The Coming of Wisdom with Time

Teaching the Enneagram to Lifelong Learners

at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Though leaves are many, the root is one;

Through all the lying days of my youth

I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;

Now may I wither into the truth.

–W.B. Yeats

This article is an unabashed, blatant, barefaced, unapologetic attempt to educate Enneagram teachers and students about our nationwide network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, and then encourage them to try teaching the Enneagram and other topics at one in the near future. Below you will find all the basic information necessary to understand the history and purpose of this wonderful organization, as well as sharings and anecdotes of my over ten years of teaching at the local OLLI here in Ashland, OR. But first let’s look at some background material…

Based on something known as the “Saturn Return” many esoteric astrologers and transpersonal psychologists usefully divide the human life cycle into three distinct periods: The first third of life, from 0-28 years; the second third, from 29-56 years; and the final third, from 57-84 years.  Recently, I opened an article in the Enneagram Monthly by saying: “The majority of students and clients in my Enneagram workshops, presentations, study groups and counseling sessions are between thirty-five and sixty years of age—right in the middle of the chronological bell curve” (“Falling Into the Looking Glass: The Perils and Pitfalls of Teaching the Enneagram to Younger People,” April 2011, pp. 4-5).  In that article I gave a brief case history of a 25 yr. old woman who had a set of difficulties emerge in her Enneagram studies with me that were both age and type-related. I also listed three potential pitfalls that can befall younger people: 1) Using study and practice of the Enneagram to consciously or unconsciously avoid engaging in normal, age-appropriate tasks and goals; 2) Issues and behaviors having to do with “spiritual bypassing”; 3) Challenges of the individuation process, including confrontations with the personal unconscious and the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

On the other end of the chronological spectrum, for over ten years in Ashland, Oregon I have had the pleasure of teaching many classes at our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). This adult education center is connected to Southern Oregon University, a local, small (about 5,500 students), and highly regarded liberal arts institution.  This is my second foray into the field of “adult or continuing education” or “lifelong learning” (the first was in Reykjavik, Iceland from 1996-1999, where I taught courses in ESL, the Enneagram, and “The Wisdom of the Tarot”) and I find it both challenging and enriching. The courses include such titles as: “Mastering the Art of Living: Indigenous Wisdom and the Four-Fold Way,” “Mystics, Saints and Sages,” “Growing Gold: Soulmaking in the Second Half of Life,” “The Possible Elder: Conscious Aging and Spiritual Development in the Later Years of Life,” “Spiritual Cinema Afternoons,” and several different classes on the Enneagram. The Enneagram classes are especially successful, filling to capacity the largest room with sixty-five mostly beginning, highly curious, and generally enthusiastic students. Because readers may know little if anything about the creation of a large network of OLLIs affiliated with nearly every accredited college and university in the country, I will first supply basic background information taken from the website of the sponsoring philanthropic organization, the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes


In the fall of 2000, the Bernard Osher Foundation began to consider programs targeted toward more mature students, those not necessarily well served by the standard continuing education curriculum. Courses in such programs attract students of all ages eager to accumulate units to complete degrees or to acquire career upgrade skills. By contrast, the interest of more senior students, many of whom are at retirement age, is in learning for the joy of learning – without homework or examinations.
The Foundation was fortunate to have two immediate examples of lifelong learning programs from which to learn. One was the thirty-year-old Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco; the second was Senior College at the University of Southern Maine.

First Grants

In early 2001, an endowment grant was given to the University of Southern Maine to improve and extend its excellent programs, and the name “Senior College” was changed to “Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.” Shortly after, Sonoma State University, a member of the California State University (CSU) system became a grantee. Both programs progressed admirably, and the Foundation decided to join the “lifelong learning” field in a significant fashion.

National Expansion

Beginning in the fall of 2002, the Foundation issued Requests for Proposals to campuses in the CSU and University of California system. Typically, grants of $100,000 were made on the understanding that, once a lifelong learning institute was launched, the Foundation would consider the renewal of the grant for two or more years with a view to providing an endowment gift of no less than $1 million should the institute demonstrate potential for success and sustainability.

At present, the Foundation supports 124 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes on university and college campuses across the country, with at least one program in each of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia).

Current Program

There is considerable variation among the Osher Institutes but the common threads remain: Non-credit educational programs specifically developed for seasoned adults who are aged 50 and older; university connection and university support; robust volunteer leadership and sound organizational structure; and a diverse repertoire of intellectually stimulating courses. The designation of each grantee as “The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of X” is a condition of the Foundation’s grant-making as is the use of a logo which consists of a simple circle with the words “Osher Lifelong Learning Institute” arranged within.


