In 1994, the song Circle of Life was made popular through Disney's animated film The Lion King. Written by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice, it speaks of the “circle of life” that moves us all through despair, hope, faith and love, until we find our place on the unwinding path in the circle of life. While the circle of life is an important idea highlighted through the title, an even more fundamental concept is buried within the lyrics of the song through the subtle mention of the unwinding path.
Metaphor for the great journey we call life, the unwinding path is a spiral. The spiral has been used by humankind as a metaphor for centuries. In Spirals: The Pattern of Existence, Geoff Ward writes that the number seven has an important place in our human history and it is related to the spiral form. There are seven colours in the rainbow, and seven notes on the Western musical scale. There are seven deadly sins, seven days in a week, and seven levels of consciousness in the Kabbalah. The number seven even held magical properties among tribes from all around the world. A seven-fold spiral was found carved in Siberia on an old mammoth ivory that is estimated to be 23,000 years old. The Hopi Indians perceived the number seven to be the symbol for Mother Earth, and the Druids were well connected to the seven stars of Ursa Major.
Some say the number seven, and therefore the spiral form, is a symbol of the evolutionary process. Others argue that it represents the dynamism of our reality and the universe itself, and that spirals radiate out and draw in energy forever.
We see spirals both hidden and manifest in nature all the time. For example, the shell of a snail is in the form of a spiral and our DNA takes the shape of a spiral. We also see specific numbers in nature all the time which, when formed a certain way, create a spiral. These numbers together are called the Fibonacci Sequence and the sequence is this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 21, 34...
You get the Fibonacci Sequence when you add 0 with 1 and put the answer as the next number in the sequence. For example, 0 + 1 = 1 so the sequence starts as 0, 1, 1. Then you add 1 plus 1 and the answer is 2 so the sequence becomes 0, 1, 1, 2 and so on. The next number in the sequence would be 3 because 1 plus 2 equals 3 and the next number in the sequence above would be 55 because 21 + 34 = 55.
The Fibonacci sequence is prevalent in nature so it's often called "Nature's Code." The easiest place to find Fibonacci numbers is in plants. No matter what kind of flower you look at, it will likely have 3, 5, 8, or 13 etc. petals. We see the same numbers in the branching of trees, the rows of seeds in sunflowers, and even in the arrangement of pine cones, artichokes and pineapples. When you draw squares using the Fibonacci numbers (2 x 2, 3 x 3, 5 x 5, for example), the squares fit neatly together. If you connect the corners of each square by drawing a line that connects them all you also get a spiral.
Because the spiral connects to so many basic things, some say it is the most basic pattern of existence. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher and Jesuit priest, abandoned traditional interpretations of the creation myth from the Book of Genesis and believed instead that the universe was evolving toward a point containing a maximum level of complexity and consciousness. In his book The Phenomenon of Man, de Chardin gave an account of the "unfolding of the cosmos" and he described the universe as a "living host."
In a conversation during weekly walks to Central Park with American author and philosopher Jean Houston, who was a young girl at the time, de Chardin said that toward the end of the century (he was referring to the end of the twentieth century), the people of the time would need to take “the tiller of the world.” He also said that we would not be able to go directly, that we would “have to go in spirals, touching upon every person, every culture, every kind of consciousness,” in order to awaken and rebuild the earth.
De Chardin talked about the lure of becoming. He told Houston that humans are part of an evolutionary process in which we are being drawn toward an “Omega point,” a point that is “full of evolution,” from which physical and spiritual energy always flows, “empowering us as well as leading us forward through love and illumination.”
A more modern interpretation of this can be found in the book A Theory of Everything, written by philosopher and integral theorist Ken Wilber. In his book, Wilber writes that the physical universe has an intrinsic tendency to create order and we see this displayed when the water “chaotically washing down the drain in your bathroom sink suddenly organizes itself into a beautiful swirling whirlpool.” Wilber calls the swirling whirlpool "the amazing spiral” and he says the idea that the physical universe has this basic intrinsic tendency gives us a revolutionary new understanding of order. This new understanding can be found in chaos and complexity theories along with a new branch of psychology called evolutionary psychology. These emerging fields offer a new understanding of evolution, and they give new, intriguing and powerful explanations of human behaviour.
