To reference our occasionally used ski-hill rating system (in terms of jargon and accessibility), this is my first black diamond piece. If you're with me on this, let's dive in! - TJ
Ken Wilber advanced the study of individual and cultural evolution by making what he calls the Levels of Development a central tenet of his writings about Integral Philosophy. Don Riso and Russ Hudson advanced the study of the inner lives of human beings by introducing what they also refer to as the Levels of Development, or the Levels of Health, to the Enneagram. Both are invaluable tools for understanding moral and psychological growth. But they're not the same thing. But they do complement each other. In this essay I'll explore the intersection of these two measurement systems, and discuss how we can use them in beneficial ways in our lives.
The Enneagram's Levels of Health
(Feel free to skip this if you know this stuff already)
The Enneagram is, nominally, a personality type system. Nine types. This type is like this. That type is like that. This is my type. What's your type? There's great value in this. As I argue in another piece, it fosters the understanding that others have points of view different from yours, and they're allowed to. Not every situation is best served with your default approach. We do ourselves a great service by learning to recognize and relate to new perspectives.
The Enneagram also offers a much deeper and richer possibility: freedom from our compulsions. We can develop an inner observer and notice our type's characteristic tendencies in our reactions to the world. We can learn from these tendencies. Catch ourselves in the act. There I go again. And again. And whoops, yet again. If we're present to what's arising within us, we'll say this approximately every three minutes, in the estimation of Fr. Richard Rohr (another great teacher on the subject). And if we approach this ongoing process of self-knowledge with compassionate curiosity, we can work at untangling ourselves from the ego's puppet strings.
Each of us will display varying degrees of presence at different times as charted in the Levels of Health. As Riso & Hudson describe it:
The continuum of a person’s consciousness may include states of clarity and transparent Presence, states of mild ego identification, deeper states of reactivity and mechanicality, states of deep self-alienation, suffering, and self-destructiveness — and everything in between. In short, in any given moment, we are more or less present and more or less in contact with Being. The less present we are, the more we become completely identified with our personality and caught in the web of illusions and self-defeating patterns that ultimately make it up.
Riso and Hudson have charted nine gradations of this relationship with Presence. At one end of the spectrum we see a person who's overcome their type's underlying fears and desires. At the other end we see a person completely wrapped up in their type's fixations, asleep, controlled by their ego drives, with this estrangement from presence manifesting in destructive, alienating behaviour. And we see every stage in between. (For more on each type's fears and desires, read The Widsom of the Enneagram). Familiarizing ourselves with these levels can be a great help to cultivating our inner observer. When we say "there I go again," we can situate where "there" is. If it's somewhere we know isn't good for us, we can use this as a reminder to engage in a practice to help bring ourselves back to a place of greater presence. We can wake up from our walking slumber.
Riso & Hudson introduce these Levels in their book Personality Types, and expand on them in The Wisdom of the Enneagram. I took Part One training from the Enneagram Institute (their organization) last year, and the Levels of Health were a major focus. These Levels flesh out the dynamic nature of the Enneagram, and highlight how much variability there is within a single type. Two people who identify as the same type but are at greatly differing Levels of Health might seem to an observer like they have nothing in common.
