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Blog: Being in-between

Not sure what you're doing with your life? Feeling stuck, unfulfilled, off-purpose? Having a full-blown existential crisis? You're in the right place...

It's a fitting time to consider new beginnings as we enter into January, a month named after Janus, the Roman god of transitions. The Romans believed that Janus held the key to the doorways separating past and future, endings and beginnings, one state of being and another.


Janus, the Roman god of transition

Janus is typically depicted with two faces: one facing the past, and the other looking toward the future. January 9th was his day of worship.


Although Janus used to be an important deity (referred to as the 'god's god'), I'd never heard of him before. He doesn't have a Greek counterpart; it seems like he was a one-historical-period wonder. (That being said, his name has recently been resurrected via the Society of Janus, an American BDSM organisation; talk about a ‘transition’!).


It turns out Janus’ name wasn't even part of the Roman calendar for over 500 years: until then the Roman year had 10 months, beginning in March and ending in December. The 61.25 days in between (that later became January and February) were left unnamed and month-less. For the Romans, those days were unproductive and therefore ignored. In 153 BCE, Julius Caesar decided it was more practical to have twelve months and named the first new month January, honouring Janus and the transition between years.


Who really likes January?

(Not the Americans: They voted it their least favourite month in a 2021 YouGov survey).


Whether or not we’re literal fans of January, what this month represents metaphorically – the stagnation associated with periods of transition – is viewed negatively by many societal standards.


During transitions, we move like hibernating animals, slowly and sluggishly. Nothing of note seems to happen; or at least, the changes are so gradual they’re barely detectable. Our fields lie dormant and bare. Frost gathers on our windowpanes and we look outside to the future, “seeing nothing, imagining nothing but greyness, understanding neither who [we are] nor what [we are] doing here, on earth” (wrote Andre Gide, one of my favourite pre-instagram influencers). In-between periods are full of uncomfortable uncertainty, and most of us do not want to remain there one minute longer than necessary.


In those grey periods, we’re not encouraged to wait it out. Many cultures advocate for a perpetual spring/summer world: eternally harvesting, creating or otherwise being ‘productive’ (thanks, capitalism). After all, we have to maintain a steady set of accomplishments to broadcast on social media!


So rather than wallow in the fallow, we often try to find shortcuts to expedite the transition process. We’re caterpillars who want to skip the pupa phase and become butterflies ASAP!



‘A Butterfly Speaks To A Caterpillar’ Art Print by Mort Gerberg
‘A Butterfly Speaks To A Caterpillar’ Art Print by Mort Gerberg

When we feel the discomfort of a major transition coming on – deep existential questions, contemplating the purpose of life, etc – we start searching for that elusive holy grail: the Easy Way Out. (If your transition doesn’t rock the boat of your identity – then what you’re experiencing is probably a Change, not a Transition. Read the distinction I make between them at the end of this blog).


One of the most appealing tools to circumvent the discomfort of transitions is goal-setting. After all, when we’re looking into the abyss of the unknown, wouldn’t it be nice to have a clear map and set of SMART targets for the path ahead?


Falling short of the goal-post: Fool’s Goal-ed!

(I couldn’t pick my favourite pun, so went with both).


I don't want to knock goals entirely, but do want to mention three potential pitfalls with setting them, particularly during the start of major life transitions.


Before I attract backlash from the life coaches (e.g. the majority of my friends), hear me out:


1. “I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later.” – Mitch Hedberg


Goal-setting narrows our focus to the targeted destination, on 'doing', on motion. It takes us away from observing our ‘life journey’ through a wide-angle lens.

When we leave behind goals, we allow ourselves the freedom to explore whatever the new year presents to us, as it comes. It makes it a lot easier to balance ‘doing’ with ‘being’. (And it does not count if you put that down as a goal!)


2. “There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall.” – Joseph Campbell


Goal-setting may help when we have a clear vision for where we want to be; but it can work against us when we don't.

When we’re feeling lost, it’s tempting to pick a direction anyways (and there are plenty of attractive options suggested to us by friends, family and societal standards). Having goals might help us feel secure, confident, and in motion; but we might find ourselves even more lost as a result of pursuing them.


3. “My goal in 2020 is to accomplish the goals I set in 2019 which I should have done in 2018 because I made a promise in 2017 which I planned in 2016.” - Source unclear but probably said by most people


A strong attachment to the achievement of our goals sets us up for disappointment. Life sometimes has the audacity to get in the way of our plans. Unfortunately, we can’t control the world around us (although most of us give it a good shot anyway). So it’s important to allow space for flexibility, resizing, or even complete derailment of our goals.

