We hear a lot about understanding the Enneagram, as such — the system, the types, the arrows, the instincts, and so on. But we hear less about understanding the teachings about these things, in themselves. The expression “it’s not rocket science” is very true here, but not in the conventional meaning. Rather, what we need to realise is, it’s not like maths. It’s not logic. It’s humanity — and sometimes, it’s life itself.
Because of this, we need to approach learning about the Enneagram (and everything in connection with it and around it) differently from how we would approach, say, learning a new language, or physics, or even psychology. Sure, just like these other topics, there’s tons of of information about the Enneagram. Even if we subtract the misunderstandings, the bad teachings, the flattened-out-and-packaged bits tweaked to fit into modern personality typing, it’s a lot. If we’re fascinated with the model, we might, quite understandably, want to cover as much as we can. And that’s absolutely fine.
What we need to understand, though, it that is not enough that we learn what we’re being taught in books, courses and teachings. It’s also imperative that we get it. And this hinges on us understanding the purpose of what is being taught.
Often, we regard learning something and getting it as being the same thing. When we learnt that two plus two equals four, we instantly got it. The process was so automatic and so immediate that we probably didn’t even realise that learning something and getting that same something can sometimes be quite separate processes — and, occasionally, vastly different ones.
So what does this look like in the Enneagram context?
With the explosion of popularity of the Enneagram model, increasingly I notice people getting caught up in handfuls of traits, or zoomed-in pieces of descriptions of the different personality types. Maybe they are fairly new to the Enneagram — they might have been to a workshop or read a book or two — and they are trying to make out their (or someone else’s) type. And then they say something like: “Well, so-and-so says that X is typical for Twos, and I’m really X — so likely, I’m a Two.” Or, “In the teaching from so-and-so, it’s clear that Sevens typically have the perspective of Y — and that’s so me, so I’m a Seven for sure.” Or even just ask, “What type would do/think/feel Z?”
This is an example of what I’m referring to — and it just doesn’t work that way. We can’t focus on bits and pieces and expect to get it right. And, as it turns out, when you take a step back and see the bigger picture, a lot of well-founded, thought through stuff is actually only pieces of a much bigger puzzle. A big part of this puzzle is you, of course; learning about the types is only half of the equation (if that). I’ve frequently written about this inner work, and I’m sure to return to the topic. (At the end of this article, there are links to some of these previous posts.) But another part of the puzzle, and the one that’s relevant to this article, is realising that collecting lists of traits or learning teachings doesn’t suffice. It doesn’t matter how rich and detailed they might be — you also need to understand what it is that they are actually saying.
An example: “Orientation to time”
One example that caught my attention quite recently has to do with the use of the types’ various orientations to time as part of their descriptions. For instance, Suzanne Stabile has discussed this, and in her descriptions the Three, Seven and Eight all are future-oriented — as these types are focussed on doing something to affect the outcome of what’s going on. You can’t change the past or what already happening in the present, but you can affect what’s going to happen (at least in theory 😉). So, these three types look to the future as a way of their personality’s expression. As for the Six, One and Two, they all want to do the right thing in the current situation and make sense of what that is (for them), which makes them oriented towards the present. And Nines, Fours and Fives spend a lot of time with themselves, inside themselves, relating to their inner worlds, thoughts and feelings — which spring from the past. (Needless to say, this summary is nowhere near enough to get what she wants to convey, so if you’re interested, look her up and explore further. Here, I’m just using it as an example.)
These descriptions are all relevant as part of the personality features that are being described. But does that mean Ones are never caught up in the past, or that Fives don’t prepare for the future? A quick look around the Ones and Fives we know personally immediately reveals that this is not really the case at all. The categories of time-orientation are describing a broader tendency about the psychology of these type groups, not saying that Fives live in the past or Twos don’t plan for tomorrow’s lunchbox.
Then we might go on to read Don Riso‘s and Russ Hudson’s classic The Wisdom of the Enneagram and get really confused. In this book, the personalities of the instinctual triad, i e the Eight, Nine and One, are decribed as relating to the present, while those of the emotional triad (Two, Three and Four) relate to the past and those of the intellectual triad (Five, Six and Seven) to the future. What gives? Is Stabile wrong? Are Riso-Hudson wrong? Aren’t these people all Enneagram experts?
Truth from different perspectives
Well, yes, they are, and neither side is “wrong”. The types of the instinctual triad are relating to the present, in the sense that their common issues centre around resisting being affected by reality — something which can only happen in the present. The types of the emotional triad are relating to the past, in the sense that their common issues centre around self-image, the material for which we get from the past. And the types of the intellectual triad are relating to the future, in the sense that their common issues centre around anxiety and worry, which is always relating to something we anticipate happening in the future — fearing or worrying about something that already happened does not make sense.