To choose one type as an example, a person who identifies as a Type Six (the Loyalist, the Devil's Advocate, the Doubter, the True Believer), at the following levels will show the following characteristics:
One - the Level of Liberation: Courageous, grounded, possessing a strong inner guidance, an indefatigable, divine warrior
Two - the Level of Psychological Capacity: Devoted, mindful, trustworthy, alert, steadfast
Three - the Level of Social Value or Social Gift: Committed, decisive, persevering
a community builder
Four - the Level of Imbalance: Seeking and questioning input, worrying, respecting precedents, second-guessing
Five - the Level of Interpersonal Control: Palpably anxious, ambivalent, passive-aggressive, defensive, scrutinizing, pessimistic, a wet blanket
Six - the Level of Overcompensation: Suspicious, highly reactive, self-sabotaging, projecting, argumentative, either you're for me or against me
Seven - the Level of Violation: Panic-stricken, desperate, erratic, unreliable, cowardly/belligerent
Eight - the Level of Delusion & Compulsion: Paranoid, obsessive, feels persecuted, irrational, hysterical
Nine - the Level of Pathological Destructiveness: Self-punishing, self-destructive, tormented, suicidal/homicidal, giving up on oneself, a self-defeating masochist
So imagine two people who identify as Sixes. One's a self-defeating masochist and the other's an indefatigable divine warrior. It might seem a stretch to put these two in the same category. But they actually would have the same inner mechanisms at the core of their perceptions of the world - namely the desire for security and support (for more on this, click here). It's worth mentioning that it's rare to meet someone at either of the far ends of the scale. Most of us spend our time in the average range - levels four to six.
Our level isn't static, either. We might fluctuate even within a single day, depending how much stress we're facing. To identify a level that best describes oneself most of the time is to spot our average, our bandwidth, our "centre of gravity." The world looks familiar from our average Level of Health. We come to identify with it. As is appropriate to the term, our centre of gravity acts as a magnet. If you dip beneath it, it works to pull you back up. If you rise above it, it tries to yank you back down. There's quite a bit of effort involved in raising the level of one's centre of gravity, and we'll get to that. But first...
Ken Wilber's Levels of Development
(and feel free to skip this if you know this stuff already)
There's a similar dynamic range in people standing at disparate ends of Wilber's Levels of Development. It's actually a misnomer to credit Wilber with devising these levels, as he'd be the first to point out. He frequently cites the work of Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, Jane Loevinger, Abraham Maslow, Carol Gilligan and other developmental psychologists for pioneering this work. Wilber has written about these levels extensively, and, as mentioned, made them an essential component of his writings about Integral Philosophy. I know of them through his work, so as shorthand I'll refer to them as Wilber's Levels of Development.
Here's the theory. We're all born at square one in every line of our development (image). We can't speak. We can't walk. We can't put others' needs before our own. We can only see from our very limited perspective. Little by little we learn to walk. And speak. We develop a more sophisticated understanding of how the world works, especially in regards to our own importance in it, in sequential stages. Like this:
Level One - Archaic: Undifferentiated. Pre-verbal. Instinctual, elemental needs.
Level Two - Magic/Egocentric: I control the world. I cover my eyes when we play peekaboo, and you can't see me. I squint at a traffic light and it turns green. I wiggle my fingers when the basketball player on TV is shooting a free throw, and he misses. Lucky numbers. Magic words. The evil eye. I make things happen just by wanting them to. I control the world!
Level Three - Mythic/Membership/Conformist/Ethnocentric: I can't control the world, but an omnipotent deity (or deities) does, and if I please Him, He'll control it for me. So I'll obey His laws, and ask Him for favours. He loves me, and He loves the group I'm part of. And He hates people who aren't in this group. When they die, He sends them to hell, and that's too bad for them. They aren't really people anyway, so who cares about them.
Level Four - Rational: There's no god. There's no physical evidence for anything supernatural anywhere. Present the evidence, and if it's verifiable, I'll believe it. God, or any other silly superbeing, doesn't help me get what I want. Effort does. Practical application gets results. All else should be called out for the superstitious nonsense it is.
Level Five - Postmodern/Worldcentric: There's no god, and that includes the god of reason. Science and rationality don't have a monopoly on truth. They're just one way of looking at the world. Is poetry wrong because it can't be quantified scientifically? No. It provides insights science can't. Poetry is just as legitimate as science. And no perspective is better than any other. Hierarchies are bad. Everyone who was privileged in the old system - old rich white men - is bad. Everyone who was oppressed by the old system - women, black people, the handicapped, brown people, aboriginals, poor people, yellow people, ancient cultures of any kind - is good.