We also run into problems when we link goal-achievement with self-worth. We are likely to receive praise when we advertise our accomplishments externally, and a solid dopamine hit when we finally tick an item off our ‘to-do’ list. The balancing act lies with our relationship to ego, and our attachment to external validation.


Waiting for Janus

During times of transition, although it’s tempting to remedy the uncertainty with a plan for the future, I advocate for dropping goal-setting entirely.


Transformational change - the kind of all-encompassing life transition that dismantles our identity and sense of self - isn't borne out of future intentions.


When we're looking to transport ourselves from one state of being to another, through the doorway of transition, then no quantity of reflective exercises, 'spiritual' experiences, or tarot readings will cut it.


The best way to move forwards is to stay present. To actively do nothing. To rest in the discomfort of not knowing what’s next; and perhaps, to learn to love it there. And patiently wait for Janus to unlock the door to what’s to come.


January matters too!

The calendar year, like life itself, is not all about output, efficiency, targets; or even purpose, direction and narrative meaning. Fallow phases like the metaphorical January don't simply serve to connect the 'productive' months of December through March. Moments of transition are their own spaces, innately important, and worthy of our focused attention.


We've got fewer than two months before the official start date of the old Roman year, before the seed planting season begins. If you're feeling unsure about your next steps, I encourage you to use this historically 'un-productive' time to hibernate, enjoy stillness, and observe the wisdom that awaits you in this liminal space. (Yet another historical fact: during the Renaissance, Wisdom is what the two-faced image of Janus came to represent).


I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Please share them with me.


Reflection

How do you approach your metaphorical winter months, the periods of stagnation in your life? Do you tend to focus on goal-setting and step into active movement to create change? Do you look for shortcuts to accelerate through? Do you stop and allow the process to take place at its natural pace?

Meditation

In your everyday life, try to notice the shifts in your life in between states; for example, from sitting to standing, or sleeping to waking. Pause as you pass through physical gateways, like at the threshold of a door or underneath an arch.


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FAQ: What are Major Life Transitions? How are they different than Changes?

Transitions are not Changes. Transitions are psychological. Change is contextual.

Major Life Transitions involve a period of being in-between identities, a dark void without clarity, a state of stillness within motion. They bring us into the liminal space: the boundary between what was, and what is to come.


We know we're in a Transition when we undergo a deep, raw, often excoriating process of losing our sense of self. We question our identities. Transitions include multiple changes - to our health, career, relationships, finances, geographies, etc - but they're not synonymous with Change.


Although caterpillars can grow up to 100 times their size, move locations, and even change colours, those are still changes. But when caterpillars enter into the pupa and turn into butterflies, they’re in a Transition: a complete metamorphoses of identity.

Stuckness can feel like being completely incapacitated while the foundations we’re standing on disintegrate and there’s no steady ground to stand on.

It’s like being in quicksand.

At least in the Hollywood version, quicksand comes as a surprise. We don’t see it coming until we’re already in it. And the moment we realise we’re stuck, our innate human response is often to panic and try to get out as quickly as possible: to move, run, or frantically flail about… But this only make the stuckness worse.

Instead, to get out of the quicksand, we are supposed to make ourselves as light as possible; act slowly and deliberately; and reach out for help.

It might take a while to do, but it’s possible. We can all do it. As all-encompassing and stifling as our stuck-ness might feel, there is a way out.


Drawing from the quicksand analogy, here are three steps we can take to get un-stuck when we’re in the thick of it:

First, lighten our load: let go of as many cognitive, physical, emotional and social obligations as we can. Sometimes we don’t even know how much we have on our plate until we start to track the way we spend our time.

Lightening the load requires conducting an inventory of all the activities we’re engaged in, and eliminating as many as possible. Begin with those that are de-energising, off-path, or ‘shoulds’ rather than ‘wants’ or ‘needs’. It’s helpful to reduce the physical clutter around us, clearing our environment so it is conducive to clearer thinking. It means actively saying no to invitations and opportunities so we can make space in our calendars where nothing is planned — and then avoiding the temptation to fill those gaps with ‘productive’ activities. It’s funny how the most mundane tasks suddenly become tempting when confronted with time to simply ‘be’!

When we feel stuck, actively doing less might feel like we’re making the problem worse; when we stop moving it can become more apparent just how stuck we feel. But lightening the load makes it far easier to break free.

Second, give ourselves spaciousness in which to reflect and check in with ourselves. We need to reach an internal consensus before taking any abrupt actions to avoid feelings of regret, or the expense of time, energy and money in a direction that we ultimately don’t want. We might feel pressure to come up with an arbitrary deadline for making a decision: a three month sabbatical (in my case), a twelve month “gap year”, a graduate degree, a summer holiday… But no matter how hard we might try to force ourselves to fit our reflective period within a certain time scale, it’s not how life works. As much as we might try, we can’t control everyone and everything around us (it’s enough to aspire to a degree of self-control, e.g. around our favourite foods!)

