In my experience the real change happens when there is no choice, and that moment is chaotic enough to scramble the previously perceived possibilities, (I call them the PPP). New possibilities arise and the people who step up are never the ones anyone expected. The ideas that emerge in the upheaval are not the ones discussed in meeting rooms. Nora Bateson
One of the earliest challenges I faced when developing my Theory of Empathetic Evolution is fundamental. It was expressed by Utah Phillips, one of my favorite folk singers and activists, who has a set of rants on a compilation album engineered by Ani DiFranco, called The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere. One of the pieces — Korea — has him reflecting on a question from his son, driving north toward Massachusetts. The question was “how did you get to be that way?”
Lots of people have weighed in on that question throughout the years, most notably people like Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, or Robert Kegan. Each has their adherents, and all are sort of the same. We move up through a vertical progression of stages, until we stop, for whatever reason. The actual definition of the stages, in virtually all of the theories, is left to the author, who through some process of observation, has concluded that that’s “how they got to be that way.”
Inevitably, philosophers pile on, and your arguments for and against for some incremental change in one of the giants’ theory is dependent on how many Dead White Guys you can cite. The deep reality is not that people like Piaget or Kohlberg were stupid. They weren’t. They were really smart, observant folks. But fundamentally, they had insights that made sense to them. And all of those systems? They maybe gathered some data, and then they MADE THAT SHIT UP. There were no deep physical principles involved. They didn’t even exist at the time.
They might have constructed some experiments involving the 18-year-old Psych 101 students of their time, or messed around with their own kids to refine said theory. That doesn’t mean that it is wholly invalid. A lot of it is super-cool. But inevitably, it meant that they didn’t think of it in terms of rectifying it with any larger principles of neuroscience, or the knowledge construction paradigms that we carry forward in this blog, on how social structure affects the way we think. Most of them had never heard of neuroscience, or even really given much thought to how the physical brain worked, or interfaced with their contrived models. We’ve had the philosophical dodge of the human mind for a while. Assuming some sort of magical consciousness apart from the brain might actually be right. But it’s still unknowable, and it’s not pragmatically going to get us where we need to go.
All were academics, and so it’s no surprise, out of the stacked hierarchies of academia, stage theories emphasizing meta-linear progression (first you get here, then you get here, and so on) hold sway. That’s the knowledge structure that the social structure generates. As such, they are also most appealing to other academic readers, who get to decide whether you, the reader, ever get exposed to any ideas OUTSIDE the academic insistence on reliability (repeatability) as opposed to validity (whether this actually applies in the Real World.) The problem with this is simple — reliability requires closed boundaries and exclusion of information, while validity (which likes reliability to some level, of course) is open-ended, and more about how one explains the exceptions. And academics, in their absolutistic hierarchies, don’t like exceptions, to the point where they simply ignore them. It’s even worse. They really don’t like theories that explain HOW they think, and WHY they’d come up with linear stage progressions. They just ignore you. Trust me on that one.
The deep reality is that the world is scattered with examples of what I call meta-nonlinear change. All of the sudden, something like friend Nora refers to happens, and then things are different. Very different. They’re often partially assembled out of the old stuff (and I do want to emphasize that word partially.) But then there’s also likely new stuff that shows up that didn’t exist before, imported from somewhere else.
I’ve written about my favorite little analogs for information development, bacteria and all their fancy-name prokaryotic and eukaryotic cousins in earlier pieces. Horizontal Gene Transfer, which was thought not to exist only about 30 years ago, is how bacteria got mitochondria (through capture through their cell wall of another organism) as well as how flagella got stuck on the end of single-celled organisms. It was, even in the case of the bacteria, a survival-driven case of expediency. They were gonna go out of business unless they stole some new genetic material, and there was enough floating around that the ones that incorporated into their code lived, while the others died. The vertical evolution process of slow mutation was in the background. And there was no “intelligent design” process involved — it just happened, and numbers are always in bacteria’s favor.
