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What Is Liminal Space: Finding Comfort in Rumi’s Poetry

Written by Anushka Bose.

It would be an understatement to say that the past few months have been chaotic and full of change. We are all moving through liminal space. Liminality is a concept that sprouted from anthropology, reflecting the ambiguity and disorientation we counter during a rite of passage. Author Richard Rohr describes this space as “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.” In short, liminality is a state of transition, literal or abstract.

As I write this, the entire world is stuck in liminal limbo as vaccine programs roll out and we have to stand one with one foot in and one foot out. This evanescent period of our lives has been riddled with free-floating anxiety, with each person experiencing varying degrees of it.

We are faced with the ultimate litmus test; can we remain resilient while the noise gets louder?

During times like these, poetry can become a safe harbor to grapple with the unspoken feelings and uncertainties we are experiencing. Personally, I’ve made it a point to read a new poem each day, (it’s one of my goals this year). I can’t think of anyone better than Jalaluddin Rumi—commonly known as Rumi—the mystic Sufi poet from Persia, to help us experience the current moment. Rumi’s famous poem, “The Guest House,” can help us all navigate the uncertainties and sharp edges of the liminal space. I’ve read this poem countless times, and I find it to be an elixir for moments in which we need some perspective and clarity. Follow me as I explore the poem’s divine message.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi

The Guest House – Analyzed
Rumi’s metaphor embodies humans as a “guest house,” in which unexpected visitors show up now and then. Every morning, a different emotion pays you a visit. Some days, the guest might be your friends, joy, hope, and laughter, who spend a delightful day with you and leave you feeling replenished. Other days, the guest might not be a guest at all—anxiety and fear might barge in and rob items from your house, such as your sense of security and happiness.

And other days, you might be greeted by an acquaintance you can tolerate, but don’t have a particular affinity towards —sadness, loneliness, self-criticism, rejection.

Rumi notes that we should, “entertain them all!” I suspect he wants us to experience the totality of each emotion, so that we can clear the space for a new energy to replace it, the “new delight,” as he calls it. Far too often we try to run away from uncomfortable feelings or distract ourselves to numb it out. Sadly, what we ignore intensifies. The pain doesn’t subside, we just run into its flames in due time.

Embracing the Exile
To cite a personal story, for the past two years, I have experienced eczema flare-ups around my eyes when I become extremely stressed out or cry. The skin becomes painfully red and sore. To limit those flare ups, I made a vow to myself to regulate my emotions and avoid shedding tears. Instead of embracing them, I wanted to exile all the emotions that made me feel weak. Then, COVID-19 happened. My parents repatriated in the middle of a pandemic from a small city in the Persian Gulf that I called home. Someone in my extended family passed away on New Year’s Eve. And I had to contend with the flames of the darkness headfirst.

Grief and loss were guests my body didn’t want to invite in.

I didn’t want to open the door because I knew it would bring me physical pain. But it was when I greeted them and said, “Welcome, let’s catch up, but I can’t chat for long,” that things began to change. When I let these emotions visit me in a calm, stoic state, the urge to shed tears decreased. It’s as though my body was whispering to me, “Don’t run away. Don’t slam the door in their face. Talk to them with grace. Hold yourself together and they’ll soon leave.”

I realized that the more you run away from things that leave you unsettled, the harder it becomes to stare at it in the eye. But if you allow yourself to remain still in the presence of something that makes you anxious, you build resilience. In psychotherapy, they call this exposure therapy, where through voluntary exposure to something that frightens you, you become braver, not necessarily less afraid.

Emotions as Signposts
“Be grateful for whoever comes,/ because each has been sent/ as a guide from beyond,” the poem notes. I truly believe the emotions we experience are signposts of something bigger, that teach us about our core being. Jealousy might indicate we lack something that we want, so we can try to work for it. Happiness and joy signal we want more of a particular thing or feeling. Grief tells us that we lost something we cherished, and we need to be kind to ourselves. Frustration tells us something is unresolved, so we can take steps to move towards resolution. Feeling unappreciated is a sign that we need to draw boundaries.

Everything we feel comes as a messenger; it speaks to us if we listen closely enough.

“The Guest House” advocates for experiencing the entirety of human emotion. Both the shadow and the light are here to deliver a message. This doesn’t mean we need to spend every waking moment assigning meaning to every little fleeting feeling, but it advises us to be mindful of our thoughts, to embrace the exiled, to remember that emotions are guests and that all guests eventually leave.

Using Poetry to Rise
Poetry can be healing, and I suspect that it is with that sentiment that Dominique Christina writes. At TEDxMileHigh: Rise, Dominique Christina explored the meaning of the word “rise” and what it takes to rise again and again and again. Dominique Christina is an award-winning poet, author, educator, and activist.

Coffee With Milk
If you are navigating through the liminal space, where things aren’t too settled, you are not alone. Just remember Rumi’s poetry and the shared human language of emotion. Personally, Rumi’s poetry gives me a portal through which my emotions feel recognized. If I sound like I am so sure of myself, I assure you, I am not. I’m trying to navigate the obscurity of the present times, just like you are. I’m nothing but—as Lori Gottlieb says, “a card-carrying member of the human race.”

And maybe this whole essay is flowery, but sometimes that is necessary. Sometimes, life is better with a little bit of milk in the coffee.

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