You want to heal; you want to be transformed. You begin the slow ascent, and as you rise feel as though you're passing through the birth canal, the threshold nepantla.
THIS STATEMENT, THOUGH written almost twenty years ago, seems entirely appropriate for the present time. Here we are, a little more than one year into a global pandemic, people’s anxiety spinning out of control–and for many good reasons. The cosmos calls out, inviting us to transform–forcing us to change.
Gloria Anzaldúa's theory of nepantla can speak to this moment; it offers clues and an approach (though not a solution) for how we can heal, how we can work thoughtfully with our current situations to effect transformation.
In what follows, I interweave Anzaldúa’s words with my own, offering three nepantla lessons for transformation. But let’s begin with nepantla itself—as Anzaldúa defines it.
In nepantla we undergo the anguish of changing our perspectives and crossing a series of cruz calles, junctures, and thresholds, some leading to a different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world.
“Nepantla,” the Nahuatl word for “in-between”: Anzaldúa takes this word and deeply lives it, bringing into the theory her esoteric studies; her research in liminality and Nahua philosophy; her bouts with depression; her struggles with Type I diabetes; her experiences of alienation (of feeling, literally, nonhuman); her complex mestizaje ethnic/cultural/sexual/gender identity; her activist work and encounters with racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression; and much more. She develops a multilayered theory of transformation in which nepantla plays a starring role.
Nepantla represents complex, synergistic non/temporal points of uncertainty, contradiction, and risk. (In astrological terms, perhaps we could say that nepantla represents Uranian energy.†) Nepantla hurts! It speaks to the chaos in our lives, our thought, our world. And yet, as Anzaldúa’s association of nepantla with thresholds suggests, nepantla also offers opportunities for change. But how do we work with nepantla’s (painful) opportunities? How do we transform–ourselves and our worlds? Fortunately, Anzaldúa has traveled this path before us; diving into her theory can offer us clues.
Only when you emerge from the dead with soul intact can you honor the visions you dreamed in the depths. In the deep fecund cave of gestation lies not only the source of your woundedness and your passion, but also the promise of inner knowledge, healing, and spiritual rebirth (the hidden treasures), waiting for you to bear them to the surface.
Lesson #1: Have faith in our inner wisdom, our soul’s visions.
Even as we’re wandering in nepantla, trapped in uncertainty and perhaps paralyzed by fear—we also have a deep inner wisdom, our divine guidance, or what Anzaldúa here refers to as “soul.” Although the situation can be incredibly bleak, filling us with despair, Anzaldúa reminds us to have confidence that our internal guidance remains intact, though deeply hidden in the shadows.
Believe in “the promise of inner knowledge.” When we do so, when we dive into the shadows, we allow our soul’s dreams and visions—“(the hidden treasures)”—to appear. Patience and faith function here as invitation, grounded in Anzaldúa’s reminder that the source of profound wounding and deep points of pain is also the source of great creativity and insight. (Anzaldúa’s entire life is instructive here, as is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of feeding our demons.)
En este lugar entre medio, nepantla, two or more forces clash and are held teetering on the verge of chaos, a state of entreguerras. These tensions between extremes create cracks or tears in the membrane surrounding, protecting, and containing the different cultures and their perspectives. Nepantla is the place where at once we are detached (separated) and attached (connected) to each of our several cultures. Here the watcher on the bridge (nepantla) can “see through” the larger symbolic process that’s trying to become conscious through a particular life situation or event. Nepantla is the midway point between the conscious and the unconscious, the place where transformations are enacted. Nepantla is a place where we can accept contradiction and paradox.
Lesson #2: Embrace contradiction.
When we acknowledge nepantla, we embrace the contradictions that nepantla represents and contains: Wounds can heal and be healed (though scars remain). Coyolxauhqui, though torn asunder into over 1000 pieces, can bring wholeness.‡ We can be, simultaneously, detached and attached to our various cultures/families/allies/enemies/friends.
As we sit patiently with these contradictions, they mingle and interact synergistically, creating something new. Patience is crucial: Though insights might occur in a flash, they do so only after much attentive waiting and careful reflection. Breathe with the contradictions. Observe, listen, learn, and then listen some more.
Our perspective’s stability relies on liminality and fluidity... The nepantla mind-set eliminates polarity thinking where there’s no in between, only “ either/or”; it reinstates “and.” Because our perceptions and thinking contain subtle and hidden biases, we need a nepantla brain to prompt the questioning of our usual assumptions and beliefs. Such a brain would facilitate our ability to look at the world with new eyes. Navigating the cracks is the process of reconstructing life anew, of fashioning new identities.
Lesson #3: Activate the “nepantla brain.”
When we have faith in our soul’s wisdom and sit patiently with the contradictions, we activate the “nepantla brain” that Anzaldúa refers to in this passage. One of her least developed theories, the nepantla brain represents a startling, relational mode of thought that awakens whenever we can sit with the contradictions and hold paradox with patience, curiosity, and faith. (Faith here refers to the confidence that these contradictions have secrets to reveal.)
When we activate our nepantla brains, we don’t pick sides but instead take in all sides; we sit with the cacophony (the conflicting experiences and views) and allow the new insights to arise; we make decisions from this holistic, relational perspective. We reconstruct “life anew;” we transform ourselves and our worlds—very slowly, step by painful step.