Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thresholds, Gates and Doors: Everyday Liminal Spaces

I've long been intrigued by the concept of 'liminality'. I first learned of it from my former husband who had studied Anthropology at Princeton.  'Liminality' is derived from the Latin word 'limen', literally meaning 'a threshold' and the state of liminality is characterized by ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy.

 As the late, great British anthropologist Victor Turner describes it, during a lininal state, one's known sense of self and identity dissolves, bringing about disorientation. You are caught in an existential space whereby you are neither 'this nor that', 'neither/nor', and 'betwixt and between'. One stands poised on a precipice, not unlike standing on a threshold, ready to leave one space or identity and venture forth to occupy another. However, according to Arnold Van Gennep, the German ethnographer who coined the term 'rites of passage', liminality is a concept which has three very distinct and identifiable stages.  That is, Separation (the pre-liminal phase), a Liminal phase (transition) and post-liminal (reincorporation).   What is being described here is the process of 'transformation'.

One finds countless examples of liminality and rites of passage in every aspect of our culture from fairy tales to high school prom rituals to our eating habits to the holidays. In fact, it would be impossible to talk about our lives without talking about rituals.  We organize our lives around them.   Our lives would be void of meaning and intent without them. These public rituals are obvious and we engage in them every day of our lives usually without giving them a second thought. However, what interests me are the not so obvious ones. That is, those instances of liminality which we take for granted and simply walk through, almost unconsciously, not being mindful of their potential import.  

We don't have to be part of a public ritual, like a wedding or a college graduation, to be aware of the abundance of opportunities available to us for daily transformation. Something as simple and mundane as walking through a doorway or taking a shower at the start or end of the day offer us a chance to step inside that 'liminal' moment and reflect on what has transgressed before us and how we would best like to emerge in the future. It's an opportunity to bring purpose and intent to our daily lives and to answer the question "How can I be different from what I was before?"  It is this period of liminality which allows us to deconstruct, so to speak, and re-emerge transformed and transcended from our former selves. With respect to the Tarot, this is why those cards which depict gates and doors carry such profound meaning as they remind us of the need for renewal and growth, which can only be obtained by opening and walking through a doorway to a new reality. 


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