Synchronicity: Signs from Nature and Everyday Life

My apologies if subscribers receive this post twice - I accidentally deleted it from my website and needed to repost. Thank you for your patience! 

The wind, one brilliant day, called
— Antonio Machado
When we have arrived at the question, the Answer is already near.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we pay attention, we see that meaningful coincidences occur all the time. We might notice that a book is recommended three times within a short period. Perhaps as we ponder a question, we see a certain animal within a week– maybe eagles flying above or seals swimming by the shore. We keep thinking about someone and they call us. Or maybe several different people invite us to the same group or class. Carl Jung first coined the term synchronicity as a way of describing events in life that are not so much connected by causality, but meaning. We see it when two seemingly unrelated events occur simultaneously or in sequence that provide signs leading to deeper meaning and understanding of an event or life situation. Noting synchronicities is an act of sacred listening and following. In the book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, author Gregg Levoy says it is like “putting on a lens through which we can see our lives as a process of calls and responses… we have to stay in dialogue, stay vigilant, and be willing to be seized by our encounters by what comes our way.” He asks, “What is the feedback your life gives you?”

Long before Jung brought the concept of synchronicity to western psychology, indigenous peoples around the world were noting divine coincidences. For indigenous groups, synchronicities are considered auspicious events. Wind, rainbows, thunder, and animal appearances are noticed by indigenous healers. Shaman gather information from what transpires during a ceremony. As an example, the Qero people of the Andes in Peru watch how the fire responds when a despacho (a carefully created sacred bundle meant as an offering for specific purposes) is burned as a gift to the spirits. On one of my trips to Peru, I traveled with my husband and two other couples throughout the lower Andes and the Sacred Valley receiving teachings and initiations from a Qero shaman (Paqo). The Qero were delighted to see that the group was comprised of three couples. Threes and twos are important numbers in the Andes. A pair, referred to by the Qero as yanantin, refers to a sacred pair, while the number three is seen as representing the lower, middle and upper worlds in their cosmology. So having three sets of twos was considered a good sign! Shaman pay attention to who shows up, the energy that people hold, and the dreams they share.

Messages from the Dreamtime

The content of dreams is often synchronistic in nature. Recurring images of animals, people, places or situations give us an opportunity to explore deeper meaning and messages from the unconscious and the spirit realm. When dream images recur they seem to call out to us to pay attention. In 1997 I began having dreams about bears. Stalked, I would fearfully run away from these powerful animals. In one of my dreams a bear cornered me in a room until all I could do was curl into a fetal position and hope for the best. The bear proceeded to gently claw the top of my head (my crown chakra). I do not believe it was an accident that bears were appearing in all kinds of ways at that time in my life. This dream and others led me to explore shamanic practice and initiated me onto my spiritual path. As you consider the synchronicities occurring in your life at this time and the visions that come from the dreamtime, I ask you - what is it that is stalking you now?

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Meaningful Coincidence

I have a client in my psychotherapy practice (I’ll call her Frieda) who dreamed about a labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient structure used in walking meditation and prayer. It has a circle/spiral format and seems to meander but it is actually a purposeful path associated with wholeness. When one walks a labyrinth they are often taking a journey to their own center, and then back out again into the world with a broader understanding of themselves. For example, they might receive the answer to a question they posed before walking. Frieda had never been to a labyrinth and coincidence would have it that I had just read an article about a one located on the grounds of a local church in Seattle. I gave her the article since I felt that her dream was important and thought perhaps she might want to visit this special place. She decided to go on one sunny afternoon. She was surprised to learn after arriving that it was the day of the summer solstice.

Frieda later she recounted her story to me. She approached the labyrinth reverently, blessing herself with the water from a nearby fountain. When she reached the center of the labyrinth she became aware that she was trying to make something happen. She was trying to “do it right” rather than just letting things unfold. When she decided to surrender to the process she had a profound transpersonal experience where the labyrinth became very large. Time and space seemed to expand and she had the sense of being a part of a larger awareness.

