This type of development refers to progressive changes throughout the lifespan and involves the concept of developmental stages. Despite individual differences, it seems that some commonalities can be discerned in this respect. It was earlier proposed that the soul grows due to information, experience and intent. Thus, the three corresponding dimensions of development are suggested. They also correlate with the three dimensions of meaning. This is not surprising, since development is progressive and, therefore, intrinsically meaningful.

Each dimension has four points, representing the four stages: physical, conventional, personal and transcendent[2]. This is, of course, an idealised schema - each stage has sub-stages and there are huge variations within them. Also, they are not inevitable, the rate of change and the final stage reached differ widely from person to person.

It needs to be pointed out that the subsequent stages do not replace the previous ones, although they may modify them. Quantitative development (developing various capacities) within each stage can continue throughout one's life. This implies that a person on a further stage of development is not necessarily better or superior (as a third year student is not necessarily better than a second year student). Any aspect of a person can be well or poorly developed at any stage. In addition, although further stages may bring more freedom, there are also more chances to abuse it, so they require greater responsibility. Life is not easier at further stages. People face different challenges, that is all.

  • [2]. These stages can be generally related to the domains distinguished in existentialism: Umwelt, Mitwet, Eigenwelt and Überwelt (Binswanger, 1946, Boss, 1963, Deurzen-Smith, 1984) and also to Wade's notetic model (1996): Reactive (1); Naïve and Egocentric (the transition between 1 and 2); Conformist (2); Achievement and Affiliative (between 2 and 3); Authentic (3); Transcendent and Unity (4).

Development of the rings

Horizontal development is concerned with information and knowledge that enable the formation of the rings[3].



The first ring starts taking shape possibly even before birth and consists of the two processes: synthesising the body image and the world image, and separating these two. The latter one derives from a discrepancy between the perceived continuity of one's body and discontinuity of external reality (e.g. people ‘disappear' when they walk away) and a discrepancy between what can be directly controlled and what cannot. So, the infant starts perceiving the world as a whole, and at the same time, shimself separated from the world (which often causes anxiety). This differentiation happens gradually. At the beginning, the external is internalised, a child is in a unity with the world, but not fully conscious. As animals, infants do not know that the external world, as something outside their experiences, exists. Dreaming and reality are the same (in other words, everything is like a dream). This is why a newborn feels omnipotent; s/he is like a god in shis own world. Before the formation of the other rings there is only the present, the abilities of temporal (the past and the future) and non-temporal (abstract) thinking are not yet developed. The practical (kinaesthetic) learning mode, in conjunction with the environmental feedback, is dominant. Language is limited to simple signifiers representing single objects (‘mama', ‘doggy'). Usually, the first ring is formed around age two, but it can continue to change and grow throughout the life-span (in terms of quantitative development).


The second ring - the most important factor for its formation is the language acquisition. This ring is not based only on precepts but also concepts, which leads to further separation, expansion and greater freedom. Animals do not have this ring, so they cannot manipulate cognitive elements available to them. Conceptual thinking is a huge step in organising mental constructs (it allows, for instance, generalisation: the word ‘chair' can refer to any imagined or perceived chair). The theoretical learning mode, in conjunction with social feedback, dominates. The term ‘theoretical' is used in a broad sense that may include, for example, stories or myths since they do not have a direct practical value. This mode is mental and indirect (because it mainly comes through others). The second ring is normally formed by puberty although, as in the previous case, it can carry on developing even later.


The third ring typically starts forming around puberty or early adolescence. Usually at that time young people begin to seek the answer to the question ‘Who am I?'. This is not to say that self-identity does not exist before adolescence. However, the various concepts of ‘I' that have existed up until this point begin to coalesce into the kind of person one is and will become (Lloyed at al, 1990, p.723). The fluid personality of the child gives way to the firmer, more stable personality - ego. When ego is fully formed, one can ‘separate the self cognitively from embeddedness in the social system' (Wade, 1996, p.135), which leads to greater independence. The methods that contribute to the formation of this ring are reflection and self-reflection: examining and often reorganising beliefs about the world and oneself. They are the result of an ability to separate, distance oneself from the world and the I (a past, present, future or imagined I). All the rings are formed through relations (in the case of the first ring to the physical world, and in case of the second to the social world or culture). A relation, however, also requires a distance (there can be no relation without some distance) - in this case from oneself. So, self-reflection derives, as it were, from the interaction between the person and shis ‘I' that serves as a kind of mirror. Reflection and self-reflection enable not only objectifying and observing the elements of the mind, but also their deliberate restructuring, which increases choice. So, these processes contribute to the formation of the third ring by transforming the materials from the first two rings as well as by producing new ones. This is not to say that the third ring disposes of the previous ones, even if some of their elements may be abandoned. For example, the person at this stage may not believe in Santa Claus any more, but the idea of Santa Claus is still comprehensible to shim.


