Spiral Dynamics co-developer Chris Cowan passed away on 15 July at the Serenity House hospice in Santa Barbara, California. He was diagnosed with aggressive and incurable pancreatic cancer in June after returning from delivering a training programme in Italy with his personal and business partner Natasha Todorovic.
I hadn’t seen Chris since December 1998. We hadn’t had a meaningful discourse since 2009 and hadn’t had any communication at all since the end of 2012 (exchange of Christmas best wishes). So it’s a measure of the man and his influence on my life that I feel compelled to write something about him at his passing.
Put quite simply, the Spiral Dynamics (SD-1 certification) workshops that Chris and his then-business partner Don Beck staged with the Business Link in Wakefield in March-April 1998 were a major turning point in my life. I was acutely stressed at the time in both my work and relationship situations, unable to see how to resolve either one or even to understand what was happening to me. In terms of the process of change, I was in the Gamma Trap in both. Through the understanding Spiral Dynamics gave me, I was able to resolve both situations and, apart from needing to deal with issues relating to my childhood – see The Counsellor gets Counselled! – have never really looked back. Without hesitation, I say Beck & Cowan saved my sanity… and quite possibly my life too. (With 3 previous suicide attempts, it was clear I didn’t handle stress well!)
During the workshops, while Don had the gravitas of his involvement in the South African peace process – see Don Beck & South Africa – and mapped out global vMEMETIC shifts, it was Chris who charmed and beguiled and made the concepts personal to the participants’ own experiences. All with erudite humour.
Since university days I’d had a real interest in Psychology and had a good awareness of psychological ideas but Spiral Dynamics was the most profound sociopsychological revelation that transformed my life.
The Beck-Cowan split
Not being a close confidante of either man, my understanding of the reasons behind their split is limited.
Certainly the introduction of Natasha into the Beck & Cowan-owned National Values Center (NVC) was a major catalyst in the dynamics which produced the split. However, Chris was already unhappy with Don’s increasing flirtation with the Integral approach and its chief proponent, Ken Wilber.
Also, while I can’t speak for the US, I certainly know there were people in the UK who were whispering into their ears separately that the ‘other guy’ was the problem and that they could show Beck individually or Cowan individually how to make more money. NVC at the time was hardly a big wealth generator and Don had sunk his life savings into his work in South Africa, so the prospect of making more money from their work could hardly not have been enticing.
By the time Beck & Cowan returned to the UK in December 1998 for the SD-2 certification course staged by Hidden Resources in the West Yorkshire town of Mirfield, it was clear their relationship was strained. There was none of the humorous interaction that had characterised the SD-1 and made it so effective just 8 months before. It was almost as if they were delivering 2 separate courses which just happened to be in the same room. I particularly remember Chris sitting stoney-faced and unmoved while Don enthusiastically introduced his new concept of MeshWORKS (derived from the South African experience).
During the HemsMESH project a couple of years later, I had a conversation with my colleague Henrie Lidiard about the difference between the 2 events. Henrie rated the SD-1 the best training she had ever been on, not just for the content but also the dynamic and entertaining interaction between Beck and Cowan – the sparks usually initiated by Chris. Together we lamented the end of the Beck & Cowan partnership and wondered rather gloomily what that meant for the future of Spiral Dynamics.
Although I saw Don Beck several times during 2000 as part of HemsMESH and then again a couple of times in 2009 for the Regents College Summit and the formation of the Centre of Human Emergence UK, I never saw Chris again after he and Beck returned to the US in December 1998.
However, we communicated fairly frequently in exchanges on the original Spiral Dynamics listserve and by personal email. I found Chris a beneficent mentor, generous in the amount of time he gave and his readiness to share his knowledge and understanding. What was particularly discerning in Chris’ approach was his willingness to challenge givens and to demand evidence for assumptions if they were to be accorded credibility. Often executed with a knowing and wicked humour! In particular he was scathing about Beck’s Spiral Dynamics integral, the self-declared ‘third phase’ of the Gravesian approach. While for many years Don was careful neither to endorse nor refute the ‘spiritual’ embellishments Wilber ascribed to 2nd Tier thinking (and Wilber’s claims about ‘3rd Tier’!), Cowan was mischievously ruthless in dismissing them as ‘woo woo’! As post-split relations worsened between them, Chris particularly delighted in picking up on Don’s increasing dismissal of the need to distinguish conceptually between meme and vMEME. Beck’s view seemed to be that this was quibbling over semantics; but, as somebody, with one foot in the world of academia, I felt Chris was right: it was important to be precise in our terminology if we were to gain academic credibility.
