Notes from: Transitions: Making sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges


William Bridges wrote the first edition in 1971 and is an ex-literature teacher.

The difference between change and Transition

  • change is situational (new job, move, birth, death); transition is psychological
  • first are events, but latter has inner reorientation and self-redefinition
  • modern society focuses on change, but if the change doesn’t “take” it won’t work

Other societies had rituals (“rites of passage”) to help individuals manage transitions at specific times.## Part 1 The Need for Change

Americans thrive on transition

  • Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
  • legend of Rip van Winkle
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about that in his poem “Changed”
  • Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

To feel as though everything is “up in the air,” as one so often does during times of personal transition, is endurable if it means something — if it is part of a movement toward a desired end. But if it is not related to some larger and beneficial pattern, it simply becomes distressing.

All transitions are composed of 3 phases:

  1. an ending: the difficult process of letting go of an old situation
  2. a neutral zone: suffering through the confusing nowhere in-betweenness,
  3. a new beginning: launching forth again in a new situation.

The idea is to view transition as a natural process of disorientation and reorientation marking the turning points in the path of growth

1. Being in Transition

Started when retired from teaching to teach a seminar called “Being in Transition”

The class had varied people, problems and backgrounds but the similarities were in the three phases above.

Ex. mother with a newborn thought she needed a tiny bit of advice advice on her child comes to “My old life has gone. How come nobody talks about that? They congratulate you on your new life, but I have to mourn the old life alone.”

Why is letting go so difficult? We identify ourselves with the circumstances of or lives. (Bob Burns story of joining army and cured of heartburn from mother’s fried food. Instead of being relief, goes to the doctor saying, “My fire went out.”)

Letting go is at best an ambiguous experience. Before you get go through nowhere to the new, you need to understand your own characteristic coping with endings.

We shall see later most of us try to start again after an ending prematurely, for our most important beginnings take place in the darkness outside our awareness. It is the ending that makes beginning possible.

One of the benefits to reviewing your experience of endings is to see how often they have cleared the ground for unexpected beginnings. But reviewing these elements in your past may also uncover the times when the endings did not provide a starting point, as well as times when you started a new journey without unpacking your baggage from the old one. Right now, at this new transition point in your life, remember some of these aborted transition points from your past.

One reason it is so difficult to asses transitions is that the impact of transition does not necessarily bear any relation to the apparent importance of the change that triggered it. the big events—divorce, death, losing a job, and other obviously painful changes—are easy to spot. But others, such as marriage, sudden success, and moving to your dream house, are forgotten because they are “good events” and therefore not supposed to lead to difficulty.

The example of the man with the promotion (figot sick, brothers death,…). The promotion had set of a tremor across the surface of his life, leading to inner reorientations that were hard for the man to put into words. The transition began at one place in his life, but its effects reached across every aspect of his world.

Categories of events that bring on transitions.

  1. Losses of relationships: death, friend moving away, marital separations, children leaving home, alienation of friend, death of pet or hero
  2. Changes in home life: getting married, having child, having spouse retire or becoming ill/recovering, returning to school, changing jobs, going into depression, moving to a new house/remodeled old one, experience increase/decrease of domestic tension
  3. Personal Changes: getting sick or well, experiencing notable success or failure, changing eating habits, sleep patterns, sex, starting/stopping school, changing lifestyle or appearance
  4. Work and Finances changes: getting fired, retiring, changing jobs, changes within organization, increase/decrease income, taking on new loans/mortgages, discovering career advancement is blocked
  5. Inner changes: spiritual awakening, deepening social/political awareness, spuchological insights, changes in self-image or values, discovery of new dream/abandonment of old one

Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe’s stress scale for events: 100 for death to 11 for minor law-breaking. Found correlation with health:

  • [average american has 1 in 5 chance of hospitalization in 2 years]
  • <150: “average” 33% chance of serious health change in next 2 years
  • 150-300 points: 50% chance
  • 300+ points: 90% chance (promotion man was in this category)

other examples: colds during honeymoons, illnesses after retirement!


  1. When you’re in transition you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.
  2. Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the of things before we can pick up the new one—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to people and places that act as definitions of who we are.
  3. Although it is advantageous to understand your own style of endings, some part of you will resist that understanding as though your life depended on it.
  4. First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between. That is the order of things in nature.


Think back over the endings in your own life. Go back to you early childhood and recall the first experiences involving endings that you can remember. (death in family, parent’s departure on trip, death of pet, friend moving away). Continue forward in life history and note all the endings you can recall (physical, relationships, places, social groups, hobbies, interests, sports, responsibilities, training, jobs).

