Where are we now?

Part 5 — Graves, with Beck & Cowan

Photo credit Stephane Vetter, TWAN

We have been playing with some powerful telescopes in this series, peering into the midnight skies, looking for new constellations, suggesting correlations: what excites me are the patterns we are seeing and the stories we are beginning to hear echoing endlessly through time and space. Our quest is to understand where we are on the stage of life, to get a grip on reality in the midst of chaos — where are we right here, right now?

Gebser brought us a macrohistorical perspective — although we saw through his lens dimly. Scharmer brought us humanity’s ‘presencing/absensing’ social perspective. Wilber married the two and birthed the internal and external social perspective — but once again we only looked at a tiny slice of his work. Now we will focus Graves’ telescope using the colourful lenses that Beck and Cowen overlaid on his philosophical model. Graves was a 20th century American philosopher who held that man’s nature is not a set thing, that it is ever emergent, that it is not an open system — yet not a closed system, that it ebbs and flows through a spiraling hierarchy in many dimensions. He suggested that each level in the hierarchy alternates as the human is either trying to make the environment adapt to Self, or is adapting Self to existential conditions. He called these ‘express Self’ and ‘deny Self’ systems and the swing between them is the cyclical aspect of his theory. Beck and Cowan took his work to another dimension in Spiral Dynamics showing how kaleidoscopic holons lie nested and pulsing within humanity.

The very word Hierarchy suggests a ladder to be climbed, a progression where one may be ‘higher’ than another, more progressive than another. In the 1950s Graves called this the ‘existential ladder’ nevertheless he was adamant that all levels, once achieved, lie nested within. In a paper published in The Futurist, April 1974, Graves wrote,

For many people the prospect of the future is dimmed by what they see as a moral breakdown of our society at both the public and private level ….something is indeed happening to human values, but it is not so much a collapse in the fiber of man as (it is) a sign of human health and intelligence ….man is learning that values and ways of living which were good for him at one period in his development are no longer good because of the changed condition of his existence ….the old values are no longer appropriate, but he has not yet understood the new.

And so, here we are in 2017 and we find ourselves still peering into the ‘not yet understood’ night sky.

Graves identified eight levels of existence with a nineth level beyond Holistic Order (Turquoise meme) that could be a Back-to-Eden and/or Back-and-beyond-Eden level of existence (Coral meme).

  1. Survival Self — Beige meme, based on biological imperatives.
  2. Bonding Order — Purple meme, mysterious, threatening, magical.
  3. Powerful Self — Red meme, adversarial with survival of self at risk.
  4. Absolute Order — Blue meme, deterministic, absolute, classified.
  5. Enterprising Self — Orange meme, striving for ‘success’.
  6. Egalitarian Order — Green meme, social ills threaten humanity.
  7. Integrated Self — Yellow meme, Chaotic, fluid w/multiple realities.
  8. Holistic Order — Turquoise meme, not yet classified — unknown.
  9. Back-to-Eden and/or Back-and-beyond-Eden — Coral meme

There is general agreement that the Western world is currently somewhere around 3. Red adversarial meme to 6. Green egalitarian meme. Adversarial is right where many of our legal and political systems land and Egalitarian is where the well meaning but never ending conversations around wicked problems of poverty, homelessness and climate change land. It is fair to say that we observe the “chaotic with multiple fluid realities” but we are far from landing in that space with any kind of authority. The Survival Self would appear to equate with Gebser’s Archaic experience, and Back-to-Eden with his Integral plunge.

I have tabled all eight levels of existence on a comprehensive Spiral Dynamics chart using the sub topics of worldview, conditions, themes, goals, actions, healthy and unhealthy. Also tabled are the transition memes of beige/purple, purple/red, red/blue, blue/orange, orange/green, green/yellow, yellow/turquoise. Turquoise is emergent at best and coral is as yet unknown.

Access my comprehensive Spiral Dynamics chart here:


Or for a broadsheet of the same document (for desktop viewing) use this link:


Levels of Existence in PNG

I lived and worked in New Guinea in the mid 1960s before they were granted independence in 1975. It was a privilege to meet and observe tribes living primarily within the purple meme of the Bonding Order. At the same time I also witnessed the fate of the mentally insane or other outcasts from the tribe who were banished with only a bush knife. They were plunged into Survival Self — isolated in a harsh environment and alone. Today, 50 years later, we observe the clash of so many memes playing out in Papua New Guinean politics and urban communities. Are the villagers “primitives” and the educated elite “progressives”? Not in the slightest! Education does not grant wisdom just as subsistence village life does not display ignorance. And this is where the whole idea of “levels” of existence falls apart in the 21st Century —where one is better and another more or less ‘better-er’ — where the Enterprising (orange) Self clashes with the Powerful (red) Self and the Absolute (blue) applies punitive measures, driven by a rigid intolerance for disobedience — where we have forgotten that all that has gone before remains still, nested and revisited. In it all and through it all, each Self or Order sees only its own truth and will manipulate memes to its best advantage.

Thank you Scharmer for giving us the ability to listen to Other with head, heart and will and to recognize the folly of a fundamentalist stance. Without the Theory U lens we would despair for our brothers and sisters living just 150 kilometers off the coast of Australia.

It is imperative that we consider the many faces of humanity as we peer at the night sky through these powerful telescopes. We ask, where are we now? Maybe the lived experiences of the Saints and Mystics from diverse ‘levels of existence’ will bring courage and peace to us as we strive to understand our world today. We might even see merit in learning to love each other again.