Archive for the ‘Liminality’ Category

Over the past few months we have explored some of the benefits of practicing sitting with ambiguity.  I discovered recently that there is an archetypal figure that is considered the embodiment of ambiguity; The Trickster.


So, let’s start with defining what an archetype actually is.  Archetypes, according to the work of psychologist Carl Jung, are fundamental human themes found throughout world mythology.  Archetypal examples include The Child, The Hero, and of course, The Trickster (just to name a few).  One way of understanding archetypes is to see them as characterological patterns our minds instinctually recognize and that perhaps can serve as lenses that contribute to how we each perceive and experience the world around us.  Archetypes can also be tapped as “guides within” on each of our individual journeys.  Each archetype brings with it, in any given moment, a lesson, a task, and ultimately, a gift.  Archetypes live in each of us, teaching us and reminding us how to live.  What the infamous tarot deck is truly presenting is a constellation of archetypes to work with.  If the whole idea of the archetype still seems hazy, feel free to read more here.

The Trickster Archetype

Reinvented from culture to culture in mythology and folklore tales, the Trickster is presented as god, spirit, man, woman, anthropomorphic animal, supernatural being or the occasional mischievous fairy who disobeys rules and conventional behavior, causing chaos while also inspiring some kind of change to occur.  Not just any rogue or antihero can be termed a Trickster.  As literary scholar Helen Lock notes, “the true Trickster’s trickery calls into question fundamental assumptions about the way the world is organized, and reveals the possibility of transforming them (even if often for ignoble ends)”.  The Trickster lies somewhere between the hero and the villain; in true ambiguous style.

As Terri Windling beautifully summarizes:

Trickster can be an agent of creation or destruction, a cunning hero or a predatory villain; most often he is an ambivalent figure, shifting back and forth from one mode to the other. In some tales, his tricks allow humankind to obtain fire, language, laughter, song, sacred rituals, hunting, and love–making skills, while other tales show how his tricks gone awry have resulted in death, disease, sorrow, and strife entering the world. He is often portrayed as a creature at the mercy of overweening vanity and prodigious appetites (for food, for sex, for social power and recognition), perpetually undermined by these things and yet also perpetually undaunted by failure. Psychologist Carl Jung viewed Trickster as an expression of the shadow side of a culture, the embodiment of all that is repressed and disowned — the greedy, needy rascal that lives somewhere inside every one of us …The Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity, ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.

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Trickster characters are known for doing the right thing, but not always for the right reasons. They are able to outsmart and outwit anyone, but they are often their own worst enemy.  The Trickster openly questions and mocks authority, encourages impulse and enthusiasm, seeks out new ideas and experiences, destroys convention and complacency, promotes chaos and unrest.  At the same time, the trickster often brings new knowledge, wisdom and new insights.

Examples of Tricksters

Let’s consider some common Tricksters.  Classic Trickster figures include Loki, Hermes, Coyote and Sun Wukong the Monkey King.  Loki is considered a Trickster God in Norse Mythology, an associate of Thor.  Sometimes Loki helps and sometimes he makes trouble, dressing in disguises and causing others harm.  Hermes from Greek mythology is known for stealing, tricking people but also known as messenger of the gods and one who protected and shepherded those into the underworld.  Hermes is one of only a few gods who were able to enter and leave the underworld without hindrance (able to traverse liminal spaces…).  Old Man Coyote in the Crow tribes (and Winnebago cycle, the coyote named Wakdjunkaga) often impersonated The Creator while also stealing fire to help humans.  Perhaps he is an ancestor of a certain Wile E. Coyote of cartoon fame?  He is a bit of a trickster, no?  Finally, there is Sun Wukong the Monkey King from Chinese and Buddhist lore.  Sun Wukong was endowed with supernatural powers including immense strength and the ability to shape-shift.  Hanuman, the monkey god of India shares many of Sun Wukong’s attributes.  Other more modern Tricksters include Robin Hood, Dracula, Jack Sparrow, Puck and Bugs Bunny.

Learning from the Trickster Manifesting in Your Life…

There are several overlapping archetypes that I believe bear mentioning here.  The Trickster, The Fool, The Magician, The Villain and The Destroyer are closely related in typology.  The Fool for instance tends to be misunderstood, reminds us of the importance of humor and playfulness, helps us see unconventional perspectives and the absurdities of modern life, and often encourages entropy and disorder.  The Magician tends to be linked with shapeshifting, is known for encouraging others to accept transformation and change, teaches us to connect parts of self to become an integrated whole, helps make inner and outer realities more visible and connected, and aims for making more of the unconscious conscious.  While The Magician archetypal figure can often change physical reality, The Fool cannot.  The Fool can change our perceptions of reality; perhaps sometimes that is more important.

