There is an organization called The Flat Earth Society whose purpose I used to assume was tongue-in-cheek. Through its literature and websites, it advocates a medieval view of the world and promotes an elaborate thesis that “proves” the world is flat. The Society claims, for instance, that photographs of the round earth shot from space are trick photography and part of a sinister worldwide conspiracy to contradict common sense. After all, any fool who can see the horizon knows that the world is flat.
Christopher Columbus himself knew better as did most educated people of his era. But, in his day, some still believed that the oceans of the world flowed off the flat earth’s edge. Ships that ventured beyond known territory were thought to be swept over a huge waterfall and plunged into a deep abyss. Far down below they would smash apart on sharp rocks and hungry dragons would devour any surviving sailors. During that era, many maps of the time had the warning “Here be dragons” written in their margins, to protect mariners from sailing to their doom.
Each of us is an unwitting member of a Flat Earth Society, in that we have a personal map of reality that is not reality itself, an inner subjective view of the world that only partially reflects the larger one around us. We rarely experience reality per se but rather our reactions to it. What we internally believe about the world drives our behavior much more than does external reality.
Our inner map is based on everything we’ve experienced and learned, which includes our resources, strengths and what got us this far. But since our map only reflects what has already happened, it is by definition incomplete – a flat version of the round whole.
Like the Flat Earthers, we sometimes mistake our personal horizon for the world’s true edge. Unconsciously, within our map, we harbor beliefs about who we are and the extent of our abilities. We may even fear that venturing past the edge of our map will sweep us out of control and expose us to our personal equivalent of dragons.
The Enneagram itself is a map, a map of maps of reality. It presents a psychology of the inner outlook, describing nine personality styles and their central points of view. As such, the Enneagram maps out nine flat earths, nine versions of reality that people favor, nine ways the human unconscious creates and organizes subjective experience.
The Enneagram is a clear, exceptionally accessible version of what’s called “ego psychology” and the part of us that sees the world as flat is otherwise known as our ego. Most of us have an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants sense of our ego though we may not realize its exact nature or depth of influence on our behavior. We also may not know that our individual ego is similar to others, that there are species of ego.
The Enneagram describes its nine different egos in a penetrating way, detailing the inner life, thought patterns and basic beliefs of each one. No style is considered as better than another, and each has a range of healthy and unhealthy potentials – strengths, gifts and advantages as well as limits, pitfalls and blind spots. Although each Enneagram style has a distinct inner logic and worldview, all are designed to fulfill the same set of basic psychological needs. Your ego governs your map of reality, your sense of identity as well as your core motivations, values and defenses. It controls a tight-knit cluster of guiding assumptions, offering you both a general sense of direction and immediate ways to proceed.
Through your ego’s inner outlook you accurately perceive a slice of reality – what author Richard Rohr has called “one-ninth of the truth.” To some extent, each of us then mistakes our fraction of the world for the whole and gets stuck in a fixed point of view. In the bargain, we accidentally delete the other “eight-ninths” of reality and this omission lays the groundwork for our difficulties.
Once on a boat I noticed a little girl turning pale with fright as the boat’s engines revved for departure. “What’s wrong?” her mother asked. The child anxiously replied, “Are we going to get smaller and smaller and then disappear?” Every boat she had ever watched from the shore had done that.
Our limited personal focus means that we are very good at some things but weak at others, like someone on crutches who develops strong arms. While we excel at what we already know, our other potentials may lie distant and buried. The Enneagram maps out our strengths even as it points to the worlds upon worlds of experience that we are missing.