The Enneagram as Practice

The enneagram of personality is a powerful means to self-discovery and self-acceptance.  The practice takes time and discipline to bear fruit, but is worth the effort it takes to learn.

I first became acquainted with the enneagram about three years ago at a seminar on spiral dynamics.  I asked the presenter whether focusing on the various memes wouldn’t lead to making comparisons of oneself with others, and hence to psychological dissonance.  She replied that such might indeed be the case with me, and that I would do well to be aware of it.

Her reply really pissed me off.  And try as I might, I couldn’t seem to shake this feeling of anger.  I tried breathing through it.  I tried to focus all my attention on what she was saying.  But still I was positively glowing with anger.

At the lunch break she was sitting at a table with an open seat, so I sat down across from her and told her of my reaction.  She asked me a few questions about myself, and then told me she thought I was a “4” on the enneagram.  Turns out fours are driven by envy, or rather a sense of inadequacy.  They focus on what is missing from their lives.

In spite of being aware of my jealousy since college, and thinking I’d overcome it, I immediately sensed the truth of what she was saying.  The anger went out of me like water from a flushed toilet.

I began to learn about the enneagram, and something called shadow work, coming to terms with the least desirable aspects of myself.

There’s a saying in psychology that goes something like this, “Whatever gets repressed gets expressed,” or “if you don’t express it, you project it.”

Shadow work begins with being aware of what’s going on in your body.  What emotion are you feeling and where is it in your body?  As you become aware of this you can move into it and accept it, “Oh yeah, I’m feeling jealous,” or “I’m feeling inadequate.”  And somehow that recognition and acknowledgement allows me to exhale.

That’s my ego’s defense mechanism engaging.  But that’s not me.  I am in that ineffable witness beyond labels that experiences these thoughts and feelings, and yet transcends them.

Practicing Self-awareness

Perhaps the most beneficial practice in my repertoire came from a book I read many years ago, The Artist’s Way.  In the book the author, Julia Cameron, described a practice called The Morning Pages that I have more or less continued ever since.

The basic idea is to write three hand written pages of stream of consciousness first thing in the morning.  Three pages, regardless and heedless of quality; just get whatever is in your head onto the page.

By doing this day after day I made a few discoveries.

  • First it gave me some separation from myself, and enabled me to see myself from another perspective.
  • Second, if I wrote just as fast possible without thinking or critiquing, something interesting would come to the surface.
  • Third, if I continued to write past the first and second page, my unconscious mind would seem to vomit something up on the third page that might be particularly telling.

By interesting I don’t mean interesting to the world in general, but to me in particular.  Something about that process would reveal me to myself; enabled me to face, and eventually embrace, my shadow self.

I have found this to be a very powerful thing.  It is hard to look into the eyes of our shadow, or to even admit it is there.  But to see it, to accept it, and to understand the desire or fear it represents is transformative.

Moreover hopes and dreams are expressed we might otherwise dismiss as unrealistic, or impossible.  How we interact with others, but especially how we feel about others and ourselves is revealed through these morning pages.

And it’s cathartic. It seems to still the voice of the inner critic, and purge oneself of negative thoughts.