Reflections on the Enneagram, Part 1: On Difficult Things

Enneagram At the risk of sounding a bit new-agey, I must admit that I’ve long studied the Enneagram and have gained a lot of insight into myself and my relationships through that study.  Of course, personal development comes in fits and starts (at least for me), so I have not always fully heeded the sage advice that I’ve found in the works of its practitioners.

If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it is, in short, another system for describing personality types and working on personal (and, in the case of the Enneagram, spiritual) development. That’s a very quick and dirty way to put it, so I encourage you to read more if you’re interested.  Think of it as being – at least somewhat – in the same vein as the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, but it has a much more spiritual/religious concentration.

In the Enneagram, there are nine basic personality “types,” each represented by a number from 1 to 9.  Every person, according to the system, has a dominant type. For example, you might be a 4, often referred to as something like “The Individualist” or “The Artist.”  The Enneagram doesn’t make the claim that all type 4 people are exactly the same.  Rather, they share some motivations and coping strategies to live in this big, messy world.  For the 4 type, they are motivated by the fear of a lack of personal significance and a desire to create a unique identity. There are other elements of one’s personality that make each type present differently for each person, so the Enneagram is not an exercise in pigeon-holing people. Some 4s may be highly artistic and “eccentric,” while others can be more withdrawn and live out their creative self-making as introverts.

My own type in the Enneagram is number 9, often called “The Peacemaker” or “The Mediator.”  The basic fear of type 9 is of loss or separation, and the basic desire is for peace of mind or a simple, peaceful life.  This leads the 9 to avoid everything that may lead to negative emotions, conflict, or discomfort. Conflict can lead to the rupturing of relationships and stoke the flames of fear of separation from loved ones.  The compulsion of the 9 is to keep the peace to ensure that separation and loss do not happen.  Speaking from experience, 9s really do go to great lengths to avoid any kind of negative emotion or upset.  We are deeply uncomfortable with negative emotions – anger, boredom, anxiety, fear, etc. – but we bottle them up or cover them over with pleasant activities or distractions.  The problem is that a deep well of anger and negativity can start to build. Eventually, it must be released, and not always in an appropriate time or place.

I don’t mean to harp on the shadow side of my personality type. Indeed, the very weakness of one’s type is also its strength.  Because of their desire to foster peace in the world around them, type 9 people can be the glue that bring groups together.  They can mediate conflict and bring a receptive, disinterested eye to difficult situations and disagreements. This kind of activity does take a large measure of self-awareness and a healthy relationship with one’s personality or persona.

I say persona because, in the end, a person’s type is really the mask that they’ve become adept at wearing. It’s helped them in dealing with the ups and downs of life and in community.  Our deeper selves- the ultimate reality of who we are- are not the same as the mask, but it takes a lot of work to get in touch with those selves.  And I think your ego, your personality, your type are actually ways to get there. You need them, and that’s why self-compassion is so important on the journey. We often focus on self-esteem, but without self-compassion and self-awareness, self-esteem can lead to egotism and selfishness.  I think the Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi, gets at this in his famous poem, “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(trans. by Coleman Barks)*

Our light and our shadow are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have our light side without the shadow, so compassion toward ourselves and others is necessary for growth.

And yet to grow is to challenge oneself to take another step on the journey.  We have to say yes to cultivating our gifts and no to indulging our worse impulses.  Accepting that we have them is good; letting them take over our lives–not so good.  Richard Rohr calls this kind of work “shadow boxing.”  If we deny our shadows exist and refuse to engage them (or let them in the guest house to get to know them) they will surely take us over. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s needful work.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting to the point of my post.  I own a short book titled Enneagram Transformations by Don Richard Riso, and I was reviewing the section on type 9.  In the book, Riso offers “releases” and “affirmations” for each type to meditate on for “healing” the wounds of your type.  In the section on Type 9, I read through each release and affirmation. Some of them, I have actually been able to “achieve” (if that’s the right word), but many of them are still issues I grapple with.  I wanted to write a reflection on what it might mean to release or affirm those things that I have done a less complete job on. Today’s release is, “I now release turning away from whatever is unpleasant or difficult.”

If I reflect on my life, I have often been the “apt pupil,” i.e., someone who takes to learning new things and ideas very easily.  That is, up to a point. When the subject matter gets more complicated or difficult, I become bored or anxious at my struggles and fall away. For example, I have studied languages off and on all my life. I’ve never become fluent in any of them because I find the speaking and listening pieces difficult.  I can master grammar, reading, and writing all day long, but I am embarrassed at not being a fluent speaker, and, therefore, I never progress to the level I should.  This has been true for Spanish, Arabic, Irish, and German.  I’m now studying Welsh.  Can I remain aware of my pattern and stick with the discomfort of sounding like a goofball when I mispronounce things or get the grammar wrong?  I hope so.

I also shy away from difficult conversations, potential conflicts, and necessary, but unpleasant, tasks.  What steps can I take to shine the light of awareness on my tendency to avoid? If I can do that, I believe I can engage thoughtfully and actively with those things I have previously “hated” doing.  I think it might be a good activity to list all of the unpleasant tasks and activities that I need to do and then start tackling them, while being fully present to how I’m feeling. I hope that can help me be in better touch of how I feel and why that may be.

Awareness is the first step.  Can I keep going to the next step?

*Rumi, Jelaluddin. The Essential Rumi. Translated by Coleman Barks, John Moyne, and A J. Arberry, HarperCollins, 1996, p. 109.

One thought on “Reflections on the Enneagram, Part 1: On Difficult Things

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the Enneagram, Part 2: On Getting in Touch with Emotions – City of Being

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