But the process was (and is) highly meta-nonlinear, with a huge jump discontinuity in all of it. One day you don’t have any mitochondria, and then the next, you wake up with a stranger inside your cell wall. Bacteria DO often evolve in the classic, vertical way, through slow mutagenic reactions to the environment –the slow, budding of another branch of the tree that we’ve been trained to expect. Except, well, when they don’t. Then they drive that information into their genetic code like they stole it, and something fundamentally new emerges.
Naturally, I’ve spent a fair amount of my own navel gazing pondering Utah Phillips’ son’s question. My tool of stage focus has always been Spiral Dynamics, and while I’ve mapped out a standard route for human development up the Spiral (see the figure below) and can kinda see how I followed it, upon a deeper inventory, my own personal reality has been much different.
I was born, Mama fed me, I believed in Santa Claus for a little while. But then everything pretty much went off-script. My dad was an alcoholic, my mom pretty much had Avoidant Personality Disorder, and my mom used me to beat the hell out of my dad emotionally, if not exactly physically. Not that he didn’t deserve it at some level. The whole “healthy authority” stage eluded me. And if I followed the rules — of society, as well as the household — that wasn’t going to turn out to well for our intrepid hero. Sparing you the stories (many of which are as black humor funny as you’ll find) I’d be dead.
So instead, I got tossed up the Spiral, developmentally. I became Performance/Goal oriented at the age of about nine. And I was Performance-based, in the truest sense of my information-driven empathetic perspective — I relied not on the belief structures of the lower v-Memes (Dad is a good guy, Mom bakes cookies) but data collection on my father’s and mother’s volatile moods. It could be different every day — sometimes my Dad was a happy drunk, and I could guide him into bed where he’d fall asleep. But other times, it was full-on, game on. My mom would be weeping and wailing, screaming at the top of her lungs. I’d get the other kids into their bedroom, and then it would be time for me to manage the situation. Instead of running away from danger (appropriate egocentric behavior for a 10 year old) I’d run toward it — a programmed behavior I maintain until this day.
Needless to say, all of this was traumatic, and while it might sound enlightened and esoteric for a ten-year-old to be data-driven in their decision making, the reality why those modes don’t make sense for the underdeveloped mind is that a young mind doesn’t have a large enough bank of either cultural mores or personal experiences to judge the larger context or the validity of the data. Data-driven thinking makes sense only in the context of whether you can decide whether the information stream makes sense. Otherwise, it’s Garbage In, Garbage Out.
And one of the pathologies it creates is hypervigilance — in my case, the process of scanning the 10′ radius to analyze what moves the perp might pull and confound resolving the situation (in this case, my father being drunk) as quickly as possible and return to some normative state. I’m convinced that hypervigilance also evolves the brain much as normal rational empathetic function evolves the brain. You read faces, you make decisions about what you’re going to say or do based on some literal Lean/Agile interpretation of the situation.
But you’re also doing it with a brain flooded with cortisol. I’m also convinced that this also likely impeded my own development of emotional empathy, and correct attribution and assessment of signals that lead to healthy attachment behavior, which is a subsystem that relies heavily on the empathetic system, and is intertwined with it.
What is interesting is that later events in life forced me back down the Spiral to fill in those gaps. Just because one doesn’t meta-linearly, in a healthy (or at least normative) mode progress doesn’t mean you get to skip filling out those lower v-Memes and associated knowledge structures in all their glorious detail. They still exist implicitly and intuitively, even if you don’t care to acknowledge them. After my second divorce, I was forced to realize that I had been living by my own sets of externally defined labels (I was a kayaker, I was a father, I was an environmentalist, I was generous.) It wasn’t until THAT major trauma again cast me up into the Second Tier, and forced me to emotionally and rationally self-separate from my own set of eclectic, pretty non-standard labels and get down to who I really was. I was ‘me’. And the ‘Who’ is always separated from the ‘What’ that I was.
For those worried about my emotional empathetic development, trust that I sometimes do cry when watching romantic comedies. Well, a little. I’m still a guy.
Which brings us back to Nora’s quote at the top of this piece. What can this tell us about how people, and systems change in the face of trauma? I had long ago thought through the implications of trauma on the standard meta-linear progressions of the Piagets and Kegans of the world, and decided there had to be something else.
