Once the hero of the Hero’s Journey has left home and met with at least one helper, Joseph Campbell tells us it’s not long before he reaches the first threshold. Up to this point, he’s been in fairly familiar territory or at least not ventured into the really scary places. Now comes the first test. In life, this is when we take the first firm steps away from the familiar and get into a zone that causes us discomfort.

Empowerment

Campbell describes this as “the zone of magnified power.” The whole point of leaving home and venturing into the unknown is empowerment. It already begins once we leave a situation that’s maximized our growth potential. Or the situation could be a bad one that stunts our growth, like an abusive relationship or dead-end job.

Myths represent this place as one of deep, dark secrets: a desert, forest, jungle, cave, depths of the sea, or unknown land with unknown creatures. Often the hero has heard rumors about it and been warned not to go there. In life, we may actually be encouraged to go there, like college or a better job situation, but it’s still that place with deep, dark secrets.

The Unconscious

Psychologically, Cambell says these “are free fields for the projection of unconscious content.” He unfortunately goes on to talk about Freud’s Oedipal complex as if it was a normal developmental process (i.e., having sex with Mom and killing Dad), involving conflicts with the father taking away the mother’s attention from the child, which I think is nonsense modern therapists recognize is only relevant in some cases (edited February 11, 2012, for clarity: Thanks Matt!). The book was published in 1949, after all! The concept, however, of the unknown place as a dumping ground for unconscious material is still meaningful.

We’ve often heard the saying that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Our brain can conjure up scarier monsters than actually exist in real life. In some cases, we do well to prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario. Say a battered wife needs to leave her abusive husband. If she doesn’t think about the possible things he could do to drag her back, she may find herself in a dangerous situation.

But much of what our imagination doles out can get in the way of progress unless we deal head-on with it. This is what crossing the first threshold, psychologically, is about. Until we look closely at the dark stuff that stands in our way, we may not realize exactly why we can’t progress. We may make excuses of limited time, money, energy, or choices when really we’re suppressing our will to overcome all odds and make things better for ourselves.

We have to cross thresholds into the darkness of the mind throughout our lives. Does it get any easier? I think it does because we learn to surrender. Here we go again. Get ready to feel crappy. But the passage through the dark place always brings light and strength.