When you answer the call of your soul in the affirmative and begin the transition from ordinary life into Act II of your Hero’s Journey, there will be those who will show up as allies to help you make the transition and those who will show up as adversaries, attempting to block your path and, thereby, test your strength and resolve. Joseph Campbell referred to the former as Mentors and the latter as Guardians of the Threshold.
Guardians of the Threshold
Since embarking on your Hero’s Journey and successfully engaging in the process requires that you be on intimate terms with the full depth and breadth of your very human emotions, it is often people who are uncomfortable with their own feelings, especially those involving vulnerability, who will try to stop you in your tracks as you’re attempting to cross the threshold into Act II.
In my case, it was two of my siblings who functioned in the role of “The Grief Police,” as I referred to them at the time. From them, I typically heard things like, “Dad’s been dead for ten years now. Get over it!” and “Stop wallowing!” My mother functioned as a threshold guardian, too, at times, though with the best of intentions, no doubt expressing her own ancestral wounding when she counseled me to keep my head down and my dreams small. Otherwise, she said, “You’ll become a target and people will attack you.” A very strong anti-intellectual bias prevailed in my maternal family tree, as well. Consequently, every step I took in the direction of cultivating my intellect felt like a huge act of betrayal.
I quickly learned it wasn’t safe to let my guard down and be myself with my family, in general, so I stayed away for many years, focusing instead on the relationships that allowed me to be bold and live my biggest, most outside-the-box dreams.
Meeting the Mentors
Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, in human form and otherwise. Ultimately, they serve as midwives as you travel down the birth canal and are reborn into a more authentic, soul-centered life. In my own case, there were two people, in particular, who played the role of mentor for me during the transformation I underwent in my mid-twenties. The first was the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, whose bestselling classic Be Here Now was a complete revelation, reminding me of everything I had always known but somehow forgotten.
I didn’t become aware of Be Here Now until 1977, but once I was exposed to Ram Dass’ eloquent words of wisdom and shining example, it quickly became a life line for me, a New Age Bible of sorts, inspiring me with the courage and insight I needed in order to take my first tentative steps forward, into the life I was destined to live. If Ram Dass could wake up to the present moment in such a radical way, I knew it was possible I might do the same.
The second and even more significant mentor was my beloved professor of Asian Religions at the University of Oregon, Dr. Hee-Jim Kim. I had the good fortune to become acquainted with professor Kim at the age of 25, shortly after the mystical awakening I described in my previous blog. Seeking to understand that profound experience, I had been guided eventually to his Intro to Zen Buddhism class. Sitting in the front row listening intently to his description of the teaching of “dependent co-origination,” my mind and heart exploded once again and I knew I had found my spiritual home.
For the next eight years, through the many ups and downs of my undergrad and grad school days as a Religious Studies major at the U of O, professor Kim was my touchstone. I took every class he taught, spent hours in his office asking probing questions, was his teaching assistant for two years, and, ultimately, edited two of his books, both classics in the field of Zen Buddhist studies. At his urging, I even took up meditation and spent a year on a foreign exchange program, studying and practicing Zen in Japan.
In retrospect, I realize I finally, fully settled into the main act of my Hero’s Journey sometime in my late twenties. By then, I had said YES to the call of my soul consistently and insistently enough that I had reached the point of no return. I had demonstrated my commitment. I had walked my talk. There was no going back.
Since then, many other allies and adversaries have made appearances on the stage of my personal story, all of them delivering messages and life lessons that have helped shape the person I have come to be. Those who presented themselves during that tenuous and treacherous Crossing of the Threshold moment, however, are the most worthy of note, which is why they warrant their own blog, along with their special designations as Mentors and Guardians.
(Stay tuned for my next blog on Act II: Trials and Triumphs.)