What Is the Enneagram?

Learning the Essentials of This Ancient Tool

Often misunderstood as simply a personality tool to describe quirks and traits of people’s individuality, the Enneagram goes much further than mere caricatures. The contemporary Enneagram of Personality (1) illustrates the nine ways we get lost, but also the nine ways we can come home to our True Self. Put another way, it exposes nine ways we lie to ourselves about who we think we are, nine ways we can come clean about those illusions, and nine ways we can find our way back to God.

The Enneagram is much more than just another popular formula to pair people to the collection of their personality foibles and eccentricities. It explains the “why” of how we think, act, and feel. It helps us come to terms with our gifts as well as the addictive patterns that tether us to our greatest interpersonal, spiritual, and emotional challenges.

The Enneagram invites us to deeper self-awareness as a doorway to spiritual growth.

When we can find the courage to be honest with ourselves, we’re ready for the Enneagram, for the Enneagram exposes the illusions that have defined our sense of self. In this way, the Enneagram may be the most effective tool for personal liberation. By revealing our illusions, the Enneagram emphasizes the urgency of inner work — the intentional focus required to prioritize the nurturing of our spirituality by facing pain from our past, exploring areas where we’ve neglected emotional healing, and consciously examining our struggle to bring our best self forward in our vocation, relationships, and faith.

Unfortunately, we soon realize that most of the inner work is painfully mundane; there’s sort of a bland, everyday, humdrum monotony about it. In fact, much of the inner work can be boiled down to faithful contemplative prayer practice. Though it’s critical, there’s nothing exciting about quietly and faithfully making time on a daily basis for meditation. And so part of us always resists this important piece of our personal journey home.

Ultimately, though, for those willing to persevere, the Enneagram offers a sacred map for our souls; a map that, when understood, leads us home to our true identity and to God.

It reminds me of the opening scene from the film The Wizard of Oz, a classic American movie that many of us have seen more times than we can remember.

After the film’s initial credits scroll across the screen, the viewer is introduced to a young Kansas farm girl, Dorothy Gale, and her little dog Toto. They’re running away from home down a dusty old country trail cutting through the plains of middle America — a significant image that sets up the rest of the adventure on the parallel path of her unconscious dream: the magical Yellow Brick Road.

Like Dorothy, we’re all trying to find our way home. We’re all looking for ways to get back to our True Self.

As the opening scene unfolds we quickly learn that Toto has been on the neighbor’s property, chasing Miss Almira Gulch’s cat. Almira has had enough. She’s so fed up that she’s obtained permission from the county sheriff to euthanize little Toto. Flustered by it all, Dorothy takes an aggressive stance defending Toto, willing to put up a fight for his mischievous behavior.

Dorothy’s response is a lot like our addictive tendencies to defend our own illusions, enabling our ego to maintain its control over our sensibilities and emotional states.

I imagine Dorothy’s little dog Toto as a representation of her inner critic, always yapping about something, constantly snapping and trying to bite others, and perpetually restless. We all have it, this cardinal component of our subconscious. Our inner critic is that part of ourselves that we turn into the pet that needs our constant attention and routine feeding. The inner critic is what gets us in trouble from time to time and continually resists the invitation to the task of our inner work. It’s one of the many techniques we use to keep ourselves asleep or to help us cope with the pain we don’t want to face, ensuring we stay stuck in our addictive tendencies to remain tethered to our False Self.

And this False Self of ours doesn’t need more help in keeping us asleep in our illusions. Again, this is where the Enneagram is an aid to waking up. One of its most helpful aspects is how it exposes nine ways our human nature manages our ego’s collection of coping addictions that we have wrapped around our most intimate and deepest pain — our Childhood Wound. For many of us, these wounds go largely undetected for most of our lives, yet we live unconsciously into the trajectory they set us on. The mental and emotional scar tissues of these wounds form the nine different ways we cope with their pain, molding tragic character flaws we often overidentify with, aiding in the development (or malformation) of our personalities.

The Enneagram teaches us nine patterns of human character structure archetypes. These patterns fortify a kind of whole-person muscle memory (which includes the psychological or mental, emotional or spiritual, and somatic or physical) that shapes how we think, feel, and act.

Simply put, the Enneagram offers nine mirrors for self-reflection. These nine mirrors, if we choose to gaze into them directly, can help us shake loose of our illusions that get us lost from home in the first place.

The nine mirrors are nine types, of which we are dominant in one:

THE ENNEAGRAM AS A SACRED MAP

Much of my elementary and secondary education growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, took place in Catholic and Protestant private schools. As a child, both at church and at school, I was taught and retaught stories from Scripture on colorful one-dimensional flannel-graph boards. There was little explicit doctrine fused into the stories (I can imagine the implicit doctrinal slants I must have ingested) until I moved into adolescence, when apologetics and theology entered my religious formation process.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience growing up. Understanding the stories from our church or worshiping community lays a foundation for opening our hearts and minds to their underlying principles. The stories are really never about the story; they point to something much deeper and significantly more beautiful than the symbols they contain. These principles of the stories, with their doctrinal implications, lead to the codification of beliefs that ultimately requires systematic theology to be built up around them.

