Cycles of Transcendence
Ken Wilber, as Iíve written many times, gave me a conceptual opening to understand the progression of the mind from the pure potential of infancy to what seems to be in maturity the possibility, at least, of pure knowing. Wilber traces the phases of this progression through a complex system of quadrants, lines and phases.
The Spiral of Development as developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics describes stages of human development from that of a simple survival sense to an all-encompassing stage of understanding. At each stage, we see the world from a viewpoint appropriate to that stage, and our thinking and behavior are colored by the assumptions of the stage. At some point in each stage, we begin to see the viewpoint itself from a higher, more encompassing perspective. The old view is no longer sufficient, and we transcend it to the next level of development. At each level, our world includes all the insights and understandings from the earlier levels, but adds something more. Other thinkers, even as far back as Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote of transcendence as a natural, if not common, developmental phenomenon.
Steven Pinker, in his recent book The Blank Slate, writes about the meaning of changes in the styles of art through the years, and refers to the work of psychologist Colin Martindale who, he says, "has documented that every art form increases in complexity, ornamentation, and emotional charge until the evocative potential of the style has been fully exploited." In less academic terms, that means that different styles of art (for example, that of the impressionists) go through a process of increasing complexity and sophistication until all the possibilities of that style have been exploited. Then, they give way to newer styles.
These two ideas reveal to me a principleóor at least a patternóthat occurs in many human endeavors. Whatís remarkable to me is that I can trace that pattern in many aspects of my own life, and that gives me a firmer handle with which to grasp these larger ideas.
For a simple example, I began to build and fly model airplanes shortly after I retired. It was a craft that I finally had time to learn. I began with basics, struggling to build something that would actually fly. Carefully following directions provided by the kit manufacturer, eventually I succeeded. After completing a number of these kits and successfully flying them, I began to see the principles involved, and then started to design my own aircraft. A new learning process began all over again. Just as in Wilberís human development process, and in Martindaleís cycle of artistic styles, transcend and include is the way it works. I satisfied myself that I had learned the first stage, working with kits, and then it was insufficient for me, so I moved upward to learn the next stage.
It may seem obvious at first glance. Most of us go through a dozen or so years of formal education, learning things that subsequently form the basis for the next things. The arithmetic we learn in the primary grades prepares us for the algebra and calculus we learn in high school. But itís more than just an additive process. At each level, we see the world in a particular way. After weíve transcended that level to the next, the world looks different to us. For the most part, we canít skip levels. Itís not the content of the level, however, that is most important. Itís the world view that goes with the level that we have to absorb, the perspective that can be achieved only by going through it and transcending it.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow was famous for his hierarchy of needs, a listing of common levels of personal development. At the bottom are the physiological needs, which have to be satisfied before one can pay attention to the next, the need for safety. Above that we need love, and above that esteem. At the top of Maslowís pyramid is self-actualization. A person who has not pretty well met his or her need for love and esteem will have difficulty even knowing what self-actualization might be. Each of those levels is accompanied by a different world view, a different perspective. In this hierarchy, of course, there is movement in both directions: if a self-actualized person somehow loses his safety, for example in a war, the higher needs are temporarily eclipsed by the need for safety, and his or her motivation is concentrated on that one aspect of life.
In artistic styles, one could argue that Modernism is not necessarily superior to the style it more or less replaced in Western art, post-impressionism. The artists who made the leap from the earlier style to the later style (by no means all of the artists of the time) simply felt that they had exploited the style to its limit, and moved on. Their world view, however, was different from those who may have just begun in the field and started their artistic careers in Modernism.
Another example: To really appreciate impressionist painting or music, one needs to approach it from the previous "standard" style, romanticism. Itís only when the romantic begins to cloy that suggestionóimpressionismóbecomes enough to arouse the interest. The history of music, in particular, has been full of people looking not only for something new to say but for a kind of shorthand to elicit emotion "without reciting chapter and verse." A new way of seeing or hearing always refers to the old. Itís a truism in communications theory that both redundancy and new information are necessary in order to communicate. The redundancy gives the audience a place to stand in order to understand the new stuff. A message that contains only new information is not likely to be successful. The audience needs recognizable patterns as a context for the new information.
Important in my own development in music appreciation is that I did not have any formal education in it. In my adolescence I played only the music that I liked. The Romantic composers drew me, for some reason. I was bored by earlier styles, and I didnít understand newer styles. If I had been fortunate enough to have a teacher who would lead me through the progression of Western music, I might have developed a wider perspective and a richer appreciation for all music.
All these things seem more significant to me now, with having recognized the natural pattern of development that the human mind goes through in various areas. We learn the increasingly complex relationships in almost any field, until they no longer surprise or move us, and then a new perspective blooms just ahead, and we grasp at it.
Eventually, if we continue, the cycle of transcendence repeats itself.
Donald Skiff, November 6, 2003