This is a brief description of a map of self-transcendence designed to help us become the most complete human we can be in all realms of our life.

Self-transcendence is a possibility for nearly everyone.

While the process of maturation may never end, we are compelled to mature only to the point that we are at about the same level as most of those around us.  Beyond that point maturation becomes more and more difficult as it distinguishes us from others in our community.  The Orders of Self is a map for guiding and illuminating our efforts at gaining greater maturity, especially beyond the limits of what our own societies define as “normal.”  It is a map for going higher.

The Orders of Self is also a map of human experience that invites us to greater consciousness of what we already experience.  The territory already exists but most of us don’t choose to go exploring.  It is a map for going deeper.

Map of the Orders of Self

Introduction to the Orders of Self [PowerPoint]

As with any good map, the Orders of Self can help us know where we are, consider where we might be, and determine what we might do to get there.

The map is a synthesis of several different relevant maps.

  • Dualism: the concept that the structures we experience as solid are constructed by two apparently opposing forces.
  • Dimensionalism: The observation that there are distinct but co-occurring realms of reality that are always present everywhere.
  • Developmentalism: the observation that everything that grows does so through stages which are hierarchical, sequential, and invariant.

When we put these three together we get a map that is informed and confirmed by literally hundreds of other developmental maps.  We are looking for a map that is accurate, is current, and is simple enough to be useful while being complex enough to be helpful.  The Orders of Self is intended to be just this sort of map.

The Proximal Self

Medical terminology distinguishes distal from proximal.  The structure which is further from the mid-line is distal while that which is closer to the center is proximal.  We have many aspects of our awareness that vie for the title “Self.”  We are looking to find the one closest to the center, the proximal Self.

Aspects of a Cognitive Map

Paradigm, image, framework, concept, whatever we call them, there is an understanding we have of the world in which we live that constructs our perceptions and guides our behavior.  At times we have a framework for making sense of what is arising for us that doesn’t actually match reality, but we cling to it anyway.  These we call cognitive distortions.  When we act from a cognitive distortion we can be sure that we are not going to create what we need.

We act rightly when we hold our paradigms lightly being open to revising them as we get new information or as we are offered new perspectives.


Structures are created by the interaction of apparent opposites.  That which we perceive to be real is an artifact of a distinction between this and that.  Light-dark, up-down, in-out, on-off, hard-soft, create a surface which forms a structure and is the substance of what we experience.

One of the central dualities which give rise to our sense of ourselves is the discovery very early in our lives of a distinction between what is me and what is not me.  When my teeth hurt and I bite down on my teething ring, my teeth stop hurting.  When I bite down on my thumb, my thumb hurts.  My thumb is different from my teething ring in a very significant way.

Another fundamental duality is the distinction between what is arising and what it arouses in me.  I have no control of some aspects of my experience.  Some things just are that way.  But what I do about them is within my control.  This distinction is both so important and so difficult to observe that one of the central teachings for people in recovery is the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I have long felt is should be called the Wisdom Prayer.  The crucial distinction is the “wisdom to know the difference.”


We know that the three dimensions of “3D” have to do with the in-out, up-down, and right-left of physical objects.  We may know of time as a fourth dimension.  We may even speculate about alternative dimensions in which some other version of our Self makes different choices.  But we seldom notice that we are all living in multiple dimensions of another sort.

We know there is a material realm.  We have bodies and we own objects.  Indeed, much of what passes for science doesn’t even acknowledge the existence or the validity of any other realm. At least that is the position of the “hard’ sciences.

“Soft” sciences like economics or anthropology have their focus on another dimension, that of relationship or the interpersonal.  While they don’t study something that can be seen for itself, they observe the interplay between things that can be seen.

The science of psychology studies something even less substantial but no less important for knowing who we are.  We have an inner dimension which is the arena of our feelings, memories, and impulses.  This is the interior or the intrapersonal realm.

And we have the divine science, the disciplines of theology and metaphysics.  These have as their focus the spiritual or the transpersonal realm.

Thus it is that we all reside in four dimensions all the time (the personal-material, the interpersonal-relational, the intrapersonal-inner, and the transpersonal-spiritual) even though we are mostly only aware of the material and perhaps the relational.  Each seems less substantial than the one before it as the structures that arise within each realm are less dense, harder to trace or to describe, but no less real and no less relevant to whom we come to know our Selves to be.