To some extent, I also felt I understood Cowan’s bitterness. In Don’s telling of the Gravesian/Spiral Dynamics story, Chris was reduced to a mere footnote. The fact that Don’s move into the Integral scene created a significant new audience for his version of Spiral Dynamics and a number of major consultancy opportunities and income streams may not have played well either with Chris & Natasha.
If Beck engaged in a new ‘Integral’ broad approach to Spiral Dynamics and made some minor tweaks to the theory to accommodate some of the more complementary aspects of Integral practitioners’ experiences, Chris & Natasha furrowed themselves deeper into the theory, immersing themselves in Clare W Graves’ original works. From these efforts came the only readily available Graves: materials: the web site www.clarewgraves.com and 2 books, ‘LEVELS OF EXISTENCE’ (2002; Bill Lee’s transcription of a 1971 workshop) and ‘THE NEVER-ENDING QUEST’ (2005; Graves’ book abandoned through ill health in 1978 and completed by Cowan & Todorovic, using other Graves materials). These are critical to providing Graves with a legacy and to giving academics some materials to analyse. (Both books can be ordered from the Graves website here.)
Personal journeys with Don and with Chris
For much of the early noughties, I personally attempted to steer a middle course between the 2 camps and endeavoured to remain in communication with both Beck and Cowan. During this time, Chris reviewed and edited the original version of How the Brain develops the Mind and contributed to a couple of FAQs – one of which became What is the relationship between the Gravesian approach, Spiral Dynamics and Spiral Dynamics integral? Natasha allowed me to republish SD For NLPers, a piece she had written for the short-lived Voice of NLP e-zine. When I couldn’t get hold of Don, Chris gave me permission to use the Spiral Dynamics name in the marketing of a proposed tape of a workshop I had conducted. (The project was aborted before the tape could be released.) Both Chris and Don gave me permission to use Spiral Dynamics in ‘KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU’ .
Paradoxically, although I had more to do with Don (through HemsMESH and Humber MeshWORKS), during this period, I was, if anything, slightly more drawn to Cowan’s purist/anti-Integral stance. That changed a little with my own (desktop) research for ‘KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU’. By looking beyond Graves/Spiral Dynamics and into the work of other developmentalists such as Abraham Maslow, Lawrence Kohlberg and Jane Loevinger, I found there was evidence for some of Don’s ‘tweaks’ such as some people ascending the Spiral more by one side – eg: ‘cool’ vMEMES’ – rather than the other – eg: ‘warm’ vMEMES. As for Beck’s prime directive, I realised it was simply Carl Rogers’ (1951) actualising tendency by another name.
I don’t know that Chris ever read ‘KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU’ (published in March 2006) which, while by no means ‘Integral’, made the case for those of Don’s tweaks I could find evidence for. It may simply have been coincidence that relations first started to cool a little around this time. In 2007 Chris asked me to take down a graphic and (supportive) review of ‘’THE NEVER-ENDING QUEST’ from www.integratedsociopsychology.net, asserting that he didn’t want the book associated with a ‘Beckian’ site. Although I have never allied my site or my work formally with ‘Spiral Dynamics integral’ and was most definitely not part of Don’s inner circle, I felt pushed away from Chris – a feeling exacerbated by him not inviting me to participate in a new listserve he was setting up. (I know of at least one other ‘old timer’ who had tried to keep contact with both camps, reporting being treated similarly by Chris.)
While I was miffed at being categorised as a ‘Beckian’ when I didn’t see myself that way, this did nothing to undermine my respect for Chris’s scholarship and teaching. A tentative booking on Chris & Natasha’s UK training later that year was aborted only due to financial constraints. My last meaningful discourse with Chris in 2009 was an enquiry about a seeming discrepancy between ‘LEVELS OF EXISTENCE’ and ‘THE NEVER-ENDING QUEST’. Ever the respectful scholar, Chris refused to attempt an explanation for the discrepancy and simply remarked that Graves said one thing in 1971 and ignored it in his writings of 1978. He saw it as his job, in this instance, to bring Graves, as unexpurgated as possible, to the public.
Despite this tailing-off of communication, I still visited Chris & Natasha’s web site www.spiraldynamics.org fairly frequently. If the reader can get past the vituperative nature of much of the writing about the Integral approach, a lot of their evaluation actually makes sense. (At least, it does to an unashamed ‘flatlander’ like myself!) There is also a wealth of other Spiral Dynamics-oriented material on the site, from scholarly essays to political analyses. Don Beck is, of course, well known for his superlative vMEMETIC mapping of global and cultural flows and his concept of Stratified Democracy. However, a read-through of Cowan & Todorovic’s political commentaries show clearly that Chris was no slouch in using Gravesian concepts to create erudite narratives on global issues.
