What is the Enneagram?
Colloquially described as a set of nine personality types, the Enneagram is, more accurately, a map of the human psyche. The nine “types,” ranged along the circumference of the circle in the accompanying diagram, are actually facets of the human spirit we all contain; but after coming into the world with a neurobiological disposition towards one of them, it will get confirmed through early childhood experience as the basis of our personality structure. The inner lines of the diagram demonstrate the complex relationships among these dimensions of our spirit; becoming more mindful of the neglected dimensions, and integrating them, can help us become happier and healthier.
Where does the Enneagram come from?
The wisdom of the Enneagram draws on insights developed elsewhere in various spiritual traditions: for instance, the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Christian monastic tradition spoke of “deadly sins” that correspond roughly to the passions or vices (in contemporary parlance) of the nine “types,” and the Sufi tradition developed its own nine-point typology of the personality, as well. The 20th century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff associated these elements with an ancient symbol that had appeared in speculative works since the time of Pythagoras. The father of the contemporary Enneagram, however, was the Chilean philosopher Oscar Ichazo, whose student Claudio Naranjo went on to develop much of the theoretical understanding we have today. He then taught it to such seminal figures as Helen Palmer, Sandra Maitri, and A. H. Almaas. From the 1970s onward, it was also popularized as a tool for Catholic spiritual direction by the Jesuits of the United States and by the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr. While many schools of thought have emerged to interpret the Enneagram’s wisdom — some of which unfortunately lose sight of its spiritual roots and risk wandering into “pop psych” — its students believe that the figure describes human psycho-spiritual reality as it actually is. It is, in other words, a discovery rather than an invention.
Is the Enneagram “legitimate”?
Some claim that the Enneagram has never been scientifically validated. In fact, it is extremely difficult to validate any personality models scientifically; those that are most successfully validated, like the Big Five, are vastly less complex than the Enneagram. Still, empirical research on the Enneagram is just picking up and is demonstrating remarkable success; one of the many Enneagram “tests,” Jerome Wagner’s Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales (WEPSS), is positively reviewed in Buros’s Mental Measurements Yearbook, the “Bible” of testing in the field of personality psychology. (Tests that you will discover online vary in helpfulness and are not always a good substitute for a narrative approach to self-understanding, which can be facilitated by a trained teacher.)
Despite the Enneagram’s deep history within Catholic Christianity, some church communities also question whether it is compatible with their teachings. While its language does not draw on any particular theology, the Enneagram certainly does not contradict anything within Catholic, or other religious, teaching.
How can I learn more?
Many wonderful resources exist for better understanding the Enneagram. I have trained in the Narrative Enneagram Tradition (and plan to be certified through it at the end of 2021). It was founded by David Daniels and Helen Palmer and I highly recommend its approach. I can offer my services as a spiritual director or coach who can help you integrate it into your own growth process; as a workshop or retreat leader who can bring it into your workplace, community, or family; or as a teacher or dialogue partner for those interested in learning more. If you are curious to find out which of these nine energies forms the basis of your own personality structure, I am happy to offer an assessment session that also includes a basic introduction to the system.