Christopher Vogler wrote a wonderful book entitled “The Writer’s Journey” in which he explains the practical application of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey (explored in his work “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”) on story writing. Essentially, the Hero’s Journey is an archetype for all stories. The hero (protagonist) leaves his familiar environment, confronts challenges and then returns as a stronger and more integrated person. This theme seems to undergird all stories that resonate with people. There are many parts to the Hero’s Journey including various plot points and archetypical characters. The one archetypical character that I would like to explore here is the “Threshold Guardian.”
The Threshold Guardian is important because it is emblematic of a force in life that we encounter all the time. Vogler states:
At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies. (1)
It seems often the case that these Threshold Guardians manifest themselves in life as fears. Or perhaps it would be better to say they manifest themselves as forces which give rise to fear. Because fear is a highly subjective experience, every person will experience Threshold Guardians unique to them.
I have been thinking about this subject as it relates to public speaking. There are three basic steps to public speaking as I see it. First, the speaker must research and write a speech on a particular topic. Second, the speaker must practice the performance of the speech and perfect it as much as possible. Third, the speaker must actually perform the speech in front of other people. Public speaking is a unique process because it requires the public speaker to confront his own fears on many levels. In my experience, there are Threshold Guardians exploiting these fears and guarding entry for each step in this process.
Threshold Guardians seem to manifest themselves in four basic forms. Many times, they are a combination of two or more of these manifestations. They are:
- The Mocking Threshold Guardian will appear as a critical or shame inducing interior voice. This entity may tell the speaker that he is unworthy or not smart enough to do what he is attempting to do. It may convince him that what he is trying to do is a mistake or wrong or will result in embarrassment or the disapproval of others. It is important to note that this entity is very risk averse and will try to prevent the speaker from taking a risk. Often it is focused on the near term. Following the advice of a Mocking Threshold Guardian is usually a bad choice because people learn by making mistakes and if a speaker is too cautious and too risk averse then he never makes mistakes and thus never has the opportunity to learn from them. However, this entity is also tricky in that it may cloak its “advice” as well meaning or protective. The challenge for any public speaker when confronted with this entity is to determine what is actually good advice and what is merely an attempt to derail progress.
- The Vicious Threshold Guardian will appear as an obsessive, self-destructive or addictive tendency. I often experience this entity when I sit down to work and then am overcome by the desire to think about something unrelated to my work that depresses me or makes me anxious (e.g., finances, other people who annoy me or otherwise occupy my attention). This entity can also manifest itself as a compulsion to engage in an activity that is addictive in nature. When a person gives into this entity and engages in the behavior suggested by it, it is often an attempt to escape or push away a fear. Following the instructions of this entity will often result in a feeling of shame or disgust and it is never successful in eliminating the fear. Often it has the opposite effect in the long term. For the way to eliminate a fear is to confront it willingly. The goal of this Threshold Guardian is to distract the public speaker from the task at hand.
- The Sabotaging Threshold Guardian typically appears as something that goes wrong in the external world which then leads a person to become angry and fixated on that problem. In the world of public speaking this can often be a PowerPoint presentation not working or the room is too hot inducing sweaty palms etc. It is anything that is out of the speaker’s control that goes wrong and then creates a negative mood (anger, hopelessness, annoyance) that dominates the speaker’s reality to the exclusion of the task that he or she is trying to accomplish.
- The Hungry Ghost Threshold Guardian will typically appear as another person who depletes the speaker of his or her energy. This entity comes off as overly needy or a victim requiring your attention or sympathy. Often, they will make a person feel as if he or she has been caught doing something they should not be doing. Hungry Ghosts may also make a person feel selfish or ashamed because they are not focusing their attention on them or giving them the approval they wish to receive. One telltale sign of a Hungry Ghost is that they are never satisfied. They may present themselves as needing one particular thing, but usually when they have that need “satisfied” there is another need that follows. Sometimes, the Hungry Ghost will possess you and making you act as a Hungry Ghost to other people.
If one wishes to master these Threshold Guardians, it is first important to become aware of them and recognize them when they appear. To this point, one characteristic common to all the Threshold Guardians is that they make a person feel worse about themselves when they let the Threshold Guardian control their reality. When you notice this happening (especially when you are trying to accomplish a task) you can assume that you have encountered a Threshold Guardian that must then be contended with. Vogler describes it thusly:
[Y]ou have probably encountered resistance when you try to make a positive change in your life. People around you, even those who love you, are often reluctant to see you change. They are used to your neuroses and have found ways to benefit from them. The idea of your changing may threaten them. If they resist you, it’s important to realize they are simply functioning as Threshold Guardians, testing you to see if you are really resolved to change. (2)
In the beginning, it will be sufficient to simply recognize the Threshold Guardians when they appear and then form the intention to not let them control your reality. You may even want to preemptively formulate the intention to not allow them into your reality by saying out loud or in your thoughts “I do not allow these Threshold Guardians to enter my reality.” But once you attune your awareness to their existence and gain some distance from them, the next step is to learn from them.
As stated earlier, every Threshold Guardian is unique to the speaker (or hero) experiencing it. This means when a Threshold Guardian mocks you, it is mocking you with language designed to have an impact upon you. When it introduces obsessive, self-destructive or addictive ideas into your mind, these are ideas that will be attractive to you based upon your own psychology and history. When it sabotages you, it will do so in a way that will trigger you uniquely. When Hungry Ghosts try to steal your energy, they will be people in your reality. When you act as an agent of a Hungry Ghost, you will do so to the people in your reality. For this reason, these entities have something to teach you about yourself. They would not be in your reality if they did not have some special connection with you and a unique lesson to teach you.
When you feel you have reached the stage where you separate yourself from these Threshold Guardians you can then begin to work with them. Tell them you are a sovereign being and do not allow them to control your reality. Tell yourself, that you are open to learn from them, discover their origin, why they exist and what you need to do in order to master them. When you dismiss them from your reality you may also want to compassionately wish them free from suffering. Because any malevolent force practices its malevolence because it is suffering and unaware on some level.
With practice you will find that you have gained distance from these Threshold Guardians. In a sense you will have transformed them from a foe into an ally and they will no longer block your path forward as they once did. As a public speaker, you will not allow their mocking to make you feel unworthy to speak before an audience. You will not be as susceptible to obsessive distractions when you are working on your speech. When problems arise in the execution of your speech, you will be more resilient and able to think on the fly in order to create a workaround. When Hungry Ghosts vie for your attention and make you feel guilty for not giving it to them you can begin to have compassion for their suffering and not take it personally.
Obviously, these Threshold Guardians present themselves in contexts outside of public speaking. And I have found these techniques to be effective in managing them throughout my daily life. Managing Threshold Guardians, in a very real sense, constitutes our own hero’s journey which when successfully navigated will allow you to return from your adventure to your familiar environment a stronger and more integrated version of yourself.
(1) Vogler Christopher, The Writer’s Journey, Studio City, CA, Michael Wiese Productions, 2007, pg. 49.
(2) Vogler, pg. 51.