Kristin Arthur, PhD
In New England, there is a joke about a stranger asking a farmer for directions back to the city. The old farmer thinks about it for a moment and then shakes his head saying, “You can’t get there from here”. It’s funny because obviously there is some way for the stranger to get back to the city. But in the farmer’s thinking, the traveler would have to go someplace else first, and then go home from there.
My sense of the current state of the Enneagram feels much like the old farmer’s sense of the stranger’s plight: The place many of us are trying to get to is an understanding of the Enneagram that is grounded in science. But we are standing is in the midst of an eclectic literature that has grown out of Evagrius’ ancient writings about interactions among demons, humans, and angels; the dramatic and sometimes impenetrable Gurdjieffian work, which has been carried forward until quite recently in a tradition of secrecy; Ichazo’s stunning placement of the seven deadly sins on the enneagram symbol; and Naranjo’s equally stunning matching of nine defense mechanisms, drawn from psychoanalytic theory, with the passions. As precious as this legacy is, it does not represent a body of scientifically acquired knowledge. How can we reconcile the Enneagram with science when our foundational knowledge is non-scientific? Where do we have to go first, in order to get to where we want to be?
In Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Essence, Teleology, and the Enneagram Mario Sikora identifies the construct of “Enneagram type” as particularly problematic from a scientific perspective. Sikora explains that our understanding of Enneagram types comes from Oscar Ichazo’s teachings, which were grounded in the Neo-Platonic philosophy conveyed in The Enneads. This philosophy was concerned with identifying and understanding “Ideal Forms”, which are the essential, unchanging abstractions that Plato and other Greek philosophers believed gave structure to the diverse and continually changing patterns observable in Nature (including in humans). Sikora argues that because science is concerned with understanding change, our underlying assumptions about the Enneagram types, developed by Ichazo in the Neoplatonic tradition and focusing on unchanging essence, are inherently incompatible with science.
To solve this problem Sikora suggests that going forward we conceptualize the Enneagram in terms of the principles of natural selection. Natural selection is the organizing principle of the Theory of Evolution, which can itself be thought of as the organizing principle of all life-based sciences. For Sikora, this pivot leads us to a place where we are no longer attempting to understand and defend Enneagram types from a scientific perspective, but instead are focusing on the many useful applications of the Enneagram that have been developed over the last twenty or so years, and defending these applications as scientifically valid and reliable. While this change in direction accomplishes Sikora’s goal of excising the Neoplatonic tradition from the Enneagram, it comes at the expense of understanding the types as valid objects of scientific research. For Sikora, the types are not real.
My problem with Sikora’s solution
The Enneagram is nothing if not a theory of personality, and the Enneagram as it is currently constructed provides an astonishingly rich, deep, and vivid taxonomy of personality characteristics. By abandoning the Enneagram types as objects of scientific research, I think Sikora is abandoning what is most special and rare about the Enneagram – knowledge of the types as distinctly different kinds of people. The Enneagram, better than any other personality theory I have ever been able to find, encompasses what McAdams and Pals (2007) refer to as “canon” in personality psychology: “every person is (1) like all other persons, (2) like some other persons, and (3) like no other person” (p 4). When we recognize ourselves as “a type” (like some other persons) we simultaneously come to know that we are the same as everyone else (everyone has a type) and that we are unique (even though I share my personality pattern with others, the content of that pattern is utterly my own). I know of no other knowledge system that conveys this essential truth of the human condition as directly and emphatically. I believe that it is essential to retain access to this knowledge as we continue our scientific work with the Enneagram.
Sikora identifies the Enneagram’s Neo-platonic roots as a crucial barrier to a scientific Enneagram. Additionally, Sikora sees the construct of Enneagram type as a product of these Neo-platonic roots. For Sikora, if I am reading him correctly, excising the types as a core part of our Enneagram knowledge removes the barrier of the theological background that he sees as standing between the Enneagram and scientific legitimacy. My problem with Sikora’s solution is that I see the Enneagram type as the lynch pin of the entire Enneagram. For me, if we no longer have the Enneagram type we no longer have the Enneagram. However, I believe there is a way to work towards Sikora’s critically necessary goal of letting go of this hidden theology while still retaining the Enneagram type, including the essential, hard won knowledge about human states of suffering and states of grace contained within it, as a viable object of scientific research.
