Lives on the Spiral
Personal Reflections On The Influence Of SDi
‘Lives on the Spiral’ is one of 2 contributions commissioned from me by Tom Christensen for his compendium, Developmental Innovation: Emerging Worldviews and Individual Learning (Integral Publishers, August 2015).
Originally the work was to be entitled ‘SDi Applied’ as Tom wanted to present chapters which reflected Don Beck’s ongoing development of Clare W Graves’ research. Accordingly, Tom wanted the primary term used to be SDi rather than Spiral Dynamics or the ‘Graves Model’. Although I readily acknowledge my debt to Don Beck (and Chris Cowan, for that matter), I have never operated under the SDi umbrella, preferring to use terms such as the Gravesian approach. To maintain the integrity of the piece as published, I have retained the SDi terminology. However, readers should know that effectively I mean ‘Gravesian’.
Tom ended up with so many strong contributions – including from the likes of Said E Dawlabani, Elza Maalouf, Barbara N Brown and Fred Krawchuk – that he and Integral Publishers split the material into 2 volumes: the first on Systems Change and the second on Individual Learning. Both my contributions are in the second book.
I’ve had an interest in Psychology since my first year at university but being exposed to SDi in March-April 1998 was of a totally-different order than anything I’d encountered before. Inevitably I had come across powerful, paradigm-shaping models before, most notably William Moulton Marston’s DISC (1928). With its mapping of Dominance, Influence, Steadfastness and Compliance in attitudes and behaviour, it forms the basis of the business world’s second-most popular psychometric after Myers-Briggs. I had come to understand DISC well enough to be able to write and deliver training courses in it. But DISC was essentially descriptive. Just one of the things that sets SDi apart from most other models is that it can be applied causally. In other words, it answers the ‘why’ question.
Back in March 1998 I was a mess. Some 15 months earlier I was hospitalised for a week following a “stress reaction” in which I had rung my doctor to threaten suicide and subsequently been arrested by the police for my own protection. This episode had been triggered by a combination of my business failing and relationship problems. As I had 2 previous suicide ‘attempts’ on my record, the doctor had reason to take my threats seriously!
I have a mildly psychoticist temperament (from Hans J Eysenck’s Psychoticism-Extraversion-Neuroticism model of temperament (Eysenck,1967; Eysenck & Eysenck, 1976)) and am thus prone to impulsive and compulsive behaviour. Accordingly, I have a reckless resilience which soon saw me out of hospital and talking my way into a job in Business Link Wakefield, a branch of a government-funded agency for supporting small businesses. While my efforts were highly successful, beneath the surface I was still extremely fragile. With the funding for the job running out and no possibility of it being extended, I began to experience serious stress and anxiety symptoms including at times heart palpitations. It was in this kind of state that I was first introduced to SDi.
The story of the Business Link’s involvement with Don Beck, Chris Cowan and SDi is a complex and multi-layered one. Ian Lavan, the Link’s Export Development Counsellor, was an NLP Master Practitioner and far more interested in fringe psychology than exports. On his Master Practitioner training, he had been introduced to the basics of SDi by Master Trainer Wyatt Woodsmall and was encouraged to train with Beck & Cowan at their Texas headquarters. Ian used his NLP skills to persuade the Business Link to fund such a trip. He was so impressed with what he learned in Texas that he then persuaded Business Link to fund Beck & Cowan carrying out a training programme in Wakefield and putting all the advisers through that training. That, fortunately, included me.
My first impressions of SDi were that it was a ridiculous bit of woo-woo mumbo-jumbo, more akin to colour healing or chakra schematics than serious psychological science. Since I was, at the time, also highly sceptical about NLP, I was initially resistant to the teaching of Beck & Cowan, denigrating it as just more of Ian Lavan’s weird stuff. By the end of the third day, though, I was an unequivocal devotee. All of a sudden life and all its manifold contradictions made sense. I could see that all the internal contradictions and the conflicts with external others came from different motivations, or, to be more accurate, motivating systems or vMEMES, as SDi calls them.
