Spiral Dynamics is a description of the unfolding stages of human development. I say “a” description not “the” description intentionally. It is just one model of, which there are quite a few, that attempts to describe a trend that has been observed in the nature of humans both as individuals and cultures. And it happens to be the one I am currently engaged in studying, plus it uses pretty colours to describe each stage.
The nature of evolution, as I pointed to in my discussion on Integral Theory, works simultaneously in all four quadrants (I, it, we, its). Spiral Dynamics is speaking primarily to the two left hands sides which is the “I” as an individual and the “we” as a cultural expression.
The following article is my personal reflections on the study of Spiral Dynamics. As a human I reserve the right to make mistakes, be wrong and change my mind at a later point in time. If there is something you disagree with in my writing please feel free to challenge it! It may engage in a lively debate or it may be me bowing my head in acquiescence of a new, previously unemerged, viewpoint within me.
Spiral Dynamics speaks to the presence of what we call a “natural hierarchy” or also a “holarchy”. As I described in the previous article a holarchy is one where each level transcends and includes the one before it. It’s not that one is better than another (although this distinction is difficult to wrap ones head around at first) rather, that the enfolding level has increased in complexity while still including everything that was present in the one before it. This increase in complexity gives rise to new, previously dormant, levels of thinking and at the same time new problems to go along with it.
The struggle with explaining Spiral Dynamics or any model of adult human development is that until a certain level of thinking complexity is achieved, the acknowledgement that there is a naturally occurring hierarchy is either difficult to grasp or entirely rejected as interfering with basic human rights and equality. If you notice yourself reading about this model and immediately wanting to reject it as being unhumanistic, then learning more about this very thing will probably enrich your life in ways difficult to explain until you experience them for yourself.
Acknowledgement of these stages is actually incredibly compassionate as when we develop the ability to see the stages we can truly serve the people at each level where they are at with what they need. Which is in opposition to bludgeoning them with our point of view that thinks it knows best, and in actual fact can create a whole host of problems by forcing complex levels of functioning on cultures and elements of society that are not yet ready to hold them.
There is no skipping stages on the Spiral ladder and at the same time the potential for every stage is held within us.
We all progress through the spiral as we develop from baby to adult at the same time as our culture evolves, ebbs and flows through different stages of this great spiral of awareness. As far as I’m concerned there is no cap, there is no ultimate level from which to reign supreme, there is only never-ending evolution. I am excited because each generation builds upon the prior and the coming generations are going to totally kick ass, once they sort out all the problems we have created at our current stage of development… and then they will create a whole new set of even more complex ones for following generations to work with.
How each stage emerges is in response to the life conditions it is faced with. Less complex stages struggle with meeting day to day
needs for food, clothing and shelter (it’s hard to ponder the universe or speak about topics such as feminism when one is hungry all the time!) whilst more complex stages come in to being by having access to all the trappings of a modern life and the extra time to go along with it (and the huge resource of the internet helps).
An increase in complexity gives rise to more complex problems and issues to work with. The ‘higher’ we reach, the more can actually go wrong. For example moving into an industrialised (orange), success at-all-costs driven world we have created, for the very first time, the potential to cause massive global environmental damage, while also developing the capacity through nuclear weapons to potentially wipe out most of life on the planet!
All that preamble being said, lets have a little wander through the spiral itself and what each level, called a ‘MEME’ has to offer.
What I write that follows is my own interpretation of the basic needs, predominant worldview and what is needed to shift to the next iteration of complexity for the first 3 MEMEs..
The beige MEME could be thought of as that first step towards the consciousness that we began to identify distinctly as ‘human’. At this level the primary engagement with the world is sensory and intuitive. Survival in finding food and shelter day to day is the basic need that has to be met. All energy is devoted to staying alive. There is no contemplation or understanding of a future and whatever urges that arise in this moment are acted upon without consideration for potential consequences. If hungry – eat, if thirsty – drink, if tired – sleep, if horny – fuck, if need to shit or piss – do so.
There is a fallacy, born in the fantasy of the ‘noble savage’ of some idealised state of being at one with nature that individuals at this stage hold. They may be one with nature however it is from an entirely fused state where the distinction between self and environment are blurry and hard to make out, this is a virtually automatic state of existence.
Beige is found in infancy, Alzheimer’s disease, other mental illnesses… and in really really drunk people.
