SD in Action

Questions About the Levels in the Spiral

Levels of Existence


What do the pairs of letters (AN, BO, CP, etc.) mean? 

The letter pairs were Dr. Graves’s original terminology. His double-helix notion included conditions for existence in the milieu (life conditions in the Spiral Dynamics book) as the first letter—A, B, C, D, E, F, G (or A’), H (or B’), etc. The second letter—N, O, P, Q, R, S, T (or N’), U (or O’), etc.—identified the coping systems produced by the neurobiological equipment in the brain. To come up with the lists, he simply split the alphabet in half.

Each ‘level of psychological existence’ is the product of the interaction of those elements, thus A with N such that the designations are AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, and FS (plus either a continuation—GT, HU, etc., or primes like A’N’, B’O’), to describe the levels.

The letter pair language conveys more meaning than the colors because it conveys the interaction of the outer problems of existence outside with the inner mind/brain system, something basic to the theory. Although Dr. Graves used numbers 1 through 8 on occasion, he relied primarily on these letter pairs. We teach this as the primary label set in certification courses, followed by colors as a short-hand for the eight nodal states, since the alphabet labels permit discussion of something the colors don’t:  the critical entering and exiting transition states—an/BO, BO/cp, bo/CP, etc., where the systems blend. Of particular interest right now in the world are the DQ/er, dq/ER, ER/fs and er/FS zones.

This idea of two interacting forces is essential to Gravesian theory and the foundational ‘dynamic’ of Spiral Dynamics. Both genetic predisposition and neuronal systems and experiences accrued in living contribute to shape who we are. The use of letter pairs (rather than colors or numbers) serves to emphasize this double-helix notion that sets this model apart from others that simply rely on typologies and traits. While there is a great deal to be done in the study in each of them, the energy of the convergence zones is also an area deserving considerable more investigation and rigorous research.

The corresponding colors are A-N Beige, B-O Purple, C-P Red, D-Q Blue, E-R Orange, F-SGreen, G-T or A’-N’ Yellow, H-U or B’-O’ Turquoise, then C’-P’ as Coral, then Teal, then ?

Why are there only eight systems or colors? 

There aren’t just eight systems. Dr. Graves’ model is an open-ended theory with an unlimited number of systems possible. His original research picked up eight nodal states, and those are like the peaks of overlapping curves and represented with the eight-color code.

But in between these archetypal nodal points are pairs of entering and exiting sub-states where most of the energy of living lies. Overlooking that is trap of using the eight-band color code that those who are well trained in the theory avoid. In fact, there are at least 21 distinct stages in the Graves emergent, cyclical model as it has developed so far (entering, nodal and exiting for each). For many years, seven levels sufficed to introduce the theory. While Graves found limited evidence for it, his data were scant and B’-O’/8/Turquoise has only recently been included widely, although it has long been talked about. The eighth now seems to be emerging, though good research on its nature is still yet to be conducted, and most of what’s being said at this stage is guesswork because, in theory, an eighth must arise from the success and problems created by a seventh. We are still struggling with the sixth, much less a wide-spread presence of A’N’.

If the theory holds, then 9th, 10th, 11th and many more levels of psychological existence lie ahead in the human repertoire. In our opinion, any attempts to describe them at this point are pure conjecture and, more often than not, based in extrapolations from DQ religion, ER self-empowerment and stretched individualism, and FS neo-spirituality. The requisite existential problems needed to activate the more elaborated mind/brain systems have not appeared with sufficient clarity or urgency, and efforts to fuse philosophical and metaphysical hierarchies into the Gravesian perspective miss the point of the levels of psychological existence theory.

Is the Spiral model hierarchical?

Yes, in several ways. Built into the theory are the notions of movement, expansion and increase in conceptual space. Each new system subsumes the ones that came before, carrying forward elements of the past and putting a new face and new mind at the forefront. Thus, the form of a growing, expanding spiral. However, it is not a hierarchy in terms of intelligence, temperament or many other dimensions that ebb and flow throughout the Spiral. People don’t become more or less decent, wise, or worthwhile as they move along it; different intelligences rise and fall in importance. “Up” is not invariably better, and “down” is not invariably worse; the question is, what kind of thinking is congruent with the realities at hand, and what creates satisfaction in living?