For example, I now understood why I enjoyed pornography, satisfying a BEIGE/RED vMEME harmonic, but felt terribly guilty about it because of the Christian Blue-oriented memes (culturally-transmitted concepts) I had absorbed about male/female relationships and the control of sex in society. That was an internal conflict which had tormented me since the days when I had been a fundamentalist Christian. Now I could understand that RED wanted one thing while BLUE wanted another. SDi carried a bit of Sigmund Freud’s (1923) analysis of Id vs Superego conflicts – do what pleases vs do what’s right, but without value judgements beyond does it work for me and not impact negatively upon others?
I still remember turning such conundrums over and over in my head as I walked back to the Business Link one lunchtime, about a week after Beck & Cowan had jetted off back to Texas. With each step nearer the Link, it seemed my understanding grew, and a corresponding sense of euphoria seemed to spread from the pit of my stomach throughout my torso and into my extremities. In exultation I leapt repeatedly off the ground, punching the air with my fist and shouting “Yes! Yes! YES!” I’ve certainly experienced some ups and downs in the journey of life since those heady days of early Spring 1998, but I’ve never looked back. And I’ve never been in that kind of mess again. I’ve often said that Don Beck & Chris Cowan saved my sanity. It’s just possible they saved my life.
It really was like: “…and with one bound he was free!”
BLUE Is The Colour Of My Father’s House
My father was nearing the end of his 2nd month in the intensive care unit in the bowels of Preston Royal Infirmary, Lancashire, in late 2002. He was suffering a prolonged acute bout of Myasthenia Gravis, a debilitating and potentially fatal condition in which the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is no longer transmitted through the synapses at the muscle platelets. Amongst the muscle networks which were no longer working were those which contracted and expanded his lungs – so a ventilator was plugged into my father’s trachea to do his breathing for him. Most of the time he was able to communicate with me through a mixture of writing, gesturing and grunting. A combination of PURPLE affiliation and BLUE duty had me spending weekends at his house nearby and travelling across the Pennines from Hull on the East Coast at least twice more in the week. With Mum dead a couple of years, I was his main visitor. He really seemed to appreciate the visits, often grasping my hand as I sat or stood by his bedside. It was a mode of PURPLE communication for both of us. We knew we belonged to each other.
This particular night I had travelled 3 hours from a day’s consultancy on Teesside to be with Dad. I didn’t get to the hospital till 9:30 PM and was exhausted. Dad had had a particularly bad day; at times it had come close to touch-and-go and, though he was no longer at severe risk, he was in a lot of discomfort. He barely acknowledged my presence. No hand-holding that night. His eyes followed the nurses all the time. He smiled and tried to laugh if they made a flippant comment while attending to him and he simply oozed gratitude for everything they did for him. They seemed more interested in him than I had seen them previously.
I left, emotionally crushed and feeling even more exhausted. But, as I thought it through, SDi made sense of the experience for me. Dad and I might have fed our PURPLE sense of belonging to each other but that day he had slipped below nodal PURPLE on the Spiral. That day it had been all about survival. Something I couldn’t help him with. But the nurses could. To survive, he needed them and he needed them to care about him so that he survived. What I had seen was my Dad’s BEIGE and PURPLE vMEMES forming a vMEME harmonic, the survival motivation developing a new sense of belonging with the people who were most likely to ensure his survival. At that level, I was redundant – useless! But the nurses had the skills and access to the machinery that could save my Dad, if only he could motivate them to be that much more attentive. His was an unconscious motivation, to be sure. He seemed embarrassed and fudged commenting on that night when I raised it a couple of years later. It was a potent reminder that the lower you go on the Spiral, the more dominating the motivations can be.