What you bring with you to a transitional situation is the style you have developed for dealing with endings. Looking back over your ending experiences, what can you ay about you own style of bringing situations to a close? Is it abrupt and designed to deny the impact of the change, or is it so slow and gradual that it is hard to see that anything important is happening? Do you tend to be active or passive in these terminal situations? That is, is it your initiative that brings thing stop term or do events just happen to you?
How do you act at the end of an evening or night on the town. Do you try to drag things out by starting new conversations and activities, or do you say suddenly that it was a nice evening and dash out? Or what about me recent larger ending: leaving a job or moving from a neighborhood. Did you say goodbye to everyone, or did you leave a day ahead of schedule just so that you could avoid these goodbyes?

Investigate the characteristic way of beginning things by looking over the past, starting with childhood, just as you did with endings.

2. A lifetime of transitions

What animal walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening, yet has only one voice? —The Riddle of the Sphinx

The human being. —Oedipus’s solution to the Riddle

The riddle is about transition from dependency, to separateness and independence to suffering and deepened insight/disengagement.

The purpose of this chapter is to look over the context of the map to see where your boat is heading.

de-velop-ment means “unfolding” and occurs uninterruptedly throughout a lifetime. Ex. The first signs of a midlife transition occurs during the transition to independence (“I can’t be getting old yet, I’m still struggling with my adolescence!”)

  • Gail Sheehy’s Passages:The Predicable Crises of Adult Life (1976)
  • Roger Gould’s Transformations: Growth and Change in the Adult Years
  • Daniel J. Levinson’s The Seasons of a Man’s Life

Two great developmental shifts:

  1. End to old dependencies and the establishment of the person as a separate social entity
  2. Movement beyond that separateness to something more complex, to a deeper sense of interrelatedness

Midlife is a mixture of the above influences.

The End of Childhood is one part of the shift from morning (dependence) to noon (independence). The other part is the establishment of a separate identity, distinct from being so-and-so’s child.

Erik Erikson’s believe that every phase of life has a task. Failing to complete it satisfactory means you make the transition into the next phase accompanied by unfinished business. (ex. divorced woman not resolving identity issues re-emerge as “I feel like I’m sixteen again.” ends up trying different roles like a teenager. She discovered that once she had accepted her experience as natural, she rather enjoyed it.)

On your own

Entering the adult world (Daniel J. Levinson). The Erikson task for this time is forging strong new interpersonal relationships and thereby exploring you capacity for intimacy. In the broadest sense, we might say this time is one of “searching for a place” and that the transitions likely to take place involve experimenting with an eye to making commitments.

Charlotte Buhler noted that physical dependence on parents ended by the late teens, and commitments that were long lasting were not made until almost thirty. The in-between years were spent in roles and relationships that were technically “adult” but were actually “preparatory [in] character” to what the person was going to do and be during the bulk of the adult years.

aka Levinson’s “novice period” of adulthood. Transitions during the time have a special poignancy and anxiousness about them, for they seem to threaten a return to the old dependency that we’re trying to put behind us.

Age Thirty Transition (Levinson)/Opening up what’s inside (Gould): The time of second thoughts: early place finders may regret that they did not try different options before making long-term commitments, and the experimenters may wonder whether they waited to long and missed some hidden moment when settling down would have felt just right and have worked. Various transitions began with the discovery that roles and relationships were starting to pinch and bind.

Recognize the reason for these feelings and realize that they are natural. Just because things are up-in-the-air now and you sometimes feel as if you were right back where you started, this is not a sign that you have made a mistake or have been wasting your life for the past ten years. It is only a sign that you are in one of life’s natural and periodic times of readjustment and renewed commitment.

You know the rules now, and you’re beginning to sense what you can and cannot do well.. You are, for better or for worse, an undisputed grown-up. The question is, now what are you going to do?

Second thoughts for many provide a clearer sense of personal direction than they have hitherto known—and even some goal or project that embodies that direction.

Mid-life crisis Things to be aware of:

  1. There are not a discreet number of identifiable periods of crisis; rather adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.
  2. At this time most people find life moving in alternating periods of stability and change. The mid-life transition is the first of these transition times after the end of the novice period.
  3. It is the result not of new factors but a mixture of old and new ones. It’s both a beginning and an end.

If you reach your dreams, you ask yourself, “Is this it? Is this what I’ve been trying to reach?” If you don’t you get the “nevers” (James Bugental) and the realization you have been chasing a carrot on a stick.

They sometimes open the door to new activities:

  • Gandhi discovered at fifty his real mission of nonviolent resistance
  • Cervantes was older than fifty when he began his career as a novelist
  • Lou Andreas Salome was in her sixties when she became a psychoanalyst
  • Grandma Moses and Colonel Sanders

Forest-dweller (Hindu): Your own expectations become important. These are a product of culture or family history. You begin the move from householder to this. The name suggests a turning away from the world’s business and going into solitude of the forest for a time of reflection and study.

