Levels of Consciousness

In keeping with my intent to frame the enlightened caveman concept in Integral terms, it’s necessary to discuss the notion of consciousness development. Once again, it was Ken Wilber who introduced me to this highly useful codification of natural phenomena.

Let me start by framing what sounds a bit esoteric in more practical terms. You can think of consciousness in this context as breadth of perspective – that is, how much of your world you consider from moment to moment. If you have a narrow perspective, you think about yourself primarily, whereas, if you have a wide perspective, you think about yourself as well as others. The most important thing is that expanding perspective (or increasing the level of consciousness) is a developmental thing, which is to say that you have to proceed from narrow breadth of perspective through ever-expanding perspectives – you can’t simply adopt a broad perspective without first having a narrow one.

One approach to describing this is to say that people develop from egocentric (focused exclusively on the self) to ethnocentric (self plus in-group, which can be family, community, church, nation, etc.) to world-centric (self plus in-group plus everyone and everything else). We can easily see this with children.

Infants and toddlers have very narrow perspectives – they are focused on their needs exclusively. They are egocentric. Indeed, for the first couple of years, they can’t even identify themselves as distinct entities within the world. As they get older, children expand their perspectives to include their family members – they become aware that the people around them also have thoughts and needs. Then, as they get older still, they continue to expand their perspectives to include larger and larger groups – kids at school, people at church, and so on. Eventually, they may come to include their nation in their perspective (especially in nationalistic countries). All of this still falls under the heading of ethnocentric. But then, in some cases (more on that in a moment), development continues and the perspective comes to include people (and things) that are beyond any sort of ethnic connections – the people of the world, and even the planet itself.

Now, this notion of development of consciousness brings with it an implication – that higher levels of development are better than lower levels. Yikes! That sounds a lot like a hierarchy, and the sensitive among us abhor hierarchies because the entities at the lower end of any hierarchy almost always fare worse than those at the top, right? That’s one perspective. I’m not ready to throw out hierarchies – they’re critically useful in many, many ways – but there is a cautionary note in all of this.

It is very easy to adopt an elitist point of view about our own level of consciousness development, especially with respect to significantly “lower” levels. However, this is a mistake, nothing more than baggage that we inherit as we climb the ladder of development. Which brings me to perhaps the most important concept associated with consciousness development – the notion of multiple tiers. But first…

To make this easier and more meaningful, let’s expand our ego, ethno, world-centric set of perspectives a bit. Back in 1996, a book called, Spiral Dynamics, was published by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. The book covers a theory of human development that is based upon the work of theory of psychology researcher, Clare Graves. From the Wikipedia entry

According to supporters, applications of this model allow the experienced user to analyze both micro- and macro- systems of human and cultural behavior. Dr. Christopher C. Cowan and especially Don E. Beck committed several years to applying the theory of Spiral Dynamics in an extended experience in South Africa to bring an end to Apartheid. The racial tension was so severe that in order to avoid a simplification of the deep-rooted cultural tensions into merely ‘black and white’ issues, Dr. Christopher C. Cowan developed a color scheme to aid in his communication of the theory. The colors act as reminders for the Life Conditions and Mind Capacities of each system and alternate between cool and warm colors as a part of the model.
Within the model, individuals and cultures do not fall clearly in any single category (color). Each person/culture embodies a mixture of the value patterns, with varying degrees of intensity in each. Philosopher Ken Wilber used the term ‘Holon’ to describe the state of not only representing the highest level of emergence obtained, but simultaneously inhabiting (at least a part of) each of the previous levels as well. Wilber references the notion of ‘transcend but include’ when speaking of the process of advancing to higher levels of development.