Level Six - Integral/Post-postmodern: Every level on the scale is important and necessary. But they aren't all equal. The higher up the levels a person climbs, the wider their sphere of care grows. The more compassionate they become. The better they're able to see from different points of view. But the lower stages are not to be despised. They're the ingredients of the higher stages. They each have valuable things to offer. And we all start at square one anyway, and there's no skipping stages on our way up. To deny or repress a lower stage is to deny and repress a part of ourselves. So let's celebrate every level! Let's wriggle our fingers at the guy doing the free throw on TV - it makes the game more fun to watch - it feels like we're directly involved. Let's inhabit a mentality of Good Guys vs Bad Guys while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and feel righteous and excited when the Nazis melt, explode, get shot, run over or thrown off of cliffs, they aren't really people anyway. Let's study astronomy, mathematics, biology, knot-tying, cooking, kinesiology, engineering and horticulture and revel in the marvels that adherence to evidence can bring. Let's campaign for women's rights, disabled rights, aboriginal land claims, social support networks, fair trade practices and equality for all. And let's reintroduce hierarchies, because they were there the whole time anyway ("Hierarchies are bad" is itself a hierarchical judgment). And hierarchies are useful; even though all of these points of view are valuable, some are more inclusive and compassionate than others, and that should be recognized.
The term "centre of gravity" applies to these levels too. As Wilber describes in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, to say that someone's at Stage Five, for instance, means that in about fifty percent of situations, they'll give Stage Five responses. Twenty-five percent of the time they'll give Stage Four responses. And twenty-five percent of the time they'll give Stage Six responses. Our centre of gravity is an average. It's where we live more often than not. And it can rise. And fall. Although this doesn't happen quite so often.
The Levels of Health and the Levels of Development Meet
So how do the Riso/Hudson Levels of Health intersect with Wilber's Levels of Development? It's easy to confuse them, especially since Riso and Hudson primarily refer to the Enneagram Levels of Health as "Levels of Development." Since I'm about to use the terms within the same paragraphs, I'll keep Wilber's Levels of Development in this font, and Riso/Hudson's Levels of Health in this font.
So, as an example, let's take a person with an Enneagram Type Six personality, who more often than not displays the highest Levels of Health. They're the Divine Warrior, the Engaging Friend, the Committed Worker. They're grounded, courageous and possess strong inner guidance. At which Level of Development would they likely reside?
It'd make sense for the answer to be "the highest one." This is a very emotionally healthy person, after all. And a person at Level Six in the Levels of Development - the Integral/Post-postmodern Level - sees the value in all other levels. They're easily able to see from points of view different than their own, rather than feeling threatened by them. So this Enneagram Six at a high Level of Health would be at Level Six, the Integral or Post-postmodern level, right? Nope. Not necessarily.
As a second example, let's take a person with an Enneagram Type Six personality, who more often than not displays the lower/average Levels of Health. They're the Authoritarian Rebel, the Overreacting Dependent, the Paranoid Hysteric. They're suspicious. They immediately distrust the unfamiliar. You're either for me or against me. This sure sounds like someone at Developmental Level Three: Mythic/Membership/Ethnocentric/Conformist. My group is favoured by God, and if you're not part of my group, you're an infidel. This seems to be a clean correlation, but it isn't.
A strong difference between the two systems of measurement is that Wilber's Levels are developmental. We start at square one, and move up. With the Riso/Hudson Levels of Health, it's just the reverse. Riso/Hudson teach that we enter the world at Level One, in contact with our deepest Being and Essence. What happens in utero and out of it quickly changes that, and our ego forms to compensate for this separation with Being. We enter into life in a state of One-ness with Presence. And then something happens. Some part of us feels threatened. We succumb to the fear we're specifically sensitive to, given our type. We lose that connection with Presence, with one-ness. As this happens, we descend to lower and lower levels of health, usually settling at the average levels.
