Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situations
The word liminal refers to being over the threshold, but not
through to the other side. It comes from the Latin word “limen”
meaning that place in between...
Date: 2/26/2006 3:02:41 PM ( 14 y ) ... viewed 2556 times
From a lecture delivered by Jean Shinoda Bolen as transcribed and edited by Brenda Sinclair Sutton.
My topic is about transitions or the stuff out of which life is made, liminal and archetypal situations. The word liminal refers to being over the threshold but not through to the other side. It comes from the Latin word “limen” meaning that place in between. When you’re in a transition zone, you’re neither who you used to be before you got into this transition, nor have you crossed over that threshold to where you will be settled next...There is always an ending of one phase of your life in order to develop and grow into another phase.
I’ve been interested to pick up along the way what people are saying about transitions. The cocoon is a place where the caterpillar totally dissolves; it is insolutio in the alchemical model of dissolving into the water, or the emotional side of life. Then it moves on, and from that beginning a butterfly forms in the chrysalis—that in between place that is neither caterpillar, nor butterfly...
Every time there is a major transition in your life, and you are in that in between place, you are in the chrysalis and you haven’t yet emerged into the next place. What is interesting to me is how you gather those pieces together when you are insolutio. What you chose to keep and what you chose to leave has a lot to do with what pieces form and move into the next stage with you.
There’s a very simple myth that applies to all of us at every major stage of life (when we want to be approved of, to be accepted, to have the right friends, or get into that right club or degree program, etc.) Whenever we have an idea of goal, whenever we have a feeling, it’s about destination and not about journey. Then we encounter and live out the myth of Procrustes and his bed—a very short myth.
Theseus killing Procrustes on his bed: In ancient Greece, if you wanted to be famous, have influence or power, or be where all the interesting people were, then you were certainly on the road to Athens (which is a symbol of where all the action was.) In the myth of Procrustes, you had to pass by his bed in order to keep on the road. He put you on the bed and whatever part of you did not fit, he just cut off. Whack! So much for that piece! It’s not going to be with you on the way to Athens. Whatever it was about you that needed to fit into what was accepted, got stretched to fit the bed. So you got processed on the road to Athens.
Who among us has not been processed and reprocessed over and over again? What was acceptable to your family? What was acceptable to your significant other? What was success? What did you have to cut off and, in many cases, deny that was a significant part of you or a potential part of you?
Often there are gifts that emerge in childhood, only they’re not the kind of gifts or abilities that your particular parents wanted you to have. When people who are important mirror us, they focus on that which they find pleasing, and they cast a negative light on that which they find undesirable in us. We pick up the cues very early. And very early on our road to Athens, on the road to acceptability, we cut off that which was not supported, that which was not mirrored positively. We stretch those kinds of gifts that made us pleasing. It might have been our personality, a certain quality of charm. It might have been our brains or athletic ability—whatever was acceptable in our particular beginnings on the road to Athens.
The road to Athens is played out over and over again, and at every step along the way. New school: what’s acceptable? New profession: from what do you have to cut yourself off? Sometimes in order to fit the mold, you have to do a major job of repressing your past in order to pass Procrustes’ bed. In order to look like, to act like you belong in that fraternity or sorority or profession, you cut off and don’t talk about certain historical parts of yourself that you deny.
Very often, when childhood was far from beautiful and included some very painful things, that which is cut off gets actively repressed and forgotten on that road to Athens. There are psychic elements about whatever we cut off, potential elements in our personality. Nothing we cut off dies; it just goes into the underworld. There we reconnect with that which we cut off from ourselves, but only in times of transition, and sometimes through major descents.
Sometimes that which we denied in ourselves meets us as Fate. We are in a transition because we were attracted to someone who carried that which we repressed in ourselves, and we’re drawn to it. Very often major attractions begin transitions. We are attracted to that part of another person that we have denied in ourselves, and yet is our growing edge. By falling in love with that woman, that man, that guru, that capacity, something of our old form gives way. We are attracted by the projection, drawn towards something else that disrupts our old form and often cracks it, destroys it. We are in this in between period of chrysalis, and we don’t know what will happen next.
