The Enneagram: An Ancient System For Our Modern World

By Robert Brumet

This article provides a very brief overview of the enneagram. It was written in May 2011 and subsequently published in Unity magazine. I have long had a passion for the enneagram so I wanted to share this very powerful spiritual tool with as many people as possible.

The enneagram¹ is a powerful spiritual tool that can aid you in developing self-awareness, peace of mind, and greater compassion for your self and others. Its history is obscure but is generally attributed to originate in the ancient Sufi traditions. It was modified and refined as it has been rediscovered in the West within the past century.

The enneagram is based upon the same premise that is embraced by all mystical traditions (including Unity): that humanities most fundamental problem, the root cause of all of our suffering, is that we are not who we believe ourselves to be. The vast majority of us are identified with the personality- the self we have been taught to be by our family and culture. But the personality is not who we really are; in reality, we are spiritual beings living in a dimension beyond time and space. As humans we experience our reality through the medium of body and mind, but we are true nature extends well beyond this dimension.

Like many other spiritual systems, the enneagram says that we cannot “find” our true nature because that is who we already are. It is never lost, but it can be forgotten. As we learn to see beyond the personality- the false self- we will discover our true nature. On a cloudy, overcast day one does not have to go in search of the sun- because it isn’t lost. We have only to wait for the clouds to disperse, and the sun appears automatically! The purpose of the enneagram is to help us to see through the false self and thereby discover our true nature.

The unique feature of the enneagram is that it categorizes the personality into nine basic types, thus giving us a more individualized approach to self-discovery. By finding our personality type we begin to see how we have “fallen asleep” to our true nature and have identified with the personality. It’s like a navigational guide that shows us where we have made the wrong turn, and then guides us back on course. It will show us the most direct path to personal growth and spiritual awakening.

Each personality type is identified primarily by motivation rather than by behavior. Each type has a habituated pattern of attention which tends to construct the worldview for that personality type. Our reality is unconsciously shaped by a set of internal filters. We see the world not as it is but as we are.

Most of this functions unconsciously until we begin the process of self-observation. This is the key to discovering one’s personality type. There are tests and instruments available to guide us in type determination but ultimately it is only our own self-awareness that can definitively identify our type. By determining our type we can begin the process of disidentifying from the personality.

Working with the enneagram has some very practical benefits. It helps us to deepen our compassion for ourself and for others. We begin to see that we all view reality through different filters- so it provides for acceptance of views different than our own. The enneagram has been used extensively in spiritual counseling, personal coaching and in organizational development.

The names of the personality types may differ somewhat from one author to the next, but there is a general consensus of the characteristics of each of the type. Type One is called The Perfectionist and is identified by the strong need to “do the right thing” and to correct the “imperfections” in the world. Type Two is named The Helper and is identified with the strong need to please others and to be liked by everyone. Type Three is called The Performer and is motivated by the strong need to achieve, to perform well, and to win. Type Four is The Romantic and is motivated by the desire to be seen as special and to find meaningful relationships. Type Five is The Observer and is motivated by the need to gather information, to understand, and to avoid strong emotions. Type Six is The Loyal Skeptic and is motivated by fear, doubt, and mistrust; but can be very loyal and dedicated when this fear is overcome. Type Seven is called The Adventurer and is motivated by the need to have experience pleasant feelings and to have a wide variety of interesting experiences. Type Eight is The Protector and is motivated by the need to be in control and to confront anything that appears as injustice. Type Nine is called The Peacemaker and is motivated by the need for harmony, unity and the avoidance of conflict.

Each type is negatively motivated by the avoidance of its primary goal. For example the Type One’s striving for perfection is based primarily upon the fear of appearing (or feeling) imperfect. Type Two is motivated by the fear of rejection. Type Three by the fear of failure. And so on, for the other types. Each type is unconsciously pulled by its motivator and is pushed by its fears.

Growth for the One lies in learning to relax, to play, and to be forgiving of one self and of others. The growing edge for type Two is to become comfortable being alone, self-reliant and discovering our one’s own desires. For type Three it is learning cooperation, teamwork, and accepting oneself for who I am- not just what I accomplish. For the Four it is to learn how to value each present moment and to simply appreciate what is here and now. For type Five growth is learning to be more spontaneous and to become more aware of one’s feeling nature. For the type Six it is learning to recognize our fear and to begin trusting ourselves and others. Growth for the Seven is in developing a more sustained focus and a realistic practicality. For type Eight it is to become more vulnerable and be sensitive to the feelings of others. The growth path for type Nine is to become aware of one’s own desires, to be more decisive, and to take appropriate action when necessary.

No one type is superior to, or more advanced than, any other. Remember these are all pictures of the false self. Our work is to recognize the personality type with which we are identified and then begin the work of self- observation. The deeper our self-awareness, the greater the freedom from personality identification. It can be helpful to recognize harmful or dysfunctional behavior but the primary work isn’t about changing behavior- it’s about changing consciousness; then behavior will follow suit. As we mature in awareness and growth the personality type becomes more transparent and our true nature begins to shine through.

It is important to mention that rarely is anyone a “pure type”- typically we are influenced by one of the types on either side of ours. These are called “the wings.” If you look at the hands of a clock you rarely see the hands point exactly to one number- they are usually somewhere between two adjacent numbers. So it is with the enneagram types. For example, a type One can have a “two wing” or a “nine wing.” Each of these could have an influence on the expression of the One.

Volumes more could be written on this fascinating topic. All we can do here is to introduce this profoundly important system and to encourage the interested reader to engage in further exploration.

¹ The term enneagram itself simply means a nine-sided figure.