SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: The Enneagram: Self knowledge leads to tolerance and understanding

After the shock of the national election results I felt a sense of impending doom. I still do. I am afraid for myself as an elder person on Medicare, I am afraid for immigrants and for all people facing danger in the world even more than before. I am afraid especially for descendants of the people who were here when the Europeans came and for descendants of people who were brought here enslaved. The chance that America as a whole will respect, honor and value people with those histories seems smaller than ever.

So, in this emotional situation, like many, many people, I felt I had to DO something. But what? Maybe something outward and something inward? We the People was offering a class on the U.S. Constitution. Since I felt that I needed to fill in the empty spaces in my knowledge of the United States of America, I signed up. I was newly shocked every time I went—it turns out there’s been a fight for justice and the well-being of the people since Day #1. Constitution class was kind of like turning outward. The three-session class on the Enneagram was more like turning inward.

Since extreme polarization is choking our society right now, I thought doing inner work, i.e., self-knowledge work, such as the Enneagram, would ground me in my quest to communicate with many different kinds of people. I was impressed at the very first OurRevolution meeting at St. Peter’s AME Church when our newly elected representative to the State Legislature,  Ilhan Omar, encouraged respectful conversations with people who might think very differently—no name-calling, she said. At the same meeting, an environmental activist woman gave an example of a respectful conversation in which she had stood her ground [without a gun] with someone very “other” and had had a mild moment of mutual understanding.

The Enneagram is a system for organizing and understanding the different types of people in the world based on many different streams of ancient wisdom such as Sufism and the Kabbalah. It was put together in the 1960s in Chile by a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo. If you google the Enneagram you will see that scientists don’t put much stock in it. They don’t acknowledge that people are divided into nine basic types. Nine categories. (On the website of The Enneagram Institute, the types are named as The Reformer, The Helper, The Achiever, The Individualist, The Investigator, The Loyalist, The Enthusiast, The Challenger and The Peacemaker.) The Enneagram is clearly not an absolute, but I can absolutely see the benefits of it as a working hypothesis. I see it as a useful tool.

I learned about the Enneagram at a series of three classes presented by Kate Ostrem from 9Open Doors at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church last winter. In her opening intro, Ostrem said something about the Enneagram being a path to world peace. It makes sense: Little by little I learned that the whole thing is an exercise in tolerance, open-mindedness.

To get started, what you do is read nine paragraphs (they aren’t really paragraphs, they are groups of sentences) and decide which group you identify with most. I read the three pages, underlined every sentence or clause that I thought was true about myself, and then saw which group had the most underlines. It was the group of sentences labeled “4.” I wobbled a little bit over “6” and “9,” but ended up being pretty sure I identified most with No. 4.

In the meetings with Kate we had cards that identified four important things about each number, that is, each type. According to the Enneagram, those who identify as “4” have the following characteristics: They avoid ordinary living, focus on what is missing and forget that they belong; their blindspot is envy. Each of the nine categories, or types, has a parallel description: Each one has something they avoid, something they focus on, something they forgot and a blindspot. I knew I was a “4” because that was the only one where I could stretch those descriptions to make them seem true in some way. The other ones were blatantly incorrect and no amount of imagination could make them fit for me.

As Kate was describing the different numbers and adding on to what we had already encountered, I found myself thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a ‘7,’ ” or, “I’m glad I’m not a ‘3,’ ” etc. Wow. Pretty judgmental of me. Gradually, though, I saw that each number (each type) has some good and some not so good traits, and that every trait, whether good or bad on the surface, always has the potential to show another side. When the sessions ended, I felt like all the numbers were very interesting and totally valid. I even felt like a “4” was valid. The biggest benefit I have received from the Enneagram is that I tolerate myself a lot more.

I asked a former boyfriend who is still a friend to read the three pages and underline everything he thought was true about himself. He was clearly a “5.” Then it was easier to understand why our relationship didn’t work. And then the lingering feeling that our difficulties were caused by my defects kind of dissipated.

Now I am more tolerant toward him and more tolerant toward myself. It’s OK to be a “4,” And it’s OK to be a “5,” and a “6,” and a “7,” etc. We’re all in the same messy, complicated human boat.

It made me wonder if the affirmation I received from validating my own type as well as all the others might not be so necessary for men. Society kind of confers on them the message “It’s totally OK to be you” from the beginning, at least the men of my generation. I thought maybe that’s why there were more women than men in the class.

I asked Kate Ostrem about it later and she said, “While I am reluctant to classify the Enneagram as a ‘woman’s thing,’ in my experience, I have taught more women than men.” At the same time, she said, “I have worked with a number of male clients, both individually and within workplace settings where they have hired me to work with their teams. And there are a number of men among the leading teachers of the Enneagram, like David Daniels, Russ Hudson and Jerry Wagner.”

On the internet, most of the leaders of Enneagram teaching are men. Helen Palmer and Ginger Lapid-Bogda are exceptions; the book Ostrem recommended to me was one of Palmer’s.

One of the most powerful things about engaging with the path of the Enneagram is that you yourself identify your type. Somebody else, like the leader who is knowledgeable in the Enneagram, doesn’t say, “Oh, you seem like a ‘2,’ ” for example. It’s not about learning how to figure out what number someone else is. It’s only about figuring out what type you are, according to yourself, not someone else’s opinion. The reason that only you can determine your own type is that motivation is ultimately the main thing you are identifying about yourself, and that is something no one else can truly know.

This kind of work might seem like frivolous navel-gazing, especially in our political climate, but I think it’s necessary to have this awareness. As you come to understand your own type and a lot about other types, you are more able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, that is, picture someone else’s reality. It opens your imagination. At the same time, you feel less dubious about yourself and can more easily trust your own truth. The increased tolerance for your own life, and actual trust in your own life, leads to compassion for yourself. And that compassion radiates out to more easily embrace the lives of others.

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