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Bonfire Night - Burning The Weeds of Attachment

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason, why Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!

So begins the famous English folk verse which has been recited in various forms since the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 17th century - a cause with which many people today probably have renewed sympathy given the current political climate and interminable wrangling over Brexit! This week we can expect to see bonfires and firework displays taking place in communities up and down the country. These annual pyrotechnic extravaganzas mark the anniversary of the audacious plan, widely known as the Gunpowder Plot, which saw more than a dozen men work together in an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I in the hope of securing greater religious freedom. History books have revealed that although the plan was spearheaded by devout Catholic Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes was the first of the gang to be arrested and became the name most commonly linked with the November celebration. The ambitious and sinister scheme was designed to sabotage the State Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605. English Catholics who didn't have the freedom to practice their faith and felt unfairly treated were behind the treason attempt. Authorities were alerted by an anonymous letter, which led to a search of the House of Lords on November 4th at midnight. Guy Fawkes was found along with all the gunpowder the conspirators had planned to use. While Fawkes wasn't the brains behind the operation he was essential to the plot. He had 10 years of military experience and was therefore charged with guarding 36 barrels of explosives, which would have killed everyone in attendance.

Explosives expert Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed at the scene as he attempted to blow up Parliament.

Fawkes was arrested on-site, while his co-conspirators fled London. Authorities attempted to recapture the guilty parties including the mastermind Catesby. During a standoff, Catesby was killed along with a number of his supporters, leaving only eight survivors including Guy Fawkes to face charges. In January 1606 the remaining eight were convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for their crimes. Henry Garner, a priest from Derbyshire and educated in Nottingham before moving to London, was also executed for his complicity. Authorities believed he was informed of the plot during confession but refused to share details, despite the fact his religious duty prevented him doing so - he too was hung drawn and quartered. The November 5th tradition dates right back to 1605 when members of the public lit massive bonfires to celebrate authorities preventing the treasonous plot from being successful. Those loyal to King James celebrated the fact he had survived an attack that would most certainly have killed him if it had gone ahead. The celebration was made official months later when an annual holiday was enforced titled the 'Observance of 5th November Act.' Due to the religious motives behind the plot, the celebration initially had strong undertones of anti-Catholic gatherings. However, in modern times Bonfire Night has become an extravagant affair across the country with bonfires, fireworks and even funfairs.

The Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the film V For Vendetta has become a popular symbol of rebellion and has been adopted by hacking group Anonymous.

Effigies of Fawkes are still thrown on public bonfires to this day and his image has become immortalised in recent years by the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the central protagonist in the 2005 dystopian thriller V For Vendetta - a mask which has since been adopted as an icon of protest and rebellion by the faceless hacking collective known as Anonymous. Every November 5th since 2012, Anonymous has led activists throughout the world in donning copies of the distinctive Vendetta mask, with its flamboyant Elizabethan facial hair, to participate in the Million Mask March, protesting against political corruption, police brutality and socio-economic issues. The character of Guy Fawkes has therefore transcended its origins to become an archetypal symbol of rebellion worldwide - a prime example of how legends grow and evolve over time. The story of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators is well known and unfailingly taught in schools up and down the land every November. But what isn't so commonly known is that the origins of ritual bonfires predate the Gunpowder Plot by hundreds, if not thousands, of years and that the modern celebration of Guy Fawkes is, like so many other modern festivals, merely building on the foundations of much older pre-existing pagan customs. The word bonfire -  meaning any large controlled outdoor fire - is in fact a contraction of "bonefire". The burning of bonfires for symbolic reasons is a worldwide practice but in the UK it is believed to derive from the ritual burning of animal bones during the Celtic festival of Samhain (from which Halloween also originates, as discussed in my previous blog Halloween - Embracing the Darkness Within). Samhain was a celebration of the harvest and is closely associated with the concept of autumn symbolically representing the end of life and the start of the winter cycle. The bonfire is therefore a symbolic means of ushering in the process of rebirth. It takes its symbolism from the bone, in which form and function are encapsulated in one structure. By burning the bone you release the spirit symbolically because you destroy form, leaving only the spirit. This is why cremation is such a popular form of dealing with the dead – by destroying the 'Form' you symbolically release the soul and the higher spirit. You also add an extra touch of symbolism by using flames and fire to do it – purification by spirit.

The logo of Phoenix Coaching & Therapy, created by Daniel Laing of Daniel Laing Design, captures the symbolic significance of the phoenix as an icon of death and rebirth.

Regular readers of my blogs will recognise the reappearance of one of my recurring themes here - death and rebirth - a subject which I covered at some length when discussing the symbolic significance of the phoenix (Regeneration - The Death and Resurrection Show). The very act of burning wood, or other forms of fuel, to release the energy it contains to power our machines or generate heat and light is a powerful example of how new life can be generated from the destruction of the old. It is a form of energy transference inherent in all types of sacrifice, symbolic or otherwise. Our ancestors conveyed these esoteric concepts by encoding them within myths and fables, such as the story of the phoenix which rises anew from the ashes of its own destruction. The use of this kind of mythological storytelling stimulates and illumines the imagination, enabling the mind to draw out the deeper meaning encoded within the metaphor. The use of storytelling, mythology, metaphor and archetypes is key to the approach we deploy at Phoenix Coaching and Therapy to help clients to regenerate their lives. The Ancient Greeks were masters of such myth-making and treated it as a science through which people could be instructed in the fundamental truths of life. Unfortunately the Romans failed to grasp the subtlety of this concept when they identified their fire deity Vulcan with the Greek smith-god Hephaestus. The Romans celebrated the festival of Vulcanalia on August 23rd each year but made the mistake of interpreting the Greek parables literally and engaging in the actual physical sacrifice of live animals by throwing them into festival bonfires, whereas the Greeks had only ever spoken of sacrifice as a metaphor. There can be few more potent examples than this of the dangers of interpreting fables and sacred texts literally rather than allegorically as the original myth-makers intended. The Holy Roman Empire would go on to engage in the practice of burning humans alive in their efforts to convert the whole world to Christianity - a practice derived entirely from this early corruption of an initially symbolic association.

Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the acclaimed Autobiography Of A Yogi, understood the symbolic significance of fire ceremonies.

Fire rites have remained an archetypal theme shared by all faiths and cultures throughout the world. They are an important feature of Hindu religious practices and are extolled in their sacred text the Bhagavad Gita. In Hinduism, symbolic sacrifices are cast into the flames to demonstrate one's devotion to God and willingness to let go of attachments, material desires and bad habits. The act of burning desires in fire is designed to purify them and offer them up to God. Concurrent with western Halloween and Guy Fawkes festivities, millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world have been celebrating Diwali - the five-day festival of lights. Coinciding with the harvest and the Hindu new year, Diwali is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning "rows of lighted lamps". Houses, shops and public places are decorated with small oil lamps called diyas and people also enjoy fireworks and sweets. A fire rite also forms an integral part of the initiation ceremony offered by Self-Realization Fellowship - the organisation founded by Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda and from which I learned the ancient pranayama breathing technique of Kriya Yoga. Yogananda, the author of the highly acclaimed Autobiography of a Yogi, says on the subject: "Kriya Yoga is the real fire rite oft extolled in the Gita. The yogi casts his human longings into a monotheistic bonfire consecrated to the unparalleled God. This is indeed the true yogic fire ceremony, in which all past and present desires are fuel consumed by love divine. The Ultimate Flame receives the sacrifice of all human madness, and man is pure of dross. His metaphorical bones stripped of all desirous flesh, his karmic skeleton bleached by the antiseptic sun of wisdom, inoffensive before man and Maker, he is clean at last".

This is identical to the Buddhist concept of freeing oneself from “attachments” - the anchors by which the ego makes us feel secure. We may be attached to our habits, to our emotions, to material possessions, to our pleasures, to the past, or to the status quo. But true independence of spirit involves releasing ourselves from these ties, which are in fact shackles holding us back. There is an inherent danger in human nature that we tend to cling to the old for the sake of comfort and security - whether that be an old shirt, a job, a habit or a relationship - but sometimes we have to recognise that change is necessary for growth. Have you ever wondered why spring cleaning feels so satisfying? Purging ourselves of unneeded old possessions provides us with a buzz because we’re severing attachment to things which no longer serve us, in much the same way as the human body sheds dead cells. Take a look in your wardrobe. Is it full of old clothes that you haven’t worn in years and never will again? It’s human nature to try to cling on to these things because of the memories associated with them but in truth this is simply keeping you chained to the past and unable to move forward with your life. Living in the past is not helpful, so do yourself a favour and have a proper clearout. You can give your old clothes to a charity shop or to someone who really needs them. Not only will this make you feel good but you’ll have created loads of extra space in your cupboards and freed yourself from attachments which were holding you back. Try it now. It’s surprisingly liberating. But we must have the courage to let go of the past, to allow the old to “die” in order to clear the space for potentially-exciting new chapters in our lives. Buddha famously said that “the root of suffering is attachment”. Or to quote from another great sage - none other than Jedi Master Yoda from Star Wars: “Attachment leads of jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose”.

Releasing attachments to bad habits and material desires is the symbolic sacrifice to which the Ancient Greeks referred in their original fire ceremonies. By letting go of the old we create space in our lives for something new to enter in its place - new life from death, as symbolised by the phoenix. The concept of the fire rite has survived for thousands of years, changing and adapting to meet the cultural needs of the time and becoming a key component of occasions as diverse as New Year’s Eve, Diwali, the Chinese New Year, Halloween and, of course, Guy Fawkes. But the fundamental symbolism remains the same. A bonfire is a powerful method of communicating your intent to let go of something. It doesn't have to be a real bonfire - an imaginary one will do the job just as well. What matters is the symbolism. A useful meditation exercise which I use frequently with my Phoenix clients, and which you can practice at home too, is to get them to picture their inner world as a garden. In amongst all the colourful flowers of the spirit are the weeds of attachment. Visualise yourself uprooting these weeds - each one of which is a habit, a negative emotion, or a dependency - and then burn the weeds in a purifying bonfire. Vow to yourself that you will uproot each weed as soon as you notice it to keep the garden of your spirit well-tended.

Stay safe around fireworks and bonfires this Guy Fawkes Night and remember to keep pets indoors.

If you are planning to attend any real Bonfire Night festivities this week, then please take care and be sure to observe sensible health and safety precautions. In fact, we strongly recommend that you opt to attend official, professionally-run events and displays rather than attempting to stage your own. And remember, Bonfire Night can also be a scary time for animals - many pets find the sound of fireworks terrifying so do what you can to minimise their distress. Keep dogs and cats indoors, make sure all doors and windows are closed and speak to your vet about medication where appropriate. If the themes discussed in this blog have interested you then please get in touch. At Phoenix we make strong use of storytelling, mythology, metaphor and archetypes to bring about powerful therapeutic change and will soon be launching a range of both classroom-based and online courses exploring these concepts in detail. If these subjects have aroused your curiosity, and you'd like to delve deeper, then drop us an email at to register your interest. There are a myriad of ways in which we can help you to unleash your own inner phoenix and create the dream life you deserve. So don't delay. Contact Phoenix today and regenerate your life.

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