Unfolding the Living Map of Life

Featuring Terri O'Fallon


Hello. My name is Terri O'Fallon, and I work with an organization called STAGES International with my brother, Kim Barta, who is a psychotherapist, and I'm a developmental researcher. I've spent my career looking at, how do people grow up? It's been a fascination for me, and I've enjoyed so much all of the things I've learned along the way about other people and also about myself and just humanity itself and how it grows up.

In the stages research that I've done, I found many, many patterns, repeating patterns that happen throughout our life. I've also had a great fascination with states and how states actually fit in with the developmental stages, the person perspectives. Each developmental stage in the model that we work with is a developmental stage, a first-person perspective, a second-person perspective, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. So, these patterns have been quite fascinating to look at, but more recently, I've actually become very, very interested in, what happens in the transition between those stages? I have found several patterns that have been quite interesting to me.

The first pattern is some states are actually necessary to move into the next perspective, like from a first-person perspective to a second-person perspective. There's certain states that are necessary, but the states are not sufficient to do that. In order to move into the next perspective, there's another pattern that has to happen, and that is that somehow, they have to turn those states back on themselves in some way. The third pattern is that in that process of transitioning and doing the states and the turning back on the self, you can get pretty confused sometimes.

I'd like to give an example about that, and start with the very earliest part of our lives when we're born. When we're born, we have all these sensory capacities. We start seeing with our eyes, we smell with our nose, we taste with our tongue, we hear with our ears, we feel the touching of our parents and people who love us. That is a miraculous thing, and as time goes on, we began to play in the tub, and we notice this image looking back at us. We can see ourselves, see an image in the mirror, and this baby that is having this experience really doesn't know that image is them, but as they move their head, the image moves their head. As they wave their arm, the image waves its arm. Eventually, the child figures out, "Oh, this is an image of me. I can see me seeing me."

This is when they start getting a first-person perspective. They turn the image they're seeing in the mirror back on themselves, and recognize they have a self. This is an important recognition for them to have, and one of the ways that some researchers identify when that first-person perspective comes up is when they put a little dot on the child's cheek and put a mirror in front of them and the child will touch the dot or try and rub it off or identify that the dot is on them in some way. This is a really big leap for a baby because at first, they don't even know that their arm or their leg is them when they're first born.

Then something else starts happening, and this is a very state-like kind of process that happens. They start meta-sensing, and I place this label on all of the ways that we do our interior senses like visualizing or talking to ourselves without saying anything out loud. These sorts of things are very important in our development. At first, they're very state-like, so a little child who has a first-person perspectives can visualize in many interesting ways. When they can visualize, their mother can disappear into the kitchen and they're not going to cry anymore because they can visualize that she's gone around the corner, and they can run around the corner and find her, or they can visualize that they rolled a ball, and the ball has gone under the couch. They can't see the ball, but they can follow the trajectory of where the ball went, and visualize that, and toddle over and find that ball hidden under the couch.

They have to be able to visualize in order to do that, and that's a really remarkable capability that we have, but at that point, they're visualizing things out there. They're visualizing their parents, their balls, all of these other processes. They aren't visualizing themselves. Once they get to a process of visualizing, they can also then visualize what they see when they look in a mirror without having a mirror there — they can see me see me. They know that they have a face. They know what their face looks like. They can identify it even if they aren't seeing it immediately. So "I see me see me" is a very important thing when you have a concrete mirror and a concrete self looking in there. It's a whole other thing to be able to say, "I see me see me" when you visualize yourself doing something.

Now, that is necessary but not sufficient. The visualization in and of itself is necessary but not sufficient for moving into a second-person perspective. In a second-person perspective, you need to be able to see that somebody else can see you. You're able to visualize other people going around the corner, and you'll be able to see, visualize yourself looking at yourself, but you can begin to understand how when somebody is sitting in front of you, how they can see you. Just as you can visualize yourself seeing yourself, they can also see you that way.

This is a very big leap. The capacity to visualize is required in order for children to understand "I see you see me," and this is when children change from a first- to a second-person perspective. They often get quite confused at first though because they will see an imaginary playmate, and they will insist that that playmate is real because they can't tell the difference between their visualizations and what they're actually seeing.

This process can be a very confusing process for a child at the age of two to four years old, how they can begin to understand that a friend is more than someone that does parallel play, but this friend actually is someone that has a capacity to see them in the way that I see, to see me in the way that I see them. So the meaning of a friendship takes on a whole additional level of understanding.

This is what this turning the visualization back on the self... giving somebody else's capacities to look... understanding that somebody else can see them by experimenting also with, for instance, being confused at first because mom knows that I stole a cookie from the cookie jar and yet you've got crumbs all over your face, but then being able to notice that mom can see these things about you that you can't even see. These are parts of the second-person perspective that keep growing up and developing through time. The visualization gets stronger and stronger between what I can see, what I can visualize out there, what other people can see, what they can see of me that I can't see in myself, because I can see things in them that they can't see in themselves, and they start growing up in these very remarkable, very complex ways.

So, this is just a very early example of how these three patterns start working. First, there's a state-like quality that comes up. Secondly, they have to take that state-like quality, and turn it back on themselves. Then, there's often a confusion that comes up before they recognize that other people can actually have those same experiences, and this is a very interesting trajectory that goes all the way up the scale of development. These states eventually turn into the very same states that the great traditions have — awareness itself, and others.

I hope you've enjoyed this process. Thank you so much.

Terri O’Fallon, PhD, is an Integral scholar who derives theory and research interests from a passionate practice of auspicious wondering, learning, and marinating in life. She is the daughter of a 95-year-old dancing mother, eldest of seven siblings, parent of two adult children, grandparent of two granddaughters, and has over 50 years of teaching experience, from pre-kindergarten through post PhD. She has a PhD in Integral Studies and master's degrees in Spiritual Direction and Special Education. These embodied experiences have supported her primary theory and research and teaching theme: growing up is waking up throughout the lifespan.

Teaching has been a theme throughout her life. Beginning as a preschool and first-grade teacher, she has taught every grade, including special education and the gifted. She has had the role of principal of schools and superintendent of schools, and has taught in seven colleges and universities. Her interest in lifespan development naturally arose from this field.

Terri’s research experience spans 40 years, including 11 research studies conducted in various colleges, public schools, and private research venues. Her most passionate theory, research, and teaching work of the past eight years, however, revolves around the STAGES model, which extends the work of the Jane Loevinger lineage in Ego Development. The STAGES model was a natural culmination of her life experiences.

Ordinariness has been the trajectory of Terri’s life. Steeped in philosophy, research, teaching, and a myriad of spiritual practices, her path continues to bring her solidly home to the practical living, breathing appreciation of the simple things in life. We wake up every morning. We grow up quite naturally. We live through joys and sorrows, and face our family, friends, and neighbors every day. We grow old and watch our life approach its end as we apprehend the birth of our grandchildren. With the gifts of so many experiences, the highs and lows of being, what seems to always remain is what we were advised to value from birth: listening, gratitude, compassion, love, forgiveness, and generosity — lifelong lessons that never seem to end.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 14: The Reuniting Science & Spirituality Summit