To understand the Enneagram in its modern Western form and use, we have to remember that it was originally (and quietly) brought to the States by a South American psychiatrist (Claudio Naranjo) and then unleashed by a spiritual community (the Jesuits). With this context, it’s no surprise the Enneagram is largely framed as a tool for psychology and spirituality.
As an attempt to offer some guidance to this approach, let me suggest that the Enneagram offers practical and specific paths to spiritual formation that are unique to each type.
Essentially, the Enneagram teaches us how to be more human.
It is one of the most profound tools for personal and spiritual transformation. And to make the most of its offerings, we are invited to move beyond identifying our type toward putting this knowledge to work — to form a new identity, or perhaps more accurately, to reclaim our original identity. The Enneagram helps us find our unique path to spiritual growth, and this path is ultimately how we find our way home.
Though finding our way home may seem an exciting prospect at the outset, the ego continually resists attempts to wake up and move from illusion to truth. The tendency of the ego is to remain in its smug and content cave of unawareness, convincing itself of the illusion of personality. Fundamentally, the ego must undergo a series of conversions that lead to truth, but each of these conversions is simultaneously a small death of the ego that is viciously resisted by the defense mechanisms of our Enneagram types.
This, I believe, is the true nature of conversion: it happens not in a single moment or pivotal event but in a lifelong series of minor deaths. It is what Jesus spoke plainly of:
If you wish to come after Me, you must deny your very selves, take up the instrument of your own death and follow in My footsteps. — Matthew 16:24
These small deaths are painful. They seem overwhelming. Most of us are too scared to face them. But just as when the Scarecrow reminded Dorothy and their fellow traveling companions before entering the haunted forest, “It’ll get darker before it gets lighter,” so is the nature of inner work.
In his beautiful poem “A Servant to Servants,” Robert Frost suggests that “the best way out is always through,” and this wisdom is especially apt in connection with the Enneagram. The best way out of our deceptive self-illusion is through hard inner work. As we work with the Enneagram, we can’t avoid pressing through our ego’s set of coping addictions. We can’t help but face the ways we’ve kept ourselves asleep in our illusions. Waking up means telling ourselves the truth about those subconscious techniques fortifying the scaffolding around the lies we believe about our own ego mythologies. The Enneagram won’t let us sidestep the interior work of separating the truth from the lies we’ve told ourselves over and over and over again.
The Enneagram forces us to wake up out of our illusion-of-self and break free from the shackles of our personality. Once we awaken, we can no longer continue to live in the dreamlike states of the deceptions that we have convinced ourselves are more real and more dramatic than the best of who we can become when freed from the prisons of our Fixations and Passions.
Not only do we have to traverse through the chaos and darkness of our fragmented identity, but we also have to die to who we thought we were. And nothing helps us embrace the death of our personality structure more than contemplative practice. Make no mistake, contemplative prayer does feel like death because it’s a way to practice how to die. It’s a one-way pilgrimage, a lot like Dorothy’s quest to find her way home in The Wizard of Oz, once she realizes she can’t get back to Kansas the way she came. And we know pilgrimages don’t end; they merely facilitate new beginnings. This new way of finding our way home is the first of a series of minor deaths to which we must submit. And it can be scary.
A dear friend, Pastor Drew Jackson, spent the last days of his mother’s life accompanying her through her death, a painful and heart-wrenching journey for them both. Not long after, we spent a weekend together on a retreat hosted by my nonprofit. There Drew shared one of the most profound thoughts on the contemplative journey I’ve ever heard.
Life best lived is lived as a series of losses, a series of deaths. Death is not meant to be a one-time event at the end of life but, rather, a daily experience by which we learn to continually embrace the unknown, step into mystery, and release the need to control… The contemplative way is a practice in “death.” If you have ever witnessed the moment of death, you know that death is ultimately silent, still, and alone. The practices of contemplative spirituality prepare us for this. The contemplative way thrusts us into the beautiful struggle of embracing the unknown and losing the need to control.1
This is hard… it seems almost impossible. But Love, found in the silence, carries us through the agony of loss.
Love returns us to the possibilities of life.
As the prayer of Saint Francis reminds us, “It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.”
Drew went on to say, “As we learn to practice death by way of contemplation, death at the end of life is no longer a fear, but is received as the next logical step. Death is no longer an unknown for us because we already know that life comes through the process of death. We will have lived that reality each day.”2
There’s no better way to live into our new life or original essence than with the help of contemplative practice. But we resist dying. It doesn’t come easy for us. Everything in us fights to hold on to what we think is life. We see this in how the Enneagram’s Passions — the sincere yet misguided ways we attempt to return to our True Self — try to help us feel alive even though in their addictive form they lead to self-destruction.
To step into the life that is truly life, we’re invited to practice for our death. But voluntarily preparing to die seems counter-intuitive, and contemplative prayer hardly seems the obvious first step on this journey. What’s so difficult here is how undramatic the process is for such a dramatic hoped-for result. But as author Eckhart Tolle writes, “True happiness is found in seemingly unremarkable things. But to be aware of little, quiet things, you need to be quiet inside. A high degree of alertness is required.
Be still. Look. Listen. Be present.”3
That is the essence of contemplative practice. And that is where our transformation is activated.
Watch the Video
- Drew Jackson, “The Contemplative Way as a Practice in Death,” Gravity Reference. December 1, 2016. https://gravitycenter.com/life-found-dying/.
- Eckhart Tolle, Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from Our Dogs and Cats (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2011).
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Have you ever thought, “I wish I understood myself better”? I have! Practicing contemplative prayer and digging with the Lord into who we really are, rather than who we tell ourselves we are and who we project to the world is the first step. And, as God has promised us, He will never leave us alone. Love carries us through. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We would love to hear from you about spiritual transformation. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full