My way of addressing the problem that Sikora has so eloquently identified has involved bringing my attention to the narrative of Enneagram type development that is embedded in our Enneagram body of knowledge. Instead of identifying the Enneagram’s problem as stemming from Ichazo’s use of Neoplatonic philosophy in his teachings as Sikora does, I identify the Enneagram’s problem as having to do with our understanding of how the Enneagram types develop in childhood.
Traditional understanding of Enneagram Type development found in the work of Ichazo, Naranjo, and Almaas
In 1975, “The Arica Training” by John Lilly and Joseph Hart was published in Transpersonal Psychologies. This chapter presented Lilly and Hart’s understanding of Ichazo’s teachings, including a description of how the Enneagram types develop in childhood. Lilly and Hart state that Ichazo’s narrative of type development was identified by Ichazo as one of his “Assumptions Inherently Unprovable”. This narrative should be familiar to most people in the Enneagram community: humans are born in essence, develop an ego in order to survive in the world, and in the process, lose touch with the experience of essence.
In 1994, Claudio Naranjo published Character and Neurosis: An Integrative View. This momentous work integrated Ichazo’s Enneagram teachings with current (circa 1994) psychoanalytic theory. With this integration, Naranjo basically swapped out Ichazo’s “inherently unprovable” narrative of Enneagram type development for more scientifically based ideas about child development. However, the basic developmental narrative that Naranjo told was the same as Ichazo’s: children are born in essence, develop a type to cope with the world (especially the mother) and then suffer from the accompanying loss of contact with essence.
The main difference between Ichazo’s and Naranjo’s narrative of Enneagram type development was that Ichazo identified his teaching as arising from unprovable assumptions while Naranjo explicitly merged Ichazo’s non-scientific narrative with his own scientifically based narrative of psychological development:
I will speak here about personality in general and also about the process of what we may call the degradation of consciousness – what is technically called the “theory of neurosis” – and which finds symbolic echo in the spiritual tradition in the mystical stories of the ‘fall from paradise’. I will not make a distinction between the spiritual “fall” of consciousness and the psychological process of aberrated development (Naranjo, 1994, p 2, emphasis added).
In Facets of Unity (1998), A. H. Almaas recasts Ichazo’s teachings about child development (that humans are born in essence, develop an ego to survive in the world and in the process lose contact with essence) in terms of D. H. Winnicott’s (1965) theory of child development. In explaining the focus of Facets, Almaas (1998) writes, “We are not aware of any published study showing the details of how and why the ennea-types and their mental fixations develop in a way that connects developmental factors to the loss of Holy Ideas” (p 7).
Winnicott’s (1965) description of how a child develops a false self and a true self is central to Almaas’ narrative of Enneagram type development. Winnicott asserted that it is the quality of the infant’s holding environment, especially the mother’s behaviors (such as touching, soothing, feeding) that determines how the child develops a mind that includes both a false self – the part of the child that is forced to adjust to the mother’s quality of care, and a true self – the part of the child’s mind that can experience itself and the world in a way that has not been conditioned by these early experiences.
In the course of discussing each core in detail and how it results from loss of contact with the particular Holy Idea, we also explore how early childhood experience causes this loss… We explore D.W. Winnicott’s work on the influences of the early holding environment on the development of the self… and extend his understanding to encompass the dimension of Essence of Being. We clarify the manifestations of Being – the essential dimensions – that are needed in a child’s early environment to hold the experience of the self or soul such that its development is a ‘continuity of being’, as Winnicott would say. We see how an environment lacking such manifestations of Being causes the soul to react in such a way that it loses contact with its Beingness, its essential core and nature. Inadequacy in the holding environment leads not only to the loss of contact with Being in general, but specifically to the loss of one’s particular Holy Idea (p 13).
