- Walking Liminality
- Walking as Autoethnography
- Traversing Liminality: Walking as Autoethnography
- ==Traversing Liminality through Walking: An Autoethnography
- Traversing Religious Liminality through Walking
- ==Traversing Religious Liminality through Walking: An Autoethnography
- Walking Religious Liminality
- Walking Religious Liminality: An Autoethnography
- ==Performing Liminality through Walking: An Autoethnography
- ==Performing Religious Liminality through Walking: An Autoethnography
My shoulders tightened as I sensed a slight pain at my sacrum. As I took another step, I grabbed both of my backpack’s shoulder straps to pull them forward away from my chest. As I did this, I felt my bag’s soft but warm cushion on my back, and the pain on my shoulders subsided. On my left, two dump trucks moved like tortoises climbing a rock. Behind them, a long line of cars started to form. I didn’t expect this eight-mile stretch from the town of Calauan to San Pablo City to be this elevated—one of the many other things I forgot to prepare for in this walk. This elevated artery, which reminded me a lot of the Aspiras–Palispis Highway of Benguet, was by now the hardest part of the walk, mainly because it had almost no shade and no sidewalks. The sun was peaking and it burned my legs and feet—feet that are in pain of blisters.
As I continued walking toward a sharp curve, a shadow formed in front of me. The shadow was casted by a small tree. After laying down my backpack on the ground under the shade, I rested the left side of my body on the tree and grabbed my phone from my right pocket. I looked at the time. It was already 10:37 in the morning. I can’t believe I have been walking for the past two and a half hours with a backpack that probably weighed more than ten kilos. I turned to my right, and that was when I saw it—one of the three summits of Mt. Banahaw, the active complex volcano of Laguna, often associated with the supernatural. Mt. Banahaw peered behind thick foliage, as if watching, even mocking me for the fool I made myself become. It was there when the questions came to me: “Why am I doing this? Why am I walking?”
On June 9, 2022, I walked over 22 kilometers from my apartment at Los Baños to San Pablo City, Laguna. The walk that took 35,000 steps to complete in more than 5 hours started along the busy Lopez Avenue at Los Baños and traversed 5 kilometers of the Manila South Roud, passing by the town of Bay, before turning right toward Calauan for another 5 kilometers. From Calauan, the walked turned into a 10-kilometer hike on a highway with a 630 feet elevation en route to San Pablo. The following morning, I walked an extra 22,000 steps, to go around Sampaloc Lake and visit nearby Bunot Lake. I went home that afternoon by riding a jeep that covered what I walked for five hours the day before in just around 30 minutes—a surreal experience.
Days after the walk, I continued to revisit that questions that came to me while staring at Mt. Banahaw. Why was I walking? I have been walking for almost my entire life, but I’ve never questioned my motivations for doing so—not until the long walk to San Pablo. At first, I struggled to piece together a coherent answer. I was surprised that thinking about my motivation for walking directed me to supposedly unrelated existential issues, a lot of which concern my past and current identities. After reviewing my journal entries, it became clear to me that walking, for me, has become a way to traverse the distance between identities—that liminal space between what I like to call my Old Self and my New Self and finally come face-to-face with my New Self Becoming.1
A Liminal Wilderness
The concept of liminality emerged during the 20th century through works written in three disciplines: ethnography, architecture, and cultural anthropology. In all of these disciplines, liminality was defined as a state of being in-between. Arnold van Gennep first used the word in the book “Les Rites de Passage” (1908) to describe the second phase of a three-phased structure of rites: separation, transition, and reincorporation. For Gennep, transition was always deliberate and voluntary. An individual launches themself into a disoriented state of liminality to transcend their former identity. In the 1950s, the concept entered architercture through the work of Aldo van Eyck, who expressed human transcience through the geometry of circles and rectangles. The architecture of liminal spaces sought to combine being in space and being in time as individuals interact with geometrical parameters.
