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In the last year, I have found myself treading water.
I’ve made plans and they’ve fallen through. I’ve cancelled pre-pandemic plans that feel like they were made a century ago. I’ve made further plans, and those have evaporated too.
I’m still planning ahead because it’s a way to look forward despite the fact we don’t know what “forward” looks like. But the plans have changed: fluid domestic travels that can be covered by foot, bicycle, or car; flexible work schedules that allow for self-care; room in my days for silence, stillness, and space; a crash-course in making way for the inevitable inevitabilities, like my car breaking down, while, yes, my phone sits at home dutifully charging (I really wanted to cry, but instead, I got some well-earned blisters on the soles of my feet and a story to tell).
That’s the outside stuff. Inside of myself, the quagmire is just so sticky. I’m pretty good at pulling myself out of sticky, but right now, ironically, sticky seems like the perfect place to be. I was trying to describe how I was feeling to a friend, and here’s what she texted back, “The liminal threshold is the scariest and the most exciting space to be standing. Stay true.”
Liminal? That’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read this. And then I came across the word again in a New York Times article another friend forwarded to me by Gia Kourlas, “Using The Wisdom of Dance To Find Our Way Back To Our Bodies,” where the author opens her article with, “What does it mean to watch and move through space, in dance and in life? As we emerge from the pandemic, we still have a moment to hold on to all that’s slow […] a liminal, in-between place that’s not going to last forever. (Hold onto it.)”
And there it is, this “liminal space,” when you float in and out of sleep for example, the “crossing over” space—a space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else.
To me, this liminal space feels like a “waiting” space. It is less something I want to hold onto (as Kourlas suggests above) and more of a place I just need to be, no dwelling upon the past, no planning into the future, where everything is suspended for a time, except now for this whoosh of the world “coming back”—an assault on my senses, which I resent. With one wave of the pandemic on top of the next rolling in new realities, the future is certain to feel quite different from the past we have left behind. So I’m content to be in this space for a time.
You could land here in this liminal space for any number of reasons. Perhaps a particular circumstance or a series of events has interrupted the life you knew, and things that had their place in your life have changed settings. Maybe something is unfolding around you that will have a significant impact on what steps you take next, yet you have no control over that circumstance and its timing. Maybe you already know your next steps, yet sense somehow that now is not quite the time to take those steps, and while the time will come, you simply can’t know when. For me, every single one of these reasons speaks truth to power.
My sources of income as a yoga teacher have been severely interrupted, and I find it impossible to plan for a time when I might return to what I was doing and how I was doing it; I count myself so fortunate to have been able to navigate the pandemic so far, thankful for my financial safeguards, grateful for the generosity of my yogi students, and a gracious landlady who will not be evicting me, my dog, and my cat from our home.
Our collective consciousness is shifting, which means the landscape of the yoga industry will change with it—it already has. I feel for my colleagues and peers who have had to close their studio doors and shift gears as I find myself doing, with a trust born of experience that everything will work itself out as we move toward “the other side.”
The liminal space shakes us out of our habitual lives. It draws us out of what we have known, yet does not pretend to know what is coming next, or when. It’s the chrysalis—an instinctive tendency to cocoon ourselves, perhaps not even aware that we have created this liminal womb around ourselves, or that we inherently understand the import of this metamorphotic space.
I have to trust we will be held and supported with whatever we need in order to navigate the uncertainty that is—yet, how uncomfortable we get is directly proportional to the resistance we mount against what is happening during this liminal process. We can fight against it and struggle, or figure out a way to stay “in it,” in flow, by listening in, looking in, feeling in, sensing inside ourselves, and responding accordingly. This is the yoga I am teaching because I certainly need it now more than ever.
My daughter, who is a UH-60 (Black Hawk) pilot for the 82nd Airborne Division, was deployed to Bagram in early April 2021 to help withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and close down the U.S. military base there.
Two months ago, her team parted ways to two separate locations: half headed to Kuwait to set up support operations at Camp Buehring (founded in 2003 as a staging post for U.S. troops to deploy to areas in the Middle Eastern Theatre); the other half, which includes my daughter, moved to support Embassy Security Augmentation forces at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul, as part of a diplomatic mission to provide around the clock Casualty Evacuation Support for friendly forces should the need arise. At the time of this writing, I had no idea what was about to go down in Kabul, the Taliban, and ISIS-E threats more imminent than anyone (including our government apparently) could fathom.
During those interminable August days, my liminal threshold felt like time relentlessly stalling, my heart in my mouth, my yoga practice fixated on the simple fact of breathing, or noticing that I wasn’t, and the waiting and the waiting and the waiting I endured.
Having completed her mission to evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel, in the harshest of circumstances, my daughter made it out of Kabul—a mere 24 hours before 13 of our young, beautiful, brave service men and women were killed outside the walls of the airport.
I bawled. I cried the tension, the fear, the loss, the pain, and the suffering. I forced myself to listen to their names being read, to seek out their personal stories, to feel their families’ grief. I shall keep them alive by remembering their humanity.
I am old enough to remember why the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place. I had opened up my yoga studio in October 2001, on the heels of 9/11, and I understand the need to get out, even when we don’t know what that will look like, as I closed the doors to my studio in May of 2018 before any of us could fathom the global, crippling impacts of COVID-19.
Disingenuity aside, there is not always an easy or “right” way or time to extract oneself from any endeavor that has been years and years in the making. For all the mess it creates, the trust built and broken, and in the case of Afghanistan, the sacrifices and sacrileges wrought on so many, many lives, perhaps it is a worthy practice to be in our respective liminal places and take ownership for the part each of us plays on this global stage.
