by Deb Whitehouse
Everybody loves a story. When I was living in Chicago and my young nieces and nephews were living in Boston, I used to send them a storybook as a birthday or Christmas present, and include with it a tape of myself reading the book aloud and ringing a little gong when it was time to turn the page. That way, they could have Aunt Deb read to them whenever they liked, and my niece Melissa at age five actually taught herself to read by reading along with me. Most of us also enjoy hearing stories told round a campfire, especially if there are toasted marshmallows.
Since ancient times, the storyteller was a valued and respected member of the community, for the storyteller preserved history back before writing became widely available as a means of carrying on tradition. Perhaps in school you studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stories about the Trojan war followed by the ten-year struggle of the Greek hero Odysseus to find his way back home from Troy to Greece, as told by the blind poet, Homer. How factual they were remains open to debate, but they preserved important parts of Greek culture for future generations.
Some stories are true: they recount events pretty much as they actually happened. Other stories are myths: they may not be factually accurate but are intended to be teaching tales or to explain natural events for which primitive people had no scientific explanation, and so we had the myth about Helios, or Apollo, the sun god, driving his fiery chariot across the sky. Some stories are a blend of fact and fiction, and it is not always clear which is which. The story of the phoenix is one hundred percent fictional: there ain't no such animal. But is it a lie? No! It is a myth, with enormous value for us as a teaching tale.
Children as they mature psychologically go through what psychology of religion expert James Fowler refers to as a mythic-literal stage in the development of their faith. In the mythic-literal stage, they are struggling to distinguish the real from the make-believe. They begin to take on for themselves the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to their community, and they take literally all the beliefs and rules that they are working with. There's a wonderful children's book titled A Bear Before Breakfast. Daddy at dinner says to Mommy, "Dear, I'm sorry I was such a bear before breakfast this morning," and the kids sit there picturing a big hairy bear sitting in their father's place at the breakfast table!
"Story", Fowler explains,
becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. This is the faith-stage of the school-child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescents and in adults).
In ancient times, the entire human race was pretty much at a mythic-literal stage of development, and it was back then that most of the great myths appeared. They served to bind the members of a culture together. And the rich myth of the phoenix can bind us together today. Let's take a look at what it has to teach us.
You're probably familiar with the basic legend of the phoenix, the mythical bird that lives for 500 years, builds its own funeral pyre, is consumed by the flames, then rises anew from the ashes. This legend supposedly symbolizes the rising and setting of the sun, as well as immortality, resurrection, and life after death. Like all good myths, it has a number of versions and many layers of interpretation. It appears in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Arabic, and Chinese mythology. American Indians have their version of the phoenix: the thunderbird, who is believed to be a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. Through its work, the earth is watered and vegetation grows, for lightning is believed to flash from its beak, and the beating of its wings is thought to result in the rolling of thunder. The city of Phoenix got its name because the city rose from the ancient ruins of a Hohokam Indian settlement that existed there until about 1400. In 1867, the Swilling Irrigating Canal Company was formed, and one of the canal builders, a man named Darrell Duppa, suggested the name.
The name phoenix means palm tree in Greek, and the Greek historian Herodotus tells the tale of the legendary bird. The Greeks probably got the idea from the ancient Egyptians. In Egypt, the phoenix was associated with the worship of the sun. In both the Greek and Egyptian versions, the phoenix represented the sun, who dies in flames each evening and emerges anew each morning. It is described as being larger than an eagle, having brilliant scarlet, gold, and purple plumage and a melodious cry. The Arabs had an incombustible cloth woven of flexible asbestos that was thought to be its hair or plumage. In Egypt, the written symbol, the hieroglyph, for sun was the phoenix.
There was only one phoenix at a time, and it lived for 500 years. It laid no eggs and had no young, and it was there when the world began. It was the quintessential firebird, young and strong. When it began to feel weak and old, it would build a nest out of twigs of cassia and frankincense, set it afire, and immolate itself in the fragrant flames. From this funeral pyre miraculously sprang a new phoenix. The new phoenix would embalm its predecessor's ashes in an egg of myrrh and fly with the ashes to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun in Egypt. There, it would deposit them on the altar in the temple of the Egyptian god of the sun. From this we can easily see how the phoenix came to be the early Christian symbol of immortality and spiritual rebirth. The flight of the phoenix represents "the capacity to leave the world and its problems behind, flying toward the sun in clear, pure skies".