The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner reintroduced liminality to anthropology in the 1960s, focusing on its psychosocial nature. For Turner, liminality is subjectively experienced and expressed by an individual. He likened it to death, being in utero, and the wilderness (Turner, 1966, p. 95). He described it as “a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state” (Turner, 1987, p. 47). Separation from one’s old identity launches one into a vast existential expanse, the limen, where one’s “throwness” (Dahistrom, 2013) becomes even more pronounced. Such experiences of being “neither here nor there” (Turner, 1966, p. 94) slowly engulfs us into an identity blackhole where we forget that we are inside one.
In my past life, I was raised in a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, where the Bible was the central authority from which all behaviors were measured. Everything, from large decisions like when to enter a romantic relationship, when to engage in sexual activities, or whether to go to college or not, to smaller decisions like what clothes or hairstyles to wear, were dictated to us by a “governing body” of nine American men located in Brooklyn, New York, all white except one, through a sophisticated chain of command. I did not fully embrace the faith of my parents until I, despite the discouragement of members of our congregation and threats of my father’s removal from his pastor duties, went to college and met other Jehovah’s Witnesses who were able to balance religious responsibilities and college life. In three years, I dedicated every waking hour of my life to the faith, ultimately becoming a ministerial servant, a young pastor, at the age of 19, while serving in a congregation that catered to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing through sign language. I remember being at the end of my first semester in third year, feeling intensely like my entire life ahead of me was so clear. I belonged to a tight-knit community, I didn’t have to think much about what to believe because everything was spoonfed to me, and I knew who I was and what I wanted to become: a missionary, bringing the doctrines of the religion into far places.
All of these began crumbling down on March 11, 2011, when I started developing symptoms of clinical depression. I was forced to file for leave of absence at my university to spend an entire year back home recovering. Recovering from depression was the most difficult thing I ever went through. I went to see a psychiatrist when the symptoms were already at their peak—insomnia, severe chronic fatigue, anxiety attacks almost every five minutes, suicidal ideations—and so I began medication late. To make matters worse, the meds did not immediately kick in. I had to endure the symptoms for more than a month before finding some relief. What happens to a devout religious young man in such circumstance is that he starts to question whether God has forsaken him. Then this thought leads to questioning whether what the community he belongs to tells him about God is correct.
After finding equilibrium, I began questioning the very foundations of who I was raised to be as a person, including whether there is a God and if the religion where I belonged was indeed his church. This questioning culminated to me deciding to leave the religion of my childhood on April 2012. At that time, I was just following what felt right. Little did I knew that leaving a religion and a way of life that I spent the first 20 years of my life was like death or being in a wilderness—an existential wilderness (Turner, 1966). Abandoning my religion was abandoning my Old Self, which launched me right into a messy interstitial space, where identities are never yet final, and that I was always becoming someone I didn’t yet knew who.
The state of liminality is characterized by flux; it is a state where identity shape-shifts and nothing is final. Individuals in a state of liminality tend to be more open to multiple ideas and meanings, as they attempt to recreate themselves. A period of liminality is a period filled of uncertainty and, in my experience, a difficulty to commit to almost anything [Cite]. After leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2012, I went through a two-year exploration of atheism. Although I never really connected with the atheist community, I explored the its most radical forms. I started by reading books like Bondage of the Mind by R. D. Gold and The Bible as History by Werner Keller, which convinced me to reject that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Then I started questioning the very existence of a God.
However, after a couple of years reading on atheism and humanism, I encountered Eastern philosophy. I read the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Tao Te Ching. I listened to New Age gurus, learned yoga, and practiced meditation. It was at this time when I realized that I did not resonate well with angry radical atheists who wanted to eradicate religion. I thought that despite not identifying to any organized religion or spiritual groups, I was still deeply “spiritual.” I went around different spiritual circles: Zen, Advaita Vedanta, Hinduism, Buddhism, finding something, anything, that sticks. While I appreciate the experimental nature of being in these spiritual circles, where I am allowed to be in different groups at the same time, I also encountered intellectual animosity among many of them and sometimes a complete rejection of the rational. Two years around spiritual circles, I fell in love with philosophy, and this reconnected me to my rational, intellectual self.
