Tag Archives: secular buddhism

Second class practitioners? Kegan’s stages, Eternalism, and Secular Buddhism

In recent months I’ve been stimulated into a lot of new thoughts by reading Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. Kegan draws on the tradition of psychology that goes back to Jean Piaget, who first studied the cognitive and moral development of children and was able to isolate distinct stages in that development. But Kegan continues that development model into adulthood, isolating 5 relatively clear (though of course not totally distinct) stages. In each of these stages, it is a new level of awareness that makes the difference from the previous stage, by making what was previously taken for granted a new object of awareness. Using Kegan’s labels, the stages are as follows:

Infancy:  Objects not clearly differentiated

Stage 1: Impulsive Stage: Objects differentiated from each other, but not from self (early childhood)

Stage 2: Imperial Stage: Self recognised as acting in the world, and others as like me. Peer relations are bargains (late childhood, plus 6% of adults).

Stage 3: Interpersonal Stage: Others recognised as having perspectives different from oneself, and view of oneself is dependent on their acknowledgement (usually reached in adolescence). According to Natalie Morad, 58% of the adult population stay at this stage.

Stage 4: Institutional Stage: Truth believed to be formed by the self through reason, and to lie beyond the limitations of relationships, but nevertheless dependent on certain limited sources of knowledge (usually reached in adulthood – by about 36% of the population, often through university education or career demands).

Stage 5: Interindividual Stage: A recognition of differing sources of justification whilst recognising one’s own role in using them. ‘Genuine intimacy’ reached in relationships where independent judgement of each is secure (only reached by about 1% of the population, usually in later adulthood).

What is wonderful about this theoretical model is that it combines psychology, epistemology and ethics in a thoroughly convincing way. It is based on plenty of psychological evidence, and takes into account the complexity and vagueness of our transitions between stages, but nevertheless is able to identify the points of developmental stability that create each of the stages. It’s an immensely rich model, and I expect to be writing a lot more about it in the future. I will put links to some more resources about Kegan’s model at the bottom of this article.

What I’m interested in exploring here, though, is some thoughts about the relationship between the stages in this model, the Middle Way, and Buddhism. The relationship between stage 5 and the Middle Way should be obvious to anyone who explores them both. The Middle Way avoids absolutisations, and absolutisations usually mean taking for granted a particular source of information and its assumptions, whether those assumptions are positive or negative and whether they are found in a religious, political, philosophical, scientific, or whatever other context. At the same time, the Middle Way is not relativistic or nihilistic: it doesn’t assume that all sources of information are equally true. Rather, it’s the responsibility of each of us to make our own judgements about the justification of differing beliefs from different sources. At stage 5, people will start looking beyond the specific set of assumptions that are taken for granted in their starting culture, and look for value in very different approaches. They are thus more likely to be able to break down polarising assumptions (e.g. those of a specific religious tradition or scientific training) and move beyond the limitations of over-specialised experience. Nevertheless, if they’re securely in stage 5, that won’t make them feel hopelessly adrift. Their sense of confidence will be based on bodily experience rather than the absolute authority of particular sources.

Kegan’s stages make it clear why the Middle Way is valuable, and why its use is such an important element of the general human capacity to operate adequately in our changing environments, but also why so relatively few people seem ready to engage with it. If the figure of 1% at stage 5 is correct (which I have taken from Natalie Morad – she does not give a source), then we should not be surprised that most people are simply puzzled by the Middle Way and cannot see the point of it. For those not ready to move on from stage 4, it may seem flakey and over-vague, too reminiscent of the lack of rigour they associate with stage 3. For those still in stage 3, it will probably seem cold and impersonal, just a further puzzling stage 4 phenomenon.

I have recently been thinking about the role these stages play in the Buddhist tradition, where the idea of Middle Way has been preserved and passed down, even if it’s also been mixed with other assumptions. One of the things that’s always puzzled me in the Buddhist presentation of the Middle Way is the lack of even-handedness between the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ that Buddhism identifies as the absolutes to be avoided. Eternalism is considered better, because it is closely associated with the role of lay as opposed to monastic Buddhism. The lay Buddhist, traditionally, aims not to practice the Middle Way but rather to conform to the absolutes of the law of karma, working to achieve merit within the just world-view created by belief in karma and rebirth, so as to gain a better rebirth in the future. Lay Buddhists are second-class practitioners, not generally considered capable of working towards nirvana just yet. But do Kegan’s stages provide a practical justification for this? Is it just that lay-people, caught up at levels 3 and 4, are simply not ready for the subtleties and insecurities of the Middle Way?

Only to some limited extent, I think. For one thing, we cannot assume that most monks or nuns are at level 5: many of them will have similar limitations. Nor can we assume that all lay people are not at level 5: there may be many reasons why they cannot ordain. For another, ordination can offer at best a very crude and discontinuous reflection of psychological stages. If one was to devise a social system that was optimally geared to helping people develop best at the stage they are at, it would not be one that separates people into first and second class practitioners for life, but something much more continuous, more flexible and less subject to potential abuses of power.