The fourth ring can start forming in late adolescence, which explains the tendency of that age group to discuss ‘deep' issues. However, this process is in most cases quickly abandoned as impractical (usually reduced to conversations after a few glasses of wine and rarely considered seriously next morning). Such an attitude is to be expected, taking into account that, parallel to reflection at the third stage, the fourth ring relies on the intuitive learning mode and resonance recognition, so it lacks the relative solidity of the previous rings. It is mostly concerned with abstractions, processes and relations, and consists of general ideas, universal principles, or issues related to meaning. Everyday language is not always adequate to fully express and anchor these ideas. Moreover, this ring usually transcends divisions between various approaches and disciplines (i.e. science, philosophy and spirituality) and moves beyond ideological constrains. Not surprisingly, a person who operates from such a position is often seen as impractical or subversive of the existing structures. This may bring about a degree of social isolation, which is why it is difficult to sustain it.

  • [3]. Although there are some differences, the first three stages of this development can be compared with Piaget's stages of cognitive development (preoperational thinking; concrete-operational thinking; formal-operational thinking), and also, all four, with Fowler's stages of faith: intuitive-projective (1); mythic-literal (between 1 and 2); synthetic-conventional (2); individuative-reflective (3); universalising (4).

Development of experience

The ‘in depth' dimension involves the modes of experience[4].


The physical mode is a result of the interaction between the body and the physical environment. In other words, it is bound to the physical-ness of human existence. This mode starts possibly even in the pre-natal period and dominates early life. It can be associated with the range of physiological sensations, such as physical pain, hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, and those related to physical activity (vigour, tiredness etc.). The feeling of physical security (or its lack) can be included in this mode too.


The conventional mode derives mainly from a sense of belonging, being a part of a group or culture, and goes beyond physical experiences. It is especially prominent in ritualised situations such as religious ceremonies, weddings, or even sport events. However, this mode can also involve less situation-specific feelings, for instance fear and hatred (of those who are perceived to be different) or, on the other side of the spectrum, empathy, sympathy or care, especially for the members of one's group (e.g. one's family, culture, nationality or religion). Shame is also in this category - unlike guilt, shame is learned, socially induced.


The personal mode can be associated with personal depth (that may be triggered by external stimuli such as a book or music). It is possible to claim that every experience is personal. However, the distinctive characteristic of this mode is the element of absorption. For example, one may be in a crowd at a concert, and yet sink inside oneself - relating to the music, but excluding the crowd. Another example is a meaningful sexual experience. It involves a personal, unique relationship with the other, but it also excludes (at least momentarily) the rest of the world. ‘Flow' (absorption in a usually solitary activity) can also be representative of such an experience. On the other side, so-called ‘existential anxiety' (the consequence of recognising uncertainty as a life condition) is another typical feeling of this mode.


The transcendent mode transcends not only the physical boundaries but also the socially induced and ego boundaries, which is why an element of infinity may be present. One clarification is needed though. The transcendent mode is different from transpersonal experiences that can happen at any stage and are usually interpreted within the framework of that stage (e.g. the experience of a unity with the nature[5]). Such experiences can be induced, for example, by psychotropic drugs, while the transcendent mode cannot. They happen sporadically, often accidentally, are short lived, and ‘cannot be counted as a part of the modal repertoire' (Donaldson, 1992 p.235). The transcendent mode is more stable, and transpersonal experiences in this mode merge with other ones. To use Maslow's terminology, it is closer to a ‘plateau experience' than ‘peak experiences'. It may involve, for instance, transcending petty concerns, non-attachment, the sense of a larger perspective, and also the sense of connectedness, non-possessive love, or recognising beauty beyond personal inclinations, and it does not necessarily need to have a spiritual source[6]. So-called ‘existential joy' that transcends existential anxiety (a characteristic of the previous mode) also belongs to this category (see Popovic, 2003). Its most important quality though, is starting to experience reality in terms of processes rather than discrete objects. Reality is perceived in a less segmented way: ‘Spatial boundaries no longer appear stable but open and plastic, suggesting the permeability of permanent objects' (Wade, 1996, p.181). It is only natural that such a mode of experiencing leads to greater fluidity, decreased attachment to objects and, at the same time, the perception of an interrelatedness between them.