Social usefulness is no longer an aim for him, although he does not question its desirability. Fully aware as he is of the social unimportance of his creative activity, he looks upon it as a way of working out his own development. —Carl Jung

The task of this half of life is “homecoming.”

ex. Odysseus and the failure at Ismaros in the beginning of The Odyssey. It’s a tale of unlearning the things that made him legendary in the Iliad.

  • Tricks Polyphemus (“famous” in Greek) by saying his name is “nobody” = giving up identity, and finding that nonidentity is a source of power
  • song of the Sirens = self-destruction that lurks beneath the surface of everything that calls upon us to turn aside
  • lotus fruit = make us forget the journey itself and our real destination
  • Calupso’s promise to stay with her and never grow old = the fantasy that we can stop the on-going process of life transitions
  • princes living off his riches in Ithaca = confusion and distractions that block our inner homecomings, there is no welcoming, but we must fight to claim our own rightful place

Demands of the homecoming:

  1. Unlearn the style of mastering the world that we used to take us through the first half of life/
  2. We resist our own longings to abandon the developmental journey and refuse invitations to stay forever at some attractive stopping place.
  3. Recognize that it will take real effort to regain the inner “home.”

This period offers opportunity to break with the social condition that carried us thus far and to something new and different. People who broke the rules of not changing between 30-60:

  • Joshua Slocum: set sail around the world at 51.
  • Handel: deeply in debt and recovering from a stroke when he accepted a commission at 57 in which he wrote Messiah.
  • Edith Hamilton: did not begin work as a mythographer until she retired from teaching at 60


How does the phrase “The End of Childhood” recall your past? The coming-of-age rituals set the tone for a lifetime of subsequent transformations and their celebrations.

What memories and feelings do you associate with the phrase: “on your own”?

What would you say is you own natural stage of life? Were you born to be seventeen or seventy? Are you a perennial twenty-five-year-old, or are you still waiting for you entrance cue at fifty?

Which of your own life transitions have been the most important so far? What is the chronology of your own experience with transition?

When you have done this, begin with the early transition and see what you can say about “developmental issues” that were involved in each transition.

3. Relationships and Transition

Starts with a hypothetical couple: Don and Betty with two children.

Changes that signal transitions in relationship that are so deep and far-reaching are unlikely to disappear with time. At this point you find that the relationship that served pretty well up to this point is being put under enormous strain.

In the example, “Don” was a stranger to his own real needs and interests so long, he no longer knew what he wanted, or even who he was.

Although an answer was slow in taking shape, both of them felt a great sense of relief having acknowledged the old way was no longer viable and they were in transition.

Transition, Relationships, and Resonance.

Interpersonal resonance: way in which the developmental issues being dealt with by one member of a family (or any group) re-awaken or intensify similar issues in another.

With children, the tendency is to live vicariously, but “I guess it’ll be better if I do my own business and let her do hers.”

Transition and the Interpersonal System

All systems have characteristic that although their members may consciously try to change the way they behave within the system, they also often unwittingly perpetuate the system in its current form by undermining their own attempts to change it.

Relationships are always structured by unspoken agreements, although people are seldom conscious of it.

We are more like stories that are slowly unfolding according to our own reestablished inner themes and plots. Each person’s life is a story that is telling itself in the living of it, and requires others to play certain kinds of roles.

A life transition brings them to the point where each party has the opportunity to discover new inner resources that have hitherto been lived out mainly through the other person.

The partner who is aware of the transition and its implication for a relationship to begin alone the question of what is ending in a relationship and what to do about it. More often than not, it turns out that the ending is not some external situation but an attitude or an assumption or a self-image that both partners have held.

Various actions can help transition:

  1. The partners should discuss what each of them is experiencing.
  2. They should use the transition framework to structure that talk and to realize that relinquishing old arrangements and being left in the neutral zone is difficult and confusing.
  3. It helps to imagine the self-doubt that an an anxiety producing new beginning may be causing the other. It helps to imagine how lost and confused the other feels when long-time patterns disappear and leave only a blank page to star at in life’s book.

A checklist for people in a relationship-in-transition:
1. Take your time. Outer changes can be instant but inner reorientations takes time.
2. Arrange temporary structures. You need to work out ways of going on while the inner work is being done (e.g. temporary way to make decisions, allocate responsibilities, etc.)
3. Don’t act for the sake of action. Such things usually lead to more difficulty. The transition process requires we bring a chapter of our lives to conclusions and discover what we need to learn for the next step.
4. Take care of yourself in little ways. Find some continuities that are important when everything else seems to be changing.
5. Explore the other side of the change. Instead of seeing the other as an adversary, try to understand their situation.
6. Find someone to talk to. Professional or just good friend. Not for advice necessarily, but to put words to feelings and dilemmas
7. Think of transition as a process of leaving the status quo, living for a while in a fertile “time-out,” and then coming back with an answer. Like Arnold Toynbee’s view that societal advancement comes only after a “time of troubles.”

