Something I find interesting about the Enneagram is that it’s not—and doesn’t claim to be—just a diagnosis of what you are and always will be. The Enneagram isn’t there to tell you that you are only, say, a 9. It’s dynamic, instead.
Allow me to be your guide on a little trip through the features:
On any given day, even at any given hour, a person of any type might be at a given “level of health.” Each type has 9 levels of health, ranging from 1 (total debilitation) to 9 (inhabiting the very best qualities of the type). For my type, 9, the highest level of health looks like actually earning the peace I seek—not by avoiding conflict by making myself small, but by using my gifts to unite opposing points of view within myself and for those around me.
This might be an answer to anyone who looks at the Enneagram skeptically: how could there only be 9 types of people? Well, there aren’t. Everyone is a unique combination of their innate nature, their experiences, their adaptations to those experiences, and the complexities of the Enneagram might get us close to having language for quite a lot of this variation.
But wait, there’s more: there are wings. Being a 9 means I have two wings: 1 and 8, the two numbers on either side of my number. These are the rules: your wings are only the numbers next to you. (Address your complaints to Oscar Ichazo). I, personally, have a much stronger 1 wing, but my 8 wing is making itself known more and more.
On top of that, we have our “arrows:” the lines connecting the numbers on the Enneagram diagram represent how we take on aspects of other types in times of stress and security. For me, when I am in stress I access certain characteristics of 6, which looks like becoming increasingly anxious and suspicious. By contrast, when I’m feeling more secure, I access certain characteristics of 3, which looks like becoming more aware of my gifts and sharing them with the world.
It gets even more complex, depending on who you read (remember, the Enneagram is a work in progress). Some say that our wings also move along their arrows of stress and security. So let’s look at my 1 wing: in a time of stress, my 1 wing would begin to look a lot more like 4, focusing on perceived missing pieces in my life. In strength, my 1 wing would go to 7, more able to relax and feel joy. Same for my 8 wing: it would move to 5 in stress, growing withdrawn and stingy, and to 2 in security, able to give freely and joyfully to others.
Are you still with me? On top of that, we add subtypes. This is the theory that there are three main existential drives: self-preservation (survival), sexuality (reproduction), and social (group bonding). We need all three of these to make it at the species level, and even at the individual level. But each of us is going to be motivated more or less by each of these at different times. Applying this theory to the 9 types results in 27 subtypes, representing each basic Enneagram type’s three subtypes depending on the individual’s focus. For example, there are “self-preservation 9s.” This means that the basic 9 type (focused on peace, fearful of separation) collides with the desire to be comfortable and provisioned. A self-preservation type might be a homebody’s homebody, creating a cozy lair full of comfort food and entertainment where there is little to bother them. On the other hand, a “self-preservation 8” would respond to the basic desire for physical provision differently: they might be prickly, spoiling for a fight if anyone threatens their satisfaction, attuned to any threat to their autonomy.
So take a look at all of this: 9 basic types; the levels of health; the possibility of having one of two wings or equally balanced wings; the arrows; the wings’ arrows; the subtypes. If you tried, and God bless you if you did, you might be able to create hundreds of types out of this. We might, in doing this, create a Byzantine description of who we are. I, for example, am a social 9 with a dominant 1 wing who is currently in a season of security, making me look a good deal like a 3 a lot of the time. Nice to meet you.
When it gets this complex, and you insist on a hyper-detailed profile for each person wherein the system can explain literally everything, all you’re saying is that we’re all different. If that’s the case, you might not be getting any value out of consulting the system in the first place. So returning a bit to the simplicity of the basic types, even if it feels reductive, makes sense.
Even though all models are wrong, some are helpful, and a lot of us have found the Enneagram helpful. It’s a tool to help us understand why we might do what we do. What drives us? And why do others do different things than we’d do? Because they, too, are living with their own motivators. It’s at once overly simplistic and terribly complicated. I think those of us who get into learning about it are sometimes at risk of overdetermining it, finding several Enneagram explanations for every little thing. If we can’t find the explanation in our basic type, we can find it in our arrows or our wings’ arrows or our subtype stack or what have you.
But on the other hand, the Enneagram is not here just to make us a nice little custom description in Enneaspeak for why we do all the things we do. It’s here to give us compassion for ourselves and each other when we don’t understand why we’re stuck in behaviors or feelings that are causing us to stumble. And it’s here to show us the way out: give us a model of what it might look like to grow (the “security” arrow is shorthand for this.) And it’s here to show us what the warning signs of when we might need support and grace (the “stress” arrow).
At the end of the day, it’s all shorthand, and we’re all people. For me, all 9 of the types are tremendously sympathetic. In fact, I’ve thought I was all of the types at some time or other (except for 8. That one has been easy to rule out since day 1). I strongly identify with the following aspects of each of the types:
Judgmental inner critic voice. The word “should” is in frequent rotation.
Needing approval from others, and sometimes giving what I don’t want to give in order to get it.
Striving for recognition, doubting my self-worth if I don’t do something impressive.
Craving the elusive “missing piece.” Settling into melancholy. Looking at negative emotions as authenticity. An intense need for personal space.
Craving deep and unconventional understanding of concepts.
Worst case scenario thinking. A push/pull relationship to authority.
Attraction to big thinking and novelty, gluttony, trouble with focus and follow-through.
Contempt for lazy thinking. Contrarianism as a way to avoid being trapped.
