Notes From the Field: Spiral Dynamics Bootcamp: A Learning Adventure with Rafael Nasser

The First Exercise

Lesley StollerYou are either a howler, or a growler.

Put differently, in the course of satisfying your primal survival needs—getting food and shelter or fighting off predators—you might either howl or growl.

Put even differently, during the BEIGE stage of human emergence, when only the earliest manifestations of human consciousness and fundamental tools of language are available, your means of expression are limited to primal utterances—such as howling or growling.

On Saturday, September 13, 2008, thirty people in Manhattan had the opportunity to experience and enact this BEIGE stage of development, as well as the seven subsequent stages described in Don Beck’s influential developmental system known as Spiral Dynamics. The daylong workshop, titled Spiral Dynamics Bootcamp, was brilliantly designed, and skillfully facilitated, by Rafael Nasser.

Nasser had set himself a huge task. He aspired to teach the theory, give the participants an experiential taste of the system, show the practical real world applications—as well as treat everybody to an enjoyable, intellectually manageable day. Against the odds, he succeeded.

In the spirit of fun, and self-exploration, during this first exercise I soon discovered that I am a fairly good howler—but, as it turned out, not the alpha. She was awesome (in the original sense, as well as the current usage of the word) and I would certainly never mess with her.

Each of the exercises was designed to activate one of the stages and by the end of the day we all got an unforgettable 1st person tour of the entire Spiral. The presentation successfully unpacked complex themes and nuances of the theory that are generally hard to convey in an introductory class.

Overview

The eight engaging experiential exercises were coherently framed with illuminating narrative. In surprisingly accessible, conversational style, Nasser glided from the personal to the historical to the philosophical and back again, bringing the workshop participants on a guided tour of Human Emergence which stretched across eons of chronological time—critically intersecting with relevant and poignant elements of his own life story.

The narrative itself was visually supported by an ongoing PowerPoint presentation, which emphasized key phrases, terms, and details—and included related images of fine art, photographs, cartoons, and esoteric religious renderings. The powerful juxtaposition of word and image served well to stimulate the full person: masculine/feminine, transcendent/immanent, left brain/right brain, digital/analog—however you prefer to understand it.

Nasser began the workshop by recounting a crucial moment in his life in November of 2004, when he followed an unexpected internal calling to travel to the Middle East. He revealed that he had no idea why he needed to go—but felt a strong and clear yearning to do so. Later, close to the conclusion of the workshop, when discussing the seventh stage in Spiral Dynamics, Nasser explained that the integrative YELLOW stage is characterized by tolerance for chaos and a willingness to take a leap of faith.

He then asserted that his initial trip to Israel had been such a leap, one that eventually led him to bring Don Beck and Spiral Dynamics to the Middle East—a vision that has already showed great promise toward addressing the catastrophic conflict entrenched in that troubled region. By bookending the day’s events in this way, between the personal and the political, Nasser drew a palpable connection between theory and practice. This devious design strategy lent an overarching aesthetic to the workshop—a largest Holon, transcending and including all its parts.

Theory

During the course of the one day workshop, Nasser somehow managed to squeeze in a full semester of history and theory of Spiral Dynamics. We learned Spiral Dynamics is a conceptual framework that maps out an eight-stage nested hierarchy of human development. The system was conceived and refined by Don Beck and Chris Cowan—based upon the important original developmental research of Professor Clare Graves of Union College in New York.

Dr. Graves described his vision of human emergence in the following way. “The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower order behavior systems to newer, higher order systems as man’s existential problems change.”

Beck popularized Graves’ system, giving it a user-friendly look and feel that would give the powerful ideas appeal beyond academia. He renamed the system Spiral Dynamics. Nasser explained that Spiral Dynamics is a unique system of human emergence because it possesses a double helix structure that tracks the interrelationship between Life Conditions and Values Systems.

The eight stages of the spiral of Human Emergence that have emerged historically are represented by colors each of which represents a core value. They include: BEIGE (survival), PURPLE (safety), RED (power), BLUE (order), ORANGE (innovation), GREEN (understanding), YELLOW (integration), and TURQUOISE (wholeness). Each of these colors represents a corresponding set of Life Conditions and the Value System best suited to address the issues that arise in that context. Each of these emerged in a historical context that Nasser highlighted for us. He explained the historical contexts that led to the emergence of each Spiral Dynamics color, and then he led the participants through exercises that activated those systems. As a result of these exercises, the theory was felt as an embodied reality.