My father, Ted Rice, would have been embarrassed by my raising that night in the hospital because he was essentially centred in BLUE and ignoring your son to ingratiate yourself with people who, as professionals, should have done their job to the best of their ability, regardless, was hardly ‘the right thing to do’. My father’s BLUE largely dominated my upbringing. He was really good at saying what should and shouldn’t be. So people should stop listening to pop music and listen to classical, especially the early-mid-period composers (Bach to Beethoven) whose music was very ordered, structured, mathematical and precise. Everyone should vote Conservative because people should: a) Know their place in the class hierarchy and b) Labour were dangerous with their ideas of co-education (boys and girls taught together in the same school!) and minimising the wage gaps between workers and managers. Everyone should read a broadsheet, not that tabloid trash, and watch the TV news every night because everyone should know what’s going on so they could make ‘informed’ choices (by which he really meant support the Tories!). With a bit of PURPLE differentiation underpinning, he was an unashamed racist because whites were superior. Blacks were unintelligent, primitive and lazy. Asians were crafty, sneaky and lazy. And once the science was unequivocal about the risks of lung cancer, everyone should stop smoking! If my father looked externally from himself, as BLUE does, to find ‘what is right’ ‘out there’, his internalisation and interpretation of those memes into his internal schemas made him a zealot (RED/BLUE) to be reckoned with. He knew how things should be and he paid little regard to the feelings of others in seeking to impose his orthodoxy on them.
In 1967, the year of flower power, when the ears of most of the teenage boys in the UK were disappearing under longer and longer hair, he insisted I should still have a ‘short back & sides’ haircut. After a blazing row, I packed a bag to leave home in protest. He was unmoved; and only my mother’s near-hysterical intervention got me to stay. It would be another year before she managed to convince him to let me have my hair just that little bit longer. When we moved to a new house in 1972 and I stood on the raised front lawn with hair down to my shoulders, held off my forehead with a hippie headband, he was so ashamed he shouted me in and forbade me to stand in such an obvious position in front of the neighbours ever again. A couple of years later, when I told him I’d smoked dope for the first time, I actually thought he was going to have a heart attack on the spot. Admittedly my fun-loving RED was now having some fun with his uptight BLUE!
If I annoyed him – sometimes deliberately! – my mother frustrated the hell out of him. Centered in PURPLE, with frequent flashes of RED, she had no interest in doing the right thing by being informed about the current state of the economy or which was the latest African state to succumb to civil war. Mum got her news from gossiping in the village. She had no idea as to whether the pound was up or down on the currency markets but she knew the progress of Mrs Walton’s illness, what the primary school teacher had decided about little Harry Benton being bullied and what the likelihood was that Phil Smith really was cheating on his wife with Susie, the flirtatious barmaid at the Fox & Grapes.
Dad called Mum ‘mentally lazy’ because she wouldn’t pay attention to the TV news broadcasts. He was so locked into his Blue worldview that he couldn’t conceive that there was a values gap between them and that, to Mum, different things were important.
Mind you, Dad’s RED did get the better of him on occasion – as when he had a short-lived affair. How his RED, just like Freud’s Id, didn’t understand consequences was amply illustrated by the fact his collaborator in the affair was our next-door neighbour. As though they would find it easy to keep that one a secret! My mother left my father when the affair was revealed. I, at the age of 7 already starting to disrespect my mother under the weight of my father’s criticisms, stayed with him.
2 days later I remember my grandfather’s face appearing at our rain-drenched window and summoning Dad to his house in Liverpool. Though he would soon come to disrespect his own father for his ‘idiotic’ Socialism, there was enough PURPLE working in my father’s head at the time for him to defer to Granddad’s wishes. Both sets of grandparents were there. My parents were pushed alone together into my grandfather’s front room and told to sort it out. Both my parents came from Liverpool working class families. Divorce then was uncommon; male infidelity and females coming to terms with it on the presupposition that it was “just sex” and wouldn’t happen again was not that uncommon. This was PURPLE at work, in terms of tradition and ascription of gender roles. The pressure put on my parents to make it work “for the sake of the boy” was enormous. They emerged from the front room with faces like thunder and could barely manage a civil word to each other for weeks. But Mum did go back and, as far as I know, my Dad didn’t stray again. I was never officially told about the affair, though my mother told my second wife. After Mum had died, Dad hinted at something having gone on but justified himself by saying Mum hadn’t given him enough sex, effectively RED shrugging off the shame of the affair by deflecting blame onto someone else, Mum.