Pretty much everything: the conflict aversion, peace-seeking, vacillation, comfort focus, inner fuzziness, attunement to nature, difficulty identifying myself. I don’t really see myself as lazy but I do find being vertical extremely challenging. #horizontallife
What does this mean, the fact that I can identify with all of them? Two things: it means I’m definitely a 9, because we notoriously see everyone’s perspective easily except our own. A typical 9 experience is going down the type lists and thinking “that’s me!” eight times until you get to 9 and go “…oh. I get it now.”
But I think it also points to the fact that these types are just archetypes. We tend to get stuck into one of them more strongly than the others, but we all contain all of them. The work, for all of us, is to move out of our ruts and explore new ways of showing up in the world that don’t rely on the old stories that we thought protected us from pain. This lets us create new stories that are a little closer to true.
We funneled into 100 Hutchins Hall for orientation. A few hundred first-year law students (1Ls, in law-school jargon) lined the rows of the auditorium, each clutching a slim blue copy of the U.S. Constitution. We were to sign it, signifying our commitment to a future of ethical lawyering.
I only half-knew what I was getting into. Like so many bachelors of arts, although concrete skills were few, my verbal abilities were highly satisfactory, and there wasn’t much for me to do in a down economy than go to law school. But unlike a lot of my new classmates, I didn’t already know much about it. I knew next to nothing about the curriculum or the legal field or how to get a law job or how to prepare for a law school final. I had to frequently double-check the names of the current Supreme Court justices to avoid severe embarrassment.
In other words, as I still often do, I had one foot in and one foot out of the place I am and the thing I’m doing, with often frustrating results. But that’s a different topic.
Anyway, the presentations started. Various deans introduced us to our new career and shared anecdotes of when they were in our shoes. They told us something that surprised me: they were not there to teach us the laws. Oh, no. Instead, their planned instruction was simple, and they repeated it over and over:
“Thinking like a lawyer.”
“You will learn to think like a lawyer.”
“It’s amazing, the most important part of law school is how you begin to think like a lawyer…”
Think like a lawyer.
And then there we were, tender 1Ls, beginning to repeat this line, like the hypnotized diners Eddie Izzard imagines beginning to request a certain salad dressing:
Where the heck did balsamic vinaigrette come from? … Balsamic fucking vinaigrette. How long ago? Ten years? Ten years ago?
“Would you like a dressing? We have thousand island, we have 970 island, we have 400 island, we have 3-mile island,—or balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”
“I would like the balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”
It was just some suggestive thing.
Eddie Izzard, “Sexie” (2003)
Helpless in the face of this prophecy, we took our oath and then set out from that auditorium, freshly on our path to thinking like lawyers. We tucked into our textbooks and took assiduous notes in lectures and awaited the change.
I didn’t know what it meant until I was studying for finals that first semester, and I found my trusty brain working differently. The transformation is now complete enough that I can barely remember my former, unconverted state, but I do recall the sensation of changing: I was beginning to feel a bit like a computer.
Things that used to be connected no longer were. There were great chasms between concepts that used to feel related. And there were relations between concepts that had not been comparable before. But the more notable sensation was of a linear progression I hadn’t been aware of before. Questions were all multi-part: there were steps everywhere. Every possible inquiry had a number of associated sub-inquiries, which must be separated and arranged in a certain order to arrive at the right answer. The only alternative was a dreadful, murky chaos.
But this didn’t just extend to the concepts I needed to study for that semester’s grades. It infiltrated even my personal life, even emotional matters. Not only could I now take a far more rational approach to any question, but I could not not. I began to say “actually” a lot more.
And here I am, several years on from that mental conversion. I want to connect with my fellow humans when they discuss a matter of law or policy or the Constitution, but they just do not understand! Their eyes glaze over when I explain to them the all-important steps. Poor souls, they think of a matter all at once: they see it as an item to be discussed and to have feelings about. It saddens me, and I live in hope for their timely conversion.
And yet, something troubles me. In moments of dark doubt, I begin to worry about this setup: those of us who have been taught to think like lawyers can indeed think like lawyers—but no one else can, not without three years of pricey study at an accredited institution. But law is not like, say, engineering, which (I assert with blind confidence) can be left to the professionals. I can know blissfully nothing about how bridges are constructed, and yet generally drive over them fearlessly and without consequence.
But you non-lawyers, with your unconverted brains—we ask you to live in our law world at all times, and it isn’t as simple as driving over a bridge. You’ve got to avoid violating the countless thousands of civil and criminal statutes that apply to your every move. You don’t know about most of them, but if you violate them, we will generally pretend that you did know. Or, perhaps to put it more precisely, it doesn’t matter if you did or not, for various very-good reasons that we all learned about…in law school.
Does that seem unfair? Like you might need some assistance in that perilous field? If so, you might want to seek a lawyer’s counsel. Yes, it will cost money (how much? It depends) but it is a much better idea than waiting for the other side (that spiteful neighbor who hates your fence; the copyright holder of the TV show from which you borrowed a reaction GIF; the federal librarian who looked askance at you for bringing your kazoo to the Library of Congress) to lawyer up. Your lawyer will get you into the least-worst position against their lawyer, on your behalf—and yes, legally, it will be you doing it, because it was your responsibility to follow the laws all along.