Evolutionary psychology, which is also called developmental psychology, is the study of the growth and development of the mind. It's the study of the interior development of humans. Most developmental psychologists agree that the internal development of humans is not linear or fixed but our growth and development happens as a series of unfolding stages or waves.
Spiral Dynamics, a highly regarded approach to human development, describes humans as proceeding through eight general stages called memes. Wilber writes that memes are not rigid levels but are “flowing waves or dynamic spirals of consciousness unfolding.” As our awareness develops it unfolds in waves, stages or spirals rather than in linear, fixed or rigid ways. Wilber says this spiral theory is backed with substantial research.
The eight memes or stages from Spiral Dynamics are below with a brief description of each wave along with the percentage of the world population Wilber believes is at each wave at any given time, and the percentage of social power that is held by each wave. (The memes are based on the work of Clare Graves and were developed and refined by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan.)
Beige: Archaic-Instinctual - Basic survival (food, water, warmth, sex, and safety) takes priority; use habits and instincts to survive; form into survival bands to preserve life; seen in first human societies, newborn infants, elderly who are senile, late-stage Alzheimer’s patients, people who are mentally ill and living on the street, in the starving masses; approximately 0.1 percent of the current adult population is at this meme with 0 percent of the power.
Purple: Magical-Animistic - thinking is animistic; belief in magical spirits both good and bad that swarm the earth and leave blessings, curses, and spells which determine events; form into ethnic tribes; believe spirits exist in ancestors and these bond the tribe; kinship and lineage form political links; seen in cultures that believe in voodoo, blood oaths, ancient grudges, good-luck charms, family and corporate “tribes;” approximately 0 percent of the current adult population is at this meme with 1 percent of the power.
Red: Power Gods - first emergence of a self distinct from the tribe; self is powerful, impulsive, egocentric, heroic; belief in magical-mythic spirits, dragons, beasts, and powerful people; belief in archetypal gods and goddesses who are powerful beings both good and bad; establishment of feudal empires where some enjoy themselves to the fullest without regret or remorse; seen in the “terrible twos,” rebellious youth, frontier mentalities, feudal kingdoms, epic heroes, James Bond villains, gang leaders, soldiers of fortune, wild rock stars, Attila the Hun, Lord of the Flies; approximately 20 percent of the current human population is at this meme with 5 percent of the power.
Blue: Mythic Order - believe our life has meaning, direction, and purpose; believe our purpose is determined by an all-powerful Other or Order that enforces a code of conduct based on unwavering absolutes of “right” and “wrong;” basis of ancient nations where social hierarchies are rigid and paternalistic, where there is only one right way and only one way to think about everything; basis of law and order where impulsivity is controlled through guilt and/or fundamentalist belief; can be seen in Puritan America, Confucian China, Dickensian England, totalitarianism, codes of chivalry and honor, charitable good deeds, religious fundamentalism like Christianity and Islam, Boy and Girl Scouts, patriotism; approximately 40 percent of the current adult population is at this meme with 30 percent of the power.
Orange: Scientific Achievement - the self “escapes” from the “herd mentality” and seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms; we are experimental, objective, mechanistic and operational; we view the world as a rational and well-oiled machine with natural laws that can be learned, mastered, and manipulated for one’s own purposes; ethic of high achievement especially in North America where we strive for materialistic gains; laws of science rule politics, the economy, and human events; the world is viewed as a chessboard on which games are played and where there are clear winners who gain preeminence and perks over losers; marketplace alliances and manipulation of the earth’s resources for our own gains; basis of corporate states; can be see during the Enlightenment, on Wall Street, in emerging middle classes around the world, in the cosmetics industry, through trophy hunting, colonialism, the Cold War, and the fashion industry; approximately 30 percent of the current adult population is at this meme with 50 percent of the power.
