Fixing our world: Understanding Spiral Dynamics will help us get back on track

LONDON — In this fascinating discourse, Dr Claudius van Wyk unpacks Spiral Dynamics and how understanding it will help fix our world. An expert in holism and what it represents for human consciousness, he shares some examples of where holism can be applied to both everyday life and society at large. I love these discussions with Claudius, a gifted tutor who makes complexities of life so much easier to understand. – Alec Hogg

We’ve got this series on how to fix our world and Claudius van Wyk joins us now. Insights on Holism is what we normally talk about but Claudius, you’ve pointed me to a book that in fact, I’ve acquired and read part of called ‘Spiral Dynamics.’ It was written by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan some years ago. The intention was to help the world think differently and we’ll get into that in some detail but these people are not unknown or rather, SA is not unknown to them.

Yes, this is absolutely so, Alec, and good to talk again. The key character that we’ll be looking at in respect of SA is Dr Don Beck. Now, he’s an academic from Texas and he was somebody that worked very intensely with the originator of the biopsychosocial model of emergent adult values and that’s a mouthful. Let me just talk to that briefly for a minute. Professor Clare Graves said our essential needs are biological, we need to survive, and then there are psychological, we need to get a sense of ourselves, and then the social, we need to come into a relationship with society.

Dr Claudius van Wyk

As we evolved in consciousness the evolution of our thinking would evolve from a focus on the physical to a focus on our own awareness of who we are, to a focus on our relationships, and so forth, and we can come to that later. So, Don Beck worked with Professor Clare Graves his whole life and his job was to take Graves’ lifelong thinking and to put this into a model that would be really useful for ordinary people. So, Spiral Dynamics emerged from that work of studying Professor Clare Graves’ work but Don Beck in looking at the ways in which people thought about their problems was aware that SA, in the 90’s, was going through a fundamental transition. He visited SA more than 50 times in the course of the 2 years leading up to full democracy.

The spirals model gave deep insights and guidance to the transformation process in SA, to Roelf Meyer, who was negotiating on the one hand for the National Party Government and to Cyril Ramaphosa, on the other hand, who was negotiating on part of the ANC. He helped to guide that process and probably that model of how to understand human thinking, in its various forms, made a major contribution the miracle of transition that we can still see that process that resulted in Mandela becoming our president. He made a major contribution to that miracle, if you can put that way. Yes, Don Beck had a very close relationship with SA and they wrote a book, Don, and Graham Linscott called ‘SA the Crucible’ which actually preceded ‘Spiral Dynamics.’ In which they focused the process really on what constitutes this very dynamic SA, ‘Rainbow Nation’ that is still struggling to find its way.

Yes, and it does appear as though it’s lost its way and maybe we can dwell on that in a little while, but let’s get back to ‘Spiral Dynamics.’ I know it’s a complicated book, Claudius, but is there any way that you bring that down to every man’s language?

Yes well, let’s see how we can help to understand this so, think of a spiral. It’s a circular process that’s unfolding that’s going out in broader circles. The circle is broadening that’s what a spiral is about so, what Beck and Cowan actually did in researching the work of Graves, is to say that as the evolution of human consciousness. As the way, we think about our problems become smarter our awareness gets bigger. So, our awareness is circling out, if you will, in a spiral process so, that’s the spiral element. Then they said there are two elements in our awareness. The one element is the challenges and opportunities that we’re facing in life – that’s the one element of the spiral. The other element is how we interpret that into action – our coping mechanisms.

So, society has problems, it has opportunities, and it finds ways to cope, and that evolves, and that’s where the Holism aspect comes in, that evolves almost in a hierarchical way, into different levels and stages of awareness and different levels and stages of competencies and that question of the stage of the competencies is going to bring us to the question that you raised and that is, has SA lost the way?

Just to stop there a little bit. You would think from a rational point of view that the ancient peoples, who lives in caves, would think very differently to the people who live in a society or a space aged society today. There has to have been some evolution of the thinking and I guess, the world we would all evolve or nations would evolve at a different speed and now from SA we’ve got people coming from very different environments, First World, Third World, very rural, very urban – bringing them together presumably, is something Beck spent a lot of time helping us to do. But has that experiment fallen off the rails?

Well, it looks at the moment, as though it’s hit a wobbly so, let’s just talk to the context that you raised. You know, my ancestors arrived in the Cape in 1686, that was like two decades after the first settlers arrived there, Jan van Riebeeck. My ancestors were christened in the Great Groote Kerk in Amsterdam. They grew up in a world in which the Dutch East India Company was the major global enterprise. It had its own armies, it had a global reach. It had technology, it had ships.