RED
The third stage in Spiral Dynamics is RED for which the core value is power. The RED in us wants power—we want to be worshiped, obeyed and respected. Nasser used Mohammed Ali as an exemplar of the red stage.

But let me tell you, it is not Mr. Ali who is the greatest: it is I. Well, I tried. For our second exercise, in order to feel the RED at a gut level, participants were instructed to compose and perform a speech that would demonstrate their superiority over the other participants. In other words, Nasser staged a competition to find the biggest ego in the room. In this way, we each had the opportunity to locate and express all kinds of inner RED: unbridled narcissistic self-love, desire for power—the belief that we are the greatest!

It wasn’t even close. One of the participants (who happens to be a successful newscaster and writer) easily mesmerized the group into idolatry, moving as she spoke so freely yet deliberately, working the room with confidence, savvy and ease. Yes, I would join her team any day. Working this exercise was fun and entertaining, but it was equally enlightening as we each got the opportunity to gauge how RED we are.

The Middle East

The Spiral is a different sort of map than a mere geographical layout of the world—or of, say, the Middle East. A geographical (horizontal) map shows us continents, oceans, countries, etc. It does not tell us anything about Psychology, Culture, Values, The Soul, and Human Emergence. The Spiral (a vertical map) was conceived to describe these more rarefied metaphysical phenomena. Accordingly, when introducing this idea, Nasser displayed a very Daliesque slide, with the accompanying text, “Vertical Maps make the invisible visible.”

Gregory Bateson liked to say that two descriptions are better than one. Though a fairly obvious observation, Bateson’s meaning was profound. By viewing a phenomenon in two ways and comparing them, he explained, a new, deeper perspective emerges which previously was not seeable. And so a question emerges, “What new perspective might be seen if we were to juxtapose a horizontal map upon a vertical map?”

Nasser showed us how Beck maps the Middle East conflict on the Spiral. He described how Life Conditions in Israel differed from the Life Conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza (different Life Conditions exist in each locale) and explained Beck’s strategy to enable an evolutionary shift in the region.

Nasser’s conclusion was electrifying and enlightening. He said, “Seen through the prism of an Integral map like Spiral Dynamics, you realize that the Middle East Conflict is not a clash between Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Arabs, Palestinians and Palestinians, Islam and Christianity, East and West, or a Clash of Civilizations. The Middle East conflict is a struggle being waged between colors, not race or religion. This is a battle being waged on the field of Human Emergence.”

Nasser define Human Emergence as “the historical sweep of any human adaptation that can’t be accounted for by biological evolution.” While biological evolution is DNA driven and unfolds instinctively, Human Emergence is driven by collective learning and unfolds consciously. Nasser asserts that such a dynamic map upon which Human Emergence can be understood and tracked, and upon which the stage-related requirements of communities can be contextualized, would be a “useful evolutionary navigational tool.”

Indeed, toward that sublime end Don Beck has created The Center for Human Emergence, and describes it as follows: “The Center for Human Emergence will help facilitate the conscious emergence of the human species using a synthesis of profound breakthroughs in human knowledge and capabilities, encompassing natural pattern coherence, mega-integration, unification, expanded whole mind capacity, deep intelligence and consciousness.”

Nafiz Rifae

The critical question is, “Can it work?” Can Graves’s original insights, and Beck and Cowen’s subsequent refinements, be of any service to current situations in real life? There seems to be some strong evidence toward the affirmative. During Beck’s fifth trip to Palestine, the Fatah leader Nafiz Rifae made the following statements at Fatah 21, on February 2nd, 2008:

After a lengthy search for answers, we met Dr. Don Beck, the author of the Spiral Dynamics theory.Don Beck opened new windows in our minds. He asked, “What is our role?” We cannot keep complaining about our leadership. We have to start doing things ourselves. We have to start shaping our future…

Dr. Beck asked us a question, “The world will give you $7 billion. What are you going to do with it? Where are the jobs? Where is the cement factory? Do we have the ability to do this?”

Our image around the world is shattered. They say, “If he’s a Palestinian then he must be a terrorist ready to blow himself up.’ We must get rid of that image. It must be that they say, ‘He’s Palestinian so he must be well educated in every profession possible, psychology, social science, computer engineering and medicine. This Palestinian will participate in world emergence, dreams of freedom and is ready to lead. Please don’t speak of the past, because all of us must leave the past behind. We want to talk about our vision of the future. How are we going to shape our future?”

