Three Gates to Transformation

Three Gates to Transformation July 14, 2018

The Three Gates are the ways that we, practitioners, enter the Path of Transformation. It is how we gain the power to change our lives. Each Gate is an initial approach we might take to enter the greater spiritual world and discover the deeper self. I have discussed them elsewhere as the Priest, Magician, and Shaman; these are the three initial ways to begin training.

The Path of Transformation is the way of all magic and spirituality. In other words, these ways of entering apply just as much to a Christian mystic as they do to a Sun-and-Moon witch, a deep martial artist, or a sorcerer.

These three Gates are not distinguished by their everyday attributes, but by the relationship between the new practitioner and his own spirit. In other words, it is not the name that defines the category. These approaches are spontaneously occurring variations.

When it comes to talking about the realm of the spirit, it is vital that we rely on experience, not just on what people have said before. We cannot say that a Christian Methodist priest and a Zhengyi Daoist priest are both “priests” in the same way, just because we use the word “priest” for both. Instead we must understand how people come to the Path. How we begin our journey truly does shape our experiences throughout.

“Soria Moria” by Theodor Kittelsen. From WikiMedia.
“Soria Moria” by Theodor Kittelsen. From WikiMedia.

Each practitioner enters the path through one of Three Gates. We enter the Path in the moment we realize that there is more to the world than what we were taught, and more to the self than we had previously known. It is the how we make this discovery that determines our Gate.

The disappointing news is that this is not “choose your own adventure.” You do not pick your Gate, but rather it is picked for you — based on your constitution, proclivities, and circumstances. Nonetheless, having some notion of how the process works can help make sense of your own, and other people’s, experiences.


Look Both Ways before Crossing

The Three Gates are defined by their approaches to what practitioners commonly call Crossing the Abyss. Much has been written about the crossing, but mostly the viewpoint is from the inside. People write about their experience, but rarely (or never) does anyone discuss the actual transformation that happens from the outside.

For those who enter the path from the Gate of the Magician, crossing the abyss and returning whole comes at the end of long training. That training provides access to deeper guidance (e.g. the Abramelin Operation) as well as spiritual awareness, control, and strength. In other words, the magician trains for the crossing and learns to remain more or less himself:  to hold onto sanity and humanity in the face of the greater universe.

Eliphas Levi Pentagram
By Nyo, via Wikimedia Commons

For the Priest, crossing the abyss comes relatively early in training. Rather than Crossing the Abyss, we might call it the Leap of Faith. The Priest never leaps alone into the void. For the Priest, this operation is the ultimate “trust fall.” Where the Magician takes flight across the abyss, the Priest leaps into the abyss and is caught, to be lifted up into a new world. He learns that he will be caught and protected by the power of a deity or deities.

Yet sometimes people do not so much cross the abyss as trip and fall into it. For the Shaman, Crossing the Abyss is the first thing that happens. The shaman does not enter the spiritual life willingly, but is rather marooned there by the storms of life. This is what happens when we face our deaths and rally all of our resources to fend it off. Shamans fall into the world of the spirit with no training, no preparation, and no protection. As you might imagine, most of those “called” to be shamans die.


Crossing, Leaping, and Rallying

From the inside, the Crossing of the Abyss is the transformation in which the duality of the perceived universe collapses. Or, we are unified with a power greater than ourselves to the point that “self” becomes meaningless. Or, we become something more than we were a moment before and gain access to the impossibilities of the greater self. Yet all three of these experiences are the same process but in different contexts.

The Magician crosses when ready and prepared. He can clearly experience the collapse of the everyday mind and see into the impossible-to-comprehend vastness beyond.(1)

The Priest leaps, but does so to become one with something (whatever else we can say about the nature of the gods) incomprehensibly more powerful. Again, the everyday mind disintegrates.

In a similar way, the Shaman discovers that there was always a part of the self that is the not-self. He becomes a shaman by gaining access to that, or perhaps more accurately, having that part of the self gain access to him.


The Creation and Dissolution of the Everyday Mind

In order to truly understand how Crossing the Abyss works, we must go ahead and accept the premise that the everyday mind is a construct. While it seems real, the deeper self creates it and reinforces it through constant effort.

The everyday person, as an adult, is surrounded by a seamless spiritual shell. That shell functions in three ways: it protects, yet senses, and also filters information from the outside.

The shell protects a person by maintaining individuality. The shell immediately holds off anything that might happen to come by. In a universe where everything has a spirit, the shell that is the outer crust of the spirit acts to separate self from other. Most people’s spirits are nearly wholly engaged in this one function: keeping everything “not me” out.

