Cognitive Development
by Diane Linsley

Cognitive development is one of the most fascinating subjects
I've ever studied. It helped me to understand myself and all the
people in my life.

I learned about cognitive development from Bill Harris. Sadly,
the people who now run Centerpointe removed his blog, which I used to link to from this article. So I will start by summarizing what I learned from Bill.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Pre-Conventional Stages

1. Early Symbiotic: The infant learns to separate himself from the world.

2. Impulsive: He begins to use language like "me" and "mine". Impulse gratification. Other people exist to provide for his needs.

3. Opportunist: He knows that others have a different perspective, but he can't take that perspective. Either aggressive or self-protective. Only interested in getting to know others so he can manipulate them to get what he wants. Actions are bad only if he is caught. Doesn't understand cause and effect, so he blames others for his experiences and feelings. Believes in luck or magic. Some people stay in this stage for life. This type of developmental arrest is commonly called narcissism.

Conventional Stages

1. Dipolomat: Most people go to this stage by age 12. It's all about fitting into the group. Accepts rules, roles and norms without questioning. The self is defined by others. Relationships are of the "I need you" variety. Many adults remain at this stage for life.

2. Expert: The most common stage of development in the Western world. Still tied to the group, but sees himself as more distinct, even special. Develops abstract thinking and problem-solving skills, sometimes including higher math and science. Has an opinion on everything and loves giving advice. Black-and-white thinker. Stands up for himself - sometimes to the point of being aggressive and argumentative. Can do complex tasks, contributing to society through his work.

3. Achiever: Able to imagine multiple possibilities. Understands cause and effect better than previous stages, so he can make better plans. Enjoys introspection and personal growth. Busy making the world a better place. Interested in getting things done. Idealistic and driven to achieve goals. Uses rational thinking to convince others, instead of just arguing. 90% of adults in the Western world are at one of the conventional stages or lower.

Post-Conventional Stages

1. Individualist: Begins to move away from the strictly separate self and starts to look for oneness and unity. Everything is relative, dependent on context and relationship. Everything is an interpretation. Able to see many different points of view, but all points of view are given equal weight. Questions everything. Achieving goals is no longer the focus of life. Rationality is no longer the best or only way to solve problems. Intuition, body awareness, and empathic skills provide additional sources of information. Spontaneity is more important than being rule-bound. Process is more important than outcome. Focused on the Now, with less anxiety about the future. Enjoys thinking about the paradoxes of life, but lacks the skills to act on what he sees. Has a hard time making decisions because he no longer thinks there is only one right way. This stage can feel like standing on ever-shifting sand - nothing is solid or permanent. It's the first stage at which a person can be the Witness (watch himself watching himself).

2. Strategist: The last stage at which the separate self is the center of experience. Sees patterns, trends and systems from a wider perspective. Can hold complex relationships in awareness and act from that perspective. Fascinated with personal growth, which becomes the focus of his life. Tries to help others with their personal growth, and feels frustrated by people who are not interested in it. This is the main problem of this stage. Takes charge of his own meaning making and creates his own experience of life. Doesn't need to label everything as either good or bad. Instead, he sees actions as more or less resourceful. Believes that life is an individual journey where each person is responsible for himself and is allowed to deal with the problems of life in his own way, as long as he doesn't hurt anyone else. Intuitive, creative, "outside the box" thinker. Experiences his ego as a complex system made up of many voices. Enjoys exploring the different parts of himself through processes like Voice Dialogue and the Enneagram. Further develops the Witness. May be able to bring the Witness into lucid dreams. Advanced strategists are the super-achievers of the psycho-spiritual world.

Unitive Stages

1. Magician: Begins to see through the separate self. He has a separate self, but it's not the limit of his awareness. His sense of self includes the separate self plus the interconnections he shares with the rest of the universe. This is not just an intellectual concept - it's his experience of life. Begins to think of the separate self as an abstration - a concept, not reality. "The map is not the territory." Begins to question the usefulness of having a map. He wants to experience Reality. Often feels isolated from others because he no longer takes seriously what other people think of as reality. He has the ability to visit the Transcendent (experience kenshos at will), but he can't stay there permanently. He has one foot in the Transcendent, and one foot in the relative world. He feels compelled to go beyond rational thought. He does this by intense and honest watching of all his thoughts and actions, and those of others. He sees that all maps are just attempts to escape impermanence, and all suffering is caused by resistance to this impermanence. Everything that people do is a futile attempt to deal with the fear of death. This is a shocking realization, and it's the source of his existential angst. He sees that life is a paradox, but he doesn't know how to solve it. The paradox is the separate self. If the separate self is just an idea, how can an idea get rid of an idea? How can the ego get rid of the ego?

