Radical Sabbatical – The Journey

Today is September 1, 2012.  It’s official.  My Radical Sabbatical is over.  It was just what I needed and I learned so much, but it definitely didn’t go how I thought it would.   But then again, what does?

Last week, I was listening to a talk by Joan Borysenko called Fire in the Soul – Positive Spiritual Practices for Healing.  The talk was one produced by the National Institute for the Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) as part of their series on spirituality and healing.  I’ve been enjoying the NICABM talks all summer and they have introduced me to lots of powerful ideas and teachers.  But to be honest, I’d never heard of Dr. Borysenko and didn’t really think the topic would speak to me particularly.

In part of her talk, though, Dr. Borysenko talked about the experience that has been called “The Dark Night of the Soul”:  those times when we lose our way and things fall apart.  My ears pricked up:  that’s what happened to me!  I remember sitting in my kitchen telling my husband that I was lost.  It was that feeling that led me to the sabbatical.  I had thought of it as a mid-life crisis or a Nia crisis, but not a dark night of the soul.

Yet as she described the three parts of the Dark Night, I could see that this was my experience.  And it’s not just me, this is a human experience.  We tell the story over and over:  Odysseus, The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, Star Wars.

In all these stories and in our lives, the process of the Dark Night happens in three parts:

(1) separate from what was

(2) the interim time when things are no longer but not yet (also called the Liminal Time) and

(3) return transformed.

When the bottom drops out it can be scary and it can also be a time to invite transformation.

In all the classic stories and myths, and in my own Radical Sabbatical, it is the second stage – the liminal time — that is both the most challenging and the most important.  Whether it is sailing on the sea, walking the yellow brick road, or flying on the Millennium Falcon, the in-between time shapes the experience.  The liminal time is when the really juicy stuff happens!

As Dr. Borysenko explains, how someone handles the liminal time is pivotal.  They can get hopeless and depressed, feeling like they are being punished; or they can take it as an opportunity to make new choices based on what is working and what isn’t.  She says, “There is the possibility to return from the dark night with something more precious to offer.”

In John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time (see full text in the Helpful Info menu at right) he writes “‘The old is not old enough to have died away; the new is still too young to be born.’”  The liminal time can be uncomfortable.  It takes patience.  It is time between time.  The liminal time is about being in the unknown.  That’s the whole point.

Often when I’m in the interim time, I look for a way of ending it quickly; to find a resolution and relieve myself of the slippery-ness of the unfamiliar unknown.  And to really let the interim time do what it needs to do, I can’t rush it.  Dr. Borysenko offers three skills weathering Liminal Times:

  • Realism
  • Faith
  • Mindful curiosity

Realism.  When we’re on the brink of stepping away from what was, it can be tempting to fall into optimism or pessimism.  I can stalwartly tell myself, “I have to do what I have to do.  Consequences be damned!  Everything will work out.” (See me standing on the precipice with my fist at my heart and the breeze blowing my super hero cape.) On the other extreme, at 3am, as I stare at the ceiling, I can drop into helplessness and hopelessness and get mired in the muck of despair. (See me as a black and white stick figure, crumpled in the corner with a scribble mark over my head.)  Neither is particularly helpful.  What is helpful is getting real.  How can I support myself or get the support I need?  Where will I live?  What can I realistically do?  What do I really need to make this change?  Realism allows us to step into the liminal time with the resources to make the journey.

Mindful curiosity.  When I have awareness and curiosity about what is happening within me and around me, I can be open, spacious, and flexible.  Mindful curiosity leads to creativity and expansive thinking.  Creativity and expansive thinking opens up new options, new ways of looking at myself and my circumstances.  Without mindful curiosity, I can easily get stuck in my habits and patterns (which, come to think of it, probably brought me to the brink in the first place).  Mindful curiosity opens up my peripheral vision so I can see lots of possible directions to go.

Faith.  Faith is a bit of a tricky word for me.  Dr. Borysenko points out that faith can be religious, but not necessarily.  I see it as trust:  trusting that even though I don’t understand what is happening now, that there is a larger perspective that I don’t yet (and may never) have.  Faith in this sense in my ability to see myself on a rite of passage rather than as a victim of circumstance.  Faith allows me to feel the discomfort of the unknown and relax into it, remembering that it is part of the process.

As I neared the end of my sabbatical, I found that I wanted to tell the story of my experience – both the specifics and the universal.  I loved the intellectual analysis that Dr. Borysenko offered and the insights that any of the classic Dark Night stories reveal.  But I’m not a psychologist.  I’m not a philosopher (well, maybe a little bit).  I’m not a film maker.  I’m a Nia teacher.  I wanted to tell the story of my Radical Sabbatical – and these times of transition and transformation that we all go through – with the music, movement and magic of Nia.

Tomorrow, I’ll post a description of the Radical Sabbatical routine:  the music, the experience, and how we can play in the transitional times and allow them to transform us.  If you dance the routine with me, it may enrich the dance.  If you don’t, the music and lyrics may shed light on your own transitional times.  Either way, I’m happy to share the yellow brick road that I walked (and sometimes skipped and sometimes schlepped and sometimes danced) along.  I hope you’ll come back and read again tomorrow!



  1. joy said:

    yes, yes, yes, I’ll be back tomorrow 🙂

  2. Loring said:

    Susan, your experience speaks to what I have received from Shamanic teachings. On this journey one comes through the Fire to the stone of Faith. The negative aspect of Faith is fear of the unknown. From Faith one steps to the stone of Trust. The negative aspect of Trust is mistrust. The following stone culminates in Surrender. The negative aspect of Surrender is control.

    • Fascinating…And then where does one step from Surrender? Is it a cyclical process? For example in Gestalt Experience, the cycle is from sensation to awareness to mobilization to action to contact to withdrawal to rest and then back to sensation… I love how different traditions and practices assimilate the human experience! Thank you for sharing this, Loring. 🙂

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