Stages Versus Structures: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson I

The introduction to this series, entitled An Invitation to Begin the Healing Work, was posted November 10, 2020, and is an invitation to dive in together with the work of Jean Gebser, seen first through the eyes of Jeremy Johnson in his book Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness. Lesson II will follow closely on the heels of Lesson I, so stay tuned!

If you’ve cut your teeth on the Ken Wilber roadmaps, the Gebser terrain will at first look reassuringly familiar. The familiar levels of consciousness are all right there, even designated by their familiar names: the archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral. Nor is this surprising, since Wilber explicitly acknowledges Gebser as the primary source of his model.

There is one crucial difference, however. In Wilber, these are stages of consciousness. In Gebser, they are STRUCTURES of consciousness.

Perhaps the significance of this nuance escapes you (it certainly escaped me initially). But on this nuance, actually, all else turns.

Stages EVOLVE. They are like steps on a ladder, building sequentially one upon the other in a journey that leads onward and upward.

Structures UNFOLD. They are like sections of a jigsaw puzzle or rooms in an art museum, gradually filling in to reveal the big picture (which already implicitly exists).

This means that stages are essentially developmental. The earlier stage is folded into the next, in the process losing much of its distinctive character. The earlier stage lays the groundwork for what emerges next.

The inverse way of stating this is that the earlier stage represents a more immature expression of what is to follow.

It is not so in the world of unfolding. As you wander through an art museum, each room retains its essential character and wholeness; it weaves its own magic and adds its own distinctive fragrance to the mix. There are the medieval iconographers, the ornate baroque sculptures, surrealists, impressionists, cubists, each one of them retaining their own identity—“unconfused, immutable, undivided” (in the words of the Council of Chalcedon, describing the two natures of Christ). While these artistic eras did emerge at specific points in historical time, they do not replace one another or cancel out each other’s unique identity. Rather, they complement and deepen one another, like interwoven threads in an unfolding tapestry. And at certain times a certain room will speak to you more than the others. The cubists may be further along on the evolutionary timeline, but today it is the medieval icons that are calling to you.

Even at best it’s not easy to grasp the difference between developing and unfolding. The difficulty is further compounded, however, by the pronounced psychological bent of the models we’re more used to (Wilber’s, and following in his footsteps, Thomas Keating), which draw an explicit correlation between structures of consciousness and stages of childhood development. Thus, the “magic” structure corresponds to the consciousness of a toddler, “mythic” to a child, and “mental” to an emerging young adult. Viewed through this lens, the implication becomes well-nigh inescapable that these earlier stages are also “lower”—i.e., immature, more primitive—expressions of full adult consciousness. They are developmental phases to be passed through— “transcended and included,” perhaps— but certainly not lingered in. As Jeremy Johnson comments, Wilber’s roadmap, brilliant though it may be:

…still retains a perspectival linearity that reduces the previous structures (the magic and mythic especially) to a state of mere infantilism…[His] developmental solution necessitates a strictly linear view of consciousness emergence, saving the transpersonal for the higher stages while still reducing the so-called “lower” stages to a childlike fantasy rather than a true and now lost mode of participation.” (pg. 79)

“As it stands,” Johnson adds, “this perspectival synthesis is incompatible with Gebser’s thinking.”

And you can imagine where things might be headed when this undetected linear bias starts to get projected out on whole groups of people deemed to be at a “lower” evolutionary level.

To enter the world of Gebser, the first and most important shift required is to recognize that we are indeed talking about structures of consciousness, not stages. Forget “onward and upward.” Each of these five structures is indeed an authentic mode of participation in the world,” and if they are not, perhaps, fully equal partners, they are at least fully entitled partners. Each is as qualitatively real as the other, and each adds its particular strengths and giftednesses to the whole. They are not so much steps on a ladder as planets in orbit around the sun, which is their central point of reference, the seat of their original and continuously in-breaking arising. Gebser calls this sun “The Ever-Present Origin.” I will have much more to say about it in subsequent posts.