Green: The Sensitive Self - we are ecologically sensitive, communitarian, and we nurture human bonding; we believe the human spirit must be freed from greed, dogma, and divisiveness; we believe feeling is more important the being rational, we cherish the earth, and all life; emphasize dialogue and relationships; basis of value communities where people form affiliations based on shared sentiments; strive for new definitions of spirituality and harmony, and we try to enhance human potential; nonlinear in our thinking and we show a greater degree of warmth, sensitivity, and caring, for earth and all its inhabitants; can be seen in deep ecology, postmodernism, Netherland idealism, the Canadian health care system, humanistic psychology, cooperative inquiry, Greenpeace, animal rights, political “correctness,” and human rights issues; approximately one percent of the current human population is at this meme with 15 percent of the power.
The first six levels of the memes, from beige to green, are considered “first-tier thinking” because they are "subsistence" levels based on existence. Then a “revolutionary" shift in consciousness occurs bringing with it the emergence of “second-tier thinking” and the following "levels of being:"
Yellow: Integrative - life is a "kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies, systems, and forms; flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality are given the highest priority; differences can be integrated into interdependent, natural flows; egalitarianism is complemented with natural degrees of excellence where appropriate; knowledge and competency supersede rank, power, status, or group; prevailing world order is because of different levels of reality (memes) and the patterns of movement up and down the dynamic spiral; good governance facilitates the emergence of entities through levels of increasing complexity (nested hierarchies); approximately 1% of the population is at second-tier thinking (both yellow and turquoise) with 5% of the social power.
Turquoise: Holistic - universal holistic system; holons/waves of integrative energies; unites feeling with knowledge; multiple levels interwoven into one conscious system; universal order, but in a living, conscious fashion, and not based on external rules; a "grand unification" is possible, in theory and in actuality; sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality; uses the entire spiral in thinking; sees multiple levels of interaction; detects harmonics, mystical forces, and "the pervasive flow-states" that "permeate" organizations; approximately 1% of the population is at second-tier thinking (both yellow and turquoise) with 5% of the social power.
With one percent of the population operating from the green meme, Wilber writes that “human consciousness is poised for a quantum leap into second-tier thinking,” into the final two memes: yellow and turquoise. This means that, for the first time in our human history, we will have the ability to “vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development, and thus see that each level, each wave is crucially important for the health of the overall Spiral." In addition, we will have the ability to initiate each wave as we need it. For example, in an emergency situation, we will initiate “red power drives,” during chaotic times, we will initiate “blue order,” and in searching for a new job, we will lean on “orange achievement drives.”
Wilber believes the baby boomer generation is poised for this big leap along the developmental spiral toward an integral vision (the yellow and turquoise memes.) He writes that it would be a “great and historic transformation, one that would have a profound effect on society as we know it.” The boomer generation is an “awakening generation” because of its tremendous creativity in technology, ecological sensitivity, political action, lifestyles and even music. As the “cultural creatives” move into the second half of life, this is the time that such a transformation of consciousness can most easily occur. And, Wilber says, this grandiose claim is backed by substantial evidence from social and psychological studies.
Wilber maintains that with second-tier consciousness, we will be completely aware of the interior stages of development, we'll grasp the "big picture” and appreciate the necessary role all the memes play in the spiral. Second-tier thinkers will care about the overall spiral of existence and not just one level of existence. Second-tier thinkers will look for ways to embrace, include and integrate separate systems into “holistic spirals and integral meshworks.”
Think of it this way:
In order for a pond to be healthy, it needs lots of oxygen so it can self-purify and keep all the layers of the pond healthy. The bottom layer of the pond contains water that is cold and dense. It runs out of oxygen first because it's farthest from the surface where the oxygen gets replenished from the air. The pond's condition begins to deteriorate when this bottom layer doesn't have enough oxygen to support animal life. Without oxygen at the bottom of the pond, the small creatures like snails, worms, and bacteria that help to keep the pond clean cannot live. When they die, the pond’s nutrients are recycled from the deposits at the bottom. This creates a layer of mud that serves as a fertilizer for weed and algae growth, an imbalance that causes the fish in the pond to die. Because the pond is an interconnected, mutually supportive whole, in order for the entire pond to be healthy, all the small creatures living at the bottom of the pond need to be healthy, too. Integral thinkers apply this knowledge to every aspect of life.
