During my research in my thesis (2011) I found there to be two categories of liminality. One is a temporal phase such as in a rite of passage and the other is a more permanent state. As a temporal phase, liminality is “diachronic” which means it is “a segment within a span of time, preceded by the segment separation and followed by the segment reintegration” (Stein, 1983, p. 47). As a permanent state, liminality is seen as “synchronic”—a layer of the psyche that is always present.
Temporary States of Liminality
Developmental Life Stages
In parts of American culture these life stage transitions are marked by rites of passage such as high school graduations, vision quests, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs for adolescence, baby showers for maiden to mother, and weddings for singlehood to married life. However, there doesn’t exist a popular rite for transition to elderhood.
- adolescence (between childhood and adulthood)
- pregnancy (between maidenhood and motherhood)
- engagement (between singlehood and married life)
- midlife (between adulthood and elderhood)
These transitional states capture most closely anthropologist, VictorTurner’s (1969) idea of liminality in the sense there are groups of people who separate from their community, enter into a period of liminal space forming communitas, and then reintegrate back into their daily lives. People can feel transformed and altered after these events making reintegration into their daily lives very challenging. Fortunately there are guides, and some counselors and psychotherapists trained in assisting people with this process.
People can feel transformed and altered after these events making reintegration into their daily lives very challenging.
- rites of passage, initiation, ceremony — Examples of these range from vision quests, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, to defending a dissertation or taking the Bar Exam. During the 6-month period of studying and taking the series of exams for my Marriage and Family Therapist license, I felt like I was in a different world from those around me. I was in the liminal space between intern and licensed therapist.
- ritual — In many traditions around the world, members of the tradition come together and perform rituals that access a liminal space between this world and another. These include: baptism (Christianity), Mass (Catholicism), prayer/meditation, dancing (Sufi), casting a circle (Wicca), chanting.
- raves, circuit parties, festivals — These are daylong to multi-day parties/festivals. An example of a very liminal multi-day festival is Burningman.
Time and Space States
“Liminality is like the light at dawn or dusk, when one can speak of neither daylight nor darkness but only of something in between. Liminality implies change—the world will either get brighter or will sink into night—but if one were plopped down, without any context, at the exact moment of dusk or dawn, it would be hard to discern whether day or night was approaching. Liminality is a frozen moment of unpredictable potential in the midst of a process of change, and it is in that sense that it has been used to describe the in-betweenness found in rite of passage rituals.” (Deloria, 1998, p. 35)
Liminality is a frozen moment of unpredictable potential in the midst of a process of change
- midsummer (Summer solstice)
- midwinter (Winter solstice)
- Spring (March equinox)
- Fall (September equinox)
- coasts (between ocean and land)
- doorways (between indoors and outdoors)
- noon (between morning and afternoon)
- midnight (between evening and morning)
- dusk (between day and night)
- dawn (between night and day)
Potential for Transformation
In liminality the structures that once held our reality can loosen, thus creating a sense of disorientation. In that disorientation we have a chance to create new structures, frameworks and narratives. The potential for transformation is immense not only for the individual, but also for the culture (Watkins & Shulman, 2010).
“In between, there are Doors.”
— William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1977)
Take a moment and reflect on the following questions. Please share in the comments section as other readers may resonate with your reflections.
- How have liminal times and spaces played a role in your life?
- Was there a liminal time in your life that was particularly challenging and isolating? After reading this, how might it have been experienced differently?
- What liminality are you existing in right now?
Deloria, P. J. (1998). Playing Indian. Chelsea, MI: Yale University.
Enders, Angella (2011). Finding wholeness: Understanding liminality through my experience as a biracial woman (Master’s thesis). Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.
Stein, M. (1983). In midlife. Woodstock, CT: Spring.
Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
Watkins, M., & Shulman, H. (2010). Toward psychologies of liberation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.