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Lean into Liminality

All over the world and particularly here in Australia, urbanisation is changing our culture. Mass generational amnesia, Florence Williams[1] tells us, brought on by urbanisation and digital creep is changing our experience of life. Since the beginning of human life, nature has been our living environment, and now in the 21st century we are seeing that less and less people are experiencing the natural restorative benefit of nature as a daily or weekly reality. Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. In an interview with the BBC in England, he said,’


"[The phrase NDD] has been used as a bit of a coverall to describe the thing of where we used to have natural processes, natural experiences in our life, and that seems to be becoming less common,"…

“He argues that all of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and perhaps more vulnerable to negative moods or reduced attention span.[2].

Natural processes, natural experiences that restored our relationships and our minds and bodies to a state of equilibrium were passed down from generation to generation using protocols, rituals and customs in cultures all over the world. Many cultures sat in circles on the ground around a fire, storytelling, while others included dance and music. Restorative Justice has recognised the power of the relational practices used for healing ruptures in the modern community. The connection to nature, to the more-than-human-world may be one of those critical factors overlooked as having a major role in the restorative process. Mass generational amnesia may have boycotted our memory of the role that the natural environment plays in our human lives.

The intention of this paper is to explore the role that the liminal space plays in our lives and specifically in providing space for restorative relationships. Restorative means bringing back to good health, to well-being.[3] The journey of life includes ruptures for all of us. It is often the case that the ruptures block connections that impact on healthy relationships, and healthy organisms. For well-being we need repairs[4] to be part of the story line. Without the repairs we are left with broken dreams, broken worlds and broken societies. With repairs we can integrate our experiences and get back to caring connections. With this being our aim, to restore healthy connections, it is worthwhile to step into nature, our own and the living world around us, to see what and how the awareness of liminality relates to this journey. We will see how liminality supports repair with the example of Shinrin yoku, a restorative practice, as it has developed in the USA, under the professionalization of the Association for Nature and Forest Therapy.

Liminality is the in-between phenomenon within time and space. In nature it is found everywhere, the seasons as they come and go, just prior to the rain before it falls as well as moments after it has fallen. Liminality is found between the day and the night, between the flower as a bud and its full blossom. It is the space between the land and the water in both the seaside and the lakes or rivers edge.

Within the human world the liminal space is found in undefined roles, yet to be classified or formalised, or the space between known and unknown. In some cultures the liminal space is seen as sacred, to be respected and is holy, something ‘out of this world’, ‘not yet been brought down’. In other cultures the liminal space creates anxious uncertainty, fear and disapproval. Limiality exists between the love and dislike, the undecided moments when we are neither here nor there.

Sometimes it is easier to understand a concept by its opposite. The opposite of liminality is a fixed, stable state. In nature it is found in the purple flower of the Jacaranda tree for approximately 4 weeks in the year, when the tree is stable, full of purple flowers. The liminal space occurs when the flowers leave the tree and are being replaced by green leaves. There is this time inbetween, not a green leaf tree and not a purple flower tree.

We see this also in relationships, the time of uncertainty, when dating prior to a commitment. Are we a couple or just friends? Will this last, or is this the first or the last date? The opposite of liminatlity in relationships is the fixed state of relating, distrust, enemy, or vicitim and offender. The liminal space can be created with the invitation of a safe place, of a tone for curiosity, offering an opportunity for conflict relationships to meet and repair. In fact it is this very state that is required for relationships to shift. Raising questions such as are we still enemies, or are we now turning towards repairing and reconstructing trust? The liminal space is a crucial criterion for restorative processes.

Liminality is a concept that has been linked to the term threshold, the movement from one place to another. The threshold between a child and an adult is often full of awkwardness. In traditional societies, a threshold was noted by a ceremony, often a sacred ceremony to show its serious nature and guide people towards the new status that marks the change of state. The movement from the fixed state of child to the fixed state of adult is the liminal space. A ceremony or ritual offers this liminal space recognition and when witnessed brings other people to the new identity.

“A term introduced by Arnold van Gennep (Rites de passage, 1909), liminality refers to an intermediate ritual phase during initiation, in which initiates can be considered either sacred or potentially polluting to the mainstream society because of their anomalous social position. New social rules are commonly taught during the liminal phase, and strong, endearing, and creative bonds often develop between fellow initiates.”[5]

Restorative Practice is one way of shifting a fixed state of disconnection that can occur between people.

“Restorative Practice is a way of thinking and being, focused on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationship and create stronger, more connected communities.”[6]

Lindsey C. Pointer, a PHD student of Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand, identifies liminality as a key concept for understanding the transformative nature of Restorative Justice.