They came with that mindset, which had developed over the aeons in Europe, and they arrived in the Cape, where they encountered the San people that had a completely different experience of reality. So, if you take those two absolute poles between the settlers that arrived in the Cape and the San people that lived at the Cape. You can see the span of values that has had to find a way to become integrated through interaction over time, and that’s not been easy.

Now, let’s just go forward to Mandela. Mandela had this amazing capacity to understand where people were coming from. To be emphatic with where people were coming from. He had this amazing capacity to have a non-judgemental attitude towards how people were thinking but certainly, he was very discerning about what the consequences of their behaviours were in society. So, he made a distinction between peoples’ histories, peoples’ experience, and how we ought to behave in a multicultural society so, he enabled in SA a process where we could reach out to each other.

In that process of reaching out each other it has still been the case that the very economic ethos in which we function the previously advantaged are still advantaged because of that intergenerational know-how of how to play the game. This is where the new administration, with its radical economic transformation policy, is struggling to address that apparent inequality because it has not yet been able to see that there are different levels of coping experience that have been adapted to these challenges. That are not just immediate but go back 100’s and 100’s of years. So, the spiral dynamic process, the evolution of values, the evolution of coping mechanisms in the face of the challenges, with which we’ve had to engage so, that we develop those coping mechanisms. The better we can understand that – the better we can understand each other and the better we can find ways of trying to accommodate each other and that’s the essence of the opportunity we’re looking at, Alec.

But how do you unpack all of that because the evolution of mankind hasn’t necessarily gone in a direction that we’re proud of? If you have a look at the world today it’s in a mess, in many respects. Whereas, societies had they taken a different route might have been in a better way. Essentially, the generosity of spirit that one’s finds in societies like SA, and in perhaps the rural of SA, is something that seems to have been lost in this striving for materialism in major cities of the world, for instance.

Dr Claudius van Wyk

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If we take the various levels of the spiral process, the various stages, the first stage would be the stage where you found the San people. They were simply existing in harmony with their natural context. There was no need to cultivate. There was no need for permanent shelter. They had found a way just to cluster together into bands and to live on the resources that were available.

The next stage was a stage of developed tribal identity, where different groupings came together with own cultures, with own symbols, and they developed chiefs, they developed hierarchies, so we developed the tribal culture. The next stage of evolution is where the human spirit wanted to break out of that collective culture and explore itself so, it came to a sense of an emerging ego. The next stage was the conflict that was generated by those clashes of egos, brought about the realisation that we have to create order, systems, structure, and social groupings, and brought about the whole principle of law.

The stage that followed that was the stage that saw that when you have institutions, when you have an organised society. When you have the capacity to have a contract and it will be honoured because people obey the contact and obey the law. Then it brought along with it the opportunity, entrepreneurship, for development and for growth, and that really characterises the global economy today. The stage that the world is emerging into at the moment, is the stage of being deeply concerned about inequality, about the inequity in the way we share resources and that those with the power have grabbed what they can and increasingly the concentrations of wealth are leading to these social dysfunctions that you’ve described, and there are further stages.

So, where you’ve hit the nail right on the head is that as we evolve from the legalistic phase, into the entrepreneurial phase, which is really based on a focus of success = material wealth. We got trapped in that material wealth phase, where it’s about consumerism, it’s about accumulation, it’s about extraction of resources, natural resources, of human resources – to gain the goodies that portray success. SA has got trapped up in that game as well so, it gives you an idea of we’ve got to move to the next space and it means a fundamental shift of values but at the moment, the ego is still trapped in the need to demonstrate success by being able to show all the goodies of success.

It’s a fascinating and a very deep subject but just to regress a little bit. I went to the National Gallery this week and there was a painting. They have tour guides who take you around if you arrive at a particular time and they explain some of these paintings. One really struck me. She explained this huge painting, which was a depiction of a battle between the Florentine’s in Florence, and in Italy, during the Renaissance times, and an enemy of theirs. In the battles those days what they used to do, no one ever died. No one was ever killed. They used to capture people from the other side and then ransom them so, it seemed like a far more civilised way of solving your differences. You go into battle, you might get a few bumps and bruises, but you capture people. Then ransom them and they go back to their families if they pay their retributions.

I remember in a SA context, before Shaka Zulu came along, the wars or the battles between peoples were you stand on the other end of a field and you’d throw a few spears at the other side and one or two people might get hurt. Generally speaking, one side would buckle, and they would lose the conflict. Today when we talk about conflict its nuclear bombs that will wipe out millions of people, surely that’s not progress if you look at it just from that conflicting perspective, and we’ve lost something along the way.

Absolutely so, Alec, this word ‘progress’ of course, is not necessarily synonymous with the evolution of the spiral. The evolution of the spirals is the capacity to deal with greater complexity but one of the evils that has come along with the capacity to deal with greater complexity is to create greater complexity. So, we learnt how to crack the atom and so, release nuclear energy. We learnt very quickly how to create a bomb out of that and this is the big issue with the North Korean crisis at the moment so, you put your finger right on it.

That to measure the evolution of complexity thinking in terms of progress, would be simplistic. Progress would really have to be defined in terms of Holism, how does this work out on the well-being of the whole system. That would be a much better example of progress and we haven’t gotten there yet because we’re struggling to bridge that gap from the ego, which is wanting to satisfy own needs, to be able to satisfy our own needs in a way that it actually works for the whole system.

Let’s take that example of the ransom issue. Even in the Animal Kingdom and you’ll be fascinated, and I’m sure you’ve watched, how the males go into combat in order to get the entitlement or the right to go and have the females in any kind of colony. They certainly engage very vigorously with each other but very quickly, it becomes evident which is the dominant male and the other male, in its own interest, will then go off and wait for its other or better turn. It seems to be more natural that there is conflict, there is tension, and there is a sorting out of the pecking order but it’s done without destruction.

What we have created in our technological world, which has been a product of that very evolution that we’re speaking about, of consciousness, the development of technology at a distance is that we’ve lost touch with the human engagement. We’ve lost touch with that so, now we’ve developed this place, where we can play the game via push buttons and remote controls, through drones. It is that human engagement element, which has been blotted out of our awareness. You know, Immanuel Kant made this statement. He spoke about being able to see the person as an end within themselves, rather than a means to an end. What we’ve done in our current ethos, that dominates the world economic system, is that we’ve seen people and resources as means to an end. Rather than what does this mean in its own right?

So, we’ve lost touch with humanity. We’ve lost touch with nature so, that is actually calling us to the next phase of the evolution, on that spiral, which is the deep humanistic and ecological phase. So, you put your finger right on it. The progress that took place got misdirected into material gain and extraction and that’s where we lost the game and this is the game that is playing out in SA at the moment, with ‘state capture’ and the ‘Gupta’ issue, etcetera.

It’s such an interesting subject and we’re going to be delving obviously, every week a little bit more deeply but just to close off for this week. Jan Smuts had this idea 100 years ago about Holism. Was he just that far ahead of his time? Why has it taken so long for people to start realising his genius? I suppose similarly with the genius of Einstein and the quantum field, and relativity, etcetera. Only now are we moving away from Newtonian, scientific physics to understanding that there’s a whole lot more that’s going on there than what our simplistic, relatively approach is suggesting to us.

Yes, a fascinating question. He started playing with this idea of wholeness already when he was at Cambridge University, and that was in 1895, around there. Then, of course, you had an awakening in the 20’s, when quantum physics suddenly hit the scientific map and quantum physics began to question the scientific assumptions. Quantum physics began to question the materialistic assumptions we had about the nature of the Universe, so that was happening in the 20’s. It then slowly started seeping through into the psychology world. Alfred Adler was deeply impressed by Holism, for example.

So, we were caught in a scientific trap and to an extent, we’re still caught in that scientific trap where our scientific methodology wants us to identify the components. It wants us to identify the hard bits, and the relationships of the hard bits, and the gift that Einstein gave us, and you mentioned Einstein, was to see life is not been composed of things but of processes. That’s a paradigm shift and that paradigm shift represents the next phase in the spiral dynamics approach of human consciousness. It’s almost a quantum leap into a new quality of thinking and slowly humankind is feeling right now, in the challenges it’s facing in the world, that is requiring us to build the bridges and to give us the ladders to be able to get to that next space of consciousness. So, thank God, there were the early pioneers that could show the way, could hold out the prospect, and our challenge now is that we need to build the ladders, to build the bridges for people to be able to cross that in a meaningful way. Which is why, Alec, I’m so grateful for this opportunity that you’ve created for us to have this very conversation.

 

 

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