Picture a lake. Then, picture it raining — a lot. And picture the natural outlets from the lake being obstructed. When this happens the lake flows over, covers the beaches and nearby fields. Let’s say these grounds weren’t constructed to drain such masses of water, so the circumference of the lake expands. To a casual beholder, the lake seems to have grown significantly.
But beneath the surface, we can see that although the surface area of the lake has expanded, the expansion has happened over very shallow ground. From the side, if we could view the lake in its entirety, the lake would now look something like a wide-brimmed hat turned upside down: a great depth at the centre, seabed turning upwards further out, only to keep going for a considerable bit out at the sides — although here, width is the point, not depth. For a hat, that’s to be expected; it would look funny otherwise. And for a lake, this is what happens when the water has nowhere to go and if there’s insufficient drainage in the land surrounding it.
The ”lake” of Enneagram teachings
In recent years, the presence of the Enneagram in the world had undergone changes that resemble those of such an overflowing lake. It has expanded its reaches tremendously — but primarily at the surface level. If we were to measure the level of reach of the Enneagram, it would be substantially higher than that of, say, twenty years ago. But if we were to measure the volume of water involved in the “lake” it constitutes, it has not increased proportionally.
In recent years, the presence of the Enneagram in the world had undergone changes that resemble those of such an overflowing lake. It has expanded its reaches tremendously — but primarily at the surface level.
I was fortunate enough to cross paths with the Enneagram before this major downpour, when there was not such a long journey from the water’s edge to the greater depths. (Moreover, I was lucky in the way that I was in the deep end of the water before I even heard of the Enneagram — and today more than ever, I realise this is a blessing.) But for those finding it now, the journey is often significantly longer, and a lot more obscured. Because from the surface view, you can’t really tell. It’s not immediately obvious that the deeper dimension is even there, let alone what it has to offer.
The importance of our point of reference
As humans, we’re naturally limited to our own experience for reference. If you are splashing around on the shallow stretches of the Enneagram lake and someone tells you that its real gifts are found under the surface, and you’re genuinely interested, you focus under the surface. Of course you do; you’re serious about this. And if someone says no, you’re really going to have to explore the seabed, delve into its hidden layers — then you might don your snorkelling equipment and really explore the bottom of the foot of water you’re standing in. You’re a dedicated student, after all. So you do as you’re instructed.
What you’re exploring, however, is not the sea bed. Up until a short time ago, it may have been a field. It has not been involved in the natural creation of the lake over centuries or even millennia; in nature’s slow forming of rock and clay and layers of sediment. You’re exploring a field that got wet — and while that might offer all kinds of fascinating discoveries and changes in biology, it’s not the same as the actual bottom of the original lake. Not even close.
Width at the cost of depth
The increased popularity of the Enneagram is lovely. It fills me with joy knowing that more people are given the opportunity to discover it, explore themselves through its maps and revelations and nooks and crannies. But also, it fills me with sadness — and sometimes anger — to see this beautiful model, and the tremendous work of great teachers, become diluted, skewed, misinterpreted, misrepresented and diminished in that same process.
It’s painful when viewpoints aired online reveal huge misconceptions and inadequate knowledge — when newbies “speak out” against the model and Enneagram theory itself because they believe they have spotted errors, inconsistencies or dubious ways of using the knowledge. Sometimes they are right, but missing the fact that their view is only applicable to the watered-down, party-trick style Enneagram theory that they happened to stumble upon first, and than anyone who truly knows the system would dismiss it, too.
Questions used to pre-empt study
At other times, the view reveals inadequate unpacking of the concepts involved and/or poor self-knowledge. And then, of course, there are the “I only just got here and want to instantly know everything” questions. There are no stupid questions, we are frequently told. And well, maybe that’s true. There are, however, plenty of embarrassing — or more correctly, pointless — questions. These only serve to reveal how precious little unpacking was made of the concepts involved before the questioning started.
Just today, I saw someone ask, Can anyone tell me the difference between sp blind and so blind? That kind of thing makes me want to tear my hair out. It seems equivalent to saying: “Hey, I really want learn maths, can you tell me the answer to (x + a)2 = x2 + 2ax + a2?” Even if there’s a reply, and even if that answer is faultless, you will have learned zero.
If this is you, it’s not your fault
If you feel targeted here, my intention is not to have a go at you. Sometimes newcomers to any system can get things backwards. Sometimes, they misunderstand or draw the wrong conclusions. These things are seldom their fault. How could it be? Rather, it’s the representation. If your initial contact with something involves diluted, faulty, twisted or just shallow information — how are you to know?
I can only see that this is the natural outcome of the “lake” rising and expanding into the surrounding landscape. It reaches more people, but it also gets more diluted. No one owns the Enneagram. And when no one can claim ownership, then neither can anyone restrict, limit or control how the information is presented, spread or used. It’s a natural process. And that’s fine — we just have to be aware that this is the case.
When no one can claim ownership, then neither can anyone restrict, limit or control how the information is presented, spread or used. And that’s fine — we just have to be aware that this is the case.
Because of my own internal wiring, this watering-down of a beautiful thing is sometimes stressful. There is some under-the-cogivitive-radar, primitive expectation within me that I should be able to right this ship. That it’s my job to steer the development in a productive direction. That I should save the core Enneagram teachings from dilution and distortion. Luckily, there is also a part of me that recognises this is a) impossible and b) not my job 😎.
Holding the space for awareness to grow
So what is my job? As I see it, it’s to watch the way I use, talk about, spread, teach and otherwise handle the Enneagram. I can offer insight where it seems to be sincerely asked for. And for sure, this might be the case with the person asking about the instincts in the example above. But I’ll admit that the herculean task of phrasing my response in a non-threatening way that also conveys some true understanding is one I’m seldom prepared to take on — especially when the question wasn’t expressly directed at me.
Listening for the gaps
But I can hold space for awareness to grow. And I can listen to the gaps, look at what seems to be missing. When I find things that seem to be missing among people who also seem to have a genuine interest in exploring the deep end, then I can offer guidance. And most of all, I can abstain from giving energy and engagement to interpretations and representations that I don’t want to encourage. I can nurture those that are in keeping with the true focus of the Enneagram: offering guidance for inner growth and self-knowledge.
For the time being, I seem to have some trouble getting my thumb out offering workshops in English. Thus, my international contribution so far is in writing. Partly here, partly in the form of the book Aspects of you, which is currently being translated into Spanish, yay! 😊). Ideas are brewing, though. If you’re interested, watch this space — and please be in touch if you have thoughts, questions or feedback 🧡