The traditional “Levels of Development” as taught by Riso and Hudson are not really a description of a developmental process but rather identify levels of psychological and spiritual health and functioning. As Don Riso originally wrote about them, there are nine Levels that define the degree to which the personality constricts. Driven by the Basic Fear inherent in each Enneagram type structure, the ego descends from Level One, the level of Liberation, into the lowest levels of functioning, potentially down to Level Nine. In later teaching Riso and Hudson both clarified that the levels identify the degree to which an individual is aligned with Presence. At Level One a person is identified as being at one with Presence, at Levels Two and Three a person is “walking with Presence,” and going further down the levels a person is progressively removed from the experience of Presence. So the Levels as they were initially taught describe how much the individual is caught in their ego fixation of the core personality type.
More recently Russ Hudson has clarified that indeed this is not a developmental model. Development means that one begins at the lowest level and moves upward, transcending and including (to use Ken Wilber’s terms) the previous levels.
However, the framework of the Levels can be used as a model of development, tracking the stages of personality development from infancy at Level Nine through spiritual liberation at Level One. In this way it accurately describes Levels of Development in that it defines each level in the normal development of the ego and becomes a model for describing how consciousness is held and sustained at each succeeding level. For all human beings the ego is a necessary and foundational structure (or more accurately, a set of structures) for building conscious awareness of Essence or Being. Others call this God.
The movement up the levels during childhood proceeds naturally to Level Five so long as there is sufficiently healthy parenting and minimal trauma in the child’s life. We might call Level Five “normal” in terms of ego development. It marks the center of a bell curve marking the levels or stages of presence. A bell curve is a statistical image to convey continuous probably distribution of any characteristic or variable. If Level Five is a normal placement for the anchor point (that is, the level at which most people function most of the time and will return to that level again and again as they adjust to the events of their lives) or the center of the bell curve, then having an anchor point at either Levels Four or Six would represent one standard deviation from the normal. That means that statistically we would expect 68% of the population to have their anchor point at Levels Four, Five or Six. Add another standard deviation in each direction away from the midpoint at Level Five, we include Levels Seven and Three and account for 95% of the population. The remaining 5% would be distributed at either tail of the curve, so Levels Two and One account for half of that, or 2.5%, while Levels Eight and Nine account for the other half or the remaining 2.5%
It may be worthwhile to further clarify the term “anchor point.” The anchor point reveals the level at which there is a balance point to which the ego returns throughout the dynamic ups and downs of daily living. It is the set point to which the ego tends to return. Even if the anchor point has moved up over time, it may reverse and descend to lower levels over time, in the presence of trauma or other ongoing severe stress, or conversely, as we open to Presence and the ego structures relax, the anchor point may ascend to higher and higher levels. The higher the level, the healthier the individual.
So let’s track the developmental model of the Levels. In these brief descriptions I have included a correspondence with the developmental levels within cultures – that is, groups of people – using the language of Spiral Dynamics. Each level can also describe the psycho-social and organizational patterns in human systems as well as in individuals. (A further exploration of these parallels warrants a separate article but I hope the comparison may amplify these concepts and tweak some curiosity.)
We begin life at Level Nine. In early infancy we are totally out of touch with collective reality and engrossed in our own inner experience, mostly with primal somatic experiences like hunger and satiety, warmth and cold, wet and dry. We are completely helpless and dependent upon others for care. At this stage infants are absorbed in finding comfort and pleasure, and in relieving discomfort. Despite their delightful innocence and sweetness, babies are demanding and without refined emotions such as empathy. There is no compassionate consideration of how Mommy is feeling or a willingness to postpone the satisfaction of their own needs in deference to others. In short, infants behave very much like people with severe psychosis or autism. But all of this is completely normal for an infant. This corresponds to the Beige Level in Spiral Dynamics, based on survival processes.
At Level Eight, we begin our earliest differentiation of self and other. This is initially repetitive and ritualized. Who hasn’t played the same game over and over to a toddler’s complete delight? This could be considered compulsive behavior for adults, but it functions as the means for learning for young children. This is also the stage of delusion or magical thinking and developmentally it is endearing. We encourage it in the form of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, fairies and talking animals. In adults, however, delusional thinking and compulsive behavior is characteristic of addiction and is usually destructive to the individual and to others. This corresponds to the Purple Level in Spiral Dynamics, characteristic of magical thinking and superstition and circular thinking.
As children develop a stronger sense of self and become more assertive, they are often grabby and pushy. In the earlier description of the Levels, Level Seven was defined as the level of Violation of Self and Others – a psychopathological adaptation for adults that is nevertheless normal for a three-year-old. Screaming, hitting, and biting may be ways a child expresses frustration and attempts to use its physical power to get what it wants. With growing cognitive abilities, these aggressive methods are eventually replaced as parents and pre-school teachers emphasize learning to “use your words.” This corresponds to the Red Level in Spiral Dynamics which is characterized by power-seeking.
Level Six is the point at which we indeed begin learning to use words instead of fists. (At least most of us do!) In adults this is a low-average way of communicating wants and feelings. In Riso and Hudson’s language of diminishing Presence, this is the stage of making demands to meet the ego’s agenda, while for the growing child, the ability to conceptualize and articulate its needs and wants is considered developmental progress. This is the stage of developing a sense of managing relationships across boundaries, and there is a strong affiliation with the group with which one identifies – a deep sense of “us-and-them.” This corresponds with the Blue Level in Spiral Dynamics and is based on authoritarian processes.
At Level Five our reasoning skills open up the capacity for problem-solving and we therefore begin to see life as a series of problems to solve. It is the level of Interpersonal Conflict as we engage with others to compete for whose ego agenda will win. It is what is considered average or normal in the contemporary American culture. Many people put down roots at this midpoint. While specific situations or events may inspire us to experience higher levels from time to time, or push us down a level or two under stress, we tend to return to where we are rooted. This is the concept of the anchor point. Moving up the levels now requires self-awareness, reflection, and discipline. This corresponds with the Orange Level in Spiral Dynamics, in which cultures are achievement-oriented and autonomy-seeking.
With further self-awareness and reflection, at Level Four the personality begins to aspire to a life in which we can live out our ego agendas and get our Inner Critic off our backs by fulfilling what the personality believes it should be. Many people reach this level, which is not yet in the higher levels of functioning, and believe they have arrived at realization and enlightenment. In fact, what we have is a bright shiny ego that is fulfilling its Ego Ideal. This corresponds with the Green Level in Spiral Dynamics which focuses on egalitarian, experiential and consensual processes.
By the time the anchor point has reached Level Three, we have been undertaking a spiritual journey in earnest. Through reading, meditation, and guidance or teaching, we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves and a life purpose becomes increasingly clear. At Level Three, we recognize every day that we are an expression of Being or Essence or God, so that what we do in the world and in our lives is the expression of our part in creation, and we appreciate that this is true for every other person as well. We feel attuned to Presence in our daily lives. “What could be better than that?” we ask ourselves. This corresponds with the Yellow Level in Spiral Dynamics which is integrative in its processes.
As we live our life’s purpose, we discover that we are increasingly drawn to Be rather than to Do. Curiously, Level Two requires engaging in some of our most challenging spiritual work, which is embracing the Shadow and resolving dualities. Being present as a unique self, increasingly aware of our connection with Essence, we begin to consistently recognize and embrace those aspects of ourselves that have been ignored and denied. A.H. Almaas calls this “clarifying the personality” or making it clear and flexible, able to be alive in the world and have work and relationships, but all the while receptive to Essential qualities as they arise. We radiate these qualities and build ways of daily living around them. This corresponds with the Turquoise Level of Spiral Dynamics, holistic, global, and multi-dimensional.
The ultimate reward for this difficult and challenging work is Liberation at Level One. We have faced our deepest fears and are now truly free. We are an integration of personality and Essence moment by moment. The Enneagram helps us identify fears as they arise as part of the illusion of separation from Being. We discover that enlightenment is not complete happiness, total bliss, or total freedom. It is rather a state of being in which we have the capacity to deal with our lives as they actually are, to live in love with Truth. We break out of the paradigm of always seeking to feel better. Life will actually be better but not as we planned. We are living in the paradox of being unique individuals – bundles of body, emotion and thought – and at the same time living as conscious points of awareness as the Oneness of Being. This corresponds to the Coral Level of Spiral Dynamics. To my knowledge,, we do not have examples of cultures functioning at this level but the meme is described as transcendent and enlightened.
Moving up the Levels of Development, we move from living with the Ego Ideal at Level Four to ascending to Liberation at Level One. Each movement up the developmental levels requires additional intention and undertaking of a spiritual path or practice, as we begin to let go of our carefully constructed ego identification. The brilliance of Riso and Hudson’s model of the Levels is that it works moving up from infancy as a developmental model as well as moving down from Liberation as a means of tracking the effect of Basic Fear. The Levels can help us recognize the impact of Presence in our lives and support our practices for opening our identification with Presence until we discover that it is truly what we are.