That said, the awakening of each new system opens the opportunity for inclusion of more elements, but does not guarantee it. Each builds on what comes before, then adds a new set of priorities and a shift in viewpoint. Although Graves frequently spoke of vertical directionality—“up” to “higher” levels—there’s no reason why the model can’t as easily go sideways, downward or layer out from a middle like an onion. The preference for verticality is more a cultural leaning (“heavens above”) than a theoretical factor.

This is not a sack of marbles of different colors that can be sorted by size and tossed around willy nilly. The bag-of-marbles metaphor is inadequate because there is a sequence in the emergent process. It becomes far too easy to see the Gravesian levels, especially when couched as vMemes, as discrete particles that can be plinked individually rather than as interconnected elements in a whole that makes up personality. That’s the typology trap. A more accurate image requires morphing—new marbles grow from old ones—and the whole group spins like a top so that all the colors begin to form an overlapping pattern as the marbles become indistinct parts of a whole. That top, of course, becomes a spiral.

Is there a timeline for systems emergence?

The Spiral  model isn’t chronological or age-based. In other words, one level doesn’t appear at age 2, then 3, another at 7, a third at 18 and something else at 25 or 45 or 95. Dr. Graves always deferred to Piaget and the child development theorists to understand which personality characteristics arise early on and can be correlated with developmental stages in children. His interest was in the ‘mature’ human being, though early forms of these systems certainly do show up as children develop, and many of the principles apply.

The Spiral is a model of the mature adult personality in operation that strives to explore differences in people after the hormonal and developmental stages of infancy, childhood and puberty have finished. While there is a sequence—and some theorists maintain phases—in adulthood, the Gravesian timeline is quite fluid. Systems rise and fall as people readjust to shifting life conditions and neurology changes. It is this flexibility—the interaction between life conditions and coping means to produce coping systems—that sets Dr. Graves’ point of view apart. Thus, two people at ages 19 and 90 might share the same coping system; or another pair at age 32 be poles apart in how they think about things.

Dr. Graves did play with a historical sequence in the appearance of systems as they come to prominence as the leading edge in the species Homo sapiens. Some of this was borrowed from the work of John Calhoun, Abraham Maslow, Lewis Mumford, Gerald Heard, and others who tried to explore the emergence of humankind. Many people cite the intervals Graves discussed, though he treated them more as metaphor and curiosity than a serious aspect of theory. The approximate times for the appearance of systems through history as reported in a graphic found in his are writings are: AN >100,000 years ago, BO 40,000; CP 10,000; DQ 4000; ER 1400; FS 80; A’-N’ 30 years ago (as of 1980). Dr. Graves felt that B’-O’ was just beginning to appear in his day.

Note the apparent acceleration of change in these numbers. The time curve, if plotted, rises steeply after ER. Then comes the question whether it will continue to accelerate toward an ideal state and finish as many in the spirituo-religious community propose, or again level off to start the slow rise in a next way, the view more congruent with Gravesian theory. Maintaining the view that human nature is an open-ended process (up to the evolutionary limits of the organism), Graves hypothesized that it would flatten with A’-N’. As a correlate of A-N, the time required for resolution of such profound survival problems of life on earth and the complexities presented by the previous six systems’ coexistence that would take a while to sort out. Thus, he projected a relatively longer prominence for A’-N’, somewhat shorter for B’-O’, etc. Whether this is the case or not is yet to be discovered. It is clear that twenty five years later, we are still dealing with political scandals, genocides, aggressive wars, and terrorism, not to mention climate change, shifts in earth’s magnetic field, and an unsustainable environment if we continue on course. Despite a lot of talk and some good efforts, not a lot has changed since Dr. Graves’s day.

What’s the highest level? Coral? Teal? Aubergine?

Dr. Graves’s theory and the Spiral model are open-ended processes. There is no final state or top of the Spiral, no stage of completeness or perfection for human nature. Turquoise is the current edge of Graves-based data, so Coral is merely the last color picked from the paint box and open to all sorts of imaginative interpretations.

This is not a Spiral toward spiritual revelation and transcendent being as some would wish. The Spiral opens up and widens; it does not focus down to a pinnacle or finish. The “future” from each level is the next in the sequence; each is more expansive because it adds something to those which come before. The future for the Spiral is the passage to more and more systems in the human repertoire. Unless we do something incredibly stupid or a cosmic accident occurs, the process will continue for a long, long time.

