Chapter 8 – Liminal Space and the Window of Tolerance

The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold. A threshold is a door or gap between two spaces. It’s a space between the ‘what was’ and ‘what is next’. Think transition, waiting, uncertainty. This could be after the break-up of a significant relationship, or just before starting a new job. Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes this space as being

“..where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.” (Rohr, 1999)

Being in liminal space is incredibly uncomfortable for most people. We can all identify these intense transition times in our life, some of us may be in them right now. Times where we are in between the old/familiar, and the new/not yet. This can cause considerable distress. So why bother? Well, this in-between space is often where breakthroughs happen – the ‘aha’ moments in our lives. The space where we shed the habits that are no longer serving us, or discharge stuck energies. While uncertain and often uncomfortable, this liminal space is an important, even imperative threshold on our journey home.

Expanding our window of tolerance is a way to allow us to tolerate the discomfort of liminal space, and perhaps even grow to appreciate and seek out ‘thresholds’ in our life. The window of tolerance refers to the optimal amount of arousal, or stimulation, that we can function most effectively with (Siegel, 1999). Think of hyperarousal (hyper=excess) can be synonymous with the flight or fight response, and hypoarousal (hypo=lack) with the freeze response. Most people move between these varying states of arousal from time to time. Trauma and/or extreme stress often make it more likely a person will become either hyper- or hypo-aroused.

Each individual’s window of tolerance is different. Those who have a narrow window of tolerance may often feel as if their emotions are too intense to handle. They may choose to limit potential stressors, new situations, etc to avoid going ‘out of their comfort zone’. Those with a wider window of tolerance feel able to handle intense emotions or situations without feeling that their ability to function is significantly impacted.

Importantly, the window of tolerance can also be affected by our environment. People are generally more able to remain within the window when they feel safe and supported. They are also more likely to try to expand their window of tolerance. As we gently, compassionately expand our window of tolerance, we find courage to sit with the uncertainty.

Reflections from a Fellow Traveller: “Liminal Space”

By Margaret Huml

I have crossed the threshold and even in moments when I think I want to go back I cannot. I am in a space between…. A waiting space. Here I sit in this waiting space – not the life I was living, left wondering when I will emerge on the ‘other side’ (whatever that means). I feel glimpses of anger, resentment, sadness…. Sometimes they pull me in deep…. And I want to go back to the discomfort of the way things were before, ironically, that felt more comfortable and somehow appealing.

When I look outside of myself, I see all that I think needs to change, and decisions that need to be made…. And a wave of overwhelm washes over me entirely. I have been trained that if I am not deciding, then I am indecisive, that if I am not DOING then I am not enough………… so what happens now? In this space between, in this waiting… where nothing seems to be moving as quickly as I am used to.

I breathe.

I tap into my Being. And here I can see with new eyes. I can see that the healing timeline is a lie…. There is no finish line, no decisions to be forced into existence. The path to healing is through…. And how do I get through? my noisy mind asks.

Sit and breathe my heart responds.

So I sit as best as I am able, for as long as I am able. Even when I want to run, I sit. I sit and breathe into the discomfort, into the ugliness, into the unraveling, into the stillness. I notice. And when I reach my maximum, I pause, I breathe again, I take a break (no shame) and come back to my BEing when I am able.

Maybe this liminal space, this space between, this waiting room…..maybe, just maybe, it is beautiful. Yes, it is wonderfully slow (according to societal standards) and it is unknown. I am grateful for the space of curiosity that is accessible here, so I tend to myself with gentleness, with compassion, with love. From a state of BEing.

Inevitably my noisy mind becomes restless and prodding and I come to a moment when I can no longer notice with curiosity….. so I move with it. I wander in nature. I breathe. My chaotic mind tells me this walking is gluttonous…. Yet my body knows it is healing. Wandering in the woods, I am with it – the space between.

In this waiting space I search for anchors; anchors in nature, anchors in community, anchors in unconditional positive regard. So I show up here. Even when I feel messy. Even when I feel weary. Sad. Ugly. I show up without the “right” words, without knowing the way. And I wait. There is beauty in the waiting. Even when it can feel excruciating.

Expansion and contraction are equally valuable. Though I prefer expansion – it ticks the box of “I’m doing it right” or “I am winning”.
And yet….

..contraction is the feeling in my body that represents a depth of meaning – can I meet myself where I am at, in this moment even when (especially when) I am not fond of this moment, this experience, this feeling?… there is meaning here, so I wait. I cultivate self-compassion, because I need a load more of that.

I am grateful for this community where I am held in love. Where you hold me able to sit in uncomfortable spaces that I have not allowed myself to be before. And rather than greeting this space with tolerance (my typical grin & bear it approach), I am sitting, waiting to meet this space with compassion.

I remind myself sometimes the significant thing is to breathe. To sit. To wait. Healing is a process not a destination. This space we have created is a healing field – it is a sacred space that has been provided to me so that I may recognize what is whispering to be heard. To acknowledge it, to be with it, to tend to it and possibly to befriend it. This space is a gift, and although it feels turbulent at times, that’s ok. Here in this space I am not lost, I am found. I am connected with source. I am connected with my Being. I am connected with community.

I see that my impatience to get to the other side is a manifestation of my noisy Doing mind – when I can hear my heart it reminds me that a life wandering a healing path is a life well LIVED. And clearly it is a beautiful journey because it has gifted me each of you.

As I am in the middle of it and you are in the middle of it and the WORLD is in the middle of it, our healing ripples out to our community and throughout the world.