What Is the Enneagram, and Where Did It Come From?

What is the Enneagram and where did it come from

Spiritual director and Enneagram teacher Alice Fryling introduces the Enneagram’s history, Christian roots, and means for spiritual growth in this excerpt from her book Mirror for the Soul.

The Enneagram captured me from the first workshop I attended in Madison, Wisconsin. I had my doubts that the mysterious circle with its numbers, lines, and arrows could tell me anything about myself. But as the presenter described each number, I began to see not only myself but also my husband, my daughters, even my neighbors. I saw why relationships get so confused. And I saw why I was often confused with myself. I saw a description of my spiritual journey that was unlike anything else I knew. I was hooked.

Several years later I attended another conference about the Enneagram that did not go as well for me. It was a two-day conference on the origins of the Enneagram. I did okay with the history. The presenters described the influence of various scholars and teachers on the Enneagram over the course of history. I learned about Evagrius Ponticus of the fifth century, Ramon Lull of the thirteenth century, and Oscar Ichazo, Claudio Naranjo, and Robert Ochs, all from the twentieth century. Not that I really knew who any of these people were, but at least I got the history part. Then the presenters moved on to the diagram of the Enneagram. I sat in the audience trying to listen well and nod wisely. But I had no idea what they were talking about. That was partly because I do not have the scientific or mathematical expertise that the presenters had. But I have since learned that I am not the only one confused.

The Origins of the Enneagram

As I have read more and more about the Enneagram, I have learned that its origins are clouded in mystery. One Enneagram book admits that “the exact origins of the Enneagram symbol have been lost to history; we do not know where it came from, any more than we know who discovered the wheel or how to write.” Perhaps I was not so uninformed after all. We may never know the exact origins of the Enneagram or the Enneagram diagram.

We do know that the Christian roots of the Enneagram probably go back to the desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century.

They are often considered the “spiritual directors” or mentors of the early church. As people sought them out for help on the spiritual journey, these teachers saw patterns of life that are reflected in the Enneagram. Since then the wisdom of the Enneagram has been passed down through oral tradition. This accounts for some of the confusion. Just as modern-day journalists give different reports about the same event, so historical and contemporary teachers of the Enneagram describe its history and content with a variety of words and perspectives.

In modern times this oral tradition has been passed down largely through the Catholic Church, but until the second half of the twentieth century the Enneagram was considered “secret knowledge.” Laypeople, it was thought, could not handle this information with care and wisdom. When Richard Rohr, a Franciscan teacher of the Enneagram, learned of the Enneagram from his spiritual director in the 1970s, he was told not to pass it on in writing or to let anyone know where he got it. But, says Rohr, discovering the Enneagram was one of the “three great overwhelming spiritual experiences of my life. I could literally feel how something like scales fell from my eyes, and it became clear to me in a flash what I had previously been up to: I had always done the right thing . . . but for false motives.” Breaking the silence, Rohr became a major influence in bringing the Enneagram to laypeople within the Catholic Church and, more recently, to Protestants. It took centuries, then, for the Enneagram to become accessible to someone like me.

The Enneagram as a Spiritual Journey

I wonder what the desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century would say about our understanding of the Enneagram today. Would they even recognize it after thousands of years of being passed down by oral tradition? Our current understanding of the Enneagram incorporates a variety of perspectives, different words, and different applications. The Enneagram is taught today from the vantage points of psychological understanding, the business world, and secular, nonreligious points of view.

My presentation of the Enneagram is from the perspective of a Christian’s spiritual journey, looking at God’s gifts to us, our failure to express these gifts in love, and God’s gracious response to that failure. The Enneagram identifies the gifts we have been given. When we are freely and lovingly expressing these gifts, we are not held back by self-serving compulsive motivations. But on the journey of life, even when we want to live out of a truly loving place, we hit daily roadblocks. The Enneagram identifies the things we fixate on that cause us to get sidetracked or stuck on the journey. It shows where these fixations take us: right back into our compulsive, false-self perspective. In the words of the Enneagram, our compulsions are our “passions.” Christians often call them sins. But from the Enneagram we learn that we are not left in our compulsions or sins. It also identifies the graces (or “virtues”) given to us to lead us to transformation.