Successful living at each level produces the new existential problems and energy to look to the next system. Graves’ letter pairs include the first tier of AN through FS; the second tier of primes A’-N’ through F’-S’; the third tier of double-primes (A”-N”, etc.) and so on.

In the color language of Spiral Dynamics , there’s Yellow, then the ever-popular Turquoise, Coral, perhaps Teal, Plum, Aubergine and a whole spectrum of others. (Be aware that use of letter pairs is far superior to colors when describing the nuances of the theory as Graves’ Helix I and Helix II forces interact.) The repeating pattern of 6-on-6 was a hypothesis; not a demonstrable fact. We believe the “tier” language has become vastly overblown and distorted, and now tend to avoid it.

What about “first tier” and “second tier”?

The word ‘tier’ was introduced to Gravesian theory with the 1996 Spiral Dynamics book to represent a set of six levels of psychological existence. Graves called the first six systems “subsistence levels” and the repeat of those six in a new, higher order form “being levels.” (Earlier, Abraham Maslow had used deficit and being to mark a leap in his needs hierarchy.) Thus, the first tier is the first six systems, Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange and Green in the color-code. The second tier starts with Yellow and Turquoise, with Coral and four others to follow as they emerge over human experience.

In his original work, Dr. Graves envisioned an open-ended continuum of emergent systems, numbered one through eight, etc., or designated with letter pairs AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS, GT, HU, etc. However, later in his research, he noticed what he thought might be a noteworthy breakpoint between the sixth and seventh levels, ala Maslow. With that the terminology shifted from GT, HU, etc., to primes – A’N, B’O’, etc. – suggesting a repeat in new and higher order form. In Spiral Dynamics, AN-FS are the first tier and A’N’, B’O’ and four to follow would be the second. After F’S’, a third would begin with A”N”.

Graves’s idea of six-on-six themes in human nature was only a hypothesis suggested by his data. (Earlier he had also looked at four on four and five on five as possibilities, suggesting a desire to discover patterns. Some of our colleagues who have looked at this theory have proposed clusters of three (“triads of consciousness”), while others see a logarithmic progression where every transition from one level of psychological existence to the next is a “quantum leap” in its own right, an order of magnitude shift in human nature.

Because of differences appearing in his data, Graves observed what he called an “incredibly different kind of human being” beginning to appear in the post-counter culture milieu of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These things suggested to him that a great change was underway, one suggested by other theorists and philosophers who had proposed a great transformation in human nature from a baser, more primitive form to one of more compassion, virtue, and “humanity.” The editor titled Dr. Grave’s 1974 article in The Futurist “Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap” to suggest this forthcoming awakening and transformation in our kind. (We caution that one can argue notable changes occur between any two of these mega systems whereby human existence is transformed; the sixth to seventh and seventh to eighth are merely the most current evolutions.)

Keep in mind that Dr. Graves was not totally convinced of the validity of his hypothesis, and it appears only in his later papers and manuscript as an idea worth watching over the years. He was certainly never so pretentious as to project what third, fourth or further tiers might be like except in the most general terms, and hoped we would not “blow ourselves up” before they could emerge. In our view, the 6-on-6 preference arose largely from his optimism about humanity, the cultural shifts of his day, because the data did suggest noteworthy differences between FS and GT (Green and Yellow in the color language of Spiral Dynamics), and because he’d already done 4-on-4 and 5-on-5.

As further evidence in support of his hypothesis, Graves began to recognize certain similarities between A’N’ being and the first level, AN, since both look to individualistic survival, though in vastly different contexts. Thus the designation, A’N’ rather than GT to suggest the possible repetition of a basic theme and FS to A’N’ as a break point. On further study, Dr. Graves found a marked increase in “conceptual space,” a new freedom from entrapment by irrational fears (not reckless fearlessness) and diminished compulsiveness (desired without absolutes), plus an ability to learn from many sources in many ways. Rather than a focus on having and doing—subsistence issues—he found subjects in this range shifted toward a “being” approach to life with a degree of resignation to coping with the existential realities at hand. (Maslow had hypothesized a similar phenomenon, as had others of his era.) In experiments he found that persons he identified as more A’N’-like were able to brainstorm more freely, and to process more in decision-making tasks than those centralized in earlier-arising systems. He concluded that this was not due to differences in intelligence as measured at that time; and he believed it represented a change more profound than any previous n human history.