Which—doesn’t that basically sound like a protection racket? I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here, but I get a little nervous when it feels like I am trained to be some kind of mental bodyguard, ready to size up the other guy’s mental bodyguard, especially when we start growing our team because the other guy started growing his team, and now we’re basically in a mental bodyguard arms race, which obviously is really good for the bodyguard industry, although admittedly the excess bodyguards do nothing for the body-guarded.
Plus, I have a theory—on which more later, perhaps—that this setup fuels kooky DIY law theories like sovereign citizens. After all, if we make law seem arcane and volatile, we can hardly blame people for thinking that all they need to do to beat the system is to get a little arcane and volatile.
Okay, I hear you, lawyers: my argument teeters on that dreaded slippery slope to the suggestion that we eradicate lawyers, which doesn’t work for several reasons, a few of which are: (1) vigilante justice will be the remedy to future disputes (imagine: IRS agents beating up tax evaders); (2) who if not lawyers will enforce the ban on lawyers? One shudders to think; and (3) I’m not here to take jobs away from hardworking Americans who aren’t prepared to do much else. So let’s not even go down that path; it’s not what I mean.
What I do mean is: I’m troubled by the feeling that there is a wall between the people—to whom the laws apply and belong, whom the Constitution protects—and those laws and the Constitution. To the extent that you can’t really understand the laws or the Constitution without a law degree (if then), that is a failure on the part of those documents. Meanwhile, those who write new laws, regulations, and legal rulings interpreting them (??♀️), are almost always lawyers. We understand each other, and we trust that the gatekeepers and interpreters of what we write will always be others from our guild, other future people who have sat in 100 Hutchins and been told that their brains were about to change. We’re basically a club with boring initiation rituals and steep annual dues, but we’re everywhere, and we don’t let you ignore us.
I suppose I could start to be the change. I could be the lawyer who practices in a way that is more accessible to non-lawyers. I could say “actually” less. I could dig deep, see if it’s still possible to access that pre-transformation brain that was able to think unlike a lawyer, even about law and its practical side, the way it actually affects people constantly.
So from my side of the chasm to yours, non-lawyers, I’d like to request some thoughts and prayers for the recovery of my old brain.
To recap: I’ve been addressing the interesting but often unverifiable claims that the Enneagram is quite old. Often, this claim is equal parts squishy definition and wishful thinking.
Now I turn to my final chapter on this journey: why is it wishful thinking? Why is being old desirable, let alone desirable enough to get us all to do some dubious accounting?
There’s the undeniable romance of it, of course. Compare this snippet of a description of the Enneagram’s history:
Variations of this symbol also appear in Islamic Sufi traditions, perhaps arriving there through the Arabian philosopher al-Ghazzali. Around the fourteenth century the Naqshbandi Order of Sufism, variously known as the “Brotherhood of the Bees” (because they collected and stored knowledge) and the “Symbolists” (because they taught through symbols) is said to have preserved and passed on the Enneagram symbol.
Speculation has it the Enneagram found its way into esoteric Christianity through Pseudo-Dionysius (who was influenced by the neo-Platonists) and through the mystic Ramon Lull (who was influenced by his Islamic studies.)
On the frontispiece of a textbook written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit mathematician and student of arithmology Athanasius Kircher, an Enneagram-like figure appears.
With the pedestrian-sounding contention that it’s an amalgamation, created in the 1970s, out of bits of various ideas.
Wouldn’t you rather have that Indiana Jones trek through the sands of time, with a soupçon of a Da Vinci Code-style coverup, a conspiracy of ancient and esoteric brotherhoods?
Who wouldn’t? Especially when your alternative is that people in the 20th century, many of whom are still living, just sort of…made something up.
We have a deep craving for authenticity. This is good. We are naturally skeptical. Also good. So especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a system that will purport to turn a dark mirror on our subconscious motivations, we may well take a step back and demand to see some badges. Ancient brotherhoods are decent badges to flash, quelling at once our skepticism and our thirst for intrigue.
Or, those of us who have found this system helpful, and who also thrill to old stuff, get deeply excited when we see a glimmer of a comparison in something old: Look, the stops on Odysseus’s journey in the Odyssey appear to align with the Enneagram types! Look, there are seven or nine deadly sins, give or take! And we may skip over the task of actually finding a credible connection that goes beyond coincidence, flapping our hands instead at the unknowability of ancient wisdom traditions.
But here’s my theory: saying “it’s new” isn’t all that much more accurate than saying “it’s old.” Was it made up in the 1970s? In my opinion, yes: anything recognizable as the Enneagram of Personality was. But I don’t think we need to stop there, because those people in the 1970s (principally Ichazo and Naranjo) didn’t make up this system out of new cloth. They made it out of lots of bits of old cloth.
And new stuff out of old cloth is as close as we often get in this world to “old cloth.”
Here’s an analogy: even as the genetic testing industry continues to grow (and even though I very much enjoy genealogy), it’s clear that you don’t have to go back very far until the distinction between your-family and not-your-family breaks down.
One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.
Rutherford at 162.
Does that seem impossible–that every living person of European descent is descended from every European in the year 1000 or so who has any living descendants? He explains further:
[A]ccept that everyone of European descent should have billions of ancestors at a time in the tenth century, but there weren’t billions of people around then, so try to cram them into the number of people that actually were. The math that falls out of that apparent impasse is that all of the billions of lines of ancestry have coalesced into not just a small number of people, but effectively literally everyone who was alive at that time. So, by inference, if Charlemagne was alive in the ninth century, which we know he was, and he left descendants who are alive today, which we also know is true, then he is the ancestor of everyone of European descent alive in Europe today.
