I've recently been working with the ox herding pictures in my zen practice. For those not familiar, the ox herding pictures depict a developmental model of practice and stages through which a person passes on their way to enlightenment. The pictures describe progress generally and capability within specific aspects of practice, like meditation, specifically, and in using them to guide my own practice I've been reminded of an idea from my study of developmental psychology that I live with but not written much about—the leading and trailing edges of development.

The name gives away most of the idea, but for the sake of clarity I'll describe it in some more detail. If we assume a developmental model of human psychology (like the ones of Kegan, Commons, me, Beck & Cowan, and others) or even just a positive psychology model (e.g. growth mindset, positive disintegration, etc.) and permit that development doesn't happen evenly (a person may be more developed in some ways than others), then we can talk about the leading and trailing edges of development as referring to those aspects of a person that are most and least developed in terms of any particular model. I'll make this concrete with some personal examples.

I had an awakening experience a few years ago that I interpret as tipping me between predominately systems-relations thinking (Kegan 4) and predominately holonic thinking (Kegan 5). That said this was only true of my leading edge in aspects of my life related to things like my work in philosophy and organizational development. My trailing edge, by comparison, remained possibly as far back as thing-level thinking (Kegan 2) when it came to things related to, for example, romantic relationships. Now my leading edge gave me tools that helped me pull forward my trailing edge, but that was work I had to do and did not happen automatically, so knowing about my trailing edge helped me know where to work to catch up certain aspects of myself to be closer to the leading edge.

In my zen practice I similarly notice that, in some ways I express things you might associate with the 9th or 10th ox herding picture, like my general equanimity, surrender to the perfection of existence, and acceptance of emptiness, but in other ways I lag behind because I have a sense of self of the sort you might associate more with the 6th or 7th picture and my meditation practice could be said to look more like the 4th picture with me actively moving towards the 5th. And occasionally I discover things about myself where I seem to have not even seen the ox yet (2nd picture) where I run out of patience for something or experience anger or resentment. This suggests my leading edge might be somewhere around the 9th picture but my trailing edge might be as far back as the 2nd picture, with the large distance is likely due to my converging on zen teachings from a different direction initially.

The leading and trailing edges and the distance between them serve a few useful purposes in understanding developmental models of psychology. For one they highlight for a person attempting personal development that the path is not even and give you a way to talk about your own unevenness and accept your weaknesses and work on them without feeling guilt for not being more even. They also help us make sense of the way others may seem particularly mature in some ways and immature in others (you can point your own fingers at your favorite rationalist celebrities and other people from your own life). And the leading and trailing edge addresses one of the most common objections to developmental models, namely that people exhibit behaviours outside their assessed stage (stage essentialism is a strawman among modern developmental models, but the argument against developmental psychology based on it persists).

If you have other ways the idea is useful to you I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

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I quite like this idea - it's easy to focus on just a trailing or leading edge, and alternate between thinking I'm kicking ass and failing miserably. Just realizing that my growth is in between this large range feels like it could be really liberating.

I tried asking a few people I've talked to about this idea before making this post where I got the idea from, but from what I can tell it didn't come from anywhere and the formulation of a trailing edge in addition to a leading edge may be my own, although I think the derivation is obvious. If you have better ideas about to provenance of this idea I'd also like to know about it.

I haven't heard the focus on the leading and trailing end before but I do have heard the notion of people being at different levels in different area's of their life before.

In Spiral Dynamics (the Don Beck / Christopher Cowan version and not the Ken Wilber version) there's a lot of energy spent on analyzing on what level people happen to be in different aspects of their life. Their model of coaching is about getting your level at the various areas of life accessed. I spent a good portion of time talking with somebody who's trained in the modality and read the book but I never went really deep into it.

You seem to make a claim that it's useful to focus on the extremes in your post but the arguments that you bring seem to me only to support the usefulness of assuming that there are different stages in different areas of your life.

Do you have a case for why you believe the extremes are particularly important?

I don't know that they're more important than everything going on in the middle, but I guess they are interesting in that the trailing edge suggests, to the extent you view development as a goal and being more developed as valuable, the place in need of work, and the leading edge as the greatest extent you should expect out of yourself (for now) and might suggest things you might work on (within a particular developmental model) given where your leading edge is.

There's some vague intuitiony part of me that says the trailing edge is quite likely to be a bottleneck, and the leading edge is quite likely to be a force multiplier.

If you take that view you mean that gworley's Kegan Level 2 thinking in romantic relationships is a bottleneck for other areas of his life that aren't about romantic relationships?

Just to be clear I'm not sure the trailing edge is a bottleneck to development, but it is probably a bottleneck in terms of other things you want to accomplish. For example, by pulling my trailing edge forward around romance I was able to eliminate many sources of anxiety such that now I have basically no chronic anxiety, and I've stopped taking an SSRI after 15 years on one.

Yes exactly. I had this very bottleneck around relationships and communication at one point in my development.