Graves also hypothesized a move from a sense of plenty in the first rendition of the six basic coping themes to a concern with managing scarcity in the being levels that would come next, a reverse of Maslow. Because of similarities between the first subsistence system (survival) and the first being-level system (survival in globalized context), and parallels between the second subsistence (tribal) and second being (mega-tribal), he concluded that human nature might well emerge like a symphony with these themes repeating, six-upon-six-upon six up to the limits of the brain of Homo sapiens. Then we might become something else.

The second word in the name of Graves’s  theory – the emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development – suggests an oscillation between an inner locus and outer locus of control, a focus on changing the world and adapting to it. Graves hypothesized that this might relate to brain hemisphere dominance as ‘right’ and ‘left’ swapped control in a cyclic fashion. Although the validity of this is still an open question, if we want to try and differentiate a first phase of Homo sapiens from a second, a factor might be a more whole-brain way of thinking rather than heavy dominance by either left or right – more complex neuronal connections. This more holistic and cross-linked brain could explain some apparent differences between people. The tests of this hypothesis lie in the neurosciences and understanding how Graves-like levels relate to our organismic brain.  

To tier, or not to tier?

Whether the “tier” hypothesis is solid or not is yet to be established since a great transformation in human nature was a familiar idea in Graves’s day, as it was long before and has been ever since. Indeed, it might be a notion wired into our brains. Thus, over-attention to first tier/second tier differences often injects more confusion than clarity into analysis since it leads to broad over-generalizations, becoming both a monster and red herring. The following remarks from Dr. Graves in The Never Ending Quest suggest the open-ended nature of the theory:

“And finally, there is the need to distinguish conceptually between certain gross classes of levels, between the levels of the first spiral of psychosocial development and those levels that appear later in psychological time. The first six together I will call THE SUBSISTENCE LEVEL SYSTEMS. Those of the second spiral I will name BEING LEVEL I SYSTEMS. Those of later spirals, should they come to be, would be designated as BEING LEVEL II SYSTEMS, BEING LEVEL III SYSTEMS, etc.”

From this it is clear that neither the Spiral model nor Graves aims for a state of ultimate “self-actualization” or completeness of consciousness; no pointy top for the pyramid or godlikeness. Some people have been suggesting a “goal” for the emergent process and a finish to the process of awakening. Others see themselves as perching on higher levels and, in turn, use ‘tierism’ as a rather arrogant means to look down and sort lesser mortals into classes inferior to themselves. It has, in fact, become a meme.

Be cautious because tierism is a very powerful and ego involving meme at the core of many people’s identities, an article of faith which must be defended at all costs. Indeed, “Second Tier” has become a part of the central dogma of some derivatives of the Spiral Dynamics approach and a popular phrase in the Integral movement. It seems that “Second Tier” is now equivalent to a grade of A; it’s the compliment of choice, except for those who aspire to being third tier. “First Tier” has become a pejorative and a put-down suggesting deficiency, ordinariness, and lack of understanding. Failure is often defined as not being Second Tier enough. Success means that it must be Second Tier, a reverse of the usual interpretations of 1st and 2nd tier categories, of course.

Recognize that this tierist attitude misses the point of congruency – that systems are neither bad nor good in their own right; that it is fit between circumstances and conceptualization that matters. While “higher” levels do offer more explanatory power and complexity for the long run, that doesn’t make them most effective in the short run. Sometimes, simpler is better for now.

All of this to say that putting much emphasis on first tier, second tier distinctions may be following a false—or at least unimportant—trail, and that projecting future tiers is at worst an exercise in hubris, at best something better left up to pundits and philosophers. We suggest concentrating on a more functional human spiral rather than becoming too distracted by ‘tierism’.

Why does it happen?

The ‘tier-anical’ view often assigns superiority and spiritual cleverness to the “second tier” and relegates the first tier to second-rate status, creating categories for greater and lesser mortals with the second tier nearer to transcendent being. It’s an almost dichotomous perspective that is far from the intent of the theory which grants strengths to each level because each is appropriate and useful in its context. This over-reaching approach sometimes rings of stretched DQ (Blue) aspirations and the search for saintliness and salvation, along with aspirational ER (Orange) delusion of a universe revolving around the self, focused on an ultimate “personal best,” all couched in post-New Age lingo and transcendent egotism.

