On Staying in a Space

April 15, 2022

A liminal space is one in which a transformation takes place, with the word liminality coming from the Latin līmen meaning “threshold”. Physical and psychological spaces that live in between and on the outskirts of states provide us with the unique conditions to facilitate transformation. Often our spaces are submerged in familiar signs and cluttered with past memories such that it is difficult to make any kind of significant jump (thinking about mental states and conclusions/insights here).

So, what is needed from a space in order for it to ensue change? Aside from liminality, I want to argue that there is also a temporal requirement.

We need both:

Although liminal spaces seem like these kind of special, elusive, cultivated yet transient physical atmospheres—e.g. retreats, concerts/performances, psychedelics—we’re actually surrounded by opportunities for transformation all the time. We are constantly moving between states in daily life, and each moment of movement qualifies as liminal. For example, my subway ride to work each morning is liminal, and the transformation that takes place every day is the one that turns me into my work self. Yet despite all this state change and seeming opportunity for psychological change, it’s not enough to pass through liminal spaces—in order for transformation to occur we must stay in that space.

Staying put feels harder than ever today because of our deteriorating collective attention spans, and our anxiety to be productive. In film, there is this notion of average shot length (which has gone from 12 seconds in 1930 to 2.5 seconds today [x]) that correlates to how long the viewer’s attention is held by each sequence of a movie. Although this isn’t a perfect metaphor, since even single tracking shots can pack in a lot of action, I think shot length is a helpful way to think about how we’re living our lives.

In the world of our attention, many of us are in an unrelenting action movie. If we were to look back on our day and try to split it up based on attention/focus, there could be hundreds of blocks. We can also analyze tonal shifts in movies: a movie can expertly gradate from one mood into another, or sometimes that change happens abruptly and unpleasantly, say, if the score and the script aren’t working well together. In our life, our mood is the underlying fabric of each day, the filter through which we react to events. How would our day look if we blocked it out based on tonal shifts?

When both our attention and our mood sync up and are elongated, then transformation is possible. There’s a startup cost for reflection—it can be expedited by particularly novel or jarring circumstances, but getting the mind into a state where it is open to change is a process that simply takes time. It is very difficult to do piecewise reflection in the spare five minutes scattered throughout our normal busy days, in the same way that ten power naps will never equal a good night’s rest.

We can’t always control the many shifts that happen throughout the day, but sometimes we can control how long we choose to stay in a headspace. Music for me has consistently been a mechanism that can take me into a liminal psychological space for extended amounts of time, and it is often what allows me to make progress mentally and creatively. (A deeper reflection on the power of long-form art (music, movies, literature) merits its own post!)

I propose we frame transformation as a type of experience. An experience is something that has no true equivalent in the conceptual dimension. For example, if you’ve never tasted an apple, as much as I could describe the experience to you and give you the entirety of existing knowledge about apples, you won’t know what an apple tastes like until you actually eat one—after which your reaction will probably be, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” Philosophy’s attempt to reconcile concept and experience is a central problem of phenomenology.

If transformation is an experience, then it is unlike knowledge and unlike understanding: we cannot be explained the next steps or achieve them for ourselves on a purely theoretical level (though change can come in the form of analytical breakthrough). We need to go through the transformative experience temporally, and the only way to create the conditions for that is to be willing to stay in a space for however long it takes.