It should be emphasised that the above categories refer to the different modes of experiencing rather than the specific types of experience. The further modes are, in fact, inclusive in terms of the sources (or types) of experience. In other words, any event that can be experienced in early modes can also be experienced (albeit differently) in further ones, but certain experiences may be exclusive only to further modes. Eating may be an example. Food consumption can be a purely physical experience, when the focus is on the nutritional value, satisfying the need to eat; for the second mode a cultural embodiment is also important (e.g. a particular setting or type of food, the use of a knife and fork or chopsticks); the third would emphasise personal taste, and the fourth can perhaps best be described as mindful eating (after a form of meditation known in the West as ‘mindfulness'). On the other hand, it is hard, for example, to derive any meaningful experience from reading Joyce's ‘Ulysses' if in the first or second mode.

  • [4]. This dimension has been largely neglected in psychology possibly because it is more fuzzy than the other ones. The closest parallel to its four modes are Maslow's motivational levels: physiological needs and safety (1); belongingness and love (2); esteem (the transition between 2 and 3); self-actualisation (3); and transcendence (only included in his model later) (4).
  • [5]. Such a perceived unity is likely to be the result of a temporary expansion beyond the rings.
  • [6]. Peak experiences too do not need to be linked to the spiritual. ‘Transcendent ecstasy' can be triggered, for example, by intellectual activity, such as solving a mathematical problem (see Donaldson, 1992, p.305).

Development of intent

There are four levels to this type of development[7]. Potential freedom needs to be temporarily limited so, in a way, these levels have also a restraining role. Every further level first opposes the previous one and then, ideally, integrates it. So, development in this respect is not really a straightforward but dialectic process. A propensity for any level may exist in a latent form from the start, but they are expressed, in most cases, subsequently. This dimension has a special value because it relates to agency, and therefore it has the potential to directly affect other dimensions.


The physical level - this level starts from the moment the soul and body connect[8] and is manifested through the interaction of the body with the environment. In other words, one's own body is the reference point (what it can do and what it cannot). Physical determinism is dominant. An infant is driven by shis instincts and urges, of which the most important are the needs for body-preservation and physical development (that besides body growth also involves the utilisation of physical skills). Although rapid enlargement and activity of the neocortex can be detected, the senses and the so-called R-complex part of the brain are dominant. Considering that this level is to a great extent inertive, the challenge is to overcome indolence.


The conventional level - the physical level starts to be modified relatively early by significant others (i.e. parents) and culture; toilet training and acquisition of language are normally the first instances. This level is characterised by social determinism, known in psychology as nurture. One's reference point are cultural norms (that may be reinforced by socially induced feelings such as shame). Reaching this level is a gradual process that requires transcending the centrism of the previous one. The main motive on this level is social preservation, maintaining the sense of belonging and acceptance. Not surprisingly, emotions and the limbic system take a prominent role. As psychologist Turiel points out, ‘social behaviour is, in the main, guided by emotions; reason is, at best, secondary' (1983, p.7). So, the major challenge of this level is to defeat ignorance.


The personal level - the move from the second to the third level normally starts around puberty and can be fully reached during adolescence (although this is not a rule). It is characterised by the development of will, self-affirmation, independence and autonomy[9]. This level involves separating oneself (first of all from significant others, i.e. parents) at least in behaviour and actions. Such a tendency facilitates forming links based on one's choice, so, personal relationships (friends, partners) are valued most. Typical motives are personal happiness and personal power. One's ego (self-image) and personal norms become the main reference point. Intellect and the neo-cortex start to dominate. The challenge is to defeat self-importance (or arrogance).


