New Year’s reflections: Evolution, consciousness and our capacity to transform

Leaders on leadership

Lindsay Levin

04 January 2019

Leaders' Quest Founder and CEO, Lindsay Levin, shares her reflections - and resolutions - for 2019 and beyond...

Over the New Year, I re-read Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, which was first published 23 years ago. Throwing it into my suitcase at the last moment turned out to be timely. It felt like a reassuring reminder of why Leaders’ Quest (LQ) came about in the first place. Encouragement that we’re doing something useful. And a push to keep sharing ideas that I often find hard to express, but believe are important.

Here’s what I took from my re-read – and why it’s relevant to our work at LQ.

A Brief History is about evolution, consciousness and our capacity to transform. Wilber is one of the world’s great thinkers. His work builds on the insights of generations of philosophers, psychologists, scientists, theologians and mystics. His core model, known as AQAL, emerged from three years as a recluse, papers strewn all over the floor throughout his house, as he searched for patterns in response to big questions. It’s become foundational for academics and practitioners the world over.

Wilber’s work is about the development (or evolution) of individuals and society. He explores the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth of individuals from birth into maturity, and the development of communities from the earliest structures (as homo sapiens emerged), to modern societies. He argues that both individual and collective evolution – whether in the course of a single human life or across generations – is comprised of ‘external’ transformation that can be objectively seen and measured, and ‘internal’ transformation that can’t.

We can picture this as a model comprised of four quadrants.

The top half describes the development of the individual. The upper right-hand quadrant traces matter from its smallest forms to its most complex – from atoms and molecules, on and on to the intricacies of the human brain. The upper left-hand quadrant describes the interior life of sensing and feeling – from prehension to the development of human consciousness. It captures both big picture evolution and the individual human story, from infancy when a child cannot distinguish between itself and the world around it, through the developmental stages of childhood and beyond.

The bottom half of the model describes the development of society. The lower right-hand quadrant explores the universe in which life exists, and the social structures that humans have evolved over millennia – from foraging and early agrarian societies to the nation state, industrialisation and the information age. The lower left-hand quadrant tracks the emergence of culture – the language, beliefs, values and worldviews that determine how we relate to one another and to all of life.

The quadrants on the right (the objective, material world) can be examined and measured. Those on the left (the subjective interior) have to be experienced and intuited. For example, the brain and the mind are not the same. We can’t examine the mind by dissecting the brain and observing it. To learn what’s going on in another person’s mind you have to communicate with them.

Diagram source: A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber (Shambhala, Boston, 1996)

Healthy development requires growth across all quadrants. It takes place in an outward spiral from the centre, gaining depth as it does so. In this sense growth is hierarchical, with each stage embracing and then transcending what has gone before. When we become seriously out of balance, (whether as a person or society), the resulting adjustment is likely to be painful and messy.

So, what does this tell us about where the world is today?

Accelerating progress in our understanding of the material world (the right-hand side) has eclipsed our focus on consciousness and culture (the I and We on the left). Three centuries of extraordinary scientific, industrial and technological transformation have taken us to the moon, doubled the human life span and given birth to the worldwide web. New social and political structures – including human rights, democracy and global institutions – have emerged and taken root.

Yet the evolution of our interior world has not kept up. Diverse communities are in many cases pulling apart rather than together, and formal religions are largely stuck in a magical, mythical worldview. The idea of a hierarchy of personal development – that a global perspective is, for example, better than a tribal one – often makes people uncomfortable or is seen as elitist. The left-hand side of Wilber’s model has collapsed inward, and our understanding of progress has become focused on the right. We’re living in what Wilber calls Flatland. If you can’t see it and measure it, it’s not important and may not even exist.

Many of today’s challenges – from polarised politics to global warming – stem from this dissociation. In LQ language, there’s a growing gap between the impact of our cleverness and the wisdom with which we apply it.

Wilber describes an unfolding disaster as societies downplay the raising of individual awareness and inclusive culture whilst asserting the primacy of the material world. The resulting polarisation includes, at one end of the spectrum, an uncompromising belief in the primacy of free markets and technology. At the other, it includes a form of deep ecology that claims all strands in the web of life are equally important (except for those strands that don’t agree with it).

In Wilber’s words: “Ecological wisdom does not consist in understanding how to live in accord with nature; it consists in understanding how to get humans to agree on how to live in accord with nature.”

It’s not that markets aren't useful, advances in technology aren’t desirable, or that the destruction of the natural world isn’t a disaster. It’s that an overwhelming focus on the material world (whether natural or manmade), whilst ignoring or denying the role of consciousness (the inner game, including our own), is an incomplete picture. It fosters self-righteousness whilst stymying imagination.

Without introspection we can’t align nature, morals and mind. Instead of integrating extraordinary gains in scientific and technological progress with a deep awareness of our shared home and humanity, we get disintegration.

As Wilber writes: “To actually live from a universal perspective involves five or six major interior stages of transformation. Only in the interior can we find a higher and wider stance that allows universal tolerance and compassion to flourish.”

So what does all this mean for Leaders’ Quest? Where does our work sit in these quadrants, and what does growth (across all quadrants) look like in 2019 and beyond? What might it mean for our partners and collaborators? What’s the reminder, the encouragement, the push?

The reminder is that the core idea of Quests remains remarkably relevant today. A Quest is about experiencing life and reflecting on what it means. The stuff you can see, touch and measure and the stuff you can’t. It’s about the world as it is, and the world as it could be. The interplay between the choices I make, the communities I'm part of, and everything else. The programmes we create today have grown more sophisticated, with a greater focus on how we evolve consciousness through creativity and contemplation. But the idea that we often learn best through direct experience remains core to what we do.

The encouragement is to be brave. Depth matters. We need to create inspiring, disruptive experiences; to ask energising, uncomfortable questions; to make space for individual and group insight. Breadth matters too. We set a 10-year goal in 2018: To help leaders deliver transformation at scale. To achieve these we need to upturn some of our self-imposed limits.

The push is to speak up, especially when it’s hard to find the words. It’s difficult to talk about a hierarchy of growth (in morals, culture, spirit) in a context where many people are uncomfortable with the idea that growing up is a lifelong journey. To point to a growing gap in consciousness – when the word itself may be disparaged.

As we often say at Leaders' Quest, this is the work. Because when you or I lack the courage to look inwards, we undermine the very changes we yearn to see in the world.