The Way of the Phoenix
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“There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is Phoenix. I myself have never seen it, only pictures of it; for the bird seldom comes into Egypt: once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say.”
- Herodotus, Book II.
The Phoenix lives, like many great teachers, in a world beyond the sun, only crossing and transcending into our world with a message of renewal when the cries of humanity become so great that they reach the ethereal terrace that connects all worlds. To break into time and space where it is needed, the bird flies through the human psyche and travels eternally through the path of collective wisdom and mythology; the kind that tells a story that is more true than anything we might label as nonfiction today.
Remnants of the transformative bird are found all throughout the ancient world. From Ovid, the poet, to Herodotus, the 5th century BC father of Greek History, stories are teeming with legends of the transformative archetype. While details differ from culture to culture, there are certain themes that emerge and stay consistent throughout history. Those same themes can also be found in today’s modern symbols of transformation. The process of rebirth and transformation have not changed in thousands of years because the operating instructions that are baked into the universe have not changed. Neither has the fundamental psychological structure of the human being. Over time patterns emerge and those patterns give us insight into what might be coming next. In the case of transformation, they tell us when rejecting the pain of moving forward creates the suffering of a stagnant existence. They tell us that when we feel we’re on the brink of collapse, so too are we on the brink of new life.
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell understood archetypes as “spontaneous productions of the human psyche.” This is self-evident by the fact that unrelated cultures throughout time have expressed the same theme of rebirth with different manifestations, each appropriate to their culture. What we can conclude then, is that the blueprint for transformation is quite literally embedded within us by virtue of who and what we are. We no longer see the phoenix but embody it. We become it and it - us, until the revival is complete.
The phoenix lives within all people and makes its appearance known when the stars come together in a way that always makes sense to the stars but rarely makes any at all to us on the ground. While it spends five hundred human years in radiant beauty, on its final night, it looks a bit weary. There is no moonlight to speak of but if there were, you would see the lines that time has traced along the outside of the bird’s eyes. They run down into its neck and get lost in the remaining red and gold hue that shimmers from its wings. It spends the entire night working diligently, building a nest with aromatic spices, twigs, and cloves, ensuring that nothing is out of place.
What looks like chaos from the ground might look like the path of destiny from the heavens. The cost of being human is that we on the ground, are asked to bear the burden of the mystery. We’re asked to find the courage to move forward despite the once-beaten path being covered with mud and grown over with thorns. The catch is, the divine will never ask us to be what we are not. We are not asked to wade into the chaos of our lives deaf and dumb, without our whits. We are asked to be human and humans are given an internal compass for when the terrain features no longer make any sense. We sink into the heart when the head has lost its way. The heart knows the way to living water. The place where new birth and new life will once again become a possibility.
When the ancient world is to receive something new, you see a similar motif appear as spices are brought as an offering. Among others, myrrh and frankincense are discussed in the ancient tales of the Phoenix. A gift brings honor to a situation and new fragrances help purify the air and transport one to another place entirely. Transforming the experience of the senses can transform the experience of the sensor as sense is what we use to know what and where we are. This is how Israel transformed once demonic sights in Canaan into Holy temples where light could flood the darkness. Incense is often used today in spiritual practices for this same reason. Catholic services both East and West burn incense as a symbol of prayer and the faithful rising to heaven. It is a reach for the place that animates all new life.
Moreover, myrrh is seen throughout the Bible’s Old and New Testaments and is critical to anointing oils. Moses is asked by God to gather myrrh (Exodus 30: 22-24), the magi, commonly understood as the wise men in the story of the birth of Jesus bring these spices as gifts to His birth, and in the book of Revelations, there is a reference to the church of Smyrna, which is the Greek word for myrrh. That is significant because the book of Revelations is what proceeds the new Jerusalem. Symbolically, new sense precedes new life. You might also understand the entirety of the Bible as a narrative that describes the whole of human rebirth and redemption from our earliest reaches for consciousness to the reclamation of the light which was once understood as our original birthright.
As the Phoenix finishes building its nest, meticulously, and with the kind of self-respect that produces inward satisfaction that we should all aspire to in our creations; the night is beginning to reach its blackest moment.
I am reminded here, of a scene from the movie Titanic. As the ship is going down, the captain and his crew put on their finest suits in order to prepare for the cold, dark, abyss that awaits them. They prefer the composure of dignity and somehow find it, though all finite hope has surely been lost to their chaotic and untimely departure from the world.
There’s an idea seen throughout the Yogic practices of the East that life is not necessarily about what you are doing but rather, it is about how you are doing it. Pride in self and in creation, satisfaction in our toil and our work accomplished, and contentment in a life fully lived, does not produce any quantifiable metrics that the world will celebrate and yet, as a finite creature that stands before the great, I AM of eternity, there lies a consolable feeling in the soul that one can only attain when honor is rendered to all that you’ve been, all that you are, and all that you’ve done. If life is about arriving somewhere safely, we’ve all been put into a game that we cannot possibly win. The end, after all, awaits everyone. If, however, life is about giving yourself entirely to it, if it is about spending yourself completely in an act of defiant love and pouring your heart and soul into the time you are given, then not even death can corrupt the life we’ve lived. Even the coldest and darkest ends have not been given authority over the human spirit.
