Stages of Consciousness
Updated: May 10, 2022
The Stages of Consciousness is a framework that helps us to understand how we as humans, groups, and societies develop and expand our consciousness, which is our way of understanding the world and how we relate to it.
The framework moves from “ME” (only I matter) to “WE” (my group matters) to “EVERYBODY” (the whole world matters).
Before we describe the stages, keep in mind that we are all continuing to move up and down the stages. Also, each stage has healthy and unhealthy aspects. As we develop, it is recommended to “transcend (go beyond) and include” each stage. This means that, even as we move to the next stage, we should also include and appreciate the importance of what previous stages have offered us in our development.
Note: Red words have explanations below.
This stage is all about basic survival. Hunt, build fires, find shelter, and use violence to protect yourself from outside threats. Stay safe. Don’t die.
This stage is important for any human in history. Without this stage, our ancestors would have gone extinct, and we wouldn’t be alive today. However, if we stay at this stage, then life will be a constant fight that is void (lacking) of peaceful community.
At the purple stage people unite together in tribes who try to please the gods or spirits that provide sunshine and rain for the harvest, food to eat, and protection from enemies and disasters. Building altars or temples on mountains was a way to get closer to the gods in the sky who sent the rain and made the sun shine. Each tribe creates stories and legends about where they came from, what is taboo (socially unacceptable) or tolerated, and how to keep the gods happy through superstitious rituals.
Purple can be positive in that it brings people together and it creates a sense of being protected by a supernatural (spiritual) power. But it can be unhealthy if they only care about their own small group and only rely on the gods to protect them instead of taking initiative to improve their life. It can lead to a fatalistic way of living.
At this stage, people follow one strong leader who has a big ego, loves power, and does everything impulsively (without restraint) in order to dominate. During wartime or instability, red leaders are often able to take quick, decisive action, which helps their followers feel safe and secure because of the leader’s confidence and strength. Ultimately, the red stage focuses on the strength and persuasiveness of the leader instead of the voice and empowerment of the people who follow.
Red leaders are often violent dictators, warriors, or leaders who want to win no matter what the cost. Acting red can be useful when drastic change is essential or in helping a group take action instead of passively relying on the gods for everything. But generally, strong, prolonged (extended period) red leadership is not good for the group in the long run (long-term) because the leader controls the people instead of helping them develop.
At the blue stage, a group shares the same belief system and tradition and is expected to be loyal. The group members feel a sense of belonging, safety, and common purpose, usually based on laws, rules, or a sacred (holy, religious) text that explains the moral code of conduct and mythical story of where “our” group came from and where “we” are headed.
Leadership at blue is strong, but instead of just one leader, there is a system of hierarchical leadership. You can see this in a lot of established religious groups, traditional companies, and imperial systems. Belonging is very important at this stage and people care about others’ opinions of them. If people don’t follow the rules or believe the right thing, the group might kick them out, punish, or ostracize (exclude, reject) them in some way.
When healthy, the blue stage gives necessary structure and morality to facilitate a sense of belonging, security, loyalty, and ethical behavior. On the other hand, when unhealthy, this stage forces everyone to conform (follow, comply) to the rules no matter what, submit to the hierarchy of authority without question, and sees “our” group as right and superior to all other groups, which can give rise to extreme intolerance, exclusion, racism, or even violence.
The orange stage moves the structured group of the blue stage into a more pragmatic (practical), productive, logical way of functioning. Essentially, it utilizes science, data, and technology to create more machine-like progress, efficiency, growth, and material gain. It moves from the sacred to the secular (non-spiritual, science-based), where people no longer rely on the “gods” or tradition but, instead, rely on their own logic and scientific discovery in order to take control of the world and improve their future. Democracy and capitalism are birthed (created) at this stage.
Obviously, the orange stage has helped humanity immensely (a lot) by saving lives, creating reliable systems, and making the world more comfortable and safe. On the down side (negative side), however, this stage is susceptible to (prone to, vulnerable toward) focusing too much on efficiency, material gain, and economic growth. This can potentially lead toward unsustainable growth, environmental collapse, and gross (extreme) inequality, or unprecedented (new, groundbreaking) weapons of mass destruction.
Green is the sensitive, empathetic stage. It values every diverse perspective and wants to accommodate everyone with respect and empathy. It focuses on our shared community and interconnectedness. This makes its leadership very flat (non-hierarchical) and focuses on equality and mutual consensus in decision-making. It even returns to a sense of spirituality – not that of traditional religion, but in the sense that we are connected to something much bigger than ourselves.
The great thing about green is that people with less power or influence are treated with equality and respect – not to mention, even the natural environment receives consideration and care. On the flip side (opposite side, other hand), decisions may take a long time and truth can become relative to the point where nobody is allowed to criticize other perspectives that they think are wrong because it may offend someone. Truth is hard to define and “fake news,” harmful beliefs and behavior, or cancel culture become overly acceptable.
The yellow stage is where an important shift happens. Here, there is a fresh recognition that every single stage is good and necessary for human development at its appropriate time. It transcends each stage but also includes each stage. It embraces all people as they are and appreciates the healthy part of each stage, but also moves beyond the limiting or unhealthy aspects of each stage.
At this stage, people believe that individuals, organizations, and societies need various aspects of each stage to function as a whole and that the only way to flourish (grow, thrive) in society is to accept other people at the stage they are at. In fact, they can even see each stage within themselves as they work to integrate all people at all stages in a healthy way.
There are stages beyond yellow, but they are increasingly complex and nuanced, so we won’t discuss them in this article.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that everyone must go through every stage and that we all return to previous stages in certain situations that require it.
Also, we all have a center of gravity (a main tendency toward a certain stage) where we feel most comfortable.
The challenge for us all is to figure out when to move to which stage and how to embrace and foster (nurture, promote) the healthiest possible version of that stage – all while accepting other people as they are.
References: There are various names and explanations for this framework – for example, Spiral Dynamics (meaning continual/evolutionary change/growth) – but in this article, we refer to it as Stages of Consciousness and show each stage by color. Experts who have contributed to this framework include Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Ken Wilber.
Check out this podcast by Rob Bell to go deeper into this topic. His teaching has partially influenced my perspectives regarding the Stages of Conscious as well as other topics.
Explanations for words in red:
Fatalistic – A passive way of thinking where people believe that there is nothing they can do to change their situation, thus relying on fate or god to control their life… “A fatalistic mindset keeps people from improving their life.”
Code of conduct – Written or unwritten rules for how to behave in a group… “If you want to work with us you have to follow our code of conduct at all times.”
Relative – Describes when knowledge, truth, or morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context and are not absolute. This means it is difficult to define something as true… “My wealth is really relative when you consider average global wealth.”
Cancel culture – (Or call-out culture) is a modern form of rejection in which someone is thrown out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both, due to (perceived) bad behavior… “Hollywood canceled Kevin Spacey after his sexual misconduct.”
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