And this is what it is: trauma (if severe enough) drives one back down into the Survival v-Meme, and your brain into a state of maximal neuroplasticity. When you feel like your survival is threatened, if you are in a strong enough state of mind, you will rearrange those various knowledge structures in your head (and nervous system) to create a new “you” that can survive. Not all your past knowledge, in its various memetic forms, will be destroyed. But connections that exist between those as part of your own autobiographical narrative will be broken. You’ll realize, at some level, what you believed happened in the past is not necessarily what actually happened, and what got you here. It’s a different array of patterns that will begin the reconstitution of that newer sense of self. And because, if you don’t undergo this process, you’re not going to make it. There’s not going to be any ‘you’ to figure it out.
And it can be cool. Not to go all ‘Deepak Chopra’ on you, but at some level it is the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The decomposing soup of the caterpillar body is reconstructed by deep DNA sites of what are called ‘imaginal cells’ that exist through the caterpillar soup phase to create the butterfly. Deepak’s physical description of how this happens is pretty much rubbish. But I investigated the actual mechanism. Turns out, as an analogy, it’s not too bad.
That much I’ve known for a while now. But the big question has always been for me is “why did I survive, while others didn’t?” How can we understand the distribution of survivability for those that pass through severe trauma and not only don’t die, but come out the other side in a more highly evolved state? And, as humans go, how will this work for societies, since the two are linked in a self-similar fashion?
One of my favorite concepts that I use in my work is Ken Wilber’s notion of ‘pre-conscious, conscious, and post-conscious’ thought. It is a useful paradigm, especially when faced with the degenerative post-modernism of the contemporary university.
For example, for the last 28 years, I’ve worked with underrepresented minorities on the WSU campus — mostly Hispanic students. Intuitively, I was never very interested in working with middle-class Hispanic students from the west side of Washington State (W of the Cascades, for my international readers.) They were pretty much the same as the white, middle-class suburban kids that filled most of the seats in my classes.
Instead, I focused on the poor students from the Yakima Valley. Often children of migrant farmworkers — trabajadores migrantes — they started off with numerous strikes against them. Many of them were what we call ‘first generation’ college students — from families who had worked in the apple orchards and asparagus fields, and had never had anyone graduate from college.
If we apply Wilber’s model to how we might perceive these students, the Pre-Conscious interpretation would be through a derogatory, racist lens, regarding their capability. Not good, nor evolved at all, and very low-empathy. Little appreciation for their individual situation of the students, and the inherent challenges (especially if female) of leaving the family structure and attending a large institution with low familiarity of even the existence of places like universities.
A Wilber ‘Conscious’ perspective would be more evolved, and likely along the lines of ‘Hispanic students are just the same as all others, and worthy of attending college.’ No one’s going to say nasty things about you for this egalitarian perspective, and you’d be safe inside the academic organization if you used that as a basis for all your various decisions, including grading and exceptions granted. Inside the Legalistic/Absolutistic walls of the contemporary academy, advocating blanket fairness, while occasionally questioned, will NOT get you into trouble.
The problem is that poverty-stricken communities sending forth their sons and daughters DO have problems that ordinary students from the suburbs don’t have. One is the presence of a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) that show up as a high ACE inventory score. There is lots of research that show a high ACE score negatively affects academic success, besides the simple, common sense insight that people who get beat, or are otherwise victims of some type of violence (sexual or otherwise) can be messed up! And there may be some need to address these issues, as well as have some compensatory mechanism to help them get through college, or they’ll end up dropping out.
So, the Wilberian ‘Post-Conscious’ perspective might agree with their fundamental humanity, while at the same time, recognize that some mechanisms might need to be enacted to facilitate underrepresented minority success, or you’re going to have students dropping out who will likely end up in indentured servitude to their student loans that they can now no longer repay.
To recap — Wilberian understanding of the three states of consciousness for the issue of my Hispanic students:
- Pre-conscious — in this case, racist, discriminatory stereotypes that are low empathy, and disavow the dignity of the individual.
- Conscious — Egalitarian perspective asserting equivalent rights and responsibilities for minorities regardless of background.
- Post-Conscious — A deeper, empathetic, time-dependent history of individual students and their needs, as well as allowances for a history of trauma that moves the starting line back for these types of students.