The transcendent level can be achieved (but does not have to) in the post-adolescent period. The motive is to find a meaning in one's life, to re-establish integration and unity, but this time fully-conscious. In other words, the person is in tune (synchronised) with the Intent, the purpose of life. This is not to say that spiritual awareness is necessary. A meaning in one's life can be congruent with the meaning of life without our acknowledging or even realising it. What is required though, is dedication and commitment, although of course, not every dedication indicates this level. It involves transcending the personal (without losing oneself) for the sake of something greater: others, a generally worthwhile idea or activity, or spiritual practice. In a way, through its legacy this level can transcend even death. The challenge is to defeat selfishness (being capable of genuinely selfless acts[10]), which requires a move beyond ego-boundaries. This is difficult, because it entails giving up ego-control. The reference point is universal norms mediated by post-verbal intuition rather than cognitive principles.


From what level one acts can be recognised in almost any situation that requires choice, even in the most mundane ones such as buying a pair of shoes: the determining factors, if acting from the first level, are to keep feet warm and clean, and prevent an injury; the driving force behind the second one is likely to be cultural norms; at the third level it is important that the shoes fit the personal image. An overall motive at the fourth level could be that shoes are meaningful, purposeful (not conspicuous or a distraction in any way, but comfortable and congruent with one's overall goals or activities). This, on the surface, does not differ much from the first level, but is based on a deliberate rather than instinctual choice, which implies greater awareness and freedom.

  • [7]. They can be related to Loevinger's Ego Development stages: pre-social & symbiotic, impulsive, self-protective (1); conformist, self-aware (2); conscientious, individualistic, autonomous (3); integrated (4); and Kohlberg's stages of moral development: pre-conventional (1); conventional (2); post-conventional (3); and universal - stage 6 and 7 in his system (4).
  • [8]. When this happens exactly is difficult to say. The offset of awareness or agency needs to be determined, which is not easy. Almost certainly it is a pre-natal event, probably sometime between the first heart beat and the first kick (for a more detailed discussion on this issue see Wade, 1996, chapter 2).
  • [9]. Which should not be confused with the individuality of infants that is based on their character.
  • [10]. Unselfish behaviour can also be a result of up-bringing, social conditioning.


Several observations may be drawn from applying this model in practice. Firstly, it does not seem that an individual needs to be at the same stage in all these dimensions. In fact, people are often not (which creates difficulty for theories that do not recognise the different dimensions). To illustrate this point, the development can be represented with three figures where the first one refers to knowledge, the second to experience, and the third to intent. For example, fashion followers can be generally characterised in this way as 2, 1, 3[11]. Number (2) indicates that their concept of fashion is dictated by others or the media. This is applied to the physical experience (1) (as long as clothes are considered to be so). However, they are making a personal choice (they are not conditioned) to follow a particular trend (3). In comparison, those whose appearance is defined by their culture or a religious creed would be 2, 1, 2. On the other hand, 2, 1, 4 may refer, for instance, to the disciples of a yoga master. The first figure indicates that their knowledge depends on a teacher, the second that the focus is on the physical, the body, and the third that they are dedicated to transcendence. Those who practice reflectively would be 3, 1, 4, and those who abandon attachment to even their own way of doing yoga and follow intuition would be 4, 1, 4. A stage of development is, however, not stable and may fluctuate from situation to situation. Reaching a particular stage means that one's repertoire is expanded, not that the person remains always there. In fact, sometimes it is more appropriate to utilise or operate at earlier stages, in order to avoid a conflict with others or unnecessary complications (e.g. the 1st ring is normally most conducive to driving). Moreover, quantitative development plays an important role too. Any stage of any dimension can be well or poorly developed in this respect. Even a whole dimension (e.g. experience) may be neglected, which is different from being at its early stage. This all shows that although developmental models can be useful tools, any generalisations based on them (including the ones above) may not capture the complexity of real life.


One issue has not been addressed so far: the motivation for individual development. Of course, it is to some extent intrinsic (especially at the early stages) but this recedes over time. Many arrive at the point of asking themselves ‘I am going to die any way, so why bother?' For this reason, it is important to consider what may happen after death and whether development may continue. This is the subject of the next chapter.

  • [11]. The numbers represent stages: 1 - physical, 2 - conventional, 3 - personal, and 4 - transcendent.