Beyond the Separate Self: the Unitive stage of development
Finally, after months of blog posts discussing human development, we arrive at the highest developmental level described by Susanne Cook-Greuter: the Ironist or Unitive perspective. Susanne really doesn’t like the name Ironist (which comes from another researcher), so I will refer to those from this stage as Unitives.
At this point it’s important to understand that the stages described by Dr. Cook-Greuter are not theoretical. They are, rather, derived from actual data from real people. This means that the descriptions of the developmental levels I’ve shared (the different perspectives a person can take as they seek to make sense of who they are and how they fit into the world) come from the analysis of data from real people, compiled over many decades.
In other words, Dr. Cook-Greuter describes a level or perspective only if sufficient data exists and she knows that some number of individuals exist who do see things from that perspective.
Almost certainly there are a few rare individuals who see things from perspectives even higher and broader than those described by Susanne Cook-Greuter and summarized in these posts. As time goes by, and more information comes to light, even higher developmental perspectives will no doubt be investigated and cataloged. Many theorists–Ken Wilber, for instance, and several others–have described possible ways of slicing the Unitive stage I’ll describe in this post into several different stages. As of yet, not enough hard data exists for these levels to be anything but theoretical.
You might say, then, that this is a story without an ending, because those living from the highest perspectives are always breaking new ground and exploring new ways to make sense of what it means to be a human being.
So, with that preamble, let’s look at the Unitive perspective, and see how it differs from that of the Magician.
The Magician is, in a way, a transitional stage in the sense that Magicians have one foot, or at least three or four toes, in the separate self, and the other foot in the transcendent. Or, you could say that the Magician experiences the self partly from the perspective of a separate, individual entity, centered inside (and identified with) the body/mind, and partly as the infinite connections linking that body/mind to the rest of the universe. The Magician has seen his ego for what it is–a mere map of reality, a construct, a way of seeing things, rather than something solid–but has not entirely transcended it. The separate self is no longer solidly real for the Magician, but it’s still a significant part of the Magician’s experience of life.
Unitives, though they still have a sense of being a center of awareness in a body, no longer experience themselves as a separate “me.” The separate me isn’t just an idea, a construct, a way of looking at things (as it is for the Magician, and to some degree for the Strategist and the Individualist). Now it is also felt and experienced as such. The Unitive’s felt sense has expanded to include the entire matrix of connections connecting everything in the universe in one universal ever-changing flow.
This is, quite obviously, an entirely new and different way of experiencing human existence and consciousness–a more cosmic or universal perspective. All the paradoxical aspects of existence are now integrated. Polar opposites, such as good and evil, being and not being, self and other, subject and object, existence and non-existence, are experienced without the sense of oppositional tension experienced by those at previous developmental perspectives. Instead, these seeming opposites are just part of the flow of how things are. In terms of time and space, the Unitive’s scale of perspective is infinite, taking in the passing of ages and, in terms of space and distance, the entire infinite universe.
The Unitive is able to take any previous developmental perspective or point of view and shift between perspectives and states of awareness effortlessly. All experiences–joy, grief, life, death, being, not being, pleasure, pain, having, not having–are seen as natural parts of the flow of existence, to be noticed and experienced as they are. The rational mind is not seen as a limitation (as it was by the Magician) but rather as just another manifestation of being human–sometimes useful and allowed to be more prominent, and at other times not needed and allowed to recede into the background.
The Unitive is able, then, to cherish all humans as part of the grand dance and flow of the universe, not needing others to be different than they are. “Higher” stages of development are no longer seen as “better.” Rather, all stages are necessary, interconnected, and always-changing aspects of the human condition.
The Unitive sees himself in similar terms–he has no need to be a certain way and therefore accepts himself in a non-controlling way. Though he may have many achievements, he sees their insignifigance in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, he sees that his contribution to the universe is an essential part of the whole–as is the contribution of every other person, animal, plant, rock, or piece of dust. His humility and grace, however, isn’t so much the result of a decision to be that way as it is a natural and spontaneous expression of his perspective. The Unitive truly sees the bigger picture, which allows him to “play” full out without attachment to what does or does not happen.
The Unitive’s perspective is one of non-ego-involved witnessing, moment-by-moment awareness, and resourceful responses to the infinite number of systems and variables swirling around him–including all the conflicting needs, paradoxes, and constantly shifting realities of the situation. He is no longer identified with a certain “me,” a certain role or identity. He spontaneously takes on whatever persona is necessary in order to catalyze others or in some other way be appropriate to the moment. His concern is quite often outside of what most people would consider his own individual interests–a concern often expressed as an unconditional love for humanity.
The Magician has a highly developed ability to “trust the process” of whatever is going on. The Unitive’s low identification with the separate self and his greater identification with the rest of humanity further elevates this trust–of the way things are, where they are going, and what can and “should” be done–to an even higher (and more selfless) level. To the Unitive, there is an awareness that on an ultimate level everything is happening in a perfect way, even including the fact that the world contains much suffering and many problems. These problems, and any addressing of them, are just parts of the dance, parts of the endless going on of it all.
