You’ve seen the rectangular shadows underneath the neighboring stalls. You’ve heard the accidental video introduction followed by the quick suppression of the volume. You’ve become familiar with text notifications in-between flushing toilets.
A bathroom is a weird place for a phone.
It just goes to show how deep our addiction to smartphones goes — but I’m not setting out to make a critique against smartphone use. I’m here to make an argument in defense of liminal space.
Do you remember what you did in the bathroom before you had a smartphone? (Depending on your age, you may not.) If you planned ahead you maybe brought a book or magazine with you. If your bodily functions caught you off guard or in a public place, however, you were just stuck staring at the wall or trying to find hidden patterns in the floor tiles while sitting in the bathroom stall.
While this staring at the floor might sound like a waste of time or a missed opportunity, I think it is quickly becoming one of our rarest and most precious commodities.
Spaces of Possibility
Liminal refers to an intermediate zone, space in-between, or a threshold. It is a state of possibility and unknowns. It is the waiting area between one point and the next.
There is a lot of research surrounding the importance of liminal space and creativity. This is why a lot of people think of their best ideas in the shower. It is difficult to multi-task in the shower. As a result, the mind is left free to make subconscious connections and bring them into consciousness. There aren’t many spaces in life like this.
Normally our minds are actively put to use through our work or some task we are dedicating ourselves to. If not deliberate work, it is some sort of distraction like social media, newsfeeds, games, forums, or anything of the sort. Even in the relatively personal and quiet space of a morning commute in a personal vehicle tends to be filled with music, radio, or podcasts. Very rarely is our mind left to idle without a real direct purpose or task.
Except in bathroom stalls, perhaps.
There are other moments that can cultivate this state of liminality, but the regularity of the bathroom (pun intended) is unmatched. Personally, my creativity flares when I ride my bike to work. I don’t wear earphones. I just enjoy noticing the changes in the seasons as I ride along. With no intention or effort, all sorts of ideas for stories and creative projects pop into my head. The irony is that when I try to stop and take a note on my phone, they tend to dissipate. I’ve learned to trust that the good ideas will stick and resurface later.
Productivity Can Block Creativity
I have a hard time trusting someone who cannot stand at the urinal without pulling out their phone. To me, it says, “I’m not in control of myself, I lack introspection, and my creativity is deeply repressed.”
Of course, I’m being facetious, sort of, but what does it mean if someone can’t even stare at the wall for 60 seconds without resisting the impulse to pull out their phone?
Sometimes what we perceive as being productive or making the best of our time is actually very thing preventing us from making spontaneous connections. Some of our greatest inventors were also avid walkers and spent hours a day strolling about. There are many stories of people working on a problem for years only to have a dream one night that provides them with the answer they’ve been looking for. Unplanned space is vital for creativity.
Liminal space is rare and becoming more difficult to find every day. Even meditation doesn’t quite do the trick. Depending on one’s approach, meditation often is trying to block out all conscious thoughts and distractions. Or a guided meditation might direction one’s thoughts in a particular direction. These are both great, but they are not liminal space. Liminal space has no purpose or focus. It is a waiting area between one moment and the next.
Some people talk about hotel hallways and empty parking lots as physical representations of liminal space. These are all necessary spaces where nothing happens, but from which anything can happen.
An airplane take-off is one of my favorite liminal spaces. Everyone is forced to put their devices and distractions away. They just have to sit there bouncing in their seats while staring out the window, closing their eyes, or staring at the back of the seat in front of them. What is everyone thinking about? What discoveries are being made? What realizations are brought about?
Acts of Resistance
I think smartphone addiction is like smoking addiction. People say they could stop anytime. They don’t need it, they just enjoy it. The reality is that they are physiologically and biologically addicted to this little rectangular thing that they carry with them everywhere they go.
It is an act of counter-cultural resistance to go to the bathroom without your phone in hand and stare at the floor.
You might just find yourself on the threshold of a personal breakthrough.