Symbolism is an extremely powerful form of communication, particularly on an unconscious level. That's why branding is so important for anyone wanting to be a success in their chosen field and why global giants such as Adidas, Nike, Calvin Klein and Coca-Cola pour so much time and money into their marketing campaigns and into securing celebrity endorsements for their products. These companies understand the importance of grabbing consumers' attention and of anchoring brand awareness to a particular image. The secret behind this is that while our conscious mind thinks in terms of language and numbers, the subconscious operates on the basis of imagery. It soaks up metaphors like a sponge and works out how to apply them to our own lives without us having to consciously think about it. See a tick and you immediately think Nike. See three stripes and you know it's Adidas. In either case, you most probably receive a strong signal to go out and buy a new pair of trainers. The subconscious forges powerful associations from logos and pictures. Advertisers, marketing gurus, television executives, media barons and politicians have always known this and they deploy the knowledge quite ruthlessly to capture and maintain your attention, usually for financial or political gain. As a former journalist I know only too well that a well-designed newspaper front page, with a striking picture, punchy headline and clever use of colour, can elicit a strong emotional reaction in the reader and can even swing people's votes in an election. That's why politicians always fought so hard to keep Rupert Murdoch onside. They knew that whichever political party was backed by The Sun would almost certainly win the next General Election, such was the newspaper's influence over the masses.
However, the power of subliminal imagery can also be used for therapeutic purposes and to bring about profound internal change. That's because it works with the subconscious - the same part of your mind which takes care of everything from the beating of your heart to the flow of the breath and all your other bodily functions. From the moment I first sat down to plan my coaching and therapy business, I knew I wanted to base it around the image of the phoenix - an archetypal symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Not only did the mythological fire bird serve as the perfect metaphor to describe my own recovery from stress-related illness, but I knew it would also act as a powerfully energetic symbol for my clients to tap into as they embarked on their own personal journeys of self-renewal and repair. Thanks to the hugely-talented Daniel Laing of Daniel Laing Design, the image of the phoenix is now woven skilfully throughout my website, signage and branding, meaning that clients soak up the subliminal message of regeneration on a subconscious level before their formal therapy has even got underway. This matters because in therapy it's the client's subconscious that does all the work. I don't cure or heal people. I merely act as a facilitator to help unlock a person's own inner curative power - and that power is contained within their subconscious. When a person sees the symbol of the phoenix it resonates on an unconscious level and unleashes that natural regenerative power, setting in motion a process of internal transformation.
Legends of the phoenix-type bird abounded throughout many civilisations of the ancient world, where it was said to symbolise renewal, resurrection and life in the heavenly paradise. Its influence can be found worldwide. Relatively few people are aware that the supposed "eagle" featured on the Great Seal of the United States is in fact intended to be a phoenix, sending out a subliminal message of the "New World" (America) arising out of the ashes of the Old (the British Empire). In recent years this ancient symbol has undergone something of a renaissance in popular culture, thanks in no small measure to the inclusion of Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix Fawkes in J.K. Rowling's blockbuster Harry Potter franchise. In mythology, a phoenix dies by bursting into flames before being reborn, arising triumphantly from the ashes of its predecessor. If you’re reading these words now, then the chances are that you’ve undergone some type of life-altering experience, whether that be depression, anxiety or a traumatic event. Such circumstances often represent a breaking down of old dysfunctional patterns of living and thinking in order to make way for new patterns more in tune with the improved lifestyle you will go on to enjoy.
At the time that it happens, the breaking down of the old can be hugely traumatic, devastating and destructive. Like the Phoenix bursting dramatically into flames at the end of its life-cycle, it can seem like literally the end of the world. And in a sense it is. It’s the end of an old world, old ways of thinking and acting, old outdated methods of living and working and old relationships which no longer serve you. It could be that you’ve lost your job, that a marriage or long-standing friendship has ended or that circumstances are forcing you to make a geographical move about which you’re uncertain. Such changes are natural sources of anxiety and apprehension. Letting go of the past can be extremely difficult and frequently involves a significant emotional wrench. But sometimes you simply have to let go of the past in order to clear the way for an entirely new life which may well prove to be much better than the old one.
In my own case, it was my job which had to go. This was no easy decision. I’d been a journalist for twenty years – the whole of my working life – and it was all I knew and all I’d ever been trained for. To have to change direction at my time of life seemed unthinkable. What would I do? Where would I go? How would I make money to survive? The risks and dangers involved in a career change seemed to outweigh any potential benefits, causing me to stay in a job which was slowly but surely killing me through stress. Eventually the realisation hit home that the newspaper industry had changed beyond recognition from the job I’d trained for two decades earlier. Advances in technology, combined with massive changes in the way in which people choose to get their news, meant that print journalists were sadly a dying breed. The choice facing me was simple. I could either stay in a job that was making me ever more ill by the day, or get out and do something else with my life. I chose the latter and it proved to be the best decision I ever made. Walking away was traumatic. My whole world came crashing down. But out of the ashes of the destruction of my old world were laid the foundations of a new life. The old had to be cleared out to make way for the new. And I’ve never looked back.