Once the meaning of the stories is internalized and the theological doctrines are integrated into a person’s faith identity, people begin embodying their beliefs in a way that speaks for itself in the real world, beyond dogmatic defense with words.

As the most devout believers of any faith tradition mature, they find themselves quietly and undramatically allowing the fruit of their lives to speak for itself more than relying on conversionist tactics. That’s truly the fruit of real conversion, when our lives (not our words) validate authentic transformation.

The movement from basic knowledge to principled understanding to embodied integration is the idealized essence of mastery in any growth process — including the Enneagram.

Sure, it doesn’t take long for Enneagram enthusiasts to learn their way around the diagram, reciting the conventional descriptors for each of the nine types. It’s also not uncommon for students of the Enneagram to move beyond mere recitation of the basics to critical engagement with some of the more sophisticated aspects of the Enneagram. Less common, though still not rare, are the innovative Enneagram devotees who take progressive liberties with the system itself. But it is a peculiar person who integrates the illuminations of the Enneagram in a way that obliges less direct reference to the tool because of her or his own internalized command of its deeper meanings. This becomes obvious when suddenly you see how Enneagram types aren’t just buckets for unique sets of idiosyncrasies but rather offer clues to the essence of each person’s particular purpose.

After all, truth is meant to be lived — in our everyday, embodied lives. But truth can be hard to find when it has been hidden from us for so long behind our personality.

Let’s examine this for a moment. The English word personality is derived from the Latin word for “mask.” Simply put, our personality is the mask we wear. Taking off that mask, trying to get behind the mask, is the work of the spiritual journey.

A mark of spiritual growth is when we stop polishing the mask and instead start working on our character. The Enneagram helps us do that character-structure work. The English word character comes from the Greek word meaning “engraving into stone.” And that’s what we’re trying to do here with the help of the Enneagram — to chip away at our being, like the most talented of sculptors, and reveal our soul’s essence in its purest form.

Awakening to what the Enneagram exposes within us often leads to an urgent unmasking of our false identity, what has become our personality. Embracing a contemplative approach to working with the Enneagram allows for discernment to develop, and we soon realize that contrary to pop psychology, personality is not fixed. Spiritual growth and transformation are the result of exposing the masks or illusions of personality and getting to the core of identity. The Enneagram supports this inner work.

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We wake up when we stop fueling our own self-preoccupation and allow self-realization to serve as an invitation to deep union with ourselves and God, which naturally leads to solidarity with others. Many people who come across the Enneagram get stuck with the overviews and the thick descriptions of their own type; they love to learn more and more about themselves while resisting the implications of the gift of self-knowledge. The Enneagram is not a tool for self-absorption but instead a map for self-liberation.

When we give ourselves to the hard work of integrating what we have come to learn about ourselves, the Enneagram becomes a sacred map of our soul, one that shows us the places where we have vulnerabilities or tendencies to get stuck as well as the possibilities of where we can go for deeper freedom and inner peace. This sacred map isn’t fatalistic; it’s not deterministic; it’s not a horoscope or a predetermined course that doesn’t allow for personalized twists — it’s a compassionate sketch of possibilities and opportunities, pointing us back to our True Self and to the anchoring God whose name is Love.

As noted earlier, this sacred map comes to us in nine variations, each a unique rendering of the way we set out on our own inner journey to reconnect with our essential nature. The nine explorations of the soul are pilgrimages unto themselves, consecrated and prayerful voyages with focused intentions.

Each of these nine distinct journeys helps describe the dynamic flow of how our Enneagram type emerges within us.

  1. Historically there are several versions of the Enneagram. In fact, Óscar Ichazo (the Bolivian wisdom teacher who developed the Enneagram most commonly used today) taught 108 different Enneagons (as he called them). Today, the most popular versions of the Enneagram include the Su Enneagram, the Enneagram of Process, the Harmony Enneagram, and the Gurdjief an Enneagram, but I will be drawing attention specifically to the Enneagram of Personality, which reveals nine types of human character structure.

Excerpted with permission from The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher Heuertz, copyright Christopher L. Heuertz.

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Your Turn

Have you put your mask down? Character work is hard but worthy, spiritual work. If you’re ready to be honest with yourself and longing to know your purpose, the Enneagram tool is for you! Come share your thoughts on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full (recovering Type Two)

Christopher L. Heuertz

Christopher L. Heuertz was first introduced to the Enneagram in the slums of Cambodia. Since then he has trained under some of the great living Enneagram masters including Father Richard Rohr, Russ Hudson, Marion Gilbert and Helen Palmer, and now teaches the Enneagram in workshops and retreats around the world. Chris is an International Enneagram Association Accredited Professional. He and his wife, Phileena, and their puppy, Basil, live in Omaha, and you can join him on Facebook and Twitter in his intentions to love on the margins.

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