We’re going to generalize this in a moment, but bear with me. Within the context of the academic community, which mode is more likely to overcome the aggregate trauma, and develop a path out of trauma for underrepresented Hispanic students? Obviously, we are going to increase the odds for generalized success of Hispanic students if we adopt an adaptive (we need to learn as well!) Post-Conscious, high empathy perspective toward student success.
Yes — some of the students can emerge from the adversity of the Pre-Conscious perspective and go on to being leaders formed in the crucible. Sometimes, heroes are made, even at the lowest level of Pre-conscious society. The Old Guard of the United States civil rights movement are testament to this. People like John Lewis, for example, are heroes of mine for confronting extreme trauma and overcoming it. Here’s an example from Wikipedia for those unfamiliar with the history:
In 1960, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. There were seven whites and six blacks who were determined to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. At that time, several states of the old Confederacy still enforced laws prohibiting black and white riders from sitting next to each other on public transportation. The Freedom Ride, originated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and revived by James Farmer and CORE, was initiated to pressure the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that declared segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. In the South, Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs, arrested at times and taken to jail. When CORE gave up on the Freedom Ride because of the violence, Lewis and fellow activist Diane Nash arranged for the Nashville students to take it over and bring it to a successful conclusion.
But if anyone advocates for a Pre-conscious program for making successful citizens, we’d laugh them out of the room. You don’t prescribe racially oriented beatings as a way to build character.
There are likely empathetic reasons why people like John Lewis saw extreme trauma, and overcame it to be a leader and politician for the rest of his life (he’s still alive as of this writing.) He was married to one partner, Lillian, for his whole life, and he had a strong support group. But this alone still doesn’t create a probabilistic argument for ‘trauma as a path for evolution’ for successful humans. We love heroes in American society, and we can honor Lewis’ sacrifice. At the same time, we can realize not everyone has the robust neural circuits of a John Lewis.
We can now generalize Wilber’s perspective to trauma in general, and answer the larger question:
In the face of trauma, how can we
a.) understand what trauma will do?
b.) prepare ourselves to deal with it?
The short answer is this:
We need to move as many people as we can into a connected, Post-Conscious network as possible, so that when the Trauma comes, there are as many robust brains as we can muster to manage and gather information for multiple solutions.
The question then arises: what are the fundamentals, from a trauma perspective, of a Post-Conscious perspective that we need in order to deal with the chaos that unspecified trauma will create? Here’s an introductory list — I’m sure there are plenty others:
- Emotional self-separation from the news cycle. One of the most frustrating things I see among current leaders on Twitter and Facebook is the breathless reactions to poor data and low-level scientific studies. It’s not that the sky ISN’T falling — it is. But leaders will be mirrored by the less personally developed, and hysteria does not lead to cohesive action. Rather, emotional contagion gives undeveloped, and potentially psychopathic leaders the opportunity to practice what Naomi Klein has coined ‘disaster capitalism’.
- Self-inventory and recognition of one’s own past trauma. So many activists come to change movements with deep core trauma. They’ve been abused, or lost something of deep meaning to them. Activist movements can resemble large sessions of Group Therapy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But cognitive therapy alone has proven to be a poor solution for individuals suffering from PTSD, whose manifestations can lead to movement pathologies.
- A deep understanding of what causes trauma, and the pathways toward healing. There has been much progress made in the last ten years with understanding the deep, basal ganglia level need for healing among people experiencing trauma. Prisons have started implementing programs for prisoners doing traditional sensorimotor work, like yoga, with great results. We need to do the same thing for activists.
Naturally, after doing the work of connecting and empathizing with ourselves and others, and healing the gaps, we also move far more thinking into the Spiral Second Tier, of deliberate action at all the lower v-Memes. We also enlarge our capacity for growing our own meta-cognition, and accepting the fact that we’re moving into an uncertain future, and tactics must be adaptive. Long-range plans, outside of large targets, make no sense whatsoever in the light of rapid environmental change. But we must evolve ourselves to accept our ignorance, and count on our resilience.
And we can’t get there from here without moving people to a deeper awareness of their trauma.