But the shell itself consists, not of inert power, but of living spirit. It is reactive to the environment. The shell transmits information to the “self” inside. However, it does not do so in an unbiased fashion. It allows perceptions that support the self to enter, and yet holds out things that do not. Since this is a recursive pattern, it becomes a trap; we begin to believe the results of the filter that we created.

Photo: Into the world — ©Polly Peterson (2011)

The Path of Transformation requires that we break the habits that create the shell and protect the self. One key accomplishment is the moment that we discover that what is inside our shell is not the whole of the outer universe.

The Mage works to grow within the shell, engaging in self-cultivation to strengthen and learn to control one’s own spirit. When this is sufficiently complete, he cracks the shell from the inside. Magicians call this “Crossing the Abyss.”

The Priest, instead of focusing on growth, learns to call out through the shell. A deity, eventually, comes and cracks the shell from the outside. We call this a “Leap of Faith.”

Shock and trauma can create gaps in the shell. While in some cases these gaps will repair themselves, in others the gaps will remain. Not to put too fine a point on it, that is how we get Shamans.


The Gate of the Magician

The Magician, or Mage, is the simplest of the Three Gates to understand. Those who enter this gate begin learning to strengthen and control their own spirits by slowly awakening and energizing them through two different practices.

The first way a magician develops is through training and practice. Learning magic, in and of itself, drives the mage along the path. Each magical action, learned properly and practiced with diligence, has a secondary effect of increasing the magician’s spiritual strength and flexibility.

The second way is intentional self-cultivation. This is where the daily practice comes in, along with internal alchemy and a host of purification practices. These practices focus directly on building the spirit and other esoteric parts of the self.(2)

Monk Shoes – (c)2009 Polly Peterson, used with permission

In order to get started on the path as a magician, one of three things is needed. First, you can just go ahead and start cultivation practices. If you are interested in going down that path, the best way to move forward is to develop a daily practice.

Second, you can find one particular spell that interests or entices you, and begin working with that. That spell will, in some way, influence your future path; please choose wisely.

Third, you can find a teacher. That teacher does not need to bind you to some formal agreement, but can help you with some basic practices. If not, you can find enough in books and blogs to guide you through the first steps.

The key challenge for the magician is motivation. It is easy to practice magic diligently in times of crisis. But it is much harder to continue to apply ourselves when there are more interesting options.

ProTip: Whether you consider yourself a magician or not, everyone benefits from self-cultivation. From flossing and showering every day to esoteric practices like meditation or the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, daily practice is the key to not just looking at the path but beginning to follow it.


The Gate of the Priest

Where Magicians might learn many transformations,(3) the practitioner who enters by the Gate of the Priest initially focuses on one. That singular goal is connection with their deity of choice (or with one who watches over them). All other choices extend from there.(4)

Thus, the Priest learns to control his own spirit through training under, and with assistance from, a deity or deities. From a spiritual perspective, the process by which all this happens is complex. But the path itself is simple.

To begin as a Priest, you must beckon a deity to intercede in your development. Every Priest starts with “Please Bless me. Let me feel the touch of your presence in my life.” Such a simple practice, done regularly and with sincerity, is all that is needed to begin.

Detail – Europe a Prophecy, William Blake via Wikimedia commons

It is not uncommon for those entering through this Gate to engage in self-cultivation as well. This is where we get a number of practices, from daily devotions to priestly celibacy. None of these are inherently necessary, but any particular deity might require them.

The key challenge for the Priest is doubt. Becoming a Priest means sending out a message in a direction unknown to the everyday mind, and trusting that one’s intention is pure enough that it will only reach the proper addressee.

Reaching out to a specific deity is as difficult as shooting an arrow at a distant target with our eyes shut. We might say, “that is impossible” but it would be more accurate to say, “that is a miracle!” And that makes sense. If you want to get into the miracle business, this is a good way to start.


The Gate of the Shaman

In our culture, those who pass through the Gate of the Shaman are not always the same as those claiming the name “shaman.”(5) Those who claim the title might fit into any of the three categories. Left without training, those who pass through this gate become psychic healers, natural witches, and just plain survivors with a powerful sixth sense.

We do not enter the Gate of the Shaman by choice, but by coming close to death. We have to get close enough that two things happen. First, the everyday mind must be suspended. Second, our own spirit must rally itself to guide and defend us. This creates a new relationship among the everyday mind, the spirit, and the body.

Thus, there is no good way to truly choose to become a shaman. One might choose to live a life that would likely be fatal, in the hope that one’s spirit would rally at the moment of death and fight it off. Such a process would be, perforce, insane. There are better ways to become a practitioner.