Almaas (1998) then goes on to graft Ichazo’s teachings about Enneagram type development onto Winnicott’s model of the development of true and false selves, writing:
Implicit in the ego, then is a fundamental distrust of reality. The failure of the holding environment leads to the absence of basic trust, which then becomes disconnection from Being, which leads to reactivity, which is ego activity. The Enneagram maps the various ways the ego develops to deal with the absence, disruptions, ruptures, and discontinuities of holding…. To the extent that the environment provides adequate holding, the child can develop in the context of a continuity of being which allows and supports the individuation of the soul- one’s unique embodiment of Being. Because there are degrees of holding and of impingement, and because no holding environment is without failures, we typically develop a real (essential) and a false (egoic) self in varying proportions (p 44 – 45).
Putting Winnicott’s work in context
- H. Winnicott was a British psychoanalyst and pediatrician and was an important part of the post-World War II controversies that arose among clinicians and researchers carrying Freud’s work forward. Winnicott felt that psychoanalysis was under siege from the rising field of behavioral psychology and was concerned that much of what psychoanalysis had fought for would be lost if the field allowed itself to be influenced too much by the kind of ethological work that John Bowlby (the co-founder, with Mary Ainsworth, of Attachment Theory) was pursuing. Both Winnicott and Bowlby were deeply committed to developing psychoanalytic practice in a way that would benefit distressed children and families.
Although Winnicott’s and Bowlby’s subject matter was the same – how the mother-infant relationship impacts development – they were often diametrically opposed when it came to research methods and conclusions. Winnicott was determined to protect psychoanalysis from being overwhelmed and taken over by the rising tide of behavioral psychology that was burgeoning after World War II. In 1952 Winnicott stated:
… the psychoanalysts were the only people for about ten or fifteen years who knew there was anything but environment. Everybody was screaming out that everything was due to somebody’s father being drunk. So the thing was, how to get back to the environment without losing all that was gained by studying the inner factors (p 79).
Meanwhile, Bowlby was just as determined that the field of psychoanalysis must be integrated with the larger scientific world. As Issroff explains:
What is overlooked by many psychoanalysts is that John Bowlby selected out the attachment system to study as “the best bet”, and while not dismissing any of the actual findings of psychoanalysis, he wanted to reformulate the data in a different way. Bowlby required that his theories be consistent with the findings in allied disciplines. He formulated them under the constraints of evolutionary biology and ethology (p 32).
During the 1950s and 1960s, Winnicott’s position received more support than Bowlby’s, and psychoanalysis retained its focus on the infant’s subjective inner world of fantasy, and for the most part rejected Bowlby’s assertion that the inner world of infants was better understood as a reflection of an objective outer world.
In choosing to integrate the Enneagram with Winnicott’s theory of child development, Almaas strengthened the Enneagram’s relationship with mid-twentieth century psychoanalytic theory and research methods, first introduced by Naranjo, to explain Enneagram type development. This integration has vastly enriched the Enneagram by bringing attention and understanding to how the individual subjective inner world is itself patterned according to type. However, Almaas’ choice also carried the Enneagram further away from integration with other sciences. The Enneagram’s reliance on mid-twentieth century psychoanalytic theory to explain how the types develop has endured, even as psychoanalytic theory itself has changed drastically as it incorporates research from such diverse sciences including interpersonal neurobiology and ethology.
Current understandings of Enneagram type development
The widely held understanding of Enneagram type development holds that a child is born in essence – receptive and nonreactive – and then develops a personality type as a defense or accommodation to the world, especially the world as it is first experienced through the mother’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. Beatrice Chestnut’s explanation of type development in her recent book The Complete Enneagram (2013) is a good example of how this traditional view has endured from Ichazo’s teachings all the way to the present. Chestnut explains that humans develop Enneagram types because:
Human babies have the longest period of dependency of all mammals, so human children possess inborn, wired-in defense mechanisms that protect them from being too overwhelmed or harmed by psychological or emotional threats. Over time, early and necessary (and sometimes life-saving) defensive maneuvers and coping strategies evolve into “patterns” of thinking, feeling, and behaving… These patterned coping strategies turn into invisible and automatic “habits” that influence where your attention goes and what adaptive strategies you employ to interact in the world (p 3 – 4).