4. Transitions in the Work Life

Whoever in middle age, attempts to realize the wishes and hopes of his early youth invariably deceives himself. Each ten years of a [person’s] life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires. —Wolfgang Von Goethe

The natural development pattern is not for people to keep the same dreams but to relinquish old dreams and generate new ones throughout their lifetimes. Life is not an upward-trending diagonal of increasing achievement but a spiral of linked cycles—the completion of each leading to a new cycle of experience and activity based on a new dream.

In our culture, there are forces that stand in the way of this normal, cyclical pattern of development (e.g. emphasis on “success” monetary success, profession prestige, and other distance/elevated goals) and not what makes them happy.

Distant material goals (even though it’s a misleading one) haunts them at each successive transition point, not only where they must establish a direction and tap into a renewed source of energy but also where they are bedeviled by the sense that they don’t really know what they want or need.

An extremely high level of change in today’s organization is likely to keep your career in a semipermanent state of transition.

First task is to let go: Endings come first.The transition always starts with an ending.

  • To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now;
  • to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now;
  • and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old one you have now.

Neutral zone: This feels like a meaningless time. But it is actually a very important time. You are receiving signals and cues as to what you need to become for the next stage of you work life. And, unless you disrupt it by trying to rush through the neutral zone quickly, you are slowly being transformed into the person you need to be to move forward in your life.

How disruptive is determined by two things:

  1. The inherent importance of the change that triggers them; and, second, whether they coincide with a time when a developmental shift is occurring within you.
  2. Your own career transitions will also resonate with those that others are going through. (ex: colleague “forgetting” again and being amazed for the third time was really a sign that he was unhappy with his own career, but had every years earlier decided that he was too old to make a shift).
  3. Also, personal changes will affect it. (difficulty at home, health, finances, sex life, spiritual world) can change without sending ripples across the world of you hob and your career. Sometimes the change intensifies your energy, but more often it diverts energy from work to the area of your life that is changing.

Attempts to reinstate you old motivation by reward or punishment are futile as trying to keep leaves on the trees once they’ve started to fall.

Consider the Age Forty transition: The transition from being motivated by the chance to demonstrate competence to being motivated by the chance to find personal meaning) in the work and its results. It is a shift from the question of _how to the question of why. The work world rewards competence, but sometime that loses its motivation.

The old flame can sometimes be wrinkled temporarily by shifting to an area where you must begin all over again and develop new competence, but the effects of such a change are usually short-lived. The season of competence is passing, in some late-flowering transplants.

Hindu idea of the natural seasons of life

  1. The Time of Apprenticeship. People often imagine their sense is a result of taking a real job, getting married, leaving home, graduating college but this is confusing cause and effect. They are changing inwardly, and the events of the external change serve to mark and symbolize the inward transition.

  2. The Shift to Householding. The “business” of working and raising a family. This is a time of roles and responsibilities—a time when many modern people are not just “working” but pursuing a “career.”. Two kinds of transitions: 1) changes triggered by the organization in which the person works and changes to the individual (promotions, transfers).

  3. The End of Householding. When people are meant to stop being Householders and start the period of inner search and discovery they call the Forest-Dweller phase. Usually keyed in the birth of one’s first grandchild because the next generation takes over the Householder part. In our time and place, this is strange. Early retirement? Wrong career? dead-end career? are questions that come from getting caught up in the content of our situation and from overlooking the underlying pattern. the feelings that we encounter are best understood as signs of a life passage that has been stripped of its rites and tossed aside as no longer useful.

  4. The Final Chapter. Hindu’s called this Sannyasin as one who emerges from the Forest-Dweller with a much deeper understanding of life and the self than people have found in earlier phases. Once your identity was non-existent, then it was new and untried. It was only through transition that you let go of whatever you then thought was critical to hold on to, and then you waited a while so that whatever was to come next could emerge and become the new way and new identity to replace the old.

The business/task of this point is to help people to understand the great alternating current of life, the rhythm where

  1. being is followed by
  2. letting go, which is followed by
  3. emptiness, which is followed by
  4. renewed energy and purpose which is followed by
  5. being

It’s not necessarily salaried work, but it must return to society the fruits of those discoveries made during the third quarter of life.


