Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Ritual Structure of Change

The Structure of Change

Building on the original cross-cultural research of Clare Graves, Spiral Dynamics proposes a model of change that has five distinct phases. While their work is concerned with what might be termed “meta-change,” (referring to transitions from one developmental stage to another), the basic model can also be applied to change on a smaller scale, such as that occurs in individuals when one developmental stream is engaged in transformation to a more complex level.

The five-stage model proposed by Beck and Cowan begins and ends with what might best be characterized as a “static” state (Victor Turner’s stable, coherent, socially-sanctioned states framing the ritual process), keeping in mind that there is no true static state in the natural world. That leaves three actual stages in which change is occurring, and those stages bear a striking similarity to the initiation model described in my previous post. These are the stages as Beck and Cowan have designated them:

1) Alpha: This is the stage when everything seems to fit -- the subject (individual, corporation, or culture) is functioning successfully within the current life conditions. Alpha is often an illusion -- nothing is ever really stable.

2) Beta: The Beta stage is a time of uncertainty, questioning, and frustration. Doubts and a sense that something is wrong define the Beta stage. When an individual first enters Beta, the individual tries “more of the same” that made Alpha successful and stable (words like “rededicate,” “refocus,” and “work harder and smarter” are used). Resources are invested in the previous Alpha systems in an attempt to “shore up the damn.” Next, the individual may try to reform, fine-tune, or adjust the Alpha system while keeping its main features. Continual improvement becomes the goal, but change is not embraced or considered. An individual may look for ways to make immediate adjustments (usually exterior, such as new clothes or a gym membership), try to improve its technology (take a class or read a self-help book), or hire “better” people (for the individual this may mean seeking out new friends, or a new romantic partner).

In the Beta stage there is often a longing for the “good old days” when everything was “better.” The one defining characteristic, however, is that things are not “how they used to be,” and they will never be that way again. Familiar forms of defining identity have been taken away from the individual, and this is why doubts and a sense that something is wrong are so prominent in this stage -- familiar forms have fallen away, and the individual wasn’t aware that it was happening until it has already occurred. In Wilber’s transition model, the individual has begun to differentiate from the previous sense of self, but has not yet identified with the next stage.

3) The Gamma Trap: If things get bad enough (full differentiation occurs), the individual moves from Beta to Gamma. This is a stage of anger, hopelessness, and attempted revolution. At this stage, any barriers to resolving the situation feel overwhelming. There is now a clear sense of how bad things really are, which can produce awareness of what went wrong and why.

[Before the Gamma Trap sets in, there is an option for reform. If most of the six conditions for change are being met and the rest are nearly met, it is possible for an individual to take charge of the situation and bypass the trap. The reform option usually requires someone who sees the situation clearly and is proactive before Beta becomes Gamma. There must also be a willingness to be proactive to affect change. This is more likely to occur in an organization or in a culture. Most individuals, in the absence of outside help, are unlikely to avoid the Gamma Trap once the transformation process is underway.]

Deep Gamma is difficult because of the sense that there is no way to change the situation. There may be desperate attempts to try something “new” to break out of the morass. The old ways are no longer viable and the new ways are not yet visible. The feeling in this stage is of despair, suffocation, and chaos. When the individual feels his/her “back against the wall,” Gamma produces an assault on the barriers, in whatever form they may come. Some of these barriers are real and some are imagined -- it doesn’t matter at this point – better to fight than do nothing.

If the barriers are profound enough, the individual will suffer full-scale retrenchment into a more basic and restricted world-view (with all the shifts in outlook, function, and purpose such a change in worldview might entail).[i]

The experience of the Gamma Trap can sometimes fit the definition of “spiritual emergency,” as defined by Stan and Christina Grof.[ii] Among the possible manifestations of spiritual emergency, the Grofs list the following: episodes of unitive consciousness (peak experiences in which the individual is briefly immersed in the highest developmental stages of consciousness); Kundalini awakening; near-death experiences, including severe illnesses such as cancer or a heart attack; emergence of “past-life memories”; psychological experience of the “center,” what Wilber might term an experience of the proximate self or of the Witness (observer Self); shamanic crisis, a condition of illness signaling the call to shamanic training; awakening of extrasensory capabilities (psychic opening); and so on.[iii] Spiritual emergency may also be triggered through other, more mundane, life experiences, which are discussed below as triggers that can launch an individual into the Beta stage.

