On Compassion and Liminality

I have a feeling that this kind of thing is going to happen a lot over the next few years — some reading I do in class will light a fire under my ass and I’ll write a bunch of sophomoric blog posts which naively incorporate (unresearched and uncited) theory I only nominally understand in hopes of making points that were probably made by ten thousand people before me, but which are new to me, and possibly new to some of you, and therein retain some small fraction of value.  And stuff.

This time I want to talk about Compassion and Liminality. For those unfamiliar (as I was up until about 3 days ago) with the word liminal and with what a liminal state is, I’ll do a quick overview.

According to Victor Turner (an anthropologist noted for his work on ritual and rites of passage) the liminal state is that which is ‘betwixt and between’ — it marks that bit of limbo between fixed states of being in which a person is no longer one thing, and not yet the other and somehow still both; neither child nor adult, neither spirit nor flesh, neither male nor female–you get the point. Turner speaks of this stage largely in relation to coming of age rituals and/or other rituals of transformation both in far-off cultures and in cultures like our own.  There’s clearly a lot more to it than a simple summary can explain but, for the sake of brevity, I’m naming only the most relevant bits.

Outside this structure of ritual transformation, there are lots of ways to be liminal (or perceived as liminal.) For example, the transgender body (whether true or not for the transgender individual) can be often be perceived by the general populace as neither fully male nor fully female and yet retaining elements of both. Likewise, the fat body is constantly conscripted to a state of liminality, whether agreed upon or not by the fat individual, in that it is seen through our culture’s hegemonic lens as an issue awaiting resolution. Anyone who’s ever stated publicly that they like their fat body exactly the way it is will know what kind of a reaction that can bring from ‘concerned’ friends and family. The idea of a fat body as a fixed state is completely counter-culture.

As Mary Douglas (another famous anthropologist) said, the tendency of humans, when confronted with things that are unclear (neither one thing nor the other) is to view them as unclean.  Clearly this is at play in thousands of ways, every day; in the extremes of politics which define a moral right or wrong, in the hallows of religion which dictate a good and an evil, in the frenzy of war which declares one friend or enemy.  These positions look on all that lies between these extremes with suspicion,  intolerance or outright loathing.  And yet, for the vast majority of us, life is lived at all points along this spectrum — in the black, in the white and mostly within the myriad shades of grey that cloud and color our sacred clarity with all the complexity and confusion inherent in navigating a human life.

Why am I talking about this?  Because I want to apply it to human relationships. More specifically, I want to apply it to the way in which human beings tend to disregard liminality and transition in their analysis and assessment of one another inside of relationships.  Because we are averse to things which confound us in their in-completion it is often our tendency to view others as being in a fixed state, e.g. – to view behaviors and characteristics as truly representative–in the present tense–of what people have been in the past and/or will be in the future.  And yet each of us know, for our own selves, that we are constantly in flux, absorbing new information, reflecting on the past, aspiring towards the future and adjusting our views accordingly.  The human experience is variable and dynamic and not one of us is the same today as we were a week, a month, a year ago.

Nowhere is this clearer, to me at least, than in the ending of relationships. Personally, in the context of finality, I have been doggedly and non-consensually told the story of myself more times than I care to think on. This has happened in all sorts of relationships – love relationships, friendships, peer/activist affiliations, etc.  I have also done this in the past as well and may again do it in the future if I forget to be mindful, so ingrained is the tendency to do so. And it is my opinion that in this inclination to define one another, to seek to tell another who they truly are or who we perceive them to be, there lies a void of true compassion. By clinging to a moment in time, or a specific behavior, and giving it all the weight of a fixed state of being, we render the person both without a past (which may influence the current moment) and without a future (in which life experience and new perspectives may lead to a new state of being.)