It's rare for anyone to descend to the lowest levels, and this would especially be so for a baby or toddler. The lowest Levels of Health do not correlate with the lowest Levels of Development. The lowest Levels of Development are egocentric, but the lowest Levels of Health are murderous and suicidal. No matter how much your baby screams and cries, it's pretty unlikely she'd commit murder or suicide, were she capable of doing so. In our earliest stages most of us will descend to average Levels of Health, but there's no standard Level of Health for anyone, just like there's no standard family structure, much less a standard emotional environment in every family. Anyone can develop a centre of gravity at any Level of Health.
Also, people at the higher Levels of Development most certainly do not have a monopoly on presence, groundedness and freedom from the ego's dictates. You can have dysfunction and pathologies at any Level of Development. In fact, the higher up the developmental scale a person is, the more pathologies they're susceptible to. The more complicated a system is, the more can go wrong. "Atoms don't get cancer," Wilber says in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, "dogs do. A dog is a more complicated system than an atom. More things can go wrong." As musician and Integral writer Stuart Davis says, "the higher that we climb, the more the ladder sways." Some higher level pathologies include existential depression, inauthenticity, existential isolation, aborted self-actualization and existential anxiety (for more on this, see Wilber's Integral Psychology, chapter 2). And a person at these higher Levels of Development will also be susceptible to all of the problems and pathologies that arise at all of the lower Levels of Development.
How Do the Levels of Development and the Levels of Health Intersect?
The Levels of Health and the Levels of Development intersect in that a person at a high Level of Health could be at any Level of Development. A person at an average Level of Health could also be at any Level of Development. And a person at the lowest Levels of Health could also be at any Level of Development.
And to reverse the phrasing: A person at any (Wilber) Level of Development could be at any (Riso/Hudson) Level of Health.
Someone at Level Three: Mythic/Membership/Conformist/Ethnocentric could be healthy and present. Or they could be unhealthy and compulsive. And they could be anywhere in between. But even at a high Level of Health, they'd still have the point of view of someone at their particular Level of Development. At Level Three they'll believe in a literal, physical deity (or deities) who can bend the laws of physics for them. They might show an inspiring level of courage, altruism, and selflessness, but this will be reserved for their group - a group that particular deity favours (Joan of Arc inspired to fight for France by the voice of God, for instance). Or a person at Level Five: Postmodern/Worldcentric might believe that racism is bad, hierarchies are bad and no point of view is better than any other. But if they're an Enneagram Six at an average to low Level of Health, they'll be susceptible to paranoia and the belief that you're either with me or against me, and everyone's out to get me, nothing's going to work, and the conservatives, the fundamentalist Christians and the corporations are everything that's wrong with the world!!!
A person's Level of Development is the framework with which they understand the world. Their Level of Health is their ability to be present within that framework.
Do the Levels of Development and the Levels of Health Have any Effect on Each Other?
Yes. Even though the two aren't corollary, one's Level of Health can influence one's Level of Development.
To raise one's centre of gravity up a single Level of Development is a major event in a person's life. It commonly happens as one ascends from baby to child, and from adolescent to adult. It's a widening of the scope of one's compassion. And vice versa - to fall a level is a strong regression, an unusual occurrence for anyone. One's Level of Health can play a part in either case.
A person in a higher Level of Health, no matter what their Level of Development, will be more open and curious than someone at a lower Level of Health. They'll be more open to new information. They'll be more interested in discovering the world beyond the one they know (presuming their environment isn't so insulated that they don't have access to it). They'll be less likely to act in a way that promotes their ego's agenda. The landscape of the next highest Level of Development (should they have access to it) will seem interesting to them, a wondrous discovery. They just might allow themselves to explore it, and maybe even live there.
A person at a lower Level of Health, no matter what their Level of Development, will be more contracted and reactive than someone at a higher Level of Health. They'll be fearful of anything that threatens the conception of the world their ego has gotten used to. They'll be stuck in patterns that drive them further and further from what their type intuits is their higher self. And this could lead to a withering of compassion. They might withdraw a previously held sense of who deserves to be treated with care and dignity as they become increasingly susceptible to their ego's agenda and its underlying fears. They might slip down a Level of Development.