Rutherford at 162.
So all of us who have European descent are related to Charlemagne. All of us who have European descent are, equally, related to Kurt the Pig Boy who lived just down the hill from Charlemagne’s palace, as long as Kurt has any living descendants.
This kind of math takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of genealogy: those of us who are able to trace our ancestry back several generations often feel proud if we find someone notable in the genetic heap, perhaps forgetting how many hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of others also can claim the same heritage. Charlemagne is indeed in many of our bloodlines, but in menial quantities that it’s hardly worth mentioning. He belongs to history far more than he belongs to our genealogy.
Rutherford shows how this logic goes if we zoom out from Europe to the entire world: at least one researcher has estimated that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3,400 years ago.” Rutherford at 164.
If this sounds too recent, or baffling because of remote populations in South America or the islands of the South Pacific, remember that no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time, even in those remote locations. The influx of the Spanish into South America meant their genes spread rapidly into decimated indigenous tribes, and eventually to the most remote peoples. The inhabitants of the minuscule Pingelap and Mokil atolls in the mid-Pacific have incorporated Europeans into their gene pools after they were discovered in the years of the nineteenth century. Even religiously isolated groups such as the Samaritans, who number fewer than 800 and are sequestered within Israel, have elected to outbreed in order to expand their limited gene pool.
Rutherford at 164.
So go back less than 4,000 years, and there’s some anonymous man or woman from whom every person alive can claim descent. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
There is no simple, linear descent of humans. Human genealogy is inherently a net, a web, that reaches all around the world much more speedily than we tend to assume.
Likewise, to bring it back around to the Enneagram, there is no pure, arcane, secret tradition. People, and ideas, don’t work like that. There is change and exchange and learning and borrowing and mixing and syncretizing. And that’s generally good.
Just as “no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time,” ideas don’t tend to idle intact within secret brotherhoods, nor do languages sit immobile in faraway mountain hollers. Change, not stability, is the story.
And in my view, the fact of the Enneagram of Personality being relatively new is what makes it so valuable. If the system is fixed, then it is no one’s–it is unaccountable and inflexible to new insights and new generations’ shifting perspectives. If it refers back to an ancient brotherhood, who’s to say what it is? What it’s not?
Instead, I vote that we recognize–and celebrate–the new origins of this old thing. This new quilt made from various semi-old rags. It’s a solution that gives us some of the romance of the old, and some of the novelty of the new. That’s about as good as we can do.
In theory, I’ve been working on Book Two for a little while. But you sure wouldn’t know it from looking at the scraggly little collection of notes I’ve got stored in various places, or from the monotone rambling I do when someone asks me what I’m writing.
The doubt gremlin is still pretty active. It’s harassing me noisily about how this book is a pretty dumb idea and a waste of time.
I respond that it’s all about practice, all about finding that really sweet spot between discipline and play, where I’ll grow my skills. It’s about abandoning the capitalist mindset’s demand for results, and just seeing what is possible.
The two of us are basically at an impasse, meaning I’ve got the following:
Three (3) meandering outlines of the plot
Seven (7) characters sketched out in varying levels of detail
Twenty-two (22) plot points sketched out on one of the outlines
Unknowable number (?) of scenes planned underneath each plot point
Four (4) chapter documents created in Scrivener with notes attached, because I spent last night retaking the tutorial and now I’m a genius at using all of the program’s bells and whistles, which is the writing equivalent of cleaning your entire apartment instead of packing for vacation when you have to leave for the plane in two hours
A vague sense that I’d like to write my SFD (shitty first draft) by the end of the year, just to say I did
Another vague sense that I should relax a bit and write a different book I can coherently describe to people
At this point, there’s really no excuse not to just start writing. Maybe I’ll treat the rest of 2019 like a prolonged NaNoWriMo and just blindly crunch out 1,000 words a day, most days. At the very worst, this will result in a nice healthy increase in my lifetime number of words written.
Ooh, actually, at the very worst, I’ll become so focused on finishing this silly book that I’ll alienate my boyfriend and friends and family and employer and lose my job and end up a pariah on the street, never to be heard from again. Plus, the book won’t get written, and my pauper’s tombstone will read: “Never finished that dumb book; shouldn’t have tried.”
Previously on Psychopomp, I ran through what I’ve learned about the history of the Enneagram. People often claim that it has ancient and mysterious origins, but my investigation of these claims demonstrated to me that this wasn’t quite true. Instead, it seems that a handful of 20th-century men created the system, then attached an ancient mystique to their teachings. In one case, this led to some rather interesting legal issues in the 2nd Circuit.
But as I said then, my investigation hit a bit of a roadblock. It wasn’t clear that all these sources were even talking about the same thing when they made their claims about the origins of the Enneagram. This meant it was hard for me to write the ancient origins off so quickly.
So, what is it, anyway?
Part Two: The Definitions
I am not the first to conclude that, essentially, the Enneagram as we know it now (a symbol marking the relationships between nine personality types of a given description) is a 20th-century innovation.
