This page will define various terms, phrases, and abbreviations used on this site.  Unlike a typical glossary, it will at times include my opinions on a topic.  There is a separate page detailing the meanings and variations of the diagrams.

As of August 23rd, 2021, this is a very quick pass at some essentials, which I expect to improve and expand as I write more content and figure out what does and does not need explanation.

As of February 1st, 2022, this site is in the process of shifting the primary focus from Gravesian theory to HELLAMETAMODERNISM, so this page may read a little oddly.  The Gravesian content will continue, so it's all still relevant, but depending on how you got here it may not cover what you expect.

Point of View

This section is mostly relevant to my stage theory debate pieces, which are not as much of a focus right now (February 2022).

While I consistently advocate for my Ways of Being system on this site, when it comes to other aspects of the stage theory debate, I do not write from a consistent point of view.  This confuses people who assume that I have a specific end goal in mind and am trying to sell everyone on that goal.  I do not.  I am exploring the space and seeing where it leads, and I find the tendency of so many to dig into either a defensive or offensive position rather frustrating.  This is a complex topic, and it's worth un-sticking our assumptions and trying on some alternatives.

  • open-minded: I'm not specifically trying to argue for or against things.  I may criticize or praise, but an article from this point of view is more about examining pros and cons than driving home a conclusion
  • maybe we can just tweak things a bit: This point of view looks at what can be done around the edges.  It assumes that the fundamentals are as they should be, but details could be better.  Some days I feel like this is plausible.
  • (uneasy) co-existence: I think a substantially different approach would be better, and the article explores that, but I am not necessarily arguing to tear down what we have now.  Nor am I necessarily endorsing what we have now.  On a practical level, it's fairly likely that I'll end up here.  If I'm gong to throw a lot of energy into trying to dismantle something, I can thing of more urgently problematic things than stage theory, so I'm more likely to offer an alternative and leave it at that.
  • controlled burn: These articles take the perspective that major changes are truly necessary, but that there is something worth preserving.  These articles will take a substantially critical view with the intention of discarding what doesn't work to make room for what might work better.
  • burn it all down and salt the earth:  I'm unlikely to write this point of view unless I come to the conclusion that Gravesian theory is inescapably functionally equivalent to eugenics regardless of how it is rethought or changed.


HELLAMETAMODERNISM, or HMM, is a view on metamodernism that brings attention to human experience as an artistic medium, and focuses on shared experience as an avenue for societal change.

This section is under construction!

My Terminology

A*N*, B*O*,...

In addition to Graves's letter pairs (see AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS; A'N', B'O', C'P' under "Other Terminology"), I use a form of the pairs with a star (*) to refer directly to the patterns that makes up the themes.  This includes the level themes (A*N*) as well as the environmental (A*) and neurological (N*) component themes.  With this example, A*N* appears in regular E-C theory notation as both AN and A'N'.


The centers and polarities of the theory are visualized by treating them as three finite axes: one for each center, with the fully generative polarity at one end and fully relational at the other.  The origin where the axes cross is the balance point between the polarities.

They are visualized in a disc creating a triangle for each polarity.  An alternate visualization I am exploring is using them as actual axes for a finite three-dimensional space.  I have not developed the 3D idea substantially yet, and am not yet certain that visualizing this as a plottable space is a useful way to engage with it.  It might be better to stick with the disc and resist a temptation to plot out metrics of some sort.

Center (Head, Heart, and Gut)

These are the dynamics of the three axes.  They are intended somewhat poetically, as (for example) the head axis impacts more than just knowledge or intellect.  It took a long time for me to settle (to the extent that it is settled) on names for these, and I still need to explore the implications further.

Note that even the simplest reading of these terms: as intellect, emotion, and the body, do not form completely independent systems.  This is why using the axes as literal axes for a 3D space (see above) may not be a useful concept.

While the polarities come directly from Graves (just renamed) and are pretty well understood, the axes are my addition and are less solid in their conception.


My terminology for a complete set of systems, e.g. {AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS} or {A'N', B'O', C'P', D'Q', E'R', F'S'}.  This is analogous to the SD term "tier", but without attaching value to "higher" sets, and without necessarily requiring the systems in the set to appear in the standard Gravesian order.

Critically, higher and lower musical octaves have no inherent difference in value.  The note C2 is not more valuable or important than C1 by virtue of being an octave "higher" in pitch.

Polarity (Generative, Relational)

My terminology for the individual/collective, express-self/sacrifice-self, inner/outer locus of control, etc. alternation that is the fundamental cycle in emergent cyclical theory.

The generative polarity is about divergence and variation.  In human terms, it leans towards individuals independently exploring a range of behaviors.  This produces a wide range of innovations to be utilized in the next relational iteration.

The relational polarity is about convergence and integration.  In human terms, it leans towards prioritizing tending to and exchanging information through relationships, often integrating what was learned during a prior generative iteration into the collective.  This provides a new stable base for the next generative cycle.