The Shaman is a survivor of the storms of life. Jan Porcellis, Shipping in Stormy Seas, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many of those who pass through this gate and survive will go on for either priestly or magical training (or both). Yet at the same time, they might never quite feel at home. Early training for both priests and mages is geared to keeping the psyche together in the crossing of the abyss. For the shaman, such practices are too little, too late.

The key challenge for the Shaman is a fatal madness. The only way forward is to cease to cling to hurt and pain, and to delve deeper into the self and the not-self. The shaman, even more than priests and mages, must develop equanimity and resilience.


Entering the Path

Generally, we will not get to choose which path we take. That path will be chosen for us by deeper parts of ourselves, by our environment, or by luck and circumstance.

If we do not get to pick, why should we even care? Because it will save us time, effort, and frustration. Because it allows us to start to strip away all of our “shoulds” when it comes to training. It is all too easy to see people practicing in other ways and be jealous. “I see that that person has a close relationship with a deity and I should have that.” “Those practitioners have a nice little club. I wish I had one, too.”

The Three Gates all lead to the same Path. We might imagine that being a Priest, Magician, and Shaman all look totally different. From the outside, that might be the case. But from a spiritual perspective, this is not true. We are all just people trying to understand a universe beyond our comprehension.


(1) Please note that there are deeper and more terrifying voids to come. The crossing of the abyss is not the be-all-and-end-all transformation. To mix a metaphor — like in so much of life, when we reach the peak of the mountain we are climbing, we see the next peak we must scale. Much confusion comes from people eliding separate mystical states as if “not the everyday mind” always meant the same thing. It is a vast universe out there.

(2) It might seem odd that I include magical practitioners and self-cultivators together. This is not a mistake, or bias, or any judgement on their approaches. It is, rather, acknowledgement that both are working through the sames steps toward the same goal. Both of these types of practitioners develop themselves through practices more or less without outside influence.

(3) The word “transformations” here is a more accurate description of what we call “spells.” On its most basic level, the purpose of any spell is, one way or another, to alter the state of a person. For example, if we describe the change from unemployed to employed as a shift of state, then a spell to get a job works by shifting your state (mental, spiritual, and physical) to “employed” before the job shows up and then relying on the principle “nature abhors a vacuum” to bring the job to you.

(4) The key part to understand, for a priest, is that while you might shift religious affiliation, that initial connection will forever shape your world.

(5) At least since Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, there has long been a debate in Western academic and popular literature about the constellation of experiences and “supposed” powers of the “shaman.” As someone who studied the anthropology of religion at the professional level, I am aware of the interest in, fetishization of, and confusion about the “shaman.”

The word “shaman” itself, in the West, has become a polyvocal term. It contains multiple meanings that are not mutually consistent. The word must always be used both with discernment and careful awareness of context. I have done my best in this piece to describe exactly what I mean by “shaman.” What might be unclear is why I used this term.

It is key to understand that I am not referring here specifically to the “shaman” of the cultures of  north Asia but to the concept Jung named the “wounded healer” especially as developed by Joan Halifax. However, to relegate shamans to only healing is to misunderstand the breadth (and reality) of magical practices.

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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  • Lovelife683

    Thank you for this article… I honestly can’t say it enough. This actually helped me greatly. It cleared up some confusion I’ve had for actually some time now about my spiritual path. Though I still see a slight mix/overlap personally.. the deep emotional reaction I had when reading one of the paths explained to me where I was actually focusing and somewhat pushing too hard at another when naturally I’ve always fallen closer to the other. I do agree that this seems like something that isn’t so much chosen by you, but possible for you in a way. I see that early experiences as a kid actually put me biased against the path I am meant to be on (or at least more fully in) and is at least part of what was causing such confusion. I can tell this “seeing” of some truth here is only the beginning as this is definitely something that I’m going to have to think on and work through to move past these ingrained biases and hurts from childhood, but truly THANK YOU for opening my eyes to what has been here all along.

  • You’re welcome. Your story sounds interesting, too.

  • Barros Serrano

    It is not easy to define any of these terms, but your discussion of them was very well crafted and helpful.

    I was surprised to find that among the Maya, the word used for the shaman-priest is “chimán”, which clearly comes from the same root as the Eurasian word “shaman”.

    I say shaman-priest because the man exercising the role of shaman has also taken on the role of priest, which entity was obliterated by the Spanish.

    The shaman must die, you alluded to this. I was taught this, but it included coming back from death. The chimán who taught me had died and come back. He told me that I’d reached the point where this must also happen to me, and it did.

