An Encounter with the Enneagram: Part 4

Words by Evan Barbee
Illustration by Chris Koelle

There are two of you and two of me. These two parts of us, both necessary and useful, provide us with radically different experiences of the same moment—either reactive or receptive. These aspects of self both exist in the mind, which is perhaps why the mind is often referred to as both the cause of our suffering and the portal out of it. The end goal of most every spiritual tradition or religious practice has been that we might recognize the difference between these two selves and learn to navigate between them skillfully and with greater awareness.

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The self with which we are likely most familiar is conditioned by experience and dominated by our thoughts. This is the part of us consumed with worry, concerned about getting it right; the version of us that stews over what was said and done and endlessly recounts stories of our failures and the many ways others have failed us. This personality structure is largely fixated on the past or on the future, or it stands in habitual resistance to the present moment. This side of us can be offended and injured and so moves to defend and protect itself, running strategies to avoid pain and discomfort while unknowingly creating suffering in the process.

The other self, sometimes called the “inner witness” or “reflective consciousness,” is perhaps less familiar. This is the part of us that does not move out of a self-protective reflex because it is not threatened. It does not suffer, nor does it harbor resentment, but it simply recognizes the moment as it occurs and is free from bias. This inner observer does not resist or attempt to change what the moment brings, a grace that requires no discipline or willful effort. This is the part of us that is and always has been free and unafraid.

In aeronautical flight there is a rule of thumb called the 1/60 rule, useful for pilots while navigating their course. This rule states that if pilots have traveled 60 miles from takeoff and find themselves one mile off the charted course, then an error of one degree was made in their initial course calculations. Such a slight error can account for an enormous discrepancy in the flight. In the same way, we as human beings don’t want to suffer, yet to the extent we build resistance to life and operate solely out of defensive habits, we are charting a course for just that. A slight correction needs to be made, a reorientation to self-observation and to our  inner experience, the home of our inner witness and greatness that we likely did not know we possessed. The Enneagram tells nine stories, nine ways we leave the witnessing consciousness, pulled away by our habits and fear, nine one-degree shifts that must be made in order to bring us back on course.

Fear registers first in the mind, so in Enneagram theory the three types most oriented to the mind, the Thinking Triad (types 5, 6, and 7), wrestle with fear most directly. These types filter the world primarily through their mental faculties. Experiencing a need to safeguard themselves in a world that appears dangerous and threatening, these types attempt to minimize anxiety and uncertainty by analyzing, planning, or imagining a successful escape route. This embodies the aspect we all share that when faced with great difficulty, we will gravitate toward the mind, hoping to understand, seeking to make sense of things, and searching for answers. These individuals focus their attention on identifying what will bring the greatest sense of security and recognizing individuals on whom they can depend for support or guidance. These types desire to identify their purpose, where they fit within the context of the greater whole, a living question that becomes a driving force along the paths they carve out in the world.

Type 5: The Observer

Type 5, called the Observer, represents individuals who respond to an intrusive and demanding world by minimizing their needs and withdrawing into their minds. Deeply insightful, calm, investigative, and reserved, these individuals attempt to gain a greater sense of security by building an arsenal of knowledge. Like an inquisitive scientist always asking questions, musing and wandering through the countless facets of any one topic, the 5s’ preoccupation with knowledge begins to distance them from the world in a way that can lead either to greater objectivity or detached isolation. Within this reflex to conserve themselves, the 5s begin cutting away at the moorings tethering them to felt human experience, and like an astronaut flung from his ship and drifting into deep space, they observe the world from a greater and greater distance. Rather than being felt, feelings are intellectualized, grief and insecurity neatly compartmentalized. Lonely but preoccupied, 5s do not immediately recognize this somewhat desolate world as a world of their own making, nor their inner deprivation as a condition motivated by fear and largely self-imposed.

