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Conscious Consciousness

2010 June 10

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Wall Street’s collapse.  Scandals in the Catholic Church.  The demise of __(fill in the blank)__.  Such disasters–and scores of others throughout history–frequently obey a dishearteningly common recipe: hubris-tainted leaders are enabled by loyal, well-meaning followers.  Warning signs are collectively ignored while whistle-blowers are sidelined as traitors.  Shortly thereafter, the flock marches confidently off a cliff.  Repeat in a different sector.

It’s hard not to ask, “Will they ever learn?”  But perhaps a more cogent question would be, “Can we ever learn?”  The work of psychologists who study human development suggests that the answer is yes.

Building on the work of developmental pioneers such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, over the last 30 years Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan developed a theory of cognitive developmental stages or “orders of mind”.  These stages are not about higher IQ or intelligence, nor are higher orders intrinsically “better”.  Instead, each stage represents a qualitatively different degree of mental complexity.  Kegan’s and similar theories have been validated by researchers all over the world–yet their wider dissemination has remained elusive.

The first of Kegan’s adult stages of development he refers to as the Socialized Mind.  A person at this level of cognitive development thinks in terms of the rules and roles of his or her local culture.  Such a stance tends to rely on authority for direction and be less likely to question, making one a loyal follower.  Fifty eight percent of adults operate at or below this level of mental complexity.

The second adult stage Kegan terms the Self-Authoring Mind.  A person at this level of development is able to take a step back from his or her culture and regard it critically.  The result is the “self-authoring” of one’s own identity which is independent from one’s environment.  Such individuals tend to be self-directed, independent thinkers.  Approximately 35% of the adult population is at this plateau of development.

The last adult stage Kegan calls the Self-Transforming Mind.  At this stage one is able to take a step back from one’s self-authored ideology and examine it critically.  From this stance, one is able to regard multiple ideologies simultaneously and compare them, being wary of any single one.  Such a multi-frame perspective is able to hold the contradictions between competing belief systems and savor the resulting dialectic.  Less than 1% of adults attain this level of consciousness.

The Dalai Lama’s recent Op-Ed piece, Many Faiths, One Truth, provides an elegant example of all three stages.  His essay not only demonstrates the thinking of a Self-Transforming Mind; it also provides a lesson in how to get there.

The Dalai Lama was raised a Buddhist.  For the first part of his adult life his thinking was subject to this single ideology.  It was only after being exposed to other religions–Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam–that he was able to take an outsider’s perspective of his own religion.  Through cultivating a mindset that regards his own belief system as merely one among many, over several decades he has come to see what is common to them all: compassion.

It would be a mistake to put the Dalai Lama on a pedestal.  Developmental theory helps us understand his journey from Socialized Mind to Self-Transforming Mind as a living example for the rest of us.  Tenzin Gyatso (his birth name) was not born complex; his development came through deliberate and sustained effort in combination with exposure to the right experiences.

Humanity’s fundamental challenge in a globalized world can be put simply: “How can we live in each other’s backyards?”  For the first time in humanity’s history, a globalized world confronts us with a task for which a collection of Socialized Minds is inadequate.  Such a challenge will not be met through better technology, policy or leadership.  It can only be met through more complex thinking.

It is time to bring the promise and practice of such developmental theories into the mainstream.

One Dalai Lama isn’t enough.

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