“Once brought into the restorative justice conference, participants are provided with the opportunity to experience liminality through separation from normal social structures and an experience of equality…a transformation of will is possible in this liminal space. Participants feel increasingly connected and we witness the emergence of …human kindness…[7]

Restorative practices[8] which have evolved from Restorative Justice, has since 1990 been growing in a variety of contexts around the world within the workplace, education, and justice system.[9] Traditional societies that practiced restorative justice, called by different names in societies all over the globe in times gone by, saw the role of human relatedness to include the nature around them, the trees, the water, the animal kingdom and beyond, otherwise known as ‘the-more-than-human-world.’[10] The sensitivity of relating to the universe played a role within traditional restorative practices[11]. Paul Callaghan in his book Iridescence, Finding Your Colours and Living Your Story, shares the Australian Aboriginal perspective of well-being;

“For you to live a life of fulfilment and wellbeing, as a starting point, you need to understand the importance of connecting with all that is around you. Caring for your community and the people within it and caring for the environment that provides you with the air you breathe, the food you eat and the shelter to live in is crucial for your sustainability and the sustainability of future generations.”[12]

The natural environment has been held in the margins of modern societies as a part of well-being. It is however now a central component of medicine for Japan, known as Forest Medicine.[13]

In Japan, a country that has a history of traditional Restorative Justice[14] was suffering with an epidemic known as karoshi, a word given to death from overwork.

“The first case of karoshi was reported in 1969 with the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan‘s largest newspaper company. The term was invented in 1978 to refer to an increasing number of people suffering from fatal strokes and heart attacks attributed to overwork. A book on the issue in 1982 brought the term into public usage, but it was not until the mid to late 1980s, during the Bubble Economy, however, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the term emerged into Japanese public life. This new phenomenon was immediately seen as a new and serious menace for people in the work force. In 1987, as public concern increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on karoshi.”[15]

In 1982, Japan, institutionalised the word Shinrin yoku, or Forest Bathing as a way for Japanese society to access Forest Medicine, a form of restorative health therapy. This is known in the Western world as Nature Forest Therapy[16]. Shinrin yoku or Nature Forest Therapy is opening the senses in a slow leisurely walk under forest canapy or in a nature environment. It has become accepted within the medical science industry that Forest Therapy has a role to play in human well-being.

“The reported research findings associated with the healing components of Shinrin yoku specifically hones in on the therapeutic effects on: (1) the immune system function (increase in natural killer cells/cancer prevention); (2) cardiovascular system (hypertension/coronary artery disease); (3) the respiratory system (allergies and respiratory disease); (4) depression and anxiety (mood disorders and stress); (5) mental relaxation (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and; (6) human feelings of “awe” (increase in gratitude and selflessness) [5]. Moreover, various contemporary hypotheses, such as: Kaplan’s Attention Restorative Hypothesis [6]; Ulrich’s Stress Reduction Hypothesis [7]; and Kellert and Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis [8] provide support and a lens for the practice of Shinrin yoku and other forms of nature engagement.”[17]

The detailed analytical research report on Shinrin yoku otherwise known as Forest and Nature Therapy by Margaret M Hansen, Reo Jones and Kirsten Tocchini, identifies that

“A hallmark of Shinrin Yoku research has been the investigation of its’ relaxation inducing properties and application for ameliorating psychological distress. Within this review, 12 studies specifically addressed psychological disorders/disease states and relevant comorbid conditions with popular reference to stress and stress related heart disease, emotional distress and chronic depression, alcoholism, sleep disorders, and pain.”[18]

We know from Terry O’Connell, one of the pioneer practitioners of Restorative Practice, that the underlying theories behind the success of his practice have been best described by Nathenson and Tomkins research on shame and community. As Terry O’Connell says,

“The intention of setting conditions that explicitly contributes to the minimizing of sharing and reducing negative emotions and increasing the sharing and promoting of positive emotions, are central to the experience of community.” [19]

Returning to the research by Shinrin yoku, by Margaret M Hansen, Reo Jones and Kirsten Tocchini, they recognize three conceptual frameworks within the Natural Forest Therapy. The first is described as “the innate ability of the body to heal itself”, the second is meaningful rituals that are “integrative because it takes place in nature and serves as a part of the human healing”. This concept creates a spotlight on modern individuals’ detachment from nature, absence from community engagement and spirituality. The third concept recognised is the offering of an invitation into liminality…

“assisted by trained nature and forest therapy guides leads individuals into a “liminal” space. In this “liminal” space, also known as an “in-between” human state or “suspended state of partial knowing,” the healing properties associated with Shinrin yoku are purportedly activated…

During the “liminal” phase, a person integrates, discards and experiences an “ontological shift” and then experiences “transformation” and a “changed discourse,” known as a “post-liminal phase.” The individual may experience a “pre-liminal” space in nature and may vacillate between old and emergent thoughts that may be disruptive. However, once in the “liminal” psychological space, the individual experiences a sense of calm and mastery. The immersion into nature may lead to a transformative way of knowing and understanding the self.”[20]

Coming back to a definition of liminality, we find that during liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. Liminal spaces can last for a moment, a finite period, or for a lifetime.”[21]

“The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established”[22]


Hence this sense of liminality operates as an opening from one state of being to enter into a new state of being. The more-than-human-world for most urbanites creates a sense of vulnerability, for some, fear. In a group with a guide there is an acceptance of being lead through the fear. The structure, set by the guide, the invitations and being with others creates a safe space for the vulnerability to be experienced.