So, instead of using three levels – ego, ethno, and world-centric – spiral dynamics introduces a color-coded system with eight or more levels. From Dr. Graves’ site (parentheticals added by me):

You can think of the colors as representing what people in each level seek out in life as the levels grow out of those which came before.
* Beige. Survival; biogenic needs satisfaction; reproduction; satisfy instinctive urges. (Think infants)
* Purple. Placate spirit realm; honor ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds. (Think toddlers.)
* Red. Power/action; asserting self to dominate others; control; sensory pleasure. (Think tribal cultures)
* Blue. Stability/order; obedience to earn reward later; meaning; purpose; certainty. (Think conformist, rule-based cultures, Fundamentalist conservatives)
* Orange. Opportunity/success; competing to achieve results; influence; autonomy. (Think individualist, free-market cultures)
* Green. Harmony/love; joining together for mutual growth; awareness; belonging. (Think sensitive, anti-hierarchical, environmentally-focused cultures, progressive liberals)
* Yellow. Independence/self-worth; fitting a living system; knowing; good questions.
* Turquoise. Global community/life force; survival of life on Earth; consciousness.

Perhaps an image will help…

Visual of Spiral Dynamics
Found at Loosetooth.com

Now, you should be able to pretty easily see how these levels relate to people and cultures you know. Tribal cultures, such as the Taliban, are very “Red”, while Victorian England, for example, is a great example of “Blue.” The modern US is mostly “Blue” and “Orange” with a substantial minority of “Green.” Keep in mind that the same concept of development – specifically, that you must pass through lower levels to get to higher levels – still holds here. Indeed, if you look at human history, or at the history of a single human, you can see the progression. And what of multiple tiers?

As I mentioned earlier, this concept really gets interesting when you introduce tiers into it. Graves, Beck, and Cowan divide the aforementioned list into two tiers. First tier includes all levels up to and including “Green.” Second tier includes “Yellow” and “Turquoise.”. There is also a third tier, but I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet, so I won’t trouble you with any more on that. Suffice it to say that third tier ventures into spirituality in a big way.

Anyhow, the defining characteristic of first tier is that individuals at these levels tend to think of their way of thinking (or perspective, if you will) as the only correct one, and they think that those who think differently are deeply confused (and even evil, in some cases). Second tier, on the other hand, embraces the notion that each level has its value and that individuals at any given level are not to be blamed for their perspective. More importantly, second tier places importance on nurturing the entire developmental spiral (which gets its name from the notion of an expanding spiral of development – as in the image above). That means allowing people and cultures to be where they are while facilitating their growth to higher levels – one level at a time. Again, it’s about recognizing that we get good and bad things from all levels.

Though the “Red” level accounts for a great deal of human suffering thoughout history – what with the focus being on power and wielding it, even if that means the wholesale slaughter of one’s enemies – there is certainly value in nurturing relationships with inner circle people and with unflinching loyalty. Same with “Blue” – while being overly attuned to “the rules” can literally erase notions of individuality, there’s no doubting that law and order came about as a result of going from “Red” to “Blue” consciousness, and that, perhaps more than anything, has allowed our species to organize and advance in spectacular ways. The point is that every successive level “transcends and includes” the lower levels. Hopefully, you minimize the negative aspects while accentuating the positive ones, but one thing is for sure – you don’t simply get to “Green” and shrug off all that has come before. But…”Green” being the height of first tier, this truth is very often lost on those who get there.

(Ken Wilber goes deep into the problems that come with getting stalled at “Green” – as opposed to pushing on through to second tier – in his book, Boomeritis. There lies the elitism I warned of earlier. The book is an entertaining eye-opener, and it explains a lot of what we see today in terms of left versus right political discourse. Check it out.)

Anyway, there you have it – a perhaps new way to think about human perspectives and how they develop. It’s amazingly useful on so many fronts, but in the context of The Enlightened Caveman concept, it has a particular value. In short, the ethics that are derived from understanding our evolutionary history, our minds, and how they work in this modern world are all second-tier ethics. Just the act of stepping back and thinking about how we think places us on the path to second tier. And when we realize how our inherent focus on status and reciprocity colors our perceptions of and reactions to other people, we can begin to get some sense of how much perspective really matters – both ours and that of the people with whom we interact.

So, apologies for the length, but this is a foundational post, one that I’ll need to refer back to as time goes on. Hope it makes sense…


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