Growing a person is a mysterious process. Most of it happens in the dark, but we have discovered certain patterns that unfold in all people in more or less the same way.
Imagine you’re building a house. This is less complicated than growing a person, but it’s a useful metaphor. We’ll leave aside the problem of the architect for now and just say the blueprint is ready for construction.
The first thing you need to do is lay the foundations for your house. The depth of your foundations depends on how high your building is going to be and you also need to make sure the ground is fit for construction. You don’t want problems with subsidence or old mine works caving in under your conservatory. Once your foundations are secure, you can start on the structure above ground – the walls, support structures, windows, doors and roof. Only when the building is up and water tight can you start decorating, personalising it to your taste and needs.
Stages of Human Consciousness
When it comes to a person, various structures in consciousness have been found and these unfold at pre-determined times. We grow from birth as unconscious, symbiotic babies to egocentric teenagers, and then hopefully into rational adults in relationship to others and society. So our experience of consciousness changes as we evolve, becoming more complex and inclusive in response to the challenges of life. As we adapt to the world around us, new organising principles, or archetypes, are activated in consciousness. Spiral Dynamics calls them memes, but they could also be genetic structures hard-wired into our brains, or perhaps morphic fields which encourage growth according to evolutionary memories.
Or all of the above. Or something we haven’t even imagined…
Let’s look at how this works in practice. Here’s a chart from Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality which shows the levels of consciousness according to various systems.
Before we get into the differences between these levels, it’s important to remember that the stages aren’t discreet and the ages are approximate. This is just a model. Movement from one stage to the next isn’t rigid and the whole process is fluid and flexible. The stages aren’t like rungs on a ladder. It’s more like a spectrum of probability waves or chaotic attractors. We spiral into growth, and plenty can go wrong along the way…
Before we become aware we have a body in the world, we exist in a state of fusion or unity. There’s no sense of self, no ego, no objects or objective events in consciousness. Stuff happens, but we have no way to differentiate it from ourselves – it’s all world. There’s no sense of time or boundaries. We begin in the archetype of Unity, and then birth brings the archetype of Initiation. This is our first experience of Eden and the Fall.
Key points for the Symbiosis stage (Infrared):
- Age: pre-natal to 18 months
- Cognitive development: Sensorimotor
- Focus: Survival
- Self: Undifferentiated
- Worldview: Archaic
This is where we begin to separate from the world and become aware that our body is different from other bodies. This creates a lot of anxiety and our survival needs kick in. If we don’t win the love and attention of others we’ll die. This stage is all about issues of trust and feelings of safety. The self here is rooted in the body and functions through images and emotions. This stage constellates the archetype of Love. It arises here because love can’t be experienced as such without the appearance of separation.
Key points for the Impulsive stage (Magenta):
- Age: 1 to 3 years
- Cognitive development: Preoperational (symbiotic)
- Focus: Safety and Security
- Self: Emotional
- Worldview: Magic or Animistic
This is where the mind begins to differentiate from the body and emotions. We begin to ask the ultimate koan: Who am I? The ego starts to form and we begin to test our limits and find out who we are in relationship to our family, exploring the world and playing power games. This stage is about socialisation and how we relate to authority, self-assertion and self-control, which often focuses around the dreaded toilet training – to pee or not to pee?! The archetype constellated here is Will as we fight to discover the limit of our power, and our self begins to be defined through language and mental construction.
Key points for the Self-Protective stage (Red):
- Age: 2 to 6 years
- Cognitive development: Preoperational (conceptual)
- Focus: Power and Action
- Self: Membership
- Worldview: Early Mythic
Now the ego really starts to take shape as our understanding of language grows. This stage is about developing different roles to play in society and is when our persona forms. We start to function more in time, learn to control our impulses and take our place as a member of a group. The self is starting to transcend the body, so our body and the world become more objectified and our mental maps and constructs help us to gain some control over our world.
Key points for the Conformist stage (Amber):
- Age: 6 to 12 years old
- Cognitive development: Concrete Operational
- Focus: Approval and Social Acceptance
- Pre-rational (with Rational waiting in the wings)
- Self: Mental or Role self
- Worldview: Late Mythic
During adolescence our thought process starts to objectify itself. This is the truly human stage of development, only possible because we have self-reflective consciousness. The mind is transcending itself: we can think about what we’re thinking and so change what we think. We are learning to become rational and goal oriented.
Key points for the Conscientious stage (Orange):
- Age: 12 to 19 years old
- Cognitive development: Formal Operational
- Focus: Success and Autonomy
- Self: Developing Ego
- Worldview: Rational
This is really a transitional stage to take us from rational into trans-rational consciousness (which we’ll look at in a later post). It follows on from the previous stage as the ego continues to develop and mature. This is where we become more individualistic and aware of how relative our self is in relation to everyone else. The self is defined in relation to multiple systems, and our understanding is more complex. We tend to see things in terms of interpretation rather than absolute truths.
Key points for the Individualistic stage (Green):
- Age: 19 to 21 years old
- Cognitive development: Pluralistic Mind
- Focus: Community, Harmony and Equality
- Self: Mature Ego
- Worldview: Pluralistic
And this is where most people stop.
The Individualistic or Green stage is generally considered to be the highest stage of development for an individual, at least in Western culture. With a Mature Ego you’ve reached adulthood and you’re a normal, well-rounded individual – assuming nothing went wrong along the way.
However, this isn’t the end of the story. There are many more levels of consciousness to explore, but society in its current form doesn’t recognise them. In fact, not everyone will even make it as far as Green or Mature Ego. It is possible for this stage to evolve from the late teens/early twenties, but in many cases, it simply fails to materialise, or only develops much later in life.
There are many reasons for this and we’ll look at some of them next time in: Kinks in the Mind