Pre-conventional, Conventional and Trans-personal Stages of Development

Recent psychological studies in human development suggest an interesting three-stage model of development: pre-conventional, conventional and trans-personal (or post-conventional). Most people successfully reach and settle into the second stage, conforming to accepted patterns of social conventions. The third stage, which reflects authentic individual maturation, is relatively rare, and is generally not supported by society.

As children, we are born innocent into a bewildering world. We are gradually conditioned into accepting the ways of the world, and we begin to derive a sense of identity and security in society, based on how well we conform to the accepted norms. This process of enculturation is so overwhelming that the maturation from the pre-conventional to the conventional takes place automatically, and is considered 'normal'. It operates in all kinds of informal and formal ways: at home, in the neighbourhood, at school, through the newspapers, TV and movies, at the workplace, and in practically all our social interactions. The indoctrination is so strong and complete that we generally end up believing in the accepted worldview and treat it as a true representation of reality. Society supports and encourages this, and in fact, blocks the stage of trans-personal growth in individuals, because this often implies breaking out of or going beyond accepted conventions.

There are many things of considerable value in the conventional worldview, but ultimately they are limiting and cannot satisfy the evolutionary quest for self-actualisation that lies dormant in every individual. The primary limitation of conventionality, as many wise people have repeatedly pointed out, is that it tends to be deadening, inauthentic and essentially unfulfilling. In a spiritual context, it is a kind of 'collective hypnosis' or 'consensus trance', from which we need to break out if we are to discover for ourselves, first-hand, authentic fulfilment, aliveness and sacredness, all of which is ever-present in the core of our being and in the universe.

Dimensions of Trans-personal Growth

Every individual has the potential for development to the trans-personal realm, and there are many dimensions in which this development is possible, not just the spiritual. Those who have advanced considerably in one dimension (say, cognitive brilliance or meditative awareness) may be at a rudimentary (pre-conventional) stage or a conventional stage of development in other dimensions, such as the interpersonal or psycho-sexual. Even within one dimension (say cognition), there is a fairly wide spectrum of areas (such as the humanities and sciences), all of which cannot be developed to the same depth by a single individual. Hence, persons who may be 'masters' in certain areas of specialization will find it difficult to understand deeply in other areas, or feel compassion.

It is not always that we have the self-awareness and humility to acknowledge: I really don't know; my understanding in this area is rudimentary. It is more common to blunder forth blissfully, talk authoritatively, and make sweeping generalizations on issues that we have little understanding or appreciation of. It is neither necessary nor possible to accomplish development at a trans-personal level in all dimensions. But it is indeed desirable to discover the trans-personal in those areas for which one has an aptitude, to recognize one's own limitations in other areas, and to discover the space and grace to accommodate all viewpoints.

Evolutionary Progress

Growth into the trans-personal (post-conventional) level is evolutionary in nature, in the sense that it progresses from the pre-conventional and through the conventional. The progression into the trans-personal is usually triggered by a strong dissatisfaction with the conventional, and is realized after significant inner transformation that varies from person to person. The trans-personal is unconventional; but being unconventional per se does not imply being transpersonal.

The trans-personal contains within its realm the conventional and the pre-conventional. This is what enables an individual at the trans-personal stage of development to understand deeply and empathize with the conventional and the pre-conventional.

The trans-personal can often appear to be bewildering to the conventional and pre-conventional. It begins to make sense only when the individual has ripened to a stage where he or she, troubled by the limitations of the conventional, is ready to move on and transcend. It may be perhaps possible, in some rare cases, for someone at the pre-conventional level to bypass the conventional and reach the trans-personal.

Trans-personal Spirituality

Trans-personal growth in the spiritual dimension is recognized by the wisdom of the ages to be a realization of the ultimate purpose of human life. Elements of the spiritual dimension, such as a sense of blissful oneness with nature, do manifest in earlier stages, and in particular, in the pre-conventional stage, but there is a significant difference in the type of realization.

During infancy, there is barely any clear awareness of a separate self, and the world is a part of oneself. The child, in fact, often refers to itself in the third person. As the child grows and begins to discover its own urges which run into conflict with the outer world, awareness of a separate egoself begins to emerge. The fragmentation into the separate ego-self becomes full-blown in the conventional stage of development. Subsequently, if and when the individual advances into the trans-personal stage, there is a growing realisation that the ego-self is but a false mental construct, and liberation lies in its dissolution.

Being in the pre-conventional stage, the child largely experiences things from its own point-of-view and is unable to comprehend or feel compassion for the needs of others, whereas in the trans-personal stage, there is a deep understanding of and compassion for others. Trans-personal spirituality is inclusive in an absolute sense, without fragmentation.