Riso and Hudson admitted as much, although their early book Personality Types (see previous post) had included its own mysterious set of Very-Old claims. Pumping the brakes on their own earlier breathless prose, they write in a later edition that “[u]nfortunately, the first edition of Personality Types was perhaps a source of the mistaken idea that there was a body of knowledge about the Enneagram which had been transmitted through an ongoing ‘oral tradition’ of some kind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Enneagram is largely a modern development.” Elsewhere, they wrote that the Enneagram is “a hybrid, a modern amalgam, from a number of ancient wisdom traditions combined with modern psychology.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19. “Various authors have speculated about its origins, and Enneagram enthusiasts have created a good deal of folklore about its history and development, but much of the information being passed around is unfortunately misleading. Many early authors, for example, attributed the entire system to Sufi masters which we now know is not the case.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19.
Although the origins and history of many of the ideas and theories associated with the Enneagram of Personality are a matter of dispute, contemporary Enneagram claims are principally derived from the teachings of Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo.
The Enneagram of Personality Types is a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions, but the person who originally put the system together was Oscar Ichazo.
But which is it? Is it from the 20th century, or is it old? Is it a new thing made of old pieces, or an old thing with new fittings?
One problem is definitional: we have the Enneagram diagram itself, and then we have the Enneagram of Personality, which is the system that overlays nine psychological types on top of that diagram.
So what are people talking about when they make a claim about the Enneagram’s history? The personality types, or just the diagram? Or something else entirely? It’s rarely clear.
But even if we adjust our search to just an Enneagram that has personality types attached, it is unclear how far we can reasonably go back: Gurdijieff, in the early 20th century, taught that “each of us had a chief feature that was the central axis around which the delusional aspects of our personalities revolved.” Tart preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he made some personality claims, in unconventional ways: he would hold liquor-soaked evening sessions during which he would excoriate everyone as a particular kind of “idiot.” Palmer at 13-14. You can see this as him exposing people’s Enneagram type (in Gurdijieff’s own very Enneagram-8 fashion) if you want…but need you?
It’s undisputed that he taught the Enneagram diagram. See Palmer at 10. But there is no evidence that he thought of mapping his personality “chief features” onto the diagram.
Tart hedges: “Gurdijieff clearly used the Enneagram of personality in his work with his students, but, to my knowledge, did not pass the system on in any detail to his students.” Preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he used the Enneagram of Personality, but in such a subtle way that his students had no idea that they had learned it.
To which I say…hmm.
Instead of learning a personality system, Gurdijieff’s students learned “through nonverbal movement exercises that were designed to give a felt sense of the stages that different processes go through when they begin and are played out in the material world.” Palmer at 10. In fact, “There was nothing written about the Enneagrams of personality during Gurdijieff’s lifetime, and the schools that continued his teaching were inclined to view personality preoccupations as something to be set aside in the movement toward higher consciousness.” Palmer at 11.
So you see the problem: we are tempted, when looking for the Enneagram in the past, to find it in its modern form in Gurdijieff. So we look back at a man who used the diagram, who also taught some concepts about personal development, and with the benefit of hindsight, we assume that he might have also secretly or nonverbally used the other things that we associate with the Enneagram of Personality today, even though it appears that he didn’t.
Or this leads to different, wilder hedges: that the Enneagram in Gurdijieff’s time was more pure than it is now, having been tainted by the masses obtaining access to it; or that Gurdijieff definitely knew the Enneagram of Personality, but chose not to teach it because his students could not handle it. See Palmer at 12.
But isn’t it more likely that the Enneagram as we know it now was just not around yet, and that’s why there’s no evidence that Gurdijieff taught it? Isn’t that why those little bits of the early Enneagram look so bizarre to us?
We essentially have to make a choice: between the notion that the Enneagram of Personality as we know it now has existed for thousands of years, transmitted through the Babylonians and Sufis and Kabbalists and the early Christian mystics, but that its full form was kept secret; or that it is a modern invention that draws on–or resembles–older concepts. I clearly vote for the latter.
So what are those concepts it draws on?
A huge one that is largely ignored in modern Enneagram circles is esoteric numerology. After all, the diagram–and the exact placement of the types on it–is not arbitrary. See Palmer at 46. The diagram consists of a circle in which lay two separate diagrams: an equilateral triangle, and an irregular six-pointed figure.
The triangle represents the “law of three,” which is seen in many mystical traditions, and is also notable because the decimal of 1/3 is 0.33333, with a string of 3s out to infinity. This fact of numerology would have come about after the discovery of the zero, and the subsequent discovery of decimal places, in a base-ten system. On the Enneagram diagram, the triangle forms points 3, 6, and 9–all of the multiples of three.
It turns out that the irregular six-pointed figure is similar: it represents the “law of sevens,” because 1/7 also creates an infinite decimal: 0.142857. This pattern of six numbers repeats forever, never including a multiple of three. Students of the Enneagram of Personality will recognize that sequence of numbers as six of the Enneagram types arranged in order of their movements in stress: type 1 moves to type 4 in stress; 4 moves to 2; 2 to 8; and so on.
This explains the diagram, and why the nine numbers are arranged in a given order. It has to do with numerology. And on top of this numerology, some attach esoteric meaning: the law of threes is associated with the trinity, for example, and the law of seven “governs the stages of implementation of [an] event as it is played out in the physical world.” Palmer at 36. I’m not quite sure what that means, to be honest.