It has been said that the external world is a reflection of the internal world. What I loved about Frieda’s story was that she had the wisdom to carry this awareness outside of the structure itself. She sat outside the labyrinth and mindfully watched as people came and went. She became acutely aware that she was looking at aspects of herself in the people who visited the labyrinth. Frieda watched some people walk over it while talking on cell phones apparently oblivious to the sacred structure beneath them and became aware of her own tendency to go on auto pilot. She watched as someone hurriedly walked the labyrinth as if it were a duty more than a prayer. She wondered about all the ways in which she moved through life in the same way. A couple carefully walked the periphery of the labyrinth, arm in arm, speaking and laughing softly. She then realized a longing she had been ignoring. Finally, Frieda observed a young mother delight in the swirling dance of her four-year-old daughter. The mother watched without interruption, and when the girl had finished, the mother gently stroked her daughter’s hair in appreciation. My client realized she was witnessing unconditional love, a quality missing in her own childhood. We talked about the need for her to be in touch with the big mother/cosmic mother as well as the healthy, nurturing inner mother and the playful, uninhibited inner child. Synchronicity became a catalyst for healing for Frieda. I share this story because I think it illustrates how synchronicity can work in our lives if we listen, pay attention and act on the messages given through divine coincidence.

Soulful Connections

I had the opportunity to study with the late Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist, author, and teacher of cross-cultural indigenous practices. She says when we are involved in exploring the sacred mysteries and the world of spirit we need to be good trackers. In other words, we note or track meaningful events and important experiences so that we can continue communication with the unseen world and with our own soul’s process. When we get into alignment with what is soulful in our lives and begin to pay attention, synchronicities become apparent. In Crossing to Avalon, Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda-Bolen states, “Synchronicities are soulful. It is the soul that knows something is meaningful, that is moved by poetry and music, that recognizes what it loves and that it is loved, that is nourished by what we do when what we do comes from our own depths.” Ask for a sign and then open your eyes and ears. You may notice important people are introduced into your life or old acquaintances resurface. A song with a very specific phrase may come on the radio. Someone may send you an email with a link that pertains to your inquiry. One way to work with synchronicities is to note them in your journal as they occur. In that way you keep the lines of communication open with your own soul. Life becomes more magical and meaningful when we open to the messages that are all around us if we just take the time to notice.

Levoy, Gregg. Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, 1997. Harmony Books, New York.

Shinolda-Bolen, Jean. Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage, 1994. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Walking the Sacred Wheel: The Way of the Visionary

Using Angeles Arrien’s The Four Fold Way and material from the Sacred Circles Institute, we will explore ways to access the numinous in our lives in an experiential and supportive group focused on the ancient Wheel of Life. Engaging with the archetypes and energies of the four directions of the wheel, participants will have the opportunity to go deeper into themselves and their relationship to nature and the unseen world for connecting, understanding, and healing themselves, the collective, and the planet. Using indigenous wisdom and teachings from the Mystery traditions, group members will explore both inner and outer landscapes.

March 4: Callings and Synchronicity

March 18: The Vision Quest
April 1: Shamanic Journeys

April 15: Meditation and Mystery

May 6: Personal Power
May 20: The Creative Spark

First and third Wednesdays – 6:30 to 8:30 PM. $140 for six sessions or $25 per session.

All sessions held at Standing Stone Healing and Arts, 943 N. 89th St. Seattle 98103

Please bring drums and rattles if you have them, a blanket for your chair, a water bottle, and journal/pen.

To enroll, contact Dawn Dickson at (206) 777-5283 or dawndickson1@comcast.net.

Dawn Dickson, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle. She has seventeen years experience engaging in psycho-spiritual, ceremonial and transpersonal group work focused on healing and transformation. Dawn has worked with indigenous peoples in the United States, Mexico and Peru. 

Being with what is...

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent on arrival.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I recently visited an acupuncturist who had a shocking and wonderful painting on her wall.  Over her treatment table hung a simple image of an empty chair with large script that said this: There is nothing wrong with you. Really? I pondered this as I received treatment for symptoms that certainly felt wrong. Surely someone with a life-threatening or chronic illness would beg to differ. But as I let my body relax and gave it room to do what it does naturally - heal and re-balance, I began to understand the saying on a deeper level. I believe this statement is saying You are not fundamentally flawed. Over and over I see people in my psychotherapy practice who believe that there is something inherently wrong with them. It may be because they do not like how they are feeling or perhaps because they have found themselves in a place they do not care for, but somehow this gets translated into the belief that that there is something wrong with them as human beings. I often wonder if this might be a holdover from Catholicisms notion of original sin, which essentially says we are born bad. Or perhaps it comes from incessant parental criticisms early in life, or maybe when children are not celebrated for who they are and so they embark upon the impossible task of becoming someone else. The internalized authority or super-ego carries on within us until we recognize that it is not us per se, just the old tapes playing again.

