The word “liminality" comes from the Latin, “limen", which means threshold. It was first used by writers such as Arnold van Gennep to describe rituals or rites of passage in which the participants crossed a boundary or threshold, as from child to adult. More recently, the words liminal and liminality, while still not exactly everyday expressions, have been gaining popularity and are losing some of their academic and esoteric strangeness. I think this is because the times we are living in are, in many ways, liminal.
Things, of course, are always changing. So we can look at any historical period, or period of our own lives for that matter, and label it “liminal. " However, very recent history has seen an acceleration in the rate of change in almost every area of our lives. As we move around more, changing our residences, jobs and careers, relationships and even in many instances our religion or basic outlook on life, our lives have taken on a kind of extended liminality.
In many ways, liminal is related to another popular intellectual catch-phrase of recent years -postmodernism. While the defining qualities of the postmodern do not necessarily involve boundaries, when we speak of postmodern life, we think of uncertainty and an absence of the linear and precisely defined. Postmodernism sometimes takes the vagueness and ambiguity of liminality to another, often disquieting level. Whereas the liminal is between Stage A and Stage B, for example between life and death, childhood and adulthood or winter and spring, the postmodern often views the universe as having no stages or boundaries whatsoever. Postmodernism can sometimes overlap with nihilism, which sees the world as essentially without meaning or values.
While it's hard to deny the reality of our often chaotic and confusing, postmodern world, liminality can actually be a way to find our way back to some kind of coherence. Postmodernism, like its philosophical predecessor existentialism, can leave us feeling like a character in a Kafka novel, or perhaps like an alienated teenager such as Holden Caulfield in Catcher In The Rye. While liminal states can also be confusing, even alienating, the liminal at least presupposes the existence of discrete stages. For example, if you are unemployed, it can be depressing and anxiety provoking if you see yourself as having fallen into this state permanently. If, on the other hand, you define yourself as in between jobs, you are now in a liminal state, where you can see where you were and where you are going. Your state is still one of uncertainty, but you are not simply floating in empty space. You have a destination, albeit not necessarily a precise one.
The liminal can never be completely secure, because there is never a guarantee regarding the next phase. If we go back to the traditional rituals that inspired the word in the first place, there was often an element of fear involved. For example, in many initiation ceremonies (which are replicated sometimes, if in somewhat trivialized forms, in the hazing and rituals of modern fraternities), the initiate faced a symbolic death, which in some cases could be a literal death, as when he was sent out into the wilderness for days. To consider a more modern context, the person who is between jobs does not have an assurance of finding another job (especially in the present economy). So the liminal state is not one of security. What makes it different from postmodern or existentialist angst or anomie is the fact that it is framed as an in-between state, which usually implies a future destination, whether in space or status.
Many people seek something that is more certain than either liminality or postmodernism, preferring the security provided by conventional frameworks. One thing we can point out here is that postmodern society has actually changed the nature of liminality. In the traditional examples of liminality, as with the initiation rituals, the states on either side of liminality were fairly predictable. As we have seen, there was never any certainty; the person could fail to survive the ritual. However, success at least meant being transported to a relatively secure realm. This held true all the way up to the industrial age, when a person who got a job at, say, IBM, had a good chance at working there until retirement. Again, the employee was not guaranteed success. He or she could fail to get the job or get fired for whatever reason. However, for the most part, if they performed well, job security was likely.
Today, when it comes to jobs as well as other aspects of life (such as marriage and other relationships) there is little such security. Stability has become the exception rather than the rule. So, returning to my original contention, life itself is taking on an increasing liminal quality. It can actually be helpful to frame the uncertainties of life in terms of liminality. The catch is, if you find yourself liminally between Point A and Point B, you may have to largely define or even create Point B (and perhaps even, to some extent, Point A!) for yourself. For example, if you find yourself out of work, you may have to create a new job for yourself, defining its parameters and mapping out potential customers. Traditional landmarks and destinations are no longer reliable.
This basic outlook, of course, is not original. It is, in fact, perfectly in line with the existentialist ideals of creating your own identity and values. In many ways, people such as Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger and others were pioneers of the liminal/postmodern age. It's just that today, some fifty to one hundred years after most of these people lived, it's all so much more urgent. This is because it is becoming less and less of a choice to live in this liminal state. It isn't only brooding philosophers who face uncertainty now; it's the majority of people.
So how does one go about living in a constructively liminal way? First of all, and this once again harks back to our existentialist friends, we have to embrace rather than shun the reality of personal responsibility and the surrounding chaos (whether we see that chaos as something intrinsic to reality, or a temporary condition brought about by political, economic or technological factors). To the existentialist, uncertainty is scary, but more importantly it implies freedom. When you are in a liminal state, your options are often far more expansive than in a “normal" state, where your identity or status is fixed.
The next step is one where I borrow more from new age than existentialist ideas. For the latter, for all the focus on freedom, often tend to be rather pessimistic. There is the romantic notion of the brave but doomed hero, standing true to his or her ideals in a hostile universe, ultimately swallowed up by the endless abyss of meaninglessness. This may be poetic and (to some at least) inspiring, but it still has a bad ending. By contrast, consider the modern teachings on the Law of Attraction found in the popular Abraham books (by Esther and Jerry Hicks), and the book and film The Secret. While these teachings are not new -their roots go back to antiquity- the latest incarnation of such ideas has created a fairly simple but, in my opinion, quite powerful and practical formula for achieving positive outcomes in all areas of life.
As Abraham teaches, the secret to happiness is simply to feel as good as possible. While at first glance this may seem like a mere tautology (something true by definition, giving no new information), upon closer examination it implies something quite profound, consistent with the ancient teachings of karma. Namely, every state in which you find yourself sets the stage for the next one. And, conversely, each state is the result of the state that came before.
What does all this have to do with liminality? Actually, everything. For this doctrine, among other things, implies radical freedom. We are always in a position to exercise free will to create something new. It also implies a state of extreme liminality, albeit an unusually optimistic take on liminality. For the present in this manner is seen as a launching pad for infinite outcomes. This can be seen as the other, more positive side of the postmodern/existentialist cosmic coin. One way to look at this is to rescue the concept of liminality from the normally pessimistic and abstruse realms of academia, the social sciences and philosophy. All of these tend to regard anything positive or optimistic with a certain suspicion and air of condescension.
To oversimplify somewhat, in the darker, more nihilistic interpretation of liminality, we exist in a kind of meaningless or chaotic limbo. There are no reliable points of reference; all such points are arbitrary. In the existentialist type of liminality, we are also in a kind of limbo, but we begin to see our own power to create within the chaos, even if our efforts are ultimately futile. In the “new age" version of liminality that I am proposing, we don't see uncertainty and chaos, but freedom in the positive sense -closer to what some ancient philosophers called “pure potentiality" or perhaps the emptiness of Zen or the Tao. Out of this freedom, we are free not only to create our future, but to define the past as well.
New Age liminality may not be the best terminology to use. Hardly anyone wants to be associated with anything new age, as it seems to imply superficiality and perhaps commercialism. However, I think it nonetheless is as good a term as any. This is, in any event, not meant to be a definitive solution to long-standing psychological and metaphysical topics, but simply an introductory look at a possible new way to look at liminality. Call it what you like.
Larry Christopher is a writer and researcher on many topics, including cultural issues, the arts and metaphysics. He is also the author of the urban fantasy novel, The Stone of Alexandria. For more information, visit his site: http://www.liminalworlds.com