Welcome to “the Blog that ate Mind Chatter”–and the little-known secret of human development…
Welcome, everyone. As you can see, I’ve decided to start a blog, and to allow it to eat Mind Chatter, so to speak. This way I can communicate with you more often, and do so in a (hopefully) more spontaneous and intimate way–one that will be more useful to you. And, it gives us a weird name for the blog.
While I’m at it, let me tease you a little bit about something I think you’re really going to like…
Though Mind Chatter is going to Newsletter Heaven, we’re working on something MUCH more wonderful, which will be unveiled very soon (and which I will describe in greater detail in another posting). This new “something” will have more and more varied content, and will involve more different media (print, spoken audio, video, music, and more). It will introduce you to more new ideas, more amazing people, and more useful, fascinating, and entertaining information.
I think it will knock your socks off.
In this blog I’m going to share some of what I’ve been thinking about in a way I hope will be useful to you in your growth. Some of the posts will be article length, while others may be very short. If you want to comment on what I write, you are welcome to do so. I’d love to know what you think, and to have your ideas about what you’d like me to write about. Once in a while I will post comments from readers, but it probably won’t be a regular thing.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the process of human development, so that’s what I want to touch on in this post. This thinking has been stimulated by reading a lot of Ken Wilber, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Lawrence Kohlberg, Robert Kegan, and Jane Lovinger (in case you want to google any of them).
Human development takes many forms–humans undergo moral, cognitive, ego (or self), interpersonal, emotional, values, and spiritual development–just to name a few areas of development. A thread running through all these streams of development is our ongoing attempts to discover meaning in our existence, to find some sort of significance.
I suspect that you’ve probably thought about this. Here we are: vulnerable, alone but also part of a larger whole. We’re here for a finite amount of time, and then we’re gone. On one hand, we have a certain amount of control over our existence, while in other ways we’re subject to forces we can’t predict or control. So we ask questions such as, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What’s it all about?” “Why do we die?” “Why is this happening?” “How do I know what to do next?” “How do I relate to the rest of the world, and to other people?” “What is Truth?” “How do I know what is right and what is wrong?” “Can I be happy? How?” And so on.
In the beginning, of course, we aren’t asking such existentially complex questions. But from the moment we’re born we do start trying to make sense of our existence. How we do this changes and develops over and over as our environmental situation changes–hence the idea of developmental levels. These are levels of meaning-making, of understanding. You might even say that they are levels of wisdom.
These developmental changes happen when changes in our environment force us to change. At such times we must find a new way to function, a way to look at things from a new perspective, a way to adapt to our new situation.
When we are born we don’t have much of a perspective on who we are. We experience what psychologists call an oceanic fusion with our environment. We can’t even tell where we end and the rest of the world begins. But with a bit of experience (we bite our blanket and nothing hurts, but when we bite our toes, it does hurt) we figure out what is “me” and what is “not me.” This is the first of many developmental shifts. And, at this point, this is the extent of our ability to make sense of our world. Is it me, or not me?
At the other end of the spectrum, some few individuals grow into a perspective (by moving through many intermediate stages) where seeing and meaning making no longer happens from the perspective of the separate self, but rather includes an experienced unity with everything in the universe–a universal, or cosmic, perspective. And, there are probably unrealized perspectives beyond that.
Why am I sharing this with you? Why should you care about any of this? Because you’re very likely sitting there, just as I am, doing your best to make sense of what it means to be human, vulnerable, mortal, and conscious, and I have found this idea of human developmental levels to give a very helpful perspective on this human need to make sense of our existence.
When you think about it, it’s very weird being a person. Just when you think you might have it figured out, something new happens that lets you know that you don’t. Or, you latch onto a group of people, or a set of ideas, that seem to explain things, but alone in bed some nights you still have a weird sense that there’s something unfathomable about being human, something profoundly mysterious. These feelings come especially when something terrible happens to you or someone you love, or you ponder the incredible suffering in the world.
So, I thought you might benefit from understanding this idea of levels of developmental, as I have.
Before I go on, I also want to say that I’m not trying to say that some people are “better” than others (though I do think that saints are better than Nazis, for instance) so much as I’m saying that there are increasing levels of perspective, where more of what is can be included in one’s view, and a wider perspective is better.