Type 5s must redirect their awareness away from the content of the mind and into a real-time encounter with their own lives, allowing themselves to experience their feelings rather than contemplate them at a safe distance. They must be willing to risk for the sake of connection that which they have so carefully conserved, themselves—the necessary price of any great love story. In summoning the courage to step out from their fortified minds, 5s become conduits for greater wisdom, holding life with an open hand, deeply connected but not attached. They discover that each unfolding moment brings them the resources needed, that their lives are supported and sustained by an unseen force, and that this force is not only kind, but abundant.

“There is a natural law of abundance which pervades the entire universe, but it will not flow through a doorway of belief in lack and limitation.”—Paul Zaiter

Type 6: The Loyal Skeptic

Type 6, called the Loyal Skeptic, represents individuals whose natural state of trust in the world was disrupted at a young age, causing them to form hesitant and doubting relationships. Themselves trustworthy, loyal, and persevering, 6s use their powerful minds to ward off bthreats by attempting to forecast potential danger, by asking piercing questions, and by watching authority very closely. In the intense focus on what could potentially go wrong, faith in themselves—and in a larger sense faith in reality—recedes into the background of their awareness, and they tend toward a wary and overly-cautious posture, scanning the environment and people around them for slight inconsistencies that might signal threat. As if possible to walk through life without ever fully putting down weight, 6s’ approach is hyper-vigilant, which feels responsible and even appropriate for the hazardous world they assume they inhabit. Type 6s may not be conscious of the fear motivating the strategy. One of two reflexive responses develop with the same goal of security in mind: Either 6s operate from a risk-averse strategy (“phobic”), moving away from perceived danger and threat, or they move directly into the perceived threat (“counter-phobic”) with great force and at times even recklessness. Difficulty arises as they see phantom danger everywhere, losing a capacity to rest and decompress and to decipher between what they anticipate and what may actually be happening.

The path of development for 6s is to recognize that they project their uninvestigated inner experience of fear into the outer world, an overlay, like a terrifying image projected against a wall. Relying too heavily on a mind injected with fear, 6s lose the reins on the great gift they possess naturally, another mind that is still, clear, aware, and self-directed. It takes tremendous courage on their part, which they have in spades, to step forward in faith into a world that appears so chaotic. In so doing, 6s discover that the security they long for is within, not without. They develop a courageous spirit, and like the archetype of the reluctant hero, their willingness to take their place rallies courage in the lives of those fortunate enough to know them.

“I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.”—J.R.R. Tolkien

Type 7: The Epicure

Type 7, called the Epicure, represents individuals who counter a world in which pain and deprivation is evident by shifting their attention to the bright side, escaping into the imagination, and anticipating positive potential outcomes. Unsinkable optimists, joyful and enthusiastic, these individuals rely on their friendliness and charm and a quick-witted approach to diffuse threat, warding off especially the threat of limitation. An emphasis on the positive side of things causes a blind spot to develop around anything uncomfortable or less than stimulating. Difficulty arises as the spiritual “muscle” built by fully processing painful times and would help balance and support their experience, is not resourced as often as likely needed. Type 7s focus instead on speed and attempt to outrun their pain, escaping in a myriad of ways into distractions. Inevitably, as Carl Jung noted, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size,” so unacknowledged pain eventually begins to hem in 7s and they ultimately create for themselves what they attempted to avoid—a world full of difficulty and no way around it but through it.

The path of development for 7s is to notice that the rapid shifting of their attention is based largely on a fear of losing their freedom or on being deprived in some way. Without the context of difficult, unpleasant things, the brighter aspects of life have little contrast and so little meaning. And for all the thrill of the chase, 7s feel the emptiness and futility of running on a circular track. When they are able and willing to meet the moment with patience, devotion, and sustained focus, the need to escape into the future dissolves. They experience a quality of life that is infinitely more satisfying. The fleeting happiness they once pursued is exchanged for real, bulletproof joy, which cannot be lost, taken away, or destroyed. Type 7s in this state almost glow with the light of one who knows that each moment, each experience, each interaction with another human being, is a holy thing, realizing that being human is a wonderful and terrifying adventure in the truest and best sense of the word.

“A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”—His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama