In some ways, The Enneagram is a sneaky backdoor to transformation. Upon first glance, the objective data profiled around this unusual, nine-pointed star seems like an amazing, insightful short-cut to understanding the seemingly crazy behaviors we’ve reverted to our whole lives. While the Enneagram definitely cuts to the chase, anyone who persists in overriding the ego-ridden habits of heart and mind will eventually see that stepping around the predictable suffering of personality can lead us to a profoundly spiritual path. The fact that the spiritual dimension of the Enneagram is not always immediately apparent to us can be a saving grace, however, a gift. For, if we knew the amount of discomfort that can arise in the revealing work of self-exploration, many of us might not dare to look in the first place.
It’s quite possible to think dualistically about who we are for some time. We may see ourselves alternately as spiritual beings who happen to have a personality, or just as people primarily driven by psychological structuring without much awareness that anything deeper is going on. We can even work on these two processes simultaneously, but without “integration.” Because personality forms due to the loss of connection with our essential nature, an understanding of where this disconnection first occurred (and continually recurs) can open us to the mutual terrain of spiritual and psychological life. While their integration is necessary to the path to personal liberation, it is still a choice.
That choice can be a murky one. To get to the point where we are willing to look inside ourselves for the more mystical answers to why life is so hard is a slippery slope because, quite frankly, the more wounded we are the better defended and so the harder it is to look. Our attention is habitually drawn to something external to us, someone else’s bothersome behavior, for example. It’s not just the Sixes who are adept at projection. We all love to hate the parts of ourselves that we can’t accept about ourselves by locating these parts in other people. We distract ourselves with something, anything besides ourselves. There is inevitably this disconnection from spirit, essence, Source, God – call it what you like — and it happens for all of us. For most of us, however, this concept is elusive for us to grasp not to mention flat out terrifying to admit.
I recall going in to a therapist’s office during the height of a depression who said: “This must be quite scary for you.” I instantly deflected her comment, “Hey, I’m paying you! I thought to myself with great annoyance. “I called you. I’m not scared.” And then the way that that one comment bumped around in my head all week as I grappled with how right she was, Type 1 Anger my ever-reliable tell.
If you’re looking for a less confrontational start, an equally revealing but seemingly safer place to gain personal awareness can be in relationship, especially in the company of people who share our own type. A Type 7, the style which can have tendencies towards narcissism if left unchecked, recently returned from an Enneagram training and reported how “excruciating” the other Sevens were for him to work with. When he consciously decided not to speak in the Seven circle, “No one even noticed because they each had so much to say!” So it is with self-awareness, the more we look external to ourselves, the more avenues we notice are actually leading back to some truth inside of us. Nothing bothers us unless we have something to defend.
I am fortunate to have found the company of a few Social Type 1s with Type 2 wings whom I shall call “my perfect mirrors.” Occasionally, I recognize behavior in these folks which makes me cringe because I see the judging, angry, critical side of me. What is equally revealing, though, and honestly just as hard to sit with, is observing their characteristics which are the positive shadow in myself, like how a Type 1 moves into action for their high ideals and gets so much done. How do they do that? I ask myself with admiration as I belatedly recall that whole anger thing – the mobilizing passion of Tyoe 1. So, we can teeter in the humanness of self-discovery between text-book, fascinating psychological patterns we see in ourselves (and repeat relentlessly) and the more esoteric realm of from which this behavior is actually keeping us.
Once we make this connection, we can more readily and rapidly unravel why this loss of connection occurred in the first place. Investigating our childhood patterns, the earliest building blocks of personality, is a good place to start. Our inner “realities” are our own private story lines which play out the archetypal themes of our unconscious childhood messages. I like Riso-Hudson’s succinct summary of these voices we all carry around, how Type 6 learned that “It’s not okay to trust yourself.” As a Type 1 I can tell you all kinds of corroborating evidence I’ve gathered to prove why “It’s not okay to make mistakes.” The 2 adamantly defends how “It’s not okay to have your own needs.” The Superego can have quite a hold on us. Deconstructing this mess is a massive effort if we take the task to heart.