The Gamma Trap can also manifest as an on-going low-grade depression, an ennui that seems without source or explanation. In fact, this may be the most common manifestation in our culture, due largely to the fact that most people avoid conscious change and relegate the process to the depths of the unconscious mind. Once repressed, the impetus for change festers and attempts to provoke attention through projections, “Freudian slips,” dreams, addictions, neuroses, and a variety of other ways in which the pscyhe seeks to refocus attention on its needs. It is entirely possible that the majority of the functionally maladjusted in contemporary culture (and this includes most of us) are consciously or unconsciously repressing the innate drive for psychological evolution.

4) The Delta Surge: When the Gamma trap is finally overcome and its energy released, the Delta Surge is initiated. This is a time of excitement and rapid change -- old barriers are overcome and previous restrictions dissolved. The past no longer controls the present. However, there is a risk that the Delta stage is an illusion, which can result in a free-fall back into Gamma. This occurs when the solution leading to Delta is not an authentic solution, or the new mode of being is not healthy and quickly degrades (in Ken Wilber’s model this might occur when integration of the new stage fails for some reason).

In the best case, the individual takes charge of his/her fate and makes changes in how s/he functions to reflect the new reality conditions. If this is successful, the final stage will emerge.

5) The New Alpha: This stage reflects the consolidation of all that has happened and the new stability resulting from having found ways to overcome the barriers and renew a sense of meaning, success, and balance. This stage is also temporary. The only constant is change. A truly successful individual lives with the premise that nothing is stable, change is constant, and adaptation is a daily activity.

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The Ritual Structure of Change

In order for these five stages to occur, there are six conditions that must be met by the individual. We will assume that they have been met. Assuming that the initial Alpha stage and the New Alpha stage, as described above, are not an actual part of the change process, but are the pre and post states, there are then three stages in Beck and Cowan’s model that correspond to the three stages of the ritual process as introduced by van Gennep and elaborated by Turner.

Robert Hopcke proposes the same essential three-stage process for change. While he is more interested in the synchronicities that can occur during change, he provides a succinct statement of the process:

Every movement forward in our lives, every degree of growth, involves three parts. First, we become aware that our current situation no longer fits us or works. … Then we enter a state of confusion and transition. We begin to imagine how things might be different and we might even leave our current situation without fully knowing what is to come or how to proceed. … We can’t go back, but we don’t really know yet what to do, and this transitional state may last a day, a month, or years, until finally, something happens – we get some help, our feelings become clearer, an opportunity presents itself, we take a certain action – and we move into a different and more satisfying way of being.[iv]

Hopcke clearly states the process, but he doesn’t suggest that the situation may resolve itself more quickly if the person who is in the midst of transition were to be actively involved in the resolution. A therapist, like Hopcke, can help expedite the transition, as can an understanding of the process and what to expect at certain points. It also helps to see the process in the framework of traditional ritual, to understand the archetypal[v] aspect of the experience. What follows is a more in-depth look at the change process reframed within the ritual structure.

The Beta Stage: Separation

The Beta stage can be seen as the separation point in the change process, when the “old ways” are no longer useful and begin to fall away. The separation stage is unsettling because all that was held to be true is no longer valid in the new life conditions. The individual can no longer cling to the safety of the previous Alpha fit but has not yet fully differentiated from it, which would allow identification with the next stage.