Had I not been so heavily, and recently, vested in leaving Afghanistan, given my daughter’s role in the fiasco it became, I may well have remained numb to anything and everything happening half a world away…after all, my life feels challenging enough right here—”at home.”
I am lucky, I tell myself, that this life of mine affords me a degree of “safety” within which to cocoon. In this threshold space, I am brought face-to-face with my inner fears about who I am, how I show up in the world, my strengths and vulnerabilities, my perceived successes (what is success?) and disappointments, contemplations on life and death, and what it means to have this freedom that’s so easy to take for granted. Looking at these is a “scary” beast. It is asking of me, and the culture I am a part of, to question the core of our beliefs, practices, and identities.
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when the participant no longer holds their pre-ritual state but has not yet begun the transition to the state they will hold when the rite is complete. This is the cocooning, the place of not-knowing what direction we are heading in, or how to navigate the not-knowing what comes “next.”
It is no doubt part of the drive behind my becoming an EMT in this interminable era of Covid. In this realm of emergent and critical care, I find a tender sense of satisfaction in showing up for long shifts that have a momentum of their own where I get to experience and participate in the stuff that seems to happen at the outer edges of my life.
Here, in the middle of living life outside the habitual contours of my personal world, simple, authentic, transparent conversations take place that sustain the kind of energy that exists between people—from all walks of life—when they feel seen, heard, and valued, and not judged for their vulnerability, their shame, their ethnicity, the color of their skin, and (the elephant in the room) their being human. In this strange liminal space, I am finding it possible to let go of predictable approaches, a way of being, a role, an identity, a belief, and make room for something new—and exciting—to show up.
Meanwhile, in this same liminal space, the collateral casualties of Covid pile up too. Pick one. My cousin, a younger brother to me, took his life on April 12th, 2021, two months before the birth of his beautiful son, 10 weeks before his 35th birthday; my daughter’s best friend died and she was unable to attend her service; my dear friend lost her daughter, who leaves behind three children of her own; two other friends lost their mothers to Covid; mine, who lives in Switzerland, had a stroke back in January 2020, once so independent, now confined to a wheelchair and nursing home, her rehabilitation stunted by lockdown, and it took 18 long months before I was able to travel overseas to see her. And so, there are these liminal moments when pausing means inviting in, and sitting with, burdens on the heart that feel downright heavy.
In this “waiting space,” I try to make sense of this grief that brings up so much other grief—waves of memories and nostalgia, of loss and silver linings, could’ves and should’ves, heartache and tenderness, and everything in-between. I am sinking into my liminal space to be with the stuff of liminality. I cannot tell you now where, or how, I will be later this month, or the next, or the one after that.
At a time when it seems like many people are trying to push the last year and a half out of their heads, making plans for a return to the life we’ve left behind, it seems to me that landing in the liminal space gifted by Covid seems essential to our own personal well-being and collective evolution.
Although it is certainly not obvious, I have no doubt that this ambiguous, formless, shape-shifting space provides the fodder for something greater than what was. Our “new normal” must be different from the “old” norms; the systems we believe are there to serve (some of) us simply don’t work because the infrastructure that supports them is faulty. Just listen in: the politicization of Covid; women leaving the job market; the death of service providers in the service industry; burnout amongst healthcare workers; serious declines in our children’s mental and emotional health; not to mention our own sanity—to know this to be true.
Of this I am sure: transformation happens when we’re not in charge, when we stop manipulating outcomes, when we soften our resistance to what is. And, fundamentally, when we begin to view things through different eyes, we loosen our grip on what we think is “right” or “true” or “mine” or “the only way.” Is Covid not the perfect practice?
In today’s spiritual marketplace, it is easy to come to yoga, meditation, and other practices of mindfulness with pre-formulated concepts of what they are and any array of personal agendas colored by our past conditioning. What happens then when we come away feeling untransformed? Or we delude ourselves into thinking we are “holier than?” In this, it strikes me that our collective response to the Covid pandemic is nothing shy of a reflection of our human disconnection, broken spirits, and lost souls. That Earth’s wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are symptomatic of the storms raging, drowning, shaking, and blowing within ourselves.
As American spiritual teacher Adyashanti says, “Sometimes you can’t master yoga the way it is being taught to you; start to let go of trying to control your experience and let this experience be what it is.” That shift from trying to perfect my technique and discipline to letting go of technique and discipline began to inform my yoga, so I was no longer striving for control over it, but rather shifting into that place of being more of a witness to it.
As I seek to use the experience of Covid as a sort of catalyst for my own version of “The Surrender Experiment,” instead of me trying to control the “what next?” of my life, this liminal space has become my yoga, and I stand in witness to it with both trepidation and the tingling of something I am not so familiar or comfortable with: the excitement of the potential of uncertainty.
Does this liminal space not then offer us the possibility of something fresh and innocent? Can we engage this liminal space, or come back to our spiritual practice, with an open attitude that is not colored by the past, through cultural constructs, legacy burdens, social media, adopted beliefs? What if we were too brave, letting go of holding on so tight to familiar, yet obsolete paradigms? What if we could challenge our busyness and numbness both by pausing long enough, in this liminal space, to be with the feeling of our fear rather than projecting, deflecting, decorating, or drowning it—to find respite from the churning of our minds symbolic of the churning in our lives, to regenerate and then discover the next iteration of what next?
In the words of Dr. Carl Sagan (or, at least, this quote has been attributed to him), “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
I honor that place within you that is of shadow and light, of sorrow and joy, of loss and love, that is also within me, that is our common humanity.