What do you DO with the Enneagram?Sep 22, 2019
I hear this question a lot from newcomers.
It's a really important question, and this post is meant to be a thorough answer. (I’ll assume that you know how to discover your Enneagram type, and that question is basically: “What do you do with the Enneagram after that?”)
But first, a point of clarification.
There is a field called ontology that studies how things exist. It sounds abstract, but it’s simple.
Consider: a banana exists in a different way than the color red. It would be ridiculous to think that you could eat red or cut it up and put it in on toast. Likewise, you can’t paint a room banana. These are examples of what are called “ontological mistakes,” in which we incorrectly ascribe the nature of being of one thing to another.
Humans make ontological mistakes all the time. Analogies are basically intentional ontological mistakes, and they save us a lot of time by transposing our understanding of one thing onto another. Many are harmless and even useful. “What’s a donut? It’s like a sweet bagel.” But some cause a lot of damage. For instance, the field of management theory accidentally accepted that because horses can be motivated by carrots and sticks, so can humans. See: Corporate America.
Ontology teaches us, quite practically, that for something to be truly understood, it must be understood on its own terms.
So when we ask the question “What do you do with the Enneagram?” let us not make an ontological mistake by assuming it is like something that it is not.
The Enneagram is not a toolkit, and it cannot be used like a wrench. It is also not a methodology — it cannot be executed, say, to solve problems or conflicts.
The Enneagram is a map of the human inner world. (Yes, also an analogy, but a good one.) What you do with it is study it, and by doing so, you begin to see more clearly the territory it describes.
Now — why would you want to do that?
In my current view, 3 worthwhile things come from this:
- Insight and compassion for others
- Practice for conscious transformation
Let’s look at each of these separately.
I often hear people say amusing things like, “I’m a really self-aware person.” Usually what they mean is that they are aware enough of their salient feelings and habits to articulate them to friends. For instance, someone might say, “I’m the kind of person who like to get things done. I don’t have patience for people who get emotional.”
Such a person makes the claim that he is self-aware because he is able to make a reasonably accurate statement about the “kind of person” he is: “I’m impatient with emotional people.”
If sufficiently interested, he might go a step further by linking his emotional pattern to a past experience. For instance, perhaps sometimes as a boy, his father’s emotionality made him late for school.
These are good and valid points of self-knowledge. But most people stop there: “See, that’s why I am the way I am.” The problem is that if you only go this far, you stay asleep and reinforce your habitual ways of being.
What I am proposing is that this is the proper beginning of a process of self-discovery that has no end. What the process reveals is that in a given moment, while you may think of yourself as being a certain way, you are always much more expansive than that. Indeed, you continue opening to new parts of yourself until the moment you die.
To take it a step further, I’d like to disavow you of the notion that self-awareness is something that you can “attain.”
This is for a few reasons.
- The self is a mystery that unfolds moment by moment. A self-described “impatient” person may be surprised to find herself waiting peacefully in line at the grocery store the next day — or even in the very moment after she makes that observation.
- Observing yourself changes yourself. Think Heizenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you could freeze time in the precise moment that you noticed that you were impatient and accounted for every particle of yourself, the very act of doing so would change your state. You might notice, “I’m short of breath,” and in that moment find yourself breathing more deeply.
- The nature of attention is that when it is on something, it is not on other things. When you are being self-aware of your impatience, which part of your “self” are you being aware of? The sensation of your breath quickening and shortening? The rush of blood to your cheeks? The involuntary pursing of your lips? The closing off of your heart? Your sadness about things you’re missing out on? Your judgements toward the other person? Your thoughts of what else you’d rather be doing? Your memories of other instances where emotional people made you miss out on something? The field of impatient energy you are emanating? If your attention is on any one of those, what isn’t it on? The self is too expansive to be attended to all at once.
You might ask: if you can’t ever attain self-awareness, what’s the point of self-discovery?
The point is this that as you discover your habitual patterns of body, heart, and mind, you can become less entranced by them. This opens up new possibilities for contacting your essential goodness and manifesting your deepest virtues.