As basic survival needs, and with healthy brain function, primitive man and children everywhere begin to move towards a recognition of danger, a differentiation of self from the environment and as such moves towards the need for relationship with others. Strength is to be found in numbers against this scary outside world, it’s time for tribe.
And so, with the purple MEME, we enter completely into tribal modes of living. This is the first of what we can think of as the “we” MEME’s in distinction to the “I” MEME’s, like the prior. The tendency is for individuals and cultures to swing back and forth between this more “I” or “we” orientation.
In purple the dominating need is for safety and security for our kind. Survival is viewed as survival of the tribe and organisation will be around how to make this so. Purple culture will be full of rites and rituals, songs and dances, sacred objects and worshipping of the seasons and the elements.
A differentiation from the environment has occurred and there is an urge to live in harmony with nature, to appease the nature spirits so that peaceful living may be found.
The thinking of a purple mind is going to be mystical, animistic and shamanistic. We all have access to this type of thinking on a daily basis and it will be found in places such as superstitions (ladders, mirrors and black cats) including in sports or business people who have such things as lucky underwear, in cults. There is also a big tendency towards the pre-post fallacy where individuals from further along the spiral will look back idolising the purple way of being as a deeply spiritual and desirable stage when in truth these deeper levels of spirituality are found further along (just that we have to go through a lot of rationality and embracing of complex patterns and logic to get there, which I can totally understand seems like it is going the wrong direction!)
Where this MEME breaks down is that there is no genuine access to a world-centric viewpoint. There is “us the people” and everyone else is outsiders. Our way, the traditional way that things have always been done, is the right and only way. Any other way of being cannot be imagined until, that is, this MEME begins to break down. Everything that happens is the result of spirits and life is lived in a way to appease those spirits, enter the Shaman the holder of the knowledge to do just the thing. Enter the world of curses and hexes, where misfortune can be overcome by the creation of some special potion and perhaps the incantation of sacred verses.
As safety and security of the group is met and access to the outside world of different views is given, many of these superstitions are found to be baseless and members in the group will begin yearning for freedom from these stifling rituals and traditions. Individuals will begin to think of taking action for themselves finding weakness and fallibility in the leaders (or mummy and daddy in a child’s developmental progression).
Enter red as we swing back, once again, to an “I” focused MEME. In the development of children this is the time of the “terrible two’s” up to 5 years or so and the assertion of independence. This MEME is also going to be found in rebellious teens and in places of low-income high-struggle living. At the core of the red MEME is “fuck you I’ll do what I want when I want”, “nobody tells me what to do”, “the world is a harsh place, only the strong survive and I’ll do whatever it takes to get mine”.
This is a world of the predator-prey relationship and both sides of this relationship are subject to the MEME code.
The world of drugs and violence, rampant sex (it aint for free though baby!), ghettos, gangs and the concrete jungle. The intensity of our once warring ancestors resurges here in the modern day.
Red is not an aberration that we should stamp out, rather it exists within all of us as do all the MEMEs. It’s a necessary step along the ladder of development where we learn to deal with obstacles, discover our own persona
l power and dispatch life’s monsters until we learn greater refinement that happens as we continue to struggle into our own growth. There is little to no guilt here, the top dog lives without remorse for all the lives he crushed on his way to being the best. Dreams of grandiosity abound with the encouragement of TV shows, movies and video games facilitating this necessary sense of self to be consolidated.
Unfortunately this red world is a reality for millions of people on the planet who are stalled within what is, to them, a very real world of predation where the only thing they can do is fight unceasingly for their independence and freedom.
Once again a fallacy arises from what we will later discover at green, where many who would even contemplate opening an article such as this reside. Seeing red there is admiration for the utter abandon it lives in the world, particularly when pockets exist outside of ghettos, and the genuine and caring desire is to help the continuation into freedom, creativity and discovery.
When surprisingly, and counter to what many good-natured people attempt to implement, what is needed to help red move along the spiral is good old fashioned discipline and a reinstatement of a higher authority as a guiding force, and perhaps even saviour, to a troubled soul.
Stay tuned for the next instalment when we dive into the next three MEMEs commencing with blue, the MEME of truth and destiny.
**For more information check:
“Spiral Dynamics – masering values, leadership, and change” Don Edward Beck & Christopher C Cowan, Blackwell Publishing