There are many ways to slice these developmental steps. One broad way would be to talk about four basic divisions: preconventional, conventional, postconventional, and transcendent. Let’s look at these. Another time, perhaps, we can drill down a bit more.
Remember that each of these levels represents a perspective, each of which involves 1) a certain way of doing, 2) a way of being, and 3) a way of thinking. Doing would include how you interact, what needs you act upon, what ends you try to achieve, how you see the purpose of your life, and what role others play in your life–how you act.
Being would include how you feel about things, how you deal with your feelings, how wide your awareness is and what you choose to pay attention to, and how you experience and process whatever is going on around you–how you feel.
Thinking would include how you think about your experience, how you structure it inside your mind, how you explain it and make sense of it–how you create a mental map of reality.
Preconventional thinking, the first perspective, is very egocentric. It’s all about me. It’s very body oriented (as opposed to mind-oriented, as in the second perspective). The preconventional perspective is impulsive and opportunistic. It’s all about me, and my needs, now. The preconventional way of looking at time is narrow–it’s all about what happens now. There’s little or no ability to delay gratification, and little if any ability to take the role of others, to realize that other people have their own needs and their own agenda. It’s just me, looking out at the world and trying to get what I want or need.
Most people at this stage are children (up to about age 12), but some people stay at this stage well into adulthood. This is usually because they live in a culture where the center of gravity is preconventional, or they have suffered some sort of trauma during this stage, which has prevented them from developing past it.
People at this stage of development tend to answer the existential questions I posed earlier (Why am I here? What’s it all about? etc.) through a kind of magical thinking. Some of the thinking surrounding The Secret, for instance, comes from this level of development. The idea that you can control the universe with your mind is a highly egocentric, narcissistic point of view. About 10% of adults are at this stage of development.
At the next developmental level, the conventional perspective, things are more about us, about our group, whether that group is the Catholic Church, the Democratic Party, the Marine Corps, the kids who live on my block, the people who go to my school, or Red Sox fans. Instead of me against the world, as at the preconventional level, it becomes us against the world. You’re either with us, like us…or you aren’t. The way we think is the right way, and the way others think is, well, wrong. People in this stage do see that others have needs and wants, and as long as they are part of the our group, those needs and wants make sense. Otherwise, they don’t.
Those at this developmental level have traded the more me-centered approach for the security of being part of the group, even though this involves following rules and ways of thinking set by the group. This security provides huge benefits in that it allows us to have a clear way to make sense of who we are (we are a Catholic, or a Marine, or a part of the junior class), and clear-cut ways to decide what is right or wrong, what is important, and so forth.
A person at the conventional level is capable of introspection, of symbolic and abstract thinking, of the ability to follow the rules of the group and to assume a certain role in the group. This is the beginning of the creation of a true independent self, and at the higher reaches of the conventional perspective we find some people are who true experts. This perspective is often described as groupcentric, or ethnocentric.
People at this level of development answer the existential questions I posed earlier from the point of view of rationality, cause and effect, subject-object thinking, and materialism (if you can’t see it and measure it, it doesn’t exist). Metaphysical explanations, popular at the preconventional level, are seen as fluffy and irrational. Instead of magical, life is very concrete at this stage. About 75% of adults are this stage.
At the next stage, postconventional, it’s about all of us–not our group, but everyone. The idea that all men and women are created equal, the ideals of the American and French revolutions, republican and democratic government, and so forth, are postconventional ideas. Another postconventional realization is that what something means depends on one’s personal perspective, whereas conventional thinkers assume that there is some sort of Truth out there, and they’ve found it, or at least that are in the process of finding it.
At the postconventional stage, objects are permanent and “out there” but what an object or an action means comes from the observer, and varies depending on who is doing the observing. There is an assumption that truth is relative rather than fixed. “It depends,” a postconventional thinker might say. Postconventional thinkers, then, look to discover the underlying assumptions in any situation, and from their perspective, those assumptions are relative.
Postconventional thinkers tend to look at the system as a whole in whatever they are doing–another example of looking from a wider or more all-encompassing perspective. Ecology, for instance, is a postconventional concern. From this systems view of things, everything is interdependent. Also, boundaries are open, meaning that where you draw the boundary for anything is arbitrary. Boundaries can be drawn in many different ways, depending on what is considered within or outside a system, and that distinction is arbitrary.
