The Topography of Your Mental Ecosystem
I’ve outlined above a holarchy of all ten stages of consciousness, or shapes of mind, that have evolved to date (including data drawn from population-level studies of adults in western Europe and the United States). You can navigate and click on any level to explore the contents of that stage. The shape of your mind is the geometry that defines how your mind takes external input from the world and combines it with 1) pre-existing knowledge (or knowledge gaps) and 2) emotional patterning, in order to generate new thought, skills, emotions and behavior. It is your current “map” of the world, helping you to navigate your experience. But unlike a flat, paper-based map, this map is better thought of as topographical (which is why I like the term “shape of mind”). As your mental geometry becomes more complex, the topography of your map becomes more complex and multi-dimensional. (It can also be thought of as a mental ecosystem because it obeys ecosystem-like rules: massive variability amongst its parts, interdependent relationships, non-linear development, creativity, and decay.)
Practically speaking, the shape of your mind creates the backdrop for every experience you have and the meaning you ascribe to it, setting the mindscape through which you navigate your marriage, worldview, goals, relationships, emotional wellbeing, spiritual depth, leadership potential, career success, money habits…in a word: everything.
The Dimensions of Your Mental Topography
Now let’s go through the key dimensions that help to drive your mental geometry, one-by-one. If your shape of mind can be thought of as topographical, these represent the earth-moving equipment.
Inputs: Correlated with your scope of life experience, what you choose to read, feel, eat, travel, try, etc. all define the scope of the inputs you have fed your mind. The broader and more varied the scope of inputs, the more your mental geometry will have to grow to be able to synthesize them into a new pattern of meaning-making that keeps the mind coherent and stable.
What You Know: Every experience you have, from the sound of the phone ringing to the thought about tomorrow’s party, is processed by what you already know — knowledge you already have. What you know impacts your current mental geometry, which is why some knowledge can itself accelerate the evolution of your shape of mind. Integral Life claims, justifiably in my experience, that the knowledge we give you will likely accelerate growth in your shape of mind.
What You Don’t Know: Some people lean into a knowledge or perspective gap. Others don’t. Sometimes you’re triggered in a particular domain–religion, politics etc.–where you don’t want to lean into those gaps. But how you process experience that triggers what you don’t know (and what makes you uncomfortable) is at least as important, if not more so, as any that encompasses what you do know.
Emotional Patterning: Your emotional circuitry has a pattern that it will follow every single time certain conditions are met (e.g., getting angry when someone cuts you off in traffic). Each pattern has been built because it works for you (i.e., it either protects you from harm, affirms your sense of self, or gains you positive rewards, or any combination of the three). While there are as many possible patterns as life situations (i.e., virtually infinite), there are probably only a handful of “mega-patterns” you rely on. Emotions can act like a giant fence around your otherwise robust earth-moving equipment, locking them in so that your current shape of mind clings tightly to its known topography.
Hardware: Of course, genetics, biology, neurophysiology and dozens of other factors bear on the basic biophysical scope of possibilities and patterns of each shape of mind. (I believe they’ll find that neuroanatomical differences that foster openness to experience as a personality trait, for example, will be shown to correlate in some instances with later-stage shapes of mind). This variability makes it all the more amazing that developmental psychologists have discovered that shapes of mind aggregate into one of ten basic “mega-patterns” or stages of consciousness.
Social Support: Social support can have a significant impact on our shape of mind: it can support and foster new distinctions that we’re beginning to make; it can prematurely squelch new thoughts, values or behaviors that might naturally be starting to emerge; it can provide a backdrop of values or norms in which growth is acceptable and even encouraged; it can coach and guide us as we grow into the wobbly legs of a new meaning-structure.
Take note that the holarchy demonstrates that each successive stage moves beyond but also includes the prior stages. Prior stages are the building blocks upon which your current stage rests as you grow up (and to clean up is, in part, to re-integrate pieces of prior stages or experiences that have become orphaned and not healthy functioning parts of your current self-system).
As you walkthrough each stage you might have noticed that shapes of mind determine what we can see and make sense of at each stage, and therefore the complexity of problems and life situations we can navigate. This is why the question of “better” and “worse” shapes of mind is a loaded question: the important question is whether you’re content with your current sense-making. This is not as superficial as it might sound: any shape of mind that is well-suited to your current life conditions will often produce a powerful and nourishing sense of order, happiness and efficacy. On the other hand, unhappiness and disharmony can sometimes signal a shape of mind that is still in a disintegrated transition zone, either leaving an old one behind or a new one not yet having firmed up entirely. (Over the years dozens of my friends have talked to me about feeling purposeless, with their career becoming less meaningful after they’ve achieved success. Sometimes, but not always, they can watch for a several year-transition from Achiever to Relativist as they shuck off the conventional definitions of success that they thought they were supposed to achieve.)
In any case, changing your shape of mind is not a panacea. Every new stage is a solution to the core problem that the former stage created as it evolved, and it brings with it the seeds of the next core problem (i.e., each shape of mind is, as Robert Kegan says, an “evolutionary truce” between one’s way of making-meaning and the complexity of its surrounding life conditions). There’s no escape hatch from the evolutionary progression of consciousness (well, waking up is, but you know what I mean). My point is that later-stages shouldn’t be lionized or earlier-stages criticized: knowledge of stages presents a great ethical responsibility to understand them, have compassion for everyone at all shapes of mind, and not throw the concepts around casually.
Moving from one stage to the next can take 5-10 years or more in adulthood, but people cannot self-assess their own shape of mind. When they try, they often overestimate by up to two levels.
Your shape of mind also influences the upper-limit of complexity you can cognize without feeling overwhelmed (or excited, in the sense that your current stage +1 will often be a zone of excitement for you, beyond which it is no longer meaningful). It will influence the nature and success of your goals and therefore bears on behavior change and new habit formation. Higher complexity of life conditions as well as mental-emotional practices can foster adaptations to higher-order shapes of mind.
I know this subject matter is complex, and there’s certainly a lot of nuance, but I hope this primer was helpful to get you acquainted with stages of development.
Note: Terminology for actual levels/stages of development differ by researcher and model; I’ve chosen terms that I think are a reasonable fit for each stage, but there are other terms available.
About Robb Smith
Robb Smith is a leading thinker on the Transformation Age and the global Integral movement. He is the co-founder and CEO of Integral Life and founder of the Institute of Applied Metatheory.