In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is the symbol of high virtue and grace, of power and prosperity. It represents the union of yin and yang. It was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and eating only dewdrops. It reflected the empress, and only she could wear the phoenix symbol. Jewelry with the phoenix design showed that the wearer was a person of high moral values, and so the phoenix could only be worn by people of importance. The Chinese phoenix was thought to have a large bill, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish. It carried two scrolls in its bill, and its song included the five whole notes of the Chinese scale (I don't exactly know how it could sing with its mouth full). Its feathers were of the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow.
For the past couple of years I have been interested in the Chinese art of placement, known as feng shui, and in feng shui, the phoenix figures prominently, representing the south point of the compass, for south was considered the ideal way for one's house to face. In The Feng Shui Handbook, feng shui Master Lam Kam Chuen writes,
A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration.
Since ancient times, humankind has regarded fire as sacred, a gift from the gods, because it is essential to our welfare. The fire of the sun gives life and light and warmth. It's not surprising that people came to think of the sun as a god, and to worship it. Fire also cleanses and purifies. Scientists have learned that occasional forest fires are necessary for the well-being of the environment, because they burn off old, dead material and stimulate new growth. Without the renewing fire, the forest stagnates and dies. The refiner's fire is necessary to separate the dross from the gold, or to temper the steel. Purification by fire, however, is a painful and often dangerous process that can easily get out of control, certainly not something to be taken lightly. The people in Florida right now can attest to that! Yet hidden in the seeming disaster is the gift of rebirth.
According to legend, the phoenix appears only in peaceful and prosperous times, hiding when there is trouble. It is therefore a sign of peace by its presence and at the same time a symbol of disharmony by its absence. Yet this prosperity symbol chooses, at the end of its long life, to deliberately immolate itself in the sacred fire in order that it might be born anew. The lesson here is that even in the midst of prosperity, we need a renewal stage, a recycling, an interruption of the status quo, a letting go of angels in order that archangels might appear. And if things have been less than prosperous, less than harmonious, then more than ever, we need the purifying fire, the renewing process.
Many people fear this process: they resist change, or they want to preserve the appearance of order and harmony at all costs, or they are threatened by disagreements of any sort. But chaos theory teaches us that the greater the chaos, the greater the resulting higher order. The greatest learning and creativity take place on the edge of chaos. New Thoughters have an affirmation: "I welcome change and call it good." This is not random, arbitrary change for the sake of change; it's part of an ongoing growth process that is in divine order.
Our personal fire may be an illness, a troubled relationship or a financial difficulty. An organization may go through the fire of betrayal by its leaders, mismanagement of various sorts, or changing circumstances that leave it unsuited for the world it must function in. The person or institution "dies," perishing in the flames, and is born anew, better than ever, preserving the best of the past as it flies into the future. If the phoenix dying symbolizes the setting sun, the phoenix rising symbolizes the dawning of a new and brighter day. We rise wiser, better, stronger, more focused on our life's mission.
The theme of this year's Congress/Expo is "New Thought: Souls on Fire." The author of Hebrews observed, "Whom the Lord loves he chastens" (12:6). Webster defines _chasten_ as "to correct by punishment or suffering: discipline: purify: to prune . . . of excess, pretense, or falsity." It's sometimes interesting to read in place of "Lord" "Law of Mind Action." We put ourselves into the fire by our actions, and the fire can be a great learning experience for us, for God walks through the fire with us. God suffers as we suffer, and God is at work mitigating damages even before we cry out in pain. It makes me think of the famous passage from Isaiah: "Before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear" (65:24).
Myths and other stories, rich in metaphor, engage the other-than-conscious mind. They enable us to make mental connections quickly, to speed up our learning, indeed, to teach us things that we never could learn with the rational mind alone. As such, they are of enormous importance to us. And it is equally important that we learn to distinguish clearly between myth and fact, for only then can we integrate them usefully.
