suspended - in ritual symbolism perhaps even shown as destroyed or dissolved.’ (Turner 2017).

Psychotherapy and counselling can be described as a liminal phase; there is what took place before and what will be after, the therapy is the in-between. The therapy space can feel hopeful, curious and at times bewildering but for both the client and the therapist it is life changing. Jung described it as ‘temenos’: a vessel, or magic circle where transformation takes place. Of course therapy is a relational process and those moments of deep resonance and connection can be liminal. Carl Rogers described these moments as having an ‘out-of-this-world’ quality; they signify the movement from disorientation to integration. When we become aware of liminality it can offer possibility and remind us that not everything is solid lines and certainty. The child psychologist Donald Winnicott believed liminality was where creativity and play flourished. All I know is that I am happiest when I connect with the liminal and allow it to be.

Liminality can work on an individual or societal level. There are ‘liminal moments’, such as the end of a relationship, convalescence or being between jobs. On a societal level this could be a nation facing a sudden disaster or a revolutionary upheaval. There are ‘liminal periods’, critical life-stages such as adolescence, retirement or turning 30 that make us reflect or leave us uneasy and then there is ‘life-span liminality’ where a person may choose to stand outside society and forge their own path; on a societal level this could be a prolonged war or the shift from one era to another. It could be said that we are in a liminal era right now as the incipient technological age begins to redefine our sense of what it is to be human.

Of course, when we become aware of liminality, we see and feel it everywhere. I was recently on the London underground, an archetypal and metaphorically liminal place in itself and the curve of the platform, combined with the brightly lit empty carriages created a sense of otherness. Liminal places are defined by ‘between-ness’: airports, hotels, hospitals, bathrooms, the foreshore, carparks, stage wings. They all have a 'feel'. I’m currently re-reading John Masefield’s A Box of Delights, the protagonist Kay Harker, is returning from boarding school - another liminal place - when he finds himself mixed up in a plot to possess a magical box. There is some implication that Kay is an orphan, a liminal state, and on his adventure he crosses time and dimensions, meeting talking animals, folklore characters and a nefarious magician / jewel thief disguised as the head of a theological college.

Art is both itself and something else in that it is often metaphorical, contains symbols or is conceptual; it may leave us feeling curious, confused or simply moved. This feeling can be liminal. The Victoria and Albert Museum, a depository of the liminal, is currently showing an immersive exhibition entitled Filthy Lucre, in which the artist Darren Waterson has reimagined one of the most famous interiors of the late 19th century, James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s celebrated ‘Peacock Room’. The room appears to be in a state of decay and this is accompanied by a soundscape of muffled voices which gives it an unsettling quality. The stage is set for something, but what? It is pure David Lynch, who is of course the master of the liminal.

Any music in a minor key can be liminal, consider ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’, a song full of melancholy and moratorium and its video which is set on a train platform. Or the plaintive ‘SOS’ with its lyrics:

‘where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find, I try to reach for you but you have closed your mind’

Here the in-between place of a relationship is full of yearning. There is little hope left and what hope there is, is so fragile it leaves the listener in a state of liminal suspense.

And what about liminal people?

The link between liminality and 'otherness' is ever present; it can be a gift, a hindrance or just a way of being. LGBTQ+ people, migrants and minorities are all liminal whether they are in touch with that part of themselves or not. Freelancers, shift workers and zero hour employees all inhabit a liminal space as does anyone whose job goes against the flow of daily life. There is an idea, developed by Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago, that the most effective and creative people are able to occupy 'structural holes' those places in organisations or society where the flow of ideas stop, or structures don't reach. These people can be a bridge, bringing people and ideas together. Whilst liminal people are not always 'outsiders', there is the sense that they are on the edge of the norm. If you have found yourself sitting on the 'spare aunts' table at a wedding, this is your liminality, it's a liminal space too.

We may experience liminal people as 'messengers'. Sometimes, a person may come into your life fleetingly but their impact is acutely felt; and on reflection, the encounter may herald the start of change or a new chapter.

Mythology and folk tales are full of these liminal messengers. They are often semi-human, their intention initially ambiguous as the message they bring may not be clear. If you have experienced a 'messenger' there may be something about them that sticks in your mind, their eyes or hair or something they said which resonates for a long time afterwards.

And then there are those 'messangers', who we could almost describe as 'angels', someone who comes to your rescue at a time of distress, and then vanishes just as quickly

A popular trope in ghost stories is a terrifying manifestation that seems threatening but is in fact a messenger trying to warn us, for example the children in M. R. James’s Lost Hearts. Another ghost story I am drawn to at this time of year is Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. Here the protagonist, trapped in the eternal night of an Arctic winter, is haunted by a genganger,one that walks again’. What is its purpose and why has it manifested? The protagonist, stranded in a liminal space where time has no meaning and day and night merge, becomes increasingly disorientated, his decisions fogged by the expectation of his class and upbringing.

Liminality may not always feel comfortable but it requires us to question the norm. By leaning into it and allowing yourself to be sensitive to it, you will gain a deeper understanding of your self and others and through that change may happen.

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