The practice of Shinrin yoku under the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy includes not only the ‘walk in the park’, it also includes a reflective space of’’ Council’, This aspect of the practice is explicitly intentional for participants to reflect and speak wholeheartedly around the moment they are experiencing. Open ended questions such as, what are you noticing?, offer opportunities to reflect and speak spontaneously integrating body, mind and the outer environment. In a circle, participants take turns using a talking stick, to listen to others experiences of where they are at, what is going on in their world of being. The restoration of both their body system functioning as well as the restoration of being connected to others and the more-that-human-world is made possible. Vulnerability is a critical part of connectedness.

Dr Bene Brown is one of the leaders in bringing research on vulnerability into mainstream awareness. Her ted talk: The Power of Vulnerability[23] is listed as one of the top ten Ted talks in the world. In her book, Daring Greatly,

“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre of meaningful experiences…We are hardwired for connection.”[24]


In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. …The hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connection is the fear that we are not worthy of connection.”[25]


In connection we feel positive emotions and disconnected takes us to negative emotions. As Terry O’Connell stresses in his restorative practice experience, behind the anger, the hatred, the self-infliction of pain, withdrawal from life and drugs and alcohol in order to avoid, is the experience of shame and vulnerability. By being present in a safe space to have a meaningful conversation offers an opportunity for transforming that shame and vulnerability to a place of shared sense making, not only of the what happened story, but sense making of how the human condition has so many dimensions many of which are hidden. That in a safe space suffering is revealed and recognised as part of our personal lives and that this offers us the connection towards compassion, self-compassion and compassion to others. Thus vulnerability of shame and fear, becomes a core requirement for compassion and community. Vulnerability takes us to our intimate knowing of ourselves. In this space lies more than pain, it offers positive respectful connections. It is the role of the guide in Shinrin yoku and the facilitator of the restorative practice to create this opportunity for safe meaningful connections.

Thus the liminal space in Shinrin yoku is a phase to shift people who through the modern world and more recently urbanisation, have slipped into ‘mass generational amnesia, our epidemic dislocation from the natural world outdoors’[26].

Dislocation is a form of disconnectedness no longer feeling connected to our nature outside or our nature within. To renter this sense, to fully appreciate the human condition requires an authentic experience of connectedness. The liminal space provides the walk through from the disconnectedness of the urban man made environment to reconnecting with nature, the nature within the human condition and the nature that exists in the world outside. Without the liminal space, it is unlikely that the shift will take place. The liminal space is created by a ritual or explicit awareness of separation from normal social structures and offers an experience of equality.[27] Hence jogging in nature or walking slowly with earphones, mindless or even engaged chatting may limit the capacity for entering into the liminal space. The explicitness of separation from the normal social structures and the experience of equality, the embracing of vulnerability, enables the ruptures to be repaired.

Nature Forest therapy is a restorative practice. In imagining a compassionate city, town planners like Jenny Donavon envisage easy access places to escape the urban built environment, spaces that naturally restore the individual and groups to well-being. Restorative processes need to include in their design and practices connecting to nature. One step towards moral responsiveness is leaning into liminality.



[1] Florence Williams The Nature Fix W.W. Norton and Co. 2017

[2] BBC News 2016

[3] Margaret M. Hansen,* Reo Jones, and Kirsten Tocchini Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review Published online 2017 Jul 28

[4] Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson The Whole Brain Child – 12 Revolutionary Strategies to To Nurture You Childs Developing Mind

2012 Bantam Books


[6] Mark Vander Vennen, M Towards A Relational Theory of Restorative Justice in Restorative Theory in Practice: Insights Into What Works and Why, ed. Belinda Hopkins London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016

[7]Lindsey C Pointer Understanding Transformational space: an analysis of restorative justice conference through religious studies theoretical lenses. Restorative Justice An international Journal http//


[9] Howard Zehr Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice Scottsdal 1990

[10] David Adam Smell of the Sensuous Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World Random House 1997

[11] Paul Callighan Iridescence Finding your colours and living your story 2014 Moshpit publishing

[12] Paul Callaghan Iridescence Finding your colours and living your story MoshPit Publishing 2014

[13] Qing Li edu.Forest Medicine Public Health in the 21st Century Nova Science publishers 2013



[16] Amos Clifford Association of Nature Forest Therapy

[17] Margaret M. Hansen, Reo Jones, and Kirsten Tocchini, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, Academic Editor, Hiromitsu Kobayashi, Academic Editor, Sin-Ae Park, Academic Editor, and Chorong Song, Academic Editor Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review.

[19] Terry O’Connell in print 2017

[21] Jana Arsovska Decoding Albanian Organized Crime: Culture, Politics, and Globalization University of California Press 2015



[24] Dr Bene Brown Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead Penguin Random House 2012

[25] Dr Bene Brown ibid Ted Talk

[26] Florence Williams Ibid

[27] Ibid Lindsey C Pointer



Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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