Last week I wrote about the ShiftingThinking tool of understanding transitions, and about how mourning what we’re leaving behind is so important (you can read about Endings, and about the tools in general in past posts). Today I’d like to write about the second stage of William Bridges’ Transitions: the Neutral Zone. I think that maybe this is the most helpful part of the theory, a part that has supported and sustained me though the major changes in my life, and has helped me support and sustain clients through the major transitions for them. For me, the idea of the Neutral Zone is a thing to hold on to when so much else that you might hold on to has dropped away.
The Neutral Zone is a place where we can’t see where we’ve come from and we can’t see where we’re headed. I think about crossing the Rimutaka Range from Wellington into the Wairarapa. There is a long and windy and car-sickness-inducing time where you can’t see the Hutt valley and you can’t see the Wairarapa. You’re just winding around, hoping it won’t snow or rain and that the children don’t throw up! There is beauty in the Neutral Zone but it is a wild, untamed beauty, an uncomfortable place where you can’t find a clear idea of what’s next for you.
The Neutral Zone is like the liminal spaces at the edges of landscapes, where one thing turns into another. There’s the marsh that separates the meadow from the river, the rocky shore where the sea hits the land. Some life is designed specifically for these liminal places, and my children and I take great delight in searching for this life as we wander around the edges of New Zealand. There is new possibility in these spaces which are neither here nor there, neither the sea nor the land.
But for us humans, the Neutral Zone is a place of discomfort, a place where the water splashes up over us enough to keep us damp but not enough for us to warm in the sea. It is the place where you know that you do not want to be a lawyer anymore, but you have no idea what you want to be. You do not want to be married to her anymore, but you also don’t want to be not married. You have mourned the loss of the lovely sense of power and control you’ll have to give up for these new forms of teaching, but you have no idea, practically, what you’re moving to in the end or what schools will look like.
The comfort of knowing about the discomfort of the Neutral Zone is the reassurance that every transition has this uncomfortable time, and that the time is generative, is like the spring weather which we’re grateful for when the hills turn neon green and our broad beans grow faster than we can tie them up. You might not enjoy days of rain, followed by showers, turning to the south on Thursday. But you know that the rain will end and the sky will be washed clear and turn cobalt blue, that the wet spring will give way to a drier summer and that the seasons will move with some consistency into the future (or so we hope).
Our changes into a new way of having school will have this uncomfortable feel as well. When we begin to give up–really give up—old ways of teaching and learning, we’ll have a time of trying things out and feeling unsure about them, feeling a qualified success or a horrible failure. From my perspective as a researcher and a teacher, I understand that this time must come. From my perspective as a mother of school-age children, I would love it if the time had come 15 years ago and we could have worked out the bugs already.
So we’ll have to help other people understand about the Neutral Zone too, understand about the richness of the transition, about the great benefits in terms of creativity and growth as well as the concerns over not really knowing what’s next. The danger of this period is not, actually, that we’ll get stuck in it forever (which is what it feels like when you’re inside it). The danger is that we won’t spend enough time in it, that we’ll leap out of it toward any new beginning at all (in relationships we call this “on the rebound”) or that we’ll fall back into the past because the Neutral Zone is too uncomfortable. And it all feels too hard anyway. We need to support ourselves and one another in the exciting and unsettling Neutral Zone, to hold fast to our dreams for the future, and learn like mad. It’s only then that we’ll make it through to the other side transformed and stronger and better than we were before. In New Zealand, you should know this better than any other country. Here you’re on the edge of the world, with a country that has landscapes that move from desert to mountain to sea in the blink of an eye, with a culture that blends and changes and shifts and attempts to find the creative and beautiful space that exists as Maori and Pasifika and Pakeha and other cultures bump up against one another. So here in New Zealand, we should be more prepared to step off into the wilderness, to get off the road and walk in the bush. We know about uncertain weather and seasons and heat in a valley which turns to snow on the mountain. Bring supplies for you and a friend and plenty of layers because the weather is uncertain, but let’s not let that stop us. Let’s take the plunge.