While we agree with Dr. Graves that higher levels offer more possibilities than lower levels, and that getting higher-level thinking into government and education is a laudable goal, that is not to say that healthy, effective expressions of all the systems aren’t desirable, or that many problems can’t be solved congruently throughout the spiral: D with Q, E with R, F with S, etc. The caveat is that the expressions be constructive, open, and healthy.

Being ‘second tier’ has become a core identity for many devout members of the virtual Church of the Spiral who take this stuff (and themselves) terribly seriously. Heresy is as unwelcome there as in the inquisitors’ Rome. Many are quite sincere in their belief that more ‘Second Tier’ thinking is imperative, and that anything which might attenuate enthusiasm for it destructive because time is short. Yet few seem capable of explaining what ‘Second Tier’ means to them beyond the usual ‘that it includes all the previous levels and can see more clearly.’ Often, definitions seem to confuse open-state thinking and open-mindedness with elevation on the Spiral, thereby missing the characteristics which are already present at effective, decent renditions of other levels which need to be reinforced.

And a word of practical caution: when someone displays a need to tell you proudly that they or their organization is of “second tier” status, much less “third tier,” check very carefully. One of the markers of upper-end functioning is a fair degree of humbleness because relativism, empathy, and uncertainty are influential in the thinking; self-importance, much less narcissistic grandiosity, goes away. The need to proclaim one’s enlightened status might be a marker of aspiring ER, or it might be someone whose bubble you won’t want to burst. And if a True Believer whose ego is wrapped up in being Yellow or Turquoise lambasts you for failure to speak the sacred lingo of ‘Second Tier’ properly, don’t panic and be gentle. The need to proclaim as either a missionary or a self-righteous critic offers Gravesian clues as to how best to proceed.

Tier inflation

A suggestion is now floating around that the second tier consists of only A’-N’ (Yellow) and B’-O’ (Turquoise), and that C’-P’ (Coral) is where the ego begins to dissolve toward grand unification with the godhead. A whole new color scheme has appeared to explain this. It’s not Graves or Spiral Dynamics, though it shows creativity and, perhaps, some wishful thinking. Heaven help us, there’s talk of awakening this “third tier” as the route to nirvana, blissful fulfillment, and meshing with the all that is all, even suggestions of dropping in on it—rather than merely an ecstatic state—through drugs, like the 1960s psychedelic dabblers hoped, or meditative practices.

Perhaps a great becoming actually is just ahead. Who knows what the future holds? But such talk is not crucial to practical applications of the models collected under the SPIRAL DYNAMICS® program umbrella, or the relatively optimistic perspective of Clare Graves. It belongs in the realm of quasi-futurism, New-Age spirituality and consciousness-speak. Think about it: the Spiral’s “third tier” would be the third playing of the six basic themes—the double primes A”-N”, B”-O”, etc.—and that’s a long way off since, by and large, earth’s nations are still struggling to break from DQ and ER impasses, wars and rumors of wars. If we can actually begin to address the existential problems we know about today, and for which we have solutions but insufficient will, ours will be a better world.

Where can I read about the third tier (double prime) levels—A”N”, B”O”, etc.?

As far as credible online reading about “the double primes,” there is none. There’s barely anything on the first two single-prime levels that we can recommend as valid. That such levels would come to be was pure conjecture on Dr. Graves’ part as he projected what might be if human nature continued on track.

While some people have produced ‘inflationary’ versions of the Graves theory with all sorts of metaphysical guesswork and philosophical hypothesizing, the existing data show little evidence of systems operating beyond A’N’ and B’O’. Graves did not venture further and was even hesitant about those.

Are there other states of being and transcendent entities who cross dimensions of time and space like existential cockroaches scurrying about on the plane of consciousness? Who knows? The theory states that new neurobiological systems are awakened by the awareness of new, unresolved existential problems in the milieu. For a more complex level of human existence to actually be, those more complex problems of existence must be recognized and felt.

Once someone can explain those in a meaningful way and demonstrate their impact, we’ll be prepared to say that human nature has gone beyond the DQ/ER/FS centralization that typifies most of our doings. Until then, there is no point in playing games with most of the single primes beyond B’O’, much less a third rendition.

The Graves theory (in its last incarnation and upon which the Spiral model is based) was of six systems layered on six. There have been cute and clever efforts by assorted gurus and pundits to shortcut that into various other forms, none of which reflect the model very accurately. Imagine, if you will, what it will take for human nature to create a world that activates even C’P’ as a post-holism state, much less D’Q’, E’R’, F’S’ in order to lead to A”N”..

