Note before starting: This section on the website on spiritual practices does not intend to present the Enneagram in an exhaustive fashion. This will serve as a mere introduction. The Enneagram is a complex instrument and should best be used with a competent guide or teacher, preferably one certified in administering and teaching the Enneagram. I am not certified in teaching the Enneagram. I have however relied, in this section on the work of several colleagues who are. I am in particular debt to two colleagues in this area who are certified, and have offered numerous workshops on this: April Snider and Barbara and Peter Peloso. I use their notes with permission. There are several different schools of thought around the Enneagram, and, while they are all quite similar, they are distinct. Some focus on a secular understanding, while others are more conducive to our purposes here, namely spiritual practice. You will see from the Bibliographic Reference section that I have used a good many sources for this website. In particular, I am indebted to the work of Richard Rohr, OFM, Don Riso and Russ Hudson, Maria Beesing, Robert Nogosek and Patrick O’Leary, as well as Susan Reynolds.
The Enneagram is a very ancient tool (recognized by some members of all three monotheistic religions) whose Christian origins can be traced to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth century. The Enneagram is used for the discernment of spirits, to help us recognize our False Self, and to lead us to encounter our True Self in God. The history of the Enneagram itself makes for a fascinating read, with origins, not only in the early desert mystics but in the ancient Sufi tradition. It was made popular in the mid 20th century by a Chilean psychologist, Oscar Ichazo, and then spread rapidly through various spiritual and psychological practitioners, including Jesuit spiritual directors. Patrick O’Leary SJ brought the Enneagram into the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in the early 1970s. Since then, there has been a proliferation of schools of interpretation, including Richard Riso and Russ Hudson and Helen Palmer, to name the two most popular. In the 70s, when the Enneagram was introduced in American retreat centres, it was originally intended to help spiritual directors train and refine the gift of reading energies, or “the reading of souls,” and support the transforming of people into who they are in God. By forcing us to face our own darkness, the Enneagram leads us to address that same darkness as it shows itself in culture, oppression, injustice, and human degradation.
No one willingly does evil. Each of us has put together a construct by which we explain why what we do is necessary and good. That is why it is so important to “discern the spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10). We need support in unmasking our False Self and distancing ourselves from our illusions. With the self-knowledge that the Enneagram gives us, we are not dealing only with the acknowledgement of sin. (Note: In the Enneagram tradition, “sin” is simply that which doesn’t work, i.e. self-defeating behavior. In most places, we will prefer the term “compulsion.”) We are also letting go of what only seems good in order to discover what in us is really good: our soul, our True Self.
We overcome our evil not by a frontal and heroic attack, but by recognizing it, naming it, and letting it go. The Enneagram works by insight. Once we see our False Self for what it is, we are no longer attached to it, and it no longer blocks us from realizing our inherent union with God. The Enneagram helps us see our own compulsive blindness and how we are acting at cross-purposes with our best interest. Realizing that, we can eventually flow with our gift and integrate our sin, our shadow, our failure, the “stone” which we rejected. We finally see that I am what I am, good and bad put together into one self.
The purpose of the Enneagram is not self-improvement, which would be our ego’s goal. Rather, it is the transformation of consciousness so that we can realize our essence, our True Self. Personality development and character building will happen on the side as a corollary, but this is not its primary goal. The primary goal of any spiritual tool is union with God/Truth, and then we get united with ourselves in the process!
The Enneagram reveals that we are often destroyed by our gift! We over-identify with our strengths and they become their own set of blinders. This allows real misperception, and allows our own “root sin” or compulsion to remain mostly hidden from us. We cannot see the air we are breathing all the time. Our “sins” are the other side of our gift. They are, in fact, the way we get our energy. They “work” for us (at least we think they do). The Enneagram uncovers this false energy source for us and enables us to look our real dilemma in the eye. It confronts us with the compulsions and laws under which we live—usually without awareness—and it invites us to go beyond them and take steps into a real domain of freedom—freedom from our foundational addiction to our self.
People who know the Enneagram in a superficial way, or who are just beginning to work with it, may think it puts people into boxes. But in fact, one of the great graces is that they find themselves coming out of their own self-created box because they recognize their box is far too limiting. Also, as they continue to work with the Enneagram, they will see its brilliance and that there is always another level of discovery—and then another level that comes as a surprise and usually a humiliation too. That tells them they are in the realm of soul and mystery, if mystery means something that is eternally knowable and soul is their very connection to God.
The Enneagram, like the Spirit of Truth itself, will always set us free, but first it will make us miserable! Working with the Enneagram is intentionally humiliating. We need to feel, acknowledge, and see how exaggerated, excessive, and absurd our false energy source really is. If we own and take responsibility for our darkness, if we feel how it has wounded us and others, how it has allowed us not to love and not to be loved—if we do that, I promise that we will become alert to the other side, to our greater gifts, and even the actual depth of our gift. Our gift is amazingly our sin sublimated and transformed by grace. What a surprise this is for most people!
The Enneagram defines its nine human types on the basis of nine “traps,” “passions,” “sins,” or, as we prefer here “compulsions.” These compulsions can be understood as emergency solutions that were used in early childhood development as a way of coming to terms with one’s environment. They were necessary for survival. But the older we get, the more clearly they reveal themselves as much of our problem. We are addicted to one early set of glasses and also blinders! All positions operate out of a compulsion. (passion, fixation, sin, illness, style…). The compulsion is accentuated under stress; it consists of maladaptive ways of operating; fixated on image and task.
The Enneagram suggests that we live one of nine possible lies about ourselves, which we told ourselves in our childhood. These were ways we made sense out of people’s reactions to us. Since we are all seeking to be loved, and we experienced others loving and not loving us in various ways, each of us worked out some operating principle we though would assure us that we would be loved.
Various teachers of the Enneagram have provided different wording – as well as names – for each of these “lies” we told ourselves. And each type has a characteristic avoidance behaviour. Knowing these might help you identify your own type. Here, to the best of my ability, is one way to look at each of the nine “lies.”
So, here are the nine “lies” we tell ourselves about how we will be loved, and the aspect of life which each type typically avoids:
ONEs: The Reformer “I will be loved if I do everything perfectly.” ONEs avoid anger.
TWOs: The Helper “I will be loved if I look after others.” TWOs avoid seeing their needs.
THREEs: The Achiever “I will be loved if I am successful.” THREEs avoid failure.
FOURs: The Individualist “I will be loved if I am unusual.” FOURs avoid ordinariness.
FIVEs: The Observer “I will be loved if I am clever.” FIVEs avoid emptiness.
SIXes: The Loyalist “I will be loved if I am faithful.” SIXes avoid deviance.
SEVENs: The Adventurer “I will be loved if I live a happy life.” SEVENs avoid pain.
EIGHTs: The Asserter “I will be loved if I am strong.” EIGHTs avoid weakness.
NINEs: The Peacemaker “I will be loved if I keep the peace.” NINEs avoid conflict.
If you recognize yourself – positively or negatively – in any one of these descriptors, click on it to explore it a bit more in depth to see if it is really a match.