Chestnut then follows Almaas in asserting that this interaction between the developing child and the world results in the development of a false self and a true self:
The Enneagram views the personality as a “false self” that develops to allow your (vulnerable and young) “true self” to adapt, fit in, and survive among other humans. This perspective holds that personality is a “defensive” or a “compensatory” self whose coping strategies developed to help us fulfill our needs and reduce our anxieties (p 16).
Alternative approaches to conceptualizing Enneagram type development
I believe that Chestnut’s description of Enneagram type development represents the understanding of most people in the Enneagram community, and it yields the conceptualization of Enneagram type that Sikora is arguing must be jettisoned. However, there are alternative models of Enneagram type development that seek to understand the Enneagram in terms of the biological sciences, just as Sikora is calling for.
In particular, a team lead by Jack Killen, including Dan Siegel, the late David Daniels, Denise Daniels, and Laura Baker has focused on integrating ethology (the study of animal behavior) and interpersonal neurobiology (an interdisciplinary field of science that studies human development). Jack began this project by drawing on the work of ethologist Jaak Panksepp to conceptualize the passions in term of emotion regulation strategies targeting the basic mammalian emotions of ANGER, FEAR, AND PANIC. Killen explains:
…the structure of each of the nine Enneagram types is built around a particular pattern of emotion regulation relating to FEAR, ANGER, or PANIC. These patterns emerge early in life as cognitive-emotional structures that reside in the neural networks responsible for emotional activation and regulation… the Enneagram figure may represent a sort of schematic ‘wiring diagram’ of the functional cognitive-emotional structures in the domains of the major negative emotions in humans (pp 52 – 53).
Siegel adds that in this model, the passions are conceptualized as, “strategies of self-regulation, especially of the aversive emotional reactions” (p 166). Each strategy is comprised of two biases: bias of content and bias of direction (inner, outer, or mixed), resulting in nine distinct strategies.
Working on a somewhat parallel track, I have sought to integrate the Enneagram with Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory began as a project to re-conceptualize Freud’s work in terms of the Theory of Evolution. Specifically, Ainsworth and Bowlby stated, “The distinguishing characteristic of the theory of attachment that we have jointly developed is an ethological approach to personality development” (p 333). In my doctoral research, I found empirical support for a model of the Enneagram that integrates adult Attachment Styles and the Enneagram types. More recently, I have turned my attention to the contributions that Affect Regulation Theory and Mentalization theory – sister theories that have grown out of Attachment Theory – may offer to improving our understanding of Enneagram type development.
Everyone who works with the Enneagram makes choices about how to locate the Enneagram within larger knowledge structures. Evagrius located his work at the intersection between his formally acquired training in Greek literature and philosophy and the pagan teachings about demons that he gained when he retreated to the desert. Ichazo interpreted the Enneagram in terms of Neo-Platonism. Naranjo integrated the Enneagram with traditional psychoanalytic theory. The Enneagram that Almaas integrated with Winnicott’s theory of child development already included Greek philosophy, Neo-Platonic philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. Almaas’ choice to integrate the Enneagram with Winnicott’s work strengthened the Enneagram’s dependence on traditional psychoanalytic theory, but weakened its association with other scientific disciplines.
The integrations crafted by Ichazo, Naranjo, and Almaas rightly emphasized the spiritual aspect of the Enneagram, but at the cost of a coherent relationship with twenty-first century science. The ethologically based integrations being developed by Killen, Siegel, myself, and others have been more at home in the world of interdisciplinary scientific research, but have not yet offered adequate accounts of spiritual development. It has been helpful to me to write this narrative of how the Enneagram got to be where it is now, essentially split in two between the world of science and the world of spirit. Yet contemplating the Enneagram from this particular place, I believe more than ever that it will be possible to build a theory of the Enneagram that is at home in both worlds – a theory that makes as much sense to Sikora as it would to Evagrius. In my next article I intend to sketch out what such a theory might look like.
- I use the capitalized “Enneagram” to refer to the body of knowledge that has accrued around the enneagram symbol since at least the 4th century. I use the un-capitalized “enneagram” to refer to the enneagram symbol.