The two questions you ask yourself whenever you are in transition:

  1. What is it time to let go in my own life right now?
  2. What is standing backstage, in the wings of my life, waiting to make its entrance? (The answer is something internal, subjective)

Questions that will help you explore the transition and its significance in the context of your life and career

  1. What are the indications that your work life is in transition (not change)? (where it’s time to let go of an idea, assumption, self-image, dream)
  2. What is the developmental context of this work life transition? If you had to put into words the personal and career issues that you are dealing with at this point in your life, what would they be? If you had to give a title to the chapter of your work life that is drawing to a close, what would it be? … then what is the title of the next chapter of your work life?
  3. Imagine that you are really old, from the vantage point of the future, was this present point in your life a time when it was a good idea to keep on in the same direction, or was it a time that cried on for change? aAnd if the latter, what kind of change was called for?

Part 2 The Transition Process Itself

Arnold van Gennep coined the term rites of passage as the way in which traditional societies structured life transitions. These ceremonial occasions consisted of three phases which he called separation, transition, and incorporation.

Rites do not transplant well. They are not techniques for doing something but lenses through which to magnify the experience of something.

Instead we rename these traditional rites as:

  1. Endings
  2. The Neutral Zone
  3. The New beginning

5. Endings

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets

The story about a man who came to talk about his second marriage and wasn’t interested in his wife’s view he was emotionally tied to his first wife. Told the story of two monks traveling through the countryside on a rainy season.

It was;t the new beginning that accounted for the confusion they were experiencing but rather the termination of their old lives.

Because of her view that disintegration meant malfunction, she assumed that what was needed was a way to repair her life, but she quickly came to see that no mere fixing up of things would suffice.

The five aspects of the natural ending experience:

  1. Disengagement: traditional believes that at times of inner transition people need to be separated from their familiar places in the social order, even if they believe as if they were not acting to disengage (e.g. Christ’s 40 day journey in wilderness; Theseus leaves Troetzen for ordeals in journey to Athens thinking he is going to Tarshish; Jonah flees his vocations and heads to sea; Oedipus leaves home to avoid fate that he meets along the way). Note: the person who has just been fired or lost a parent or had a heart attack is not in the frame of mind to listen to talk about symbolic events—and certainly not to hear that it may be “a gift in disguise.” Disappearance of the old system forces us to devise a new one, the way that a breakdown in the economic order might lead to barter. It is rather that as long as a system is working, it is very difficult for a member to imagine an alternative way of life and an alternative identity.
  2. Dismantling: Disengagement only stops the old signals and cues from being received. It leaves untouched the life infrastructre that you’ve constructed in response to those signals. (e.g. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief). There is a separate process (“mourning process”) that we don’t hear much about that is not so much emotional as cognitive. It is one which people gradually stop thinking themselves as part of a we, and start thinking of themselves as an I. This shift is often accompanied or punctuated by a good deal of emotion, but those feelings are reactions tot he process, not the process itself. Traditional displays of grief (vigil, wear black, ceremony) slowly dismantles or unpacks your relationship to that person, or the relationship or identity that you have lost.
  3. Disidentification: You also lose your old ways of defining yourself (e.g. divorcée said she had “lost her mirror”). An important element in most passage ceremonies: the removal of the old identity’s signs and the temporary assumption of a nonidentity which is represented by shaved heads, painted faces, masks, strange clothing or no clothing at all, or the abandonment of one’s old name. (Ex. when author retired, daughter asked what he did because they were chatting in school at what daddies do. This troubled him. As time went on, he grew more comfortable with what might be called a “participial” identity, identifying with ing words (gardening, writing, running, lecturing) rather than with nouns.) Being disidentified is an important part of the termination process because of the need to lose the bonds of the person we think we are so that we can go through a transition to a new identity.
  4. Disenchantment: her is still the reality in a person’s head—a picture of the “way things are,” which ties him to the old world with subtle strands of assumption and expectation. The sun will rise tomorrow, my mother loves me, the tribe will endure, the gods are just: These things are so, and if they are not, then my world is no longer real. The discovery that in some sense one’s world is indeed no longer real is what is meant. (historical ex. The Ndembu in Africa, Hopi youths, aboriginal Australia) (personal ex. no Santa Clause, parents lie, friends let you down). Old must be cleared away before the new can grow. The mind is a vessel that must be emptied if new wine is to be put in. The entire termination process violates our too-seldom examined idea that development means gain and has nothing to do with loss. The lesson of disenchantment begins with the discovery that if you want to change—really to change, and not just switch positions—you must realize that some significant part of your old reality was in your head, not out there. The thing that keeps this misperception in place is an “enchantment,” a spell cast by the past on the present. Most of the time, these enchantments work fairly well, but at life’s turning points they break down. Reality has many layers, non “wrong” but each appropriate to a particular phase of intellectual and spiritual development. Lacking that perspective (of looking underneath and being ready to understand more) on such experiences, however, we often missed the point and simply become “disillusioned.” The disenchanted person moves on, but the disillusioned person stops and goes through the play again with new actors. Such a person is on a perpetual quest for a real friend, a true mate, and a trustworthy leader.
  5. Disorientation: The “reality” that is left behind in all endings is not just a picture on the wall. It is a sense of which way is up and which way is down; it is a sense of which way is forward and which way is back. It is, in short, a way of orienting oneself and of moving forward in the future (Robert Frost’s “lost enough to find yourself.”) . First casualty of disorientation is likely to be our sense of (and plans for) the future. This loss of motive power and direction is frightening to many individuals and those around them, and it may in fact be dangerous in a practical sense if it threatens the essential arrangements of a person’s life. Disorientation is meaningful, but it isn’t enjoyable. This affects our sense of space and time.