Joseph Campbell integrated a Jungian psychoanalytic approach into the traditional study of mythology to elaborate the Hero myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He viewed the three stages of ritual as a template for the Hero myth, what he called the monomyth. In the separation stage, the hero’s mission “consists in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external to the internal world, macro- to microcosm, a retreat from the desperation of the waste land to the peace of the everlasting realm that is within”.[vi] If only it were that easy. There is certainly the shift from outer to inner reality, but the inner world is experienced as a “waste land” for the individual undergoing profound change. There remains a “still, small voice” within, but any communication with the higher self or witness is muddled at best, non-existent for most. Campbell corrects his position further down the page:

…the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the differences, eradicate them in his own case …[vii]

All human beings are the heroes in their own life stories. When the Self, in service of its own evolution, requires change, the individual must heed that call and enter the underworld of the embedded unconscious to work through the barriers preventing the arrival from the emergent unconscious of a new, more complex sense of Self.[viii] Understanding the structure of the monomyth, as Campbell often suggested, can help a person understand just a little better his/her own life process, and the sometimes strange turns it takes.

Yet, millions and millions of people will never experience a Beta stage in their adult lives -- they will reach the formal operations stage as a young adult and never move any higher up the ladder. Like most members of Western Civilization, these people will have found their psycho-spiritual set-point and will never be forced to move beyond it, no matter what happens in their lives. For millions of other people, however, everyday events that most people must deal with can set off a transformational crisis. When one of these “trigger” events occurs, the individual is thrust from the illusory safety of the Alpha fit they were experiencing and into the Beta/separation stage of the change process. There are three broad categories of triggers that can launch an individual into the separation stage of the process.

The first category of triggers is outside forces. Essentially, this is any event happening outside of the individual, and can include relationship issues, cultural upheaval, job issues, death of a loved one (or of an iconic personality or world leader), and accident or injury. All of these external events have the power to trigger uncertainty, doubt, or discomfort in the existing life conditions and its corresponding world-view. For example, after President Kennedy was assassinated, many people felt as though the world had forever changed. Some of the psychological unrest that event spawned was responsible for the cultural changes that occurred later in the decade. In recent years, the death by suicide of musician Kurt Cobain had a profound effect on young people who looked to him as a poet who shared their pain and angst. The loss of a job, of a partner either through divorce or death, or the loss of one’s health through injury can have life-altering impact, and how that change is dealt with will determine whether one grows from the experience, or regresses and implodes.

The second category of triggers for change is interior events --inner dynamics upset the perceived equilibrium of the Alpha fit and initiate change. The individual may have a powerful dream, suffer the emergence of a complex, experience anxiety attacks or a panic disorder, fall into depression, have a “nervous breakdown,” and so on. Most of the types of spiritual emergencies identified by the Grofs fit into this category.

Most profound change is a result of inner events. These experiences can often be the most traumatic, as well, since there is no outside source to blame, though the individual might work hard to find one (Jungian projection). The transpersonal viewpoint suggests that when the Self is ready to evolve it will create the impetus for that change to occur. Many “new age” believers have taken this to mean that a person will draw illness or accidents to him/herself in order to initiate change, or that each soul agrees (prior to its birth) to experience certain traumas in the service of growth. However one chooses to view the process, these interior events are powerful catalysts for change.

The final category of triggers for change is personal choice -- embracing change. This is the rarest form of catalyst for change, but the one most likely to have a positive and lasting outcome. In this scenario, the individual may choose to enter therapy, go on a spiritual retreat, take up a meditation practice, take workshops focusing on self-exploration and personal growth, and so on.

Among the many options for initiating change consciously are journal writing, art therapy, body-centered somatic therapies, movement and performance arts, physical training, and mindfulness practice. Probably the most powerful method, however, is meditation practice, especially if combined with transpersonal therapy. Michael Murphy and George Leonard have proposed Integral Transformative Practice [ix] (Wilber has advocated this approach as well in his Integral Life Practice), which attempts to produce rapid changes in consciousness by undertaking several different practices at the same time, one for each of the four major streams (body, heart, mind, soul). However one approaches conscious change, the outcome is more likely to be positive and enduring when the process is entered into willingly and with the proper intent.