This is reflected in the Buddhist perspective of the bodhisattva–the awakened being who vows to stay in the world until all beings have been similarly liberated.
The Unitive sees happiness and unhappiness as part of the necessary, temporary (and endless) fluctuations inherent in the human situation. Instead of seeing life in a dualistic way, where some things are appropriate and desirable while others are inappropriate and undesirable, the Unitive experiences the world as a place where all opposites “arise together” and “go together”–in any polarity each side implies (and needs) the other. Up needs (and is defined by) down, here needs there, life needs death, good needs evil, and so on. Positive and negative are seen–and experienced–as mental constructs, as ideas, rather than as innate or intrinsic characteristics of things, events, or people. The Unitive watches as positive turns to negative and back to positive, endlessly–and necessarily. This is, indeed, a totally new and different way of experiencing the world.
Because Unitives don’t seem to be as engaged in the goals, pursuits, and concerns of the rest of humanity, some–particularly Experts, Achievers, and even Strategists–may see them as being more distant from the world. This, however, is a mischaracterization. The Unitive merely sees the perfection of all aspects of the universe. This includes his own motivation to intervene in some cases and his contrasting motivation to leave things alone in others.
Unitives serve to catalyze others just by showing up. Their way of being in the world provides a spontaneous challenge to the perspective of others and demonstrates an alternative way of being in the world. Their ability to see others as whole, their tendency to interact in non-demanding ways, and their effortless comfort and inner security about being human often has a subtle but profound effect on others.
Unitives have a completely internalized transpersonal morality, independent of any particular societal standards or rules. Naturally being in the moment, they decide what is right by intuition. Conflicting impulses or external demands are simply part of life and need not be resolved, only witnessed. If a response is needed, it happens.
The Unitive feels no need to be this or that, to achieve this or that, or to be in this or that state. He may act to be something or achieve something, but this is just “what happens” rather than the result of a need to get somewhere. This seemingly passive attitude, however, in its in-the-moment spontaneity, actually allows the Unitive to take powerful, effective, direct action. It’s as if, in not identifying with a separate self, the universe acts through the Unitive. Buddhists describe this by saying that doing happens, but there is no doer (the implication being that there are no separate doers, and that the real doer is the whole).
The Unitive sees all words, mental maps, representations, theories, meanings, divisions, and boundaries as mere constucts–ideas about the world, rather than the world itself. Instead, reality is experienced as a living, flowing, interconnected continuum, a unified field of possibilities existing now, and only now. At the same time, though, the Unitive sees that words, maps, representations, theories, meanings, divisions, and boundaries are essential aspects of human meaning-making.
Because the peak experiences so strongly sought after by those at previous developmental levels are readily available to the Unitive, these experiences no longer have the extraordinary and often startling quality they have for those at other perspectives. They are one more part of being human, happening in time and then passing away–another wave rising, then falling.
As you might imagine, the Unitive lives in the now moment. He sees that even planning for the future or learning from the past happens in the present moment. Being in the now moment happens naturally because the Unitive isn’t focused on regrets or hurts from the past, nor is he hoping for something better in the future. Paradoxically, the Unitive looks at the universe from an expanded time frame that includes all past and future time–while never leaving the present moment (from the Unitive’s perspective, that’s really all there is–past and future are ideas, not realities).
The Unitive’s stable awareness of the now allows him to see things as they are, without the added meanings created by the mind–though when it serves his purpose he can use ideas, concepts, and mental maps as useful tools. He sees these things for what they are–often useful mental constructs about reality, but not the reality itself.
Life to the Unitive is a temporary eye-blink of separation from the ground of being from which all things emerge. And, the Unitive is aware that this separation, this taking of a human form, is a choice. (Zen master Genpo Roshi speaks of the awakened person as “the one who chooses to be a human being.”) To the Unitive this separation from the ultimate ground of being, and the creation of a enduring separate self, are illusions used to safeguard the ego’s need for permanence and to defend it against the fear of death.
Unitives have transcended such narrow and limiting ego boundaries. They notice but are not preoccupied with whatever enters their awareness. Their perspecitve is that of the witness. This is a watching, more effortless than ordinary willed focus, in which there is awareness but not necessarily an awareness of anything. This is sometimes referred to as pure consciousness, awareness without content. The Unitive notices whatever enters his field of attention, but everything receives equal attention and awareness, and nothing is judged as better or worse, or more or less appropriate. The Unitive, therefore, has an open, non-grasping and non-judging experience of life.