The Trickster is also notable in his tendency to exist within the liminal space.   The Trickster archetype often appears in moments of passage, rupture, and transformation, helping us integrate apparently irreconcilable oppositions within ourselves and in life.  In this sense, there may lessons to be learned from noticing how and when The Trickster presents itself in your own life. 

The Trickster archetype—in all of its irrepressible charm, ability to create and solve problems and constant pressing of boundaries—speaks to the struggles and perseverance of human beings.  Carol Pearson, author of The Hero Within, provides an interesting quote regarding lessons from The Trickster, she notes “the well-developed Trickster helps us know how to do what we want; Shadow-Trickster lies about what is required for survival.”   We must always be careful of the Shadow-Trickster for he may tell us things like our feelings will be too much to bear if we do not numb out on drink or drugs, or tells us intimate relationships are a threat to our identity, or that we have to work all the time and never take time for ourselves.  She goes on to say “the best way to free oneself from a Shadow-Trickster is to befriend it, and in doing so… begin to develop in oneself the Wise-Fool.”

current music faves:  new pj harvey, of montreal, dance music

current show faves:  big love, modern family

breakfast today:  best blueberry muffins ever, soy latte

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 “And the day came when the pain of remaining tight in the bud was greater than the risk it took to open”. ~Anais Nin

I have been interested in understanding how human creativity “works” for years and I have put that interest into action by painting, writing, and being an all-around crafty gal, as of late.

I’ve also been working my way through Jeanne Carbonettie’s book, Making Pearls:  Living the Creative Life, for the better part of 2+ years (!).  I finally finished the book by, well, reaching the end, but also by completing my last art project associated with the book (which we will get into shortly).

The premise of Ms. Carbonetti’s book is that creativity is cyclical in nature and that it often helps to recognize where we are in the cycle at any given moment and… honor it.  She lays out the creative cycle as one mirroring the process of oysters making pearls:

  • Waiting – When instinct tells the oyster the time is right, it cements itself to something stationary and waits.  It waits for noursihment to come to it. 
  • Opening – Then the oyster decidedly opens, taking in water and all sorts of things as it filters out what it wants and doesn’t want.
  • Closing – When it is ready to “digest” its food, it closes its two shells.  It is now that some grain of sand lodges within the shells and the oyster works to integrate it by secreting its mother of pearl lining around it.
  • Holding – As the oyster holds this pearl-to-be, the object rolls around freely within the closed space, which is what allows it to take on its characteristic round-shape.
  • Releasing – Now comes the time of releasing the pearl from the shell.
  • Emptying – Releasing always leads to emptying, everything goes! 
  • Sitting – There is then nothing left to do but sit.  The cycle is complete; the pearl is beautiful.

Ms. Carbonetti notes that “we are always in the cycle of pearl-making, forming out of the stuff of our lives something beautiful and meaningful”.  She presents projects at the end of each chapter that prompt the reader to engage with the ideas inherent in each stage of the creative process by creating a 7″ square of watercolor paper  per phase (Waiting, Opening, etc.).  Each stage is uniquely associated with a color that is meant to symbolize the energy of that part of the process. 

Without further ado, here are my humble conceptualizations of what I resonated with when it came to each phase of the creative, pearl-making process:


As an artist, waiting is associated with the life-blood and root of creative ideas, contemplative thought, embracing uncertainty, groundedness in “just being”, the allure of possibility and anticipation of the unknown.

OPENING (Orange)

Opening, in the artistic sense, is considered the “womb of ideas” phase; associated with listening for and connecting with what you are feeling, noticing, intuiting… and going with the flow of what you find. 

CLOSING (Yellow)

The process of closing for an artist is associated with tapping into quiet power, having patience as the aha! moment of sand sneaks on into the oyster’s shell.  This is the part of the process that welcomes having a sacred space to incubate.  Commitment to the artistic idea completes this phase.


Holding is a phase associated with growth and nurturance.  Affirmation and acceptance are key here as new ideas come up and are welcomed, not judged and scared away.  There is a compassionate gaze eminating from the artist here.

Releasing is associated with expressing one’s truth, raising one’s voice, coming to terms with all that our creation is, and what it isn’t, and giving it to the world anyway.  It is what it is and we surrender it, facing the truth of the moment.


Emptying is associated with insight and wisdom.  This comes from finally stepping back from what has been created and seeing the bigger picture.  This is the phase in which energy is finally withdrawn, this is the final let-go; the artist stops fiddling with the painting and let’s it be a finished work.


