We pick up with the cognitive development of pre-teens. Typically just before adolescence, children have mastered what Piaget referred to as concrete operational thinking. They are able to identify specific instances of wide ranges of things (what Kegan refers to as the ability to recognize “durable categories”). They understand their roles and they tend to recognize enduring needs and have developed impulse control. This is all reflective of second order consciousness.
As people move into third order consciousness, they become able to think abstractly and recognize and intelligently interact with cross-categorical ideas. They are able to create maps of their ideas of how life should be lived and begin to conform their behavior to these maps. A large part of this process involves the socialization to adult structures necessary to get along in our culture. We become who our society expects us to be by interacting within the structures of that society. People begin to understand interpersonal realities, can identify their own inner states and recognize inter-subjective states of other people and groups. These skills allow people to function in the modern society and are essential to holding a job, parenting, partnering and simply getting along in life. According to Kegan, the vast majority of adults in American society function at this level of consciousness.
There are however, two orders that transcend and include these lower structures. The Fourth Order of Consciousness involves the ability to think in high level abstractions about the abstractions one has created in the Third Order. In our post-modern world, there is not one monolithic society – we are exposed to a wide range of possibilities and competing demands for time, money, loyalty, focus and so on. If these rise to a sufficiently complex level and we are paying attention, we make the leap to Fourth Order Consciousness. We are no longer pushed around by cultural forces but become “self-authoring”. Very few people reach this stage before the age of 40. When they do, they are no longer subject to the scripts of abstraction that they developed earlier in life but are able to chose between multiple abstractions and chose to operate out of meta-ethical frameworks. They are no longer bound by maps of behavior but have become autonomous individuals who are consciously picking and choosing the cognitive structures that they chose to operate within. They are rarely ideologically dogmatic and find they can adopt great plasticity in the ways they function and move within the world and various social groups. They are marching to their own drummer based on their own cognitive map of the world.
The Fifth Order of Consciousness starts getting very interesting from the point of view of spiritual development. According to Kegan, only a small fraction of people ever make this jump. This stage is referred to as the “self-transforming self”. It is brought on by the inherent limitations of self-authoring by coming face to face with the inconsistencies of created by the systems developed at the Fourth Order. The person recognizes that all of the ways of constructing meaning or making sense of experience are, in the end, wholly partial and incomplete. They leave things out. Their system, while very holistic and encompassing, is incapable of making any fundamental sense of their lives. The hallmark of this phase would be things like the "existential crisis" or the "dark night of the soul". This profound doubt - and sometimes downright ontological and epistemological despair - forces the self to move into dialectical transcendence of ideologies to the point where there is no longer an ego to support or defend. Reality becomes perceived as truly transpersonal and the notion of individuality looses any sense of ultimate meaning. The egoic self clearly still exists, but it exists solely as an object of observation. When this happens, life is seen holistically and what maps are useful are maps that tie disparate realities together and show the relationships between things that, on their surface appear contradictory.
Kegan has used Alan Watts’ comment that his baby was fully enlightened because he was one with his experience as a foil for discussing this stage. He says Watts got it absolutely wrong. According to Kegan, a baby is, developmentally, pure subject – the baby no distinct sense of distinct self as object of observation or experience. In all other stages, a portion of the self (from the lower order of consciousness) is seen as an object by the subject of the next stage. (Thus the Fourth Order clearly sees and understands the structures at work in the 3rd order but is oblivious to those structures of its present order – i.e. they are purely subjective). At the Fifth Order (and above), the individual becomes pure object – unlike the baby, there is no “subject”. This fundamental recognition of the contingency of self – its fundamentally illusory nature – is awfully close to the mystic realizations found in many world religions. It is not that self no longer exists but rather than self is pure object of a transcendent witness. This type of experience is deeply reminiscent of experiences spoken of by Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, Nagarjuna, Meister Eckhart, and hundreds of other saints and sages from times past.
To my way of thinking, Kegan’s work points to the a human developmental model that both supports and gives structure to spiritual development. It provides a teleological understanding of the development of human psychology and grounds mystical experience in psychological development. That grounding is important in a number of ways, particularly people seek to live spiritual lives in a post modern world.
For those who are interested, two of Robert Kegan’s works are In Over Our Heads and The Evolving Self.