The Evolving Self
August 30, 2011 By Bruce Sanguin
from his blog Evolutionary Christianity
, and the author of "If Darwin Prayed"
I’ve been re-reading Robert Kegan’s, The Evolving Self, and finding it an invigorating read. Neither Piaget, whose foundational research informs
Kegan’s own theory, nor Freudian psychoanalytic theory, were explicitly evolutionary—even though they both were developmental. Kegan was one of
the first developmental psychologists to posit that the cognitive (Piaget), moral (Kohlberg), and psycho-sexual (Freud) lines of development were
actually different aspects of a single evolutionary impulse. This evolutionary life principle is “panorganic”. It is the animating power of the
universe at all orders of existence—geologic, biologic, psychologic, cultural and spiritual. Our evolving self is embedded in this larger,
all-pervasive evolutionary dynamic. And, contrary to neo-Darwinians, this process seems to have an agenda.
It is the nature of this impulse to transcend itself through a ceaseless process of assimilation (unity with) and differentiation (distinguishing
from). This resolution of this evolutionary tension means that what we once were identified with (the whole of us) becomes merely a part of a more
encompassing whole. In Piagetian terms the subject (“I”) becomes the object (“me”) of newly expanded subject (Bigger “I”). To get a little
“geeky” about this, the “I” of one stage becomes the “me” of the “I” of the next stage. In periods of relative stability, we have
negotiated an “evolutionary truce” between these two poles of unity and differentiation. This is how we evolve.
“…we are drawn to a radical consideration: that this evolutionary motion is the prior (or grounding) phenomenon in personality; it is the very
source of, and the unifying context for, thought and feeling…” (Kegan, The Evolving Self, p.44). This evolution motion is what we experience as
emotion. It is the movement of this impulse through us, showing up in our meaning making activity and as our feelings about where this motion is
This is actually amazing, don’t you find? Kegan doesn’t get metaphysical about it all as a psychologist. But in discovering this ceaseless impulse
to transcend and include, transcend and include, that moves in us, through us, and as us for our entire life, we are immersed in the secret of life
itself. We are occasions of that process. It is a great mystery that no prophet, no mystic, not Jesus, not Buddha, no shaman, no Druid or high
priestess, could have possibly known. They may have intuited it—in fact, I have tracked this evolutionary intuition in the teachings of Paul and
Jesus and continue to do so in my preaching. We now know how life does life! But knowledge of it only serves to deepen the mystery.
When life conditions begin to shift and as we mature, our old ways of making meaning are not up to the new complexities facing us. These are the
transition times in our life when we experience increasing anxiety, and if not resolved, even depression. We are left with a couple of basic choices:
either we try to fit this new complexity into our existing framework: (Wilber calls this horizontal translation: it’s a coping strategy, which may
be successful or not: Jesus called it trying to put new wine into an old wineskin) And then there is vertical transformation: these are those times
when we actually move up the evolutionary hierarchy and shift up a level: (Jesus called this rising up again after three days—mythically, this is
the time it takes for transformation to occur).
What Kegan and others do that is so helpful is to describe this in terms of subject-object dynamics. Transformation is the process whereby what was
subjective—interior and unconscious—becomes the object of our new awareness, the new subject. We are now able to stand back and look at an earlier
iteration or organization of our self as external to us. We gain perspective on ourselves, and notice what we previously were identified with. Our
incorporated self (undifferentiated) becomes the object of a new subject (our impulsive self); our impulsive self eventually becomes the object of a
new subject (our imperial self); our imperial self gives way to an interpersonal self; and on it goes until we reach what Kegan calls the
Each of these transitions involves a loss of one self in order for the emergence of the new self. This is always associated with anxiety.
Theologically, we could talk about death and resurrection as a life process, or even of these transitional times as apocalyptic. An older worldview
and self-organization is literally dissolving or passing away. When Jesus’ teaches that unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bear
fruit, it is oneexample of his evolutionary intuition. Jesus knew that in order to realize our deepest potentials we are going to go through a series
of deaths and resurrections. When Peter tries to deny this truth, Jesus admonishes him. “You have set your mind on human things, and not on divine
things”. He actually calls him “Satan”, the presence of fear within that tempts us constantly to what theologian Walter Wink called “the
regressive alternative”. The defended personality is one that seeks resolution (of the anxiety around the emergence of a new self) without
reorganization of the self. From the next evolutionary stage, problems are not so much solved as dissolved—set within a new context that sees the
world with the eyes and heart of an increased and encompassing complexity. Conscious evolution is that stage of development when the evolutionary
impulse itself is the object of our subjective awareness. Our new self —our “I” gains the capacity to witness this ceaseless dynamic, this
spiraling movement animated by the tension and resolution between the two poles unity and differentiation. What is this mysterious “Self” that can
witness and consciously cooperate with this evolutionary impulse? Surely, it is the evolutionary impulse that has come to conscious awareness in us.
We are That which is yearning to evolve. And what is “That”? My intuition is that it is divine Heart and Mind having a great adventure. And when
we gain the capacity to consciously cooperate with this impulse to evolve we are no longer so frightened by transitions. We notice our anxiety, we may
have anxiety, but anxiety doesn’t have us. In fact, the presence of anxiety may even become a welcome signal that another transformation is emerging
in and through us. The universe is about to evolve through me, through you, and through us. Ok, I admit, it’s never actually fun. But remember,
it’s only the end of the world (as we’ve known it). When Paul writes that it is our existential condition “to see in a mirror dimly” (1
Corinthians 13:12-13) he is referring to the difficulty of making conscious what is unconscious—of seeing ourselves clearly because we are too close
to ourselves, like fish swimming in water. But as life relentlessly comes at us with new challenges, these become provocations to get outside
ourselves (expand our consciousness) and see our lives within the larger context of evolution itself. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we
shall see face to face. Now we know only in part; but then I will know, even as I have been fully known”. This is the promise embedded in a sacred
evolutionary impulse that we will one day come to see and know ourselves as God knows and sees us—through the eyes of the greatest quality, Love.
This kind of clarity of vision is our destiny—the end game of this evolutionary adventure—to awaken to our deepest identity as the presence of
edit on 1-9-2011 by NewAgeMan because: (no reason given)