Music, Liminality, and Hope
On Saturday, December 5, 2015, the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco will hold an event in Berkeley, Inscape and Landscape: From the Canyons to the Stars, to celebrate the upcoming January performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles, Cal Performances, Zellerbach Auditorium. I will be speaking about the Alchemy of Catastrophe: Climate Change, Spirit, and Matter. So much of this alchemy rests on our ability to tolerate the unknown. Community can help us tolerate such realms, even the community we experience when we listen to such symphonic works as Messiaen’s. The following is a blog that I posted last February and addresses the space of liminality.
Liminality is a word that people ask me to repeat twice when I say it, as if they didn’t hear it quite right the first time. As a Jungian analyst, I recognize the liminal state as that of many entering treatment. The old way no longer works, but the new hasn’t materialized. Our Western-European culture has trouble with the liminal, not wanting to suffer the disorientation or discomfort. We often want to return to the old way by denying anything has occurred. Sometimes we often think we just need to “adjust” and everything will be okay. Too often we are supported in medicating ourselves with pharmaceutical drugs— or with the more recreational varieties to this end—and miss the real soul opportunity.
The word liminal derives from the Latin limen, Limin-, threshold. Anthropologist Victor Turner described liminality as being the middle stage of a rite of passage ceremony in which the initiate is no longer of the old structure but the new has not yet come. Carl Jung offered a great deal in holding the tension of the liminal. Opposite feelings are recognized and suffered, even though this is intensely uncomfortable. If we are able to do this long enough and with enough consciousness, a new state may arrive that is something entirely different. This is the process of what Jung termed the transcendent function and it has an age old tradition in alchemy.
When people come into psychotherapy in such a threshold state, I often tell them of a story I read in which Columbus turned his ship around twice in his explorations of the New World simply because he did not want to confront the implications of what such a discovery meant. Threshold experiences are hard! The maps of our world change! But we become larger and more whole if we can allow ourselves to take it in.
Confronting Climate Change is a collective liminal experience with huge dimensions. Sailing back to the Old Word, expecting that temperatures and conditions will return to the old normal, or feeling that it doesn’t matter what we do, it is out of our control… all of these are defenses to tolerating the excruciating liminal space of climate change. There are no promises of where it will lead, if humankind can remain on our planet. But following the pattern of the liminal archetype, tolerating the uncertainty, which also means keeping our eyes open to the changes, and to our own part in these changes, to our fears and our grief, all of this is our only hope of some new order which may include humans on our dear Planet Earth.
This does mean getting to know others who are willing to suffer the knowledge of the present. For me, doing something helps, and this has meant activism around preservation of the oak woodlands and implied watershed of the ridge I live on. I also have found several books which offer ways of tolerating what seems intolerable. Mary Pipher’s book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, is one such book. Others include Marko Pogacnik’s Gaia’s Quantum Leap: a Guide to Living Through the Coming Earth Changes, and Dennis Klocek’s Sacred Agriculture: The Alchemy of Biodynamics. The important thing is to develop your liminal community, not just sit alone with your fears and grief. Join others who are willing to stay conscious in this time that needs us so much. In the serpentine way of suffering, this community with like minds is also our hope of dreaming in that new structure that may support life on this planet for even us.