Those at this level see and are comfortable with the paradoxical nature of the existential questions I have posed. Those at this stage are comfortable with the fact that, as they see it, nothing is fixed (as opposed to the conventional level, where things are very much black and white, either/or), and that what seems to be true varies with the context. Where the conventional person has simplified existence into black and white categories, the postconventional person sees the complexity, the multidimensionality, and the relativity of everything.
Existential questions are about “all of us” at this stage, whereas they were about “me” at the preconventional stage, and about “us” (our in-group) at the conventional stage. It’s estimated that about 14% of adults are at this postconventional level.
There is yet another stage. This fourth stage, or perspective, could be termed transcendent, or unitive. Those at this stage come to realize that all objects–including abstract ideas such as the self, the ego, and even the idea of three-dimensional space and time–are human-made constructs, based on layers upon layers of symbolic abstraction. There is an awareness that language presupposes many things that may not be true about reality, and traps us in a view that may not always serve us.
For instance, the whole idea of subject and object as separate things–one of the main premises in language–is seen by those at the unitive stage as constructed rather than actual and real. Subject and object, a unitive thinker would say, “go together.” They are actually one thing, not two. In fact, all polarities created by the mind (and language) arise together: up makes no sense without down, good makes no sense without bad, me makes no sense without not-me. All of these polarities, say unitive thinkers, are arbitrarily constructed.
At this transcendent stage what I and many others have called a witness perspective allows the person to stand aside and observe what is without adding meaning, without creating a mental map of what is being observed, or at least view things with a realization that all meaning being added is just something made-up. A person at this level realizes that the mental map we make of reality isn’t reality itself–that the map is not the territory it represents.
At this level the existential questions I’ve posed are seen from a very cosmic perspective, where the typical separate self-identity is no longer seen as the essence of the person. Instead, everything is seen from a universal or cosmic perspective–you might say, from an experience of being “one with” everything. Consciousness or rational awareness assumes either background or foreground status depending on one’s momentary attention. This stage is often spoken of as “enlightenment” or “self-realization.” It is estimated that less than 1% of people are at this level of development.
Each of these stages can be further subdivided in various ways, and perhaps we can look at that in a later post. What I’ve described is but a skeleton of each of these stages, each of which are made up of several sub-stages. There is much more we don’t have room for in this post.
We could, for instance, look at each of these stages in terms of their perspective on time (for instance, the preconventional person sees only now, while the transcendent human being sees eternity). We could look at what type of cognition is used, what is “true”, what constitutes right or wrong, the interpersonal style of each stage, how decisions are made, what creates anxiety at each stage, what defenses are used, what constitutes “me” and what is “not me” (or even if that idea makes sense). And, there are other aspects of how people at each level try to make sense of being a human being. Religion, government, and organizational structures are perceived in a different way at each of these stages–there are preconventional, conventional, postconventional, and transcendent versions of each.
The point I want to make right now is that we each have a way of making sense of the world and how we fit into it, and as long as we continue to develop, this way of making meaning changes, expands. As our world changes, we find new ways to make sense of it. When you went away to school at about age five, your world changed. It was no longer about mom and dad and sister and brother. Now there are teachers and rules and a schedule, and the challenge of being away from home, and you had to adopt a new perspective in order to manage and understand that new world. When you went away to high school, things changed again, and once again you had to develop a new perspective and news ways of making sense of your new situation.
When our world changes, we struggle for a while, and then, hopefully, our perspective expands in a way that allows us to deal with the change. If we don’t, we have problems. In fact, many people come to Centerpointe in the first place because they failed to fully make sense of life during one of these shifts. The world doesn’t make sense anymore and they need to move to a new perspective but haven’t yet been able to do so. Some people (actually, many people) have been abused or traumatized at a certain stage and, as a result, part of them is stuck at the level where the trauma happened.
Understanding these stages will help you navigate life more easily, to better make sense of who you are, to more easily find fulfillment–and, to more easily move yourself to the higher levels, where the real fun begins.
Until next time…
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