If you’ve ever gone down the path of inner work, you know that the first step is radical self-observation.
Why? Because awareness is prerequisite for conscious transformation. It doesn’t have to be complete awareness–it can’t be. Just honest awareness. When we notice even a little bit more what we’re really up to inside our heads (and hearts and bodies), it can be very illuminating and transformative.
One of my favorite Eckhart Tolle-isms is from The Power of Now. He says, “Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: ‘I wonder what my next thought is going to be.’ Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole?”
Now imagine watching a thousand mice go by. You’d probably notice a lot of identical mice. Most of our thoughts are repetitive variations on the same themes.
A personality type structure is basically a pack of similar mice scurrying around in your head. In 2s, the mice are variations of one color. In 8s, variations of another. The cat is your witnessing consciousness. If you watched a thousand mice and sorted them into buckets, you’d discover your Enneagram type. For instance, you might discover that 50% of your thoughts are about ensuring that you are successful and admirable… in which case, you might want to read about Enneagram 3s.
This thought experiment is a nice illustration of a point that good Enneagram teachers make: your type is precisely what you are NOT. Are you the mice? Or are you the cat?
The issue with the thought experiment is that it paints a rosy view of self-observation. In practice it is very difficult to identify our patterns of mind by ourselves. Thought patterns are elusive and adaptive, and we naturally resist seeing them because doing so reveals how asleep we have been. This can be painful to realize. “Am I really just a validation seeking machine?” This is what spiritual teachers mean when they say that humiliation is a sign that you’re doing sincere inner work.
To discover our thought patterns on our own, we first need to cultivate deep inner stillness and the will to see ourselves as we truly are. Many people lack this will because their personalities work just fine for them according to the measures of success that are important to them — they have good jobs, good friends, and good families, and they haven’t experienced enough pain to make them look inside with sincere curiosity. It is endlessly fascinating to me that while we live with our thoughts all the time, we can go our whole lives “asleep” to the patterns of our inner world.
That’s why the Enneagram is handy. It describes our patterns precisely enough to jostle us awake.
The Enneagram is also useful for true self-discovery because even if our desire is sincere, we may still lose our way in self-discovery projects that calcify, rather than dissolve, our self-concept. (For instance, a 7 that keeps discovering new parts of himself through sampling novel experiences, but not discovering that his habit is to seek novelty.) The Enneagram provides a trellis for the vines of our initial observations so that we do not stray too far into self-deception.
So… all this talk about true self-discovery being painful and humiliating… why go through with it?
I think many “spiritual” teachers struggle to give a balanced view of both the difficulty and the rewards of inner work. Most skew one way or the other. The truth is that inner work is often painful, yes. But the labor bears fruits — and not too far along the path.
To state the cliche, when we come to terms with our shadows, we also reveal our light. Carl Jung has a beautiful concept called the Golden Shadow. It’s the notion that you have extraordinary qualities that you are blind to or fear expressing because they threaten your current identity.
For instance, a hard-nosed business woman may repress her tenderness for her colleagues because she doesn’t want to seem like a weak leader. Or, a shy songwriter may suppress his innovative impulse because he fears that coloring too far outside the lines will alienate his fans.
In my experience with inner work, each time I summoned the courage to confront a painful shadow, I reaped benefits almost immediately.
For instance, I used to lie to people when they asked if I had read some classic book or seen an “important” movie. I didn’t want them to think I was uncultured. (I know, dumb… again — inner work can be embarrassing.) When I read about how Enneagram 3s sometimes present a false image to others in order to be admired, I felt personally called out.
Shortly after, in an Enneagram class, I caught myself lying to a classmate (a woman named Jan) about a movie I hadn’t seen, and a few minutes later, I decided to apologize publicly. At first, I was terrified that the people in the room would judge me — especially Jan. You might think this isn’t that big of a deal, but to me, it felt like I had stripped down naked and was waiting to be flogged. I remember shaking. Luckily, I was in an Enneagram class in a loving group, run by a very skilled facilitator. I ended up crying, hugging Jan, and for the first time in years, feeling like I was being loved for my whole self — not just the image I presented. The wave of relief that hit me afterwords was like a whole body orgasm. My entire nervous system settled, and I felt at ease.
