The Path of Transformation

The Path of Transformation June 9, 2018

Transformation. Real change. It’s the hardest thing in the world, and the best reason to step onto the path of magic.

I am not talking about turning into an eagle and flying away. Whether such adventures are possible or impossible is a matter of phenomenology. As always in magic, “I experienced it” is not the same as “it happened.” Or, maybe it is. Either way, it is a parlor trick compared to the deeper work.(1)

How did I come to magic? My life was a wreck. I was on a bad path, destined to end in a terrible mishap. But I refused to accept that fate.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (American Bald Eagle), via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (American Bald Eagle), via Wikimedia Commons

We come to magic to change our lives. The challenge is not to soar with the angels or the eagles, but to awaken to our complete selves. The study of magic is nothing more or less than the Path of Transformation.


The Story Thus Far

Most people, normal people, are unhappy with their lives in ways that are beyond their ability to describe. Though they ascribe this feeling to a thousand circumstances in the outside world, the feeling is at its root inside of us.

The unhappiness of life is not brought on by poverty or illness or loss. Yes, I know, these things suck. I’m not saying they are not real; I have done all of them. And they suck because we feel powerless to face them.

Our culture teaches us only poorly how to survive in geography of the real — the world that exists under the one we experience in the everyday. But truthfully, what we are taught is good enough for most people to get on with their lives. In other words, the path of magic is not for everyone.

But magic is necessary for some people. It is as necessary to us as clean water and solid food.

The more awake a person’s spirit is, the more food it will need. A person with a slumbering spirit might get away with a weekly maintenance check at the local church or the boost from being part of something larger (sports fans come to mind, here).

And then there are those of us who need more. We imagine that we seek power, knowledge, or unification with the divine. Often we are seeking a cure for our powerlessness.

On a personal level, magic will not whisk away poverty, illness, or loss. It is no band aid to make us feel better. Beginning the path does not make us proof against the shittiness of the world. But it can give us a viable path forward.


How to Change Your Life

When we find ourselves stuck and stymied and unable to see any opportunity, the Path of Transformation is a way to change our lives. That path may well break the rules we have been taught.

Do you find yourself painted into a corner? Walk on the paint. It’s better to ruin the floor than stay trapped by your own rules.

We may have to abandon everything we know about ourselves and become something else, something more. The more we understand about our nature and the nature of the world, the better prepared we are to go “off road” — to abandon what was set before us and forge our own paths.

A distant figure down a trail on a grassy hillside
A distant figure on a trail, (c)2018 by author

The path of magic will never tell you how to live your life. But it can, and does, offer some guidelines that can put structure to the change you want.

Many of the Western paths of transformation come with three phases: apprentice, journeyman, and master. The titles can vary, but the ideas are often similar. Whether you start out by training with a teacher or not, these phases will guide your path.

We can think of these three phases as, writ large, the stages of a single ritual of transformation. Yes, for the magician, all of training becomes one giant ritual, and everything else is subsumed into it.


Phase One: Apprentice

The goal of the apprentice phase of training is self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is not simply a feeling; that is self-confidence. In this context, self-knowledge is understanding who and what you are in the context of magic.

Self-knowledge is not just knowledge of who you are in the everyday world, though it will necessarily teach that as well. Instead, it is a rewriting of the self into a different way of seeing the world.

But apprenticeship goes deeper than just seeing ourselves clearly. While self-knowledge is key, there is an implied growth and a refinement into something that is just a bit more integrated.

Apprenticeship is not the fun part. Being an apprentice is often no more pleasant than life before we step onto the path. The only thing that has changed is that, on a good day, there is a feeling of hope. At this point there is no change, just the promise of change.

Especially if you are fortunate enough to have a teacher or a serious commitment to a particular path this early on, there can be a sense of certainty in the apprentice phase. That is the trap of the apprentice, and the lesson. In order to move on, we need to let go of that certainty.

During our time as an apprentice, we cultivate self-knowledge. And as we continue to work, our awareness grows. Eventually we are forced to recognize that we (and by extension, the universe) are not at all what we thought we were.