Sitting is associated with having faith in what has been created and finding peace at the end of the process.  It is about trusting what has been created and just being now that the cycle is complete. 

Along the way, this proposed process of creativity touches on many of the ideas already espoused here at Soft Animal Wisdom.  I see the DBT-ness (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) inherent in the Waiting, Opening and Holding phases.  I see the importance of generally sitting with ambiguity in the Waiting and Opening phases.  There also seems to be an overall vibe throughout the book that values mindfulness, compassion and being in the present moment… all Buddhist ideals.  I would definitely argue that much of the creative process exists as a liminal space where one has not yet created something and yet is also on the cusp of having created something. 

I have enjoyed the process of creating the squares for each phase and, in turn, enjoyed making the latest pearl that is today’s post… now back to Waiting, I suppose!

current music faves:  tori a. (obsessed right now)

current show faves:  dexter (season 6), breaking bad (season 4)

breakfast today:  veggie crepe from chicago creperie crepes-a-latte, toasted marshmellow latte 

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It occurs to me that the concepts I’m wanting to discuss here are themselves… ambiguous.  The idea of “sitting with ambiguity” is by nature mysterious, difficult to pin down, like a wisp of smoke in the air or something on the horizon of one’s comprehension.  Discussing ambiguity is a tricky business!  But this is precisely why I am drawn like moth to a flame to explore the concept…

Transitions.  They are one thing that come up in all of our lives that often provoke anxiety and ambiguity. Think about it… transitions most of us have experienced have been—difficult, awkward, perhaps terrifying? Moving from childhood to adolescence is a transitional period from the life we’ve always known to one in which hormones begin to take over; one’s role as a daughter or son shifts to more responsibility—kind of? An adolescent is no longer a child and not yet an adult. It is a time of being “betwixt and between”.

Or just take the transition of being the new kid in school. You don’t know anyone, but you want to. Everyone else around you seems to know how to maneuver the whole wide world of the school while you feel utterly lost. This feeling of being lost does not last forever (thank goodness!), but it is the mark of a transition occurring. During a transition, you are finding your footing and often what the “right” footing would be is unclear. I experienced being the new kid in transition over and over, growing up on 5 different military bases in the U.S. And Europe.

Being a military brat until 7th grade meant that my life was in constant transition, both in terms of being the new kid and in terms of being the “outsider” when we lived in Europe.  There was a sense of all of life being one big transition with change being the one thing I could actually count on.  My early life was all about living in what can be called the “liminal space”; living betwixt and between, suspended between two cultures:  sometimes suspended between civilian and non-civilian family life and then in 1985, suspended between the culture of the U.S. Air Force Base in Zaragoza, Spain and the culture of the local Spanish citizenry.  My experience qualifies me as a “Third Culture Kid”. Read more about what that’s all about here. Third Culture Kids live in the liminal space; more on that in a future post!

Liminal space. The Latin word “limen” means threshold. Liminality refers to a space in between, a place of ambiguity and transition. It has been described as the space between the closed door and the open window. The term was coined by anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in the 1960’s upon studying sociocultural rituals. Liminality is a neurological, metaphysical or psychological state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the border or boundary of or between two different planes of development, meaning or being often resulting in transformation. It is an “indeterminate zone of oppositions, interactions and exchange”. Common examples of liminal space include graduation ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. I would argue that relationship break-ups (including heading toward divorce), moving from denial to acceptance of the death of someone close to you, and the first weeks or months living in a foreign country are liminal in nature as well.

Transitions present us with a liminal space. One phase of growth has died, and yet the new one has yet to be born. This is not a comfortable place to be, but often is rich and exciting with possibilities.

One American living in Korea noted about the liminal nature of living in a foreign land:

“viewed in a positive light, liminality provides freedom of movement, but the flip side of that coin is a lack of stability. Being betweixt and between means that you don’t belong anywhere. As social animals, few humans can survive for long without belonging somewhere, at least to so to some extent… The more stationary I became, though, the more I was integrated into the social structure, and the more I lost my liminality. In return, though, I gained stability.”

Maybe liminality is a kind of transformational zone of ambiguity. Is it to be dreaded? Or does it change us for the better? Hmmm, curiouser and curiouser.

I’ll end with a quote:

“I’m going to show the courage not to retreat back to what was and I’m going to be patient not to jump into what I think ought to be, but I’m going to stand in liminal space. I am going to trust that as I stand on the threshold it is pregnant with the possibilities of God.”  -David Jensen


current music faves: brandi carlile’s give up the ghost album

current show faves: how i met your mother, mad men (season 3), snl

breakfast today: everything bagel with laughing cow swiss cheese spread, fresh raspberries, cinnamon latte

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