The muting or repression of any of these structures leads to an impoverishment of the whole; this is true both individually and across the broad sweep of cultural history. While these structures may emerge into manifestation at certain points along a historical timeline, they are not created by that timeline nor determined by events preceding them in the sequence. Their point of reference is the Origin, which is outside of linear time altogether and intersects with the linear timeline by a completely different set of ordering principles. They are, one might say, timeless fractals of the whole, each bearing the living water of that original fontal outpouring in their own unique pail. They are ever-present and ever-available “at the depths,” even those that have not yet emerged into full conscious articulation on the linear timeline.

The “final” structure, then— the true Integral in Gebser’s worldmap—may in fact be not so much a new structure itself as a capacity to hold all the other structures simultaneously, in what Teilhard de Chardin once famously called “a paroxysm of harmonized complexity.” It is not so much a new window on the world as the capacity to see from a deeper dimension which transcends both linear and dialectical thinking and can deeply, feelingfully encompass both jagged particularity and the unitive oneness flowing through it, holding all things in relationship to their source.

This new dimension will be the subject of my next posting. But for the moment, take a deep breath. Can you feel a little more spaciousness opening up in the picture, a little more forgiveness?

Image credits from the top: Rainbow walkway, image courtesy of Rene Baker, Unsplash; Pablo Picasso, 1914, Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc, courtesy of Coldcreation, wikimedia commons; Rainbow eye image courtesy of Chiara F, Unsplash.

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28 thoughts on “Stages Versus Structures: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson I

  1. Dear Cynthia, it seems to me that the argument against the stages of Wilber refers to his model of development, which he himself has since revised. At the latest with the Wilber-Combs matrix and the book “Integral Spirituality” his model is three-dimensional. Timeless aperspectivity is also possible on magical and mythical levels, only then it is interpreted from the appropriate level. This makes it possible, for example, to grant enlightenment to such figures as Eido Shimano or Baker Roshi, although they had grosser personal deficits. Wilber even speaks of a so-called NS-mysticism. One representative of this NS-mysticism was Karlfried Graf Dürkheim, who covered his traces in this respect after the war.

  2. “Before we can discern the new, we must come to know the old. By knowing the old I actually mean something like re-constituting it. As Deleuze says, it is not enough the have the unconsciousness, you must produce it yourself in the present. Bringing up the structures from the depths of time, from latency, is a matter of animating them, presently, and as such must be a participatory process. …

    “…To truly integrate the structures requires more than a mere distanced appreciation of their remote accomplishments. We must come into glimmerings of contact with the so-called past and chance, as it were, a meeting with the dead. To know the night you must risk stumbling in the dark.” Johnson, Seeing Through the World, pgs 61-62

    “There is a great difference, between comprehending the knowledge of things, and tasting the hidden life in them. I fed on the sweetness of the former, before finding the true manna of the latter.” Isaac Penington (via Paulette Meier’s chant True Manna)

    “The conscious Reason-of-understanding, which in general it is proper for three-brained beings to have, is a “something” which blends with their common presence, and therefore information of every kind perceived with this Reason becomes forever their inseparable part.” Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, pg 1166.

    I am so convicted by Jeremy’s call to ENTER different structures versus analyzing them. I come from Trump country, and was raised Southern Baptist. I have spent years thinking I “know” what my parents are thinking. Reading the passage above helped me realize I do NOT. I “know” what I think about what they think! I have not been willing to “see from” their perspective, and have not thought I needed to because I came from it.

    It seems that when we say the structures are not linear, or not developmental, we acknowledge that they each exist in direct communion with the origin. Here is where the sphere versus the line is helpful – we can be miles apart, on an arc, but still be equa-distant to the origin. This also helps us to realize that while we can see the shadows of other structures so clearly, we likely do not see the shadow of our own.