So, the Wisdom descriptions relate to the commonalities of each triad and spring from their shared issues and focus. The Stabile descriptions relate to what Wisdom would call the Hornevian groups (and what Stabile herself calls stances), and spring from these groups’ shared strategies for getting their (perceived) needs met. Both descriptions have merit — but if we just sort the information into our set of mental information cards, these two sets of descriptions will look contradictory. And consequently, however we ultimately choose to store the information, we’ll come away with a skewed picture of the types. If we get how they are meant to contribute to describing the types, however, both descriptions enrich our understanding.
Two perspectives meeting — as they are wont to do
Also, if we just probe a bit further, not only are they not contradictory — they are actually in agreement, and they build upon one another. Stabile doesn’t only say which time-direction each group is oriented towards, but also which one it’s repressing. According to her teaching, the Nine, Four and Five repress the present, the Three, Seven and Eight repress the past and the Six, One and Two repress the future. If you look at these three in terms of Hornevian groups, we see that each group has a somewhat challenged relationship with a certain centre — specifically, the one that the primary type belongs to. So the Nine, Four and Five all have challenges in relating to the instinctual centre. And if we turn back to the instinctual centre and the Riso-Hudson teaching, then — violà — we find that there’s a connection to the present. And so on, and so forth, for all the groups.
This kind of observation, where seemingly opposite perspectives join forces, happens all the time when you are studying the Enneagram, illuminating the richness and complexity of the model.
And one quirky observation and a wink to our dear Nines
Something I find a bit funny about both these descriptions, by the way, is the Nine’s orientation in particular. Most Nines I know, personality-wise, aren’t overly strongly relating to either the present or the past. Nor are they, in fact, really looking to the future. Rather, they like to hang out in a not-now, not-then time — their own, special outside-of-actual-time time-zone. So maybe we could use an additional set of descriptions 😉 — which would inevitably shed light on yet another personality aspect.
Zooming out and getting the whole picture
So, just like most other groupings in type descriptions, the orientation-to-time based descriptions are only relevant as part of personality descriptions if you get for what purpose the are given — from which angle, if you will, they are coming, and where in the teaching they are meant to land. All these categories, wherever we find them, aim to describe a certain aspect of the personality. They are not meant to describe the whole personality, nor do they mean to say the naked words of each description won’t be applicable to other types as well. And they are certainly not meant to describe how one individual of that type will always function, or be. No — they just serve to describe a particular twist in the personality, that, together with other such twists, will paint a picture that no list of words, or even a full chapters’ description in a book, could ever convey.
This goes for so much of the Enneagram information, and for type descriptions in particular. We need to listen to the bits of information, be mindful of not just what they contain but also what kind of information they are meant to convey about the personality, and in what context. Metaphorically, we need to zoom in on various teachings, take them in and digest them — but then we also need to zoom out again, so we can see where these new clusters of information fit into our overall understanding.
And yes, this is indeed much harder work than memorising traits 😉. But then, to quote Russ Hudson from another Enneagram context, “this material was never meant for casual viewing”. It’s not designed to fit into one-hour workshops or easily-accessible models for corporate team-building. When bits of it are used that way and still help someone, great. Obviously, anyone can use this material however they see fit. But learning it, it helps to keep in mind that it’s likely to take some time before it comes together — and that you are never really meant to stop expanding your understanding of it ❤️
Did you want to read more about inner work? Here are a few tips from this blog:
- ”Whip-and-carrot” or self-compassion? Critical aspects of working with the instincts
- Why understanding and awareness of instinctual drives is integral to inner growth
- What inner work and self-discovery is really about
- Identifying and neutralising the inner critic
- When the answers don’t help you – look closer at the question you asked
- Get curious about your you-nique expression of consciousness
Some people report confusion when it comes to the expression of the gut centre and heart centre, respectively. And sure — not only for “head types” but for all of us, it’s easy to see “head” on the one side and “not head” on the other. In part, this is because our general western culture likes dividing things into dual relationships: black and white, right and wrong, day and night.
As opposed to our culture, nature is not built around duality, but around “the law of three”. There tends to be three forces coming together to create the whole, rather than just two opposites. And this is true for the centres, too. (That is — this is one way to look at it. Technically, the gut centre is actually three centres in itself. It’s always a matter of which level you choose to view something on, and from 😉)
Separating two into three
Anyway. Back to the lacking distinction between the gut and the heart. Because we do have three centres, but listening to our everyday language, you wouldn’t have guessed this was the case. Our culture has us talking about “thought and feeling” (sweeping both heart and gut messages in under the “feeling” umbrella) or the rational and the “irrational” (where the latter just means “not of the head”). And it doesn’t help that we use the word “feel” not only for things like sadness and joy, but also for things like hunger, resistance and wanting.
