From Spiral Dynamics to Chromatic Dynamics

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Exploring Our Multidimensional Selves in Living Colour


Survive. Thrive. Break Free. Agree. Achieve. Believe. Live. Whole.

Almost 15 years ago, I led a team that created and delivered a three-and-a-half-day retreat that revolved around these words. In my research for a theme for the 5th Annual Spirit-Haven Retreat that year, I had encountered the research of psychologist Dr. Clare Graves (1914-1986) who created a model that he referred to as the “Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory.”  

“The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behaviour systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change,” wrote Graves.  

Believing that human nature is mutable and that we progress and regress as we adapt to changes in our environment, our interactions with others and changes within ourselves, Graves identified stable platforms or “memes” that marked levels of progress in this unending journey.

His research influenced many other theorists, chief of which were Chris Cowan and Don Beck, who based their seminal work, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, on the work of their mentor. This book was highly referenced by the integral theorist, Ken Wilbur, a name I know is familiar to readers of this publication. Graves never commercialized his research; numerous independent companies have since created and marketed assessments and training materials and bestow certifications in variants of Graves’s work.

I found it all fascinating and highly adaptive to a spiritually-based approach. I dug into whatever I could find online and deconstructed these ideas from a Pagan viewpoint. We created an interactive series of workshops for the retreat weekend, beginning with the first of the platforms, and moving through the Spiral, exploring each level and where we, as individuals, felt we were in our emergent evolution along the Pagan Spiral Path.

I took to heart the cautionary note about the potential of misappropriating the essence of this work as a non-rigorous, non-academic researcher when I read a comment by Cowan and his associate Natasha Todorovic.  

Many people doing a web search have come to see Spiral Dynamics as quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo rather than a useful program incorporating a theory of human behaviour that can apply to many realms of life, from personal growth to business and politics, including religion.

Paganism very much takes a “whole life” view – the principle of “As Above, So Below, As Within, So Without” – we create the changes we wish to see through acts of will and consciousness. We reshaped the essence of Grave’s ideas as we understood them into teachings that would enlighten and empower our attendees to see their lives through a new and different filter, fulfilling the mandate given us by the Oracle of Delphi: to know ourselves.

Our first challenge was to understand how we experience regression and progression in our growth through these hierarchically organized platforms. We move perpetually back and forth, up and down, and depending on the areas of life upon which we focus, it is as if we “exist” on multiple platforms simultaneously. If we are honest in our self-evaluation and willing to continually drill down into the components of our life, it is apparent that we have a macro (whole life) and micro (individual areas or choices) designations of the stages we are at.  

We often revisit life experiences (new job, new love, faith shift, healing crisis), but from a different vantage point due to our experiences. That new perspective may be from a higher or lower platform on the Spiral (not in any way a better or worse position – there are no value judgments between the platforms, only ongoing learning opportunities based on changes of self-awareness).

We ride the self-knowledge escalators up and down, moving freely among the stages as our self-awareness, self-improvement and self-realization efforts intensify. I may, after careful consideration, feel that my life is “in the Blue.”  But as I break it down, my relationship with Abundance may be “Beige,” my professional life may be “Red,” and my home life may be “Turquoise” – except when it comes to issues of Abundance (back to learning Beige lessons!)

We spent months developing a Pagan-positive understanding of these levels, admittedly ranging a bit far afield from Graves’s highly refined academic work, but striving to remain as faithful as possible to what we lay-folk understood to be the essence of his theories – without resorting to “spiritual mumbo-jumbo.” 

How We Interpreted These Memes/Platforms/Colours

These are the core ideas we worked with for each platform. There were individual and collective exercises and experiential programming, singing, dancing and ritual that illuminated these ideas in a more Wiccan/Pagan/Spiritual context over the days we were together.

Beige – Survive!

Beige is our relationship to Abundance and Resources – food, water, shelter, sex, safety. We feel the needs of our bodies and act independently to meet those needs. We learn, we work, we accumulate, we hunt and gather. We join in common cause to share resources, have companionship and find partners to build families and tribes.

We learn to discern between needs and wants, what survival means in our present reality. We pay attention to the quality of what we consume and take care of our health. We accept personal responsibility and assume a certain level of independence to guarantee our survival. Nature is our provider but contains danger.

The Shadow Side: This ranges from workaholism, hoarding, a poor relationship with Abundance, physical and mental health issues due to stress, malnutrition, poor self-care, to an unhealthy adversarial approach to anything you may perceive that threatens your well-being.

Transition Point: The awakening of a sense of the dependent self in a mysterious and frightening world where being with others means safety.

Purple – Thrive!

We gather together into tribes based on commonly held beliefs and shared practices, as well as for safety. The world has magic and mystery in it – and we seek to explain what we do not understand through stories, songs, dances and art. We create hierarchy by honouring our Ancestors, our Elders, our Chieftains. We work together to keep the Tribe, the Elders, the Ancestors and the Spirits happy.