Regeneration is a key concept at the heart of the long-running British television series Doctor Who. In the hugely popular sci-fi show, regeneration is a biological ability exhibited by the Time Lords – a race of fictional humanoids from the planet Gallifrey. The process enables a Time Lord who is old or mortally wounded to undergo a transformation into a new physical form and with a somewhat different personality. The process, which sees the Time Lord suffused in an explosion of golden light (regeneration energy), has been used numerous times throughout the history of the franchise as an ingenious plot device for introducing a new actor into the role of its main character, the Doctor. Recovering from depression, anxiety, mental illness or a psychological breakdown can be much like the process of a Time Lord’s regeneration. Shortly after the regeneration process, the character of the Doctor sometimes goes through a period of physical and psychological instability. Critically though, he always goes on to make a full and complete recovery and, once his regeneration stabilises, emerges as a completely rejuvenated and reinvigorated character with new attributes and a fresh sense of purpose.
I have long viewed my own recovery from depression as being akin to the phoenix rising from the ashes, or the regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who, creating new life and fresh hope out of the dying embers of a previous existence. Like the Doctor, I emerged from my own ordeal with new characteristics, a new and more positive outlook on life and a new sense of purpose forged in the fire of my traumatic experience. My profound hope is that you too can draw inspiration and encouragement from the symbolism of the phoenix and that it can become a beacon of inspiration on your own path of personal regeneration.
As anyone who's read my blog Robin Hood - A Symbol of Hope will be aware, another TV show to make brilliant use of the regeneration concept back in the 1980s was Robin of Sherwood which deployed it as a clever plot device to get round the loss of its leading actor, Michael Praed, at the end of the show's second season. Viewers were left stunned when Praed's Robin of Loxley was shot down and killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men in the season finale, but their grief was short-lived. A new Robin - Robert of Huntingdon, played by Jason Connery - stepped up to take over the mantle of the "Hooded Man", rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his executed predecessor to steer the show through its third and final series. The spirit of hope refused to die. The events of this story had been foreshadowed quite brilliantly by the subtle use of crucifix imagery throughout the second season, reinforcing the death-and-resurrection motif and hinting subliminally at what was to come.
This core concept of death, resurrection and cyclical renewal symbolised by the phoenix is in fact part of an archetypal pattern which can be seen reflected throughout myth, legend and religion all the world over as well as in our own personal life experiences, world events and in nature. For example, the cells of our bodies die and are replaced; crops and vegetation grow, die and rise again in annual cycles, constellations in the night skies die and are “born again” the following night, we lose consciousness in sleep each night and then awaken renewed and refreshed the following morning, seasons follow each other with regular periodicity, the sun “dies” at sunset only to be reborn anew at sunrise the next morning, personal, tribal and national fortunes wax and wane and so too do human moods. The principle can be seen as a form of energy transference. We burn fuel to release energy to power our machines. We use waste (manure) to fertilise crops and yield new growth. The concept of birth-death-resurrection has been hardwired into creation and into the collective unconscious of humanity since ancient times and can be seen reflected not just in the symbolism of the phoenix but also in the archetypal phenomenon of the ‘dying-and-rising-god’ or messiah who traditionally sacrifices himself for humanity only to be reborn anew. The most famous example of this is obviously Jesus Christ who was tortured to death on the cross by the Romans and rose again on the third day. However, the same principle spans all cultures and faiths and can be seen reflected also in the stories of the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Bacchus among others as well as in the symbolic rituals of Freemasonry which enact the death of the allegorical character Hiram Abiff. The Christian celebration of Easter was in fact preceded by the pagan festival Ostara which marked the symbolic death of winter and the "resurrection of the light" with the arrival of spring. Sound familiar?
The process described by these stories refers not only to literal death and resurrection but can also be viewed on a metaphorical level as symbolising the transmutation one goes through in the course of self-improvement work and spiritual growth. The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung viewed the dying-and-rising god as an archetypal figure symbolising the process of transformation which a person undergoes in evolving towards their greater personality or "Higher Self". The key to this transformation is that new growth can only come about through the death of the old. It is therefore necessary for old and outworn forms to first be broken down in order to make way for the new. This brings us back to a subject we touched on in my previous blog, Addiction - The Ties That Bind, where I spoke of the importance of letting go of attachments - the unhelpful habits and behaviour patterns which keep us shackled to the past. 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”.
