Listening to the Enneagram

In the early 1990’s I was a participant at a body work seminar on the Trager Approach.  At dinner one evening there was mention of a type of psychological profiling called the Enneagram.  The young woman who mentioned it didn’t give too many details.  I recall she compared it to the Myers-Briggs personality profile with which I had a cursory knowledge.

I can’t remember if it was that night, but soon thereafter, I had a dream. In the dream, my instructor at the seminar, Dean Juhan, comes to me and suggests: “Alan, if you really want to know yourself and others, you need to study the Enneagram.” 

My instructor may or may not have known anything about the Enneagram, but having had a great deal of respect for Dean’s gravitas as an instructor, I was intrigued that he was the one offering this suggestion.  I’ve had a very diverse and storied dream life, but I can’t remember ever having such a clear directive in a dream, especially one containing a word as complex sounding as Enneagram which I had heard only once in conversation.

In response, I went to a bookstore and found a book on the Enneagram by  Helen Palmer.  Right on the front cover:  The Enneagram:  Understanding Yourself and Others. 

Reading the book, I soon established myself as Type-nine, The Peacemaker and Mediator.   Establishing one’s type isn’t always as easy as reading one book on the subject but this type has held true for me in ways that I will cover later in this article.

There are numerous on-line tests anyone can take to help determine type, but the most reliable way to determine one’s type is to undergo a typing interview with someone certified as an Enneagram teacher or coach. 

At the time, I decided that my resources would be put to more practical use if I continued to studying and train in the somatic arts which by this time had formed into a career.  I literally put the book and the Enneagram on the shelf, and didn’t open it again for about 25 years.

I may have never pulled Helen’s book off the shelf again, had it not been for my inquisitive wife. Kathleen had begun to take an interest in the Enneagram’s potential for personal growth around 2010.  She persuaded me to come with her to an all-day workshop and then to the International Enneagram Association Convention which was held in Northern Kentucky in the fall of 2013.  It was during this four-day event that I found a deeper understanding of the Enneagram and its inherent transformative potential.  I realized then that the Enneagram was more than a personality typing or categorization but an effective tool for human transformation and change.

During the conference, we had the opportunity to sit and discuss our type fixations with others who were our same type.  It was like being at a family reunion.  We were related by type and it was clarifying to talk with people whose internal dialogue, motivations and tendencies were so like my own.

I’ve learned that knowing type is only the beginning stage of delving into the deep well of the Enneagram.  The ultimate goal is a process of waking up to who we are through active self-observation and self-remembering. This process develops the capacity to understand what we are doing and think about why we do it.

The Enneagram has become one of the more complete tools I’ve encountered for self-discovery and internal awareness.  Enneagram philosophy contends that personality can get stuck or ‘fixed’ at one point along the natural path of change and when this happens we resist the natural flow or rhythm of life and fall into habitual patterns of reactive thinking and expression. 

One of the reasons I am attracted to the Enneagram is its usefulness as a both a spiritual practice and as a secular tool.  It transcends boundaries of religious doctrine and belief.  It has been used by Christian Theologians particularly the Jesuits for millennia to bridge emotional and spiritual issues and understand the difference between our egoic tendencies and our Holy Essence. 

The Enneagram is also used in businesses and corporations.  Knowing personality tendencies can be instructive for employers to help the placement of potential employees.

After the convention, I discussed my experience with my friend Ron Esposito, who I knew was an Enneagram Coach.  Ron suggested I might want to consider a training held under the auspices of The School for Conscious Living one of the few accredited schools in the country that offer a certification as an Enneagram teacher. The Conscious Living Center was founded by Deborah Ooten who has been training participants in the Enneagram for over 20 years.  The timing was good and the center was close to where I lived.

In January of 2014 about twenty-five years after my numinous dream and after I had retired my massage/bodywork practice, I started the two-year program which met four weekends per year.  I received my certificate as an Enneagram teacher and trainer in October of 2016.

It would be difficult to describe the trajectory the training took for me.  It was certainly a deepening of my initial exposure at the conference and the descriptions and discussions that I had been reading in books and listening to on CD’s. In the training sessions, I found a personal voice and expression as I explored my type -nine tendencies along with the fifteen or so other participants in the training. 

Through the experienced direction of Deb Ooten, Beth O’Hara, Ron Esposito along with the support of the community that was developing, I was continually impressed with the precision and consistency with which the immersion into the Enneagram system continually reflected my personality habits and fixations.

I discovered that when I’m fixated in type it’s like a fish being in water.  I was so accustomed to a way of being, thinking and reacting, that it was hard to distinguish when I was responding from type or from an authentic emotion or feeling.  Until you’re put in a situation that can awaken you to Essence, you are asleep.  This is where a community and good direction comes into play.  Through questioning of personal motives, inhibitions, excessiveness, and a host of other habitual patterns, a glimpse of something more profound begins to emerge.

Beatrice Chestnut was one of the key note speakers at the International Enneagram Association conference I attended in Norther Kentucky.  During her presentation, she shared a parable known as Acornology, from Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Wisdom Way of Knowing.

The gist of the story:  A group of acorns are lying around under a tall oak tree.    They are holding a seminar on “getting all you can from your shell”.  The acorns would go to spas that would buff and polish their shells.  Then one day an acorn fell from the tree who suggested, while pointing up to the Oak tree, that the idea wasn’t about remaining an acorn but becoming a beautiful tree.  The other acorns considered this ‘nut’ delusional when he said, “but to be the tree, to be an expression of your full self, you need to crack open and go into the ground.” 

Cracking open is uncomfortable, especially for a nine-type.  Nines are laid back; we don’t like conflict and we tend to forget ourselves.  We like to go along with the group idea rather than put forth our own agendas.  We are peace makers and moderators.  Most people like us because we see both sides to an argument and don’t make waves.

The parable of the acorn came alive for me one day after a particularly difficult session during the last weekend of the training course.  All my type-nine buttons had been pushed. I was conflicted, uncomfortable and angry.  The more I tried not to think about what my issues were, the more they taunted me. 

Later, after I returned home I decide to take a bike ride and channel all the pent-up energy into the ride.  As I was going down a hill a chipmunk came barreling out in front of me.  I thought I was going to hit it, but at the last moment I saw the little guy abruptly stop and adroitly push out an acorn he had been carrying right in my path.  It was as though he had practiced this many times and his aim was perfect. The acorn landed right in front of my front tire.  I hit it square on and with a pop, cracked open.  I laughed out loud at the irony.  I received a great lesson and the chipmunk had an easy meal. 

I realized then the importance of staying with conflict.  Even inviting conflict and being with the discomfort.  It’s true: we can run but we can’t hide from the many messengers that are waiting to teach us what we need to learn.  It’s not easy to die and be reborn.  This is the transformative aspect of the Enneagram.  To soar to the heights of the mighty oak we sometime need to crack open and dig deep into the rich soil of earth and find the ground of our roots and the freedom of our canopy.  

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