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Early Levels: Instinctive and Magical

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Levels of Development: Week 2

Early Levels: Instinctive and Magical
Sunday, December 13, 2015

This week I will be describing my understanding of the stages of development outlined by Spiral Dynamics, which were popularized by Don Beck and now taught widely by Ken Wilber and others. As I mentioned last week, we may have momentary states at different levels of consciousness, but it takes practice and life’s urging to keep our mind naturally and regularly at more mature stages. Even then we may return to a previous stage in a stressful situation. We can observe these levels not only in personal human development, but in the evolution of history and cultures themselves.

The spiral begins with the lowest tier of subsistence levels. The first of these is called the Beige level, which is the Instinctive/Survivalistic level. Its basic theme is “Do what you must just to stay alive” with a preference for pleasure over pain. [1] Looking backward, we see our species, Homo sapiens, was probably situated at this level of consciousness 100,000 years ago. And this is also where we start as infants. At this primal stage there is no differentiation from your mother or from nature; she is you and you are her. Here there is a sense of absorption and innocence, a naïveté about reality. This is home base, security, and comfort. Life is all about your own bodily pleasure and survival. Thinking at this stage is dualistic and egocentric, as it needs to be. Only 0.1% of adults worldwide remain at this level. [2] Of course, such survival instincts must be activated in any of us for emergency situations.

The second level of Spiral Dynamics is the Purple or Magical/Animistic level. Here, life is a world of magical good and bad forces. Your goal at this level is to align with the right forces, to have the right gods on your side. You want to have the power and to be on the side of good and defeat evil. We often see little boys at this level who want to be superheroes and little girls who want to be princesses. The basic idea is to “Keep the gods happy and the tribe’s nest warm and safe.” [3] The individual is not as important as the group; belonging to the group gives the individual a sense of identity and safety.

The Purple, Magical/Animistic level began about 50,000 years ago. Don Beck says that at this point in human evolution, “a mutation occurred to awaken in the brain the first real ability to assign cause and effect. This was the first sense of the metaphysical.” [4] It became important to honor and obey the spirit-being and the group’s leaders, rituals, and customs. Sacred objects, symbols, places, rituals, and stories must be preserved. The Magical/Animistic level appeared in popular Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. Approximately 10% of the world’s population and 1% of the world’s power is still at this Purple level. [5]

Every level has a good and appropriate value and a negative quality. We must learn to transcend the negative part—moving on to the next higher stage, the bigger field—while including the good part of the previous stage. But we can really only do this consciously once we’ve reached second tier, non-dualistic thinking, beginning at the seventh level. Up until that point, we tend to especially over-react against the stage we just completed—as does history itself.

When you move beyond the Purple level, hopefully you transcend the idea of God as a spirit you can coax and control by magic and superstition. An enlightened person at the higher levels also realizes that you don’t have to react against that idea or put people down who are still at that level. Most people see their own level as the only way and previous levels as totally wrong. This is our foundational narcissism. Yet higher level, non-dualistic thinkers can still include parts of the Purple level. For example, perhaps wearing a cross or a medal of a saint can help your focus, attention, and identity, and does not have to be a magical totem; rituals can help heal the psyche and form community; and, as we explored earlier this year, myths can hold great archetypal meaning. Sophisticated later stages need to stop over-reacting against the good and appropriate values of the purple level. Wilber’s phrase “transcend and include” is the ongoing principle.

Gateway to Silence:
Transcend and include

[1] Don Beck in an interview with Jessica Roemischer, “The Never-Ending Upward Quest,” What Is Enlightenment?, Fall/Winter 2002,, 6.

[2] Ken Wilber, “The Integral Vision at the Millennium,” Part I, excerpts from Introduction to The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume 7 (Shambhala: 2000),

[3] Don Beck, “The Never-Ending Upward Quest,” 7.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ken Wilber, “The Integral Vision at the Millennium.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, In the Beginning . . . Six hours with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr on Reclaiming the Original Christian Narrative (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), discs 2 and 4, CD, MP3 download.

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