This is not a linear journey, from compulsion to transformation. It is more like a circle, or even a figure eight, that we weave in and out of many times a day. Richard Rohr said in one of his many talks on the Enneagram, “The agenda of the false self is to look good, to pretend. The biggest problem with the false self is not that it is there, but that we start to believe it ourselves. You can tell when the false self takes over because you become easily offended. The false self,” he says, “is offended (about every three minutes) because it is fragile. The true self, on the other hand, is unoffendable.” God invites us, through the wisdom of the Enneagram, to notice when we are acting out of false-self motivation. Then God, in love, invites us to let go of that motivation and return to living out of the gifts and grace given to us.

The Enneagram describes a life of growth, change, failure, and transformation. I have changed as I have traveled this Enneagram journey. By the grace of God, I am a different person today than I was when I went to that first workshop.

The Theory of the Enneagram

As we begin, we will take a bird’s-eye view of the Enneagram. Don’t worry if this seems confusing at first. Human beings are confusing people. The Enneagram will eventually help sort that out.

The Enneagram suggests that we are all given particular gifts. Numbered one to nine, these gifts include goodness, love, effectiveness, creativity, wisdom, faithfulness, joy, power, and peace. We usually like our gifts. In fact, we like them so much, we become addicted to them. We cannot live a day without our giftedness being front and center in our lives. But as we try to do this, we find that we cannot express our gifts perfectly, others do not value our gifts as much as we think they should, and other people have different gifts that we may think look better or worse than our own gifts. When we become frustrated about these experiences with our gifts, it is as though we reach a roadblock on our daily spiritual journey. We try to circumvent the roadblock by exaggerating the gift we have been given. A person in the Three space, for instance, is often very successful and effective in what he does. This becomes so important that failure is totally unacceptable, something to be avoided at all costs. If failure cannot be avoided, the Three person unconsciously decides that a little deceit might cover it up. Or a person in the Eight space may be so enamored with her leadership and power that she tries to control everything and everyone. When this doesn’t work, she doesn’t know why and doubles down and tries harder to control, alienating her colleagues even more.

All of us live with some version of these examples. We all exaggerate what we value. We exaggerate the gift we have been given in order to try to look good, control life, and impress ourselves and others. When we do this, we are no longer free. We become compulsive about how we think we should express our gifts and how we think our gifts should be received. The Enneagram identifies the particular compulsions that accompany each gift.

The Enneagram does not leave us stuck in the mire of our compulsions. It suggests a grace to help us return to God’s love, love for ourselves, and love for others. The classic presentation of the Enneagram uses the word virtue for this quality that helps us return to our true self. I prefer the word grace, a word used by many Enneagram presenters. This is a word that hints at something given to us freely, that we do not have to earn. For each of the nine spaces, a grace, or a perspective on life, is suggested to help loosen the grip of our compulsive thinking. The nine graces identified all hint at the mercy and love God offers all of us all of the time. As we receive the particular grace of our space, we also notice the graces of the other spaces and begin to participate in God’s overwhelming mercy, indeed in God’s grace. This will become clearer as we look at each space.

Nine Perspectives on Life

People in the One space are gifted with goodness. They do things well, very well. They are conscientious and ethical, striving for excellence. But on the journey of life, they discover that things are not always good, that they themselves are not always good. The false self convinces them that they are responsible for making life not only good but perfect. When things are not as perfect as they think they should be, Ones experience anger, toward themselves, situations, and others. God invites Ones to receive serenity, which is the ability to accept things as they are and to become less reactive when things are not perfect.

People in the Two space are especially gifted to love. But as Twos journey on in life, they discover that they actually like to feel needed by others even more than they like to love unselfishly. As they compulsively try to meet the needs of others, they deny their own needs and develop a pride that leads them to hover and control in the name of love. The false self convinces them that they know what everyone else needs but no one can know what they need. The grace that leads Twos back to the true self is humility. As they begin to acknowledge their own needs and weaknesses, God transforms them to be better able to love others with authenticity and grace.

People in the Three space are gifted to be effective, to succeed in making things happen. But as they succeed in life, Threes may become vain about their successes. When threatened with a sense of possible failure, Threes, in their false self, give in to deceit, the compulsion to twist the truth to fulfill the self-image they have created. Truth is the grace offered to Threes to experience God’s transformation. The Enneagram reminds Threes to embrace and express truth about themselves, their abilities, their weakness, and emotions.