Role of Education

Education is the flowering of the individual from the pre-conventional to the trans-personal stage of development. It is a life-long endeavour.

Formal education in today's society is limited to the initial period of one's life, and its primary objective, as viewed conventionally, is to enable an individual to earn a livelihood. Conventional formal education in schools and colleges is aimed at enabling a maturation of the individual from the pre-conventional stage to the conventional stage. Individuals may subsequently, out of their own interest and initiative, unlearn and learn afresh, to progress further into the trans-personal stage. Self-education is a powerful and sure way to trans-personal growth, provided there is sincerity of purpose and a strong inner drive. One then discovers the beautiful inter-connectedness of the universe, and marvels at the way one is led onwards, through trial and error, and through teachings and insights that appear and disappear endlessly.

But there are schools where education is more enlightened, and these are schools that are either founded by great educational thinkers who have delved deeply into the trans-personal dimension, or schools that are inspired by their teachings (this includes the Krishnamurti Schools). The education here is less formal, more natural in its evolution, and certainly positions the student better for trans-personal growth. However, the conventional stage of development cannot be bypassed or wished away. Students must also be prepared to understand and meet the ways of the world; otherwise, the transition from such a school to the real world can be extremely difficult and bewildering. Hopefully, the trans-personal flavour of the teachings will sustain in the individual through the turbulent period of dealing with the existential problems of the real world, and make it possible to be in the world, but not of it.

Freedom or Bondage?

However, it is not easy for any system of education or any organisational set-up to realise trans-personal wisdom. The very nature of an organisation, and the fact that it is set up to promote or propagate some value system or teaching, no matter how noble or evolved, pushes it into a conventional mode. Although the values adopted may be completely different from others, and far more enlightened, they can, and often do, end up as conventions. There is the danger of becoming institutionalised, of the original vision losing its vibrancy and becoming static and authoritarian. And this is perhaps as true of Krishnamurti Schools as any others. This is something that the teachers and administrators need to be aware of and try to guard against.

Perhaps in the Krishnamurti Schools the teachings have truly resulted in a fundamental change in attitude. But is this the radical transformation that Krishnamurti was pointing at, something that was clearly reflected in his own life? Or, over the years has there been a plateau in the transformation process, and instead of freedom from the known (which includes the teachings or the vision), there is bondage? In which case, is there not a need to till the soil of the psyche again and again, to root out the weeds of dead insights, and to allow for the fresh and the new to take birth and flower? The fresh and the new may spring from within one or be inspired from outside, but this is possible only if the mind is open and free from enculturation and bondage to any teaching. Enculturation of the mind manifests in going around repeatedly through the same old familiar grooves of thought and enquiry, without breaking through to that which is beyond thought.

It is not easy for individuals within a system to see whether or not they are falling into the 'consensus trance' that is characteristic of the conventional realm, unless they are very alert and self-aware. Typical tell-tale signs are a cult-like adherence to conventions, in terms of ideology, style of discourse and even choice of words that seem to be an echo of the original founder. These may be good conventions, but their 'goodness' is suspect when they tend to be binding. The beauty of authentic trans-personal realisation is that it cannot help but manifest in original, spontaneous and creative expression, which is not cultivated, but is born from first-hand living experience.

Century after century, and sage after sage have pointed to the transpersonal realm. It is that which they are all pointing to which is of vital importance, not the particular finger (teaching) that points.

Remaining awake to our major purpose

Imagine Krishnamurti to be reborn, unknown to all, including himself! Imagine him as a student in one of the present-day Krishnamurti schools. How would such a person respond to the 'teachings' that are encoded in the structuring and running of the school? Would he or she simply accept and follow them? Or would he or she rebel, and brilliantly blaze an original trail to the trans-personal? More importantly, how would the teachers and school authorities respond to the student's behaviour? Would they have the wisdom to recognise the potential emergence of the trans-personal in new forms? Will they do their best to encourage and facilitate this emergence? Or, will they, acting in good faith, do their best to thwart it and 'correct' it? Are these not crucial questions to ponder over?

The exceptional boys and girls in our schools and colleges may evolve to the trans-personal, with, or in spite of, our help. Our task in education is to facilitate this in as many individuals and in as many ways as possible. To make this possible, we need to make our own journey to the trans-personal the major definite purpose of our lives, and allow it to unfold in ways . that are not pre-determined or conformist. We need to be awake and alert to entrapments that lull us into a false sense of security.

We will do well to assess whether our current stage of development is authentically trans-personal or merely the conventional in a different guise. Our hearts will reveal the truth and guide us, if we would but let them.

Devdas Menon is presently a professor of civil engineering at IIT Madras, Chennai. In addition to his various academic contributions, he is known for his expertise as a structural consultant involved in various projects in India and abroad.