I read recently about a native tribe from Canada who preform a ritual to help families bearing the loss of a loved one. They draw a circle in the ground and lay a rope through the centre of the circle. The family suffering with their grief stand at one side of the circle and the rest of the tribe stand at the other side.
The mourning family praise and bemoan the departed and offer up their pain to the tribe. At some point a tug of war is enacted with the family holding onto one end of the rope as if it they could pull their dead loved-one back from the underworld. The rest of the tribe pull the other end of the rope.
About two months ago I was looking out a window whilst having a morning coffee and I noticed a small green grasshopper on a shrub near the window. The next morning the same grasshopper was there but in a different spot, a few days later there were three grasshoppers, then five; ultimately seven in all arrived.
Eventually the largest of the grasshoppers changed to a sandy yellow colour and a day or so later the shell of the grasshopper skin was there and all grasshoppers had gone. I was reminded that grasshoppers symbolise change – like the snake, they are able to stay living whilst transforming themselves into their next size and shape. I was certain my grasshoppers were harbingers of imminent and prodigious change.
Sure enough the small insect-herald was correct: gargantuan change had beset our family. My daughter was embarking on a new phase of her life chasing a course of study that was, to some extent, going to direct her initial career trajectory. My son had fallen in love – deeply and truly in love. My wife changed roles in her organisation and my own organisation announced a restructure of epic proportions. Each of us needed to change who we were, how we saw ourselves and how we would make sense of the world.
When we are at the end of a story in our lives and the new story hasn’t yet begun, we are in what William Bridges calls the neutral phase. In psychological and anthropological terms it is the limen point. It’s the threshold or earliest sensory indicator when we can notice that something is different. We move away from our old ways of how we structure our identity, organise our use of time and how we form our connections with others into an ambiguous and disoriented zone where we do not know how to be, what is right or wrong, who to trust and what is indeed true.
We are no longer where we were but, we are not yet what we will become. It’s a zone of formidable tension – challengingly destructive and simultaneously creative. Limen periods are sacred spaces where all futures believed possible dissolve and lose meaning. It is heart break. It is living grief. It is profound loss. It is the first breath after the end.
And yet this dissolution of our reality creates a generative force field of dynamic possibilities. This is where change truly becomes transformation. The limen zone is where we are a malleable new form. This where our new identities are forged, it’s also where we lay to rest the things we loved about what has passed. Here we can memorialise lost love and lost versions of ourselves.
So how do you navigate your way through the liminal pathway? Its seems cruelly ironic that the term is called a pathway and yet there are no pilot lights, no breadcrumbs nor trodden route to follow. All we have is the knowledge that others have gone before us and made it through. All we can do is start. Take a step. A breath. Just start.
We all survive the limen periods of our lives. We transform into our next version of being leaving behind the shell of our old selves like the grasshopper. I’m pretty sure my transforming grasshopper was expending tremendous energy exploding herself out of her crustaceous skin. I’ve said it before, transformation can only come to us through trial or illumination.
There’s a large part of this limen period that invokes surrender. No thinking, no planning, no preparation can stop the change nor can it dull the intensity. It will be whatever it needs to be.
Whatever the study program chosen or the whichever job is assigned to us and with whomever we fall in love, it is exactly what it needs to be to cause our transformation. And that’s why I love the ritual of the Canadian tribe pulling their mourning members across to the other side of life forcing them to let go of what was. I don’t think we do transformation alone. I think it takes a village to pull us through.