Wilber writes that every meme makes an invaluable contribution to the health of the overall spiral. But in order for the baby boom generation to move from the green meme to the turquoise one, we'll need to give up our narcissistic ways. He writes that we are so preoccupied with our narcissistic ways that we have failed to grow and evolve as individuals. We are stuck in the green meme, and as a result, we can't move forward.
Wilber believes the leading edge of “consciousness evolution stands today on the brink of an integral millennium – or at least the possibility of an integral millennium – where the sum total of extant human knowledge, wisdom, and technology is available to us. And sooner or later we will have...a Theory of Everything to explain it all...” This theory of everything will stem from string theory which attempts to unite all the known models of physics – gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism – into one cohesive and unified theory. Wilber says this attempt at “wholeness” – at an integral vision – offers “considerably more” than our “slice-and-dice alternatives,” and it elicits us “to be a little more whole, a little less fragmented, in our work, our lives, our destiny.”
Wilber defines the word “integral” in the following way: “to integrate, to bring together, to join, to link, to embrace. Not in the sense of uniformity, and not in the sense of ironing out all the wonderful difference, colors, zigs and zags of a rainbow-hued humanity, but in the sense of unity-in-diversity, shared commonalities along with our wonderful differences. And not just in humanity, but in the Kosmos at large: finding a more comprehensive view – a Theory of Everything (T.O.E.) - that makes legitimate room for art, morals, science, and religion, and doesn't merely attempt to reduce them all to one's favourite slice of the Kosmic pie.” He says it's a view that tries to recognize and include as much research as possible from as many disciplines as possible in a way that brings coherency and new understanding to the way we view ourselves, our lives, our world, and the entire universe.
Wilber concludes: “Human beings are born and begin their evolution through the great spiral of consciousness...This spiral of existence is a great unending flow, stretching from body to mind to soul to spirit, with millions upon millions constantly flowing through that great river from source to ocean. No society will ever simply be at an integral level, because the flow is unceasing...But the major problem remains: not, how can we get everybody to the integral wave or higher, but how can we arrange the health of the overall spiral, as billions of humans continue to pass through it, from one end to the other, year in and year out?”
Most of the work that needs to be done is in making sure the foundational waves of the spiral are healthy. We need to figure out how to feed the billion people who are starving, and how to bring water and quality health care to the millions who don't have either. What second-tier integral awareness can contribute toward these goals is creative and compassionate solutions to our most destructive and pressing problems. Wilber writes: “It is our governing bodies, then, that stand in dire need of a more integral approach. It is our educational institutions...that are desperate for a more integral vision. It is our business practices, saturated with fragmented gains, that cry out for a more balanced approach. It is our health-care facilities that could greatly benefit from the tender mercies of an integral touch. It is the leadership of the nations that might appreciate a more comprehensive vision of their own possibilities. In all these ways and more, we could indeed use an integral vision for a world gone slightly mad.”
From the number seven, Fibonacci's code, and the spiral as metaphor, to the universe's intrinsic tendency to create order and the way humans develop, it appears that it is indeed through the spiral that nature automatically gravitates. From metaphor to reality, like flowers, plants, trees, pine cones and the water in our sink, it appears us humans too automatically gravitate or develop through the spiral.
Perhaps de Chardin was right when he said humans are being drawn toward a point that is full of evolution, from which physical and spiritual energy always flows, empowering us and leading us forward through love and illumination.
Perhaps we can't go directly to that point full of evolution after all.
Perhaps we do have to go in spirals.
And perhaps the spiral does indeed represent the dynamism of our reality and the universe itself.
Debbie L. Kasman
Author, Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul
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