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The Never-Ending Upward Quest
Editor Encounters the Practical and Spiritual Wisdom of Spiral Dynamics
An interview with Dr. Don Beck
by Jessica Roemischer
WIE: The GREEN meme is the final level of the spiral's First Tier. Can you speak about the GREEN meme, how it emerged out of ORANGE and the role it plays in human emergence up the spiral?
At its peak, GREEN is communitarian, egalitarian, and consensual. Without ORANGE we wouldn't have GREEN, because in ORANGE the inner being was bypassed and ignored. Our science left us numb, without heart and soul, and with only the outer manifestations of success. The "good life" was measured only in materialistic terms. We discover that we have become alienated from ourselves, as well as from others. So GREEN, this fairly recent memetic code, began emerging about 150 years ago, out of the Ages of Industry, Technology, Affluence, and Enlightenment, to declare that in all of these undertakings, the basic human being has been neglected. The focus shifts from personal achievement to group- and community-oriented goals and objectives—for GREEN, we are all one human family.
GREEN begins by making peace with ourselves and then expands to looking at the dissonance and conflicts in society and wanting to make peace there, too, addressing the economic gaps and inequities created by ORANGE, and also by BLUE and by RED, to bring peace and brotherhood so we can all share equally. Gender roles are derigidified, glass ceilings opened, affirmative action plans are implemented, and social class distinctions blurred. Spirituality returns as a nondenominational, nonsectarian "unity."
WIE: And since GREEN is the final meme level of First Tier, it must be preparing us to make the transition up to the "Being" levels of the spiral's Second Tier.
Yes, because what GREEN has accomplished, in a very positive sense, is the cleansing of the spiral, declaring an equality of all the different experiences of life. It weakens the control of BLUE and ORANGE, allowing the PURPLE and RED indigenous people to have their place in the sun and their time on CNN. It works, you see, to find equality and sameness and sensitivity. And it is doing so for a very good purpose: because without GREEN, we could not go to YELLOW and Second Tier.
AM I GREEN? WELL, AM I A GOOD EXAMPLE of someone who's environmental, egalitarian, sensitive, spiritual, open-minded, and culturally aware? You better believe it! Has being GREEN given rise to a passion for spiritual transformation (YELLOW/TURQUOISE)? Yes. Has my GREENness also seriously impeded spiritual transformation? Absolutely! It all started with my very GREEN parents—cultured, intellectual, left-wing types. Both Ph.Ds. Both teachers. They divorced when I was six. At that time divorce was rare—I came from the only "broken family" on the block. In fact, both sets of grandparents—divorced too—were also well ahead of their time. A photograph of my father in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 1970. My first experience of smoking marijuana was with him—he grew it! My mother always complained bitterly about Republicans (BLUE/ORANGE), as well as about my father. She worked with young children, many of them disadvantaged. She was their tireless advocate and railed against the schools that consigned them to failure.
In my family, there was more than a fair bit of indulgent, narcissistic behavior (RED) and not a whole lot of discipline (BLUE). Sometimes, I wistfully imagined growing up with the neighbors—one particularly close-knit family who were regular church-goers (definitely BLUE). I longed for some structure and role-modeling, but then quickly felt suffocated by the thought of it. My musings concluded with choosing the family I had. In the end, despite the lack of cohesion and, dare I say, character, I somehow sensed that my family set me on a road of more open-ended possibility. And it was true. My spiritual journey started young, fueled by my parents' evolved appreciation of things cultural, humanitarian, and philosophical. I grew up reading the theologian Martin Buber, the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the novels of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. And now, in my forties, on the path of transformative spiritual possibility (Second Tier)—thanks in large part to the early inspiration they gave me—I'm also beginning to realize that growing up GREEN can have its downside, and that my spiritual path is strewn with the wreckage of that legacy: narcissism, arrogant individualism, and a resistance to hierarchy and authority.
But getting back to my family, now that I think about it, all this GREENness actually started with my grandmother. On cold rainy days, she would comment: "Jessica, this is Nixon weather—nasty and rotten!"
The "Mean Green Meme"
WIE: Dr. Beck, my memetic "center of gravity" is most certainly in GREEN. And I'm not alone: the GREEN meme is both the leading edge of Western culture at this time and is for many, like myself, the dominant conceptual and psychological paradigm. As I have learned, each meme, including GREEN, has both its positive and negative manifestations. So what I would like to know is how the GREEN meme is currently creating Life Conditions problems that we must respond to in order to evolve up the spiral.
DB: As I said, GREEN is an essential step to YELLOW and Second Tier, but it's so expensive—it absorbs rather than contributes.
WIE: Why do you say that GREEN is expensive?
DB: Because it is expensive to provide for everyone without requiring some kind of contribution other than being present for the handout. Most noble "Great Society" programs have not worked, and those who have tried socialism as their version of GREEN are finding that that is not the answer either.
WIE: And what do you mean when you say GREEN "absorbs rather than contributes"?
DB: It uses the resources that ORANGE has built, but because it dislikes ORANGE, it backs away from growth. Growth and consumption are bad. It wants to use resources already available and redistribute them so everybody can catch up. GREEN is a wonderful system, but ironically, it assumes that everyone enjoys the same level of affluence that it has.
WIE: I certainly recognize that in my own experience: my high standard of living allows me to be very self-satisfied and very egalitarian, all at the same time!