People in the Four space reflect the creativity of God. But because they cannot always make life and themselves creative and special, Fours give in to self-doubt, self-contempt, even self-hatred. This leads to envy, as they believe that everyone else has qualities they are missing. The grace offered to the Fours is equanimity, which gives balance to their emotions, allowing them to feel their feelings without getting stuck in them.

People in the Five space are gifted with wisdom. They are knowledgeable visionaries. But for Fives, the quest for knowledge and information is never ending. They become protective of their knowledge and may have an air of superiority. If they give in to the false self, they experience compulsive avarice or greed, taking in more and more knowledge but not wanting to give it out or let go of it. Detachment is the grace offered to Fives, allowing them to hold more loosely all that they know and move into their true self as they engage with others, even without knowing or understanding everything.

People in the Six space are faithful. They are loyal and easily influenced by authority. But they do not trust themselves. The false self says to Sixes that the opinion of others has more validity than their own ideas, and that they should embrace truth as others see it. Because they believe they must be prepared for every possible danger, their false self is especially prone to fear. God offers the grace of courage to Sixes. It takes courage for Sixes to learn to trust themselves and not assume that other perspectives have more validity than their own.

People in the Seven space are gifted with joy. But as they live with this gift, they are tempted to overstate the positive and to resist anything dark or negative. They protect themselves from the stresses of life by planning and dreaming. When the false self takes over, Sevens succumb to gluttony, wanting more and more of everything joyful or “happy,” in order to avoid inner pain. The grace offered to Sevens is sobriety. This grace invites Sevens to take only what they need and live with that. In their true self, Sevens can enjoy life even if it includes some darkness.

People in the Eight space are often leaders. They are gifted with power. But Eights may deny their own vulnerability. To cope with this fear of weakness, they come to believe that they need to dominate others. “It’s my way or the highway.” The false self demands more and more power, giving in to lust, an insatiable passion for power over others. God invites Eights to receive the grace of innocence, a childlike capacity to admit weakness and vulnerability.

People in the Nine space are gifted with peace. They are calm and content and remind us that God is peaceful. But because they fear change and conflict, Nines may become indolent, not willing to exert themselves, even for things that are important. As the false self takes over, Nines can become slothful or lazy. This may lead them to become neglectful, taking the path of least resistance. God’s grace to Nines is action. In their true self they are able to be more assertive, to state their own positions and preferences, and to become energized and involved in life.

Seeing the Enneagram in Ordinary Life

Lest this all sound too simple, it is. Humanity is not neatly divided into nine categories. But the simplicity of the Enneagram is part of its genius. In the complexity of our life circumstances, our private motivations, and our inner inclinations, we lose sight of the unique ways we respond to life and we forget to appreciate that not everyone responds as we do. The Enneagram, quite simply, helps us see what we are doing.

Listen to how this might play out in an ordinary conversation when my husband and I connect in the late afternoon. If my husband asks me, “How was your day?” I would probably answer with a Four perspective, which can be a bit melancholic: “The committee chair didn’t get back to me about the brochure. Now I’ll be late with what they want me to do. The doctor never called about my test results. I don’t think he likes me. I didn’t have time to get the groceries so we have to eat leftovers.” If I were a Seven, I might be more optimistic: “The committee chair didn’t get back to me. Now I have extra time to work on the brochure. The doctor’s office didn’t call, so the test results must be okay. Oh, and I didn’t get to the grocery store. Let’s go out to eat.” Or notice the underlying anger in how a One might respond: “The committee chair didn’t call back. She should have! And I never heard from the doctor. We should switch to someone better. I should have gone to the grocery store, but lately they have so few cashiers, the lines are so long I didn’t have time.”

Each of us looks at life and relates to others within the perspective of our Enneagram space. Rohr often points out that “every viewpoint is a view from one point.” But this does not mean that everyone in each space looks or sounds the same. Human beings are much too unique for that. Not all Fives value the same aspect of wisdom. Not all Eights want to be powerful in the same situations. And not all Twos want to help in the same ways. But the categories are still instructive. We observe categories in all of creation. Consider the variety of roses and the many types of maple trees. Not all roses are alike, and not all maple trees are alike. But if we did not have tree and flower categories and rose and maple categories, we would not do well tending the backyard. The Enneagram gives words to describe nine categories of human beings.