By sharing common space and goals, we create, adhere and take great comfort from ritual and customs. We obey the laws of the tribe. We have faith in our Leaders and our Gods to protect us. Nature is our companion and cherished resource.

The Shadow Side: We lose ourselves in the crowd and fall into mindless conformity. We have an overreliance on the belief that the tribe will keep us safe and abdicate our responsibility to others. Our superstition and fear of the Gods, Ancestors and the unknown limit us.

Transition Point: The awakening of an egocentric self-determined individual to break the imposed shackles of the family or tribe and become a powerful individual.

Red – Break Free!

We accept the mantle of personal responsibility as a member of a diverse and integrated society and learn to stand alone in a mature way within the collective. We develop an active and ongoing sense of self and the necessary value of our individual contribution. We learn and master skills that benefit us and our community. We build networks and learn how to find and access resources.

We learn to manage our own power, to create and share our gifts without shame or arrogance. We challenge the limits and reject that which does not move us forward. We guarantee our own survival and that of our dependents.

The Shadow Side: We struggle with “Power Over” –  exploiting the weak and abusing our resources. Selfishness moves from being a virtue to a vice. We become domineering, even abusive and predatory. Nature is there for our use.

Transition Point: The awakening of a purposeful self with the ability to take responsibility, in search of meaning in a purposeful existence and reasons why we live and die.

Blue – Agree!

Life has meaning, purpose and direction, and we can securely predict the outcomes of our actions. We accept that there may be some Absolute Truth that is greater than ourselves. We congregate, we join, we believe. We share resources and learn new skills.

Our “righteous living” produces stability and guarantees a future reward. Everything and everyone has their proper place, as laws, regulation and discipline build character, moral fibre and communal structure. We empower leadership to manage our shared resources and feel secure within the structure we have collectively built. Nature can be controlled to contribute to our greater purpose.

The Shadow Side: The larger the tribe, the greater the danger that Anointed or Appointed Leadership will fall out of balance, becoming either overly consensual or authoritarian. Structured society causes us to feel powerless, and we become passive-aggressive to remain faithful to our core but to stay safe in the structure.

Transition Point: The awakening of a pragmatic, independence-seeking self who challenges authority and scientifically tests the possibilities and boundaries.

Orange – Achieve!

We prosper as a society through shared discoveries, co-creating systems, and technologies that serve the greater good. We share focus and competitive behaviours to achieve success and growth. We become more pragmatic, testing options, taking risks, maneuvering and strategizing. We try to minimize harm – there is no malice, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. For one to win, another must lose.

We exhibit self-confidence, we communicate passionately, we take pride and seek acknowledgment for our contributions to the whole.  

The Shadow Side: Healthy competitive drive becomes narcissistic and harmful. We start to believe our own press – both individually and collectively. We become blind to the harm we cause to others, and to Nature. We justify. We chafe against societal restrictions put in place for the good of the whole, and break boundaries in an unhealthy way. Nature is our resource centre.

Transition Point: The awakening of a sociocentric self who strives for belonging and acceptance to discover Spirit, inner harmony and peace.

Green – Believe!

We seek peace within the inner self and explore, with others, the caring dimensions and power of community. Our spirit seeks freedom from greed, dogma and divisiveness; we can feel, be sensitive and care. We supersede cold rationality. We strive to create a place where we find love and purpose through our affiliations, sharing in harmony and celebrating mutual growth and awareness.

Personal differences can be celebrated and not feared. We embrace the human element and explore the human bond. We can accept relativism, consent, situational fluidity. Our embrace of sustainability, collaboration and teamwork. We can nurture and share Nature’s resources and opportunities equally among all people.

The Shadow Side:  Systems collapse and structures crumble due to lack of leadership and appropriate boundaries. We no longer see the wolves among the sheep, and predators or hoarders cause damage to the collective. Consensus replaces decisiveness, and a lack of momentum may cause stagnation. Nature’s resources exist as a profit centre if I get there first.

Transition Point: The awakening of an inquiring, interdependent self who no longer needs approval, yet can collaborate as needed.

Yellow – Live!

We live fully and responsibly as who we are, in continual improvement. We accept life as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies, systems and structures, celebrating their existence more than their material values. We strive for flexibility, spontaneity and functionality. Differences are integrated and resolved into interdependent natural flows of energy.

We explore independence as a product of our self-worth and live in a balanced system where our work adds benefit. We question what is, integrate challenging answers, new ideas and skills, and we are consistent. Nature is our cherished and valued partner.

The Shadow Side: We don’t rise to the challenge of embracing change and we impose our judgment on self and others. We find friction and are unwilling to resolve it through self-examination and accepting our contribution to that friction. We negate the challenging opinions of others and build barriers instead of bridges. Nature is a bank from which we make more withdrawals than deposits.