An infant doesn't know where he or she ends and the rest of the world begins. The maturation process consists of learning which is which, of differentiating oneself from the rest of the world. Until one has done that successfully, become independent, one is unable to progress to the highest stage of maturity, which is integration with others, or interdependence. We must clearly differentiate before we can integrate. Now, certainly we are more differentiated in some areas than others because we're still learning. All religions get tangled up in myth, and that's not all bad, because myths can help us pass along our religious traditions and strengthen our faith. Then, too, some things cannot be expressed literally; they can only be stated in metaphor. Our relationship with God is one of the best examples of this. Mystics say the relationship is ineffable, beyond words, and then proceed to use torrents of words to try to describe it. Since a mystical experience is by definition an altered state, it's hard to say just what is literally true and what is metaphor. It's wrong to dismiss an altered state as nonsense, and it's equally wrong to accept it unquestioningly as literally true when it defies logic or reason. As human beings, reason is one of our greatest gifts, and our intuition itself depends on steady input from our reason.
The best metaphor of all time for describing our relationship with God was given to us by Jesus, who taught us to relate to God as to a loving and wise father. God also has nurturing, motherly qualities as well, and the new metaphysics known as process thought emphasizes both aspects of God, the fatherly and the motherly. The metaphor portrays us as God's offspring, made in God's image and likeness, one with God and each other in the same sense that we are one with our earthly family. Yet Jesus also made it clear that the Father was greater than he, greater than any of us or even all of us put together, for God contains all of us: the universe is God's body. Although God is everywhere present, and we are never ever separate from God, we are not identical with God. We have minds of our own as well as bodies of our own, and God has a mind of God's own as well as a body. We have free will to say yes or no to God's initial aims, those perfect possibilities for us, tailor-made moment by moment. And because we have free will, we're responsible for our choices. We must take the consequences of our past choosing, whether our choices were conscious or unconscious, but we're not stuck in the past, because we're free to make better choices with God's guidance in the next moment. Moment by moment, we can build up a collection of better choices.
So we are cocreators with God. Moment by moment, the past as contained in us comes together with God's perfect possibilities to create something new. Without God, there would be no novelty, no departure from the old patterns of the past. But without us, God would be out of business, for God has no hands but ours. God needs us just as we need God. Best of all, this is all completely natural, not supernatural. God doesn't have to go outside of nature. God doesn't have to break the rules of nature, for nature, as it has developed under divine influence and guidance, is plenty wonderful enough. Do you remember the Flower Drum Song, "A hundred million miracles are happening every day." A miracle is best defined as the operation of a natural law that we don't yet understand.
The cornerstone of New Thought is the Law of Mind Action, Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind. We cocreate our own world with our thoughts coupled with God's initial aims, moment by moment. And our thoughts can be really helped along by the vivid images of a good myth or metaphor.
But it's important that as we mature spiritually, we understand what is metaphor and what is real. Theologian Paul Tillich coined the term broken myth to refer to a myth that we know is a myth. We can go right on using it and enjoying it and profiting by it, but we know that it's not literally true. There is no 500-year-old bird that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book and rises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre. And God is not a giant human being of either gender. Nor, to go to the other extreme, is God an IT, a thing, for a thing cannot love, and we as human beings are very capable of love. If you call God IT, then you create a situation where the creature is more capable than the creator, and that's completely illogical. So whatever you do, don't refer to God as IT! You can skip the pronoun altogether if you like, and that works perfectly well.
And by the way, whatever name you choose to use for the Supreme Being, perhaps Spirit, or maybe father of New Thought Phineas Parkhurst Quimby's favorite name, Wisdom, you'd be wise at least part of the time to continue to use the handy little three-letter word G-O-D, because that's what you probably encountered as a child, and that therefore is what is involved in any erroneous or outworn childish notions that may still be rattling around in your other-than-conscious mind. If you want to overwrite your old beliefs about God, then you need to use the name God at least occasionally.
