FAQ Consciousness

Is this a spiral to higher consciousness?

Whether or not you read a route to higher consciousness into the colors of the spiral or you only see “levels of consciousness” depends on your depth of understanding of the term “Spiral Dynamics”. (See our article on Levels of Understanding in Advanced Resources.) If your meaning includes greater cognitive complexity and awareness of existential problems as interactive factors in life’s ongoing equation—using your perceptual and learned abilities to sense and grasp more aspects in a particular context—then yes, there is a relationship.

People functioning at more complex levels tend to have more degrees of freedom in a given situation because they’re attuned to more factors, though they do not necessarily act with greater wisdom, attunedness, knowledge, or even adaptive success. But in this psychosocial developmental theory higher levels are built atop earlier ones; therefore, they have more explanatory power. They incorporate and reshape existing elements, then add new ones (emergence). So if by “higher consciousness” you are suggesting a more elaborated and option-rich perspective which includes more inputs and considerations, both internal and external, with involvement and interaction with people and the problems of the world, then again, yes.

But if perchance you equate consciousness with otherworldly pursuits, intellectual horsepower, or intelligence as conventionally measured in “I.Q.” or similar assessments, then there is virtually no relationship with spiral levels. Intelligence is a variable that runs through all the levels and has to be contextualized. And if, like many, you mean a fuller spiritual life and a path of enlightened spiritual development; or a higher ‘vibratory frequency’; or proximity to God, the godhead, the goddess; cosmic citizenship; to some ecstatic state or Buddha nature or fulfillment; or just a qualitatively superior kind of human being, then you are missing amost basic point of the Spiral Dynamics perspective. Those thoughts take shape within the structures and parameters of the levels; they re-form as levels change. They are ideas manifested as expressions through systems.
Many folks take their definition of consciousness as a sacred matter of faith. For some, their interpretation attaches to the spiral and becomes a surrogate for organized religion and systematic theology. They become so highly ego-involved in defending and promulgating their version of enlightened consciousness – zealots and true believers energized by fighting on behalf of a doctrine, a guru, or even a cult’s norms – that to challenge their concept of consciousness is heretical. Failure to recognize its importance is a threat to their being –s o much so that we have sometimes been accused of not understanding the very material we teach and have been developing for decades so they can hold their creations intact.

If you are interested in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs, goods, and or services, we invite you to use the models we introduce in these programs as a window for looking at the spectrum in how you and others conceptualize consciousness. It’s more useful not to try to force-fit the spiral into your definitional box; odds are it won’t fit. Once we get beyond the biological process of awareness, consciousness means many things as people migrate along the spiral. Moreover, consciousness expresses in many different ways. Perhaps thinking of consciousness as sentient awareness rather than spiral colors can inform your conversation and bringing down walls that separate conceptions of what it is about.

To dig in for analysis, try asking, “Awareness of what? How is consciousness operationalized? To what end? Why does it exist?” The answers will help you differentiate the many takes on consciousness. While the dogged pursuit of a “higher consciousness” can be liberating for some (because it offers them purpose), it is also limiting. What happens when two definitions of the end state are contradictory and incompatible? That’s often the result of imposing a meaning for higher consciousness on the spiral as an end state and final objective. Compare this with the quest to understand how consciousness takes shape across the open-ended whole of human conceptual space and why different people think about thinking and feeling in different ways. The former closes the door to exploration, while the latter opens it to what is authentically moving across the mindscape.

Smart, well-adapted folks with great minds exist at all levels in the model; it’s just sometimes difficult to comprehend and measure if you’re at a different place and in a different space. Similarly, enlightenment takes many forms. If your sense of consciousness necessitates a spirituality component to reach completeness or fulfillment, even that is possible throughout the Spiral because a spiritual sense pops up at different levels of existence. (See Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: An Introduction for an overview of several versions, as well as the multitude of consciousness studies programs a quick online search produces.)

If your personal consciousness search is for a state of transcendence, godliness, Buddha-nature, salvation, eternal existence, or such, that’s probably better understood through a school aligned with your opinions, views and beliefs. SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs do not offer a climbable stairway to higher existential states; rather, it is blueprints for understanding how and why those stairways get constructed. If you want to explore your approach to consciousness study, then SD will be informative. But conflating this work with elevating spirituality is to diminish both. It is a tool for recognizing and dealing with the variability in human nature and creating systems which fit better, not a tool for growing people to some ideal state. It is more about how one conceptualizes consciousness than scoring it.

Psychosocial systems, not religion

This work is rooted in developmental psychology and in sociology. That is not the same as spiritual practice. While both seek to understand the human journey and inner workings of our brain/mind complexes they are not equivalent. Spiritual conceptions exist across most of the levels, ranging from the unseen spirit realm and ancestral ways in Purple; to the heroic gods and demons of mythic Red; to the dogma-centered Godliness that often permeates Blue with its hunt for eternal life and dread of punishment; through the self-mastery practices which empower Orange to achieve enlightenment; to non-local activities and the universal force field that Green inhabits with Gaia/Goddess/God consciousness. Then comes the Yellow quest to understand how physical and metaphysical interact and why life works, followed by the Turquoise sense of dimensionality in an incredibly complex and codependent energetic field. But thinking about spirituality with deepening understanding, practicing a form of it and then relating that to a system on the spiral is to confuse a tree with forests.

You might ask, “Which is a better explanation of reality, quantum effects or dreamtime? Who is the best guide to truth, the shaman or the Rabbi or the string theorist? The Hindu mystic or the Methodist missionary?” Different paths for people with different needs, but usually toward similar places. All capable of great wisdom and useful insight; all with answers which address similar questions asked in different ways by minds in different levels. All incomplete.