 Mostly what I notice is that people do not want to feel uncomfortable. So when difficult feelings surface, they try anything to make them go away. If I pray, do yoga, see a funny movie, eat popcorn, go to happy hour with a friend, paint the bathroom, go on a hike, or enter into denial, maybe Ill feel better and therefore be better. But it doesnt work and it is actually quite dishonoring to The Self to ignore the cries of ones own feelings. We might call these cries a souls song whose lyrics have special messages for us. If we can pause long enough to be with what is, the inner world is validated and we gain a deeper understanding of what psyche is attempting to communicate. We call this act of pausing, listening, and noticing, mindfulness, which is the ability to be present to whatever is occurring in the moment. Then we notice that feelings are fleeting, just like thoughts, and they are not who we are. It is just phenomenon. Being with what is broadens our perspective and choices, turning coping and enduring into a path of meaning, understanding, and engagement with the inner world.

 I remember a meditation teacher of mine advising his students to avoid turning meditation into a self-improvement project. The inner-critic will use anything to remind us that we are lacking. Even outwardly healthy activities can include an underlying message of Im not enough. In her wonderful book True Refuge, Tara Brach describes this self-loathing as similar to being in a trance state. She calls it the trance of unworthiness, and says, with awareness we can get to the place where we recognize that it is our mistaken perception of who we are thats causing the difficulty. We see how we've been living inside the identity of a small, isolated, deficient self. I have come to understand that one part of the psychotherapy process includes waking from that trance.

 We rush through life in an effort to get to the next place. Being with what is requires that I actually experience standing in line at the grocery store. It asks that I take time to relish what I love, feel my disappointment or any other feeling that surfaces, and actually taste my food, take in the sunset, and feel the breeze. Being with what is doesnt mean we dont make change. It doesnt mean we stay in a bad relationship or endure eons of suffering. It means that we stay with what is long enough to experience it. A client of mine speaks of making endless to do lists. He finds great satisfaction in crossing things off his list, sometimes even adding an item after he has completed a project so that he can cross it off! But when I asked him if he actually enjoys his life, he could not honestly say yes. All of his accomplishments and goals are designed to ward off the feeling that he is flawed and not enough. What if you were okay, just as you are? Its a question that often stumps people. What do you mean Im okay? I came to therapy because I am not okay! This begins the discussion of self-acceptance, being with unpleasant feelings, diving deeply into the complexes that trouble us, and honoring what is true in the moment. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. I reminded my client how easy it is to miss our appointment with the numinous in life when we are in the trance of unworthiness. With self-acceptance comes liberation.

 

 

 

Making Meaning

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
— Mary Oliver

When we face challenges that change us forever, it is often difficult for us to connect events to any purpose. The adversities that life can deliver most times have that "It happened to me" feeling. We may feel we were given a raw deal or dealt a bad hand, and somehow the experience becomes something to rail about or endure. Surely it is important for us to lend compassion to the pain of turmoil and tragedy. We need to bear witness for each other in times of great challenge and emotional upheaval. But there comes a time when we ask ourselves, "Was this all for nothing?" 