    1. Hi Karla,

      I love the image of the arc with tethers to the Origin. What I am picturing is the rust that develops on those tethers in response to overwhelming life experiences. Our work, it seems to me, is to become aware of those shadows and the rust they create so that energy can pass freely along them to and from the Origin. When this can happen, any structure can yield the capacity to see through the eyes of the other and hence to treat our neighbors, large and small, with compassion. What flows naturally through a tether that is clear is the energy of our origins, Love.

  3. Hello Cynthia, and everyone – really appreciating your thoughtful and important questions/reflections shared here. I posted this over on Facebook, but maybe it’s worth posting here, too (with slight edits):

    As many anthropologists will readily tell you, transplanting what we know from the field of developmental psychology (which, we should also readily acknowledge, draws its data from individuals in our modern secular culture) to the evolution of entire human cultures and societies—living indigenous communities or otherwise—has been consistently deconstructed.

    It’s clear that hunting and foraging societies had, and have, ways of knowing with their own unique complexity and sophistication, sometimes more robust and flexible in arenas other than our own (Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, or more recently Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta as two important books on this subject. David Graeber and David Wengrow are also important contributors, who I feature extensively in my next book).

    For instance, in James C. Scott’s excellent book Against the Grain, he writes about how our Paleolithic ancestors, and indigenous populations of North America, had “long been sculpting the landscape” through a kind of “fire-assisted form of applied horticulture” — again, long before agriculture came into existence in Mesopotamia (or, in the case of NA, after agriculture was tried and abandoned for a different mixed-subsistence economy such as the Haudenosanuee Confederacy).

    Early human societies also had a flexibility of social systems, switching dynamically back and forth between egalitarianism one season and hierarchical organization during another.

    Even returning to Gebser’s commentary on , say, mythical consciousness: complementarity and ambiguity is a defining *feature* of that way of knowing.

    Cynthia, your phrase of “perspectival humility” is deeply appreciated here, because I think that is what we need—what if we aren’t the end-all, be-all, the summit of evolution? What if remediation/re-integration is *part of the process* of emerging complexity? I don’t want to rule out the possibility of Piaget’s insight (that *maturity* happens when we’re able to hold more complexity), but it seems like the jury is still out for us and our perspectival world being able to do that.

    *Can* we fold ourselves, the perspectival world, back into the whole, and realize our innate integrality?

    The long and painful journey of distanciation and severing from the animistic magic and psychistic mythic, the numinous, is, as we are learning, over: the world itself (the “itself”!) seems to be providing us with a profound and catalyzing crisis of integration in these times. If we can bring forward the integrating presence of origin (the “integrum”) and participate in that creative, intensifying “standard”, that is, the spiritual present, then we might be graced enough to declare some budding maturation of our culture.

    But until then, we need to work on our civilizational myopia and the subtle ways it creeps into our scholarly narratives. Julius Caesar, for instance, had a very convenient schema ordering “barbarians” towards the bottom and ‘civilized’ and stately Romans at the top.

    1. Thank you, Jeremy, for reinforcing our need for perspectival humility. I will post those two words on my refrigerator! As I continue to pursue an understanding of the ways of the human mind I will remind myself that experience has made clear that what we claim as the discovery of truth in one era is made painfully obvious to be deeply flawed in the next, a piece of the proverbial elephant, but a misleading piece without an understanding of how it fits into the whole. Perhaps if we remind ourselves that all our constructions of reality are just theories – metaphors, reflections in a blurry mirror- we can get closer to maintaining perspectival humility as we pursue our quest for understanding.

      An observation on this observation: Isn’t it marvelous that we humans have the capacity to recognize our myopia – to be able to not only see through the eyes of the other but also to reflect on what this means for our own understanding and to hold both in vibrant tension at the same time?!!