As easy as it sounds, many of us are so caught-up in lives fuelled by active doing that we have forgotten how to ‘be’. We must learn to be patient and kind with ourselves, and to listen to our “inner compass” — to get back in touch with what it is that we want, separate from societal expectations and other people’s desires for us. It’s better to take the time to move with purpose, than to act before we feel ready.

And third, ask for help from the people around us — friends, family, colleagues, mentors, coaches. This can be particularly tough for those of us who are used to being fully independent, and perceived as the “responsible”, “stable”, “together” one that other people depend on or turn to for guidance. We might not want to impose on others. We can worry we are asking too much, or fear rejection from those we love. But allowing people to be supportive at a time of need is a gift to others and to ourselves. It reminds us of our interdependence with others, our imperfect humanity, and beautiful vulnerability. And it helps us get un-stuck faster!


All of these steps are easier said than done, of course! Especially when we truly feel like we’re drowning and there’s no escape.

But don’t worry. Nobody actually drowns in quicksand, despite what we see on the cinematic screen.

The process of getting un-stuck requires tremendous courage, dedication and resilience. It involves facing some of our deepest internal fears. But at the end of it, we will make it back on our own two feet and when we’re ready to start moving again, it will be on an even stronger foundation.

Faced with a decision and don’t know what to do? Don’t fret; lie down, close your eyes, and let your mind wander…


When we feel stuck, daydreaming might sound like the exact opposite of what one should do.

It’s often considered unproductive: a waste of time. Why sit conjuring up images of fantastical scenarios which may be so impossible that they belong solely in fairy tales — especially when there’s an urgency to arrive at an actionable answer? Surely it’s better to remain in the ‘real’ world, and do something, act, move.


But as all children know, conjuring up fantasies is critical for our joy and happiness. That’s why they spend a lot of time, energy and emotion playing; they take it seriously.


Freud called daydreaming the adult equivalent of children’s play: a mental rearrangement of the aspects of our world in a way which pleases us. He said we all have deep wishes and desires that we can’t express freely because of societal restrictions or expectations; we might feel our innermost desires are childish or impermissible. So these desires get stuck in our subconscious mind, but can be revealed through focused attention on fantasising. In other words, when we’re feeling stuck, Freud advocates for intentional adult play: becoming ‘a dreamer in broad daylight’.


Daydreaming is a fascinating place for discovery


A soft centre between sleeping and wakefulness, it’s where ideas often come to us, our artistic muse visits, seeds of our innermost desires sprout and become apparent to us. It is its own unique form of thinking.


The trick is allowing our minds to wander freely and fantasise, without our cognition stepping in to impose limitations and boundaries on our imagination. Some familiar voices might be: “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s impossible” or “you don’t have the resources to…” The list goes on.


Fantasy, over.


So how do we daydream mindfully? And allow ourselves full freedom and focus to do so without limits?


In terms of timing, moments of transition are ideal for open daydreaming: for example, right after we wake up, or just before we go to sleep. Instead of jumping into sleep or wakefulness, try to approach the transition period with awareness. Meditation or body scan exercises might help us relax our bodies so that we’re more able to slip into our inner thoughts.


Guiding questions might help us launch into a state of play. For example, if the next three years were the best ones yet, what would be happening? If we could have been born in any other circumstance, including those which are fantastical, what might we be doing and how might we be living? What are five alternative lives we could be living right now? Or if there’s a specific scenario in mind: if it turned out in the ideal way, what would happen?


Alternatively, we can trigger our imagination by thinking about a specific topic, like an activity we love, a value that we hold, or an emotion that we want to feel, and then let our thoughts wander from there. Continue the daydream beyond the “synopsis” — the summarised version of what we want to happen. Allow our minds to explore in rich detail what would happen next. Take note of emotion, symbolisation and metaphor. Surrender to the underlying feeling of the daydream.


Note: there might be a tendency to want to constrict the scope of the daydream. Try to resist, and instead let go and allow our minds to flow freely. Notice what comes to mind, including symbols and metaphors. If we have extraneous thoughts, include them as prompts for later daydreams rather than discard them.


You don’t need to have a destination in mind to look out onto the sea


When facing indecision, follow your various currents of thought or emotion, or just look out at the vast ocean, hold onto that vision, and see what comes up.


Permit the fantastical, encourage the unrealistic, and play!

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