What happens if we accept the status-quo, stay with our meta-linear stage theories, and ignore trauma? It is impossible to say. The same mechanisms of maximal neuroplasticity will still be in play, as more people move into the Survival v-Meme. But what we will likely see is more people, especially in the Pre-Conscious category, get converted to psychopathic, relationally disruptive, low empathy behavior.
In fact, I’d argue we’re already seeing this with the election of Donald Trump. People in the U.S. Midwest, in the face of a true Survival-level crisis, with vanishing jobs and pressure from the opioid epidemic, already are susceptible to messaging ranging from ‘Make America Great Again’ to the more darker forces of racial nationalism. Trauma is a key ingredient in probabilistic psychopathy (see the work of Simon Baron-Cohen for those doubters) and the more trauma is sown, the more psychopathy we will see.
Additionally, we need to be aware that this type of psychopathy and degenerate empathetic development will not only happen on the current Right of the political spectrum. U.S. statistics showing 25% of all African American children being evicted from their home at least once in their childhood. At best, such trauma will mire underrepresented communities in neo-Tribal v-Meme behavior, incapable of organizing themselves. Or make them susceptible to overtake and overreach by a trauma-laden white majority willing to fly their own banner of noble cause, but really driving conflict over their own, unresolved past histories. I want to state for the record I’m not in the camp of ‘only the suppressed group can speak for that group.’ Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the only spokesperson for African Americans. But there are more complicated, and complex backgrounds for those outside a given group speaking on issues where they don’t immediately have a dog in that fight. It certainly was true for me at the outset of helping Hispanic kids. Doctor had to heal himself, though now I can still contribute.
Regarding Left and Right — this is absolutely not to be taken as a centrist perspective. The answers to most of the upcoming crises will likely veer far from even our current understandings of things, and can’t be sorted into the lower evolution knowledge structures of Right or Left. Rather, we must create that group of people who recognize their trauma, heal themselves from it, and move clear-eyed into the future, while equipping them at the same time with an understanding of the tools and processes of contemporary activism.
But in order to solve this problem, we have to acknowledge that our own meta-linear growth models are insufficient to the task, in an increasingly traumatized world. Knowledge about what we CAN know has to be a first step.
Let’s get back to Nora’s original comment.
New possibilities arise and the people who step up are never the ones anyone expected. The ideas that emerge in the upheaval are not the ones discussed in meeting rooms.
As you can see from the piece above, I completely agree with Nora’s assessment. The real challenge we face is for us to be as rational and clear-headed when those ideas emerge out of the upheaval. We have to prepare for that moment mindfully, and in full understanding of the empathy stack of mirroring, emotional empathy, rational empathy, and conscious empathy, because that will give us the widest set of knowledge structures in our toolkit, as well as the ability to call ‘bullshit’ on our own dearly held ideas. We have to heal our own trauma, explicitly, and it has to be a priority — not “we’ll get around to it when we get around to it.”
Here’s the good news. Well, sort of. Trauma opens the door to nonlinear, discontinuous positive progression. It enables, through Survival-level reconstitution, advances in consciousness that we don’t have the time to generate institutionally within the timelines of current crises. And my argument is simple — we’re more likely to do that healthy reconstitution by being Post-conscious and aware. We absolutely need to lay in the healthy development patterns that the Piagets and Kegans have advocated for, where we can. These are sound developmental ladders for our institutions, and even the majority of our children.
But at the same time, we need to recognize that we’re not likely, for many of us who will lead change in the near-term timeframe, to have the benefits of that meta-linear system. For us, it’s going to be that reconstitution of fragments, healing and recognition of past trauma, while adding the new stuff in. And the positive ‘how’ of the rapid change we’ll see will depend on how empathetically healthy we are walking into the door of the situation, as we’re not likely to get any do-overs. And our actions may very well dictate how many of our fellow living creatures, both human and otherwise, make it through the portal. As well as ourselves.
Coda: At some level, I do realize that this is stating the obvious — we need to get our shit together. Understanding this through our own trauma lens, though, can point to directions. And the newest research in sensorimotor psychotherapy means we have to start from the bottom up, and move into our larger activist communities.