Mum agreeing to go back may also be read as having a BEIGE component. In the days before good income careers were available for most women, she needed my Dad’s money for her standard of living and to raise her child. Evolutionary psychologists such as David Buss (1989) and David Waynforth & Robin Dunbar (1995) have provided convincing evidence of the importance of male resources to female reproduction strategies. In a BEIGE/PURPLE harmonic my Mum needed my Dad and his far-from-measly ability to earn a reasonable income to support her and her child. Interestingly, although it’s a rather painful memory, amongst the last things my mother told me on her deathbed was that I was a failure because I hadn’t given her grandchildren, a rather bitter illustration of the BEIGE evolutionary drive to pass on your genes. As her only child, my mother’s genetic lineage dies out with me.
It should be noted that my parents became great friends in the last decade or so before my Mum died, really seeming to find what Ellen Berscheid & Elaine Walster (1978) termed companionate love. They finally seemed to be comfortable in their relationship and really seemed to enjoy each other’s company. That their PURPLE bond was strong was clear in the affectionate terms with which they referred to each other and sometimes even held each other. Who knows, if my father’s testosterone levels dropped, typical of older men, and my mother’s were elevated, typical of post-menopausal women, maybe they even found bed was no longer a problem?
Does Insecure Attachment Lead To Insecure Lover?
John Bowlby is one of my psychology heroes. Although methodological flaws have since been found in a number of his studies and the validity of several of his conclusions have been challenged, he led a developmental movement in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s which changed British society’s approach to caring for children. The fact that parents these days have virtually unrestricted visiting to sick children in hospital and can even stay with them overnight is almost single-handedly due to Bowlby. (Prior to Bowlby’s influence, a Nursing Times survey, published in 1952, found that only 300 out of 1,300 hospitals allowed daily visiting and 150 allowed no visiting whatsoever.)
Thanks to the World Health Organisation taking up Bowlby’s work in the early 1950s – his first WHO book was published in 1951 – his influence spread throughout much of Western society.
Just one of the factors Bowlby and his student, Mary Ainsworth, investigated was secure and insecure attachments, with Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970) eventually designating 3 attachment types:-
- Securely attached
- Insecure resistant – can’t trust the caregiver and tries to control by being clingy
- Insecure avoidant – has given up on the caregiver and lives as independently as possible from them
Although there’s no indication Bowlby was aware of the contemporaneous Clare W Graves, on whose work SDi is built, effectively Bowlby and Ainsworth were working with the PURPLE vMEME and its need to find safety in belonging. Both the insecure categories indicate some unhealthy working of RED to compensate for PURPLE’S attachment needs being frustrated. Bowlby was a psychoanalyst by training and was mentored by Anna Freud for quite a time. In the development of his ideas, Bowlby was much influenced by Sigmund Freud’s (1940) notion that the relationship between the child and its mother is “the prototype of all later love-relations”. Cindy Hazan & Phil Shaver (1987, 1993) were the first of a raft of researchers to find degrees of correlation between infant attachment type and adult romantic love style, thus lending support to the Bowlby-Freud concept.
So did my earliest childhood relationships affect my ability to conduct adult ones? Well, of course, I can’t remember much below the age of 5. But some of my earliest memories are of my parents rowing. I even saw my father slap my mother across the face once with his motorcycle gauntlet. I remember feeling frightened on what seemed like numerous occasions that they were going to split up. In my early teens my mother told me that women didn’t enjoy sex. These childhood incidents did indeed create mental models that greatly influenced my approach to adult relationships – but so did the TV series Hart & Hart. The lovey-dovey relationship with just a hint of passionate naughtiness that Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers portrayed so well was what I aspired to. The living hell of my parents’ marriage, as the childhood me saw it, was to be avoided at all costs.