2. Unitive: Through total surrender to the paradox of life, he finally drops his identification with the separate self. Now he can live in the Transendent all the time, but without leaving the relative world. He is always aware of both worlds. This isn't something that "he" did because "he" doesn't actually exist. The self-concept is an illusion, and he now experiences it as such. Though he still has a sense of being a center of awareness in a body, he no longer experiences himself as a "separate me". Entering this stage was not something that the separate self did. It was something that happened as the universe manifested itself in his experience. His new sense of self includes the entire matrix of everything. His perspective is infinite. All the paradoxes and seeming opposites are now integrated, so they no longer cause suffering. He accepts that other people cannot understand his perspective, and he doesn't worry about it. Everything is perfect the way it is because he understands the whole process. He is able to love all people without needing them to be different than they are. Without attachment to ego, he is free to do great good in the world, if that is his purpose. His feeling is that he doesn't move himself. God moves through him. So he is able to be spontaneous in the Now, responding to conditions as they arise. His experience is moment by moment awareness. His perspective includes all past and future time, but he never leaves the present moment. This stable awareness of the Now allows him to see things the way they are, without the added meanings created by the mind. He sees that all maps are just useful tools. They are ideas about reality, not Reality itself. He lives as a fully integrated human being, with both the human side and the Being side - the relative and the Transcendent.

Cognitive Development and Feedback

In a podcast with Susanne Cook-Greuter and Beena Sharma on Integral Life, I learned that a person at each stage of development responds to feedback in a different way. Here is the range of responses:

1. Opportunist (Self-Centric, Preconventional): Experiences feedback as a personal attack. Shifts the blame to another person. May counter-attack or retaliate. Narcissistic.

2. Diplomat (Group-Centric, Conventional): Views feedback as disapproval. Concerned with fitting in with social norms. Tries to save face.

3. Expert (Skill-Centric, Conventional): Takes it personally and defends his position as an expert on the subject or turns to the expertise of other people in order to back up his position.

4. Achiever (Self-Determining, Conventional): Welcomes feedback, especially if it helps him achieve his goals and improve. Committed to changing behavior. Believes in self-control.

5. Individualist (Self-Questioning, Postconventional): Welcomes feedback as necessary to uncover his unconscious motives and learn more about himself. Interested in diverse perspectives.

6. Strategist (Self-Actualizing, Postconventional): Invites feedback for self-actualization. Sees conflict as inevitable and necessary for personal growth. Owns his own contribution to others' experience.

7. Magician/Unitive (Construct Aware, Transcendent): Holds feedback as a natural part of living systems. It is necessary for learning and change. Criticism is not fundamentally different from praise. Radical acceptance and compassion for his own and others' humanity.

States and Stages

Each stage has a different way of interpreting the world. With people at so many different stages of development, you can see why there is so much conflict in the world.

Psychologists believe that when a person is traumatized in childhood, they feel a tremendous need to cling to their map of reality. No matter how dysfunctional the map is, they cling to it as if their life depends on it. This interferes with their progress, and they get stuck in their development.

"Most of the planet has institutionalized an underestimation of human nature and possibilities. What we take to be normality is actually a form of collective developmental arrest." ~Roger Walsh

People tend to overestimate the stage of development of the people they like, including their friends, their children, and themselves. Their high expectations then lead to disappointment and frustration.

Be aware that in the New Age, many people use words that make them appear to be post-conventional or higher. In reality, only 10% of adults have the ability to be truly individualistic in their thinking, which has nothing to do with using the buzzwords of any political or spiritual group.

A person can have a temporary "state" experience of a higher stage, but when it's over, they go back to their normal stage of development. It takes many years to work through any particular stage because there are many skills that need to be developed at each stage.

Some people think they are enlightened because they had a state experience of universal love or oneness with the universe. This state experience can happen at any stage of development, and it doesn't make a person a Unitive. The true Unitive has spent many years developing the skills of every previous stage, and they understand the whole process of human development from personal experience. It's not just a mental idea or map.

How to Go to the Next Level

The hard knocks of life can sometimes push a person to adopt a new perspective and go beyond their societal programming. An excellent book on this subject is The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert.

Another way to progress is through education. People who are avid readers develop the ability to be open-minded and shift their perspective. It also helps to take up new hobbies, make friends with different types of people, and visit new places.

These experiences help a person progress through the conventional stages of development. Post-conventional development requires something more. Bill Harris's research shows that meditation, especially Holosync meditation, is highly effective.

Meditation makes it easier to let go of your map of reality and see the real Reality. You start to have glimpses of the whole puzzle, instead of seeing each puzzle piece as a separate thing. You start to see how everything goes together.

Dealing with Other People

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald makes this keen observation: "We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary....  To understand other people."

Bill Harris says that you can't talk another person out of their level of development. This is one of the hardest lessons I ever learned. Eventually, I decided to accept people because I didn't have the power to change them.

Development is like a pyramid. The higher you go, the fewer people you find at your stage. As they say, "It's lonely at the top." But when you reach the highest stage, you stop wishing that people were different. Unitives appreciate all people at all stages for the contribution they make to the whole.

Genpo Roshi says that a person has not experienced a true awakening until he sees how much further he still has to go. The best cure for the frustration of dealing with other people is to wake up yourself. Stop trying to change other people, and concentrate on your own personal growth.

Ken Wilber says that the development of a single individual is a microcosm for the evolutionary development of the whole human race. Studying cognitive development helps us see where we've been and where we are going.

For more information on the Unitive stages, read Stages of Enlightenment.

Here's a meditation for expanding consciousness.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

As a life coach, I use many different processes to help
people with their personal growth. Click here if you are
interested in coaching with me.


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cognitive development