The German philosopher Vaihinger had a term for beliefs that we know are not true but still come in handy: he called them useful fictions. That was his great philosophy of AS IF: you act AS IF something were true if it's beneficial to you. Now I'm not a philosopher, but I keep one handy around the house to answer questions about the meaning of life (no home should be without one). However, it just so happens that I heard about Vaihinger's notion of a useful fiction when I studied the great depth psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler was very fond of Vaihinger's philosophy of as if, and he built that concept into his psychology. Now philosophers have the very important task of mediating between mysticism and empiricism and reconciling what we learn from both, and philosophers bend over backward to avoid the use of metaphor, because it's their job as metaphysicians to establish what is real, but as I mentioned earlier, sometimes we have no choice but to resort to metaphor. Still, as much as possible, we should try to work only with broken myths, where we know what the reality is.
One of the glories of New Thought is that it has preserved the tradition of symbolic interpretation of the Bible. Now of course this involves metaphor, big time! Even without symbolic interpretation, the Bible is heavy with metaphor, and that is the source of much of its power. As Emmet Fox has pointed out, when you're feeling bad or mad or scared or whatever, and you read, for example, Psalm 23, or 46, or 91, they act as mini-treatments. There is a psychological reframe built right into them, so that just reading them changes you. And Catherine Ponder has eloquently pointed out in her writings that to the Oriental mind it is impolite to just state things literally, so they tend to come wrapped in parable or metaphor, and since the Bible was written by Oriental minds for Oriental minds, the Bible is full of these indirect expressions. In fact, Jesus's disciples at times asked him to explain his parables, in other words, they spelled out for us that this was what was happening. Some parts of the Bible were intended as history and were meant to be taken literally. The authors of the Gospels were recording events as they experienced them, and so we can be sure that they are authentic, even though, since most people then were in the mythic-literal stage of development, we may not be totally sure of the accuracy of all the details, and must fill in with educated guesses based on what is known about the culture of the day, the use of literary criticism, linguistic analysis, forensic medicine, and other techniques. Today we have more tools available to us than ever before, and for those of us open-minded enough to examine impartially the evidence presented through, say, laser examination of ancient papyrus, or research done by art experts, the Gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are corroborated by the new evidence from the Shroud of Turin and the Magdalen papyrus. Jesus of Nazareth is no myth. All of the New Thought founders accepted and attempted to live by his teachings, and we should do no less. Although we may continue to try to sort out what is myth from what is real, the basic facts of the life and teachings of our Elder Brother, whom we can emulate, continue to stand up to the closest scrutiny.
Philosopher David Griffin has pointed out that there are three kinds of thinkers. The first kind is the paradigmatic thinkers, those who have embraced some paradigm and use it to determine what they believe is possible. They refuse to even consider anything that they have decided is impossible, despite mountains of facts that may bring their whole paradigm into question. They are like the medieval churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts."
The second kind of thinker, the factual thinker, judges by the best facts currently available. Facts that are at odds with what we have traditionally believed to be true may be uncomfortable to live with at first, because change is always strange. When you've been told all your life that the earth is the center of the universe, and somebody comes along with facts that show you it isn't, it's hard to adjust. But thinkers who are willing to judge by the facts are the hope of the world.
The third kind of thinker is the wishful thinker, who judges by what he or she wishes were true. Now Griffin here is not talking about turning wishes into blazing desires, using the power of vision to bring things to pass; he's talking about the person who just isn't in touch with current reality. And unfortunately, there can be hybrids of the three types, so that there are wishful paradigmatic thinkers, or even, alas! wishful factual thinkers.
Now to be sure, it is not always clear what the facts are, and facts can change, so we often find ourselves waiting for divine guidance as to what is true. Quimby healed a lot of people that the doctors couldn't cure. Later thinkers tried to explain his cures away as purely psychosomatic, as working only on illnesses that were all in the patient's mind. Now the latest round of scientific research supports beyond question the existence of nonlocal healing, and doctors are finally getting around to admitting that over 90% of all illness is psychogenic, which does not mean that it's all in your head; it's very real and it really hurts, but the cause is psychological. There's a back doctor named John Sarno who takes so-called hopeless cases and cures 95% of them simply by having them listen to a pair of lectures explaining the mind-body connection. Cures. As in zero pain in a matter of a couple of weeks. As Quimby put it, "The explanation is the cure." Quimby lives! But the paradigmatic thinkers in the medical profession don't believe it's possible, so they refuse to examine the evidence.