I recently had the privilege to sit with a group of cancer survivors to discuss finding meaning in the face of adversity. I asked the group to bring a small item that symbolized something that has great meaning in their lives. The purpose of this exercise was to help them connect with the symbolic so that they might see the symbolism and metaphors in their own situations. It was also a way to show how one event can have many meanings. I was deeply moved by the symbols that each individual chose to share. One man brought a medal he had won for completing a triathlon one year after his cancer treatment was completed. Someone else brought decorative metal plates that each told a story from when she had visited India. She said that looking at them reminded her of a time when she was not afraid, a time when she felt free and larger than herself. An older gentleman who is part Native American brought a dream-catcher that his grandmother made which had always hung in the window of his bedroom while growing up. It still does, and to him, the hand-crafted talisman reflects the reminder to recall the good dreams and bring them to life. Another woman used crinkly gold paper to fashion flames leaping upward. She said that it symbolized the perpetual flame of caring that burns in her heart. Finally, a young woman told the story of feeling isolated and depressed given her breast cancer diagnosis. She was someone who preferred to stay away from groups and not speak up in public. Breast cancer had added to her already shaky self-esteem. She said she found meaning and a renewed sense of self-worth from a support group for young women dealing with breast cancer. The symbol she brought to the group was attached to her body. She showed us a tattoo on the inside of her forearm of a pink ribbon with these words scripted below: She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. We can see so many messages about meaning in these items. In their expressions, we can see meaning found in transcendence, courage, heritage, tradition, remembering dreams, the spark of life, warmth, the power of community, and a reclaiming of what is essential. 

Sometimes we find meaning in our experiences. Other times, when we are searching and searching for something to make sense, we realize actually that we have to make meaning. Victor Frankl who wrote the classic book Man's Search for Meaning says that it was not the strongest who survived Nazi concentration camps, but those who could make some kind of meaning of the situation, however horrific. I saw a TED talk recently where author Andrew Solomon talks about growing up gay and bullied, and how he is now grateful for those times because they allowed him to forge meaning and create identity. That kind of transcendence is what is necessary to heal trauma. Forging meaning and creating identity does not diminish the traumatic event or make it right, but rather it says, "This is the stuff I am made of and this is how I am going to use it." There are some things in life that will never make sense. There are some things that were meant to remain a mystery. But human beings are meaning-makers. I do not believe it is all for nothing. We have purpose, our existence matters and our lives have meaning. 

 

Illness as a Transformative Experience

I wish I could show you
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The astonishing light of your own being!
— Hafiz

Prior to opening my private practice, I worked for many years as an Oncology Social Worker. For a year I provided weekly therapy through an interpreter to an Iraqi woman, a refugee, with an aggressive breast cancer. She was terrified given language and cultural barriers. She initially hid her diagnosis from her six children by never removing the hijab from her bald head in their presence. In her view, she was permanently damaged with a death sentence. Most of our therapy involved acknowledging feelings, dispelling myths, and helping her navigate the confusing and often impersonal healthcare system.

After many months, I felt a bit stuck in our work together. At a loss, I described Joseph Campbell’s model of dealing with adversity. In A Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell outlines commonalities found in stories cross-culturally and historically where the protagonist must venture out on an arduous journey of challenge and discovery. The hero receives a call and wishes he hadn’t. He tries to refuse the call but realizes he has little choice. The hero always leaves home (comfort, safety, familiarity) and heads out alone (even with a large support system, the cancer patient is, in a sense, on their own). As Campbell puts it, the hero receives The Call to Adventure. Stories, myths, and movies show us that the adventure could be anything - wandering the maze to kill the Minotaur, entering the belly of the whale, obtaining the ring from the underworld, or entering the Hunger Games arena. I like the motif of the dark forest. When we enter the forest, we cannot see; we do not know where we are going, it is disorienting. While the goal is to find the Holy Grail, exit the forest and return home, the hero must first face many tests, obstacles, challenges and dangers. This resonates for anyone dealing with illness.

While making his way, the hero is given a task: He must find the hidden treasure which may be easy or difficult to find; the treasure may be large or small; there may be one treasure or many. I have heard cancer patients say that they have discovered a renewed sense of compassion for self and others. I remember a perpetually busy man deciding to take his whole family on a long cruise. One woman came into support group and announced, “I did it! I bought a piano!” She had frugally denied herself something she had always wanted, and now she was taking piano lessons.

Not everyone finds the treasure and some don’t even look. Nor is finding the treasure necessarily contingent upon survival. I have known people to be cured from cancer who never allowed themselves to be introspective enough to dig for it while others cherish the treasures they find before they leave this world. The idea is to locate the treasure, exit the forest and return home to share it with the village. It is the community’s job to welcome the hero home. We might also say that he returns home to himself, changed, with an inner treasure, hard won and life altering.

