Marc Gafni and Susanne Cook-Greuter in Dialogue

Suzanne Cook-Greuter

In “Unique Self as It Unfolds Over the Arc of Development,” Dr. Suzanne Cook-Greuter and Dr. Marc Gafni explore Unique Self in the context of psychological perspectives on ego-development.

The following introduction and excerpts are reprinted from the March 2011 issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice:

How Unique Self shows up in the developmental spectrum is, from an integral perspective, a critical dimension of the Unique Self inquiry. In addition to addressing this issue in depth in “The Evolutionary Emergent of Unique Self” (pp. 1-36 in this issue), Marc Gafni engaged in four dialogues with two prominent developmental theorists involved in integral discourse. In two dialogues with Don Beck and two dialogues with Susanne Cook-Greuter, an initial exploration of Unique Self as seen through their respective developmental models was explored. Below is a transcript of the second dialogue with Cook-Greuter, in which Susanne and Marc explore the references to uniqueness in Susanne’s writings. What emerges is that Susanne’s empirical research confirms uniqueness as a central emergent property of awareness at higher levels of consciousness.

Marc: I’m delighted to be here with Susanne Cook-Greuter to speak about the evolution and unfolding of Unique Self across the developmental spectrum. The basic idea behind Unique Self is that each of us has an individual expression of the divine that manifests through our own unique perspective. This isn’t a merely egoic expression of uniqueness; it is actually an expression of uniqueness that arises post the disillusionment of ego. Basically, after the death of identification with the ego and the realization of the underlying emptiness of all things, our stunning, crystalline, gorgeous Unique Self emerges.

One framing that can help us better understand Unique Self is to view it within the doctrine of the Four Selves. The Four Selves include: separate self, false self, True Self, and Unique Self. The first stage of separate self is the basic experience of being a skin-encapsulated ego. There are different versions of the separate self: what we could call a healthy separate self and a not healthy separate self, the latter also being referred to as false self. The false self is a distorted version of our separate self experience and is in need of clarification in some form.

The next stage brings the emergence of True Self. True Self is what is classically termed enlightenment and occurs when one moves beyond exclusive identification with our separate self. The separate self is still present but we have expanded our identity and stepped into our unity with the larger cosmos. After realizing our True Self, what then begins to emerge is what we call Unique Self. Our Unique Self is the precise and individualized configuration of our True Self. There is always a precise configuration to every True Self because every True Self has its own unique perspective. So, True Self plus Perspective equals Unique Self. If we talk in divine terms, we can say that God particularizes his essence in and through each of us. There is a unique expression of our Buddha nature, our boddichitta, in its highest expression that manifests as our Unique Self.

What I thought would be particularly interesting for our dialogue is to actually trace where the term uniqueness begins to appear in your own writings on human development so as to better see where Unique Self really begins to come online in the evolution of the self.

Susanne: Yes, I’m delighted to have the conversation. I just wanted to mention that I have some problems with the use of the term “false self,” as you have outlined it. The separate self makes complete sense to me, but it seems to me that as long as we are not enlightened there will always be an element of falseness to our experience. There are always delusions and things we don’t see, but to call that “false” rankles me in some deep way. One of the things I’m hoping to do in my book is to better articulate the meaning of ego because I feel ego gets so much abuse in the spiritual discourse. I would think that when we are at an integral stage of development, we would have a broader perspective on the ego and a more careful way of wording these things in less dichotomous categories of true and false. I have that problem with the use of the Authentic Self term as well because every self is authentic in the sense that it is what it is. Deluded or not, it is still the best a person can be at that moment.

Marc: It seems what you are saying is that from a nondual perspective, everything emerges as it emerges in exactly the way it is supposed to emerge and therefore everything is simply what it is. Since there is an enormous amount of literature out there that talks about killing the ego and ego death and evolution beyond the ego, you are really trying to point out that the notion of ego death is actually inaccurate. Even from a simply empirical research perspective, the ego actually exists up and down all the levels of consciousness and what actually shifts is our relationship to the ego. That is a powerful and important insight, which I can only applaud because in both my own practice and work with people I have found that this is consistently true. This is why I always teach my students not to evolve beyond ego but beyond exclusive identification with ego.

Susanne: Yes. I’m not arguing that there isn’t blindness and delusion and contortions that happen, I just find that using the term “false” is not compassionate enough when we truly understand what development is.

Marc: I think that is a really important perspective and needs to be expressed. There is definitely too much ego bashing and ego killing. Having said that, I want to offer another perspective. If we are talking about the ultimate nondual realization, we have to realize that the nondual both incorporates all levels of consciousness and it also incorporates duality; therefore, creating hierarchies and making judgments becomes necessary. The possibilities of valuation, discernment, and distinction are necessary. In human emergence there are preferences. We generally prefer to be with someone who is in his or her Authentic Self because they are more profoundly compassionate and ethical. And indeed, even your personal dislike of the term “false self” arises in you because you are looking for a more compassionate term. So the compassionate self, the self that is most authentic, actually does have preferences. If we begin to refuse hierarchies and avoid distinctions, then we are not embracing a nondual perspective. When we talk about the false self, we’re actually driving a stake in the ground by saying that there are hierarchies and that hierarchies don’t disappear from a nondual perspective, they exist as part of the nondual matrix.

