The Symbols of Change And Transformation

The Symbols of Change Shape Your Thinking

Typologies are powerful symbols in our culture.  Learn how they influence your thinking and values.

The Symbols of Change

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

Many people think this quote from Nietzsche refers to the typology of the Phoenix. This is 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.  This is a “Phoenix-like” figure.  They are an example of the transformational process, birth, death.  And our beliefs surrounding reincarnation and resurrection.

You can find these typologies in Chinese, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Christian traditions. They are all similar spiritual rites of passage.  This 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.  This could be 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 as a way of celebrating these typologies and rites of change and transformation.

Spiritual Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are an important part of our lives. They are also an important link to the typologies.  They are benchmarks of significant life-changing experiences.  A rite of passage is a ritual marking the transition point from one state to another.

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

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

    • Separation
    • Cleansing
    • Symbolic Death
    • Rebirth.

This process is cyclical, just like the seasons of the year.  As a result, it’s an important formula that you find in many learning processes in many cultures.  We use this same method in our blended learning process because it is effective in ensuring the best learning outcomes.


The separation aspect of this typology is important.  This 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 taken into the wilderness.  In some traditions, they lower the candidate into a hole, confined in a cave, hut, or sweat lodge.

Today, the weekend retreat where we turn off electronic devices works as an effective substitute for the feeling of isolation. Being away from the normal 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. There are a variety of cleansing rituals that 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, burning 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.  This 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 level of initiation. This makes them worth learning.  To undergo these painful things proves their commitment.

Many cultures use the symbols of change and transformation in the public display of major life changes.  They show the candidate is worthy of some rite of passage.  This refers to any of the three major 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 the way people tell others they are worthy.

Today we use a process known as a comparative analysis to examine the beliefs of our worldview. Then, we can move beyond their limitations.  This is the symbolic death of beliefs.   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.  This comes about because of applying the new spiritual technologies. This is the Eureka experience when perception changes. The person feels “new.” They can see or understand different perspectives. This often involves embracing new spiritual gifts.

Typology and rites of passage are important landmarks for our psyche.   If they are not available, then the individual will often create their own.  Rather, we need to recognize the milestones in our lives.  These milestones help us gain a new perspective.  They connect with those have the same life stories and events.  Rites of passage commemorate and honor our efforts.

Many people experience great losses. Nothing destroys like fire.  So, if we can face the flames of truth, as the burn away your beliefs about spiritual reality, this is a frightful experience. We must ignite the flame that allows us to burn away all belief. In doing so, we can be reborn by the ashes of the 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 the 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 typology gives us the steps to help us see the parts of the whole.  So, it is the transformation process that shows how and why it is necessary to move the focus of our awareness inward.  In normal modern daily life, our focus is on the external.  This isn’t healthy.  It denies our very essence.

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.  This is a necessary starting place to 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. However, the components of Ego, the personality, and instinct can be understood in their proper context.  Tools like the Enneagram personality profile promote this understanding.  In turn, this promotes 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? This is the observer. What we need is to engage in the process which “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.  At first, out of necessity for warmth and to cook.  But it is also a community builder.  Because of this fire is 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.


This 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.

In Conclusion

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

However, it is important not to confuse the metaphor with facts.  Myth is important as 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.

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Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia
Image Artist Unknown
Typology, Wikipedia
Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikipedia
Abrahamic Religions, Wikipedia

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