So what is it that makes one person look for the treasure while others barrel through without contemplation? I have often wondered what the mechanism is in which one person cannot emerge from the maze of despair while another is able to transcend adversity, make meaning, and move on. Lawrence LeShan wrote about this idea in Cancer as a Turning Point (1990), which has sparked workshops and conferences around the country. He encourages patients to question the meaning of their illness and asks what might be emerging as a new life purpose given their circumstances. The literature on post-traumatic growth (PTG) may also give us some ideas about this. It is suggested that with PTG, one moves beyond simple recovery where we can see an enhancement of their psychological state. It involves “a process of revision and reconstruction of shattered beliefs that results in the development of new beliefs and assumptions that can accommodate the traumatic experience.” (Gerrish, N., Dyck, M., Marsh, A. Post-Traumatic Growth and Bereavement; Mortality, Vol 14, No. 3, August 2009). The assumptions that correlate with PTG include a belief that the world is benevolent, that the world is meaningful, and that the self is worthy. In other words, resiliency is linked to these internal schemas. Perhaps this is why someone with a history of significant trauma may have more difficulty in adjustment to illness, since their prior experience may very well have contributed to the development of different schemas.

Cancer patients often ask, Why me? This question may be rooted in grief related anger, or it may simply be an attempt to make sense of what seems so senseless. Perhaps the question people need to ponder is not so much Why?, but How? What? and Where? How has this illness changed me? What is my disease trying to tell me? Where in my life have I abandoned myself? These questions are less accusatory than the question Why? They are softer, include inquiry, curiosity, and multiple possible answers. They allow for compassion. 

As I told her The Hero’s Journey story, my Iraqi patient looked at me with wide eyes. Through tears she said, “I know what the treasure is. The treasure is my life, and when I get through all of this, I am going to learn English. Maybe I will have American friends.” Touched, I reflected, “Now wouldn’t that be a great gift to the community?”  She eventually felt ready to leave therapy. Occasionally I would get calls from other refugee patients that were sent to me by her. I was happy to know that she had come out of isolation to help others. One day, many years later, while at a local well filling large bottles with fresh water, I looked across the well and saw her. Wearing her beautiful abaya and hijab, she walked over and hugged me. I am still deeply moved by the vision of two women from very different worlds, surrounded by onlookers, embracing at the well. I smiled when she spoke to me in English. I thanked her for finding the treasure and bringing it back to the village.

Community Outreach - Light of the City

The is the true joy in life,
the being used for a purpose recognized
by yourself as a mighty one.
— George Bernard Shaw

The next time you want to complain about Seattle City Light, remember this story.

For many years I saw an eccentric bearded man walking his dog in my neighborhood. I would occasionally stop to chat with him and we would engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the miracle and preciousness of life. I thought he was a kind man, and quite Zen in his approach to life. I always looked for him and would notice him walking his dog Pongo, but I never knew where he lived. One day on my walk I saw him standing on the dilapidated porch of his old home. The house was clearly beyond run-down, with overgrown bushes, piles of wood, and a ladder being used to replace a missing handrail. It was then that realized that my Zen friend was a hoarder.

By now, most people have seen the show Hoarders. A crew of televised helpers moves in to someone’s home of tunneled belongings, and often times filth, to help the recipient stay in their home and cope with the change that come with the purging of heir precious stuff. It’s an emotional process that leaves the dweller feeling increasing anxiety and the viewer wondering how on earth such a situation could come into being. Hoarding is a diagnosable disorder that is classified under anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorders. Collecting things - almost anything it seems - creates a sense of safety for people for a variety of reasons. Whenever I see that show, I look around my own house and wonder where I am on the continuum of this ailment that causes such distress. The process of de-cluttering creates stress for most people. So many items are imbued with importance. All of the things that are sentimental, for example, or the items that might someday be useful and therefore wasteful to discard. For the true hoarder, somehow it all gets out of hand and tangled up in old defenses, out of control anxiety, and shame. The treatment can be long, distressing, and sometimes involves drastic intervention.