Thus, I’ve been a little double-minded in my relationships. I was at times insecure-avoidant, not trusting and unwilling to risk being emotionally intimate with someone. At other times I could be insecure-resistant with women I fell desperately in love with. At these times I would be jealous, clingy and controlling to the point of obsession and then devastated when the woman finally ended it, fed up with the jealous accusations and the demand to be loved constantly with the same intensity I loved her. Should a woman become demanding with me that I wasn’t smitten by, a combination of my mild Psychoticism and RED would cut her off ruthlessly, rather than submit to expectations.
The destabilising of my PURPLE need to find safety in belonging at what seems to have been a fairly early age does indeed seem to have had an adverse effect on my ability to form lasting romantic/sexual relationships. My journey is littered with the shattered corpses of short-term relationships.
As my understanding of SDi has grown and with it my reframing of Psychology in general, so I have become more reflective and more able to control my tendency to paranoia. I see the need to do that if I am ever to meet my PURPLE safety-in-belonging needs. With my third wife, Caroline, on our way to our tenth wedding anniversary, I seem to have found someone who is a natural loving PURPLE healer. A primary school teacher, she has an intuitive understanding of young children and can speak to their PURPLE, making them feel secure while also stimulating their RED to make education activities fun. Perhaps, in a way, that’s what she’s doing with me, feeding me just the right combination of security and fun to repair those vMEME systems and expectations damaged so long ago. Even so, my mother’s words ring readily in my internal ears that women don’t enjoy sex. At times, despite the very obvious evidence to the contrary wrapped around me, I still struggle sometimes to believe that Caroline likes the physical side of our relationship. Obviously, there’s more to it than either Freud or Bowlby thought in their respective times. But, in my experience, they were certainly right in their concept that childhood experiences can influence right throughout adult life.
A 2nd Tier Thinker…?
Graves (1970), like Abraham Maslow, whom he much admired and whose Hierarchy of Needs (1943) he initially tried to map his research findings to, drew a distinction between the being levels of 2nd Tier thinking and the subsistence or deficiency levels of 1st Tier thinking. Many who advocate SDi state that, to really understand SDi you have to be able to perceive the world through a 2nd Tier lens. In which case, since I have a reasonable appreciation of Graves/SDi, when did I first start thinking in 2nd Tier? Undoubtedly I experienced a major release of YELLOW thinking, self-actualisation in Maslow’s model, as a result of the Beck & Cowan workshops in March-April 1998. At first I reasoned I had experienced a ‘Quantum Leap’ as Beck & Cowan termed it when someone experienced the emergence of 2 or 3 levels more or less simultaneously. (While Beck has always held this can be simultaneously, Cowan later told me he thought it was more a case of sequential emergence in rapid succession.) However, as I’ve reflected on my own life over the years, I’ve come increasingly to the conclusion that I had already accessed YELLOW thinking much earlier in my life, albeit briefly, and then largely succumbed to the demands of my 1st Tier vMEMES under the pressures of daily living. What the Beck & Cowan workshops did for me was to enable me to understand this way of thinking and thus legitimise it for me.
To refer to zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, my teenage years coincided with that great outpouring of artistic, musical and life expression from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s: the hippie era. In SDi terms, it was very much GREEN at a cultural level releasing RED by undermining BLUE. In the name of fulfilling self, the rules and restrictions of society were ignored, effectively allowing huge amounts of self-indulgence. The expectation that sex took place within the confines of a loving and committed, married and heterosexual relationship was rejected. The new standard that you should be able to fulfil yourself with whomever and in whatever way led, more or less directly, to the so-called era of ‘free love’.
Undoubtedly the late 60s was a remarkable time of experimentation in, eventually, just about every area of human life in the Western world. Much of the music, film and art of the time remain unsurpassed for its adventurous eclecticism. However, there were consequences. Fifty years later, well over a third of marriages in the Western world end in divorce, we have large numbers of single parent families with an explosion of attachment disorders amongst children and teenagers, not to mention drug epidemics, HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases and very high rates of unwanted teenage pregnancies.