    I’m in an awkward position. He taught me, even against the desires of some of his fellow chimanes who thought no gringo should be told these things, but my teacher said he had very strong reasons and communications from spirit entities to do so. He told me at the end, “You cannot be a Mayan chimán, as you are not Mayan. But I have to say that you are a chimán, but among your own people you will receive NO honor, no recognition, no acknowledgement, as they do not understand anything about any of this.”

    It’s been a wild ride.

  • Unlabeled_Unlimited

    Thank you for this.
    I resonate with nearly all of it with exception of believing it all accidental.
    I would have completely agreed a year ago, but after a couple in depth natal astrology sessions, and a year of more in-depth study, plus messages from my guides, I know it is no accident I’m on my path.
    It took nearly 50 years, but I’ve been shown, with no uncertainty, that I must have signed up for this crap.
    But it is no ones fault but mine that I had to break and nearly die to see it.
    I know now I have two options, free will always comes first, I can go back to the mundane/3d world and more than likely die miserable and early, or step onto the path of the unseen, alone, but with devotion and belief.
    Thank you for your thoughts, they have truly helped me.

  • Nearly died, or died and came back? The latter seems to be relatively common (and I pulled it off, too), so I’m curious. And as to whether something is “accidental” or not, that’s a long discussion with no final decision.

  • Unlabeled_Unlimited

    Nearly, I think. I refused modern profit care, so have no test results to prove anything. My spirit guides were screaming at me to stay away from the hospital, so I used my bag of earth tricks and listened.
    The lymph node in my groin became infected and ruptured, the infection felt like it went from my ribcage to knee. I could, literally, feel it. I went to work while in labor for both my kids, so when I tell you this was the single worst illness I’ve ever experienced. Even my husband says he thought I was going to die.
    And until I had the natal reading I would have agreed about chance.
    According to my birth chart that isn’t true for me. Truly my pain is written in the stars.
    Much love.

  • What is “chance” from one perspective is sometimes “planned” from another. On the other hand, outcomes are rarely predetermined.

    A few years back (2014), I completed my Great Work and began a daily cultivation designed to take me on to the next phase. Shortly thereafter (early 2016), I came down with a nasty case of cancer and spent half a year in the hospital. I walked out of there, but it could have gone either way. Realistically, it still could.

    My attitude on hospital care comes from the famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, “This is the truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.”

    Medical care is something that always must be understood in context. Not knowing you or your situation, I can only be glad you survived.

    Still, I will always attempt to persuade anyone to avail themselves of any necessary medical care. As to what “necessary” means? Sometimes that’s complicated and contextual, but if someone has something as simple as a burst appendix or a hernia, it’s really not.

  • Jean de Oliveira Quevedo

    I’ve read and heard much about crossing the abyss but you’ve put it in essential words. I feel I finally get what crossing the abyss really is now that I’ve read your article.

    Your views on the role of the magician are equally enlightening. Looking my choices in life and comparing it with your considerations I can see that I’m a magician as well.

    Thanks for this writting. I’m following your blog from now on.

  • Thank you for your kind comments!

  • Greybeard Wise

    Good article, but the definition and job of a “priest” needs to be clarified. Catholic Christians are Priests. Shamans are Priests. A Priest is someone who intercedes with and contacts the spirit world and brings back teaching and wisdom of the spirits or gods. The Protestant revolution declared that each man may contact the Gods themselves without the need of a Priest. Long and bloody wars were fought and hundreds of thousands of good people killed arguing over just this distinction. Protestant Christians have Ministers or Pastors, not Priests. A Minister officiates at worship and guides the congregation, but he does not intercede with Gods or spirits for the people. This is an important distinction that large armies have waged wars over. One cannot be a “Christian Methodist priest.”

    Wiccans and many other witches are Priests rather than Ministers. We contact the Gods and spirits for ourselves and importantly for others. We journey to the spirit world as shamans or Priests and bring back the wisdom of spirits and Gods. We teach and guide our people using the wisdom we gain from the Gods and spirits. Our friends and congregations do not directly go to or interact with the spirit world. We bring that world to them. We are Priests, not Ministers.

  • Thanks for your comment. There are some interesting thoughts there that certainly have some historical import around the words we use. A different take on what makes a person a priest can be found here:

  • Greybeard Wise

    Thank you for the link, Christopher. That other article explains a lot about the spiritual commitment needed to be a Priest, but does not address the difference between a Priest and a Minister. Its important for pagan Priests to know who and what we are and what we are not.