The Mountain as a Liminal Space
By Gerhard Nel
Its 3pm on a hot, sunny Saturday. You have been walking for a few hours without break. You are tired, feeling a bit of melancholy, and missing people that you didn’t know existed. Nostalgic, tired, grumpy, tearful. Why am I doing this again? Its too hard. I miss my couch. I want a shower.
Its 6pm on a (much cooler now) sunny Saturday. You are sitting in front of your stove, boiling water for tea. You had a swim in a beautiful mountain stream, clothing optional. While your head was under water, your intuition whispered. As you dried yourself and put on some clean clothes, a calm balance settled in your disposition. Your tent is up, your body is at peace, and you are present. You are proud of the day and its ups and downs, and you are excited to see what tomorrow holds. No cell phone signal, no screens, no masks. No restaurant menus or shopping malls or cocktails. Just a tent, and backpack and a handful of good friends. What else could you possibly need? Life couldn’t get any better.
The big question, then, is what happened between 3pm and 6pm on this fateful hot, sunny Saturday in the mountains? How does one explain this quantum leap between the bored listlessness of 3pm and the calm serenity of 6pm? Yes - there was perseverance, delayed gratification and a bit of grit. There was biting your tongue to get through the day. But there was more than that. There was mindfulness, there was accepting the discomfort of the present moment. There was a patient trusting in what is to come.
A space was created between pain and pleasure. Between work and reward. Between past and future. This space is called a liminal space. The internet said it best:
“The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.”
Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us. The in-between. Clearing out old stuff, not knowing what is to come. Like removing the furniture from a room, but not knowing how to replace it. You stare at the bare floor, the clean walls, day in and day out.
You wonder - what will fill this room, and when will it arrive? Do you renovate it yourself, do nothing, or just lie on the floor in a starfish position to breathe in the void? But there is this inkling, this gut feeling, your body and spirit telling you things that your mind is not aware of. Staring at this bare room is sometimes agonising. You know that the old furniture is horrid, but you don’t know whether you want a jungle gym or an aquarium or a Coricraft couch to replace it.
Although after a few weeks/months/years of getting accustomed to the void, you start being at peace with it. A butterfly flutters in the window. There is a sunny spot in the one corner every day at 15h30. You sit in the middle of the floor and journal until all is well.
And without knowing how, the room sorts out itself. Something unimaginable. A fresh perspective. You surprised yourself. But telling you what the change is, before you (begrudgingly) sat through the flat part in the middle, would be cheating.
And so, in the same way, the mountain is really the ultimate liminal space. It’s a liminal space in and of itself, during the hiking day we find liminality, and it’s a metaphor for embracing these spaces in other areas of our lives.
The mountain is a liminal space, because being there is fleeting and impermanent and only viable if you have food, water, shelter and good weather. Furthermore, the hiking day is filled with liminal spaces as well – periods where you are bored and uncertain and you need to let go completely for the magic to keep flowing. And lastly, the experience of hiking is a liminal space in and of itself. An activity or thing or segment of reality that is dream-like and transient. It necessarily always has a beginning and an end. Something preceded it, and something will follow it. But when you are in the mountain, all there is and ever could be is the mountain and the moment and the now.
And this is ethereal and beautiful and hard to explain yet easy to grasp. We let go of control. We embrace uncertainties. We sit through the hard parts. And, when the time is right, we look back proudly at how far we have come. And this, dear friend, is the power of embracing a liminal space.