Each OLLI has different approaches to student tuition and faculty compensation. The Ashland OLLI chooses to charge students almost nothing—only $125.00 per year for as many classes as the student wants to take and can get into (there are waiting lists for popular classes)—and pay its teachers nothing. In other words, in Ashland, a beautiful, small town famous for being politically liberal and socially progressive, teaching is considered as an educational gift to the larger community. Although there is no age requirement, most students who attend OLLI are between 50 and 75 yrs. of age. Other variations include: 1) How many classes are offered per quarter or semester; 2) Days and hours of operation; 3) Which classes pass the local curriculum committee’s standards; 4) Who is doing the teaching.  Related to the last item, it should be noted that many of the instructors are retired or currently active teachers, professors and workshops leaders, and in general the caliber of instruction is quite high, often surpassing that of the university proper.

After having now taught for about a decade, my experience has been that this overall academic situation has advantages and disadvantages, some of which I share below:

Advantage #1: OLLI students pay little for their classes and do not receive grades. All of them are choosing to attend and are generally grateful to the teacher for offering his time, energy and expertise. In other words, there are no grumpy or lazy students who are taking the class because it is a pre-requisite for something else, or to fill up units to graduate. Also, they are usually quite relaxed, as the readings are not usually required but only strongly recommended, and they are not being graded. All of this means that it is highly rewarding, emotionally and spiritually to teach there.

Advantage #2: These students are more mature in many ways than most of the 18 – 25 year olds that populate undergraduate colleges and universitie. With all their life experience (I have had several people in class who were in their late 70s and 80s) they are, in general, capable of profound self-reflection, deep understandings of self and others, and genuinely useful class contributions. This means that teaching older students can be quite rewarding, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and philosophically.

Advantage #3: Olli provides all the advertising, copying expenses, tech support, classroom space and teaching supplies. All the instructor has to do is design and prepare for the class, and show up.  OLLI even provides each teacher with a host(ess) that arrives early, cleans and sets up the room, makes relevant announcements in the first five minutes of class, is responsible for keeping track of enrollment numbers, performs after-class cleanup, and then final lockup if it is the last class of the day. Also, a tutorial on the A/V equipment is offered before the term begins and an IT person is available for emergencies.

Advantage#4: Related to this last point, if the classes offered are on a popular topic they can be quite large and lively. My Enneagram course was at full capacity (65 students), with a waiting list. Although OLLI teachers are not supposed to speak about and advertise their private services after the first day of class, I found that many students were willing to voluntarily give me their email addresses and phone numbers, which I saved with their permission for future advertising purposes.

And now on to the (possible) disadvantages:

Disadvantage #1: There is no financial compensation at my OLLI. However, many of these students later attend workshops I give, or come to my home for typing interviews and counseling sessions/spiritual direction—for which I do get paid.

Disadvantage #2: Many students routinely give themselves permission to not show up for classes when they have scheduling conflicts, don’t feel well, the subject material is not to their liking, the weather is bad, etc. Also, they feel free to change classes in the first couple of weeks of the quarter, and also drop out if they don’t understand and/or enjoy the material.  Thus, the attrition rate is usually somewhere between 20-40% in the first 2-3 weeks (however I had an initial waiting list of about ten, which partially added to the final enrollment).

Disadvantage #3: The fact that most of the students are in their 50s, 60s and 70s (with some in their 80s!) means that quite a few have health concerns and limitations. For example: poor hearing and vision, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, ambulatory problems (including the need for wheelchairs, canes, walkers and private transportation), absences due to illnesses, deaths of friends and loved ones, etc.  Which means that at various times the host(ess) and I have to turn up the volume on the DVD projector and other devices, rearrange chairs, repeat answers to questions, and keep students informed about the health of one or more missing members.

Disadvantage #4: The final issue is perhaps the most important and delicate one to discuss, and that has to do with the potentially upsetting impact of Enneagram knowledge and wisdom on people in the final third of life.  A very brief case history can serve to illustrate this concern (I have changed the name, age, and some of the details to preserve anonymity):

