If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Mother Teresa

Researchers who spend their lives studying adult development agree that the levels of development outlined below are found in groups of people and in individuals. It behooves us to know that these stages of consciousness exist cross culturally as one way to understand the differing perspectives on the tragic events happening all over the world. The two most striking aspects identified in the research are as adults develop our capacity to hold complexity increases as does our capacity to have compassion for others. Clearly those people who can understand the variety of issues in any given situation and do so with great compassion are the ones we want solving the problems of the world.

It is the second aspect, compassion that I write about in this piece. Compassion is one of the most powerfully life-giving dynamics that make up authentic humanness. The further we are from living compassionately, the further we are from our very humanity. Clearly, we don’t start life full of compassion, nor should we. Children have an egocentric perspective on the world, which gradually expands over time. What researchers have shown is that the move from egocentric to ethnocentric, which generally begins between age seven and twelve, is just the beginning of human’s capacity to widen the circle of compassion.

Ethnocentric means one has moved from care only for oneself to compassion for others who are like them. This may mean my tribe, my country, or my religious group. The key is an appreciation of the perspective and suffering of only those who are like me. Adults whose perspective is at this level adhere to conformist roles and rules. Religiously they are comfortable with the doctrines of their religious tradition, generally seeing theirs as the only way.

As one moves beyond an ethnocentric perspective the circle of compassion expands to include all people, regardless of difference from oneself. Here we question rigid belief systems and conventional rules and roles. Social activism that is concerned with the whole world is part of this perspective, so it is called worldcentric. For hundreds of years we viewed the perspectives and actions of these kinds of people as extraordinary. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King to name just a few, seemed superhuman. They are the ones we look up to but don’t think we can emulate. The kind of compassion seems extraordinary because it calls us to bear witness to life, everywhere. It asks us to make sacrifices and stand for issues that may cause great personal discomfort.

Today we know that worldcentric is not the last word in adult development. Researchers are seeing an even wider perspective, called kosmocentric that is available as we continue to grow. Those whose perspective has widened this far identify with all life and feel a deep responsibility for the evolutionary process. They see themselves as containers of the evolutionary impulse that are literally laying down the tracks for the future of the world. Einstein describes it beautifully:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

Looking at our problems from a developmental perspective, it is clear that it is not the spiritual traditions that are causing us problems, but the level of development of those who are practicing them. Each level of development sees the world differently. They understand their religion differently. They receive what our leaders say differently. They differ widely on solutions. And the worst of it is that it is very hard to communicate with each other.

My teacher Ken Wilber describes it this way: Imagine you are climbing a mountain and you stop part way up to look out at the scenery. You see what you can see from that level on the trail. Then you hike further and stop again. What you see has expanded. You see more. And again as you hike further, the landscape changes. If you shout to people who’ve stopped earlier on the trail to look at what you are seeing, they simply cannot. And herein lies the problem. We are all seeing the world from vastly different places on the journey of life.

So what to do? How is our beloved planet to be healed, how will we solve the largest crisis humanity has ever faced when the majority of the world’s population’s center of gravity is at an Ethnocentric worldview? We start where we are. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi’s famous words still prevail. We know today that practices such as meditation, shadow work, engaging in collective prayers and practices that implement collective intelligence – to name a few – do contribute to rising the world’s consciousness. We also know that in spite of all the horrors we are hearing and seeing, the world is undergoing many positive changes. Sadly, the latter gets much less coverage from the “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” news media.

Today more and more people realize that everything we say, feel, and do impacts not only ourselves but also our world. The changes must start from within. In this time of climate change, terrorism, increasing poverty and economic instability, we must reach a tipping point, a global awakening that shifts the center of gravity of the planet from Ethnocentric to Worldcentric. May we heed the words of Lao Tze:

If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.