How exciting it is to see theory in action. Beck’s synthesis of profound breakthroughs has come down to earth in a manner that has the capacity to greatly reduce human suffering, and nurture healthy cultural development. Bravo, Dr. Beck, and a deep bow to Rafael Nasser, whose leap of faith helped this to become a possibility.

Teaching Challenges

There are at least two reasons why the Spiral Dynamics system can be difficult to teach. First, the theory itself (from Graves to Beck) is complex, and is easily made dry and academic, sapping the life out of an intrinsically dynamic set of concepts. Second, whenever we try to teach or describe theories of stage development, or growth hierarchies—we must tread carefully. Using descriptors such as high and low for a nested series of stages runs the risk of triggering negative responses in those students who maintain a pluralistic perspective (populous in Manhattan).

(In my own thinking, lately, I justify the metaphorical use of the terms higher and lower by envisioning a mountain situated on an expanse of flatland. As we climb higher and higher up the mountain, we can see more and more of the surrounding area. And so using this image, truly, the higher we go—the more we see. And when we reach the top, we see the most—including the mountain itself!)

But at Spiral Dynamics Bootcamp, it was crystal clear that there is nothing elitist about the developmental structure of Beck’s system. When initially introducing the overview of the eight evolutionary thresholds comprising the spiral, Nasser displayed a stunning slide of an elegant woman—with scissors. She had apparently just cut off her own head, which was on the floor at her feet. This disturbing image indicated the dangers of cutting off those parts of ourselves (or of our world culture) that express earlier developmental stages of growth. Nasser’s text, accompanying the slide, read as follows: “The colors represent types in people, NOT types of people.”

He further supported this important lesson with another slide depicting a bored, snobbish looking fellow, wearing a top hat and a monocle. The text read, “Higher does not mean better; lower does not mean worse. The spiral does not make judgments, people do.” The cautionary ideas expressed in these slides went far to quell squeamish pluralism, and challenge misguided elitism, on the part of new learners.

GREEN
Perhaps the Spiral stage that most of the participants intellectually related to best was GREEN (the core value for which is understanding). Peace loving, pluralistic, politically correct, baby-boomers have a lot of GREEN. For our GREEN exercise, Mr. Nasser told us we are conceptual artists designing a new installation at a major museum on the theme of Global Warming. We broke into groups and, through cooperative communication and shared creativity each group came up with an idea for the installation.

In this exercise, there was no winner (GREEN is not competitive). Each idea, in its own way, tried to show the causal connection between human action and environmental consequences—and then, of course, how it comes back around again, such that the environmental consequences gravely affect human capacity for life. This ecological paradigm echoes an important thread in Spiral Dynamics theory.

Personal and Collective

Beck’s system, based upon Graves’ insights, stresses the important connection between life conditions and value systems. It is this relationship that illuminates the truth in the truism, “The political is personal, and the personal is political.” And it is this quality in Beck’s emphasis that distinguishes the primary direction of his mission from that of Ken Wilber. As Nasser points out in a recent posting on the Integral New York City Salon (iNYCs) online discussion pages, “For me, Ken and Don’s work complement each other. Theoretical differences aside, Ken’s expertise is personal transformation, in particular spiritual transformation, and Don’s expertise is the transformation of collectives. The transmissions of these two great masters of transformation focus on different Quadrants. Ken is a master of upper quadrants and Don is a master of lower quadrants. From Ken I learned how to consciousize and unfold my own identity and to realize a more complete sense of Being, and from Don I learned how to support groups in the process of collective emergence.”

Encore!

Spiral Dynamics Boot Camp was far more comprehensive, articulate, and entertaining than this review can convey. Nasser’s erudition, and devotion to the work, was uplifting as well as impressive. I have been to quite a few workshops over the last decade, and the care and intelligence behind this deep and seamless presentation was unique and apparent. As I heard someone say at the end of the day, “He should take this out on the road!” He should; and if he does, I wouldn’t miss it.

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Lesley Stoller, born and bred in the NYC area, is a songwriter and musician who teaches Music to children, at Queens Children’s Psychiatric Center. His current projects include performing and recording original songs with his band, Stoller Bros Live, and trying to produce his full-length musical, The Talking Cure. Mr. Stoller is an active participant in the NYC Integral Community.