The old Celts were very fond of the edges of things – the thresholds, the liminal spaces, dawns and dusks, fairy hills and misty trails where you couldn’t quite make out the way. Times and places that were neither one thing nor the other, that couldn’t quite be pinned down – ‘thin’ times and places, where the veils between this world and the other world were somewhat flimsier than normal, and you could never be quite sure what might happen.
This love of uncertainty is in some ways the polar opposite to how we live today – our addiction to safety and security has led many people into a dullness they would not have chosen. And yet, safety, no matter how much we chase it, is an illusion. We are never more than one mis-step, one diagnosis, one phone call from chaos, from death, from loss. But we try not to think about that.
Samhain, the Celtic festival from which sprang Hallowe’en, and which many believe was the Celtic new year, is an am caol, one of the primary ‘thin times’ of the Celtic calendar. It was believed that on this night, the spirits of those who had passed could return to earth – which led to traditions such as the wearing of masks and costumes by those who wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be recognised. It was also a time for divination and indeed we can still see the remnants of this tradition alive and well today as children slice the báirín breac (a type of fruit bread) with glee to see who will find the ring hidden inside and marry in the year to come!
A year of two halves
The Celts did not just divide their year into four seasons as we do today – they divided the year into a light half and a dark half. The light half began at the fire festival of Bealtaine, or May Day, and the dark half began at Samhain, at the beginning of November. And because every day began for these ancestors at sunset of the night before, the beginning of the year was the entry into darkness, not the emergence from it. Interestingly, many would characterise the inner journey as beginning in the same way – with a darkness, loss, or pain that pushes us into a new and sometimes unsought growth.
The time between
In my Anam Cara training, which was deeply rooted in the traditions of Celtic spirituality, I learned that while the old year might be said to end at sunset on October 31, the new year does not begin until a full 24 hours later, at sunset on November 1. The time between, neither one year nor the other, is the ‘thin time’ – a time where vision and insight becomes possible, when we remember and honour the ancestors and loved ones who have gone before us, knowing that the veils between us are thin.
Power of unnaming
In the same sense that ‘The Tao that can be named is not the Tao’, there is a power in this liminal time released from the bounds of the calendar, an unnamed time when, if we choose, we too can take some time to step out of the definitions that bind us in our daily lives, to take stock or simply be.
Honouring loved ones
It is a time when we can consider the griefs and losses of our lives – remembering and allowing ourselves to feel close to our ancestors, and the loved ones who have passed on. In my family we light candles for those bright souls on Hallowe’en and say their names, inviting their presence and guidance in our lives. We tell stories about them to the children, nurturing a sense of family and belonging through the generations.
Grief and loss are not always connected to actual death and bereavement, however. As the trees are left bare by the falling of the leaves, in preparation for a new spring, we might also consider what gifts are to be found in letting go at the right time. As we move – at least in Ireland – from autumn to winter, we can ask what we have been holding onto that needs to be released.
Is there a part of our self-image that no longer serves us, that we could let go of? I’m thinking of the long-ago college graduate who still stores folders of outdated notes, identifying with that youthful self (me). Or perhaps the mother of growing children who still hangs on to her maternity clothes even though she knows there will be no more babies (also me). More subtly, we can look at our refusal to look in the mirror and acknowledge the passing of time, or the recognition that some of the dreams of our younger selves are now beyond us.
A clinging to old thought forms and patterns can prevent us from fully facing the pain of loss, but also prevents us from living fully and freely in the present. It is not easy to examine our lives and honestly admit that a long-held dream no longer fits. But by releasing those old dreams, we make space for new possibilities to emerge. By clearing our mental and emotional space, as well as our physical space, we create freedom. And this is the gift of the liminal space – it is here that possibility can arise.
Enter the unknown
So, this first day of November – the day that is neither one thing nor the other – I invite you to step consciously into the liminal space of your inner world and leave your assumptions at the door. You don’t have to go anywhere, or do anything, and don’t be too quick to hunt for answers. Just stay for a while in the uncertainty, the confusion, the loss, the pain – whatever is there. Feel into it, breathe into it. Don’t run away. Ask for guidance from your ancestors or loved ones on the other side of that thin veil. Enter the darkness where growth begins. And, sooner or later, the mist will clear and your next step will emerge.
It can be hard to make an inner journey without support, and sometimes having a companion on the road can be invaluable. If you think I can be of help to you, please get in touch here. I’d love to hear from you.