Today, I accept the fact that I am in some sort of psycho-socio-religious liminal state. Here, one goes back and forth between the structure of one’s Old Self and the non-structure of one’s New Self Becoming. I do not have a desire to associate to any organized religion or set of beliefs. I still don’t think a personal God is necessary, but I also think he could exist. Perhaps, I have ceased to care too much about metaphysics altogether. But I am still deeply spiritual, deeply religious, and my intellectual self counterbalances that. As of the moment, I am resonating with the progressinve and liberal Free Religion concept of Shin’ichirō Imaoka (1881–1988).
Despite my religious identity (and my identity in general) in a state of flux for ten years since leaving my childhood religion, I never truly articulated this clearly. I knew I had a tendency not to commit and was uncertain about a lot of things since leaving the church, but I wasn’t aware that all of these uncertainty was caused by separating myself from my Old Self. I was in an interstitial identity blackhole but I didn’t know I am in one. To make matters worse, I completely avoided thinking about my past life as a Jehovah’s Witness. I avoided it even when writing in my journals. For me, it was a dark past that needs to be completely burried. By enacting my psycho-socio-religious liminality through daily walking, which culminated to the long walk from Los Baños to San Pablo, things began to change.
My desire to walk is a physical expression—a symptom—of liminality. Walking is performed liminality [cite]. One notices this in the writings of someone like Craig Mod who has connected his desire to walk Japan with his background as an adopted child and a foreigner in a country far from home.
I am adopted. The sensation of unbelonging — the tenuousness of connection without blood — permeates the life of an adopted person, and so perhaps having lived that allows me to feel a kind of comfort in the distance of life here.2
Adopted, Japan based some twenty+ years, torn from a blue-collar shell east of Hartford. Drunkenly walked Tokyo at night in my teens and twenties, and now soberly walk the countryside of Japan in my thirties. Walks have come to define my days and years, are now a durable “platform.” Using them to deconstruct the human geography and history of Japan…3
Craig Mod’s attraction to mobility also coincides with his attraction to material culture, specifically architecture, photography, and food [Cite Kissa by Kissa here]. As if abandoned by society, people in liminal states cling to the material world for refuge. After leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have always felt called by nature, landscapes, and physical spaces. It was as if my subconscious was telling me, “You don’t belong to any social circle. Perhaps it is in the animate outdoors where you truly belong.” For a long time I actually may have believed that.
Walking in nature became a way for me to recuperate from the loss of friends and family members who will no longer associate with someone who has “grown cold in faith.” I walked because I was largerly unsure—unsure of where I was going in life and who I was as a person. And this uncertainty calls for it to be performed, embodied, and enacted. My appreciation to long walks, or short daily walks, reflected this need to express uncertainty through my body while at the same time hoping that perhaps through it, I could recreate myself.
If documentation through field notes and photography could capture our experience of liminality when looking at dereliction in geographic space, say, in derelict urban spaces (Al Shrbaji, 2020), then perhaps, documentation too can be used to capture liminality as expressed through the field notes and photos we take during a walk. Photography and written or audio notes capture the memory of that specific moment in the threshold. I go back to the photographs I took during all the walks I have undertaken since leaving my childhood religion and I now see glimpses of what it means to be in limen. I didn’t know it then when I took the photos, but there was a reason why I was attracted to abandoned buildings, decaying objects, and landscapes that evoke uncertainty and limbo.
[Share three photographs here and caption each]
“Walking carries with it the possibility for the exploration of the liminal” (Hickey et al., 2018). There is something with this simple tool of mobility that helps one traverse liminality. Two of the most critical features of walking is encounter and relationality. If we adopt Hickey et al.’s (2018) proposal that ethnographies should be “deeply relational encounters” (37), then walking has to be a quintessential ethnographic method. A model for how walking can be applied in ethnography may be extracted from the book Street Corner Society, where the ethnographer William Foot-Whyte walked with his participants. Foot-Whye, a pioneer of participant observation, noticed how the geographic space of the slum area he and his participants walked through, along with the meanings and cultural behaviors attached to specific parts of the area, dictated his research progress, i.e., the questions he could ask, the behaviors he could act out, and the identities he could or could not take hold.
