The Symbols of Change And Transformation

The Symbols of Change Shaping Your Life

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you become new if you haven’t first become ashes?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

The Symbols of Change

Typologies (1) are potent symbols in our culture.  Learn how they influence your thinking and values.

Many people think this quote from Nietzsche (2) refers to the Phoenix typology, a creature of Greek mythology relating to resurrection and rebirth.  The Phoenix does not die. Instead, it burns from within.  Then, from its ashes, it is reborn.

Typology of the Phoenix

Many mythologies have a version of the Phoenix typology.  It is an example of the complete transformational process from birth to death.  And our beliefs surrounding reincarnation and resurrection.

You can find these typologies in Chinese, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Christian traditions. They are spiritual rites of passage that are similar.  It suggests that the symbols of change and transformation are universal principles.

“To transform the world, we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is the intention. The intention must be to understand ourselves and not to leave it to others to transform themselves or to bring about a modified change through revolution, either of the left or of the right. It is important to understand that this is our responsibility, yours and mine…” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

The Phoenix is often a messenger of truth.  It is someone who goes against the cultural narrative.   And, as a result, they often torture and kill them.  But then, there is a miracle.  They resurrect and reappear. Thus, the pattern of resurrection and rebirth.  Sound familiar?

Change and Transformation

The butterfly is nature’s typology of transformation.  Some think the butterfly is the source of the original typology.  A caterpillar goes through several stages in its development on the way to the cocoon.  Then the caterpillar liquefies in the cocoon during its final transformation process.  You don’t see all the hard work of transformation within the cocoon.  The butterfly which emerges differs from the caterpillar.

transforming butterflies caterpillar to butterfly reincarnation and resurrection

What is important is that we understand the message of this typology?   This way, we can see how our cultures use this typology. And also how we can use this same typology in our own lives.  We use rites of passage to celebrate these typologies and traditions of change and transformation.

Spiritual Rites of Passage

Rituals are rites that commemorate change.  They are ceremonies that link us to major typologies, which are benchmarks that recognize transitions from one state to another.

Rites of passage can be social events to commemorate significant life events such as births, deaths, or marriages.  In some cultures, these rites also mark the change with social significance. They are attaining a position of authority, for instance.  So, nothing is more important than the rites of passage surrounding resurrection and rebirth.  Religions create public rituals to showcase initiation of some kind.

Spiritual rites of passage and rituals of initiation almost always follow the same formula.  They represent the significant typologies and symbols of transformation:

    • Separation
    • Cleansing
    • Symbolic Death
    • Rebirth.

This process is cyclical, just like the seasons of the year. You’ll find this formula in the traditions of many cultures.  We use this same method in our blended learning process because it ensures the best learning outcomes.


The separation aspect of this typology is essential.  It focuses the attention of the learner on the process at hand.

In many cultures, this separation often involves physical separation or isolation.  They take away the learner from the family and the village. Sometimes blindfolded and brought into the wilderness.  In some traditions, they lower the candidate into a hole for several days.  Sometimes they are confined in a cave, hut, or sweat lodge.

Today, the weekend retreat where we turn off electronic devices works as a substitute for the feeling of isolation. Being away from the everyday routine and away from social media enables participants to focus on the weekend’s processes.  Meditation is a form of separation.  When one can turn awareness inward, then we separate from the external.

For many, this is their first step in developing their spiritual path.  It opens our awareness to the typologies and methods of transformation.


Cleansing the body and mind, preparing for change is the next step. In some cultures, use a ritual bath.  Others use special diets for the removal of all body hair. Various cleansing rituals again help focus the candidate for learning and preparing the body.  Ritual baths are the symbols of change for ritual cleansing.  One cleans the mind by cleansing the body.

Symbolic cleansing takes many forms.  For example, you can burn slips of paper with memories of events you want to move past.  Sharing your life story with others is also a way of cleansing the psyche.  The vulnerability of sharing creates bonds between people.  Sharing lightens the burden of the past.

Symbolic Death

Symbolic death is prominent in many religious traditions and spiritual rites of passages. Some ancient cultures did not realize the death was only a symbolic act.  They lead students to believe they will die during the process.

Some emphasize this aspect of the spiritual process with scarification and tattoos.  Some undergo dismemberment or other body piercings so that this symbolic death will be a public sign of their initiation level, making them worth learning.  To experience these painful rites proves their commitment.