On my walk today I notice that my neighbor Jack’s street is blocked off. Several trucks and two dumpsters line the street. Table saws are set up next to stacks of two-by-fours. I can’t help it - I detour my route to investigate. I run into several people wearing Seattle City Light tee shirts. They proudly tell me that they have been at Jack’s for two days doing renovation. The work actually began months ago as they assessed and discussed the plans with Jack. It turns out that every April 27th, Seattle City Light works with a program called Rebuilding Together where employees volunteer along with 1500 other volunteers and numerous businesses across the city to help repair the homes of people in need. Jack had a leaky roof and his local senior center helped him apply for assistance.

The workers tell me stories about Jack I never knew. He has a masters’ degree in English Literature. He loves stones and collects them in his yard in various shapes and sizes. He plays the washtub bass - a string attached to a broom handle with a notch that fits onto the brim of an overturned steel tub. Jack is a Korean War veteran who also served in Viet Nam. When he returned to the U.S., he was fired from the university where he taught for speaking out against the war. He spent the rest of his working days repairing Volkswagens. He is now eighty-one and his beloved Pongo died recently.

With Jack’s permission, the crew has spent two days trimming trees, clearing brush, hauling debris, re-roofing, planting flowers, painting, and rebuilding the porch where I had seen him standing month’s before. He had to use a plunger to wash his clothes in an old broken washing machine that would no longer agitate. They replaced the broken washing machine with a new one. He now has a new stove - the old one had only one burner that worked. There were many electrical and plumbing problems, which were repaired. In honor of his military service, they hung an American flag off the porch of his1909 home. 

Involuntary, tears well in my eyes as I hear these stories. I wipe them away but they keep coming. I am surprised by this, but I know the feeling - I am experiencing a heart-opening moment. They see that I am deeply moved, and invite me for a tour of the home. Everywhere we go, they tell me, “You couldn’t walk through here, there was so much stuff.” Jack could not part with everything, so there are still some piles of wood and stones in the yard. There’s an old shack in the backyard that I am warned I do not want to enter. I am informed that this was the dwelling that the original owners lived in while they built the main home. It probably dates to the late 1800’s. Jack has a claw foot tub in his bathroom and he has cleverly jerry-rigged a hand-held shower-head to a two-by-four so he can shower. The crew shows me the new stove and tells me they have washed all of his dishes. They add that every neighbor has visited today.

I am guided through the small house to a room Jack calls “the parlor” where he is standing with his washtub bass. He welcomes me kindly by shaking my hand and grins from ear to ear through his grey beard. He is so very grateful and says that he won’t sleep tonight with all the excitement. He can’t believe that all of these volunteers have come out to help him. “It’s a miracle,” I say. He agrees as he recounts all of the work that has been done. He is especially pleased with the new porch, the roof that no longer leaks, and the washing machine. Two dog beds sit in the corner. He had five, but just couldn’t depart with all of them. A framed photo of his home in better days hangs on the wall. The matting is signed by all of the volunteers. He offers me a lesson in washtub bass playing.

The miracle is that a community can come together in such a loving way to make life so much better for one person. I witnessed people and local businesses who have enough in their own lives and organizations giving their time, energy, money and supplies to a man who has served his country, spoken out about a senseless war, and sacrificed his livelihood as a result; a man who loves animals, music and literature. He asked for very little and was given much while inadvertently giving neighbors an opportunity for a heart opening. None of it was televised; no money made; no people sitting in their living rooms gawking in wonder at the mess and mayhem - just simple generosity.

I’ve heard it said that it is the volunteers in this world that make things happen. The first hospice program was volunteer run. Shanti was the first program that served people with HIV/AIDS and was volunteer-based. These volunteers on April 27th made it possible for Jack to stay in his home, doing so respectfully, while enlivening a neighborhood. Community outreach is truly the light of a city. Anything is possible when that light shines.