The story of Oedipus:

Obviously, the riddle is about transition, but see it as a symbolic representation when we try to hold on to our old lives after we’ve outlived them, against the natural order of transition.

After he saved Thebes from the Sphinx, they asked him to be a ruler: They ask you not to change now. From home, from work, even from your own mind comes the appeal to continue being the one you’ve been. Don’t change. Do the old, familiar thing again. Just when you feel drawn toward new beginnings, powerful inner and outer forces are blocking the way. The dream is your life.

the oedipal situation is not the triangle of mother, father and child, but rather the situation of the adult who is torn between the developmental thrust that brings about life transition and the impulse toward repetition that aborts them. Viewed symbolically, the withinger crops and the stillborn creatures are the dying of an old life phase and the feelings of deadness that so often signal the start of the termination process.

See Oedipus killing his father on the road. Like many parents this mythic other blocked his son’s way and denied his right to emerge into his own.

(After he symbolically/literally played his father and became ruler). That phase of life (the heroic phase in mythic terms) was done and something else was ready to take its place. This natural and inexorable succession of life phases is the very point of the sphinx’s riddle. Oedipus knew the “answer” but failed to apply it in his own crucial and complex life situation.

The blight affecting Thebes: after a certain point the very ways of being that brought forth and sustained a life phase begin to destroy it.

After the Oracle told him to slay the murderer of the Laius, Oedipus announces he will find the man and banaish him. In the process, the hero slays “the hero” in himself. The goal of one phase of life becomes the burden of the next. That is why rites of passage begin with a symbolic death. Without that death, the life becomes “polluted,” as the oracle said the city of Thebes had become.

Also remember the sequel: Oedipus Rex. Sophocles meant us to see that after the death came a rebirth and a new way of being in the world. By the time we meet Oedipus again in Oedipus At Colonus, he has passed through the suffering of loss. He is the 3rd stage of the sphinx’s riddle: old but spiritually enlightened and a blessing to whatever town harbors him.

What is it time to let go of?

The changes in a transition are driven to reach a real goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in.

Whatever it is, it is internal. Of the five aspects of ending, only “disengagement” refers exclusively to external things.

Ex of change to avoid transition: storming out of job (“rotten, no-good boss!”) rather than discover what it is in themselves that keeps finding such bosses to work for. They end another (yet another!) relationship rather than let go of behaviors, attitudes, assumptions, and images of self or others that keep making relationships turn out this way.

The experience of ending

Endings begin with something going wrong. At Ismaros, Odysseus failed where he had always succeed before. At Thebes, Oedipus experience a subtler and more pervasive loss—a deadening, a withering, a loss of vitality.

Nor do the elements in an ending come in any particular order. Nor is there a normal order of reactions to an ending.

The point is that it is important to let yourself or others in transition experience an ending.

Endings are, let’s remember, experiences of dying. They are ordeals, and sometimes they challenge so basically our sense of who we are that we believe they will be the end of us.

In no rite or myth do we find the unitary death as something final, but always as a condition sine qua non of a transition to another mode of being, a trial indispensable of regeneration; that is, to bthe beginning of a new life.

6. The Neutral Zone

I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to the stillness. Do that which is consistent in taking no action; pursue that which is not meddlesome; savor that which has no flavor.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Modern society has lost appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence. For us, “emptiness” represents only the absence of something.

The neutral zone is meant to eb a moratorium from the conventional activities of your everyday existence. The actives of your ordinary life you “you” by presenting you with a set of signals that are difficult to respond to in any but the old way.

Reference to The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda being a westerner’s interaction with a neutral zone experience.

For many people, the breakdown of the old “enchantment” and the old self-image uncovers a hitherto unsuspected awareness. Too many people either deny this aspect of the neutral zone experience or else become overwhelmed by it. To deny it is to lose the opportunity it provides for an expanded sense of reality and a deepened sense of purpose. And to be overwhelmed by it is just as unfortunate., for you then have no way to integrate the experience with the rest of your life. Either way, the transition process fails to provide you with the enrichment that is one of its natural but almost forgotten gifts.

