‘The gentle whispering of the liminal space’

Somewhere near Rabanal del CaminoSo I am sitting in my office in my ‘client chair’. What I mean by that is that I have two chairs, one which I sit in and one which my clients sit in. I have chosen to sit in the client chair and am wondering if by doing this, I have invited myself into the place of ‘less knowing’, a place in which people who sit in the chair often find themselves. This raises the obvious question of what the other chair represents. Is it a place of greater knowing, or is it more truthfully, the place of expectation or assumption of greater knowing? At worst, this is plain arrogant, and at best, limiting. So, rather than dwelling on what knowing I may bring to my clients, I will rather ask: how might I be better served if, when in the ‘coaching chair’, I was more in the ‘unknowing’, and sit with less expectation to facilitate powerful insights and greater openness to what might emerge?

 This brings me to the theme of this piece. The ‘unknowing’ or ‘not knowing’ and the gifts that the ‘not knowing’ or ‘in-between’ place may hold.

 A few weeks ago, I sat in on part of the Centre for Coaching’s Professional Coaching Course (PCC), a programme that I did two years ago and which I am currently a mentor on. There is always a question posed at the outset of a PCC session, and the question in this session related to the concept of ‘liminality’ or what is called a ‘liminal space’, which represents the ‘in-between’ place where one has let go of the ‘old’ but has not yet arrived at the ‘new’. The PCC delegates, who are in the final year of their journey to become certified Integral Coaches, have in a sense, left the old and are moving to the new, both in terms of their professional development as coaches and their personal development as human beings. The delegates were asked at the beginning of the session, to speak about where they found themselves in the context of this liminality. For most, the experience of being in the uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ of liminal space ranged from varying degrees of discomfort to great anxiety.

 Being in a liminal space is not just a place for coaches on a learning journey, but is so much part of our lives because so often we are in the ‘in-between’ places, whether in a literal sense between houses, cities, jobs or relationships; or moving within the less tangible space of our changing thoughts and feelings, our shifting identity and our sense of who and how we are in the world as we age and grow.

 The question which therefore looms large is: how much are we able to embrace or even just ‘be’ in this ‘in-between’ place of uncertainty and not knowing? Does our attachment to the familiar and our need for certainty more naturally drive us to exit from the liminal space as quickly as we can; to reach a destination which will be an indicator of having made progress, as well as seemingly remove us from the discomfort which generally accompanies the unfamiliar and unknown? Furthermore, does our attachment actually prevent us from stepping into the liminal space and keep us in our patterns of thought, behaviour and action and reinforce our way of being in the world, a way that might limit our possibilities for new and different experiences, of growth and fulfillment?

 Addressing this challenge to a large extent requires us to act counter-intuitively, to build our capacity to be still and quiet in the ‘no man’s land’ of not knowing, rather than rush into taking action, drafting a plan or making a list in an attempt to allay our anxiety. What if, instead of turning up the volume of our anxiety (and be either consumed or entirely dictated by it), we were able to acknowledge it and through this acknowledgment, create space and quiet for us to ask: what else might be in this space, that if I sit quietly I may be able to hear or allow to emerge?

 To bring something both practical and metaphorical to this idea of liminality and knowing, I think about the Camino de Santiago, in Spain, where I was recently walking and which is a place of great richness for me, of experience, metaphor and analogy. It is interesting to look at the Camino through a lens of liminality or ‘in-betweeness’ and the idea of leaving one place and traveling to another. Pilgrims do literally embark on a journey. They have a point of departure and an envisaged destination, most typically the historic city, Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain. There are however, very many different ways to travel ‘The Way’, and one’s engagement with liminality can play a significant role in shaping the ‘how’ of one’s Camino. This is something I have personally experienced over my four Caminos.

 In 2011, I embarked on my second Camino. Due to it being my first solo Camino, I went with a very firm plan. There was certainty on my schedule of the route I was going to take, of how far I would walk each day, of the village in which I would stop each night, of the number of days it would take me to reach Santiago. There was very little which was liminal or not known at the level of my plan. However, the reality was very different because my body would simply not allow me to walk the distances I had planned to walk. At the time of this Camino, I was actually on the PCC journey myself and I flew to Spain to start my walk feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. After my first day of walking, an extremely hot and tough 30kms, I had aches and pains and blisters. Despite willing myself on, it became increasingly clear to me that I would have to let go of my plan, because as much as it brought knowing and certainty, it also brought a considerable amount of physical pain.

 Recognising that I needed to separate from my plan, also brought mental and emotional pain because of my thinking and feeling that I did not have what it took to meet my goal. This was extremely hard for me, in terms of my identity as a fit and persevering person. However, the reality was that my attachment to my plan and the expectations and assumptions related to it, was closing me down to so much inside and outside of myself.

 As I started to step away from my plan, I was inevitably met by the liminal space, and the significant challenge of letting go of the ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ which informed my judgments and expectations. I also started to realise that what was required of me was more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’, which I ‘got’ at a cognitive level but which in reality I found very difficult. So, it was a matter of taking very modest steps into the off-plan space.

 Over the past two years, my experience of the Camino has changed and my ‘way of being’ on the Camino has shifted, and I can see that my journeys have started to embrace more and more of the liminal space. I arrived in Spain in June this year, with an idea of walking on the Camino Frances from Leon to Santiago, and on the Camino Ingles from Ferrol to Santiago, but beyond the certainty that I had a flight from Santiago to Madrid on a particular day, there was very little which was known or fixed. And, whereas two years before I had left the small village of Puebla de Sanabria feeling anxious and conflicted (having abandoned my plan), this time, setting off from Leon without a plan, brought feelings of spaciousness and freedom.

 This is not to say that my 2013 Camino was all ‘sunshine and roses’. There were low moments of blisters, tiredness, bad sleep, unbearable snoring of fellow pilgrims, café-bars which existed only in the guidebook or which weren’t open, and many other irritations. But there were so many other moments of quiet joy and unexpected unfolding that came with letting go of expectation and outcome.  To slow down, or maybe stop altogether in the middle of nowhere, to simply be and feel into that moment through an opening of and connection to the heart. What I have come to understand is that it is through the heart that we are able to open ourselves to the liminal space, because embracing this space requires a number of critical elements: (self) love, acceptance of our seemingly ‘imperfect’ selves and our preparedness to show our vulnerability, whether to ourselves or others. And, it is the heart, rather than the head, which is the incubator in which these profoundly important capacities grow and develop.

 So if we are able to slow down and connect more to our hearts when we feel most unsure of inner and outer landscapes, can we reduce the volume of our thoughts and anxieties? In this quieter place, might we not only access greater love and acceptance, but also provide the space for the gentle whispering of creativity and possibility which resides in the liminal space to reveal itself to us?

 So the questions I leave you and me with are: 

  • How much do I feel right now that I am in a liminal space, that I am neither here nor there?
  • From where am I engaging with liminal space, my head or from my heart?
  • How is the point of engagement showing up in my thoughts, feelings and behaviour?
  • How might it be different if I engaged more from a heart space?
  • What would enable me to engage more from the place of heart?
  • What might I need to let go of to be more present and open in the liminal space?

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