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, who studied with developmental researcher, Susanne Cook-Greuter. The people who now run Centerpointe removed Bill's blog, which I previously linked to. 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 (Self-Centric): 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. 5% of adults are at this stage.

Conventional Stages

About 80% of adults in the Western world are in the conventional stages.

1. Diplomat (Group-Centric): Also known as Conformist. Most people go to this stage by age 12. It's about fitting in with the group. They accept rules, roles and norms without questioning. The self is defined by others. Focused on pleasing others in order to be accepted. Fears rejection. Relationships are of the "I need you" variety. Confuses self-care with being selfish.

2. Expert (Skill-Centric): 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, often including higher math and science. Contributes to society through his work. Focused on efficiency and perfection when doing tasks. Black-and-white thinker. Has an opinion about everything and enjoys giving advice. Learns to stand up for himself - sometimes to the point of being aggressive and argumentative. A favorite phrase might be, "Yes, but...."

3. Achiever (Self-Determining): 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 for everyone, not just his own group. Idealistic and driven to achieve goals. Uses rationality and evidence to convince others, instead of arguing. Can interact with people in different groups without feeling torn between them or losing his stable sense of self.

Post-Conventional Stages

About 15% of adults in the Western world are in the post-conventional stages.

1. Individualist (Self-Questioning): 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. He may begin to experience the Witness (watches himself watching himself). Taken to an extreme, this stage manifests as disconnecting from the problems of the world and the suffering of others and escaping into observing paradoxes and "grooving on the Now."

2. Strategist (Self-Actualizing): 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. Teaching others may be an essential part of his own growth process. 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, Big Mind, IFS, and the Enneagram. He further develops the Witness, even bringing it into lucid dreams. Strategists are psycho-spiritual achievers. They make good coaches and therapists.

3. Magician (Construct-Aware): 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 is his experience of life. He 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 (kensho), 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 consistent and honest witnessing of all his thoughts and actions. He sees that all maps are just attempts to escape from impermanence, and all suffering is caused by resistance to impermanence. This is a shocking realization, and it's the source of his existential angst. He sees that the paradox of life is the separate self, but he can't solve this paradox. If the separate self is just an idea, then how can an idea get rid of an idea? How can the ego get rid of the ego?

Transcendent Stage (Unitive)

Fewer than 1% of adults are at this stage.

Through total surrender to the paradox of life, the Unitive finally drops his identification with the separate self. Now he lives in the Transendent all the time, but without leaving the relative world. He is always aware of both worlds. This isn't something that the separate self did because the separate self 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 self. Entering this stage wasn't something he did. It 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. He can shift freely between developmental perspectives because he has mastered them all. This allows him to communciate with people at all stages and act as a catalyst for their growth. This is the Fifth Rank of Tozan.

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

People at each stage have a different way of interpreting the world. With so many different perspectives, you can see why there is so much confusion and 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, family, and themselves. Their high expectations then lead to disappointment and frustration.

Be aware that in the New Age, most people use words that make them appear to be post-conventional or higher. In reality, only 10% of adults have progressed to the Individualist stage or beyond. This has nothing to do with using the buzzwords of any spiritual or political 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 a stage because there are lots of skills that need to be developed. You have to build a strong foundation at each stage before you can progress to the next stage and stabilize there.

"Enlightenment" (awakening) sometimes happens when a person enters the post-conventional stages and develops the ability to witness. See the article, Stages of Enlightenment. Transcendent experiences like universal love can happen at any stage of development, but they don't make a person a Unitive. A true Unitive has spent many years developing the skills of every previous stage, and they understand the whole process of cognitive development from personal experience.

A major trauma can destabilize a person, causing them to regress to a previous level of development. We are witnessing this phenomenon on a large scale in the world right now. Many people who were working on the Expert stage have suddenly gone back to the Diplomat (Conformist) stage. This has led to a serious loss of freedom in many parts of the world.

How to Go to the Next Level

Your perspective works as long as it works. When you are challenged more than your map of reality can handle, you will either have a breakdown (regression) or a breakthrough to a higher perspective. An excellent book on this subject is The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert.

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 new friends, and visit new places. You can practice shifting your perspective every day by asking yourself questions like, "How would I think about this situaton if I were at a different stage of development?" When trying to solve a problem or make a decision, make a long list of possibilities, including options you would never normally consider. 

Bill Harris's research shows that Holosync meditation is a highly effective tool for helping people move through these stages more quickly and thoroughly. I've experienced this with both myself and my clients who are doing Holosync.

People tend to focus on vertical development (moving up the ladder to higher stages), but horizontal development is just as important. There are many skills to develop at each stage, and it takes time. In the higher stages, it can take decades. Horizontal development helps to build a firm foundation from which you can launch into the next stage.

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."

Ask yourself, "Is it really understanding that I want, or do I want people to agree with my perspective?" Someone at a lower stage can neither understand nor agree with your perspective. Someone at a higher stage can understand where you are, but they won't agree with your perspective because they can see where you are stuck. Someone at your own stage may understand and agree with you, but it won't do you any good because it will only reinforce your current map of reality.

The solution to this problem is to keep working on expanding your own perspective.

Bill Harris says that you can't talk another person out of their stage 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 stages, 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.

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.

Here's a meditation for expanding consciousness.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

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