One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning. All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief. For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one. Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change. The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.
Our lives are always in transition. Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation. After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable. William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence. For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something. So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”
Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth. How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something? The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety. Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity: Where do you feel it in your body? What is it telling you? Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.
Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone: Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath. Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath. Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.
Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone. Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious. We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.
Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone. The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward. Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves. Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal. Without death, there can be no rebirth.
The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change. We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them. Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise. As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found. It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self. We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”
Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Washburn, M. (1996). The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It: The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith. In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York: G. Putnam’s Sons.