Creating Evolutionary Change

by Charles Faulkner

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Growing up is the most natural thing in the world. Birds do it, bees do, even human beings do it – with a difference. All of us human beings arrive incomplete – even more than the birds or the bees. We haven’t even grown the tops of our heads much less finished what’s inside them. We remain dependent on our parents longer than any other creature in nature. Over weeks, months and years, we grow in size and weight, in muscle coordination and language skills, as well as through distinct levels of mental development.

First documented by Jean Piaget, these stages of physical-cognitive development were famously recognized by changes in how a child understands how the world works. A child of 4 years will tell you a tall glass has more liquid in it than a wide tray. At 10 years of age s/he will see that error and yet not be able to compare certain quantities, and so on. These ideas and their levels have been adopted by or inspired such diverse thinkers as Lawrence Kohlberg, Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, and Ken Wilber to establish their own distinct hierarchies of moral, social and transcendental development – each with their own distinct levels.

These hierarchical models of experience are presented as having a kind of historical inevitability. It’s as if as individuals, and certainly as a species, we are being drawn up to higher levels. It’s like life, or some force greater than life, wants us to succeed at this. Some people go so far to say, “There are not accidents. Everything happens for a purpose.” As if each and everyone of us is in some secret school, participating in some hidden curriculum that is conspiring to make us a better person.

In the process of investigating these ideas and determining if there is any neuro-linguistic evidence for at least some of these different levels, I discovered there is, and that people seldom remain in only one. With an alert adult, I first heard the familiar language of abstract thinking, while a tired teenager expressed cognitive awarenesses ranging from a 4 year old to 14 year old in a matter of minutes.

Once I could model these patterns, adults were not that much different from their teenagers, except that they had stabilized around a given level, and not always the one corresponding to their physical age. There often seemed to be a kind of arrested development. When various therapeutic techniques were applied, more flexibility could be achieved on that level, but seldom did it create the conditions to move to the next. If there is a hidden curriculum, some people are repeating the same grade over and over again.

During this time, I was also studying the language patterns of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. I was particular interested in how his systematic use of language paralleled the structure of his therapeutic interventions. I was reading his story about the young fellow who was sleeping in a ditch, who, under Erickson’s instructions became a gardener, learned personal hygiene, took dance lessons, went to school, dated, and became a happily married member of his community. I realized that what he called Character Revision was in fact developing and moving up emergent levels of consciousness. Yes, the young man’s behavior changed, and more importantly, his consciousness changed.

In a real sense, his change parallels the change we expect of teenagers – a change from doing things (or not doing things) because there are possible punishments to doing (or not doing) those same things because they want to do them. It’s about creating the conditions of wanting to want. It is multi-level in its structure. It is more than sorting out inner voices, or stepping in or out of states. It is about how successive levels of experience relate to each other to create a certain sense of self.

By way of example, think of an important personal goal (or outcome). As you think of it, how do you represent it? Is it over there somewhere? Or in a stream of connected images? How do you know you want it? Feelings are often a gauge for the importance of our experiences. Now, is it the feeling you want, or the capability, or both? How do you know that achieving them will change your life as much as one in your previous experience has? With this knowing, how do you approach the next moment of your life?

This example has several different levels. It is obvious that someone seeking a feeling is functioning on a more experiential level than someone seeking a capability. Someone seeking both is operating on at least two levels. Knowing the likely effects of this is another level. The knowing on this third level has to do with time. The difference between the first level of feelings and the third level sense of time is the difference between that future outcome as a state and that future outcome as a place. As a state, those feelings are desirable. If they can be obtained by other means, why wait.

This is the young teenager, the arrested adult (pun intended), and certain people under stressful conditions. If the capability is what is sought, another level of consciousness comes into play. Attention is given to orderly acquisition, measures of progress and the like. And yet, without a robust level of knowing the difference this will make in the quality of your future life – the third level in this case – this will probably need to be imposed from the outside as it is with young teenagers.

An example of the effects of the future as a place in the time of one’s life is Orson Wells. He tells the story of his youthful encounter with cocaine. It produces in him the best feelings he has ever had. He is about to dedicate his life to the drug – he wouldn’t have been the first or the last – when he remembers it is his destiny to be the greatest actor of his generation. He stops taking it and never touches the stuff again. The content of his belief was obviously important and it had the impact that it had because he experienced his future as real – something that affected his present.

Those familiar with Orson Wells will know this belief deeply affected his career as an actor and film-maker, but had no influence over his eating or drinking, which were considerable.  This is a profound example of how beliefs can be compartmentalized, and limited from affecting other levels and kinds of experience,  which is an example of an incomplete growing up.

The idea(l) of growing up is that teenagers (and adults) will “catch on” to these higher levels of self regulation and choose to use them to create more satisfying and at least somewhat socially integrated lives. If only this were the case. What is becoming more and more evident is that the educational systems most children and adults move through today have no idea that this needs to be done much less how to do it.

Meanwhile, many of the private enterprises around us are actively against it as it would impede their commerce. It simply isn’t in their interests for us to reflect on our needs and purchase prudently, to put off to tomorrow what we can buy on credit today. The sales of products and services are good for our economy. The borrowing is good for the banks. Commercial advertisements of all kinds are produced to stimulate demand by appealing to some of our more basic levels of experience – safety, security, acceptance, sex, belonging, and beating out the other guy/gal for these and the other goodies.

The point is that growing up has become more a matter of size than consciousness, more a matter of age than awareness, more a matter of spending than engaging. Perhaps it has always or mostly been this way, whatever; the hidden curriculum has been sidetracked.

In some ideal stream of life, we would all make our way successful through Erik Erikson’s cycle of life…and perhaps beyond. We seem to be designed for it…and then actual experience intervenes.

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.
In practice, there is.”

Charles Faulkner