What is Integral: Graves, Beck, Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) and Second Tier Thinking

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This is the fourth in the series of posts on “What in Integral”. In our previous posts, we dealt with Integral Theory, Integralism and Ken Wilber and Jean Gebser’s Five Structures of Human Consciousness. The current post on Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics is one which explains the breakthrough concept of the double helix spiral structure of human consciousness. Like Jean Gebser puts it, human consciousness is an “unfolding” spiral, always open to growth. To state simply, Spiral Dynamics (SD) or Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) is a map of development of human consciousness based on the phenomenal works of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Ken Wilber.

This post will analyze the theory of Spiral Dynamics and the propositions placed there in by Graves and the revisions/modifications done in the same by Beck, inspired from Wilber’s Integralism.

Clare Graves’ Spiral Dynamics (SD): Spiral Dynamics is the original work of Clare Graves who taught psychology at the Union College for years. After years of teaching, Graves had doubt as to which theory of psychology or the thinking pattern of human mind is right. In an attempt to find an answer to this question, he made a 30-year-long research to arrive at the theory of Spiral Dynamics. Unlike the other theories of human development, Spiral Dynamics is not an one-perspective theory which focuses on issues and offers solutions to them. Instead, SD states the reason behind why people act in particular ways based on the state/level of consciousness they are in during the time of the act. In other words, Spiral Dynamics shows how human consciousness has unfolded (developed) over centuries through stages of the Spiral – a double helix structure – that continues to grow and includes yet transcends all the previous stages of growth.

Don Beck

Don Beck, Graves’ friend and close associate describes this more: “The basic concept is based on a spiral, which means that as a spiral unfolds, it moves to greater complexity. While it is, in a sense, a single line because if you lay out a spiral it will be a line, yet each of the turns of the spiral represents a different worldview, a weltanschauung, a way of understanding reality, a bottom line and what today we’re also calling a meme, a value system meme. We’re able now to demonstrate what lies beneath the surface in relationships, in issues, in controversy, even in warfare, are these different core adaptive contextual complex intelligences.”

To apply Spiral Dynamics is to comprehend the various levels of consciousness stated in the theory and the characteristics associated with them. Don Beck framed a new and modified version of SD and called it Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi). SDi is based on Integral AQAL theory of Ken Wilber. It describes an emerging spiral that includes every other stage of Graves, along with the future stages. To understand Spiral Dynamics, one needs to first know about the components of the Spiral structure.

Spiral Dynamics Integral and vMEMEs: Sean A. Saiter describes vMEME as “A vMEME specifically refers to a type of meme that is at once ‘a psychological structure, value system, and mode of adaptation, which can express itself in numerous different ways, from worldviews to clothing styles to governmental forms’.” Put simply, vMEME is a value system, a memetic code, a natural intelligence (that is fueled by life conditions) and an “awakened system” that directs human beings to act in the way they do. These awakened systems of consciousness direct humans to express themselves in particular ways. The manifestations of specific trends or natures throughout history are the work of the vMEME or the awakened consciousness of human beings in that era. These vMEMEs or levels of consciousness have been designated different colors characteristic of the value systems they represent and also as convenient signifiers of the system they represent. Don Beck’s SDi lists out eight distinct and basic vMEMEs or levels of consciousness. These eight are segregated into first and second tier thinking based on the value systems they signify.

First Tier Thinking:
First Tier thinking involves six vMEMEs or levels of consciousness. The following are the levels mentioned by Beck (in order of development – from  the 1st to the 6th):

Spiral Dynamics

1. Archaic-Instinctual/Beige color:
This is the basic instinctual-survivalist system whose prime objective is to survive. Whatever be the life condition, this level of consciousness does its best to survive. This vMEME wants the basic needs of survival to be met – food, water, warmth, sex, safety etc. Humans who have this vMEME dominant in them use all their habits, instincts and resources to survive. About 0.1 percent of the population possess this vMEME, though, as Beck says, we return to it when our life condition is critical. Beck opines the Beige instinct is predominant in newborn infants, in the elderly and people tend to regress into Beige during earthquakes, terrorist attacks, tsunamis etc.

2. Magical-Animistic/Purple: Out of the Beige consciousness, emerged Purple. In this level, thinking is animistic, swarmed by  magical spirits, good, evil, curses, blessings and all things magical and obscure. It is believed that spirits of ancestors guide the living people and bond everyone together. Represented by Purple, this vMEME is found in tribal communities, ethnic groups and other such clans. Cause and effect linkages happen and people are more animistic toward everything  they relate to. Don Beck opines that this level of consciousness can be found even in children who exhibit animistic tendency toward their dog or hold on to a particular ritual or bond that they think works magically (if done right) and evil (if done wrong). About 10 percent of the general world population are still in Purple.

3. Power Gods/Red: From the Purple emerged Red consciousness. Red is one of the first stages when self “I/My/Mine” find importance. An established yet raw form of self assertion happens. Red people are often egocentric and self-centered. Thoughts like “I’m everything”, “I rule”, “I’m the strongest” dominate. Historical examples of such power gods are the Vikings, gang-tribes and warrior-tribes. Ego and power are the “terrible twos” (Beck) of this level. This predatory system, Beck opines, can be even now found in adults who want to express their macho, in nations or groups that want to express their power etc. Feudal empires were an outcome of Red consciousness. About 20 percent of the population is still full of the Power Gods.