The reality of metaphor is that death and new life happens often. For example, when you are in transition you may have a dream that someone is dying. Your first reaction is to think that it is a precognition dream. It could be; that’s not out of the question. Much more usual is that something is dying about that particular relationship as an external event, or that particular part of you represented by that person, that character in your dream. Dying puts you on notice that a transition is taking place. Your dream life often knows that some transition is happening before you consciously acknowledge it.
Sometimes transitions are described as a crisis (midlife crisis, menopausal crisis) because they can shake things up so. That is what the chrysalis looks like. Is it a womb or is it a tomb? Is it going to kill something? Are you going to give up that life has meaning? Or is this going to be a new opportunity to truly grow and enter the next phase of your life? And you don’t know in between.
The image of the snake is one of the major symbols that you might be drawn to. It may show up in a dream about transformation and transition. Human beings once lived much closer to animals and observed certain behaviors. The snake is archetypal because it touches a symbolic layer of the psyche from which dreams come. It is comprised of those latent patterns and images that humans recognize and give form to when they are activated.
An example of an activated archetype is when new life emerges from the body of a pregnant woman...There is a moment in the birth process which is called transition, and it is the most dangerous time of the delivery for both the baby and the mother. The head of the baby must pass underneath the pubic arch of the mother and enter the world. If this baby is going to come out of the mother into the world, it has to go through that danger moment. Mother and child go through this transition, which is a crisis, danger and opportunity. Then there is a new being that has never existed on earth before, but that has just come through the birth canal to the other side.
Any artist, anyone who has birthed a business, or who has had a vision of something new that can come into the world, knows that they must be willing to commit to whatever amount of time it takes...You experience the commitment to bring it through the pain of the production. This is also that period when you don’t know whether it’s going to work.
So, after the birth comes the raising. Whether it is a child, a business, or a book you are offering to the world, you have the responsibility to bring it out into the world. This is a maturing part of most of our lives. In making that commitment we often cut ourselves off from other possibilities. “I have to let go of certain parts of myself that because I have this other something that I am committed to bringing into the world.”
Let’s say that, in the first half of your life, you made a commitment to a relationship. You made a promise to bring something new, whether it was a family or a business or a creative idea, into the world. By doing that, you left others of your gifts behind. What often happens next is that we are successful at what we set out to do, which is a mixed bag. Everybody has expectations that this is who you are. A transition occurs when you break that agreement that you are going to stay the same. That’s what causes major crises in relationships over and over again. One person grows and the other person says, “You’re not the same person I love. You are somebody different.”
What happens when there are major choices of one’s own personal integrity versus the collective? Somewhere around midlife, are crises of integrity, where you have to choose to stay or break from the group.
People in the transition often have limited amounts of strength, health or energy. The ability to say “No” can be a difficult challenge. When other people expect you to always be there for them, and you break form by saying “No,” you create a crisis in a relationship. It may be that you need to not stay in your own depression or your own addiction or your own whatever it is. Addiction, illness, and depression are images you need to get through in order to continue. This liminal period of transition can be a very long one. The tasks keep on growing. It’s hard and scary. If you’re going to make it through this transition to the new phase of your life, you’ve got to often learn to say “No.” Otherwise people who have expectations of you will use your energy. Say “No,” and they’ll say, “You’re selfish.”
At important forks in the road in ancient Greece, you’d see a little statue with three faces: one facing the direction you had come from, and the others facing two paths you might choose. This is the archetype of people who act as midwives to other people. It is also the archetypal observer in ourselves who has seen us through many descents and many transitions. This observer has an overview of the pain and the joy, the suffering and the changes.
Patients stay with counselors at the crossroad until they become clear which direction they will choose. The path that is most authentically them is about individuation. The choices often are to conform and go back to an old form––that other people as well as a part of themselves are comfortable with. The individuation path does not promise that everyone will like you at all. Instead, this path promises it will feel true as long as you do what Joseph Campbell says about living your personal myth.
Keith Thompson writes about how a man asked Dr. Campbell, “But how do I find my personal myth?” And Campbell answered: “What gives your life bliss and harmony? Find it and follow it.”
Living your personal myth is about the crises, the transitions, and the suffering. It is about integrating your personal myth into yourself as you move along the path. Those of us who draws from the stuff of our own lives, know that no experience is ever wasted. You can use it in your art, your therapy, your compassion for, or understanding of, what comes through the suffering you personally integrated into yourself. You can use the experience in your work, and nothing goes to waste.