- For example, in 2012 Anna Sutton reviewed Enneagram research asking the question, “Is the Enneagram real?” By this she meant, does the Enneagram meet the criterion to be considered a good theory of personality, one that is “scientifically testable, useful and comprehensive” (Sutton, 2012, p 7). Sutton concluded that the answer is a qualified yes: “The evidence so far is certainly promising, but by no means definitive” (Sutton, 2012, p 16). In 2013, C. J. Fitzsimons and Jack Killen noted that, “… the Enneagram lacks the kind of empirical and scientific evidence about validity and efficacy which many people look to as a measure of credibility” (Fitzsimons & Killen, 2013, p 5). Following up on a presentation given by Jack Killen at the 2014 International Enneagram Association Conference, a three-part series in Nine Points explored the question, “How can the Enneagram community stay true to its roots and embrace science?” (Killen, 2014; Meyer, 2014; Killen, Meyer & Fitzsimons, 2015).
- Wiltse and Palmer’s (2011) Hidden in plain sight: Observations on the origins of the Enneagram describes how the Enneagram can be traced back to the work of Evagrius, a 4th century Christian monk. See Desert Christians by Harmless (2004) and Demons and the Making of the Monk by Brakke (2006) for discussions of Evagrius’ cosmology.
- See Cynthia Bourgeault’s (2013) The Holy Trinity for an excellent discussion of the relationship between traditional Gurdjieffian work and the Enneagram of Personality.
- See “The Arica Training” by Lilly and Hart (1975) for a description of Ichazo’s original teachings about the enneagram symbol and the types.
- A construct is a term used in the social sciences to describe something that cannot be measured directly. The field of personality psychology studies differences among people by developing constructs that allow for systematic research of abstract entities, like Enneagram types. McAdams and Pals (2007) explain:
Constructs are convenient fictions that help us to describe and explain what cannot be directly assessed. Nobody has ever seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted the constructs of extraversion or the need for achievement. Instead, influential communities of like-minded behavioral scientists have essentially agreed to talk about psychological individuality in terms of constructs such as extraversion and the need for achievement. Even though constructs are socially consensual fictions, some constructs turn out to be extraordinarily useful in describing and explaining reality (pp 6 – 7).
- Leroi (2014) notes, “As scientific explanations go, natural selection is simplicity itself, requiring only a grasp of three concepts: that creatures are variable, that at least some of this variation is inherited and that some of these variants survive and reproduce by virtue of their phenotypes while others do not” (p 273).
- See the recent article “Advancing ego development in adulthood through the study of the Enneagram system of personality” by Daniels, Saracino, Fraley, et al. (2018) for a great example of this type of research.
- Sikora (2013) writes:
But Darwin showed us that life cannot be easily classified (and that includes us), that despite the title of his most famous book, “species” don’t actually exist but are instead a useful fiction; that what we think is a neat and orderly tree of life is actually a bush, and it’s a messy, gnarled bush that sprouts up wherever it can find purchase. We, each one of us, are messy and gnarled as well, and the concept of “type” is a useful fiction. We must take care and not believe the fiction is real (p 106).
- McCrae and Costa (2008) explain that a theory of personality can be thought of as a special kind of narrative that integrates research findings into a pattern that explains those findings and allows for making testable predictions that allow the narrative to expand, yet:
… neither the model itself nor the body of research findings with which it is associated constitutes a theory of personality. A theory organizes findings to tell a coherent story, to bring into focus those issues and phenomena that can and should be explained… Personality may be viewed as a system, and an adequate theory of personality must provide a definition of the system, a specification of its components, a model of their organization and interaction, and an account of the system’s development (p 159).
- A taxonomy is an ordered hierarchy of discrete categories. The Enneagram is a taxonomy because it is made up of discrete categories (the types) placed in a specific order (One through Nine); and nested in a hierarchy (the centers). Leroi (2014) points out that most scientific disciplines begin with the creation of a taxonomy:
After all, a science can hardly get off the ground unless its objects have first been pinned down and named. As biology needed Linnaeus’ system, so astronomy needed Johan Bayer’s star atlas, crystallography the Abbé Haüy’s geometrics, and chemistry Dimitri Mendeleev’s Period Table (p 102).