Spiritual Blind Spots

One reason the Enneagram confuses us at first is that it identifies our blind spots. We are, by definition, unaware of psychological and spiritual blind spots. I don’t always know what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I can’t see what’s wrong with my compulsions. What’s wrong with wanting to be an expert in using my gifts? The One person might think, unconsciously, Why shouldn’t I strive for perfection even though nothing is ever perfect? Or the Nine might wonder, again unconsciously, Why shouldn’t I always be peaceful, even if I avoid conflict? We all have times when we don’t know why we are choosing to live life as we do, or we simply don’t see what we are doing. Other people experience us differently from how we experience ourselves. Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 RSV ). Our blind spots are the logs in our eyes. The Enneagram is trying to point out to me things about myself I can’t and don’t want to see.

Our Enneagram compulsions are like rocks on a dark path. We stumble over them because we cannot see them. People in the Two space, for instance, stumble over their invasiveness and control as they compulsively try to help people. Those in the Six space stumble over their fear of disloyalty or disobedience as they give in to the compelling influence of authority figures in their lives.

The problem with our blind spots is not just that we are frustrated with life, others, and ourselves. Our blind spots are powerful deterrents to our spiritual growth. To the extent that we remain unaware of what is motivating us, we are not free. Learning about the Enneagram has helped me embrace the truth that God gave me gifts because God loves me and has equipped me to love others, not because my gifts are so impressive. God does not love me more because of my gifts. This truth has been immensely freeing for me. But it is counter-intuitive and contrary to my normal thoughts and feelings.

My Native Language

Jesus said that the enemy of our faith is the great deceiver. “When he lies,” Jesus said, “he speaks his native language” (John 8:44). I have learned the language of the great deceiver well. In many ways it has become my native language. In order to grow spiritually, I need to translate my inner language into the language of God. Through the Enneagram I can see that my particular native language is the language of the Four. The lies I believe are second nature to me. Among other things, I believe that even though I am gifted in creativity, I must be extraordinarily special in all that I do. I believe that I am uniquely burdened by being sensitive and that others always have something I am missing. I did not even know I believed these lies until I learned I was a Four. In fact, when I first picked up a book about the Enneagram (to prepare for that first conference), I knew for sure that I was not a Four. That’s how blind I was!

Looking beyond our blind spots to the truth of who we are is a difficult process. It is no surprise, then, that finding our “home space” can be a challenge. Chapter seven is devoted to practical ways we can meet this challenge and find the space that best describes our gifts as well as our compulsions.

Self-Awareness

Learning the language of the Enneagram invites us into deeper self-awareness. Who in the world am I? This is not a narcissistic question. If I do not know who I am, I cannot see the log in my own eye, I do not know the full extent of God’s grace, and I am trapped in ongoing patterns of living that are not life giving. As I have continued on in the journey of learning the truths of the Enneagram, I have become more and more grateful that the knowledge it gives increases my own self-awareness, even if at first I don’t like what I see.

I am willing to journey on because this kind of awareness is essential to spiritual growth and intimacy with God. John Calvin wrote, “Nearly all wisdom we possess . . . consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. . . . The knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”

David Benner wrote more recently, “Lack of awareness is the ground of our dis-ease and brokenness. . . . Choosing awareness opens up to finding God in the midst of our present realities. . . . Awareness is the key to so much. This is why it is, in my opinion, the single most important spiritual practice.”

These are strong words from respected Christian leaders teaching hundreds of years apart. We would do well to listen. Our spiritual blind spots are not just a matter of stumbling and bruising the knees of our soul. Our blind spots keep us from knowing the love of God. If I am hiding behind a blind spot, I am unconsciously trying to keep God, others, and myself from the love that God offers. Knowledge of the Enneagram has led me into a self-awareness that has drawn me closer to the heart of God.

Adapted from Mirror for the Soul by Alice Fryling. Copyright © 2017 by Alice Fryling. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com.

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