Smoke and Fire: The Wisdom of Thresholds And Liminal Spaces
I have always loved the autumn as a time of great mystery, magic, and transition, and yet in some years the energy current of this season has been stronger than in others, pulling me into a dream world of shadows, memory, and visions not yet clear. This has been one of those years. This is not unfamiliar territory for me in any way, and yet in this particular cycle of transition the pull towards the inner world feels harder to heed as it comes at a time in my life when so much of my energy must be directed to the outer world. Like most of you I wear many hats that require me to stay engaged in outer relationships such as mother, wife, and teacher to name a few. And yet the wisdom and potency of the liminal space I find myself in demands a quality of attention that is inward in focus and cannot be shared with others easily.
The term liminal comes from the Latin root limen, meaning threshold or sill, and represents a time/space where we stand between two worlds or ways of seeing. To be in liminal space is to be in a time where often one way of being is breaking down and yet a new way has not yet taken form. It can be a time of great ambiguity and disorientation, and yet if one can remain spacious while in such a state, and does not try to rush out of it prematurely, it can offer much richness that can be brought forth into the next stage, the stage where we pass over the threshold, whenever that might be.
As I inhabit my own twilight space this year I have been calling on two very specific energy currents to offer me their wisdom and support and to act as guides. I will describe them names and imagery from the Indian traditions, but these archetypes can be found in many traditions and are known to each of us in our own way. The first is the wisdom goddess Dhumavati and the second is one of the darker and wilder forms of Shiva known as Bhairava.
A Cart Going Nowhere
The goddess Dhumavati’s iconography is extremely evocative and speaks so perfectly to the concept of the liminal. She is an old woman, a widow, and she sits on a cart that is going nowhere. Crows, that dark bird so often a symbol of magic and mystery, surround her and she holds a winnowing basket, an ancient tool used to separate wheat from chaff, or separate that which is nourishing from that which is no longer needed. She is not a goddess that one courts as she represents emptiness, loss, and frustration, and yet to deny her presence in our lives is to deny the shadow aspects of our own being. Darkness and light are two sides of the same coin and the ability to stand steady in both states is a quality of skillfulness that we, as practitioners of yoga, work to cultivate. To be able to stay seated in our hearts during “the darkness of every infinite fall, and the shivering blaze of every fiery step up” as Rilke says, is to be truly alive. And yet between dark and light lies the twilight time where we often feel nothing at all. It is in these states presided over by Dhumavati that we encounter our great emptiness, our lack of inspiration, and the ancient grief’s that pull the light and the colour out of our daily lives. This is not an easy place to stay in, and none of us would want to live our lives from this place, yet when we find ourselves in the company of Dhumavati we would be wise to sit with this old crone a while and listen deeply to the stories she has to tell. This is a time to attend to your dreams, the ones that come in the night; this is a time to sit in silence and in stillness and not try to fill it with activity that will only distract you. This is not a time to make a plan, and set goals and rush forward. This is a time to pause and to let others know you must do so too. This is hard to do if you are in a busy phase of your life, the phase of “motherhood” of some kind. Building businesses, raising children, developing your vocation- all of these require intense engagement and are in opposition to the widow stage of life, which in the natural order represents a time of less responsibility or older age. But as we know widowhood, as a state of being, can come to us at any time. We may be in the spring of our youth when Dhumavati comes to sit at our bedside, and though she is not the guest we may have chosen to invite, she brings gifts that are full of inner knowing. I have been making space for Dhumavati by spending more time in meditation, more time in silence, and more time with my dreams. I have been looking to see her beauty in the turning leaves and moldering dark of the summer vegetation dying away. I see her in the mist that surrounds me on my pre-dawn walks and smell her in the smoke of woodfires lit against the cold, a smell that always brings me autumn memories both bitter and sweet.
Bhairava’s Fire Pit
Bhairava is a wild character whose name means “terrifying or frightful” and he has been my guide as I dance in the shadows that this time of reflection has brought up. Bhairava is an ancient form of Shiva whose imagery speaks to the wild and uncontrolled aspects of life, in comparison to other gods such as Krishna who are more representative of culture and the waking life. He is the hunter and the outcaste; he is the forest dweller and the shaman. He is the Tantrika who drinks from a skull and he is the one who has sinned and knows the burn of shame and self-loathing. His companions are black dogs and he inhabits the burning grounds. He is the one I am calling to for support as I move into the dark spaces in my own mind and my own heart, for truly I can only trust someone who has also been there as my guide. Bhairava may be terrifying but he does not judge for he has known darkness, and his essence is in fact the radiance of the sacrificial fire. So much of who and what we are in the daylight hours is informed by that which lies in the shadows, and so for those of us who have made a vow to know ourselves fully and to awaken as deeply as we can in this lifetime, we will be required to step into those shadows…again and again. This is not easy work; it is fiery and confronting work that can invoke great pain, shame, and fear. But it is the work that opens our eyes to those feelings that were already there so that we can offer them into the fire with the intention of transmuting them into something that will strengthen and enliven our lives, rather than silently degrade it. This work is best done in spaces that are removed from the marketplace and the hubbub of daily life. This sacred work has always traditionally been done in the dark of the night, in hidden places, and in the company of a chosen few. This is not public work and so also demands of us that we can create this kind of space in our lives.
How does one create this kind of space when their schedule is full and they have others who need their attention and their time? I am still working on this answer. And yet how does one not do this work and have any hope of moving forward in truth and clarity? I long for simpler times when we all had more space in which to simply be. When the fall of night meant the workday was over and one was not expected to still be available to answer emails or take phone calls. I yearn for a long gone time when autumn meant a well-deserved rest and winter was for turning inwards, for storytelling, deep listening, and dreaming by the fire. But this is not the time that I, or many of us, live in any more; and though I can still hold to the value of moving in rhythm with natures cycles as best I can in this modern world, it will be a challenge to be sure. So for myself I am taking this time by pulling back on commitments where I can, and saying no to social engagements knowing inner work must be done instead. I am doing daily sadhanas that strengthen my commitment to transformation and all that that entails, and I am sitting with my unlikely guides and visitors in this dark season, learning as much as I can from them. I’m sharing all of this as a way of explaining where I am at, but also as a way of bringing awareness to this experience, as it is not uncommon at all. I know a number of people who in the last few years have been literally catapulted into liminal spaces due to trauma, loss, illness or a personal grief that can’t be shared with the wider world and yet must be given time to be processed. I have seen how hard it was for these people to take that time, and yet how healing it was when they did. Our culture gives us little time and space for those times of “not knowing” in our lives, and I believe this deepens the fragmentation we already experience in our hearts and minds. I hope that by speaking to this I can simply bring greater awareness to the value of transitional spaces and an acknowledgment of how our modern world of high engagement makes it very hard to experience the depth and the value that these spaces can offer us. If you are in one of these times right now, know that you are in good company, and though you must do the work on your own, you are not alone.
Yours in darkness and in light,