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The Leading Edge of the Leading Edge

An Exploration of the Emerging Potential of Third Tier

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber in dialogue

ANDREW COHEN: Generally speaking, in the postmodern spiritual marketplace, defining spiritual attainment has become, it seems, almost entirely a subjective matter. In the great traditions, there have always been important milestones to indicate levels of spiritual development. But these days, our spiritual goals are rarely described in terms that are clear and concrete. In the work I’m doing, I’m trying to shift the focus of the spiritual aspirant away from what I feel has become an excessive preoccupation with internal feelings and states, sorely lacking any higher trajectory or serious developmental context. I’m trying to reorient people toward the necessity for objective change and dynamic development that can be seen—and even, dare I say, measured—in action.

That’s why, over the past few years, I’ve become so interested in developmental models such as Spiral Dynamics and, of course, your own work. Spiral Dynamics speaks about individual and cultural development progressing through color-coded stages or levels that are divided into two tiers. We’ve spoken at length about the enormous significance of the leap from first to second tier—which is usually about the shift from the green pluralism that defined the social and cultural revolutions of the sixties to the emerging integral perspective, which you’ve been championing.

Guru Pandit

We’ve also touched upon the idea of a third tier—a barely emerging set of higher stages or structures in consciousness that could define future potentials in culture. That’s what I’d like to speak about in more depth today. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what third tier could actually mean, because it seems to me that this is where enlightenment, which in the East is traditionally seen as the highest spiritual attainment, comes together with the understanding of evolution to form a new and higher worldview. I think it’s really important that we strive for a clear understanding of what this newly emerging level means in order to help us define the goal of higher development for our own time, based on the shared experiences and observations of those of us who are experimenting with these higher potentials. Not only will this provide us with an orienting vision as we move forward, but most importantly, it will inform and empower our capacity to consciously evolve.

KEN WILBER: Right. I agree with all of the above. It’s so crucial. But one of the problems with a topic like this is that, unfortunately, it can’t be explained in sentences that fit on a bumper sticker.

When we speak about tiers, what we’re looking at is indeed this growth through our own structures, which are stable patterns of unfolding. It’s too bad “structures” sounds so stodgy and stiff. It really just means holistic patterns of growth, and we do have to become aware of those and then, therefore, we are responsible for them. And one of the most important things that any developmentalist is looking at is that there is this extraordinary leap from what psychologist Abraham Maslow would call deficiency needs to self-actualization needs or between what Clare Graves, who founded Spiral Dynamics, refers to as first tier and second tier. And that growth is a very important growth, because second tier is the first set of major stages of development that has the understanding that its values are not the only values in the world—that is its fundamental definition. First tier includes five or six major stages of development, and all of those are defined by the fact that they think their values are the only correct values in the world. And so much strife and conflict on this planet come from the fact that ninety-five percent of people are at one of these first-tier stages. Remember, a tier is just a conventional grouping of stages. The things that are real are the stages themselves. And psychologists generally group stages together if they think they have similarities. Sometimes, if they find that there’s a huge difference between one stage and another, they’ll use that as the dividing line between two tiers. What we call first tier actually has three very important groupings within it: egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric. So the lowest stages, up through what we would call red,* are egocentric, which means they can only take a first-person perspective. And then the stages up through amber are ethnocentric, which means they can take a second-person perspective. And then orange and green are worldcentric, which means they can take a third- and fourth-person perspective.**

But then there’s that leap into integral, which would be teal. That’s the first real leap, so much so that the first three groupings are just labeled first tier. The leap to second tier is going to remake the planet as we know it. In cultures like Western Europe, Canada, and America, about fifty percent are at the worldcentric or orange level; about twenty percent are at the pluralistic or green level. But then there’s this huge drop in numbers to second tier, which is only two to three percent of the population. So as the green or pluralistic stage moves into the integral stage, we expect that two or three percent to jump to about ten percent within a decade.

Another of the important issues here is that, as always, we have to talk about the difference between states of consciousness, which are waking, dreaming, deep sleep, witnessing, nondual, etc., and structural or stage development, which is dealt with in models like Spiral Dynamics. The fact of the matter is that we now have enough evidence to compellingly suggest that these two types of development are relatively independent.

We can measure these things. And so, as we’ve often said in our dialogues, a higher state, such as Big Mind or the ever-present timeless ground of awareness right now, is available to people at virtually any stage or structure of development through practices such as meditation.

But there are higher structure-stages that are now unfolding, and those will not necessarily be found through meditative training. As a matter of fact, you can’t even see those stages in meditation. So a lot of meditation teachers get very upset and say, “If you actually do this meditative training, it covers everything.” But it doesn’t. It covers states of consciousness beautifully. But in terms of structures, it doesn’t cover anything. You can go through state training, but that doesn’t deal with what we could call vertical development through stages. And we now know enough to know that we have to grow in both of those dimensions. Meditation teachers generally don’t take the structural dimension into account, and that’s what’s getting a whole lot of people in trouble. On the other hand, a lot of people don’t even undertake state training, so they just go through structural development, through the stages that are measured with Spiral Dynamics, for example. But there’s nothing in Spiral Dynamics that has anything to do with states of consciousness.

In terms of vertical growth or structural development, the leading edge of the evolutionary impulse right now is moving people into second and third tier. Of course, what you’re talking about is not just moving people into third tier, but moving people with enlightened awareness into these structures. So you’re talking about state and stage, or structure. That’s part of what your message is and the message of anybody who’s working with a more integral approach to spirituality.

Cohen: That’s right.

Wilber: I see some of what you’re doing as a combination of helping people get into a particular state, meaning the recognition of the ever-present, timeless ground, and then also working to help them push forward with their authentic self into these literally higher structures that are being formed. Is that accurate?

Cohen: Absolutely correct.

Wilber: And that is the single most important thing that I can think of right now: that both of these dimensions need to be taken into account—and very few people are doing it. People are doing a fine job with state training. But because you cannot see these vertical structures when you introspect or meditate, you miss them.

Cohen: Yes, and also, as we’ve spoken about many times, the stage or structure that you have reached will have its own interpretation of whatever particular state you may be experiencing. How we interpret our experience of states is going to determine what meaning we give them, and the meaning we give them is going to determine what our ultimate relationship to life is. The way I see it, anything less than a third-tier perspective will not be broad or deep enough to ensure that we consistently interpret our state experiences in a way that is free from the relentless spiritual narcissism of the postmodern ego.

Wilber: That’s true. As we have talked about in the past, these state experiences are interpreted according to whatever structure or vertical stage you’re at, and certainly not often enough according to third-tier values.

*All colors refer to Ken Wilber’s model. Colors for certain stages differ from those in the Spiral Dynamics model.

**According to Wilber, a fourth-person perspective, although it can be defined in several different ways, is one in which the other three perspectives are held in mind. Thus, when we say that there are first–, second–, and third-person perspectives, that itself is a fourth-person perspective.

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This article is from
Ecology, Politics, and Consciousness


October–December 2007