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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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Going at least as far back as Jung, we’ve seen psychologists promoting the view that psychopathology is not a disease but rather an attempt by the psyche to bring about greater wholeness. There are usually several common factors that go into this view of psychopathology:

  1. The reality of the psyche. In Jung’s view, the intra-psychic experience of an individual cannot be ignored. The psyche has its own life and cannot be reduced to biology or basic psychological drives. The psyche speaks to us through dreams, intuition, visions, synchronicity and more.
  2. The psyche as as self-regulating system. When there is imbalance in the psyche, the psyche itself will attempt to bring back balance and healing. This attempt to restore balance often occurs through the methods mentioned above (dreams, visions, etc.) but in some cases, when the imbalance is too powerful, may appear to be a form of psychopathology. The Jungian view invites to look at psychopathology in a new light.
  3. An archetypal and/or mythical view of psychopathology. By considering the two points above, many researchers recognize an archetypal or mythical element in psychopathology. A good example of this view is in (Lukoff 1985) where we see various symbols and archetypes coming up in the patient’s experience of psychosis. These symbols can be used to gain insight into the patient’s world during the episode and perhaps more importantly can be used later as a source of guidance and insight for the patient himself.
  4. A spiritual component of psychopathology. In exploring the similarities between manic psychosis and mystical states, Lukoff (1988) suggests that there may be unrecognized spiritual insight hidden in what we call psychopathology. This insight may be valuable to the patient personally and may even be significant for society as a whole. A theme that occurs often in this context is that of the Hero’s journey where the hero’s confrontation with monstrous perils (psychopathology in this case) ends up in victory and the hero returns to his people bearing gifts (of insight).

I would like to explore this view deeper, specifically as it relates to addiction. I begin this exploration with the following quote from a letter C.G. Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) regarding a shared acquaintance and former client of Jung’s named Rowland H.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung equates here the alcoholic’s thirst for alcohol with the power that motivates the spiritual search, the the need for wholeness or a union with the divine. Jung goes on to talk about the ways to satisfy this craving.

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

According to Jung the way to satisfy this thirst is through a spiritual experience which comes about through an act of grace, contact with friends or through spiritual practice. Jung sees the symbolic connection between alcohol and God in the shared latin root – spirit. Indeed the 12 steps of AA are designed to bring about a spiritual experience based on Jung’s formulation: spiritus contra spiritum.

Following in the footsteps of Jung, Stan Grof (1993) looks at addiction as a form of spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergency is an “evolutionary crisis” (Grof & Grof 1993), a difficult stage that is a natural part of the developmental process. Spiritual emergency can be easily misdiagnosed as a form of psychopathology since they share many common symptoms like changes in consciousness, perception, emotional or cognitive functioning and others. However, a person undergoing a spiritual emergency is usually able to form a healthy relationship with the process and see it as part of an internal psychological process.

Addiction as spiritual emergency is different, since the spiritual component is often masked by the addiction itself or by the addict’s destructive tendencies. However, once we take into account Jung’s thoughts expressed above, the spiritual connection becomes clearer. This is supported by the reports of some alcoholics who describe their first experience of alcohol as containing a numinous character.

Grof (1993) suggests that the addict’s journey through and recovery is similar to a process of ego-death and rebirth. We can see this process by looking at the 12 steps of AA.

To begin with, the addict must recognize that he has hit bottom and is powerless in the face of his addiction, he has lost control of his personal and interpersonal lives and is unable to repair this on his own. The addict is then invited to turn over control to something greater than the personal self. When the addict becomes willing to surrender his will to a Higher Power, he has set out out on the path of transformation.

Next, with the guidance of a sponsor, the addict makes a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” In this step, the addict looks at his old way of being and lists out all the way in which it does not serve him and others. This part of the work focuses on blocks: fears, selfishness, dishonesty, etc. By making this old way of being conscious through self-reflection and through sharing it with another, the addict becomes willing to let go of this old way of being and to create room for something new. It is worth noting the similarity between this part of the healing process and Ken Wilber’s description of self-growth as a process where “the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next.”

It is possible that through the moral inventory, confession and willingness to let go of the old way of being the addict is now discovering a new way of being. In order to integrate the personality and to bring it more fully into this new way, the addict now engages in shadow work through the practice of making amends. Through this practice, the addict brings the light of consciousness to places that before remained hidden. It is important to note that the process of making amends is not about making apologies or seeking forgiveness; it is a process of admitting wrongs and accepting the consequences. In this way the recovering addict integrates those acts into wholeness.

Once the process of integration comes to completion, the addict is ready to engage with the world from a place of freedom and security. He is now becoming established in a healthy way of being and is supported in it through community and by continuing the practices of moral inventory, making amends and meditation or prayer. And, like the mythical hero returning from his adventure, he now has something new to share with the world and is called to do so through a dedication to service.

Of course, this is not the path that every addict takes. Not even every addict that arrives at a 12 step program walks the entirety of this path. But for many, the spiritual component of 12 step work is crucial and for those, the work becomes more than recovery, it is a spiritual practice.

References
C. Grof & S. Grof (1993). Spiritual emergency: The understanding and treatment of transpersonal crises. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 137-44). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
C. Grof (1993). Addiction as spiritual emergency. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 144-6). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
Lukoff, D. (1985). The myths in mental illness. Journal os Transpersonal Psychology, 17 (2), 123-153.
Lukoff, D. (1988). Transpersonal perspectives on manic psychosis: Creative, visionary, and mystical states. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20 (2).