Some numerology goes a little further: if you do your math a little wrong, you can add .33 to .33 to .33 and get .99. That is to say, three of the decimal of 1/3 creates an infinite string of nines. Likewise, if you add .142857 to itself seven times (in other words, seven of the decimal of 1/7) creates .999999. Again, this is bad math, because 3 times 1/3 is 1, just as 7 times 1/7 is 1, but if you just add the decimals on top of each other and ignore the fact that you’re supposed to go to infinity, it looks like you get a lot of nines–which is significant in a system based on numerology about a nine-pointed figure. See Palmer at 37; Maitri at 27. Riso also does a little bad math to help us remember the 1-4-2-8-5-7 string: “1-4, or 14, doubles to 28, and that doubles to 57–or almost so.” Enneagram Transformations at 14.
I say this not to bore you to tears but instead to make the point that a big chunk of whatever the Enneagram is is numerology, which definitely goes back a little further than other chunks. And, importantly, it’s not the Enneagram of personality, is it?
You can also find connections between the nine-pointed shape in astrology and geometry, and it is clear that the Enneagram of Personality is just inherently a very different thing than all this. See https://nosmallthingpodcast.com/2019/05/27/050-the-enneagram-a-history/. There are also personality typing systems that are quite old: the four humors, the Seven Deadly Sins. There are mystical groupings of nine: the nine worlds that the Norse mythical tree Yggdrasil connects, for example. But no one now does just numerology, or just sacred geometry, or just the seven deadly sins, and calls it the Enneagram. That would be confusing at best.
At the end of the day, here’s the real history, as far as I’m concerned: a bunch of semi-related (and, in some cases, unrelated) ideas including numerology, religious transformation, psychology, astrology, esoterica, etc, floated around until Ichazo and Naranjo and later people (Riso, Hudson, Maitri, Palmer, et al) created what we now call the Enneagram of Personality in the ’70s. Searching before that for a single, intact system transmitted through the ages guarantees finding some false positives in hindsight, finding some loose resemblances and rounding them up.
Rather than finding the actual pedigree of a single idea, we’re instead identifying the universal appeal of a several separate things. Which is fine!
And the thing is, the Enneagram as we know it now is still evolving. It’s not done. Riso “discovered” the levels of health (the idea that each type contains nine levels of health, which shows how each type will look at different levels of well-being) in 1977. Wisdom of the Enneagram at 25. Riso and Hudson call it a “work in progress,” so that practitioners are “continually finding better terminology, making new discoveries, formulating more profound questions, uncovering new areas for investigation, and seeing more fertile connections with other bodies of knowledge.” Id.
For me personally, so much of what I’ve been enriched by in this system is rather new: the complexities of wings, arrows, subtypes, levels of health–none of these are attested back very far. All of the rather simple comparisons of the ancient Enneagram (such as the seven deadly sins) don’t have these complexities, because they are a different system. Even if the bones are old, you might say, the guts are new. Or something. (It’s getting late, and I’m tired).
To sum up: if you set your sights quite low, you can find a lot of things that look like bits and pieces of what we now know as the Enneagram all over time and space. You can cobble together an ancient esoteric history of the system. You will be able to gather bits of other sets of nines, or systems that generalize people based on a set of types. You will get some false positives.
I’m trying to break my own habit of wanting these false positives, wanting that charge of finding something really old as though in a brand-new archaeological dig. And even after all this rambling, I’m facing some disappointment, a kind of deflated feeling that I’m a joyless cynic, for trying to get rid of the perception that the Enneagram is ancient.
But why is that a bad thing? Why do we want the false positives? PART THREE is coming.
I’m often fascinated by the claim that something is ancient. You may hear, if you attend a yoga class, that the series of poses you are about to do have been transmitted through the centuries. You may have read that certain isolated people in the Appalachians or perhaps some island or other in the Chesapeake speak just like the English did in Shakespeare’s time. And, if you have done any reading about the Enneagram, you may have heard that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old.
These claims often hold grains of truth, but they rarely hold up to more scrutiny. Familiar yoga poses are largely a 20th-century phenomenon, even though yoga in very different forms goes back centuries. There isn’t any mountain holler containing preserved Elizabethan accents.
As for the Enneagram…I’m here today to get to the bottom of that one.
Let me begin, though, by acknowledging that I’ve been burned before. Since I was a kid, I’ve gotten my jollies from old stuff–historical fiction, old buildings, that kind of thing. And I hate being fooled about it, as I so often have been. This leads me to a reactive skepticism when I hear that something is Quite Old. I sense a disturbance in the force, assuming that something troubling and ahistorical has occurred. In my defensiveness, I insisted my parents buy a plaque that still hangs in their house: “In 1837 on this spot, nothing happened.” Because, so often, it didn’t.
And because I’m kind of a contrarian at times, and because I’ve made this little blog as a bully pulpit for myself so no one can stop me, I set out a few weeks ago to write a conclusive history of the Enneagram. It was bothering me, this not knowing. But as I’ll explain in this multi-part series (!), my investigation has gone a little sideways.
Part One: The Claims.
If you begin to look into the Enneagram’s history, you’re likely to find some Very-Old claims. You’ll soon learn that the Enneagram is centuries old, or millennia old, or simply “ancient.” You’ll learn that it is from an ancient Christian tradition, or an ancient Greek tradition, or an ancient Sufi tradition, or all of these together. You’ll begin to hear vaguely Dan-Brown-sounding whispers about the Enneagram being hidden in esoteric darkness for ages, passed between secret brotherhoods and the occasional mystic, until it burst into the light, quite mysteriously, right around 1970.