  4. Thank you for elaborating on the very important difference between stages and structures. Stages evolve one into the next, like childhood evolving into adolescence, each stage being growth beyond the previous stage, and each stage embodying the whole, while structures exist independent of each other, like sections of a jig saw puzzle, each section being unique, no section better or more grown than another, and each section being part of a whole but not whole in itself. I think evolution of human being and human consciousness is through stages that are recursive, each stage including and going beyond the previous one.

  5. Thank you, Betsy for broadening my perspective on this question. I recognize now that I was thinking only within the context of modern western thought . From what I know of indigenous cultures, it does seem that many had a closer connection with the imaginal realm than we do today. Within the context of modern western thought, however, I am very reluctant to relativize all structures as “fully entitled partners”. Perhaps we could impose a standard based on what kind of attitudes and actions a given structural worldview produces. I’m inclined to see as “higher” in the sense of closer to being in tune with the Source, those structures that incline people toward compassion and caring for the rest of creation. Does this fit in with your broader perspective?

    1. the “standard” you are envisioning in fact exists in Gebser’s teaching, but it is not IMPOSED. It is precisely THE EVER-PRESENT ORIGIN, which holds all structures, stages, and timescales in a spacious harmony around its constellating presence. Integral consciousness for Gebser is not “a higher stage of eveolution;” it is a capacity to directly perceive and BE IN RELATIONSHIP with that presence–a capacity that requires the active strengths and perspectives of all structures of consciusness. We simply cannot get ANYWHERE without the active reclaiming, consciously, of those mythical and magical structures of consciousness, for they contain within them the roots of numinosity, a sense of belonging, and a flexible, shape-shifting self-surrender to the whole antithetical to the mental structure of consciousness with its perceptual center fixed in the “hypertrophic ego” (as Gebser names it). This is why worship in liberal/progressive churches tends to fall so flat and wind up so mental, tinny, and implicitly judgemental; it simply can’t get over itself! The “earlier” structures do indeed retain gifts without which it is impossible to proceed. And so does the mental structure, which, through its very ego strengty, has a greater capacity to integrate, rather than simply be absorbed, into the numinosity. It, too, is essential. Everything belongs.

      1. I think I have a loose grasp on what you are saying. Let me put it in my own words and ask you to tell me if I’m on the right track. I think you are saying that the capacity to connect with the imaginal realm is a separate animal from the stages of cognitive and moral development. At any stage, a person can connect but the quality and content of the experience may be different according to the cognitive stage. eg. a child’s experience of the imaginal will be different from an adult’s. It will be received and processed through the schemas of the cognitive stage he is in and therefore will not be able to be integrated as well as the adult’s who has more complex schemas into which to integrate it. These two ways of functioning are parallel processes, yet intertwined. Am I on the right track? what am I missing?

  6. According to Amazon, my copy of Seeing Through the World, is due to arrive by 8pm tonight. I’m looking forward to beginning the journey. “Structures vs Stages” helps me make sense of some of the cultural and political divisions here in Alaska.

  7. I am very grateful for this different framing of Wilber’s construction of the levels or stages of consciousness. I’m not reading Gebser (literally can’t afford to buy another book right now!) but I was a student in Cynthia’s CAC Introductory Wisdom School last spring, and I read and discuss her books with friends on the same path. I encountered Wilber and Spiral Dynamics in a Buddhist-y spiritual group in 2012, and was never comfortable with it for the exact reasons Cynthia and Johnson lay out here–the inevitable linearity of it, and the implication (which I actually heard stated a few times) that every culture must go through all the stages to get to the “higher” levels. Looking at Indigenous cultures still existing in the world and what we know of those that have dwindled or vanished, there is a deep wisdom there that I see as almost completely missing from our supposedly more advanced stage as modern industrial societies. That their understanding must be “included and transcended” just doesn’t really make sense.