ProTip: Key Practice for an Apprentice

If you have decided to embark on the path of magic, then you really and truly want to change your life. Whether you pursue it through developing rigorous discipline, cultivating radical awareness, or inviting divine intervention, you’re giving the universe a blank check. I cannot explain what is coming, but I can tell you that you will need is a strong, resilient, and flexible mind.

No matter what path forward you choose (or has chosen you), the key to perseverance is to develop a daily practice. The path will be rough. There will be places that you come to walls you cannot imagine climbing. There will be frustration and anguish and doubt. What will carry you though those times is the self-promise to do a little every day.

If no daily practice appeals, then you might make your practice the search for a practice. That is just as much the path as some exotic, esoteric skill. Wherever you are on the path, I strongly recommend keeping a journal of your progress. When it comes to daily practice, success begets success. If you can make a week, you can make a month. If you can make a month, you can make a season.(2)


Phase Two: Journeyman

As I have written elsewhere, we seem to have set aside the journeyman stage as either uninteresting or less than glamorous. Yet I believe that this is where most of the work in magic is done. From the day our mentors (physical or not) give us nods of approval and declare us minimally competent congratulate us on our achievements, we enter this phase.

The journeyman phase is the magical equivalent of adulthood. At the beginning, we know just barely enough to be dangerous. We have developed the experience to know just how little we know, and the toolkit we need to learn more. This is the moment of adventure.

Reynisfjyara Beach, Iceland
When you find yourself on distant shores – Reynisfjara (c)2018 by author

Freed from the constraints of apprenticeship, this is the time to engage with the outside world — to learn new things and come to new understandings of the old. For the journeyman, there is no that’s not what I was taught, only I tried that and it didn’t work for me.

It is during this time that we seek to excel. If the apprentice is a seed sown and cultivated until it has broken through the soil and sent up its first leaves, the journeyman seeks growth through nourishment, clean water, and sunlight.

ProTip: Key Practice for a Journeyman

The apprentice is shown a way to seek growth and change. The journeyman must develop his or her own way. When we study with a master, it is easy to believe their narrative of their life. In fact, for the apprentice, it is almost necessary to do so. Only with that can we create our basic stability.

But our teacher cannot tell us the whole story. We never hear about the hundred dead ends and the thousand supposedly unimportant events that also shaped their life.

It is in our time as journeymen that we make our own mistakes. We have to go out and find out who we are. We must embrace all the diversity in the world until we develop the discernment to determine our own way. The apprentice must embrace, and then transcend, certainty. The journeyman must do the same for the multitude of paths in the world.


Phase Three: Master

There is no one internal sign that someone has achieved mastery. For instance, while a magician might mark mastery with the successful crossing of the abyss, a shaman starts with that hellish experience. Does that make every shaman a master magician? Certainly not!

What about teachers? You probably know the old Theosophist saw, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. If you are truly ready to teach, then students will appear — assuming you’re not busy with other things. But teaching magical practices does not make one a master. Being a teacher is not the same as being a master.

But if magical accomplishments do not make a master, and having apprentices does not make a master, what does? The answer is a mystical one. For each of the three paths, I can explain the markers. I am not certain that I can encompass the whole of it, but it might help as a start.

The magician’s hallmark of mastery is to cross the abyss and return whole. A priest embodies the sacred and bears it into the everyday world. A shaman must become fully human and a nature spirit at the same time. A mage needs no robes, a priest no stole, a shaman no drum.


ProTip: A Word of Caution

Those who begin on the path invariably step onto it because their lives are so out of tune with actual reality (not everyday reality) that they have nowhere else to go. The path of magic is powerful enough to change our lives. But embarking on the path of transformation also means danger. It means risking madness and death. It is not something that we should pursue lightly, or for play.


(1) Don’t get me wrong. If I could turn my body into that of an eagle that would be pretty impressive. But, as a practitioner, I am a skeptic at heart. I will believe it when all other possibilities are explored and exhausted.

(2) Now that I have crossed six hundred days once again, I don’t dare miss. Sometimes discipline is as simple as knowing ourselves well enough to game our egos into accomplishing something.

About Christopher Drysdale
Christopher Drysdale is an animist, martial artist, shamanic practitioner, healer, psychopomp, and meditation teacher. He’s been pagan for more than 30 years, has a master’s degree in anthropology, and thinks “making the world a better place” is a pretty good idea. He makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read more about the author here.

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