Everything that grows does so in stages.  Sometimes the stages are easily identified as in the development of an insect through the stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult.  But in the development of humans the stages are less easily demarcated and there are many lines of development.  Someone, for example, may have attained a high level of cognitive ability but not be very mature ethically.

In any given line of development there are certain tasks or competencies that must be met before one is able to move to a more mature stage.  For this reason there is a hierarchy to the stages, they come in a set sequence, and one cannot skip a stage.  Each builds on the one before it.  We mature by transcending the earlier stages while including their insights and abilities into the newly developing ones.

Each level or stage is more complex than the one preceding it.  The work of attaining to the stage is worth it because it allows life to be experienced with greater clarity and thus living is simpler.  While each subsequent stage is better than the previous ones, insofar as it is a better tool for living, this doesn’t mean that someone who has attained that stage is better.  This is a hierarchy of complexity, not a hierarchy of value.

A Brief Description of the Eight Orders

When we take the four dimensions and see that the structures of each are constructed by the tension between what arises in reality and what that arouses in us and arrange them into a developmental sequence we get the eight Orders of Self.  In order to illuminate the eight as a process let’s briefly walk through them.

First Order (personal arising)

At birth we do not yet have a separate self sense.   We don’t remember this time but most developmental theorists see this as a time of undifferentiated experience.  There is nothing for us but our experience of experience.    At some point however we begin to discern a Self and an Other.  At some point there is a difference between the teething ring and my thumb.

What we experience is outside our control.  We are tired, and happy, and hungry, and colicky, and scared all without any sense that we could be otherwise.  We are fully in the moment.  There is no other option.

Second Order (personal arousing)

But then we begin to notice that when we are tired and we sleep we are rested.  We notice that when we are hungry and we eat we are satisfied.  We observe that the choices we make transform our experience and we discover that we are not our experiences; rather we are the ones who create our experience.  Our choices matter.

Over time we discover more and more options for what we have the capacity to create.  We learn to feed and dress ourselves, to cross the street looking both ways, and to call home when we get to a friend’s house. We become more and more responsible for ourselves and make more mature and helpful choices to construct the experiences we want.

In the material-personal realm there are events that happen that impact us and we discern what is happening, determine what we need, and act to create what we need such that we are more and more in control of our experiences.  But as we feel greater and greater competence in the material realm we start to notice other influences arising in the relational realm.  It is not that those influences didn’t exist before.  It is that they were not center-stage.

Third Order (interpersonal arising)

Usually about the time we are entering puberty we begin to become far more sensitive to the expectations of others.  We care about what our peers are wearing and whether we fit in.  We notice the increasing demands of teachers and parents and we struggle to either meet those demands or rebel against them.

While we focus more on our relationships with people, we also deepen our relationships with ideas.  The life of the mind becomes more important and we discover an ability to think about how we think.  We develop ideals, become idealistic, and may even revel in idealism.  We may actively reject the materialism we once rested in.

Relationships with people and ideals often arise in tandem as we find our identity within a particular group with a particular worldview or set of values.  These identifications can be around politics or religion or fashion or sports.  We rest secure in our identity as a member of a particular community.

Fourth Order (interpersonal arousing)

But then we begin to notice that the demands of the group, or of one group against the demands of another, put us into a tension with a deeper sense of ourselves.  We know who others expect us to be, but is this really who we want to be? Can we discern and express a more authentic self that is uniquely who we are?

Researchers in adult development have determined that this is the growing edge for most adults in the developed world.  For most of human history we have only had to grow to Third Order.  To survive in the post-modern world we have to be able to construct an identity that mediates competing demands for who it is that we are supposed to be. We are challenged to decide just who we will be, what we value, and how we will show up in our relationships to others.  We are Self-creating.

Fifth Order (intrapersonal arising)

Except that, having decided who we will be, we then often don’t follow through on our personal commitments.  I may for example have decided to only eat healthy foods and to avoid simple sugars, saturated fats, and refined flours.  So what am I doing with a donut in my mouth?

We find that we are of two minds about a great many things.  As we pay more and more attention to our own interior-intrapersonal experience we find considerable conflict.  Parts of me don’t like other parts of me.  I am internally polarized.  I am trying to find peace but instead I discover my own internal contradictions.

This is what we sometimes call shadow work because it is observing aspects of ourselves that we have hidden in the shadows.  It is made more difficult by the fact that most of those around us don’t go into their interiors and are threatened when we do.  It takes great courage and often skilled and compassionate support from others to get to know and to care about some aspects of who we are.