A legacy and memories
Having had no meaningful communication with Chris since 2009, it’s not that easy for me to evaluate his legacy. Others, who were closer to him in the last few years, can make a much better job of that. I can only comment on the limited amount I know.
Chris has, however, left us with 2 web sites and 2 books full of Gravesian ‘treasure’. Thousands – tens of thousands? – have been introduced to Spiral Dynamics and Gravesian concepts through his & Natasha’s workshop programmes and at least a portion of them will be applying those concepts back in the ‘real world’.
If Chris clearly was embittered by the dynamics of the split with Beck, it doesn’t seem to have come across in his & Natasha’s workshops. I have heard numerous reports of the warmth and humour in their training. Eoin McCarthy of the Quakers & Business Group sent me this tribute to Chris’ training:-
“Chris brought those workshops to life with his very many diverse and vivid video clips of the different mind capacities and life conditions. He engaged us with a measured sense of what he had evidence for and what he saw as theoretical surmise. Chris conveyed an impression of relentless rigour in his work to clarify and describe as fully as possible what he had learned throughout his life working with the Spiral. Chris was a gifted and patient teacher, willing and able shrewdly to grasp where each of his students was coming from, and responding to them in ways that were useful to each one.
“Chris leaves an impressive and important archive of client engagements and valuable discernments about the life conditions of C, D, E and F, and the P, Q and R mind capacities. Of particular value is the detailed understanding and examples he leaves us of the C-P/D-Q and D-Q/E-R transitions.
“It was my privilege to have had that time learning from a master of his own field, when he was at the peak of his knowledge.”
Given the potential of the Gravesian approach to make a huge difference to the way the human race develops and functions, just what I know and have learned from others about Chris Cowan makes for a pretty substantial legacy.
Chris’ passing has had Don Beck ruminating to his SDi listserve “about what might have been” if they had stayed together. If only! – I’ve had several conversations with other ‘old timers’ over the years on exactly the same thought!
Don, who has been distancing himself from Wilber and some of his more fanciful assertions for at least a couple of years, has also acknowledged that Chris was right in a number of his reservations about Wilber and his approach.
I enjoyed Chris’ ruminations and greatly respected his way of thinking…and I always hoped that one day the barriers might come down enough for us to have meaningful dialogue again. Sadly that now cannot be.
But I have my memories of the March-April 1998 workshops and there are the books and the websites to enjoy and be enlightened by.
I’ll finish this reflection with my favourite Chris Cowan quote (from one of those workshops): “You can’t know what you don’t know.” At first I was dismayed that this great ‘world class consultant’ should come out with something so obvious…but, although it’s obvious, how many people punish themselves and others for lack of knowing something they think they should know but don’t? Over time I’ve come to appreciate just how powerful that simple saying is and I’ve used it many times to pep up students and therapy clients and get them to realise that they can get what they need by finding out.
Note: a Remembrance Wall has been set up at http://spiraldynamics.org/chris-cowan-in-remembrance/ if you would like to add your own memories and/or thoughts on the passing of this great sociopsychological pioneer.
UPDATE: 15 September 2015
In the first week of September Natasha announced to www.spiraldynamics.org subscribers the passing of Bill Lee, sometimes referred to as ‘the Graves archivist’.
Coming so soon after Chris’ death, this is a real body blow to those who favour the more scientific approach to Graves’ concepts. Bill, a Pyschology teacher by vocation, apparently had drawers full of psychometric tests he had conducted as part of his research into the Gravesian approach. Convinced of the criticality of Graves’ work at an early stage, he saw the importance of trying to establish a broader base of evidence for Graves’ findings. He had run discussion groups which Graves would attend when he could and helped facilitate a number of workshops for him. Several of these were recorded and the one at the Washington Institute of Psychiatry in 1971 became the transcript for ‘LEVELS OF EXISTENCE’.
Bill published an autobiographical account of his involvement with Graves and his approach at http://www.clarewgraves.com/source_content/lee_autobio.html
Although he worked with Cowan & Todorovich and clearly favoured their stance on things Gravesian, to my knowledge he never formally took ‘sides’ in the Beck-Cowan split and never commented on Spiral Dynamics integral. Things must have been fairly cordial between Don and him as Bill told me they would meet up for dinner sometimes when one was in the other’s ‘neck of the woods’.
So the Gravesian approach has lost 2 of its key promulgators in just a couple of months. Thanks too, Bill!
Thankfully, Don is recovering from heart surgery and his doctors anticipate (the rather arbitrary figure of) another 13 years for him.