We come into the world so magnificently embodying the essential qualities – we are full of faith, totally innocent, we are love and are utterly perfect. I think, in fact, the reason holding babies is so mesmerizing is because they remind us of these qualities in ourselves. Perhaps even in utero, but certainly long before most of us can remember, we start to experience that the world is dangerous — it requires some defending — and then, voilà, we have personality.
Incidentally, early on in my parenting and understanding of the Enneagram I had a protective urge to keep my children from this suffering. I wanted to keep my children from experiencing the world as dangerous. Knowing how fiercely defended I’d become, I didn’t want my boys to have to launch their own defenses. I actually felt (with such chagrin now I tell you) that if I could be a “good enough” mother, they wouldn’t have to grow up in the painful world I’d experienced. So I went over-the-top to shelter them. In my futile effort to control so many aspects of their world — from media images to swearing relatives – I believed that I was “protecting them” from experiencing what the Universe was so lovingly and reliably attempting to teach them. As I took my ideological resistance of reality to its logical conclusion, however, I eventually saw that keeping children from developing a personality is not only impossible, it’s not even “good” mothering at all. Far from it! There is a reason why we don’t introduce the Enneagram to young children. They need to form a personality before they can deconstruct one. Personality is very useful, albeit limited.
So, we grow into our personalities, and as we do we find ourselves alternately digging into our psychological structures to loosen their hold, or bolstering them up to keep ourselves out of the pain from which they seem to protect us. We do this until we cannot bear to continue playing out these habits. My favorite quote by Henry Cloud is that: “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change.” Thank goodness the consequences are taken care of for us. It’s not up to us to arrange the circumstances necessary to bring transformation about. All we need to do is tolerate our own presence; the rest is, shall we say, handled.
There is something to the timing of leaning into the spiritual realm of self-discovery, however. What is it with us and our forties? I could barely make it to this tell-tale life marker before I fell apart. Of course, plenty of people do serious self-work before forty, but it’s as though we need a good many years in our life to allow our ego to be something, before we can withstand the experience of becoming nothing. Once we have grown into our personality type enough, gotten sick enough of our own patterns to investigate the defensive structures we’ve embedded in our styles, we can, if we so choose, slowly but surely (or sometimes with excruciating swift totality) blow our own cover.
As the personality armoring falls away it becomes unbearably obvious that it is necessary to ground ourselves in something greater than ourselves. Eventually our survival strategies, with their limited mechanisms, no longer work like they used to. It is with great relief that we realize, they need not. It is at this point when many people find that indeed there is an undeniable link between psychological and spiritual work as we begin to grasp at something outside of ourselves in order to ground ourselves again.
The superego is always seeking to set-up camp somewhere, and it doesn’t like it when we begin to act outside of the familiarity of our egoic stance. For this reason, it will continually reassert itself. It is useful to know, then, that any move toward our essential nature is an unequivocally good thing. It is not to be considered an escape, or a turning away from ourselves, but a liberation from those aspects of ourselves which have made us suffer in the past. Whenever we are recognizing and acknowledging our identifications, fears, resistances, etc. and bringing our attention to the present moment we are able to become more aware of and open to essential qualities which exist perfectly within ourselves. The healthier we become in our type structure, the more access we have to all of the Essential qualities.
“The unfolding of Essence becomes the process of living. Life is no longer a string of disconnected experiences of pleasures and pain but a flow, a stream of aliveness.” — A.H. Almaas
I don’t mean to imply that allowing our higher qualities to arise necessarily feels comfortable. I have had many folks I teach in prison tell me that: who they were when they committed their crime is not the all of whom they really are. Of course not! When we’re acting out of profound fixation none of us are our True Selves. Interestingly, I have witnessed some of these same people as they begin to experience their True Nature as separate from their personalities for the first time, who are just as uncomfortable, humiliated and humbled by this glimpse of their own gentle, loving nature.
As a Facilitator and lover of this system, I embrace the spiritual dimension of the Enneagram in equal ardor to its psychological aspects. It is my hope and enduring practice to continue integrating both facets within myself to make manifest the transformation I alternatively grasp and resist in my own humanness.