Sixth Order (intrapersonal arousing)

But as we come to know who we are and to identify and witness parts of ourselves that have been in exile and to attend to them with curiosity and compassion we find a capacity to hold to a perspective on our own life and the lives of others than is both powerful and calm.  We know that while we have an ego, we are not our ego; we are not the things with which we identify.

This is a profound shift in perspective.  Some theorists refer to this as Second Tier thinking as it is qualitatively different than the perspectives that came before.  Now we have the ability to go back and witness each of the earlier Orders as a necessary step in getting to where we are.  Those persons whose primary identification is with an earlier and less complex way of seeing are not bad or wrong, simply in a process of maturation that we too have walked.

This is a way of seeing that we sometimes refer to as non-dual awareness or unitive consciousness.  It is a perspective of peace and power and we could just rest here and enjoy the spaciousness that comes with this awareness.

Seventh Order (transpersonal arising)

Except that all around us there are others who are still suffering.  They are still stuck in ignorance and illusion; still making choices that harm themselves and others.  Our hearts break open in compassion for them.  We see their suffering in the context of the peace and power of our own perspective and we long to reach out and care for them.

And so we move into the spiritual-transpersonal realm of our deepest identity and highest purpose.  The compassion we find here is not the sympathy that our community taught us to feel at Third Order.  This is awareness rooted in a clear knowledge that the power of the complex perspectives we have attained is a consequence of grace and the mercy of God.  It is given, not earned, and we are eager to be a bodhisattva and commit ourselves to healing of the world.

Eighth Order (transpersonal arousing)

At some point, sometimes in a flash and sometimes in a gently growing awareness, we find that we are not actually separate from all that is arising.  We are but a wave in the ocean of the energy and the intelligence that gives rise to all that is.  We are a manifestation of the love that gives rise to everything, perfect and whole, just as it is.

States and Stages

Each of these eight Orders describes a perspective that is available to all of us all the time.  Nevertheless, the ability to see from these perspectives at will is something we have to work at.  We may have had an experience of deep compassion characteristic of Seventh Order but not be able to summon that when our best friend has not invited us to the party.  We may have experienced the state, but we cannot reconstruct it because we are not yet at that stage.  Being able to see from a given perspective whenever we find it helpful requires that we have sufficiently resolved the developmental issues at the earlier orders.

Tools for Transformation

Because we long to be our best selves and to find union with the divine we engage is various disciplines or practices to support our transformation.  These tend to fall into one of two broad categories.  They are ways to address the problems of living that we experience in the moment, or they set up circumstances by which we can see, if only for a instant, from the vantage point of a higher perspective.

Problems of Living

Perhaps the most well-known of this type of tool is Twelve-Step Recovery.  It is designed to help people who are struggling to make it to Third Order and who typically address problems by resorting to a Second Order solution, often through the use of mood-altering drugs.  It creates a framework of practices by which one commits to certain Third Order constraints called working a program and is overseen by a sponsor, someone familiar with the process by having lived it and who is now working to construct a robust Fourth Order identity.

There are literally thousands of programs one can enroll in which guide one through a set of steps to address a current issue and move to a more complex but effective perspective. They may have a different starting point but they all help one to get grounded in what is actually arising in the moment and then to discover a new way of being to move into the next higher stage of development.

Attaining to Higher States

Another broad category takes the seeker to a higher state than one normally inhabits to see what things “look like from here.”  Under the very broad umbrella of meditation one can find guided meditation experiences that lead to Fifth Order awareness of one’s inner parts and some (like Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind process) go even higher.  These guided experiences are a kind of kataphatic practice.

A less structured apophatic approach is meditation that takes away this and that until all that is left is an experience of pure awareness.  These practices have been taught and used for literally thousands of years, but they generally work very slowly.  Those who have used them to attain enlightenment practice them for hours each day.  They create stillness in one’s awareness that forces the unresolved issues at the earlier orders to rise to the surface.  There they can be addressed either by our own conscious awareness, or better, in consultation with a spiritual guide.

While there is only one mountain, there are many paths to the peak.  The way is variously described in different traditions but all practices have

  • an intention to transform ourselves,
  • by paying attention to what is,
  • while requiring that we repeat the practice over and over
  • as we are guided by our interior awareness and the support of a spiritual community or guide.

© 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *