Sunday, October 31, 2010


When I was a Unitarian minister, like many others of the kind, I kept a “traveling sermon” that I used when doing pulpit supply. Since one was usually only there once as a replacement while the regular minister was elsewhere, one was free to be memorable and risky. So I told about a moment one warm afternoon standing on the Chicago El platform when suddenly, for no reason, I was flooded with fusion, joy and harmony. It only lasted a few moments. Invariably, no matter where I was preaching, a few people would approach me afterward to tell me about their own similar experiences. One man said he was at a campground, bathing his infant son in a plastic dishpan set on a picnic table, and it was still so vivid in his mind that he could remember the pattern of pine needles on the tabletop. He wept. A woman was driving, topped a hill, looked out over a valley and “blissed out.”

They wanted to know what it was. Supernatural? A serotonin surge? A brain glitch, maybe a petit mal attack? Too much coffee? Or were they breaking through the membranes of the universe into some other reality? The best descriptions I found were in terms of “liminality” in the work of Victor Turner and Van Gennep, anthropologists describing exotic tribal ceremonies. They spoke of “liminal time and place,” that is, a state of mind in which one goes over a threshhold (a limen) into a protected but risky “place” and then comes back, often profoundly changed by the experience. I wanted to figure out how this worked in better known ceremonies, like Catholic mass or even something like a dinner party or a very intense movie. I had the advantage of participating in Blackfeet Bundle-Opening ceremonies with old-timers in the Sixties. The principles I developed for myself helped me to design ceremonies that “moved” people over that limen and then back again.

One example of “liminal” time can be a psychotherapy session, so I’ve been looking in that literature. One of the difficulties with talking about something like “liminality” is knowing what to call it in different contexts. In psychology it appears that “dissociation” is what I’m after, though the concept is still a great cloud of things like hypnotism, trances, speaking in tongues, hysterical paralysis (a limb that won’t move, though there’s nothing wrong with it) or blindness, split personality, denial, Ouija boards. So I’m reading “Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives” edited by Steven Jay Linn and Judith W. Rhue. (Guildford Press, 1994)

Just as I reached seminary (‘78-’82) the Jonestown tragedy hit the headlines. The University of Chicago is already skewed towards logic, tradition, and rationality, identified as “science,” though they were willing to admit that the history of science shows how much it is culturally affected and how scientific paradigm shifts are often treated like heresies. The Div School and Meadville/Lombard, my primary enrollment, were VERY nervous about anything subjective, like personal experience. This was not a place for people who spoke in tongues or were visited by angels. Nor were we supposed to be using mind-altering substances. (You went to Starr King in Berzerkly for all that.) This was a context resistant to the many “experience experiments” that had subjectively liberated so many young people in the Beat/Hippie years. Jonestown was interpreted by Don Browning and others as a liminal experience that went wrong because the participants went into that “other” place and refused or were unable to come out. In short Jim Jones’ insanity was a liminality where all his people joined him.

I was pressed to stick to facts, history, reason, and the profession of my own tradition. The larger message of Unitarianism is that each person should think and act according to individual convictions. I have separated from the present iteration of this idea because it is dominated by therapeutic goals, political solidarity, and commodification responding to the need to maintain the “brand.” So I am cloistered apart from the tradition, which is sometimes highly cerebral and other times ecstatic. It is, after all, just an institutional framework for people who share affinities. It is NOT a real thing but a construct.

Let me make a little typology here, liminal dyads. First of all, those considered subjectively “good” (bliss) vs. those considered bad (trauma). The experiences created by drugs, esp. LSD vs. the experiences created by natural circumstances, like combat in Vietnam. Liminality seen from outside like an anthropologist observing a ceremony vs. the same ceremony from the point of view of a believing participant. Liminality forced onto someone (Patty Hearst) vs. liminality sought and paid for (a host of New Age clients). Liminality caused by actual brain change (perhaps damage or electromagnetic waves to the temporal lobes) vs. liminality induced by a practice (drumming, spinning, meditation).

Complex as this may be, it is matched by the complexity that research is producing in terms of how brains actually work. What looks like a blob of creased gray jello is actually a constantly changing process, growing here and withering there, sorting, suppressing, interpreting, moving content from the unconscious (which turns out to be a number of interacting unconsciousnesses) to the conscious mind which is hardly the rational and realistic logic machine that Freud imagined his was. He was right to believe that even infants are sexual, but after that the taboos on the whole aspect of humanness that came out of his Viennese context cut off a huge area of liminality rooted in bodies. And he could NOT give up the idea of being the outside observer who knew better. Yet he only knew one cultural context and so never challenged it. At least officially.

We are in a time when we are pressed hard to reconceptualize our vision of the world and human beings at a far more primal level than any one culture. We are too mixed to insist that there is one way to believe. We must invent an “ur-culture” and since reasoning, science, traditional institutional religions, and a host of other assumptions are involved, perhaps ceremonies of liminality can help. One of the characteristics of liminal space (play, art, worship, sex) seems to be that it allows us to open to new ideas and sharing with other people as equals. (I am not advocating orgies as a pathway to peace in the world -- we already tried that. It’s way too confusing.) I wonder whether liminality can be achieved on the Internet? I do agree with Professor Browning that we cannot stay in there, that vulnerable place, but must come back to THIS world whereever and whenever our bodies are. Enough with the horror movies already. It’s cheap liminality. Not unlike cheap grace.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

John Lilly's work has a lot to say to this topic, too, certainly on the experiential level.

As someone who's had liminal, and numinous, experiences my whole life, who in fact still has them all the time, I find the academic/scholarly research useful for framing, but not for defining it. The anecdotal nature of such experiences makes them hard to "scientize." As it were. As a result, it can be difficult to get people to change paradigms or their ideas about the nature of reality.

What Lilly got into is that reality is far more illusory and malleable then we generally believe it to be. Speaking as a mystic, I agree.