Archive for the ‘Rainer Maria Rilke’ Tag

Liminal Spaces and Paths

[Updated 18:31 EST 11 May 2020]

pondmirr

a threshold has a psychic texture

Does anyone here have experience with liminal spaces? someone asked recently on one of the online Druid forums I frequent.

Potentially, we all do: at dawn and twilight — during ritual — waking and falling asleep — walking on a foggy or snowy day alone — in meditation, prayer, etc. And sometimes during illness, or extreme exhaustion, as well. Liminal, threshold — neither word particularly common, though our experience of them is. (We hear about the sub-liminal more than the liminal.) Cultures vary in how they help or discourage us from seeking and navigating liminal spaces. Or even talking about them.

One of the purposes of ritual is to help us enter them and begin to explore their potentials.

In many older cultures at least some kinds of limen or threshold are places to watch and to guard: you may hang a charm at the doorway to your home or work. Your culture helps establish who is or isn’t allowed to touch your skin — the threshold of your body — and when. Shrines and temples have liminal areas in the form of sacred precincts, which you try to avoid profaning — literally, standing near the fane or holy place at the wrong time, or in the wrong state, unprepared. And if you think you have no fanes in your life to profane, think again — we all run into restricted or no-access areas — playing fields, stages, “authorized personnel only” zones, member-only forums and groups, relationships that allow you to say and do things with, to and for each other that no one else can.

What about seeking out and crossing into a liminal space consciously?

In many traditions, fasting from sex, or certain foods, or all food and drink for a designated period, are all time-honored ways to prepare to cross a threshold. Almost anything that shifts our habits — our “everyday-ness” — and that we can pursue with single-mindedness, can serve as a means of preparation, because the single-mindedness is the larger goal. Focus helps manifest the liminal.

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Wikipedia calls the liminal the “boundary of perception”

Medieval knights-to-be kept nightlong vigil with their weapons in preparation for receiving knighthood. Holy days, as thresholds of sacred time, often acquire their own rites of preparation. Even in supposedly “secular” settings, we have ritualized requirements for behavior, dress, speech, etc., that accompany threshold events, especially changes of status. The job interview, wedding, graduation, birthday or retirement party, all signal the crossing of a threshold, each with its appropriate ritual accompaniment.

You can imagine a t-shirt with the words “Tame the Liminal!” except of course that’s the one thing we never do. The liminal says “possibility!” The liminal sweeps us to the brink of change. The poet Rilke gives us the experience of falling into the liminal “merely” by studying a famous statue in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, a figure that is missing its head:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke struggles in similes with how to express this consciousness: “eyes like ripening fruit … torso with brilliance like a lamp … skin like a wild beast’s fur … stone’s borders bursting like a star”. In other and theistic traditions, it’s said you can experience God-realization by looking into the heart of a flower. The point is the same. Or in fact the point is often different for each of us. What does remain the same is preparation. (The Hopi call one of their ritual tools natwanpi — “instrument of preparation”.) Take that step with intention, and anything can draw us into such awareness.

And so “our mission, should we choose to accept it”, is to interrogate the borders, our own most of all, to investigate just where our cultures draw their lines, and what lies across them. Not to rebel against those lines mindlessly, but to understand any limen is there for a purpose, and to determine how far that purpose applies to us — and when it might stop applying. So if I quote that famous Socratic proverb, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, I also need to cite the corollary of script-writer and brilliant teacher Robert McKee, “The unlived life is not worth examining”. Ouch!

Lighting the woodstove this morning after the past nights’ cold moved through New England (8″ of snow in northern Vermont!), I encounter the liminal in a way everyone can experience. A fire, a candle, brings us into contact with that most liminal of physical things. But any of the four elements can: a waterfall or lake or stream; clouds or the sound of wind in the trees. Earth, too — a mountain or valley or meadow, or an unusual large stone, a piece of quartz or shale held in the hand.

And I also jump-start my awen from Bards, as frequent readers here know well. Here’s my man Thoreau, who closes Walden with a series of four potent and linked meditations that can serve as Druidic natwanpi, as preparation for the liminal:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

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What We Do Is Us

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same”, sings Gerald Manley Hopkins, that wonderful bard who observed his world so loving-wisely. You can read the poem I’m reflecting on here at this site, which includes a bite-sized biography, along with short, helpful observations.

“One thing and the same”, Hopkins says, sounding confident, like he really knows.

What? you ask. The thing we all are, a self that “[d]eals out that being indoors each one dwells”: the “indoors” we each inhabit, the self we look out from onto everything around us. Deal it out, pay it out like divination, rope or money or time.

Hopkins gets it. He goes on: “Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells”. Each self does this, it goes as itself, it “selves”, as if we are all verbs now, and everything we do speaks us and conjures us both out of and into the cosmos. To live at all is a magical act, “to be alive twice” as another poet calls it. From time to time we hear the echo of both lives, the two halves of us we can’t ignore, that kindle in us a human restlessness we can never extinguish. It’s also what we are, what we do as selves.

I’m born and I come upon myself, I gradually become self-aware, the self simply a larger and more engaging preoccupation among all the other things I do. Each of us sits in a self like we sit on benches. The bench of the self weathers in place, this place, the world of heights and depths, times and places.

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And what is the “speech” and “spell” it utters? Bard-like, Hopkins says it like he hears it: all these selves “Crying What I do is me: for that I came“.

I’m doing it right now, and it also will take me my entire life to do it completely. When my heart stops and my last breath goes out, I’ll have finished this particular doing, one turn on the spiral, whether I become the lichen near the bench or the shadow of tree-trunks or a tree or a human again, or something else “different”, says Whitman in another poem, bard singing to bard and to all of us, “different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.

Have you felt it, luck in the sunlight, possibility on your skin? There’s Druid-luck just in living, which I can know if I heed the reminders, or ignore them and suffer.  Either way, it hurts, says therapist Rollo May. I’ll suffer anyway. OK, on to do something through and around and even, if I have to, with my suffering. What I do is me: for that I came.

“Don’t you know yet?” scolds Rilke. (Damn these bards! The conversation hasn’t stopped since awen first stirred in us. One thing and the same. We recognize it in others, in the voice of the Bards, because we’re doing it too.

What? I ask again. Rilke answers, part of the Song singing all of us here, the voice at the center of things that makes music out of us all, the voice we hear in dreams and silence and sound, laughter and tears and the spaces inside us.

 

Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

…..

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things in terms of a human future;
no longer to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
to leave even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.
Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.
And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity.

Retrieval. Of course we fear death, if we’ve done it so many times before. A healthy fear of death, something I know, rather than terror of what I don’t know. I’ve done this death thing countless times already. What’s one more?

Well, a great deal. How many years to retrieve this time around, to begin to recall things I’ve never forgotten, maybe, but misplaced, thrown out, ripped up and shredded even, for decades, centuries. A self that emerges out of nothing, returns to it, and also manages a retrieval, with the help of crazy bards and singers on the edges, reminding us. Pointing us back to song that’s still singing us, notes on the wind.

What I do is me: for that I came.

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