The Unitive sees his life’s work as a natural outcome of his participation in the flux and flow of the whole. He cares about the problems of humanity, even while he sees their perfection, and works for fairness, justice, and benevolence toward all. Magicians and Strategists see themselves as masters of their souls, but the Unitive sees this control of life as both illusory and unnecessary. All outcomes, all ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, or being are part of the flow and all are equally valuable. Whatever happens just is. Even not-being is valuable. This is a way of looking at life difficult for those from other perspectives to understand.
The full range of beingness is available to the Unitive. In one moment he can be serious and in the next, playful. He can be personal or global, simple or complex, serene or active, rational or transcendent, sublime or silly. He can also be sad or angry, or exhibit any other human expression. As you might imagine, only a small number of people live from this perspective.
With this look at the Unitive developmental stage, we come to the end of our overview of the various developmental levels. I began this series because, despite its fundamental importance, one’s developmental level is rarely taken into account in descriptions of human interaction, values, morality, politics, psychology, or behavior.
Humans interpret and respond to whatever they experience from their particular developmental perspective, yet few who observe humanity are aware of this spectrum of perspectives–much less where they come from, how a person from each thinks and behaves, or how to deal with persons from different perspectives. Expecting a person from one perspective to see the world from another perspective is futile, whether they are a Democrat, a Republican, an Iraqi soldier, a South African tribesman, a 14 year-old high school freshman, or a born-again Christian. You can’t argue or reason another person out of their level of development.
As you view and relate to other people, or as you watch the news, I hope you will realize that each person thinks and acts from his particular developmental perspective, and that this is the only way he can make sense of his environment and his life. All perspectives include a certain type of cognition, a way of determining what is right or wrong, a way of relating to spiritual matters, a way of understanding one’s sense of self, a way of deciding what is important and what to believe (including a way of determining what is “true” and what criteria are used to determine that truth), certain strategies for navigating the world, and a lot more. Understanding these perspectives allows you to see why people act as they do, and it allows you to better communicate with them (or realize that you probably aren’t going to get through to them).
And, of course, understanding these developmental levels also allows you to better understand yourself, to understand why you see things the way you do–and to realize that your perspective is just one of many.
As I said toward the beginning of this series, whatever your perspective, you are immersed in something, which means that you are unaware of it. In fact, in being immersed in something, you are it.
Your perspective is, in fact, the place where you are stuck, the place where you are unaware. Genpo Roshi once asked me to express to him my current understanding of the way things are. I gave a very Zen-like answer: everything happens by itself, there’s no doer other than the universe as a whole, everything is connected, and so forth. He then looked me in the eye and said, “Now doubt that.” He was really saying, “Your current understanding is where you are stuck.”
Keep in mind that each perspective is a way of making sense of being here, one of many possible ways of dealing with the trials, tribulations, and ups and downs of being a human being–which you may have noticed can be quite a challenge. Each of these ways of making sense of things works for as long as it works, which could be a few years, or a lifetime. If your way of making sense of things stops working, it’s probably because you acquired more information, had new experiences, or were thrust into a new situation, and in this new situation the old way of making sense of things just doesn’t work any longer.
At such times you feel uncomfortable and a bit lost–until you develop a new way of making sense of things, one that transcends and includes the old way, and can handle the new situation and take into account the new information.
And, finally, remember that awareness drives development. Whatever you are immersed in you are unaware of, like a fish in water. When you do become aware of it (if you do), your perspective changes. It expands. The goal here, if there is one, is to continually enlarge your perspective–until it ultimately includes everything. As that happens, your point of view moves from being me-centered, to group-centered, to world-centered, and finally to cosmos-centered. As this happens, care increases, compassion increases, and love increases.
And, lord knows, that’s what the world needs.
So, whatever you’re doing, watch. Learn to be the witness. Watch your body. Pay attention to how it feels and how it moves. Notice how those feelings and sensations change. Watch your emotions. Watch your thoughts, your beliefs, your ideas, the meanings you put on things. Watch everything. Be with all of it, right now, in each moment. You can even watch your sense of “I am,” your sense of existing. And, since Holosync creates increasingly deeper awareness (you knew I’d end up here eventually) and allows this watching to be more and more effortless, keep meditating with Holosync every day. If you do, you will greatly accelerate your growth.
Thanks for sticking with me through this long journey. I don’t know what I’ll tackle next, but I hope you’ll find it interesting and useful as you do your best to make sense of what it means to be a human being.
One last thing before I go–a reminder that Zen master Genpo Roshi and I will be doing another Big Mind workshop in New York on June 28-29. This is an opportunity to have a profound experience of the transcendent, to find out what it feels like to be one with everything, to be awake to who you really are–and, to experience any number of profound insights normally taking decades of meditation to realize. Nearly everyone who has attended a Big Mind workshop has described it as the most profound experience of his or her life. I would love for you to have this experience.
These workshops fill up extremely quickly, so if you are interested, go to www.centerpointe.com/bigmind right now and grab a seat. I look forward to meeting you in person in New York, June 28-29.
Until next time,
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