The other day when I found myself having (yet) another insolent thought about the ever-more-prevalent occurrence of collages in social media Enneagram groups, I thought, “OK, but what’s the problem? I can just scroll past them, after all.” So I reflected on the matter for a bit, and this article is springing from that reflection.
You what kind of collages I’m talking about, right? Collections of images put together by an individual and presented to a group, presumably to give a hint about their Enneagram type, their instinctual preferences, or both. In my opinion, they make a poor ground for meaningful discussion — but since my level of mental eye-rolling seemed a bit out of proportion, I got curious as to what it was really about. On further reflection, I realised it’s not about the collages (duh 😎), but rather points to a bigger issue.
But let me start from the collages anyway. Partly because it’s an good example, and partly because it illustrates how our simple, surface judgements can show the way to deeper layers of awareness if we just don’t dismiss them out of hand. So my reflection started from the collages, and the fact that I can think of two basic uses for posting them: complementing verbal descriptions in teachings and a form of self-expression designed to get feedback about yourself.
An aside about collages for teaching
As for teaching, using images only works provided that both the verbal descriptions and the images are carefully chosen and the latter is not meant to convey the bulk of the meaning at the cost of the former. This is seldom the case, though. Rather, images are often seen as short-cuts. After all, they “say more than 1000 words”. Unfortunately, individual associations, cultures, and overall tastes mean we do not have a lot of influence over which words they end up conveying — which puts an even stronger emphasis on the rest of the teaching being good.
But anyway, this is clearly not how collages are used in the contexts I’m referring to. These would rather claim to be about getting typing-help from fellow Enneagram students: “What do you all see in this collage — who am I?” And here’s where it gets potentially problematic.
“But won’t they help people suss out my type?”
No. I’m sorry, but they won’t. They will however generate a generous helping of feedback from others about the collage, or about their impressions of it (and, by extension, of its creator), and then we can then revel in, or otherwise react to, this feedback about everyone’s favourite topic: ourselves 😇.
But that is all. They will NOT suffice to help people on social media, or anyone, really, tell us with any amount of authority which type we are. And frankly, even if they could — if thus far, we haven’t been able to find our type for ourselves, what good will this information be? Obviously, we yet lack adequate insight about either the types, ourselves, or both for it to be of any use. (And the protest: “But this helps me explore issues” is just pointing to another misunderstanding: that we would somehow need permission, or need to identify with a certain type, to explore our issues — whatever type they are typically associated with.) Neither inadequacy is a problem — but it’s hard to address them if we keep turning to others’ random opinions for answers instead of inwards.
OK; so glad to get that off my chest; now let’s get back to the actual topic.
Mirroring ourselves (in others and in images)
I want to emphasise that I don’t think the problem is that we engage in various forms of ego-stroking. Such activities do offer plenty of delicious ego food, both for the people offering their opinions and for the “opiniee”, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are social animals, and that is part of how we interact. This in itself is neither a problem, a sign of immaturity, or in any way bad.
Also, I am aware that tastes differ, and while I prefer to engage in other activities — expressing my own astute observations in the area of inner work in writings such as blog articles would be one example 🧐 — everyone does not have to share my preferences. My point is, we all do some completely legitimate, worthwhile creative things that may or may not also help us keep up our self-image. And again, that’s fine, and it won’t in itself kill any true self-exploration that is also going on. Neither, of course, does everyone even have to be interested in deeper self-discovery in the first place. But if we are interested, what matters is whether we can tell these activities apart: the ego-stroking and the inner discovery.
Because analysing, defining and getting feedback on yourself does not constitute true self-awareness work. Sure, said feedback does provide us with something to explore — but going about it this way, and in this forum, has got to be one of the most low-octane formats available to us. If increased self-awareness were truly our aim, there would be plenty of other ways we could engage in that with a considerably higher return of investment.
The treacherous valley of self-deception
So, let’s say, then, that we only want to enjoy a bit of attention, dabbling about in our reflected self-image for a bit by showing off something that we created. That’s fine. But then suddenly, without even noticing, we might find we’ve bought into the ego’s view that this means we are “working on ourselves”. And so we might say, slightly defensively, something like, “But others’ feedback does help me in my self-awareness.”
Well. Not really. It helps me think about myself and relate to myself from the outside, as an interesting object of attention. But that is all about self-image, not about my actual self. At best, it might even help me start to intellectually understand myself — but again, for that understanding to be of any actual value, it would have to be anchored elsewhere than in cognitive comprehension.
Substituting thought for truth
And here, at long last, we end up at what my original surface reaction was really about: the unsettling perception that the concept of truth is moving further and further away from actuality — from the felt sense, from real experience, and from the integration that the awareness of these things offers — and instead closer to abstractions, theories, and ideas. This move seems to foster vague, semi-conscious notions along the lines of If we can argue about it and win, it must be the truth, I can’t find out for myself so I consult an authority, or If I (and they) think something is a certain way, that means it is. Words, rhetoric, and scripture (generously defined) — and even strangers’ opinions, whose foundations we know nothing about and therefore cannot gauge the relevance of — and, more importantly, our investment in these things assumes the place of reality.
Before we know it, this investment warrants a stronger loyalty than acknowledging what is actually true, in the moment, on the full spectrum of our awareness. Without us noticing, the ego has got us doing its bidding and recruited various inner faculties for its agenda. (You might recognise this unwitting ego-allegiance, by the way, as one of the interesting shifts between the healthy and average level-span in the Levels of Development.)
The macro and the micro — spotting societal trends in our inner world
Ironically, in societal and political arenas, this has been escalating for a while now. Troll factories, fake news, news that is claimed to be fake but is not, insidious rhetoric, and the general, soothing-but-slippery message of “don’t trust your own discernment, trust this! — so many already do” has been on the increase the last decade or so. In those fields, we know about the problem (again, at least in theory) and are slowly starting to implement measures to not fall pray to it. But inner work and ego-territory presents much more treacherous terrain. Here, we are simultaneously the perpetrator, the target and the presence behind it all.
And this is where I come back to the importance of taking time to be. With ourselves, with our experiences, with the felt sense; with our moods, our reactions, with our thoughts, and more than anything, with a deep awareness of our place as the container for all these things. Here, we can ground ourselves anew, and from that grounding, we can integrate the knowledge we need. Following what’s sometimes the micro-est of micro-events within ourselves to their source, we find the way back to our own authority and inner guidance. And I’m pretty sure this is a remedy for both our inner life and the way we then are able to handle whatever imbalances we encounter in the outside world.
So, with that said, I’m off to sit for a while with those channels — the felt sense, the misgivings, the hopes, the beliefs, and the awareness that contains them all — and allow the waters to clear, so that this awareness can get first dibs on my attention for a while.
PS – I’m not in any way saying do not use painting, collages, other artistic expressions, or any number of creative endeavours on your journey — these things can constitute brilliant tools for self-exploration. (If you are drawn to that kind of thing, you might want to check out The Soul Shed and the events Samantha Olliff offers there!) But when you’ve done them, recognise when showing them off and talking about them ceases to be about inner work and becomes more about letting the ego out to play. Either is just fine — as long as we can tell the difference!