When walking, an ethnographer encounters two entities: the Other and the place where they are walking (Ingold & Vergunst, 2008). Before the walk, the ethnographer may have very little commonality with the Other. But as the walk happens and the ethnographer joins the Other in traversing place and experience, i.e., liminality, a commonality between the researcher and the researched emerges. This commonality lays the foundation for deeper connection and, therefore, more honest revelations. Through walking, ethnography becomes what it should always be: a “shared knowing, generated in place, together” (Hickey et al., 2018, p. 40). The knowledge that emerges out of this shared liminality facilitated by walking is characterized by ethnographers who have used walking methodologies as genuine, honest, new, and deeply relational.
We could point to several characteristics of walking that makes it a perfect ethnographic method. First, walking opens the space for informality and candor between the researcher and the researched. While walking, the researcher and the researched are allowed to be “messy, uncertain, and multivoiced” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 26), something that is not always the case in formal armchair interviews. Second, because walks are informal, they allow moments of experimental encounter (Hickey et al., 2018). Last, and perhaps most importantly, walking facilitates a negotiation of identities, both of the researcher and the researched, as they traverse the inherently liminal nature of ethnographic research together (Hickey et al., 2018). Walking is a tool and metaphor for ethnographic inquiry.
Walking as Autoethnography
I argue that if walking not only figuratively explains the liminal nature of ethnographic research but also helps an ethnographer traverse this interstitial space, then the benefits of walking is easily transferrable to autoethnography. When applied to an autoethnographic encounter of someone in a psycho-socio-religious liminal state, as I am, walking generates a moment from within that liminal state through a “physiologically mediated propulsion of the body and socially performed action” (Hickey et al., 2018, p. 48) and transforms it into a shared encounter between the Old Self and the New Self Becoming. The idea that the Old Self and the New Self Becoming are sharing this moment in the threshold becomes the very foundation from where more honest reflection could emerge.
In autoethnography, the researcher is also the participant. You (the ethnographer) researches yourself (the participant) whose experiences and entire life reflect your identity, anchored on a social group [cite]. Autoethnography proposes that by digging into your autobiography, you induce conclusions that could represent what occurs within your social group[cite]. But what if, like I am, you are in a psycho-socio-religious liminal state, where your identity and social group is undefined and in flux? I argue that in this circumstance, walking, through its very nature as a physiological, social, and emplaced act, unveils the liminal space and the distance that exists between the former identity (the Old Self) and the new identity (the New Self Becoming).
This is exactly what happened to me on that elevated stretch after leaving Calauan—a geographic threshold between Los Baños and San Pablo. Of the many perplexing questions that that walk provoked, one that stood out was the question of what exactly triggered me to question my motivations for walking. Why did I suddenly asked why I was walking? In hindsight, it was the very nature of walking—the informality, the freedom, the physicality, and the embodied nature of the experience—that broke all hell lose and made me finally confront my Old Self. Through this embodied means of transportation, a correspondence between two entities, the researcher and the researched, within me was opened.
Thus, walking not only unveils the liminal space between the Old Self and the New Self but also provides a means to traverse it. Amid a psycho-socio-religious liminal state, an autoethnographer opens the possibility for the New Self Becoming to finally confront the Old Self and talk. Before the long walk to San Pablo, I avoided revisiting my past as a Jehovah’s Witness. I used to think of those first 20 years of my life as a dark, wasted time, with nothing to contribute to where I am now, other than as a reference point to who I should not become. However, after the walk, my journal entries started to suggest that I was interested in inquiring about how my past could inform what I am currently doing. In my journal, I began comparing my life now and my life before and was surprised to realize that there were several elements of my old religious life that were actually better than what I have now. Back then I was embedded in community. Back then I was working hands-on with a historically marginalized community (the Deaf). Back then I immediately saw that my work made a difference in other people’s lives. These are things I don’t have right now, but want to have again. Although I will never achieve the level of clarity I had about who I was and what I want to do, I now see that there are elements in my former life that I want to reintegrate into my current life.
Even more interestingly, my writings began talking about how my Old Self as a religious person still manifests in what I currently do. I started entertaining the idea that perhaps, even if I categorize myself as an agnostic, the work I am doing still has religious elements. In my journal entry on August 29, 2022, more than two months after the long walk to San Pablo, I wrote:
Today, I will be trying to understand whether what I am doing is indeed religious. Obviously, it is philosophical and like Bugbee I don’t have to articulate it and call it “religion” or even associate myself with the field of religion or religious studies. All I need to know is whether I could find inspiration from this field that I have been practically avoiding since 2012.