Does a person at the higher Levels of Development have any advantage in terms of Level of Health? Not necessarily, but maybe. A person at Level Six: Integral/Post-Postmodern isn't scared by spirituality, and they might engage in regular spiritual practice of a truly transformative nature, thus helping them nurture their inner awareness, which leads to honesty with oneself, which is key to ascending Levels of Health. A person at Level Six will probably have experience looking at the big picture, and finding their place in it. If they're familiar with Developmental Theory they might have cultivated a cognizance of their own actions, recognizing when they're inhabiting the space of a given Level, and knowing how to do so without identifying with that Level's unconscious patterns. A person at Level Six will likely be well read, and, one would hope, humbled by the insights and experiences of great minds and souls who've come before them. Conversely, a person at Level Six might also be an arrogant ass, pumped up by a sense of superiority, whose substantial mental apparatus works overtime to justify their fears and desires as being part of what it means to be Integral. They might also succumb to deep loneliness and depression, given how difficult it would be to find a community that shares their values and cognition.
So What Should I Do?
A common response to learning about both the Levels of Development and the Levels of Health is to situate oneself at the highest levels of both, or to admonish oneself for not being at the highest levels of both. Neither response serves us well.
As Ken Wilber, and indeed anyone with a genuinely Integral/Post-postmodern Level of understanding will emphasize, none of the Levels of Development is to be despised. There are healthy and unhealthy versions of each. "Balance and harmonize at whichever level you're at," Wilber says in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews. If you're a Level Five Postmodernist, be a healthy and present Postmodernist. If you're at Level Three Mythic/Membership, be a healthy exemplar of that level.
One of the ways to do that is to focus on your Level of Health. A first step for anyone of any type is to cultivate that inner observer. Pay attention to yourself. Be open and curious. What comes up again and again? Are you willing to face what you find, even if it doesn't fit with the conception you've held of yourself? Learn about your Enneagram type. See how your inner landscape and behaviour fit with the patterns that have been extensively outlined by Riso/Hudson, Helen Palmer, Fr. Richard Rohr, Sandra Maitri, and other researchers on the subject. These writers all recommend specific practices for each type. Daily engagement in these practices over the course of years can bring about the gradual raising of the centre of gravity of one's Level of Health. And, as mentioned, a higher Level of Health brings about an attitude that can lead to climbing to the next Level of Development.
But let that happen organically. If achievement is your goal, you're still under the ego's dictates. Greater health and a higher Level of Development are not to be prized because they'll make you more successful, better than your peers, or worthy in the eyes of God, your parents, the Nobel Committee, or that person you'd like to have sex with. The attainment of any further Level of Health and/or Level of Development comes with its own rewards that'll be experienced in that moment, in that new relationship with the world and oneself. Each level is valuable and to be appreciated for its own sake. Each new level will also come with its own challenges, pains, sorrows, and call for greater responsibility.
Keep in mind as well, the ego isn't bad. As Riso & Hudson say:
We do not see the development of the ego or the personality as a mistake, but as a necessary stage in the development and maturation of a human being — and as a stepping stone toward a deeper realization of our True Nature. We also agree that as all spiritual traditions teach, paradoxically, the ego is also a barrier, an obscuration of the truth of who we are.
No matter which Level of Health we settle into as our ego develops, a part of us remembers that initial union with Presence. We might lose the conscious memory of it, but part of us intuits that there's something beyond the world our ego constructs for us. It's within us. It's who we really are. It transcends us. It's the part of us that existed before we were born, and will be there after our bodies have turned to dust. That part of us doesn't identify with our gender, our nationality, our class, our profession, and whether or not we like country music. It's infinite and radiant, and most of us have caught glimpses of it, even if just for a fraction of a second. It's freedom. It's love. It's available no matter what Level of Development and Enneagram Personality Type we've adopted as our spectacles to perceive the universe at this moment.