Chapter 4- What to Do in Neutral Zones

Sorry to break it to you, but the advice on “what to do” while in neutral zones does not contain any ways out. On the contrary, it contains ways in. To get out, you need to amplify the essential neutral zone experience. The experience will stay with you, until what needs to be learnt is learnt. As Kenny Rogers beautifully sang, transitions feel like “[dropping] in to see in what condition my condition was in”.

Here are some tips to promote your thinking, as suggested by Bridges in his book Transitions.

  • Accept your need for this time in the neutral zone.
    • Understand why you are in this situation, why your life seems stuck while changes are happening around you. This is needed in order to avoid traps of one-step-forward-two-steps-back with half thought ideas and half thought actions. Your life cannot be pushed back to what it once was. You cannot un-know what you now know.
  • Find a regular time and place to be alone.
    • People in transition are still involved in activities and relationships. As such, they find themselves being subjected to noise or interference. Aloneness is necessary to tune in to the new signals appearing, to hear your thoughts. I am in no way proposing letting go of relationships. I am arguing for the fact that even in relationships you can find ways and times to be alone with your thoughts.
  • Begin a log of neutral zone experiences.
    • The important experiences of neutral zones are often difficult to recognise. However, if you note them down and look back, they might stand out. When I had a similar conversation with some of my clients they were confused and frustrated: “But nothing is happening, that is the problem. I am nowhere and I want to get somewhere…don’t you understand??”.
    • The point of this exercise is to resist the urge to imagine that what is needed is external to us. When you record your experience, you slow it down and force yourself to put it in words. As you do this, shapes start to form out of blurry experiences. Consider the following guiding questions:
      • What was really going on, or what was trying to happen?
      • What was your mood?
      • What were you thinking about perhaps without realising it?
      • What puzzling things happened?
      • What decisions do you wish you could have made?
  • Take up the time by writing your own autobiography.
    • Why do this? Because at times, when you see where you’ve been you can tell where you’re heading, or where you want to go. Whenever something ends, reminiscence helps us review it, and put it into order.
    • From the perspective of a new present, the past is likely to look different. The past is not a drawing of a landscape that is just there. For example, a client was reflecting on a confusing young adulthood experience. When the client was 15 his grandfather died. At that time, his mother was away on a business trip, and his father was grieving. When he asked his younger sibling about this, the sibling remembered that their parents had an argument before the mother left. The sibling also disclosed wondering whether the trip was really a separation. During this conversation he recalled that maybe it was a separation, because he was unexpectedly sent to visit a relative during that summer. That summer was a real crossroad to my client’s life, despite the fact that he didn’t know it then. As this example highlights, you can’t explore your life story without seeing it change. Things that you haven’t remembered in years pop up, and things you thought were just so, turn out to be not so at all. If the past is not what you thought it was, the present isn’t either.
  • Take this opportunity to discover what you really want.
    • What is it that you want? Typically, we want something but cannot get it. In times of transition the change, which is often very evident, is the fact that our circumstances, which were perceived as limiting change or come to an end. This might be dramatic, or sudden but as a result, we are no longer held back. In the past, one might have said “I always wanted to paint, but I don’t have the time with a full-time job and responsibilities”. Once the limiting factors are removed (the job) the want (painting) is not considered as an option. The mind might be preoccupied with the absence of work, and the question often becomes: if only I know what I wanted. Reflecting during transitions for this person might be a process of considering if painting could be the new career of choice.
    • What we want is often far less clear than we usually imagine. For some wanting might be “peppered” with ambivalence or guilt. For some their wants might have been historically polluted. For example, as children we might have heard that we are selfish or that we are never satisfied regardless of what we wanted and whether we received it. Examples of this include:
      • You don’t really want that; or
      • Are you sure you want that?;
      • When you’re older, you’ll realise;
    • So here we are, in a position to get a piece of the pie we always wanted. Instead of the positive feelings one might have expected to feel, there is confusion and great uncertainty. How can you move on from this difficulty and use your wants to orient your actions for your present and future?
      • For example, on the very simple topic of “What would you like to have for dinner” how do you come up with an answer?
      • Do you just consult your mouth and stomach? Do you imagine a menu and run over the possibilities? Hamburger…no…I had that yesterday, ice-cream…yes…no…it’s not the “normal” dinner option.
      • Did you come up with an answer and then rejected it for being silly or strange?
    • Work on identifying your wants and stay away from prioritising, rationalising in your efforts to come up with an answer. Remember, you don’t have to do anything about the wanting. You just need to be aware of it.
  • Think of what would be unlived in your life If it ended today. Imagine you started your day as you normally would. Unfortunately, you fall, suffer a heart failure and die. It’s all over. Your life is finished. Whatever you have done so far, is what will people remember you by. Now imagine you are a friend who needs to write your obituary. What would you write about yourself? How about the things you did and didn’t do with the lifetime you had at your disposal? Now that you find yourself in the neutral zone, what do you think and feel about the past? What dreams, convictions, talents, ideal qualities you possess went unrealised?

Without the drive of “figuring things out”, the experience of being in transition is only seen as confusion that needs to be fixed or ironed out. It is after all a lonely journey in which our only companion is ourselves. But we are not alone in travelling in such journeys. Historically, important figures have always withdrawn for their rebirth. Such figures include but are not limited to St. Paul, the Buddha, Muhamad, Machiavelli. Our own lives might be very different, and our moments of discovery might be less grand, but the patterns of self-transformation are the same. Maybe, if we think of our pasts, we might discover that the pattern of withdrawal and return was relived.