The Gamma Stage: Liminal Space

The second stage of the change process conforms to the Gamma Trap of Beck and Cowan’s change model. This is the time when a person is in liminal space, no longer who s/he was, and not yet who s/he will become. A person in this stage questions nearly everything, seeking answers in places that had to this point never been examined. Anything goes, and if one is not paralyzed by the enormity of the situation, which results in depression, then it is possible to recreate oneself, or in the language of Spiral Dynamics, to move up the spiral. After all, the purpose of change is growth and personal evolution, and simply taking the view that change offers this opportunity creates a greater likelihood of a positive outcome.

However, there is the trap aspect of liminal space inherent in the name Gamma Trap. People who have had their foundations shaken (and entered into the limbo of unknowing the individual experiences in a marginal period) can remain in that state indefinitely if they are unable to navigate a successful exit. The predominant symptoms of someone trapped in liminal space are persistent ennui and moderate to deep depression. However, Elizabeth McCormick[x]] has identified a wide variety of symptoms[xi] associated with “living on the edge,” her phrase for the experience of liminal space, that can be experienced by anyone in the depths of liminal experience.

Physical Symptoms

· Tension in the neck, shoulders, back, chest, and arms.

· Breathing difficulties, including shortness of breath, hyperventilation, sensations of suffocation, and breathlessness.

· Persistent headaches and nausea.

· Fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite.

· Minor problems such irritable bowel, indigestion, constipation, PMS, muscle sprains and strains, or back pain.

· Accidents are more frequent, including everything from bumping into corners and walls to scrapes involving the car.

Emotional Symptoms

·Feeling trapped, with one’s back against the wall, or feeling cornered in some way.

·Feeling alone, alienated, without friends or support, or that no one understands what one is feeling.

·A sense of desperation, willing to do anything to regain stability internally and externally.

· Feeling hopeless, resigned to suffering, suicidal, as if death were the only way to end the suffering.

· In waiting mode, life on hold, in a limbo state with no end in sight, often felt as a “terrible waiting.”

·Feeling constantly angry, bitter, resentful – always on the edge of rage or keeping so tightly bottled that the seams are starting to rip.

Cognitive Symptoms

· Confused thoughts, inability to hold a train of thought, muddled thinking or accelerated thinking.

· Obsession, fixated thoughts or ideas.

· Diversionary behaviors to eradicate thoughts and quiet the mind, including the objects of most addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, food, television, gambling, and so on).

As one might guess, these symptoms are becoming more and more common in our culture. The liminal experience demands growth, but most are not able or do not know how to make that happen, and it becomes easier to self-medicate the situation with drugs and alcohol, or food, or shopping, or sex, and so on, while never really addressing the root problem.

Another option when seeking to escape liminal space is to regress, to retreat to earlier, safer developmental levels where the terrain is familiar. In the last fifteen years, a large number of baby boomers (the first generation, en mass, to be on the edge of and entering into a new, more egalitarian and spiritual world-view) have abandoned that process and reverted to the safety of organized religion. Unable to successfully negotiate the transition into the new world-view, and no longer able to suffer the ambiguity of liminal space, these people, termed “baby boomerangs” by some, have been “born again” into the comfort of organized religion, especially conservative Protestant sects. Kerby Anderson, writing for Probe Ministries, suggests that with mid-life, the boomers are asking the big questions again:

Who am I? Where am I going? Is this all there is to life? These questions have an underlying spiritual dimension and are not easily answered in a secular world nor in a mystical world filled with bland spirituality.[xii]

Traditional religion offers answers to these questions, but the answers are typically not more complex and evolved but, rather, more conservative, less complex, and often regressive. Which is not to say that Christianity has nothing to offer; there is within each of the world’s major religions a central core of spiritual practice that can help an individual move forward in growth, to climb the Spiral. Unfortunately, the Evangelical mega-churches that have flourished in this country are not teaching spiritual practice, and are instead teaching dogmatic interpretations of the Bible.[xiii]

The situation seems bleak, but the Gamma stage does not have to be enormously difficult. In fact, it can be a positive experience. In those societies that practice initiation rites, the ordeals may seem daunting at best and like torture at worst, but for those who undertake the process, they have chosen to do so and have prepared for the experience. In essence, they embrace the change they are about to undergo and welcome it into their lives. Even more, they believe so strongly in the process that they will live by the results no matter the outcome. As an example, Turner cites an Omaha vision quest dream that some boys receive; if in the dream they are given the woman’s “burden-strap,” the boys will live as women for the rest of their lives, even if they marry and go to war[xiv].