Ways of Being

A tentative title for my system, as the polarities and centers combine to produce:

  • Generative ways of sensing (gut)
  • Relational ways of knowing
  • Generative ways of feeling (emotion)
  • Relational ways of sensing
  • Generative ways of knowing
  • Relational ways of feeling

This is a new way for me to frame all of this, so it's still fairly tentative and I continue to experiment with terminology.  The question has already come up as to whether "sensing" and "feeling" are clear in their associations with gut and heart, respectively.

What I like about "ways of" is that this describes experiences rather than states.  They are things you do rather than things you are.  Even rewording these produces descriptions (a relational thinker) rather than identities.  It is obvious that you can be strong in both relational and generative thinking, and that your modes of thinking, feeling, and sensing are not locked together in any specific way.  

Other Terminology (E-C Theory, SD, Integral)

AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS; A'N', B'O', C'P', ...

Graves used letter pairs to indicate the existential problems (A-F) and neurological systems (N-S) that, when paired in matching order (e.g. AN or FS, but not AO or FR) indicate a level of existence.  Mismatched pairs such as FR can be used to talk about the effect of attempting to function in one environmental context through values behavior arising from a mismatched system.

In earlier work, the seventh and eighth levels were GT and HU, but once Graves hypothesized that there are six repeating themes, he began using prime marks (') to indicate later repetitions.  Therefore GT and HU became A'N' and B'O', respectively, which is the form used on this site.  Hypothetically, further repetitions would use multiple primes (A''N'', A'''N'''...) but in practice we have not even seen the whole set of single-prime levels.

If you only know Spiral Dynamics colors, the correlations are:

  • AN (Beige)
  • BO (Purple)
  • CP (Red)
  • DQ (Blue)
  • ER (Orange)
  • FS (Green)
  • A'N' (Yellow)
  • B'O' (Turquoise)
  • C'P' (Coral)

There are no standardized colors beyond Coral.

I will rarely use colors, and will never use the similar-but-different color scheme of Ken Wilber's AQAL altitudes unless specifically discussing them and their divergence from regular SD and Gravesian theory in general.

AQAL Altitudes

AQAL (pronounced "ah-qwul") stands for All Quadrants, All Levels, Lines, States, and Types (IIRC, the "Lines, States and Types" was added after the original acronym was created).  It is the central overarching meta-theory in Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, integrating many different theories including Spiral Dynamics.  You can get a feel for its scope by taking a look at AQAL charts by Steve Self/Formless Mountain.

The "altitudes" are a color-coded sequence that directly parallel Spiral Dynamics for the first eight colors, after which the 2nd tier is truncated and a "3rd tier" of four additional colors loosely based on the work of Sri Aurobindo are added.  Sometimes Wilber makes it clear that this 12-color "ladder" of altitudes is intended to be a "content-free" sequence that can be used to correlate levels across various theories (which provide different sorts of content).  Other times, Wilber talks about the colors as "fixing" the Spiral Dynamics colors, which has led to many people conflating the two systems and using the altitude colors in place of the SD colors and calling it SD.  But the two systems serve different purposes.


Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory (one of the shorter names Graves gave his theory).  I use this acronym when talking about the complete theory and levels as presented by Graves.

E-C theory

Emergent Cyclical theory.  Graves considered the levels to be artifacts of the theory, which he considered to be the primary work.  He used "E-C theory", "E-C conception", or "E-C model" fairly often in NEQ.

I use E-C theory to designate the actual theory of cyclic emergence, separate from the exact levels.  Often this distinction is unimportant, but it puts the emphasis where I think it belongs.

Emergent refers to how each neurological system emerges in response to existential problems in the environmental context, and each new set of existential problems emerges from the behavior resulting from the previous neurological system.

Cyclical refers to the alternation between what Graves called "express self" and "sacrifice self" system, which can be described in many other ways.

Existential problems

The environmental conditions or context in which a person or society exists.  New neurological systems emerge in response to these problems, once old systems fail.

Identified by the letters A-F, with prime marks (A'-F') added each time the 6-cycle repeats.  And A*-F* in my own notation for the general patterns (e.g.  A* includes the common patterns found in A, A', and any other hypothetical repetitions).

Levels of existence

Relatively stable modes of existence, in which the various active neurological systems match the existential problems of the person's environment.  Note the plural: there are nearly always multiple systems active in each adult, and in each society.

The levels are not discrete categories or fixed sets of behavior.  Rather, they are theoretical constructs which form "the base points from which the living, behaving human varies." (NEQ p. 477)

While those who only casually know ECLET or SD tend to focus on the levels, Graves saw them as merely artifacts of the underlying E-C theory.

Life conditions

The Spiral Dynamics term for "existential problems."  Unlike most SD terminology, I often use this term as it feels less cumbersome.  I also use "environmental context."