We are still struggling with DQ in the mid-East, with the impacts of surging ER as corporate predators gain ownership of life and ideas, and the very beginnings of FS as collective action to address human ills is debated ad infinitum in UN forums and think tanks while masses starve and kill each other in the name or religion, greed or ethnicity.

We still hurl chunks of heavy metal toward each other at high velocities to resolve international disputes. We still lament starvation and do virtually nothing about it. We argue in this country whether health care and a decent chance at a normal lifespan is a privilege for the rich or a right for all citizens. And nobody is quite sure what the ecology of the planet is like or what it will take to destroy or refresh it.

We humbly suggest attention to these matters of FS and the actual nature of the A’N’ that success with FS might produce. (It’s still just forming and a point of centralization for a tiny fraction of human kind. What are the real, important F-level existential problems?) The underlying question is whether this species as presently actualized has a chance of surviving  until B’ problems arise at a level to be seriously recognized and resolved—much less concerning ourselves with anything beyond that.

Do people move up from one level to the next, like climbing stairs?

First of all, people don’t always move “up.” This theory is a two-way street; people move up and down and sometimes they stabilize for a long time. You can also turn the model sideways, reverse the “high” and “low” so expansion and growth are downward, or even construct it like an onion with concentric, expanding shells; so movement could be “over,” “up,” “down,” or “out.”

Remember that the system of behavior is based on the combination of existential problems from outside and neurobiological equipment on the inside. Sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to shift down to a lower level that better fits the realities at hand. “Up” (or to a next system in the hierarchy) is not invariably better, only a move to a more complex and elaborated system. Dr. Graves used both “existential staircase” and “ladder of existence” in his writings, but found both inadequate to describe the emergent, cyclical double-helix.

Rather than steps and stages, this emergent point of view suggests that previous ways of thinking and behaving don’t go away. They are subsumed beneath and into more complex systems that then form clusters. The older ways don’t disappear as new capacities are activated. Instead, they go into storage and, if the person is open, can be revived as necessary. This is particularly the case when people approach the A’-N’ range (GT or Yellow) where they can tap into a wider behavioral repertoire. A person is not at a level as if standing on a developmental staircase; the person functions with regard to an aspect of living in a particular way. There may be multiple subsystems at work; and the person might change, or not.

It’s also worth noting that either the life conditions (systems outside) or the neuronal system (systems inside) can shift with respect to each other so that while one “advances” or “recedes,” the other does not. The process is more akin to punctuated equilibrium than stair climbing, with the achievement of balance and congruence as goals.

What is the “prime directive?”

Frankly, we have no idea, other than the one in the original “Star Trek” that prohibited tampering with other civilizations. (That must not be it, since most people interested in this theory are, by nature, tamperers with the human condition.) Humans centralized at each level along the Spiral will have a sense of priorities, so one can devise themes that might fit well with their thinking—directives to save people, control people, convert people, dominate people, grow people, know people, love people, transform people, etc.

Thus, there is a sort of prime direction toward more elaborated systems and even a prime director—the mechanism built into human nature that causes the double-helix forces to interact, evolve and grow. We are a curious species, and the problems our curiosity creates also moves us necessarily forward to behave and think in new ways.

Dr. Graves remarked: 

“I do suggest…and this I deeply believe is so, that for the overall welfare of total man’s existence in this world, over the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels and that the prime good of any society’s governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence.” 

That’s not the same as a “prime directive;” but the quote does suggest that Dr. Graves believed in active facilitation of transitions toward more complex systems when appropriate and feasible since the complexity of our problems increases with living, and higher levels offer more degrees of freedom to choose appropriate behaviors. (Remember, the Spiral Dynamics change process goes both ways, though.) This view, in turn, should be put in the context of Dr. Graves’s own time and circumstances, since what is “prime” lies in the mind of the beholder and where it rests along the spiral. People centralized in different vMEMESs will project their own intentions onto the theory and use it in ways that fit the world in which they exist. Statements like “for the good of the whole spiral” and “so that each whorl of the spiral can be healthy and fulfilled” and “so people at each level can be the best they can within their circumstances” are all renditions of answers to the question.