So what is the distinction? Well, there are a few, of course. If we’re willing to step out of our need for intellectual, quantifiable definitions for a while, the most palpable (yet totally non-palpable) way for me to make the distinction by energy. (I know this’ll rub a few scientists the wrong way; if you’re one of them, just substitute something like “tone”, “climate” or “air”, and you’ll be fine.) The energy climate of the gut and that of the heart are quite dissimilar.
The energy climate of the gut
The gut has an almost binary energy to it. Here, things are actually mostly black and white, on or off, here or there, alive or dead, towards or away from. It’s this or that, and the choices each time seem quite finite. For the gut, it’s totally fine to be all for or all against something. It doesn’t need, and isn’t really capable of, being politically correct or nuanced in its interpretations. If you’re a visual person, perhaps colours work, too, to describe this: In the gut centre, it’s as if the colours were quite distinct and clear, either this or that.
The energy climate of the heart
In the heart, by contrast, it’s all about infinite nuances, and it has a sort of open-ended feel to it. The heart offers an abundance of details and parameters; it offers technicolour, nuance and dimensions. It’s not that the heart can’t be exact – it’s more that it’s all-inclusive, and infinitely expressive. Also, the heart is hallmarked by its receptivity. It’s sensitive, and responsive. While the gut is scans for input, interprets that input, keeps us alive, grounding us and guiding us on our way, geared towards survival and self-extension, the heart tells us why (at least sometimes 😉), reveals what we feel and lets us relate to and mirror each other and ourselves, geared towards compassionate inclusiveness and oneness.
For some of you, that possibly said a lot, while others will have a face like a nesting-box for birds. I get that. Frankly, I don’t think the above descriptions would have told me much when I first started looking into these things. So, it’s time to fill out this distinction with some less flowery language. Since I did that at some length in Aspects of you, I’ve borrowed a couple of sections from the book to complement the above energetic descriptions.
The instinctual centre: Being and primal immediacy
I Aspects of you, in the description of the instinctual centre, we find this paragraph:
The most basic aspect of this centre is the housing of innate, biological impulses that help us survive. They are to a large extent unconscious and autonomous, and we share them (or at least, some of them) with all other animals. Apart from instinct, or perhaps rather as an extension of it, there are many areas that this centre is responsible for. It is concerned with grounding — that is, a sense of physical stability and being anchored within — wants, power, boundaries, territory, attraction/repulsion, control, resistance, presence, directness, hunches, primal feelings like fear and rage1, and other primal and instinctual matters. Quite literally, the instinctual intelligence mobilises us, either for/towards or against/away from things. In this sense, this intelligence can be said to be quite black and white in nature: it’s this way or that, yes or no, on or off. Our inner “yes” or “no” then for example makes us put up boundaries, strive for a certain amount of control and resist things that we don’t seem to be able to control in any other way.
I think that this, coupled with the more flowery descriptions in the beginning, paints a pretty solid picture of the instinctual centre. Just as when we are trying to understand personality types, the trick is getting the overall energetic climate as well as the separate pieces of the description.
The heart centre: Love and responsiveness
I Aspects of you, in the description of the heart centre, are these paragraphs:
When we mention the heart, I’m sure one thing that most people instantly think about is love. And sure, love is a big part of it — you could say love is for the heart what being is for the gut: the very nature of the centre itself. Love, as such, also speaks of something else that is closely connected to the heart centre: the topic of relating and otherness, and — the other side of the coin — oneness. I said about the gut that it’s about being; not about who or how we are, but just the fact that we are. In the heart centre, the who enters into the picture. And for me to be a who, I have to be in relation to something: the world, others, God or even myself. By the same token, the heart centre is concerned with values — what is true for me, and how does this truth need to be expressed? I gain a sense of my who through what I value and how those values are expressed in my everyday life. In connection with this, we also find our self-image and our sense of self-worth.
Often, the heart is also said to house our feelings. // They can be feelings of sorrow, disappointment, hope, grief, longing, loneliness, submission, despondency, despair, compassion, loss, joy, sadness, exhilaration, and so on, in infinite shades of emotional responses.
There is a lot to say about the heart, for sure. Just as there is a lot to say about the head and the gut. For now though, I’ll leave this exploration here. Of course, if you want to explore further, you are very welcome to buy the book ❤️.
Note: “centres” — not “Enneagram centre triads”
Please be clear that I’m not talking about personality types here. It’s not that gut types are distinct and two-dimensional, whereas heart types are a sea of nuance and multi-dimensionality. This is about the centres, of which we all possess all three, fully and equally. If you’re seeking to understand the difference between the instinctive triad and the heart triad on the Enneagram, sure, you can glean some subtle understanding of that here — but mostly, this is about the centres in all of us.