As the stillness of the dark sets in, the bird begins to sing a song that’s so hauntingly beautiful that the sun, which is currently employed warming the opposite end of the world, can't bear to go on without stopping to listen. The song marks the unification of all things.
Here we find Mary, heartbroken and in anguish, sitting under the cross. We find Shiva, dancing on top of creation and ushering in its destruction. We find too, the big bang, with a force so great that it tears a hole in the perfect arch of Being. Whole and undisturbed primordial life suddenly comes tumbling into the division of time and space to begin the biological drama that we are embedded within. The song marks the single point in which destruction and creation collide and once again, begin their dance through eternity. Hate, buckling under the power of love, pain collapsing into beauty, and sheer darkness, flooded with incandescent light.
When we have the courage to actually feel and go through what hurts, we are given the remedy to what heals. All of our attempts to go around our pain points will never give us access to the phoenix. When we delay the end of a relationship that we know is over, when we stay in a job after the spirit has gone away and called us elsewhere, all of these are feeble attempts to avoid and go around what must be gone through. What the phoenix teaches us is that there is great beauty in the end. Chilling. Haunting. But beautiful nonetheless.
As the song begins to reach its final notes, a single tear falls from the bird's right eye in admiration for the creatures that will never make it out of the rubble. It mourns itself, on behalf of the collective. The tear that falls from the bird’s eye is a spark from heaven itself, acting as the divine catalyst that creates all things new as the old reaches its final resting place. As the spark gently meets the perfectly constructed nest, the moonless night erupts into illumination as flames consume the once magnificent bird.
What is to be whole must include what has been broken. If life is to be complete, it must include death. Here we come face to face with one of the most difficult of all human truths. In a finite world, it is only the destruction of what was that creates space for the emergence of new beauty. The heartbroken lover left bleeding on the ground and pining for the touch of their companion is broken wide open. So open in fact that their capacity to feel is magnified beyond anything they’ve previously known. This newfound capacity to feel will eventually give them the ability to love in new and deeper ways. Here too, one sees the logic in the old adage that “one can only love to the depth and degree to which they can suffer.”
When the end becomes imminent, we can be sure that we are up against creative energy. After Shiva dances over the destruction of the universe, the god turns around and Brahma the creator once again begins conducting the cosmic orchestra. The stone the builders rejected becomes the apex point of Solomon’s new temple. What was, becomes the doorway into what will be.
The sun will patiently check on the ashes three times as it revolves around the earth and keeps a watchful eye on all of creation. As the light of the third dawn begins to creep its way into the forest, a new phoenix begins to emerge from the ashes. Like an old candle, which has been melted down and re-used in the creation of a new one, its essence is passed on but it is born, altogether anew.
We find here two important motif that arise in the transformational processes of antiquity. It is that latent period that precedes new birth but cannot be skipped over as well as the number three. Jesus spent three days in hell and Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale. Christianity recognizes the doctrine of the trinity which hints at the dynamism and inner workings of God. Throughout history, three represents dynamic process and relationship. By inviting us into this relationship, the total becomes four, the number symbolizing wholeness and perfection. As if the way to become whole is by entering into the dynamic love and eternal dance that is symbolized by the three.
While undergoing this latency period, it feels as though all hope is lost. We will spend time mourning because no part of the process can be missed or skipped. Those who numb the pain of what was will sober up only to realize that the pain is still waiting for them. The transformational process must be gone through in its entirety in order to be completed. That likely means honoring the heartbreak below the destruction. We must also remember, however, that our story does not end here. The whale spits Jonah back out into the world, effectively giving him another opportunity to complete his divine mission. The post transformational vantage point tells a tale of redemption - of the tomb being empty and the whole of humanity redeemed to their creator. This too is part of our blueprint.
The phoenix forms an egg with the remains of its ancestors and will prepare to offer the egg as an homage on the altar of the sun.
We tell tales of times past in order to honor all that has come before us and all that has made our life possible. We pay homage to properly take our place in the great chain of Being. It is how we steward wisdom and continue love’s eternal quest to evolve and understand itself. Writer-philosopher George Santayana said it best, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As the new phoenix stretches its wings, ready to fly east, back into paradise and outside of the mortal world, the revived red and gold hue once again shimmers with the beauty of emerging possibility. The kind we can only feel when we have a newborn in our arms or when we’re falling for someone so completely that the surrounding world disappears into background noise, taking our burdens and complaints with it. A chance to right wrongs, to fly in a new direction, and to feel boundless in the face of the innumerable odds to come.
The phoenix represents a perspective so high it’s impossible for us to grasp it with the intellectual mind. For this reason, symbolism helps us conceptualize our own underlying spirit. The tale is a gift, born from an energetic frequency so high that light, love, and truth all cease to become separate from one another. Today we call that frequency the divine. The gift is the opportunity to embody revival and once again to find yourself in atonement with all that is and ever will be. We face our peril because it precedes our genesis.