The following quotation from Dr. Graves in NEQ clarifies his position on the DQ through ER transitions and the risk to human survival continued thinking and acting in those ways entails. We’re now observing the “fallout” of 4th/5th level existence with environmental and social systems nearing collapse while individual possibilities, personal opportunities and the variety of choices are at a high point for many. Extrapolations of this are sometimes couched as “second-tier” thinking, but that is a delusion. Attacks on the next stage in the hierarchy—FS (Green)—serve to slow not accelerate this process since the door needs to be opened not closed. Despite talk of enlightenment, higher consciousness and spiritual enrichment, most of the “leadership of man”—political, corporate and religious—rests squarely in the range Dr. Graves addresses as follows:

“No words that I shall ever pen will be more condemned or less hailed than those which I shall now commit to paper. But be that as it may they must be written for the future of mankind may rest upon man’s ability to extricate himself from living within “The American Ways of Life,” those states for existence which come to be when the E-R – the selfishly independent system of human behavior – begins to emerge. This statement will be heretical to some, communistic to others and anarchistic to many. But let me explain what is meant by the assertion. This world, as we all know, is full of paradoxes, but of all that exist, the most paradoxical, it seems to me, is the one which arises when man’s need for independence begins to emerge. As man starts his transition from the absolutistic form for existence, the ordered, authoritarian, submissive way of life, and as man moves through the stage of independence on into the sociocentric ways for being, five definable and describable states of existence emerge one after another in our ordered hierarchical way. These five states, each of which has a strong flavor of selfish independence in them, have brought more that is good to man and more that is bad for him than all states of existence which preceded them. No states of existence, prior to these five, have given man more power over the physical universe, more verifiable knowledge or a greater increase in his material welfare than have they. But no states are more certain to pave the way for man’s demise than these five unless we can move, at least the leadership of man, beyond these states where man believes that the epitome of human living lies somewhere with one or some of the E-R states of existence.”

Are magic and strong families evidence of Purple (B-O) in operation?

Because B-O (Purple) is unfamiliar, there are several common misconceptions around this system. Recall that Dr. Graves drew most of what he wrote about the second level from library studies, not field research. The depiction of Purple in Spiral Dynamics applications varies widely, and has changed over the years. 

First off, look for the conflation of Purple with small groups. There are many kinds of small groups that exist for many reasons and occur at every level. So teams and community spirit are not reliable B-O markers. They’re really not very good markers of the cool-colored deny-self systems, for that matter, since people centralized in express-the-self ways often form organizations. Look for reciprocity and communal/collective thinking throughout the cool, mutuality-oriented even numbers; individuals cooperating without fusion in the warms. It’s how people think about the group and belonging to it that’s the differentiator. Who and what does groupness serve? 

Along that line, humans begin as a pair-bonding species, and the family is as much an instinct as a cognitive decision. It’s a survival strategy that is adapted at more elaborated levels. We shape the kind of family it is based on Gravesian levels – expressions of family and relating to significant others – but a family unit is not necessarily a Purple sign. 

Second, while the Purple (B-O) world is often described as a magical place, magic is not necessarily Purple. Magic means different things, and there’s a big difference between a mysterious world populated with invisible mysterious spirit beings and the willful exercise of magic to influence outcomes. Magical and mystical existence in the hands of unseen forces that determine outcomes are more a Purple (B-O) tone, whereas the exercise of magic from the human side to shape outcomes shifts toward Red (C-P) as wizards, witches, and magicians go to work. 

With the Purple to Red transition, it becomes possible to master the mystery and direct the spirits – the gods and godlings – to do one’s will if one is but powerful enough. The shaman who interprets the signs and brings the ways of the ancestors into the present begins to take the form of a proactive agent who exercises will by exploiting the metaphysical and channeling the unseen energies to effect change. It is directive, not submissive.

Finally, early versions of SD training and writings misspoke about Purple Chieftains. That’s not a good portrayal. If there is a chieftain in a Purple-oriented community, it is more the role of facilitator and interpreted of the sacred ways, often in coordination with the elders. Sometimes it is an inherited position, sometimes chosen from the group. In any case, at Purple if there’s a chief, it’s with a little c. The Big Boss kind of Chieftain – the upper case C version – arises with the Purple to Red transition. Now the Chieftain is a power figure, one who can dominate and command. Reciprocity and group process are overwhelmed by egos as rugged individualists seek to rise above the others. These are two very different forms of chieftaincy. It’s important to see the difference.

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