4. Conformists’ Rule/Order/Blue: From the Red emerged the Blue consciousness. After too much self-importance, human beings entered into a stage wherein thoughts on the meaning and purpose of life occurred to the mind. Talking about this, Beck says, “Obviously the chaos and anomie of red, each one doing what’s right in their own eyes, reaches a stage where there is a need for order and a shift out of looking only for self today into a recognition that “thou, too, are mortal,” and there will come some time in the future the reality of death. And often these trigger the search for meaning and purpose which are the key elements in blue.” Blue vMEME can be seen in religious communities or groups which believe in sacrifice of the self (now) for something in future. It is, as Beck says, a stage wherein a sudden calamity brings questions of meaning and purpose in life. About 40 percent of the population are blue.

5. Scientific Achievement/Orange: Out of the blue emerged the Orange. Like Red, Orange is all about self. As Sean A. Saiter puts it, the “self ‘escapes’ and seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms–hypothetico-deductive, experimental, objective, mechanistic, operational – ’scientific’ in the typical sense. The world is a rational and well-oiled machine with natural laws that can be learned, mastered, and manipulated for one’s own purposes. Highly achievement oriented, especially (in America) toward materialistic gains . . ” Beck says this Orange phase is marked by individualism and freedom. According to him, it is Orange that made Luther nail 95 theses on the church door of Wittenberg, and it is in Orange, technology (the printing press) facilitated every man to interpret the Bible in his own way. The Orange vMEME is dominant in today’s corporate world, where the individual is important. It is the Orange value group which holds 50 percent of power, though they are just 30 percent of the population.

6. The Sensitive Self/Green: Ecology gains prominence and the scene changes from the overtly materialistic Orange to Green. There is a shift in the Green meme, wherein the “I/me/mine” of Orange becomes the “We/us/our” of Green. Humanistic concerns begin to appear, but it happens only in societies which have money or which are developed. Though Green view is catching up, it is not prevalent all over, but only in a few pockets of the world. As Saiter puts it, in Green vMEME, the focus is on – “Communitarian, human bonding, ecological sensitivity, networking. The human spirit must be freed from greed, dogma, and divisiveness; feelings and caring supersede cold rationality; cherishing of the earth, Gaia, life.” About 10 percent of the population are Green.

Second Tier Thinking:
Second Tier Thinking is a complete break away from the First Tier. In the First Tier, people tend to think that only their perspectives or world views are the best. They fail to look into the other memes. This does not happen in second tier. The vMEMEs of second tier “includes yet transcends” all value systems without ignoring or neglecting the importance of each meme. It is “integral” to the core.

7. Integrative/Yellow: Represented by Yellow, the Integrative stage (the next in the line) is described by Don Beck as: “In yellow, which is a warm color, which means it’s an I/me/mine focused on self, we’re going to define a whole different kind of human, one that’s not driven as much by obsessions, one that has a good internalized compass, one that is more comfortable inside his or her skin, one who understands reality in terms of natural flows, one who is able to focus on human nature, not as a fixed type as the first tier meme codes tend to do, that is a final answer, but recognizes the inevitability of the flow.” As he adds further, the first thing that has to be done by Yellow is to find a worldview which is integrative of all views. Which can help clear the unhealthy patterns of other memes and open the spiral to further growth. Individuals in the Yellow level of consciousness understand that “The prevailing world order is the result of the existence of different levels of reality (memes) and the inevitable patterns of movement up and down the dynamic spiral. Good governance facilitates the emergence of entities throughout the levels of increasing complexity (nested hierarchy).”

8. Holistic/Turquoise: Turquoise is the highest level so far perceived by theorists. According to Beck, Turquoise and Yellow will coordinate together to open the spiral for further evolution. Everything will be holistic and a “grand unification of everything” is possible in theory and actuality. “The prevailing world order is the result of the existence of different levels of reality (memes) and the inevitable patterns of movement up and down the dynamic spiral. Good governance facilitates the emergence of entities throughout the levels of increasing complexity (nested hierarchy).” (Saiter).

Apart from these eight basic divisions, there are several variations in the vMEMEs. Memes can be arrested/closed/open; they can be in phases like alpha, beta, gamma, delta etc.; they can express several conditions like potential, dissonance, insight, barriers etc.; also, they can have different variations.

Through these value memes, Don Beck and other Integral philosophers like Susan Cook-Greuter, Carol Gilligan, Robert Kegan, Laurence Kohlberg, Jane Loevinger, Jean Piaget, Jenny Wade, Charles Alexander, Howard Gardner, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi intend to find systemic solutions to problems of the world. Application of Spiral Dynamics would involve analysis of life conditions, “awakened system” or vMEME that is dominant and analysis of how the codes are expressed in real life.

Reference Links:

1. Sean A. Saiter’s “A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking”

2. Don Beck’s “What is Spiral Dynamics Integral?”

3. Christopher Cooke and Ben Levi: Spiral Dynamics Integral

4. Spiral Dynamics Integral – The Heart and Soul of Spiral Dynamics Movement -

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