As you get older, your path becomes increasingly a realization that you have moved in an authentic way along the journey. This individuation happens to people often in the second half of life. The middle-aged person has done that which was possible for them to do. You were either successful in fulfilling the educational/career/relationship patterns that the first half of life is about (or not.) And here you are. I wrote in my last book called Crones Don’t Whine that the third phase of life is the real essence of being present to the path you are on. Unless you can grieve for losses, let go of your sense of entitlement, you will stand at the gate, never get through that transition, never get under the pubic bone to the other side. If you sit at the gate whining, you’re looking back at the past feeling that you, of all people, deserve better. Your kids should have turned out differently. Your marriage should have turned out better. The world should have recognized you differently. If you are still here, you don’t understand the amount of suffering and pain and reality that exists. You’re standing at the gate into the individuation path of the Crone. The Crone, an archetype both men and women draw from, is about wisdom, compassion, active action, healing humor, and a lot of other good things. But it’s an internal experience. The Crone archetype exists in men and women who can change the world.
A number of people go against expectations, and suffer as whistle-blowers. Or they and experience anger, disappointment and crucifixion at some symbolic level. Once it happens, the old self dies.
When you are no longer who you are, you’re in a transition zone. You’re learning something about this new you. You’re giving form to your creativity. How much power do you have? Do you have the ability to put boundaries on your energy? Then you can pass through into the next phase, a spiritual path, which may also demand you call upon something greater than yourself.
Look at us all as spiritual beings on a human path, rather than human beings who may or may not be on a spiritual path. At some level, think how absurd it is that an immortal soul comes into the dysfunctional lives we all have. An immortal soul has chosen to be human. Human path is very strange. At the beginning, most people seem to have their own version of dysfunctional family with lots of mistakes, and difficulties, and loves, and sufferings, and lessons along the way. Then it’s over so soon. Nobody gets through without suffering. Now why would an immortal soul do that?
There must be something about this journey of vulnerability, of sharing it with others, of suffering, of learning, of trusting, of finding love, and that we get rescued when we’re unconscious again.
We were caterpillars; we enter this solution in which everything got dissolved. Somehow, if we’re fortunate, we reform and come out as a butterfly. In our transition times we travel down to the underworld, down to the unconscious, and reconnect with what mattered to us before. Or we uncover a talent that gives our life meaning, and we claim it consciously and bring it up. We make it part of what gets reformed when we break out of our cocoon into the next phase of our life.
The journey of spiritual beings on a human path holds major questions about the big picture at each major transition fork in the road. What did I come to do? What is my purpose? What did I come to learn? Who did I come to love? From a psychological viewpoint, those questions can only be answered from deep within. Nobody else can ever answer them for you.
The journey continues. Whether it’s a long weekend, a marriage, or a career... whatever it is...if it did not go to waste, then it was part of your journey. There’s something to remember and learn about it in order to bring it into consciousness and have it in the full circle of who you are. You can reclaim those things from which you have cut yourself off, because of shame. That’s part of the learning experience: if you have compassion for yourself, you can then have compassion for others.
Also, we should serve ourselves to have a support system of like-souled others who understand that the personal myth is something we are trying to live.
We are in a transition as individuals. And we have a remarkable opportunity to make a difference. Every one of us who has gotten older and wiser can be a circle of influence in our extended families, institutions and the world. I think it matters a lot that we do spiritually oriented activism, political activism based not on anger and hate––it has to do with love of our potential and a wish not to destroy it.
JEAN SHINODA BOLEN offered this lecture at the 1st Mythic Journeys conference June, 2004. Dr. Bolen returns to Mythic Journeys June 7 - 11, 2006 in Atlanta, GA. A gathering of people from different disciplines, who want to experience the inexhaustible wisdom, guidance, pain and joy encoded in myth.
Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. is a psychiatrist, a Jungian analyst in private practice, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical Center, and an internationally known lecturer. She is the author of Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, The Millionth Circle, The Tao of Psychology, Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women, Gods in Everyman: A New Psychology of Men’s Lives and Loves, Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage, Ring of Power, and Close to the Bone. © 2005 MythicImaginationCompany
Visit Jean Shinoda Bolen: www.JeanBolen.com
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