These thoughts about eternalism and the division between monastic and lay Buddhism have also led me onto another area of puzzlement in recent years – Secular Buddhism. The Middle Way Society originally arose from a group of people who met in a Secular Buddhist context, but Secular Buddhism is only sometimes, and somewhat incidentally, about the Middle Way (even though there are practical overlaps such as the use of meditation).  For a long time I used to engage in rather fruitless online debates with Secular Buddhists (at least those from the US-based Secular Buddhist Association) in continuing disbelief that they weren’t interested in the Middle Way, which seems to me such an obvious way of combining the strengths of both scientific/ secular and traditional Buddhist outlooks. But I’ve gradually been getting the message that most Secular Buddhists just aren’t interested, and usually won’t even get into discussion about what the Middle Way means, despite its prominence in Buddhist scriptures.

Kegan is beginning to give me a bit more of a general psychological explanation as to why this might be the case. With a few exceptions, most Secular Buddhists seem to be very much in a stage 4 way of thinking. In this case, it is stage 4, not based on traditional Buddhist ideology, but on naturalistic thinking that appeals to the results (rather than the methods) of science.  Many of them also seem to be trained in STEM subjects (sciences, maths, computing) where the basis of education often seems to be heavy on rigorous ways of proving presumed facts but light on imagining other possible perspectives. The chief intellectual publicist of the Secular Buddhist Association, Douglas Smith, is an analytic philosopher, with no evident interest in the ways that Buddhism might offer resources for questioning naturalism. The parallels with lay Buddhism are thus clear. Instead of karma and rebirth, Secular Buddhists of this kind rely on scientific results: but these provide a similar level of relatable security, and thus a basis of mass participation, for the latest generation of Westerners who do not want to accept supernatural beliefs but want an acceptable version of Buddhism.

So, if one concentrates instead on the Middle Way, is this hopelessly limiting oneself to a tiny elite? Well, I don’t think so, for several reasons – even though I can also see why people find the Middle Way a difficult concept to engage with. One reason is that the Middle Way provides a universality of perspective that is missing for those concentrating on stage 4. Stage 4 thinking is typically coherent, but polarised. Stage 4 religious thinkers are polarised against stage 4 secular ones, socialist or ‘liberal’ ones against conservative ones, and so on. It’s vital to encourage as many people as possible to move on to stage 5 for that reason, because it creates the conditions for a dialectical process in which people are able to reconsider their assumptions more profoundly. It’s not about being elitist, because it’s not about aggregating or using power, but rather about encouraging wider awareness. That’s where the critical universalism offered by the Middle Way becomes vital.

Another reason that I’m not too discouraged is that, even if Morad’s figures are correct, I can’t accept that the proportion of stage 5 thinkers is fixed, nor that the boundaries are particularly clear. I would imagine (but can’t demonstrate) that the numbers of stage 5 people are probably on an upward trend, due to rising levels of education, cultural diversity, religious experimentation etc. in the world as a whole. There may be many more stage 4 people around who can be coaxed on to stage 5 than 1% of the population.

A third reason why I think the Middle Way is not simply an idea for an elite is that it also forms a necessary part of our transition from any of Kegan’s stages to the next one. In the tricky transition stage, we cannot absolutise either the previous stage or the next one, but have to remain content with a messy in-between state for a while in order to actually make the transition. We have to let go of an old view of ourselves and others without grasping too hastily at the new one. In a wider sense, the Middle Way is simply a description of how people make progress and address conditions better, whether morally, epistemologically, scientifically, politically, artistically or psychologically. I suspect, then, that there are also ways of communicating it helpfully to people who are transitioning between earlier stages, even if they are not ready to engage with it so fully.


Some sources of further information on Robert Kegan’s psychological stages:

Natalie Morad’s article in Medium, part 1 and part 2

A very useful paper by Karen Eriksen giving more detail than Morad

David Chapman’s summary of Kegan’s model (it was from Chapman that I was first alerted to Kegan)

Video of Robert Kegan’s talk to the RSA (highly recommended):


Pictures: (1) Robert Kegan by US Navy (public domain). (2) Newari girls (lay Buddhists) by Krish Dulal CCBYSA3.0

The MWS Podcast: Episode 26, Martine Batchelor on Ethics from a Buddhist perspective

In this episode Martine Batchelor, a Buddhist teacher and author talks about ethics from a Buddhist perspective and to what extent it differs from more rule based ethical positions. We also explore topics such as absolutism versus relativism, karma, ‘engaged’ Buddhism, the precept of non-harming, laying people off, prisons and her understanding of the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 26: Martine Batchelor as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_26_Martine_Batchelor

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The MWS Podcast: Episode 16, Vishvapani Blomfield

In this episode the broadcaster, writer and mindfulness trainer Vishvapani Blomfield talks to us about mindfulness and the Middle Way both in terms of how he sees them being approached from a more secular or a more religious perspective. He also talks about enlightenment, Jung and integration, the relationship of the Middle Way with the arts, incrementality and his agnostic position on karma and rebirth.

MWS Podcast 16: Vishvapani Blomfield as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_16_Vishvapani_Blomfield

Previous podcasts:

Episode 15: Lesley Jeffries and Jim O’Driscoll, the founders of Language in Conflict
Episode 14: The writer and journalist Mark Vernon on agnosticism.
Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 7, Stephen Batchelor

In this episode, the secular Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor talks about his interest in photography and collage, how he sees art as an integrative practice and how he feels it relates to the Middle Way.

The Youtube version of the talk is illustrated with pictures from Stephen’s ‘Imperfect Mirrors’ series.

MWS Podcast 7: Stephen Batchelor as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_7_Stephen Batchelor

Click here to view other podcasts