- Assumptions inherently unprovable: “When a child is born he is pure essence: a natural being in an ordered cosmos, one with all men and with God, instinctive, loving. This is the perfect state of innocence, but the child must grow. Under the influence of his surroundings, parents, society, he begins to develop a personality for survival, the ego, between four to six years of age. The awareness of joy and harmony of his essence dims until he is conscious only of his ego, which is fighting for survival in a threatening world. This lack of awareness of the essence leads to the unhappiness which many feel as part of man’s condition in this world. But if ego with its constant fear can be eliminated, man can return to his original state of being in essence, with the addition of all the knowledge his life experience has given him. This knowledge and experience will now enrich the essence which can function more fully in harmony with the Cosmos and is not that of an “enlightened” man” (Lilly & Hart, 1975, p 332).
We are all acquainted with the Freudian view that neurosis consists basically in an interference with instinctual life… Modern psychoanalysts, such as Fairbairn and Winnicott, agree that the origin of neurosis is to be found in an imperfect mothering and more generally speaking, in problems of parenting… Freud had the great merit of realizing that neurosis was a nearly universal thing, and that it is transmitted generation after generation through the process of parenting… there are many ways in which the requirement for good enough parental love is frustrated or betrayed. In some cases parental self-involvement may result in neglect, for instance, while in others too strong a need to lie on the part of the grown-ups may result in the invalidation of the child’s experience, still in other instances, tenderness may be over-shadowed by the expression of violence and so on.
Let us say that the way we have come to be in this lower world that we inhabit after the fall from Eden – the personality that we identify with and implicitly refer to when we say “I” – is a way of being that we adopted as a way of defending our life and welfare through an “adjustment”, in a broad sense of the term… In the face of the lack of what he or she needs, the growing child has need to manipulate, and we say that character is, from one point of view, a counter-manipulative apparatus… In this state of affairs, then, life is not guided by instinct but thorough the persistence of an earlier adaptational strategy that competes with instinct and interferes with the “wisdom” of the organism in the widest sense of the expression. The persistence of such early adaptational strategy may be understood in terms of the painful context in which it arose and the special kind of learning that sustains it (pp 3 – 5).
From this perspective, Naranjo conceptualized the passions as
…a result of our retaining too much of the attitudes that we all shared as infants at the breast, of being stuck in a position of excessive sucking and biting in the face of the world (p 25).
- For example, Hill (2015) notes how the use of the concept of “bodymind” began with Freud, waned over the years, and then has recently returned as a central focus of psychoanalysis:
A model of bodymind (brain-body-mind) is basic to a clinical theory of affect regulation. Freud proposed a theory of bodymind in which the regulation of body-base sexual and aggressive drives is foundational for development and mental life. With the emergence of ego psychology and object relations theory came a focus on mental representation. The idea of a bodymind diminished, and psychoanalysis became more cognitively oriented. With the introduction of attachment theory…. Psychoanalysis is returned to an integration of biology and psychology, this time founded in Darwinian principles of adaptation. Most schools of psychoanalysis not embrace the ideas of an embodied mind and increasingly focus on affect” (p 27).
- Similarities in Typology Prototypes (Arthur, 2008)
|Attachment Styles (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991)||Enneagram Attention Styles (Palmer, 1988)|
|Dismissing Avoidant||Type 5|
|I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.||Detached from love and charged emotion. Needing privacy to discover what they feel. Separated from people in public, feeling more emotional when they’re by themselves…As a psychological strategy, detachment minimizes contact|
|I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.||Twos move toward people, as if seeking an answer to the inner question: Will I be liked? They have a marked need for affection and approval; they want to be loved, to be protected, and to feel important in other people’s lives|
|Fearful Avoidant||Type 6|
|I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.||Sixes lost faith in authorities when they were young. They remember being afraid of those who had power over them, of being unable to act on their own behalf. Those memories have carried over into adult life as a suspiciousness of other people’s motives.|
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