In this post I will present a model of change based on the conscious competence model and Stan Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs). This simple model will describe each stage people go through as we try to change existing habits using practices based on mindful awareness. In my own work of personal development I have found this model to be a helpful container for the process of change. It was especially helpful to remember this model in the difficult stages, when progress is difficult to detect and as a result things appear to be hopeless.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep the theory short. if you’d like, you can learn more about the conscious competence model, see here. You can think of the BPMs as an archetypal description of the process of birth which (because of it’s archetypal  nature) we can apply to other things in life. If you want to read more about the BPMs, see this link.

Conscious Competence Learning Model

The conscious competence learning model, also known as the four stages of learning, describes the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. The origins of this model are not clear; it has been used by Gordon Training International since the 1970s and is also reference in a technical paper from 1974 authored by W. Lewis Robinson. It is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, but no reference to the model exists in Maslow’s work.

The conscious competence model describes four stages in the process of learning a new skill. The process is often described as a matrix or as a ladder. It is a simple and essential model of learning, designed to support trainers imparting new skills. The four stages are as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – at this stage one is not even aware that one is lacking a particular skill or competence.
  2. Conscious incompetence – one is now aware of the need to learn how to do something but is still incompetent at doing it.
  3. Conscious competence – at this point one is able to achieve this particular task as long as they are very conscious about every step.
  4. Unconscious competence – at this final stage, one has finally mastered the skill and can complete it without even thinking about it.

Progression through the stages is sequential, moving from 1 to 2 and so on. It is not possible to skip stages, but it is possible to regress if one does not practice the new skill. The progress from stage to stage is often experienced as an “awakening” or feeling that “things click into place.”

The Conscious Competence Model and the Process of Change

We can generalize the conscious competence model and apply it to more than acquiring new skills. I am personally interested in the process of creating change in individuals both for my own process of growth and for my work as an Integral Coach. I have observed my own process of change and discovered that it can be described using a model very similar to the conscious competence model. I will also use Grof’s BPMs as a way to describe each stage from an experiential perspective. The BPM lens will help  highlight important aspects of each stage of the model including forces that both support and hinder progress.

  1. Unconscious habit (BPM 1, primal union with the mother) – This is the stage of blissful ignorance. In this stage we are not yet conscious of the habit. Like the fetus in the womb, we are free from worries.
    Counter forces: ignorance – unconscious habits tend to remain so until the light of awareness is directed there. As mentioned above, this intervention can come from an external source or from internal self-awareness.
  2. Conscious habit (BPM 2, the state of no exit) – At some point we become aware of this habit and the suffering that comes with it; perhaps this has been pointed out to us or we’ve noticed it through self-reflection. At this early stage we usually only notice the habit in retrospect or when it is already too late to change our actions. Like the fetus in that initial stage of birth, we feel the suffering inherent in our situation but are unable to change it. We may speak with a teacher or therapist and take on a practice. However, at this point it seems that all our efforts to create change either fail or quickly regress. In fact, our growing awareness of the situation may serve to increase the suffering as, through practice, we are now becoming increasingly aware. We may feel helpless, frustrated, or stuck. This is the most difficult and challenging stage of the change process when we are most likely to drop our practice and give up.
    Practice: mindful awareness and compassion – at this stage it is most helpful to become more familiar with the habit. By making it more conscious we are taking away some of its power. If we bring a critical awareness to this habit we create an antagonistic relationship with it, likely creating more suffering. However, with compassionate awareness  we begin to establish a friendly relationship with the habit leading to deeper understanding of the internal forces that support it.
    Counter forces: suffering and ignorance – the pain and suffering we begin to uncover at this point may push us into avoidance, thereby falling back into unconsciousness (ignorance).
  3. Conscious freedom (BPM 3, the death-rebirth struggle) – If we continue with our practice, we notice that given time, awareness, and applied effort things begin to change. We are sometimes able to notice the habit in real time and stop from engaging with it. There is a clear sense of hope here, but the struggle is far from over. Due to our practice, we’re now more aware than ever of the suffering brought about by our habit and we may also be gaining glimpses into the deep origins of this habit. The pull between deep psychological conditioning and the desire for freedom can be frustrating and painful. At times we may relapse into the previous stage and feel, once again, stuck. At other times, we may gain glimpses of freedom.
    Practice: conscious change – at this stage we may get more traction with practices that actively support new patterns. Keeping up the practice of mindful awareness we can supplement it with some form of compassionate intervention.
    Counter forces: suffering and resistance – as we begin to change our patterns we will likely encounter resistance. Bringing the same kind of compassionate awareness to the resistance is helpful.
  4. Unconscious freedom (BPM 4, the experience of death-rebirth) – If we continue with our practice we can create sustainable change. At this stage, the new pattern becomes natural and eventually unconscious. There is a subtle vulnerability at this stage as, after a while, one might become complacent and either fall back to earlier stages or miss the formation of new unhealthy habits. To guard against complacency it is important to develop an ongoing practice of mindful awareness and to maintain this attitude a part of one’s life.

This model can be applied to the process of undoing an unhealthy habit or to the process of acquiring a healthy one with just a small change in emphasis. Awareness of where we are in this model can help us to focus our efforts in the most effective way and serves as a reminder that even in our bleakest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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