DB: Right. Only those people who have been successful in ORANGE—who have good bank accounts, who have some guarantee of survival, who don't have the wolf at the door—will begin to think GREEN. But unfortunately, when GREEN starts launching these attacks on the BLUE and ORANGE meme levels—the nuns with rulers and the fat cats in corporate suites—it's like a person who climbs to the top of a house and then throws down the ladder that got him up there.
WIE: What effects are we seeing from the negative expression of the GREEN meme?
DB: Unhappily, what this negative version of GREEN does is to destroy the capacity of ORANGE and BLUE social and economic systems to actually address the gaps that GREEN itself has identified. It destroys ORANGE economic structures. And it also destroys BLUE authoritarian systems, which are necessary to control RED, as we can see all too clearly in the example of Zimbabwe today. It therefore becomes counterproductive. It makes things worse. It relieves RED of the responsibility to learn discipline and purpose in BLUE-ORANGE, because it loves the indigenous people but tends to read into them greater complexity, as it sees them as "noble savages." And in destroying the authoritarian, purifying systems in BLUE and ORANGE, there's the flooding of the RED undisciplined, egocentric, impulsive behavior into the GREEN zone, both in one's self and in societies. And it is this unhealthy meshing of RED and GREEN, in which strong egocentric narcissism combines with pontifications about humanity and equality, that becomes the breeding ground for what Ken Wilber and I call the "Mean Green Meme," or "boomeritis," so called because the boomer generation was the first to enter the GREEN meme en masse.
WIE: Ken Wilber's book, Boomeritis, certainly made me realize that I was, indeed, infected with this postmodern "virus"!
DB: You see, the whole idea of the "Mean Green Meme" is a rhetorical strategy. Ken and I asked: How do we uncap GREEN? How do we keep it moving? Because so much of it has become a stagnant pond, in our view. So we said, let's invent the Mean Green Meme. Let's shame it a bit. Let's hold up a mirror and show it what it's doing, with the hope that it will separate the Mean Green Meme from legitimate healthy GREEN. Let's expose enough people to the duplicity and artificiality and self-serving nature of their own belief systems around political correctness to finally get the word out that there's something beyond that. It is a drastic measure, a rhetorical strategy to create a symbol that will hopefully give people an understanding that what they are doing is actually destroying the very thing they want to accomplish.
WIE: What are the spiritual and psychological implications of the Mean Green Meme?
DB: GREEN starts with the search for self. "I want to get to know myself. I want to deal with the hidden child in me. I want to make peace, I want to find tranquility." So I go into a sensitivity training session, where I get feedback; I go downward, inward, to look at all my life experiences and try to remove the guilt. GREEN hates guilt. And it wants to deal with the rage, from what happened to it, as a victim. But GREEN is a relativistic system. And much of GREEN is so na´ve, thinking, "All people are good people. It's society that makes them bad. There are no bad people! There is no evil. That's all a myth. Everyone is going to love us." Well, September 11 was a wake-up call, and for the first time GREEN began to see the ugly face of RED/BLUE. Ever since that point, a lot more people are becoming interested in the work we are doing.
MY MOTHER WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR A NOT INSIGNIFICANT NUMBER of transcendent moments in my life, mostly associated with music and dance. She frequently took me to New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, often to see the Russian dancer, Natalia Makarova. Makarova's interpretations of the great balletic works were so sublime, so transcendent, they brought you to tears. In the final moment of a particularly extraordinary performance of Romeo and Juliet, the entire audience—perhaps four thousand people—simultaneously rose in one collective expression of awe. It was nothing less than a spiritual experience. My mother turned to me and said, "Jess, you are witnessing the greatest dancing that ever was, and maybe ever will be."
But the legacy of my unstructured GREEN upbringing is one of contradiction: high aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities married to the narcissistic need for security and emotional affirmation. It's the kind of situation that leaves you at odds with yourself, and you don't quite know why. By fourteen or fifteen, the gnawing hunger that had been floating in my experience for quite some time was magnetized to something outside myself: guys. Could relationship bring ultimate fulfillment? I certainly hoped so, and I definitely gave it a good shot—actually, a lot of shots.
Soon after turning thirty, I met my first spiritual teacher, a Korean Buddhist monk. One afternoon he said to me, "Jessica, everything about you is beautiful, except your choice in men." After a long line of relationships, I couldn't help but acknowledge the truth of the second half of that sentence, and the first half really appealed to me. A powerful yogi, he had unusual healing and intuitive abilities (PURPLE). "I'm the best health insurance you can have," he reassured me. "I can cure you of anything." Talk about security. I wanted it! Plus, I could learn how to meditate and be spiritual too. The perfect combination. Early one morning, practicing the meditation technique he gave me, high up in the mountains of South Korea, all my thoughts suddenly dropped away, and what was left was the unconditional Oneness of everything. As time went on, he suggested I move to Korea, begin long-term training at his monastery, and become ... a nun (BLUE). A nun? Those experiences of Oneness had revealed the true nature of things. Korea was fascinating and colorful. I was captivated by this teacher's unusual abilities and powers. But becoming a nun was quite a leap. I got cold feet. Was it my unstructured liberal upbringing (GREEN) with its narcissistic impulses (RED) that made me feel stifled by the prospect of this lifelong commitment (BLUE), even if it was spiritual? I couldn't tell, but one fateful day in Seoul, after much soul-searching, I decided to look elsewhere for a path to Second Tier.