Leo Tolstoy:

I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped…And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any of the actions of my life. And I was surprised that I had not understood this from the very beginning. My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played upon me by someone…[I asked myself] what would be the outcome of what I do today? Of what I shall do tomorrow? What will be the outcomes of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything?


Surrender: accept your need for this time in the neutral zone — one must give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it. The process of transformation is essentially a death and rebirth process rather than a mechanical modification.

The process of disintegration and reintegration is the source of renewal (van Gennep). It is only by returning for a time to the formlessness of the primal energy that renewal can take place. We need it just the way that an apple tree needs the cold of winter.

The other reason for the neutral zone is the perspective it provides on the stages themselves. From the neutral zone, the realities of the everyday world look transparent and insubstational.

“what to do” consists not of ways out, but of ways in; that is, it involves ways of amplifying and making more real the essential neutral zone experience.


  1. The Trap of fast forward
  2. The Trap of Reverse.

Find a regular time and place to be alone. The Hebrew word for the “wilderness” of Jesus, Moses and Buddha is the same word that means “sanctuary.” (aka unnamable “nowhere” and holy ground).

Begin a log of neutral zone experiences. We need to translation the hieroglyphic (see quote below), and in doing so make sense of what we are experiencing. When you record your experience, you slow down and force yourself to put things into words. And out of the blur of your experience, shapes start to emerge.

Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Take this pause in the action of your life to write an autobiography. The past isn’t like a landscape or a vase of flowers that is just there. It is more like the raw material awaing a builder.

_ Take this opportunity to discover what you really want._

Think of what would be unloved in your life if it ended today. Endings are dying in one sense, the obituary is an appropriate statement about your past. As you and here in the emptiness of the neutral zone, what do you think and feel about the past?

Take a few days to go on your own version of a passage journey. Spend a few days alone during which you reflect consciously on the present transition process in your own life. The place should be an unfamiliar one and free of ordinary influences from your daily situation, as was the initiate’s journey of old. The simpler and quieter the setting, the more chance you will have to attend to your inner business. This retreat is a journey into emptiness and a time to cultivate receptivity. The more you leave behind, the more room you have to find something new. Keep a vigil during one of your nights.

Realize: The neutral zone is a time when the real business of transition takes place. It is a time when an inner reorientation and realignment are occurring, a time when we are making the all-but-imperceptible shift from one season of life to the next. Although such shifts cannot occur without an ending, and although they cannot bear fruit without a new beginning, it is in the neutral zone that the real work of transformation takes place.

The pattern of withdrawal and return (Arthur Toynbee): it is into some rabbit hole or cave or forest wilderness that creative individuals have always withdrawn of the eve of their rebirth. He found this in St. Paul. St. Benedict, Gregory the Great, the Buddha, Muhammad, machiavelli, and Dante.


  1. Surrender: Accept your need for this time in the neutral zone
  2. Find a regular time and place to be alone
  3. Begin a log of neutral zone experiences
  4. Take this pause in the action of your life to write an autobiography.
  5. Take this opportunity to discover what you really want.
  6. Think of what would be unloved in your life if it ended today.
  7. Take a few days to go on your own version of a passage journey.

7. You Finish with a New Beginning

He has half the deed done, who has
Made a beginning.
Horace, Epistles

We come to the beginnings only at the end.

For as a society views birth, so it will view rebirth. Just as our primal beginning is mechanized, so are all subsequent beginnings; they are viewed as occasions for getting things started again after they have stopped.

John Galsworthy wrote: “the beginnings… of all human undertakings are untidy.”

When we are ready to make a new beginning, we will shortly find an opportunity. The first hint may take the form of an inner idea or of an external opportunity, its hallmark being not a logical sign of validity but a “resonance” it sets up in us. Sometimes the hint comes in the form of a dream.

Genuine beginnings depend upon this kind of inner realignment rather than on external shifts, for it is when we are aligned with deep longings (the real wantings discussed in Ch. 5) that we become powerfully motivated.

Things often come down to money and time that people always say they can’t manage to launch a new beginning they dream of. Ex. Abraham Lincoln’s youth had a poverty of ambition, difficult marriage, mediocre Congressional term and terrible bouts of what today would be diagnosed as depression. It was out of that long neutral zone that he found seeds of his future and rapid rise to presidency. Other ex (Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Walt Whitman).

New beginnings are accessible to everyone, and everyone has trouble with them. (Some parts of us resist them; anxiety; confusion).

Often that trouble is hidden by those who have gone through them. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of her life @ 35: “Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are, and then we make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life, not even upper wpm child’s.” (what she doesn’t mention was she had become disenchanted and disoriented by the discovery of her husband’s affair with one of her most trusted friends).

Inner self that takes over when we threaten to go through transition process: some people it is activated whenever risk is involved; others experience the inner sabotage whenever they try to come in from the cold and settle down. One person’s safety involves inactivity and another’s involves perpetual motion; but either way, a new beginning upsets a long-standing arrangement.