For example, take the Integrative 9 website‘s fuzzy history:
The roots of the Enneagram are disputed and unclear, but seem connected to different spiritual and oral traditions as well as specific mathematical and philosophical traditions. Some authors claim strong Sufi roots, while others point to connections to early esoteric Christianity. It should be noted, however, that it is definitely not common to all Sufi traditions….
Some authors believe that variations of the Enneagram symbol can be traced to the sacred geometry of Pythagorean mathematicians and mystical mathematics….Plotinus, in the Enneads, speaks of nine divine qualities that manifest in human nature….It may have entered into esoteric Judaism through the philosopher Philo, later becoming embedded in the branches of the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah (Nine-Foldedness)….
Variations of the Enneagram symbol appear in the Sufi tradition, with specific reference to the Naqshbandi Order (“Brotherhood of the Bees”)….Possible relationship with Christianity through medieval references to the Evagrius’ catalogue of various forms of temptation (Logismoi) which much later, in medieval times, was translated into the seven deadly sins…Jesuit mathematician Athanasius Kircher has an Enneagram-like drawing that forms part of a 17th-century text.
(Believe me, I’ve tried to find that drawing, and no one seems to ever want to actually show it.)
Helen Palmer wrote in her 1991 book The Enneagram that the Enneagram is simply “an ancient Sufi teaching,” and her website claims:
With a history of centuries, the Enneagram is arguably the oldest human development system on the planet.
Riso and Hudson, in their 1996 Personality Types, write:
One of the main problems with introducing the Enneagram is that its exact origins are lost to history. No one really knows precisely who discovered it or where it came from. Some writers maintain that the Enneagram first surfaced among certain orders of the Sufi, a mystical sect of Islam which began in the tenth and eleventh centuries; others speculate that it may have originated as long ago as 2500 B.C. in Babylon or elsewhere in the Middle East. But these are mere speculations….
Undeterred by the risk of speculation, though, Riso and Hudson go on to speculate that a “brotherhood of wise men” in ancient Mesopotamia “discovered the cosmic secret of perpetual self-renewal.” This was then passed down through the oral tradition in Babylon, where it encountered Zoroastrians and Greeks. Later it migrated to Uzbekistan, where Islamic mathematicians discovered the number zero and created the decimal system (which, as we’ll see later, is central to at least part of what we call the Enneagram.)
Christopher Heuertz, in his book The Sacred Enneagram, writes:
Versions of the Enneagram have been around for thousands of years, hidden away in wisdom schools and passed along orally within the mystic traditions of the world’s religions…I have been told of the Enneagram in prehistoric Korea as well as a version in folk Buddhism….Perhaps the oldest recorded hint of the Enneagram may be in what Beatrice Chestnut speculates to be evidence hidden away in Homer’s classic work, The Odyssey….
Pythagoras (who coincidentally studied in Egypt) fused mysticism and mathematics…. He is said to have used a drawing resembling the Enneagram symbol as his spiritual signature after learning of it in Heliopolis, which was the center of worship of the Ennead or the nine deities of ancient Egyptian mythology. Others point to the Jewish philosopher Philo (who also happened to live in Egypt), hinting that perhaps his esoteric Judaism and the Tree of Life, which is considered the key symbol of the tradition of the Kabbalah, root the earliest forms of the Enneagram in Jewish mysticism. Much has been written to suggest that the early Egyptian Christian monastic ascetics, the desert mothers and fathers, were the chief architects of the Enneagram, led by the fourth-century mystic Evagrius Ponticus. Ponticus’s writings are often cited to support theories on the Christian origins of the Enneagram, specifically as it relates to his work on his list of eight vices and virtues (in one place he names nine), which closely resemble the nine Virtues and Passions of the Enneagram as we have it today. Very commonly, many of today’s experts credit Sufi communities spread throughout Central Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, for developing the Enneagram between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
All of this basically makes me go, hmm.
So much for the ancient claims, which bear commonalities but rarely agree on much. As we saw above, the Christian writers emphasize resonances with the Christian tradition, including early Christian mystics and the seven deadly sins. Others emphasize the mysterious Sufi roots and other sources. A lot of sources kind of raise their hands and go, “it’s a mystery.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But where everyone begins to agree is in the 20th century. Even Heuertz, after his heady trek through ancient world history, concludes: “Regardless of whether the Enneagram has its roots in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, we do know that it wasn’t until the early 1900s” that the Enneagram showed up in the West through a man named Georges Ivanovich Gurdijieff (pictured below).
Gurdijieff was a “mysterious, somewhat diabolical figure from the Caucasus,” raised in Armenia and Turkey. Around 1912, he was working as a carpet dealer in Russia, occasionally inviting spiritual seekers to his “plush Orientalist” apartment. Dressed in a patterned silk dressing gown and turban, he would teach breathing techniques. He kept company with the many devotees of the occult and esoterica, which were immensely popular in Russia’s pre-Revolutionary Silver Age. That time “was saturated with spiritualism, Eastern religion, and esoteric magic,” including ostensibly ancient-Egyptian or Kabbalah-inspired numerology.