Prior to this experience, part of my golden shadow was an ability to connect with others heart to heart. I couldn’t see that, much less do it, from a place of habitual dishonesty. Another part of my golden shadow was a powerful groundedness that comes from staying with myself instead of morphing into what others think is valuable. These capacities are now accessible to me, and exercising them is one of the great joys of my daily life.
So yes, what the Enneagram reveals about you may be hard to face. For me– that I was prone to lying. But the beauty is that once you see your patterns truthfully, they release their grip on you, which opens up capacities that you couldn’t access or even conceive of before. This is the promise of self-discovery and sincere inner work.
Insight and Compassion for Others
Many people do not like the Enneagram or other typologies because they “put people in buckets.” I understand the objection, but there is no denying that personality types exist. Some people are habitually forceful. Others are habitually accommodating. Still others are habitually striving, or emotionally sensitive, or moralistic, or self-critical, or self-aggrandizing.
However, the map is not the territory. Or, as James Flaherty (founder of New Ventures West, an institute that certifies Integral® Coaches) says, “The model is not the person.” The major pitfall of the Enneagram is that it tempts people to reduce humans to numbers.
Please do not do this. The Enneagram is a great map, but it is limited. It describes 9 “archetypes,” and as rich and nuanced as they are, they are not people. Learning the Enneagram does not instantly make you an expert psychologist, and humans are multi-dimensional, complex living beings that cannot be captured by a number.
That said, the issue is not with the Enneagram — it is with the level of consciousness from which we understand it. The good news is that the point of the Enneagram is to deepen our consciousness to a level from which we can simultaneously hold both the archetypical cleanliness of the Enneagram and the unbounded complexity of the humans it describes.
Being mindful of all the disclaimers, the Enneagram is an extraordinary tool for understanding others. Perhaps it is obvious that others experience the world differently than you do, but it the Enneagram’s language to describe those differences is massively eye-opening.
It can be especially powerful to learn the Enneagram in a workshop where other types are present. Major aha moments come when people different from you resonate as deeply with the description of their type as you do with that of yours. That’s what makes the Enneagram come alive. We start seeing that other people’s inner worlds follow a coherent logic that can be understood on its own terms. This forms an intellectual basis for compassion — often a missing piece for people. (For instance, if you’ve ever said, “I just don’t understand people who act like that.”)
Knowing another’s type is the most direct way to use the Enneagram with others. It can give relationship partners shared language to understand the other’s experience, to articulate their own, and to support each others’ growth.
But even if you do not know another’s type, the Enneagram still improves your awareness of them and ability to relate to them.
This is because ultimately, the Enneagram illuminates two softening truths: that we are each precious conduits of inestimable virtue, and that people are always doing the best that they can.
You experience these truth mainly in your heart. Russ Hudson says, “If you do not leave an Enneagram workshop with more insight and compassion for yourself and others, that workshop was a failure.” I agree.
Speaking more “practically” — and this may be controversial — the Enneagram helps you guess what’s going on with people. You’ve got a 1 in 9 shot, and usually you can narrow it down to 1 in 3 or 4. (Although I should say: even after 7 years of studying the Enneagram in depth, I am continually humbled by how often I guess wrong.)
But even if you don’t guess right, the Enneagram helps you come from a place of curiosity, openness, and love rather than from the typical reactivity of your own type. When you make this switch, relating to people tends to go well.
If by studying the Enneagram, you get as far as acknowledging that others’ inner lives are as valid as our own, you have made a major leap. Now, you are more curious than judgmental. Instead of getting frustrated with your partner for acting out her patterns, your reflex is to ask yourself, “How is she suffering?”