Let's return to the last part of the phoenix story: the new phoenix gathers up the ashes of the old phoenix, preserves them in an egg of myrrh and flies with them to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, where it places them on the altar of the sun god. An egg is the symbol of new birth, and so we have a wonderful balance of old and new in juxtaposition, synergized into something better than either one could be alone. It's not enough just to be purified and renewed; we must wisely retain the parts of the past that continue to serve us well. To the past, we add perfect possibilities in the form of God's initial aims, given to us new every moment. Offering up the old ashes to the sun god nicely symbolizes what we do in New Thought when we turn our attention away from our difficulties and toward God. When we understand that, we have a great broken myth. We see God in the midst of the problem, while we are walking through the fire. Some people say that God sees only solutions and not problems, but that's not true. God is right in the middle of the problem with us, suffering as we suffer, rejoicing as we rejoice. The great metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead referred to God as "the Great Companion, the Fellow-Sufferer who understands". But God is also at work orchestrating the solution to the problem, and mitigating the damages. Myrrh, used in ancient burial rites, was one of the gifts of the Magi to the baby Jesus. It has the power to soothe, to disinfect, and to deodorize; and it continues to be a useful healing remedy today. The phoenix myth, then, in the part about the egg of myrrh, tells us that there is balm available to soothe any pain that we may experience from going through the fire.
And the new phoenix is tenderly preserving the ashes of the old. It isn't stuck in the past, unchanging; it is willing to go through the fire in order to be renewed, and yet it remembers and honors the best of the past. Similarly, we in New Thought, need to remember and honor our various founders, to go back and read their actual words now and then instead of relying on what somebody else says they said. We need to read them with love and admiration, and at the same time, with constructive criticism, noting where they were not quite on the money, or where subsequent learnings or discoveries have rendered them obsolete. To be fair, we must always judge someone according to his or her lights, according to the wisdom that he or she had available at the time, not by what we have available today. Still, at times, we must evaluate, and note where changes are needed and where the past should be preserved.
New Thought is a nineteenth century religion based on nineteenth century metaphysics against a backdrop of seventeenth century Newtonian physics. We have come a long way since then. To prepare for the twenty-first century, we need to develop a New Thought metaphysics that takes into account the discoveries of quantum physics and the greater insights that are available in the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics. If we are willing to do this, we have the opportunity to heal the five-hundred-year-old breach between science and religion as well as the breach between the theism of traditional Christianity and the pantheism of eastern religions that has been embraced by many in the west. To the Chinese, the phoenix is the symbol of change. In Taoism, and in quantum physics, all is change, change is the basic reality. And this is the teaching of the new metaphysics known as process thought, which can readily become Process New Thought.
Now you don't have to be able to take the engine apart to drive a car, and you don't have to work much with philosophy or theology to be a New Thoughter and practice the Presence of God for practical purposes. The traditional New Thought techniques work just as well with a Process New Thought explanation underlying them, and like broken myths, they sometimes work even better with a better explanation. But if you don't want to learn how to take an engine apart, then you need to cultivate a relationship with a good mechanic whom you respect and listen to, and if you don't want to study philosophy, then you need to listen with care to those who do. In order to attract others to come under our INTA umbrella, we need to make sure that our engine is running smoothly, and that our philosophical foundations can stand up to careful scrutiny.
And at myth's end, when the ashes are cold, and the trials are over, another fire appears. This fire is the burning of love in our hearts, the passion ignited in response to God's love of us. Our very souls begin to burn with this passion as we seek to emulate the God in whose image we are made. We have talents to develop for use in the service of others, a life's work to do, a mission to fulfill. Before, we may have grown jaded; now, purified by the flames, our passion is renewed, its own flames fanned by the beating of the thunderbird's wings. And so, as myths blend into one another, our past blends into a bright new future in God's love.
In some respects this talk is continued in Alan Anderson's Rising Above the Past - Every Moment
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