(Interestingly, many of those details about Gurdijieff come from The Goddess Pose by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, which is a fascinating biography of Indra Devi, the Lithuanian world traveler who was in large part responsible for introducing yoga to the West. As it turned out, my research about yoga as a comparison to the Very-Old-claims of the Enneagram led me right back to the Enneagram, in the person of Gurdijieff.)
Gurdijieff eventually began teaching students in a group called Seekers After Truth. Among his teachings was the Enneagram–kind of. The symbol, at least, was central to his teachings, but he never really said what it meant. He was secretive about where had learned of the symbol, occasionally claiming that he had learned about it from a secret brotherhood somewhere in Asia. See Heuertz.
Now, my hackles are up. The trouble is, the very existence of this secret “Sarmouni Brotherhood” of Sufis appears to trace right back to Gurdijieff, who I don’t necessarily trust as a historian or ethnographer. So now we might start to scratch our heads whenever we hear about Sufism and the Enneagram, because all the citations about this link appear to flow through Gurdijieff. Even Palmer, who gives credence to the Enneagram as an ancient device, admits that “[w]hat the West knows of the Enneagram began with [Gurdijieff]…who alluded to the Enneagram as a Sufi oral teaching device.” Enneagram at 10.
In any event, Gurdijieff used the Enneagram symbol to teach his students, but his system bears very little relationship to any Enneagram information you would find today. He appears to have seen it as a universal source of wisdom–a “key to all mythologies” fit for Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon–and he taught it as a set of transcendental dances, but not really as the psychological tool most of us know it as today.
So at this point, I’m suspicious that we haven’t yet really found the beginning of the Enneagram.
After Gurdijieff, a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo pops up next, around the early 1970s. By this point, the Enneagram is starting to look more like how we know it now. Ichazo taught “nine-pointed figures, enclosed in a circle, with straight lines connecting each point to two others. Each point corresponds to a given ‘ego fixation.’” Arica Institute, Inc. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1070 (2d Cir. 1992). That sounds decently close to what is now recognizable as the “Enneagram of Personality.”
Ichazo “claimed to have learned [the Enneagram] from a secret mystery school, the Sarmouni Brotherhood, who had also taught it to Gurdijieff.” Charles T. Tart, Preface to Palmer Enneagram, at xii. Ichazo also attributed his learning “to a seven-day vision in which he claims an angel visited him with the teaching of the Enneagram,” (quote from Heuertz) and to his “own channeling of the information..” Sandra Maitri, The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues, at 4.
Hmm–what are the odds that Ichazo also encountered the Sarmouni Brotherhood (who, I repeat, are somewhat likely to be an entirely fictional or allegorical invention of Gurdijieff’s?)
But although he mentioned the Sarmouni Brotherhood at times, Ichazo struggled to maintain a consistent stance about where the Enneagram came from: his Arica Institute attempted to copyright his ideas, including his enneagrams or “enneagons,” (Enneagram diagrams with certain labels), and the single-word labels themselves. The attempt to copyright these elements implies that they were Ichazo’s invention. And they defended this copyright: when Palmer wrote her 1991 book, the Arica Institute sued her for copyright infringement for repeating the Enneagram system and its nine personality types laid out on the Enneagram diagrams.
The Arica Institute lost the case against Palmer, and its loss was affirmed in the Second Circuit, in no small part because the Arica Institute and Ichazo could not get their story straight as to whether they had invented the Enneagram of Personality (which would give it a chance of being copyrightable) or whether it were an ancient tool, or–even worse for their copyright claim–objectively true.
As the Second Circuit explained, “Arica publications repeatedly assert that Ichazo has ‘discovered’ the ego fixations, which are scientifically verifiable ‘facts’ of human nature. ” Arica Institute, Inc., 970 F.2d at 1075. (Oh, no!) This hamstrung the case, and for this and other reasons, Palmer won; she did not owe damages to Ichazo or the Arica Institute for writing about what we now know as the Enneagram of Personality. (If she had lost, this whole Enneagram thing might still be under lock and key at the Arica Institute).
But, freed from copyright constraints, let’s continue our journey through Enneagram history: one of Ichazo’s students, Claudio Naranjo, soon split with Ichazo and brought his Enneagram of Personality teachings to America (specifically, where else?–Berkeley, California, in the 1970s). Naranjo began to teach, and he styled his student group the Seekers After Truth (SAT)–just as Gurdijieff had in Moscow over fifty years before.
“Naranjo knew and recognized the power of the enneagram as a psychospiritual tool, and its potential and place as part of serious spiritual work, and so he swore all of his students not to teach the enneagram without his permission.” Maitri at 5. But “[g]iven its potency, it was perhaps inevitable that the enneagram would begin to leak out. The enneagram found its way into the Jesuit community and has since become an accepted part of its training,” and corporate training soon followed, teaching it in secular form.” Maitri at 5.
And the rest is–not history, actually–the rest is the present. Enneagram information is everywhere. It’s so hot right now.
So, to sum up PART ONE of this investigation, I’ve read the books, I’ve got the receipts, and I am completely unconvinced that the Enneagram is ancient. I basically think it was invented, in any meaningful form, in the 1970s.
But stay tuned, if you can bear it, for our next installment, wherein I’ll zoom out. Because if you’ve been reading closely, you might be wondering, like I was, what are we even talking about? Are we talking about a diagram or a personality system or both or something else? How can you say how old something is if you don’t even know what the something is?