Alfred was a 72 yr. old student in my Enneagram class. He arrived early every week, sitting attentively in the front row. He was always well prepared, and was in attendance all ten weeks. By the middle of the quarter he realized that he was an Enneatype One, and seemed to be emotionally unsettled, even upset, much of the time. At the end of the sixth class he approached me as I packed up my materials to leave, asking if he could talk for a few minutes. I answered in the affirmative, and he then wondered if it were normal to be so moved by encountering the Enneagram and coming to type. He revealed that he had been crying every day for about two weeks. I answered that this sometimes happens, and asked him what was going on. Alfred replied that after realizing that he was a One, he suddenly saw how he had been angrily judging others his whole life, pushing them away when they didn’t meet his standards, partially as a defense against real intimacy. By now he was estranged from one of his children, and was often sad and lonely. Looking through the lense of the Enneagram, he finally understood the feedback that various people, including friends, family members and therapists had been trying to tell him.  But what was really depressing him was the fact that he was being introduced to the Enneagram near the end of his life, after many relationships had been destroyed, and many loved ones had already passed on.  Alfred nearly burst into tears in public when he plaintively and only partly rhetorically asked: “How come no one taught me this stuff in my teens and twenties, or at least in mid-life?” I had no answer to that heartfelt question, except to say that the Enneagram wisdom as we know it now was simply not around when he was growing up, and in the 1960s, 70s and 80s he must have been very busy raising a family and working.  It was truly one of the most heartbreaking moments in my Enneagram teaching career.

To be fair to myself and other Enneagram teachers working with seniors, these are not required classes or workshops—the students are there by choice and have to take full responsibility for the emotional, spiritual and even physical consequences of their attendance. Still, it behooves us to become aware of possible issues that can arise when teaching the Enneagram to students on both the near and far sides of the chronological Bell Curve. The issue mentioned in the case study above calls to mind a concept and painful experience (one which I have never heard an Enneagram teacher mention) that psychoanalyst Michael Balint writes about in his book: The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression (1969). There he speaks of “the regret of the basic fault,” by which he means:

… a kind of regret or mourning about the original deficit or scar in his mental structure. This mourning differs fundamentally from that caused by the loss in reality of a beloved person or that caused by the damage to, or destruction of, an internal object characteristic of melancholia. The regret or mourning I have in mind is about the unalterable fact of a defect or fault in oneself which, in fact, has cast its shadow over one’s whole life, and the unfortunate effects of which can never fully be made good. Though the fault may heal off, its scar will remain for ever; that is, some of its effects will always be demonstrable… This mourning is connected with the giving up of a narcissistic picture of oneself which originally may have been developed as an over-compensation of the basic fault… The basic fault cannot be removed, resolved or undone… The process of mourning… is about giving up for good the hope of attaining the faultless ideal of oneself; a successful treatment must lead to the acceptance of the fact that one had a basic fault and to a realistic adaptation to this fact (p. 183).

Can this psychoanalytic insight be assimilated with our Enneagram knowledge? I believe it can, at least in a speculative way. Latest theory is that we are all born with type in place or perhaps heavily predisposed to become a type by the age of 3-7 yrs. None of us have had perfect early holding environments and we all emerge from what Freud called the “family crucible” with wounds and scars. Many of these do not simply disappear with age. These interact with our Enneagram type to create a unique set of structures and habitual behaviors which continue to determine the formation of our character and its relationship to the environment. It has been my experience that the later in life people come to their Enneagram type the more they stand the chance of suffering this regret and mourning, even if by that time they have worked through many of their type-related issues and are fairly functional and healthy. By that point there is simply too much “water under the bridge” to repair broken parts of self and important relationship. In fact, given that Alfred in his 70s seemed to be fairly open, loving and non-reactive, this may have been what he was experiencing when in my class he deeply realized all the damage that he had done unconsciously acting out of the lower levels of development of Type One. He suddenly perceived more clearly, and held himself accountable for, what in 12-Step Groups is called the “wreckage of the past.”

Over the past two generations, dating back to the seminal insights and later elaborations of Ichazo and Naranjo, Riso and Hudson, Palmer and Daniels, Almaas and Maitri, and others, much of the fundamental and useful information and wisdom that can be elicited from and mapped on to the sacred diagram has been discovered and explicated. We are now, I believe, primarily in a worldwide stage of dissemination and practical applications. Questions that come to mind include: How can we introduce the Enneagram into schools, universities, lifelong learning institutes, adult education centers, and vocational training programs?  Which disciplines would most benefit from incorporating this wisdom and methodology, including self-observation, self-work, and self-remembering?  What educational theories and practices can help us to understand our client and academic populations better, and serve them more effectively?  And what are the potential perils and pitfalls of teaching the Enneagram to people under twenty-eight and over fifty-six? I would be most interested in hearing from other Enneagram teachers about similar and related experiences. I would also like to encourage other teachers to try teaching the Enneagram to older students at a local OLLI, even if there is no financial compensation.  It just may be one of the most enriching and satisfying experiences of your public life.

For more information about OLLIs and how to offer courses in your local area go to: or visit the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Northwestern University,

Carl Marsak

[email protected]