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The Enneagram is having a bit of a moment. Enneagram knowledge is readily available in books, websites, seminars, retreats, workshops, and social media. Until about the 1980s the Enneagram was mostly an oral tradition, passed from teacher to student, often in spiritual direction, as the teacher discerned the readiness of the student to receive the material. In the early 1980s, books started appearing, mostly written by Claudio Naranjo and his students, and then later by the students of Naranjo’s students. Naranjo is the Chilean psychiatrist who brought the Enneagram to North America in its most well-known form in the 1970s.

These days, we are seeing a lot of what might be called “Enneagram-lite”, the reduction of a profound wisdom tradition to a not-very-deep description of personality. (“I’m a 9w1 and can get along with almost everyone, but I just can’t get through to my friend who is a 4w3. Or maybe a 3w4? What if we worked on a creative project together? Would that help?”)

This was never the intention of the Enneagram. If you work solely on the horizontal, or material, level, you will never get beyond personality. For the Enneagram to be a guide for spiritual work, there must be a vertical, or spiritual, dimension to the work. This requires a groundedness in a spiritual tradition and a commitment to continued growth and work within that tradition. Work on the horizontal, or personality, level clears space for Spirit to drop in from the vertical level. The Enneagram is not specific to any one spiritual tradition, but it can inform any of them.

The Enneagram is a powerful tool for your spiritual journey, but once you have found your type, it’s best not to get too attached to it. Your type is only a starting point, not the final destination. It is not who you are; it is a persona you have constructed to cope with the difficulties of life in the material world. The Enneagram can help you become the person you truly are, but it does so by first showing you the person you are not. If you are brave enough to undertake this journey of discovery, you will find yourself growing under the eye of God.

The Enneagram of Personality

Mostly when we talk about the Enneagram, we are talking about the Enneagram of Personality, which describes people as having one of nine different personality types. In many formulations, these types are given descriptive names that have become well-known in the Enneagram community. The descriptors are things like Perfectionist (Type One), Helper (Type Two), and so on. These characterizations are helpful simplifications when you are first learning the Enneagram – there is a lot of information to take in – but they are ultimately limiting. The descriptions are caricatures, not characters in our life stories.

A criticism of the Enneagram is that it is just one more way to put people in boxes. First of all, if by “people” you mean “other people”, typing someone else is pretty risky business and best left alone, especially if you are just learning about the symbol. For now let’s stick with asking if the Enneagram is just another way to put yourself in a box. This is only true if, once you have accurately discerned your type, you allow it to define you.

In other words, it is not helpful to use the Enneagram as an excuse for your behaviour, rather than as a map to show you how to move beyond that behaviour. Imagine if you applied this approach to a medical fact about your body. “Man, I hate how I feel after I eat sugar,” said the diabetic. “I swear it’s going to kill me one day!” The point is not to know that you are diabetic and use that to explain why you feel so sick, but to use that knowledge to suggest actions that will help you function better.

The Enneagram is not a personality test or even a personality system. It is a way to see and understand mistaken ideas and feelings we have about ourselves that result in various manifestations of personality. The reason for becoming aware of our patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour is so we can choose to live more consciously.

So why shouldn’t I get attached to my Enneagram type?

Because it’s not you. Attaching to a type freezes you in place and does not allow for inner growth and development. Everyone is all of the numbers. Traits described by the enneagram have universal validity; what differentiates us from one another is the degree in which we possess these traits. Spiritual growth requires us to explore all aspects of ourselves. What the Enneagram provides is a map for this journey, first showing us where we most often find ourselves getting stuck. If you are stuck at one place, even “your” space on the Enneagram, you are not alive to Spirit. As we mature, the Enneagram becomes a guide for personal transformation, showing the necessary movements through the different points on the symbol.  

This does not mean you repeatedly change from one Enneagram type to another. There is some hint of this in the popular Enneagram models, where each type has a stress point and a security point. When you “integrate to” your security point, you take on some of the better qualities of that space, but you don’t “become” the number of your security point. Likewise, if you “disintegrate to” your stress point, you take on some of the difficulties normally associated with that point.

The stress and security points are a good start to understanding the spiritual movements through the Enneagram, but many forms of the model are incomplete or misleading. For one thing, it is possible to move to either the high side or the low side of each of these points. Abi Robins has done good work with this, renaming the stress and security points “refuge” and “vantage”.

Moving to just one point connected to your own Enneagram space doesn’t go far enough. To move to your stress or security point and stopping there is like setting out on a journey, bags packed, then walking to the corner of the street, still within sight of home, believing you have reached your destination.

The ego structure of your personality is with you on this earthly journey. This is good and necessary – it is what has allowed you to survive here. What is neither good nor necessary is when your ego tries to be the whole show. Spiritual growth consists of allowing the ego – your Enneagram type – to take its true place in your being. The first step is to recognize that although you “are” your Enneagram type, you also “are not” – you are so much more.