So if the question is, “How does this person think about consciousness?” or “How does this group approach consciousness studies?” or “What kind of sensory set is being applied to the logic of this learning?” or “How can we approach consciousness and even ‘soul’ or soulless most congruently and meaningfully for this person/group?”, then the Spiral lens is a useful way of looking at the mindscapes involved. It can project the same picture modified in many levels-differentiated ways. But if it is, “What can I do to achieve highest states of consciousness?”, then this approach is probably not a good fit.

To begin using it, start by asking, “How does this person think about religion?” or “What significance does a specific form of spirituality hold?” or “Why does/doesn’t understanding consciousness matter to this person?” That is the approach we encourage in our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® trainings. Suggesting how a particular version of a particular religion might resonate with people thinking in some ways and not in others is also within the domain of the psychosocial. But characterizing “Spiral Dynamics”, itself, as a stairway to achieve enlightenment is misleading.

Consciousness raising

Today, there are large populations with both the surplus time/energy and resources to explore their inner selves and the inner selves of others (i.e., exiting E-R and entering F-S, as well as exiting D-Q moving toward E-R’s individualism). Exploring consciousness is again a hot topic. If one takes the popular view that each of us creates his/her reality, then exploration of the self reveals all (E-R). Others will say that consciousness simply is and that each of us taps into it for a time. Some will seat it in an immortal soul (D-Q) or spirit, even somewhere in the body. Philosophers have been arguing about it for centuries. Recently, neuroscientists like V.S Ramachandran (The Tell-Tale Brain) and physicists like Michio Kaku (The Future of the Mind) have joined the discussion. There are even studies of non-human conscious awareness since it seems to apply to living things, not just obviously sentient beings, and not just to humans.

Popular techniques proposed to elevate consciousness – meditation, breathwork, psychotropic drugs, even organic foods with higher vibrations – certainly alter one’s state for a time, and doubtless contribute to peace of mind. Some might be permanent. But they often work within the spiral levels to expand them rather than transform from one to another, though that is always possible under double-helix conditions. Generally, learning about the Spiral is not the same as moving along the Spiral. Knowing about is not being. Coming to peace with is not to change. Many people drawn to consciousness studies, whether rooted in Eastern traditions, transpersonal psych, mainstream theology, or other paths, now try to fuse the Spiral model and validate their approaches using the Graves theory to lay this map over their cherished territory. They often confuse horizontal elaboration with vertical transformation and confuse symptoms with cause.

In our SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs we use Clare Graves’s models and theories to explore how people think about such things and the nature of the mind that contemplates the mature adult personality in operation. Clearly, the mind/body/spirit trio (or other permutations with different labels) is worthy of study, just as the future of levels of existence is. The former is far richer than we give it credit and complement the base of Gravesian research to date. For an example, see the work of Antonio Damasio, Iain McGilchrist, and others exploring spirit and the brain fit well with the Gravesian interactive double-helix point of view. If you do, Cartesian dualism with a separation of mind and body from consciousness and spirit falls apart.

We continue to insist that “spirituality” and “enlightenment” can occur with great depth and richness at many levels, and are often best illustrated as stretching out horizontally and growing from the spiral levels in a different dimension rather than coinciding with them as some kind of vertical climb to eternal life. Both the spiral positions of the observer and the observed need to factor in. (Question: Why is higher consciousness so often vertically up? Why not out, or in, or over? Why evolving consciousness rather than involution? Turn the spirals on their sides or create ‘shells of consciousness’ and look at how the conceptions and hierarchicalism change in tone. Try thinking in terms of ‘expansiveness’, ‘depth’ and ‘volume’ rather than directionally – up or down. A shift out of verticality opens new perspectives on growth and development.)

“How does this person or group think about consciousness, and why is the construct important to them?” How would this concept be approached in Blue? Green? What would differentiate a Turquoise (B’-O’) perspective from a stretched version of Green with some Yellow-sounding terminology thrown in, or even a non-sectarian Blue version of the quest for meaning in life and death wrapped in esoteric existential jargon? What differentiates esoteric talk from being and behaving? How does one differentiate genuinely new levels from expanded versions of those we know thus far? What might the next phase of psychosocial being be like? Can we even recognize it?

At this juncture, the prominent E-R urge for dominance and control plus belief in the power of a right-thinking mind frequently overwhelms the more subtle wisdoms and elegant insights that permeate all the levels in their unique ways. It tries to channel them, especially the lower levels, in ‘new-and-improved’ directions on its terms. The argument: consciousness shall be raised! Look out for higher consciousness for sale, or enlightenment requiring dues. Likewise, the ability to reframe D-Q basics into esoteric synonyms allows very traditional perspectives, Graves-wise, to appear much farther along the spiral than they might actually be—D-Q’s authoritarian obedient one-true-way framed as something far more complex and esoteric and Turquoisey than it actually is. A consciousness imperative wrapped up in quantum ribbons.

Some teachers and writers already propose levels of existence far beyond what Gravesian theory has uncovered and even sell programs promising to elevate participants to those new planes of existence—inflationary competitive consciousness? Obviously, such things resonate for some or they would not endure. We only caution those of you seeking to expand consciousness not to confuse it with SPIRAL DYNAMICS® trainings, assessments, programs, and services. and to recognize that evolving consciousness and the spiral aren’t the same because change happens both within and between levels. Learning about this work will not shift you to higher planes, but it might help you understand why you crave the journey, and it will help you to tell the difference among many approaches to consciousness studies so you might pick one that is most congruent with who you are and where you are heading.