Walking daily is a religious thing. And the great walkers I read, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Bugbee, all have works that can be described as religious [cite Gabriel Marcel’s preface to the Inward Morning]. I want to clarify here that I am using the word religious in its generous liberal sense, which is a commitment to a way of living based on principles regardless of where those principles come from. In my Old Self, I heavily relied on an organization to dictate those principles; in my New Self Becoming, I rely on myself to set my own principles. But both new and old identities share a common desire to be religious, and I will never have realized this have I not walked from Los Baños to San Pablo.
But what happened there on the walk? What made me talk to the Old Self that I have resisted, ignored, and intentionally distanced from for years? Ingold (2015) said that walking creates a space for correspondence for everyone participating in the research. In my case, the Old Self and New Self Becoming. Walking does this by “opening an opportunity for more irreverent, open and experimental dialogue” (Hickey et al., 2018). Under a scorching sun, with only an umbrella to protect myself, forgetting to put sunscreen or bring sunglasses, and burdened by the excessive luggage behind my back, what room is there for reverent dialogue? The physicality of walking prompted my New Self Becoming to loosen its guard, to shatter the walls it built around itself, and to finally confront through “irreverent, open and experimental dialogue” that which was always its subject of reseach, but unconcsiously disregarded: my Old Self.
While walking, my New Self Becoming dropped from the tower it thought it always occupied to join my Old Self below as both researcher and participant. By doing so, my New Self Becoming understood my Old Self better, finally confronting it as a worthy subject of study. And what a productive move this was, because my Old Self held knowledge of the terrain that my New Self Becoming does not have. Even more frightening was the realization that perhaps the New Self Becoming has not yet moved that far away from my Old Self, that this new identity that thought it was new was actually, still very old, that what I was trying to metaphorically walk through was not an expanse but in fact an interstice.
But this is what walking does to the autoethnographer on the threshold of identities. It reveals commonalities between past and present identities and works as a form of transportation to help the autoethnographer traverse the “inbetween realm, which forms a third place, or threshold, that links as it separates two previously opposed conditions” (Coleman, 2005, p. 202). Walking allows one to relax and trust. Conversation with oneself is more natural compared to say journaling in a desk, natural breaks are allowed, and visual cues in the environment become prompts for reflection.
One afternoon, while walking, I noticed a long line of flowers with two colors. At first, I thought they grew from different plants: one flower being a variant of the other. Upon closer inspection, I was surprised to learn that the flowers, although different in color, grow from the same plant. I would later learn that these were Umbrellaworts or more commonly known as Four O’clocks, whose flowers open around the time of my afternoon walks, thus seeing them. This visual drama triggered thoughts on community. One of the things I lost after leaving my childhood religion was community. As a JW, I interacted with individuals who believed the same things I believe in on almost a daily basis. This was lost after I left. I tried hard even until now to find community and accepting that being in a liminal space such as where I am right now means coming at peace to the fact that I won’t be connected to people I share similar beliefs with as easily as before and that differences and learning to navigate differences shall now be my norm. Walking and noticing umbrellaworts and how two flowers of different colors could grow from the same plant made me ask whether it is possible to grow community despite differences.
As Derrida (1967) suggested, “deconstruction implies the possibility of rebuilding” (p. xlix).
Per Sartre (1946), existentialism and abandonment is related. An abandoned individual may have been abandoned by someone or has initiated the abandonment itself. Whatever the cause, abandonment involves detachment, a liminal condition, and it could be interpreted as “autonomy of existence.” Because no one is telling me what I need to do with my life, I have comlete freedom to shape who I want to be and how I want to exist.
Dahistrom, D. O. (2013). “Throwness (Geworfenheit).” In: The Heidegger Dictionary. A&C Black, pp. 212-215.
Turner, V. (1966). Liminality and Communatis. In: The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti Structure. Cornell University Press, pp. 94-130.