    Connection with and dependence on Earth is one of the areas that Indigenous cultures have deeper awareness than we tend to have. I would even say that Indigenous and “primitive” lifeways are more in tune with the Imaginal realm than our World 48 rationality tends to be, even if we are expanding into the green level. Here’s an example of what I mean. We learn of how our ancient ancestors in the northern hemisphere had big ceremonial days-long rituals at the winter solstice, praying, weeping, dancing, eating, pleading with the sun to return. And it did, every year. Our science-informed view tells us that this is just primitive magical thinking, because we know that Earth will continue orbiting the sun whether we acknowledge it, thank it, appreciate it, hold rituals for it, or not.

    But in an Imaginal context, isn’t it possible that the love and appreciation and acknowledgement of the gift of the sun that our ancestors felt and expressed actually did in some ways feed the sun? And feed the entire cosmos? That psychic force of appreciation and attention surely is exactly the kind of food the Imaginal realm needs from us here to keep the cosmos pulsing along instead of decaying into chaos, the direction our inattention and lack of gratitude seem to be taking it now. Rather than all the Indigenous and Earth-aware cultures having to somehow go through the “stages” in the spiral of consciousness, we who are at a supposedly higher level need to learn from them how to be more conscious in ways like this.

    I have to admit also that at first, even the image of “unfolding” seemed to have a hint of linearity and directionality to it–it implies starting somewhere and moving outward from there, getting larger. But the metaphor of the art museum seems perfect to me. I was thinking “enfolding” rather than “unfolding,”and the idea of each gallery in a museum having its own note and fragrance within the whole, each contributing its own ethos and beauty, has that sense that everything is already there and is connected in a larger contextual relationship.

    Thank you to Cynthia and this community for continuing to unfold (!) the western wisdom tradition’s cosmology and morality, and deepening my understanding of the meaning of it all.

  8. I haven’t read the book yet, (I just ordered it) so what I am saying is based only I what I read here but, as a student of the development of consciousness, I feel compelled to chew on what I read and give a preliminary response.

    Wilber’s stages, Johnson says, necessitate a strictly linear view of consciousness emergence, saving the transpersonal for the higher stages. Thinking of these same organizations of consciousness as structures, he offers, removes the implication that one is more mature – let’s say it right out:”BETTER”- than another. Each of the 5 structures, he asserts, is an authentic mode of participation in the world, a fully entitled partner.

    My response:

    Research in cognitive development clearly shows that the appearance of these structures is developmental with the more simplistic and inflexible ones appearing in early childhood and the more complex ones that can handle ambiguity later. To say that all are equally “good” would be to say that development offers no better capacity to relate to the world. Do we want to say this?

    Furthermore, when one examines the content that each of these structures leads to, one sees that the developmentally later ones encourage a great deal more compassion for others than the earlier ones. (cf. Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning) Do we want to discount this?

    The appearance of these structures IS linear. They describe development within the egoic operating system from simplicity to greater complexity on the horizontal plane.

    Let’s remind ourselves that everything we say about this issue is working in metaphor. We think of the egoic operating system as a structure of the mind, but neuroscience hasn’t, as far as I know, identified a physical structure with which we can identify it. It serves, however, to help us talk about a way information is processed so we give it structural status. Piaget’s concept of schemas that become gradually more complex as they are forced to accomodate to more and more conflicting input is my go-to metaphor of this developmental process.

    This is not to say that a person whose primary structure is, say, law and order reasoning, cannot have a transpersonal experience (as Wilber distinguishes between states and stages) but it takes a structure that can tolerate ambiguity and hold horizontal and vertical thinking in tension at the same time to actually integrate the transpersonal perspective into actions in his everyday life.

    I appreciate Cynthia’s desire to heal the horrendous rift in our society today by reducing judgmentalism on both sides, but I don’t think we can do it by asserting, as Johnson does, that “all 5 structures are authentic modes of participation in the world…fully entitled partners.”

    I look forward to reading the book and further installments on this blog. I hope my thinking is expanded!

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