Transition Point: The awakening of an experiential soul who seeks a way of living that uses knowledge to restore natural harmony and balance.

Turquoise – Whole!

We experience the wholeness of existence in body, mind and spirit. We live a holistic life, in balance with self, others and the natural world. We share resources freely to eliminate poverty, famine, disease and distress.

We are both whole, perfect and complete individuals and vibrant contributors to a collective society, a global and diverse community joined in consciousness. We navigate through life on the web of interconnectivity, where energy and information create a world that cares for self, one another and Nature as our sources of a richly abundant and fulfilled life.

The Shadow Side: We bring people into our Paradise against their will, assuming we know best and seeking to assimilate them into the whole. We establish conformity to rules and mandatory behaviours. Leadership can fall into corruption and manipulate the options and choices of others.


Graves had an eighth meme – Coral – and he believed that there were more levels to be discovered as this model was more fully explored through ongoing research into the human condition. He saw these as platforms within a double helix structure, one side of the Spiral connecting to our physical reality, and the other to the psyche and our coping mechanisms in dealing with those conditions. 

As we concluded each colour/meme-themed workshop, participants were given a coloured bead to create their own bracelet or necklace. It was the best we could do to represent the abstract concepts physically to help them remember each stage as they returned to the reality of their lives at the weekend’s close.

Many of us retreaters were members of a spiritual community where our work with these concepts permeated our collective. I continued to read and research, albeit with less intensity, the concepts of Spiral Dynamics, and started to see various companies “codify” their own interpretation of Graves’s teachings, in addition to the work of Cowan and Drake, the designated inheritors of Graves’s legacy. In recent years, some versions of Spiral Dynamics have become another psychological management consultation tool, much like the Myers-Briggs Personality type or the DISC method. 

My version: Welcome to Chromatic Dynamics

One of my intentions following the retreat was to create a physical working model that a practitioner could use to inspire and measure their progress of self-development along the spiral. I’m no metalsmith or carpenter and could not conceive of a double spiral with coloured beads that would allow the practitioner to move them up and down, passing “through” each other as levels of understanding were realized. To complicate things, when I started looking at individual components of life through this prism of colour as measured on a double helix platform, I realized that I would need many spirals to measure my platform progression in a way that included the discrete yet intertwined components of my life.

I have continued to use the core of our Retreat teaching as a foundation of my personal growth and spiritual practice, though in a decidedly Wiccan context. It has grown and taken on a new and deeper meaning the more I work within this evolving framework. Applying the memes to specific areas of my life continues to be very conducive to insights and allows me to work on my “wholeness” as the sum of its many parts.

I distilled my own personal work down to the following components and decided on the symbols I would put for each row of multicoloured beads on my framework:

Abundance (dollar sign) – my relationship with money, food, resources, my home and possessions.

Health (caduceus) – my consistent patterns in self-care, physical fitness, what I consume (mind and body).

Personal Interests (fingerprint) – what makes me “me” – my interests, hobbies, the things that make my soul sing.

Primary Relationship (heart) – my beliefs and manifestations of self-love, and my relationship with my primary partner/spouse. For those without a primary relationship, this level would be about your own work to become a better partner in your next relationship.

Family Relationships (infinity symbol) – whether with my family of origin and/or with my family of choice, how I interact and integrate through family roles and relationships.

Tribal Relationships (links of a chain) – my nearest and dearest friends, the ones with whom I spend the most time in reciprocal relationships of trust and support.

Social Relationships (puzzle piece) – the next circle out – those who make up my greater community, where I fit, what I contribute to the greater whole.

Professional Relationships (key) – the relationships and interactions that have an impact on my professional/working life. 

My Relationship to Spirit (candle) – my spiritual practice, my connection to the Divine, as I understand it.

Focus Topic (question mark) – whatever I identify as a current area of focus in my personal development.

Because this matrix would no longer be a spiral, the name needed to change. I hope to expand and evolve these ideas into a more substantial body of work that may be ready to be shared early in 2019. I’m also working with a carpenter on a prototype of my Chromatic Array, complete with beads and symbols. Imagine an abacus-like structure, with rows of ten beads, each one a different colour, that you could slide as you reflect on your own personal work. The overall pattern would indicate a composite chromatic picture of your current state of life. 

Obviously, I am a different person than I was so long ago when I was introduced to the core of Graves’s teaching. I’ve evolved, moved up and down the Spiral, sliding back and forth across the Array. The foundations of these teachings have stood the test of time and helped me move forward on my journey. I have seen their impact on the lives of others, and I hope that my continued exploration of this now flattened spiral will continue to serve me well. I’m willing to share what I am learning, if anyone would like to join me in exploring the Chromatic Array and the emerging world of Chromatic Dynamics.  Reach out at


Susan bio picSusan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture.  Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.


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