Belief in the authenticity of the process and the truth of the outcome is what matters in embracing change. If one goes into the process with intention, with an acceptance that change is never easy and an awareness that the process may be long, the chances are good that it will go more smoothly than if one resists the change and that the results, whatever they may be, will be more easily integrated.

Delta Stage: The Return

Finally, the Delta stage as described by Beck and Cowan corresponds to the return stage of the initiation sequence. At this point the change process has been successfully navigated and the new identity is being solidified. This can be an exciting time for someone who has gone through the process, and there is often a desire to share the new realizations with others.

As the change process gains a hold in the individual’s life, other forms of change may also occur. There may be a desire to dress differently to reflect the new sense of self, or to make new friends who share the same views, or to move to a city that supports the new life conditions more fully. There may also be a tendency to drop old relationships that supported the original Alpha state of the individual, and this can include ending significant love relationships, quitting a job, reducing contact with parents and siblings, or leaving the Church of one’s previous faith.

All of these decisions make sense within the context of the change process, but those outside the process will not understand and will push the individual to reconsider. Other outside forces (social norms, employers expectations, and so on) may also push back against the individual’s new sense of self, and if the change wasn’t an authentic solution to the original barriers, the individual will collapse back into the Gamma stage and may be stuck there for some time. An unhealthy solution adopted during the Gamma period that produces a false Delta can be a soul-crushing experience resulting in deep depression and the seeking of escape behaviors. For this reason, it may be advisable for an individual who has no knowledge of the change process or how to navigate through the struggles to seek the guidance of one who does know these things, whether that is a friend, a religious leader, or a therapist.

The next installment in this series will look at how to navigate the change process while it is happening.


[i] It seems to me that this is what happened to America following the 9/11 attacks. Confronted with an opportunity for change, the barriers seemed too overwhelming and as a country we slipped at least one whole level on the Spiral.

[ii] Please see The Stormy Search for the Self (1990) for a comprehensive examination of the nature of spiritual emergency and transformational crisis.

[iii] Stormy Search, page 73.

[v] I use the word archetypal not in the Jungian sense of “archaic images” in the collective unconscious, although the change process might fit that definition, but rather in the sense of first patterns or original forms. All human beings will experience some aspect of the change process, in either lesser or greater degree, making it a profoundly human experience. The experience of change is not confined to pre-personal, personal, or trans-personal level of development; it can be felt by an Australian Aboriginal person adapting to western culture as well as by a San Francisco Zen student becoming acquainted with the psychic level of development for the first time. The Jungian archetypes, as Wilber often points out, are mostly confined to pre-formal level of development and lower, which does take away from their power, but only seeks to recognize that the transpersonal consciouasness often ascribed to archetypes is misplaced.

[vi] Hero, page 17.

[vii] Hero, page 17.

[viii] For an explanation of the five major types of unconscious, see Wilber’s Integral Psychology.

[xi] This list is an adaptation of hers, found on page 20 of her book.

[xii]Baby Boomerangs,” accessed 03.08.2004. Probe Ministries is a non-profit organization working to further the Christian message – as such, take their position however you’d like.

[xiii] For a discussion of how organized religion has misplaced its central spiritual message, and how it can rescue itself from this condition, please Ken Wilber’s The Marriage of Sense and Soul. Wilber argues for a renewal of the spiritual core of all the major religions by subjecting their teachings (proscriptions) to the scientific method. As it turns out, meditation, Christian prayer, Kabbalah, and several other traditions can hold up under the rigor of the scientific method, but the “mythic” teachings of most religions will eventually have to be set aside or given their proper place.

[xiv] Betwixt & Between. Mahdi, Foster, and Little. Eds.


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