The Enneagram seems to be growing exponentially in popularity, which is cool. But, let’s face it — this increased interest is not primarily because hordes of people are seeking out inner work teachers for deep transformational development.
Rather, it’s because the surface appeal and applications of the model are getting more airspace. Which, in itself, is obviously fine — only, a lot of its finer points (pun unintended) tend to get lost in translation. Its real value. Its innate quality of truth — which radically sets it apart from garden variety typing systems and all manner of nifty models that people have cleverly and often usefully put together. And with all this, its true purpose gets obscured, too.
Of all the Enneagram related stuff out there, most is about Enneagram theory. Are there wings? Do the directions of the arrows have any significance? What about tritype/subtypes/us not being types at all/levels of development/social strategy groups/heart wounds/attachment styles/insert-your-favourite-topic-of-discussion? And very few discussions, books and Facebook groups are about actually using the Enneagram for inner growth, increased self-knowledge or actually understanding yourself. It’s like one of my all-time favourite memes (from long before we used that word), where, at a fork in the road, one sign labelled “God” points to an overgrown, barely visible footpath, whereas another, pointing to a smooth, broad, well-worn road, is labelled “Discussions about God”.
Wait, back up; what “true purpose”?
If we look at the origins of the Enneagram model, it’s clear that it wasn’t designed for business team-building or to give us an ever finer tool for narcissistic self-descriptions. That’s not to say that it can’t be implemented for those purposes — but if we consider how it originally came about and what its components are, it’s easier to understand the problems and crinkles that often show up when we try to use the Enneagram for these and other areas that are more modern in nature. Nor was it designed for narcissistic mirroring and seeing, to the finest detail, where my ego fits in. (Two “by the way”s here: I wrote a previous article about the latter topic, and if you’re interested in the origins of the Enneagram model, I highly recommend the Shift Network online course The Ancient Spiritual Origins of the Enneagram as a Path for Self-Discovery and Wholeness, which is now available as an on-demand video training.)
Sure — even in endeavours that are not about inner growth, the Enneagram can be very useful. It can help a writer develop credible characters. It helps you and me quickly describe people in quite some detail. It helps us understand others — friends, family or maybe a coaching or therapy client, a student or whatever it may be. We can “get” people quickly without having to ask more than a fraction of all the questions we might otherwise have had to ask them. And last but by no means least, it’s FUN. The ego absolutely loves defining itself in ever finer detail. And this can work in our favour.
Catering to the ego — in the best of ways
So really, that last thing is not said with a derogatory sniff. The truth is, it’s a saving grace. See, the ego is not that into actual inner growth. This, for obvious reasons — such growth involves seeing through a lot of its antics, after all, and evolving past them. But many of us have egos that like to hang about in inner growth business. They like the promise of making ourselves a better, or more popular, or happier, or more successful person, whatever that means to us personally. And for this reason, the model’s propensity to lure egos close with the promise of a good, thorough self-definition and explanations of who you are and why you are this way is actually good news 😊.
This said, that wasn’t why the Enneagram model, with the points on it representing various types — or perspectives and filters trough which humans meet the world — came about. It was designed to help us grow. Oscar Ichazo didn’t sit down to invent a cool personality typing system. He sat down to distil ancient traditional knowledge and experience and morphing the result with the geometric symbol that we call an enneagram. And the timeless knowledge he collected (from most of the world’s different spiritual traditions) was to jolt us out of the trance of ego-identification.
Finding out — about the types and about ourselves
One of the things the Enneagram helps us with is finding our way back to ourselves. The beginning of this process often looks like finding out which point on the circle we continuously act from; which core Enneagram type we inadvertently identify with. This part of the process is very meaningful in itself; the point is not to find your type as quickly as possible. Sure, we can do a couple of tests and get diagnosed by an Enneagram coach to speed the typing process along. But that is like buying a cake mix when you want to get better at creating desserts: we do end up with a finished product, but we didn’t really learn much in the process and would not be able to replicate the result without doing it the way same again.
If someone says to you that you’re a One with a Two wing — what will you even do with that information? If you don’t quite know what a One actually is, it is of no use to you. And to know what a One is, you do need to know something about the other types, too. Definitions without any frame of reference don’t mean much. Really understanding the different points — from within, as it were — is a kind of organic process, and when you go through it, you will recognise yourself, too. How could you not?
So, we need to find out what the types are, as well as what the Enneagram can tell us about ourselves and what it cannot. As I wrote about before in “Finding your type — the forgotten art of letting things take their time” (and to a lesser extent in “Get curious about your you-nique expression of consciousness“), simultaneously exploring yourself and the Enneagram without the objective of finding your type as soon as possible is a very good way to learn about the types. Oh, and you need a good teacher; preferably one who has done these things themselves and not just read up on the typology. Because actual inner growth starts with getting to know yourself, not learning where you fit in on any external map (however brilliant it is).
Experience is key
Some people go, What do you mean? Knowing my type/subtype/tritype has taught me PLENTY about myself! Well, yes. On paper. In theory. On the cognitive plane. But knowing yourself, contrary to what the expression might lead you to believe, is not the same as gathering information on yourself from an outside source. It’s about experiencing yourself.
Here, the ego starts squirming a bit. Sure, “experience” sounds all well and good — but isn’t it a bit unpredictable? I want a good experience. I want to feel better. Somewhere around here, we need to have The Talk with the ego. And it’s crucial to understand what that expression means. The ego frequently has “talks” with itself, where one part of the ego identifying with Spiritual and Mature and Evolved ideals lectures other, perhaps less palatable aspects of the ego. That is not what The Talk is about.
The Talk is actually not a talk at all, but more of a withdrawal of investment — in the ego, in our defences, and in personality structures. It is us instead getting acquainted with another dimension of ourselves; one that we might, for want of a better word, call our true heart. We need this bit to be able to sit in our experience, to stay with ourselves even when the going gets tough, to say ‘“yes” and “welcome” to ourselves; all our bits and pieces, not just the shiny ones. Unless I can stay with it, with me, no experiencing will happen. And without the intimate, conscious experiencing of ourselves there is no true self-knowledge — even if we have it on good authority that we are an Enneagram Seven with a Six wing, a dominant social instinct and a self-preservation blind-spot, currently operating on the 4:th level of development.
The business of truth and the scent of the true heart
Just like we typically engage with our stories about life rather than with the truth of if, our everyday contact with the heart centre usually has much to do with emotional reactivity (and that includes suppressing emotions, by the way) and not a whole lot with connecting with our true heart. But we have some measure of connection with it. That subtle longing, this quality within that makes us prepared to stay with ourselves even through the rough patches of the journey; that doesn’t immediately want to drown our pain in chocolate or drink or adrenaline rushes or just keeping busy. That longing for truth comes from this true heart in us.
Our journey into and with the true heart is another article, or even a few. But right now, the scent of it is enough. The memory of courage and the willingness to be with what is — that’s what we need to be prepared to sit, to stay with our experience, to be curious enough about ourselves that we not snap back into our favourite dissociative patterns post-haste.
Being curious and — in real-time or in retrospect — allowing and exploring our experience bit by bit leads us back to ourselves, beyond our personality but at the same time illuminating it. We do get to know ourselves. We get to make friends with ourselves — our true, unvarnished selves, beneath the ego get-up. And it started with the ego being thrilled by a typology. Isn’t that cool? ☺️❤️