The personality exerts an iron grip, and we are all, more often than not, powerlessness against it. We all act like lunatics sometimes, don’t we? It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are born, or what our personality type is. It takes tremendous courage, will, and inner strength to wake up from the trance.
Given that, when we see people act out their patterns, what sensible response is there other than compassion?
So back to the question, “What do you do with the Enneagram?” One of the deepest answers is: you become more insightful and compassionate towards others.
On any inner work journey, it’s important to have a practice.
To talk meaningfully about practice, we first need to distinguish between two kinds of growth: horizontal and vertical.
Horizontal growth means developing our skills by doing things like learning a language, practicing an instrument, or mastering spreadsheets. Vertical growth means deepening our personhood by cultivating true self-awareness, confronting our shadows (dark and golden), and transcending our fears.
In the West, we tend to approach self-development with a preference toward the horizontal. To become better students, we practice note-taking; to become better musicians, we practice scales; and to become better leaders, we practice public speaking, or agenda setting, or task managing.
Horizontal growth can bring great joy and be very useful, but it does not deepen our personhood (at least, not without conscious intention). We will not solve our world’s biggest problems by becoming more skillful with spreadsheets. But we may stand a chance if we relax our egos, heal our collective traumas, and awaken our deepest virtues.
As a culture, we need to rebalance systematically towards the vertical. And, lest you think that vertical growth is impractical self-indulgence, consider which is more practical to being a student: taking notes, or being curious? Or to playing music: having flawless technique, or playing with passion? Or to being a leader: speaking well, or having an open heart?
It is probably clear by now, but the point of the Enneagram is to help you grow vertically.
Why do you need a personality typology to help you grow vertically? For two reasons: because your personality type grows differently than other types, and because it’s easy to get lost along the vertical path.
Many gurus in the self-development world become successful by offering a particular flavor of advice. For instance, “What people need is to be more comfortable exploring difficult emotions.”
Sure, maybe some types, but telling that to a soul-searching 4 is like telling a kangaroo to practice jumping. The advice has merit in the right context. But it may encourage a self-absorbed 4 to cling to his feelings rather than learn how to hold them lightly.
Here’s a more common American piece of advice : “People should strive for success and make no excuses on the path to excellence.”
Also good advice in the right context. But for success-driven 3s, true growth means slowing down enough to discover who they are beyond their goals. Tell the above to an asleep 3, and he’ll just keep his foot on the accelerator.
The point is that no matter what our type is, we are prone to getting lost in “self-development” projects that feed our ego instead of deepen our personhood. The Enneagram lights the way for our type and helps us avoid spiritual bypass.
3s do not need to practice being successful. They need to practice incorporating their hearts into their lived experience, so that they can cultivate authenticity, experience their true value, and find fulfillment. Some practices might be: loving-kindness meditation, keeping an “honest feelings” journal, or creative self-expression without an intended audience (e.g. painting or playing piano just for themselves).
4s do not need to practice exploring their feelings. They need to practice descending from emotional fantasy into their embodied experience, so that they can cultivate equanimity, experience their true depth, and participate in life through inspired action. Some practices might be sensation-based meditation, martial arts, or any form of creative self-expression that helps them externalize their feelings.
Practice is crucial to vertical development because although we may have transformative experiences, deep conversations, or moments of awakening, without a consistent practice we don’t have a good chance of stabilizing at new depths of personhood.
The point of committing to a practice isn’t to force yourself to do something you don’t like doing “because it’s good for you.” A good practice is typically something that your ego dreads, but your deeper self craves. You’ll know the sweet spot. Every day when I head to the meditation cushion, a part of me kicks and screams: “You’re going to waste 30 minutes just sitting there when you could be productive instead?” (#3). But another part of me gorges on the silence.
There is an overwhelming proliferation of vertical growth practices from countless traditions: meditation, journaling, martial arts, yoga, art making, ecstatic dance, prayer, etc. This brings us back to the original question: “What do you do with the Enneagram?” You use it to identify your vertical growth edge and then choose a practice that will actually deepen you.
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