Many cultures use the symbols of change and transformation in the public display of significant life changes.  They show the candidate is worthy of some rite of passage.  You can overlay or associate social changes with any of the three primary typologies, rebirth, reincarnation, and resurrection.

The symbolic death is a way of killing previous beliefs. Because without their death, we cannot transform and move to the next level.  So, the rites of initiation are how people tell others they are worthy.

We use a process to examine the beliefs of our worldview. Comparative Analysis is a structured process for comparative religious study.  Through this process, candidates can explore and confront the constructs of their worldview.  They are then more prepared to learn and move beyond their limitations, which is a symbolic death of their previous situation.   A necklace or similar trinket becomes a symbol of this rite of passage—no need for scarification or tattoos.


The last aspect of the spiritual rite of passage is the symbolic rebirth.  We like to think this is made possible by applying processes that change awareness.  Birthing takes nine months.  The incremental growth of consciousness can be like this.  Other times the rebirth can be a giant leap forward.  A Eureka experience is an immediate significant change in perception. Either of these two experiences makes the person feels “new.” They can see or understand different perspectives.  A true rebirth often involves embracing new spiritual gifts.

Typology and rites of passage are important landmarks for our psyche.   If they are not available, they will often create their own. Instead, we need to recognize the milestones in our lives.  These milestones help us gain a new perspective.  They also connect with those who go through the same process.  It unites people with the same life stories and events and commemorates and honors our efforts.

Many people experience profound life-changing losses. Nothing destroys like fire.  So, if we can face the flames of truth, as they burn away our beliefs about spiritual reality, this is a frightful experience. We must ignite the flame that allows us to burn away all faith. In doing so, we can be reborn by the ashes of mythology.

We understand that mythology is a typology that points the way.  It is not a reality but a word-picture.  So, we can move beyond mythology.  And so, out of these ashes, we are reborn to experience a new reality. We see that we had to burn away “belief” to resurrect and become free spiritual Beings.

Reincarnation and Resurrection

Transformation should be the goal of the spiritual process. The transformation process shows how and why it is necessary to grow.  In everyday modern daily life, our focus is on the external, but this isn’t healthy.  It denies our very essence.  The transformation process shifts our focus to inner work.

Transformation is a requirement for the “observer” to take its rightful place in our lives. We are born in default mode with the Ego in control.  It’s a necessary tool that helps us acclimate to this life.  The symbolism of reincarnation and resurrection are metaphors for this transformation.

Hence, we cannot remove the Ego.  It is a tool connecting our body to consciousness.  Tools like the Enneagram personality profile promote our understanding of this machine.  In turn, this fosters self-awareness and presence.  Thus, allowing the “observer” to be present.

Who do you think you are talking to in your self-talk? Likewise, who do you think is dreaming when you sleep? It’s the observer. We need to engage in the process that “awakens” the “observer.” We find everyone has their way of awakening through the use of a variety of spiritual tools or technologies.

Fire is also not just transformational. It is what brought people together to build community.  At first, out of necessity for warmth and to cook.  But it is also a community builder.  Because of this, fire is considered the first community-building tool.


A variation of afterlife beliefs includes the concept of reincarnation.  It is the belief that the transformative process is not complete, and we must return.  Perhaps we did not evolve or reach some goal like learning a specific lesson.  In some cultures, you return to experience life as an animal, insect, or plant.


Immortality of the spirit is the most popular afterlife belief concept.  For the individual, it means life after death in heaven. So, it’s a version of reincarnation, but not on this plane of existence. It also dovetails into the dying-God mythologies where the avatar or God makes a physical appearance. Resurrection is the cornerstone of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (3).

In Conclusion

Symbols play a significant role in forming our values.  Spiritual rites of passage and the symbolism of change are patterns we find in cultures around the globe.  These are metaphors for self-development. These metaphors manifest as typologies of rebirth, reincarnation, and resurrection.

However, it is vital not to confuse metaphors with facts.  Myth is a tool to communicate principles using story and imagery. It’s all about applying the processes of transformation.  These processes are the domain of spiritual exploration.

Thanks for reading this article. We welcome your opinion, so don’t hesitate to comment or email us.  We hope it provides some food for thought.  You can find more mind-opening topics on our blog.

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(1) Typology, Wikipedia
(2) Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikipedia
(3) Abrahamic Religions, Wikipedia
(4) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia

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