 

The Liminal Space: Facing the Threshold

Whatever your age, your up-bringing, or your education, what you are made of is mostly unused potential.
— George Leonard
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
— Rumi

The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. Cultural anthropologists have used the word liminality to describe the space/time between the ritual death and rebirth that occurs in initiation rites. There is a disorienting time between letting go of an old life and walking across a threshold into a new one that accompanies any important change. The word limbo is derived from this same root. Limbo is the place between earth and heaven - a place of waiting for entry. People also use the word limbo to describe a place of not knowing, i.e. "I can't decide - I'm in limbo." The liminal zone is the place between this and that, between what was and what will be, between old and new. It is an exciting time of anticipation, but it can also be excruciating in it's suspense. Liminality can be scary because it is about stepping into the unknown. In the liminal space, we face a gate or a doorway and we do not know what is on the other side. The unknown is something we often instinctually avoid as it conjures up all kinds of anxieties. The ego likes to know it all, and when you are not sure of who or where you are any more, the ego gets edgy and starts scouting for anything that looks familiar. So there you are, not sure what to do or where to go, knowing that you can't go back and yet feeling like you can't move forward even though you know you have to do so. 

We need to remember that the liminal space is a place of great potentiality. Since we haven't yet opened the gate and walked though, anything is possible. It is the imaginal realm where the sky is the limit. If we rush through this passage too quickly, we may get somewhere before we were meant to arrive. We may miss some important information or a teaching from life. Sometimes we need to sit still, stay put, and wait for the right time. We need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we move in to pluck it from the vine. "When will it ripen? Is it time yet?" we impatiently ask. The tree has it's own wisdom and so do we. If we slow down and listen, we will be given instruction - in psyche’s time, not ego time.

A spiritual teacher of mine once called this liminal space, "The Courtyard." He said that we dwell here in the courtyard before we enter the portal of awakening. "You may want to reflect before you leap" he cautioned us, since once you enter the portal you can never return. You can't go somewhere and say you've never been. You can't know something and then not know it. With one step, you are forever changed. "But some people hang out in the courtyard forever," he warned. They spend their whole lives looking at the doorway but never walk through. It takes courage to step into mystery. Or maybe the Fool from the ancient tarot is our teacher here. In many decks, the Fool walks happily toward the cliff's edge, anxiety free, ready to surrender to what is. Maybe it is not so much courage that is required, but trust.

 

Disconnection

What can we gain by sailing to the moon
if we are not able to cross the abyss
that separates us from ourselves?
— Thomas Merton

I often wonder if disconnection is the fundamental ailment of our time. Our calendars are full, we are plugged into social media, we go to church or temple, make sure our kids go to soccer practice, go to weddings and funerals, and meet friends for happy hour - and yet there is often a feeling of disconnect, isolation, and loneliness. We collect people who “like” us, but does it really mean anything? We can feel like we have a thousand friends because Facebook tells us so. Busyness intrudes upon the quality of relational interactions. It is difficult to slow down enough to be present with others. We listen to sermons and lectures, but we wonder how to apply these teachings so that they are grounded in our lives. Many activities feel like obligations that have us going through the motions. Our unions have a surface quality and often lack depth. How is it that we miss the mark?

People experiencing depression are often really complaining about a profound sense of disconnection from others, themselves, and life. They don’t know who they are or what they want. Feeling a deep sense of unworthiness, they are disconnected from their essence. People with depression often believe that something is wrong with them, when really its just that they've lost the way to their own hearts and the hearts of others. They try very hard to connect with others only to find politeness without presence. People who are depressed want to belong but wonder if they do or can, or what it means to truly belong. They want more from life but don’t know where to look or how to find what they are looking for.

Most couples believe that they are fighting or disagreeing about their partners' behavior - what they did or didn’t do. Current theory points out, however, that behavior is not really the issue about which couples quarrel. Underneath their complaints is actually a sense of emotional disconnection. When one person says, “You work too much,” what they are really saying is, “I feel disconnected from you. I miss you.” When they complain that the other doesn’t listen or “You don’t hear me,” they may really be conveying a sadness related to emotional disconnection. 

True connection requires that we employ the art of presence. It means that we must slow down, unplug, make time, and evaluate the quality of our relationships. It asks that we allow ourselves the refuge needed for replenishment and reconnection. The good news about missing the mark is that we can always aim again. We can ask for more, stop abandoning ourselves, and take the time to relish this precious life, even in the midst of suffering. How do we begin to live life on life’s terms? Can we ask, “What does life want from me?” Can we open our hearts just a little to take in the beauty and pain of being human? Connection requires a certain kind of tenderness. Tenderness requires vulnerability which we often equate with weakness. I think it requires tremendous strength to let down the armor to offer tenderness and be real.