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Center for Action and Contemplation

Growing into Union

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Levels of Development: Week 1

Growing into Union
Thursday, December 10, 2015
(Thomas Merton Day)

So many of our problems can be resolved if we understand that people are at different levels of emotional, mental, and spiritual maturity. I am told that United States diplomats are given an intense course in Spiral Dynamics before they are sent to other countries because they need to have some empathy for the levels of development they are likely to find there. I remember how horrifying it was for me and a group of missionaries overseas, standing outside a couple’s home when I realized that our presence was keeping the man from beating his wife inside. We knew as soon as we walked away he’d continue, and there was little we could do to change the whole culture.

When I later asked the woman, “Why do you let your husband do that?”

She replied, “Because I was bad, Father.”

“Who decided you were bad?”

“He did, Father.”

I know it blows your mind, but this is early stage consciousness, which is all about power and staying at your proper level. Whoever wields the power is considered to be right. In many if not most cultures, men have had all the power and women submitted to this, because that’s the way patriarchal systems function.

But who are we to judge? It was only a little more than a hundred years ago that people in the United States, people who called themselves Christian (including Jesuits on the East coast), not only tolerated slavery, but had slaves. Even though most Americans have moved beyond considering humans as property, we still have a long way to go in terms of true racial and gender equality. A significant number of Americans are still at the early Purple and Red levels, which we will explore next week. Spiral Dynamics risks appearing to be politically incorrect, but without anger or violence.

I am offering you these levels of development as a tool for understanding yourself, others, and history; but please know that it does not come close to describing the complexity and the subtlety of the human person or the spiritual journey. Also recognize that the ego wants to decide its level, and it’s very likely to pick a high one—which is ironic, because at the highest levels of development, the ego is less and less interested in categorizing things up and down. It is in many ways artificial and even unhealthy to talk about higher and lower levels because this will appeal to the small self and lead to assessing ourselves in ways that are fundamentally untrue. Yet, we do need to understand development so we can see where the trajectory of growth is heading—toward union with God, others, creation, and our own mind, heart and body. Otherwise we have no criteria by which to discern maturity from sickness. Without this awareness, many unhealthy people have led both churches and countries. This is the danger and also the need for a developmental theory.

It is also important to distinguish between stages and states. You can have a momentary state of unitive or high level consciousness, where you experience your union with God, with other humans, and with animals, the sun, the moon, and the stars. But a momentary state doesn’t mean you’ve practiced it and changed your hardwiring so that it has become a lasting stage. A momentary state has to be practiced for years before it can become a genuine new stage of consciousness. And still it’s up to God, grace, time, love, and suffering to nudge you forward and to keep you there. Even then, at times—for example, when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired (H.A.L.T.)—we all backslide. Knowing this will help you understand and forgive yourself and others.

Gateway to Silence:
I am open to change.

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), disc 2, CD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: Insula dulcamara (detail), 1938, Paul Klee, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland
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