Our house was a microcosm of the cultural conflicts of the time: my RED/GREEN harmonic kicking against the BLUE rules and regulations of my father. I was very attracted to the hippie culture, drawn in initially by the music of the American West Coast, from The Mamas & The Papas to Quicksilver Messenger Service and especially Jefferson Airplane who were one of the more literate and articulate exponents of hippie ideals. Peace and anti-war, anti-establishment, sex without marriage, don’t trust anyone over 30 – I took it all in. How I loved singing the Airplane’s infamous “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” chant while strolling past the headteacher’s open door!
But however much I embraced the GREEN memes put out by the Airplane and their peers, many of the underpinning expectations in life were still oriented from BLUE, internalised undoubtedly from my father’s quest for and insistence upon order. Thus, it was a profound shock at university when one of my tutors, whom I only remember as ‘Ken’, laughed at me when I responded to a criticism of my work by saying, “But it says in the book….” The realisation over the next few months that, just because it was in print, didn’t necessarily mean it was valid was truly disturbing and eventually led me to doubt many of the trusted givens on which I based my life. Though it would take Beck & Cowan to legitimise and stabilise YELLOW thinking for me, I think Ken’s undermining of my 1st Tier certainties nudged me into tolerating and then accepting ambiguity and uncertainty.
Today, thanks to SDi, it makes perfect sense that people have different views, that the same person may have different views on the same issue according to the context and the stimulus they are presented with. That one news channel will present a different take on what is supposedly ‘hard fact news’ than another and one newspaper will present a completely logical justification for voting one way while another paper will present an equally-coherent case for voting the other way. There may, after all, be only one reality, despite what the mystics say and the science fiction enthusiasts dream of. But, if there is, then there are a multitude of perspectives on that reality. How someone perceives an issue will depend on which vMEME or vMEME harmonic is dominating in what Susan Blackmore (1999) calls the selfplex, one’s sense of self, and what schemas one has internalised from the memes they have been exposed to. Further, that internalisation process itself is influenced strongly by the vMEMES dominating in the selfplex.
I often hear talk amongst SDi aficionados about how wonderful, revealing, meaningful and exhilarating it is living life through a 2nd Tier lens. It is almost as though they have reached some form of enlightenment in which they now locate themselves, especially if they believe they have accessed TURQUOISE thinking. When I first encountered SDi, I thought YELLOW thinking sounded really interesting, But TURQUOISE somehow revolted me. It sounded like it was the way tree-huggers and all those precious environmentalists and do-gooders thought. Interestingly Chris Cowan later told me that he certainly didn’t understand TURQUOISE at the time of the ‘Spiral Dynamics’ book (1996), and that he and Beck modelled what they thought TURQUOISE might be as a hypothesised 2nd Tier combination of PURPLE and GREEN without really understanding what they were doing. Personally I’m not at all sure I understand TURQUOISE. It doesn’t revolt me at all these days. It just seems beyond my comprehension other than as a set of words I vaguely aspire to because my BLUE tells me that’s the direction I should be going in.
I have no doubt I self-actualise into YELLOW thinking at times. But I spend most of my time slumming it in the mud of RED and BLUE. I’m terribly self-indulgent. I like sex, drinking and shoot-em-up movies and I hate the shame of admitting I’m wrong. I have strong BLUE expectations of how things should be and easily become disturbed and/or offended if my expectations are disappointed.
As discussed earlier, with my wife’s help, I’m working on repairing my PURPLE. My ORANGE is seriously deficient. I bumble through life without strategies or even focussed objectives beyond a desire to have my work in Integrated SocioPsychology becoming influential in the development of the behavioural sciences. My GREEN likewise is deficient. I really have to work at caring what happens to the planet, it certainly doesn’t come naturally, and I am quite accepting of social inequalities. From what I would argue is a YELLOW perspective, I see the growing divide between the very small numbers of the very rich and the growing and very large numbers of the very poor as becoming unsustainable systemically. But that’s not a GREEN perspective. Strangely, though, as a teacher I abhor the message that implies that lower ability students are lacking. So my GREEN must be functioning to some extent.