Distinguish between a real new beginning in someone’s life and a simple defensive reaction to an ending.

There are two signs that are worth looking for before you start:

  1. The reaction of people who know you well: not whether they approve or diapprove but whether they see what you propose to do as something new or simply a replay of an old pattern.
  2. From the transition process itself: Have you really moved through endings into the neutral zone and found there the beginning you now want to follow, or is this “beginning” a way of avoiding an ending or aborting the neutral zone experience>

Genuine beginnings begin within us, even when they are brought to our attention by external opportunities.

Things to do to support this process:

  1. Stop getting ready and to act. “Getting ready” can turn out to be an endless task, and one of the forms that inner resistance can often take is an attempt to make just a few more (and then more, and again more) preparations.
  2. Begin to identify yourself with the final result of the new beginning. What is it going to feel like when you have actually done whatever it is that you are setting out to do? Experience yourself as one who can do things like that.
  3. Take things step by step and resist the siren song that sings about some other route where everything goes smoothly and events are always exciting and meaningful. The things you need to do may seem dull compared to the goal, but this is the trivia from which vital new ventures emerge.

The inner beginnings are still going on. At such a time, people often say, “I guess I’m just not used to this new situation yet,” but it would be more accurate to say that “I’m not quite fully the new person yet—but I’m getting there.” It is a time to be gentle with yourself or with the other person, a time of the little supports and indulgences that make things easier. And it is time to acknowledge that, as much as we long for them, new beginnings can be things to be resisted just as much as the loss-filled ending and the ambiguous and frustrating neutral zone were.

Not everything vanishes in the ending process, of course, and some people find it important to experience the continuities in their lives when so much else is changing.

The transition process is really a loop in the life journey, a going out and away from the main flow for a time and then a coming around and back. The neutral zone is meant to be only a temporary state. It is, as they say, a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Inwardly and outwardly, one comes home. As a wonderful Zen saying expresses it, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”


Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The story of Psyche

(Oracle said Psyche must dressed for a funeral and abandoned): In stories one does not ask why, for everything goes according to a plan that is patterned on life itself. the oracle is saying that no new time of life is possible without the death of the old lifetime. To gain, you first must give up.

(After Amor spirits her away to his castle) As always happens, an ending clears the ground for a new beginning. In this story, the person did little—everything just happened. Some transitions are like that. They just happen. But when they happen this way, something is missing. The outer situation has taken shape, but the inner state remains unchanged. The old outlook, the old self-image, the old value system remain intact. Outwardly, the change is complete by the real transition process has hardly begun.

(Psyche seeks a peek at her lover and accidentally wakes him up) Losses happen because it is time to let go of that way of being connected. Psyche had live din the darkness for long enough, and it was now time for her to see. Yet the change was a violation of the old rules, and it destroyed the old situation,. It was time for her to change—to grow and deepen, to take responsibility for who and where she was. It was time for the inner changes to catch up with the outer ones.

(Given impossible tasks by Aphrodite) The first time was passive—it had all just happened to her. Now, however, she was ready to act—but the tasks! they were impossible ones! She tried to do them, but then she had to give up.

What are the ants and reeds and the eagle? Whydoes something appear to help Psyche each time she has given up hope? The “helpful creature” is a common element in folklore and dreams, and it corresponds to some instinctive and subtrational level of insight and energy. the tasks of transition are not, it seems, of the sort that one can consciously set out to accomplish. Yet neither are they taen care of in the automatic fashion of Psyche’s original and outer transition on the mountaintop. Now she must struggle and even exhaust herself before help arrives—almost as though it is only when one is at the end of one’s resources that new and hitherto unsuspected powers appear.

(Her trip to the underworld). Most significant transitions—the sort of inner change that Psyche is dealing with—involve a time in hell. You go down before you come up. And most of these journeys must be taken alone. All our habits of caring for others (and seeing ourselves as people who care for others) become self-defeating. We need to resist the old impulses to take care of others and instead to pay attention during this time to what we are doing and why we are doing it. We are going where we have to go if we are to do the god’s bidding. Having left behind a life we have outgrown, we must continue the transition process to find our new life.

(Psyche peeks in the box and is overcome) That is how it is in the wilderness of the neutral zone: One encounters there forms of energy and insight that are life transforming, but also just barely supportable.

Happily ever after… or until the next major life transition, whichever came first.


vitiate: There is a danger that what I am saying about disoriteantion and the ending process in general will become merely a rationalization or an anesthetic for personal distress: “Hey isn’t that wonderful! I just bumped into a tree. I must be disorieted!” To do that is to deny the real experience and to vitiate the transition. Disorientation is meaningful, but it isn’t enjoyable.

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