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Ken Wilber’s 12 Levels Of Consciousness

In this article we look at another pillar of Ken Wilber’s Integral theory: the levels of consciousness, AKA the stages of development or the altitudes of development.

Theories of human development often focus on just one aspect of the human being. Researchers analyse their own line – say, human morals – and create a model for how it develops. They unearth a picture of the overall trajectory along with certain critical stages within it.

Thus, we have dozens of theories that describe the development of our cognition, our emotional intelligence, our morals, our ego or self-sense, our spirituality, and our interpersonal intelligence, to name a few. Integral Theory calls these the lines of development.

But what do these many theories have in common? Do their overall trajectories match? Do the stages share similarities?

The answer to these questions is yes. Enter the altitudes of development found in Integral Theory.

Ken Wilber And The Levels Of Consciousness

Ken Wilber compared dozens of models covering the various lines of development. He discovered they are strikingly similar in terms both the overall movement of development and the stages involved.

Clare Graves also did this as part of his original research to verify his findings.

But Ken Wilber went a step further and proposed a name for these general metalevels of development: the altitudes of development. This is a blueprint applicable to all lines, whether we’re discussing spiritual, moral, emotional or interpersonal development, or any other. This is the ‘All Levels’ part of his AQAL model.

It’s important to realise that individuals don’t go through each altitude step by step. We’re all at quite different altitudes in each of the lines and have both underdeveloped and highly developed aspects. So the concept of altitudes captures the fundamental levels of complexity that govern all lines.

And if we study the fundamental levels of consciousness in one line, we’ll find the altitudes. These levels take on the characteristics of that particular line.

Let’s take emotional intelligence. Relevant themes could be communication, self-awareness and our emotional palette, each of which looks different at each altitude. So we’ll find stages that are related to those themes and follow the pattern of the altitudes.

What Are The Levels of Consciousness?

I use the names altitude and stage interchangably here, but they do mean different things. Each level looks like an altitude when we see them as being alive in ourselves, a set of behaviours, worldviews and traits we can adopt when necessary. On the other hand, stage implies the time in our life when a particular altitude dominates in us.

Ken Wilber has discussed the issues of naming these altitudes (and of naming levels in any line). And Susanne Cook-Greuter also touches on these issues in her research.

I often use Wilber’s approach simply because it’s what I’m familiar with. For these altitudes, he uses the terms Infrared Archaic, Purple Magic, Red Magic-Mythic, Amber Mythic, Orange Rational, Green Postmodern, Teal Integral, Turquoise Super-Integral, and so on into the Super-Integral 3rd-tier levels of consciousness.

Notice each altitude in integral theory has a colour and a label. The colours resemble those used in Spiral Dynamics but are not identical (take care not to confuse them). Wilber adopted the descriptive terms Archaic, Magic and so on from Jean Gebser.

We’ve covered a lot of the background. So let’s now dive into the altitudes themselves, starting with the 1st-tier altitudes.

Ken Wilber And Integral Theory: 1st-Tier Levels of Consciousness

Ken Wilber's levels of consciousness

In short, 1st-tier levels of consciousness are all associated with a sense of lack, of deficiency, of needing the world to change and be different to how it is. We see the concept of 1st tier (as opposed to 2nd and 3rd tier) in Maslow’s work, Graves’ work and in Spiral Dynamics, to name a few.

Here I summarise the general characteristics of each altitude, trying to define the flavour of each using a fairly small number of details. Because they’re so general, it’s good to think of these altitudes as being profiles or structures, rather than well-defined stages that we go through.

The Levels of Consciousness – 1: Archaic

The Infrared Archaic stage marks the beginning of our developmental journey. This is mainly associated with new-borns, but adults can be found here. This is a prepersonal, preverbal stage were we have no sense of identity and no access to language. Our verbal communication is limited to muttering, and we communicate just to ensure our impending needs are met.

Stage or Altitude 2: Magic

Magenta Magic dominates in young children and tribal societies. Here we have a rudimentary sense of self. Our sense of self is enmeshed with our surroundings and confused with it. Superstition, miracle powers and magical, animistic thinking dominate. Wrapped up in our own needs for security and survival, we cannot empathise with others.

Altitude 3: Magic-Mythic

At Magic-Mythic we have a sense of identity strong enough that we perceive the world to be separate from us. We attempt to impose this identity on the world and on others. There’s little comprehension of cause and effect, meaning we’re narcissistic. The self-boundary is still flimsy and weak, so we experience the world to be a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is out to get us, to stifle our desires. We’re egocentric and can’t take the perspective of others. While for many the terrible twos mark the peak of this stage’s dominance, others never go beyond it, especially in dangerous, war-ridden countries.

Stage or Altitude 4: Mythic

A big jump occurs at Amber Mythic, where we can take a 2nd-person perspective and empathise with others. Others are now people in their own right. This is a conformist stage where our identity is derived from the groups we belong to. Though we can empathise with other members of those groups, we’re often intolerant of people of other races, colours, sexes or creeds. Thinking here is concrete-operational and absolutistic.