Susanne: I can certainly agree with that.

Marc: Great. Well, let’s dive in to look at Unique Self as it unfolds through these different levels of consciousness in your system. For those who are unfamiliar with the ego development theory that Susanne has developed, which emerges in part out of Jane Loevinger’s work, it offers three interrelated components that describe emergent levels of consciousness. The first component of the model is an operative component, which looks at what adults see as the purpose of their lives and what ends they are moving towards. The second component of the model is the affective component, which deals with emotions and the experience of being in the world. The third component is the cognitive component, which addresses the question of how a person thinks about himself or herself in the world. Susanne labels these three levels: Doing, Being, and Thinking. Each stage of consciousness that Susanne describes then emerges from an interaction or synthesis between doing, being, and thinking. So even though Susanne’s system is a psychological system, she isn’t just measuring logic in its limited sense with an emphasis on cognition; rather, she is interested in the organic synthesis between doing, being, and thinking.

Susanne: Yes, lovely. Well said.

Marc: Fantastic. Now we can really focus in on how Unique Self plays out across the arc of development.

Susanne: You introduced the concept of Unique Self to me a while ago and I’ve been really grappling with it because, to me, in order to be able to even have a sense of Unique Self, you would need, at minimum, an understanding of your separate psychological self. That doesn’t really emerge until after what we call the Diplomat stage in our scheme, or what Loevinger calls the Conformist stage, because there’s still no psychological separate self up until this point. Then I started to wonder if there was some way that Unique Self could be experienced or known before the Diplomat stage. That has become a deep inquiry for me.

Marc: Let’s think about that for a second because you just introduced a very interesting and fascinating suggestion, which is: can someone experience Unique Self pre-Diplomat/pre-Conformist stage, before they have really been birthed psychologically? Before this point we really are just on complete automation, and we have no sense of an observing ego. The subject hasn’t been made object in any way at all. So how might someone at these earlier stages experience their sense of Unique Self? Susanne, I’ve heard you once offer the suggestion that perhaps a person’s sense of Unique Self might show up as their unique sense of purpose in the world. They may in fact be completely unaware of it, but they are serving a unique function in the world. So even if they are not self reflective, their unique contribution can still be a very beautiful part of their existence. Even if the individual is not self aware in the formal sense of the higher stages of development, they have a basic experience — even if unreflective — of what I call “living their life and not someone else’s.” This is a proto-awareness of Unique Self. Does that make sense?

Susanne: It does. Your introduction has engendered an interesting reflection on how Unique Self might show up before that self-reflective capacity has come into place. I recall you defining Unique Self as a capacity to serve something bigger than ourselves and that is the only thing that might fit at the Diplomat level.

Marc: Yes, I’ve never quite thought about it in this particular way but it is very interesting to ponder. There is an idea that exists in all the great systems of thought and perennial philosophies — I’ll cite it from the Kabbalah, but you could cite it from anyplace — and that is that the process of enlightenment moves us from what is called mitzedenu to mitzidoh, meaning the interior movement from our human perspective to the divine perspective. We shift perspectives, if you will. When we become a lover, a lover not merely in the beautiful but limited romantic sense, but a lover in the deeper sense, we are able to see with God’s eyes. To love in the intersubjective context is to hold love as a perception; to be a lover is to see with God’s eyes. What I think you just did in your description is shift our perspective so that we might actually see a person with God’s eyes and see their Unique Self in a way that they themselves may not even be aware of. It is no less true that even those of us who are post-Diplomat/post-Conformist in our development and have a capacity for self-reflective awareness aren’t always able to see our Unique Self. The gift of what we have termed the “Unique Self Encounter” is that when we are able to meet someone at the level of their Unique Self and share a piece of our story with them, is that it allows us to see our own Unique Self in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to access by ourselves.

Susanne: That is a beautiful way to express it.

To continue reading “Unique Self as It Unfolds Over the Arc of Development,” purchase the JITP, Vol. 6, No. 1, at

The preceding excerpt from “Unique Self as It Unfolds Over the Arc of Development,” is based in part on the following telephone dialogue:

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Dr. Cook-Greuter is an independent scholar, an experienced coach and consultant. She is a founding member of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, a think tank in Denver, Colorado. At I-I, Susanne is a co-director of the Psychology Center, a facilitator at I-I seminars, and a contributor to the Integral Business Center. Ken Wilber references her theory and research in many of his works, noting especially the subtle high-end distinctions in ego development that Susanne has introduced. Susanne coaches individuals in personal and professional resilience, self-acceptance, and consults to various organizations and projects in researching and applying developmental thinking. She has a doctorate from Harvard University where she worked closely with Robert Kegan.