While it is absolutely appropriate to address behaviors and/or perspectives we may find problematic, the failing of compassion lies in the assumption that any period of liminality (and in the course of a lifetime, I propose that we are near-constantly found in the ‘betwixt and between’) could provide the basis for a fair and accurate assessment of the entirety of any being.  To presume that we can know what a behavior means, that we can view any behavior or set of behaviors objectively without our own lived experience skewing our interpretation, to assume that we can infer the intent from the surface manifestation — these beliefs cloud compassion and relegate others to ‘types’ or a ‘kinds’ of people that fit into our limited world view.

The challenge I issue, both to myself and to others, is to be mindful in conflict and in resolution of the ways in which our discomfort with transition clouds our perspectives on those we are relating to; to avoid language which defines another being (this includes simply prefacing judgments with an “I” statement (“I feel that you are…”)); to view one another as beings in transition, as neither everything they used to be nor anything they are to become and yet always a sum of both. In being nothing, we are all things and can always be viewed with the potential to be so.

(Creative Commons image courtesy http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-313116995)
6 Comments
  1. “the fat body… is seen through our culture’s hegemonic lens as an issue awaiting resolution.”

    THIS. EXACTLY. I am trying to stop seeing my body this way.

    • Me, too, Emolee. It’s a process, for sure. It helps to apply that compassion in liminality to myself and my own process toward self-love as well. I’m not there yet, but I’m not where I was. XOX!

  2. Thank you for writing this– it overlaps some of my concerns. In particular, I’ve been looking at the relationship between perfectionism and static or oversimplified images, and the way such images interfere with compassion, and liminatlity is a way of remembering that things have a natural inclination to move, and to not fit into our categories.

    • I’d love to read what you’re writing on the subject, Nancy! Link?

  3. There’s no link, and I realize I may have made what I’m thinking sound more academic and general than it is.

    Actually, I’ve got a nasty case of depression/anxiety/perfectionism/procrastination, and I’ve put a lot of thought and introspection into what’s going on.

    The particular insight I was thinking of was a moment when I realized that I had a static kinesthetic imagining of what good t’ai chi was like, and it wasn’t accurate. Good t’ai chi feels different from and better than what I had in mind.

    T’ai chi (and Daoism in general) are good about everything always moving and changing, though there’s always a risk of them getting turned into static ideas.

    The issues spread out, and there’s some reason to think that I have a static image (which isn’t consciously clear to me) of what I ought to be like, and this is making my life a lot harder.

    Karen Horney is good about this sort of thing– she was an early psychoanalyst who believed that if children are mistreated, they’re apt to invent inhuman standards of perfection for themselves.

  4. Just found something interesting on the subject from Scott Sonnon:

    I was training a young girl for Olympic trials in archery. Half of what she was practicing involved removing what coaching psychology calls “perturbances,” but we can just call… excessive movement of the body and mind. She strengthened her structure so that she didn’t need excessive muscular action to hold position, just quiet efficiency. She practiced her breathing so that she could exhale and slow her heart rate, and find that space between heart beats (asystole) where body is its most potentially quiet.

    But not just the least amount of disturbance, she also had to balance the ongoing movements outside with wind and gravity and pressure, as well as those within the body: its constant changing tensions, expansions and contractions. The other half of her training involved finding synchronicity with these movements, their state of flow, and joining it physically and mentally… to let go at the precise moment.

    No matter the martial art style, when I fought them at their respective championships, one virtue held true about their precision: Aiming happened Always In Motion. Like Wayne Gretsky said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” If you want to be accurate in anything, realize balance isn’t motionless. It’s a balance act, never “in balance.” Nothing is. Everything is always in motion. It’s a confusing myth which scuttles everything from holding a yoga posture with balance, to balancing our check book.

    Much like meditation, you cannot still the mind. The paradox of meditation is that the more you try to stop the chattering monkey in your head, the more clamorous he becomes, often flying poo in the process. You can only allow the mind to move with no “abiding place” – to let it the thoughts flow without any attachment to them.

    Of course you need to develop galvanize yourself against distractions, but the balancing act demands that we “go with the flow” to hit our target goals with optimal precision.

Leave a Reply