Neurological systems (often just "systems")

Graves viewed the shifts in values and behavior that he saw as occurring because of an activation or change in the brain and nervous system.  He collected some evidence for this, but it was outside of his expertise and much more research would be needed to prove or disprove it.  Spiral Dynamics notably moved to a more abstract concept of memetic attractors rather than a biological (or as graves termed it, bio-psycho-social) approach.

I will often just use "systems" whenever the context allows, leaving ambiguous exactly how the new values/behaviors/memetic attractors emerge.  However that happens, these systems are identified by the letters N-S, with prime marks (N'-S') added each time the 6-cycle repeats.  And N*-S* in my own notation for the general patterns (e.g.  N* includes the common patterns found in N, N', and any other hypothetical repetitions).

Spiral Dynamics (SD) / Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi)

Spiral Dynamics (SD), was created by Don Beck and Chris Cowan based on the E-C theory of Clare W. Graves, with whom they collaborated for the last decade of his life. Beck and Cowan split acrimoniously in 1999.  Cowan and his partner Natasha Todorovic founded NVC Consulting and stuck with the SD name.  Beck developed Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) through collaboration with Ken Wilber, although by 2006 they, too, had spit acrimoniously.

If you want to read the whole history, someone else fortunately wrote about it already so I don't have to .  (Look for the PDF button to download the article.)  I also made a spreadsheet about the different factions, although I have not looked at it recently to see if I still agree with past me.  If you want to dig more into SD, I find the writings on Cowan and Todorovic's old site to be closest to how I see Gravesian theory.

The complicated and acrimonious history is one reason I avoid discussing SD and SDi as much as possible.  I mainly reference it to help folks who know it connect with what I'm doing, but because it was developed with leadership consulting and change management in mind, its focus is rather different than what I need anyway.  In particular, the 1996 Spiral Dynamics book uses a great deal of examples to describe the systems, which are more culturally-specific than how Graves described ECLET.  Graves is a more suitable starting point from which to attempt decolonization.

I am going to try to minimize references to SDi and/or Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, because that is a whole other can of worms that is tangential to my purpose.  When I do reference Spiral Dynamics, I will usually just use that term or SD and not try to keep track of distinctions with SDi.

The most important contribution of SD for my purposes is bringing in the language of memetics, and describing the levels as memetic attractors—an excellent way of thinking about the systems that deserves more attention.


Graves hypothesized that there were six themes that would repeat in broader, more complex forms, based on the similarities between the 7th and 8th levels and the 1st and 2nd, respectively.  In SD, the sets of six levels became known as "tiers", meaning that the first six are the "1st tier" and the 7th, 8th, and future 9th–12th make up the "2nd tier."  The jump between the 1st and 2nd tiers is sometimes called the "momentous leap" or similar descriptions.

Chris Cowan came to regret the attention given to tiers in the book, and wrote an excellent overview of the problems it has caused.  I believe that he also came to think that the gap between FS (the last 1st tier level) and A'N' (the first 2nd tier) is not all that much more vast than earlier shifts, although I can't find a citation for that right now.

Metamodernist philosopher Hanzi Freinacht, who adapts some Gravesian ideas in his stage theory, eliminated the tier concept from his adaptation and does not present the shift from postmodernism (FS/Green) to metamodernism (A'N'/Yellow) as exceptional compared to past shifts.

For myself, I prefer to use the analogy of musical octaves, which do not have inherent value based on how high or low they are.


The Ever-Present Origin (EPO)

The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser's magnum opus.  Page numbers refer to the English translation.

Levels of Human Existence (LoHE)

Graves: Levels of Human Existence, a transcript of a 1971 multi-day seminar that Graves gave at the Washington School of Psychiatry, edited by "Graves Archivist" William R. Lee.  Available for a reasonable price from the publisher, and for very unreasonable prices elsewhere.

The Listening Society (TLS)

The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One, by Hanzi Freinacht.

The Never Ending Quest (NEQ)

The Never Ending Quest, Graves's posthumously published book, edited by Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic.  It is the most thorough description of ECLET in Graves's own words.  Sadly out of print, at least as of the past several months.

Nordic Ideology

Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two, by Hanzi Freinacht.

Sand Talk

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, by Tyson Yunkaporta.

Seeing Through the World (SStW)

Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness.  Jeremy Johnson's introduction to Gebser, in a far more concise and accessible package than EPO.

Spiral Dynamics (1996 book)

Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.  The book that launched Spiral Dynamics and remains the primary printed text.  While not the first management consulting book to rely on Graves's work, it was the first from Graves's decade-long collaborators.

Turn Your Life Into Art (TYLIA)

Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground, by Caveat Magister (a.k.a. Benjamin Wachs).  An examination of the techniques used to create meaningful, transformative art experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area underground art scene circa the late 1970s to 2021.  This is one of the foundational references for HELLAMETAMODERNSM.