Altitude 5: Rational

Orange Rational is the first worldcentric stage – 3rd-person perspective taking is available and we can now take the perspective of all human beings, not just our chosen group. Formal-operational thinking becomes available. We can reflect, be critical of our experiences and understand conditional worlds. We hold facts according to their validity, which we determine by logic and reason. This is an individual-oriented altitude with themes of material abundance and achievement.

Stage or Altitude 6: Postmodern

The final 1st-tier stage in Green Postmodern, the ‘advanced worldcentric’ stage. Here there is yet another shift in perspective taking – we’re able to take a 4th-person perspective. This opens us up to constructivism – the constructed nature of knowledge – and we question all previous claims to truth. We’re sensitive, pluralistic and relativistic. We seek to understand and incorporate views and truths often dismissed by popular culture, leading to interest in practices like yoga and meditation. This altitude comes with a strong planetary sensibility and a desire to flatten all hierarchies to remove the artificial boundaries separating people.

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Ken Wilber and the 2nd-Tier Levels of Consciousness

Clare Graves describes jump between Ken Wilber's altitudes of development.

Altitude 7: Integral

Clare Graves called the jump to 2nd-tier consciousness ‘a monumental leap’ in meaning. The first 2nd-tier stage is Teal Integral. Here we become multiperspectival and embrace all the previous altitudes of development. We actively integrate them, revive them and use them when necessary. This stage is an individually focused stage. Systemic thinking and vision-logic cognition become available: we can see systems of systems and natural hierarchies. After the deconstruction which took place at the Green Postmodern stage, we reconstruct, recontextualise and reintegrate all prior knowledge. We strive to find connecting patterns and unities beyond diversities.

Altitude 8: “Advanced” Integral

At Turquoise Integral, we are more communal than at Teal and rely on emotions more. We see the world to be alive, loving and evolving. After the work we did at Teal Integral to reintegrate previous altitudes and create an integrated self, we’re now ready to let go of knowing. We deeply question our knowledge, our epistemology and our ontology, and are much more open to forms of knowing which are beyond the intellect. Our concern is with attending to the prior altitudes of development and healing the fragmentation they create.

Ken Wilber and the 3rd-Tier Levels of Consciousness

Ken Wilber describing the 3rd-tier altitudes of development.

Wilber has also tentatively laid out four 3rd-tier altitudes of development using Aurobindo’s work as a foundation. We won’t go into depth here. 3rd-tier altitudes are beyond what most human beings will ever experience and are rarely seen in human affairs, much less understood.

In short, these altitudes are all Kosmocentric (don’t confuse with ‘cosmos’ – Kosmocentric means identified with the whole world: the physical, the spiritual, the emotional and the mental). Here we possess awareness of awareness, a transpersonal identity and a direct sense of wholeness, and do so at ever-deepening levels. These are truly spiritual levels of development: vertical development and spirituality unite.

Significance Of The Levels of Consciousness From Ken Wilber

Besides providing us with a common framework for human development and an understanding of what various developmental models share, the altitudes give us a metamap of the human being.

Integral Theory reminds us to take into account as much of reality as we can. And as with any other of the pillars of Integral Theory, if we don’t consider these altitudes, we have a blind spot. Of course, this happens all the time in government, politics, spirituality, psychology, medicine, you name it.

It also gives us a roadmap for taking into account the different levels of complexity that exist within humans. When considering human emotions, for example, we can ask rich questions such as “What do Archaic emotions look like?” “What about Mythic emotions?” “What about Integral?”, and we’ll get remarkably different answers for each.

Just think about this. All developmental aspects of the human being – our morals, our values, our cognition, our kinesthetics, our emotions, our interpersonal skills, and on and on – go through the same fundamental stages. While each altitude appears in a myriad of ways in each developmental line, its fundamental characteristics are constant.

We can think of a human, in a developmental sense, like a diamond. The diamond is the human being, and each face is a different line of development. When we look at one of the faces, we get a different view of the diamond. But underlying all of them is the human being and the same underlying process governing development in each of these lines.

There’s something almost spooky about the altitudes of development. It’s as though we come to this life with a developmental blueprint pre-installed on our neuropsychological hardware, ready to brighten and dim, flash and fade, and surge and regress as our lives dictate.

Handle With Care

So we’ve looked at what these general altitudes of development are, where they came from, and their importance for our understanding of the human being. And before we finish here, a word of warning.

We should use these altitudes with playful seriousness and serious playfulness, to borrow a line from Erik Eriksson. Note that all models of individual developmental lines are necessarily idealised and nobody solely expresses characteristics of just one stage. A good rule of thumb is the 25-50-25 rule: about half of our behaviour (in any given aspect of development) is determined by our dominant stage, and the other half by the two either side of it in equal measure.

So we should use these altitudes – these general levels of development – tenuously. These general levels are an amalgamation of stages in different lines of development. Our centres of gravity in the various developmental lines can vary quite wildly. We have access to several stages in each line. The aggregate result of many developmental lines all at different centres of gravity is, therefore, a complicated mixture.

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