In every aspect of our lives we can see evidence that new growth only comes about through destruction. Without destructive events to break down the old, we stand still and stagnate. This applies equally to habitual patterns of thinking - old and flawed ways of looking at the world must first be dissolved before we can start to visualise the template for a new and better life. To use an analogy, there is no point in someone repeatedly buying new clothes if their wardrobes are already full. The old, unused clothes must first be cleared out and disposed of in order to create space in the cupboard for new acquisitions. When I founded the Phoenix Project, I decided I needed a base to work from - a space where I could meet clients for one-to-one therapy as well as for using as a classroom to run training courses. I had a vivid picture in mind of the type of structure I was looking to build - a garden room of sufficient size that it would offer a versatile and flexible space - but as things stood there was no room on my property to erect such a building. In order to create the space required it was necessary to demolish the existing garden shed, remove an overgrown bush, flatten a rockery and uproot a tree which had died several years before, so that the entire area could then be levelled and concreted over to provide a firm base upon which to build the new structure. I couldn’t have erected this building had I not been willing to destroy what was there before. New life was created out of the death and destruction of the old.
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 clear-out. 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. If you're not getting the results that you want, then take a good look at your life to see if there's some piece of redundant baggage which hasn't been jettisoned.
I was able to apply the concept of regeneration to my own life in the course of my recovery from stress-related illness, during which I discovered the benefits of meditation and mindfulness which in turn led to a spiritual awakening which transformed my entire life for the better and launched me upon a new and rewarding career as a therapist. Looking back, I can see how my old life had stagnated. In order for me to move forward, it was necessary for that life to be blown apart so that I could “rise again” according to an archetypal pattern. Christ’s trials upon the cross can be seen as representative of this process in which we must sacrifice the old - an experience often involving great pain and hardship - in order to pave the way for new beginnings and allow ourselves to be reborn like a phoenix from the ashes. I see now how it was necessary for me to undergo the sacrifice of my old life in order that the energy be released for a new phase of growth. To me, this alchemical transmutation of negative experiences into positive ones lies at the heart of the regenerative process. The traumatic “death” of the lower self is necessary in order to blow away all the various neuroses, insecurities, prejudices, negative character traits and faulty patterns of thinking which we develop and accumulate as a result of our life experiences, cultural conditioning, environment and through exposure to society’s perceived norms. The stripping away of all this negative programming eventually exposes the pure, untarnished and brightly polished diamond underneath which is the true or higher self. As such the process is effectively a rebirth, a second chance at life, in which the old self dies to make way for the newly resurrected greater personality.
These concepts were clearly known to our ancestors who chose to encode them within myths, legends and fables, all of which were designed to stir the inner knowing within man’s subconscious. The use of mythological storytelling stimulates and illumines the imagination, enabling the mind to draw out the deeper meaning encoded within the metaphor. There is no better example of this than the Greek myths, which conveyed powerful philosophical truths veiled within fables. To the Ancient Greeks, myth-making was a science through which people could be instructed in the fundamental truths of life. The same can be said to be true of the parables told by Jesus, the Hindu legends within The Mahabarata, the fairytales penned by the Brothers Grimm and the legends of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail. The examples within myth and religion of great souls who have been slain, only to rise again triumphant, are therefore designed to serve as models to illustrate the principle of death and rebirth. The metaphor is equally effective, regardless of whether the example in question is Christ, Osiris or the phoenix. It is not necessary to prove, or even to believe in, these stories on a literal level in order to still derive benefit from the fundamental spiritual truths encoded within the allegory. This is not to suggest for one moment that the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ are not historically accurate - merely that it is not necessary to prove their historicity to be able to appreciate what the accounts represent on a metaphorical level and to apply those lessons to our own lives.
No matter what trials we’ve endured in our lives, the image of the phoenix gives us hope that we can renew ourselves, start again and begin afresh… just like I did. If we’ve been going through a rough time, then maybe it’s time for us to recreate ourselves. We need to stop worrying about what other people think. Too often we view ourselves through other people’s eyes and imagine what they must be thinking. We feel guilty or ashamed that we’re not more successful, that our status isn’t higher, that we haven’t achieved as much with our lives as we feel we should or could have done. When this happens, it’s easy to enter a spiral of decline and despair. But there's always hope and potential for complete self-renewal. Here at Phoenix we're committed to helping people towards becoming the best version of themselves possible. Everyone has the potential to be a superhero if they just open themselves up to the possibility, embrace change and show a willingness to let go of attachment to the past.
Death and resurrection is just one of many archetypal themes which can be seen to recur time and again throughout our mythology, regardless of time period, geographical location or cultural differences. Explore the labyrinthine world of the Hindu epic The Mahabarata and it quickly becomes apparent that the exploits of super-powered demi-God Vasudev Krishna not only foreshadowed the teachings and activities of Christ, who came 3000 years later, but also provided the template for all the superheroes in the Marvel and DC cinematic and comic book universes today. Millenia after they first surfaced, these same essential stories are still being told as a means of conveying moral lessons and fundamental spiritual truths, though nowadays we tend to use superheroes and characters such as Doctor Who and Harry Potter, in place of the pantheons of gods and goddesses idolised by our ancestors. These stories are designed to stimulate our imaginations and spur us on to become the superhero of our own epic adventure story. 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 themes in detail. If these subjects have aroused your curiosity, and you'd like to delve deeper, then drop us an email at email@example.com 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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