Life in the neutral zone
A friend of mine recently turned me on to an interesting book by William Bridges, called “The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments.” Bridges, a well-known organizational consultant, author and speaker, has written several works on dealing with “transition” within organizations and careers, but this particular work is more about the personal transitions he had to undergo himself when his first wife died from cancer.
To Bridges (an apt name, yes?), “transition” means more than just “change.” The transition process he discusses has to do with how we adapt to changes, whether those changes are external or internal. He breaks this process down into three phases. The first, “ending, losing, and letting go,” involves, for the most part, deciding (or realizing) that the time has come to move on, and then examining what one needs to keep and what to throw away. The third is “new beginnings,” in which, if the transition process has been managed properly, a fresh sense of identity and purpose has been well-established, and one is ready to participate fully and meaningfully within the changed circumstances of one’s life.
Right now, though, it’s the second phase I’m interested in—the part he calls “the neutral zone.”
While passing through the neutral zone, one is truly “neither here nor there.” One has left familiar ways behind, but not yet adapted fully to the new circumstances. In this phase, “critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place.” It’s an uncertain and uncomfortable place to be, and sometimes it can last for quite a while.
As Madge in the old Palmolive commercial used to say, “Hey, you’re soaking in it.”
I know that I am solidly within the neutral zone myself. At 62, I am heading full-steam toward the unfamiliar territory we call “aging,” while also navigating various changes in my personal and professional lives, changes that will not be settled for several weeks if not months.
We, as a nation, are also in this limbo-like state. As I write, the current “government shutdown” shows no signs of abating. There is a strong sense, one that is spreading across the political spectrum, that there is something seriously dysfunctional at the root of our current system, and that major changes are necessary. We know that we can’t go backward, but it’s unclear what is going to replace what has been lost.
This can feel pretty scary.
It is also an opportunity. In a Psychology Today article, writer Gregg Levoy has this to say about dealing with the neutral zone:
“Be actively patient. Become a student of waiting, watching, allowing, receiving and listening. Spend time in nature asking for guidance, take field notes, ‘cry for a vision,’ as Black Elk puts it. Pay attention to your dreams, make art that captures in-betweenness, feel what you feel without reaching for a fix.”
Change and transition are natural processes that will proceed with or without our consent, and sometimes without our awareness. Rather than ignoring the need for fundamental change, or trying to resist it, we can instead recognize and accept what is happening. We can see this present moment, uncertain as it is, as an opening to better possibilities ahead. We can decide what we want out“new beginnings” to be—of a social, economic and political order that is more just, more sustainable and more peaceful.