The Nine Ways: On the Enneagram



Light through stained glass. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CCO 2.0.

When I was a boy, the most obvious thing, in almost any situation, seemed to be something that wasn’t named. This unspoken thing usually had to do with desires or strong emotions that appeared to run under people’s words. In a stained glass window, the least striking element is often the very scene being depicted. People could have that quality when I was little, resembling stencils marbled with glowing hues. Where did their hidden longings end? Where did mine begin?

As I got older, I often lived like a cashier behind Plexiglas. I came to study people from a certain remove. That I had barely made my own wishes known, even to myself, became clear a few years before I turned forty, when, for the first time, I fell in love.

On an early date, the woman I fell for and I were joking about past lives. We sat at the counter of a breakfast place in Dallas, eating pancakes. She said she thought your previous life must relate to something you did a lot as a kid, because you were that much closer to the other side. I said I was probably a neurasthenic in a sanatorium in Europe writing thin volumes of philosophy. She said, “I think you were a dancer!” In fact, I love to dance, and as a child, danced all the time.

Around the time this relationship suddenly ended, my friend Sam told me about the theory of personality that is attached to the enneagram. If I had been introduced to this system seven or eight years earlier, I would have assumed it was stupid. Or if I hadn’t been so torn up and turned around, I might not have been desperate enough to take the enneagram seriously. What I found, however, was a deep and dynamic model, and one that spoke intimately to my intuition about what lurked beneath the surface.

In the months and years that followed, I would go on to consider every person I knew in the light of this system. I read extensively about the enneagram. I talked to friends about the model and then with friends of friends. I began to get referrals. Now I have a small practice where I do private enneagram-based coaching.

The word enneagram describes a figure that has existed since the time of Ancient Greece. It looks like this. There is some disagreement about who first appended a theory of personality to this shape. The Christian mystics known as the Desert Fathers, who lived in the Middle East in the third century, wrote about concepts very similar to those that animate the system now associated with the enneagram.

The first person to articulate a formal theory was the philosopher Oscar Ichazo, who presented the psychological model now called the enneagram in a series of talks given at the Institute of Applied Psychology in Santiago, Chile, and elsewhere in South America, in the sixties. In attendance was the psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, who would later give his own interpretation of the subject at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. From there, the enneagram was disseminated far and wide and appears today in a variety of forms, some more rigorous than others.

Ichazo’s core theory is that people, on the deepest level, wish to avoid a very bad feeling, an experience so awful it is what we imagine death is like. There are nine ways this terror can be imagined reaching us, and nine correspondent ways it can be avoided. The nine techniques of avoiding this universal fear are figured as points on the enneagram and exist in a complex and dynamic interplay with one another. In any individual personality, one of the nine is predominant.

The nine ways are often referred to using a kind of shorthand: 1 is the Reformer; 2, the Helper; 3, the Achiever; 4, the Individualist; 5, the Investigator; 6, the Loyalist; 7, the Enthusiast; 8, the Challenger; and 9, the Peacemaker.

It can be hard to pinpoint the right metaphor for the role these numbers are thought to play in a person’s psyche. The nine can be conceived of as parts, dimensions, or styles. I sometimes picture each number as being a corner in a very large room. Imagine the plane of this room’s floor is uneven, and the walls, as a result, are of irregular shapes and sizes. We may find something close to a natural comfort in one corner or in some nook nearby. The light from a window might amiably rhyme with that of a spot across the room. Some parts of the room might have high ceilings with bare white walls. Others, though narrow, might overlook a courtyard. If this place is big enough, its far corners might seem beyond reach or even nonexistent. We might hesitate to emerge from our favorite hideaways.

I offer this extended image to illustrate that while, as a numerical typology, the enneagram may seem like a tacky attempt to reduce human complexity, it is intended to do the opposite. By describing the contours of the corner we have mistaken for the full extent of who we are, the system invites us to enlarge our sense of self and to seek out renewed—really, restored—relationships with the world, other people, and our own life. In my case, that has meant seeking a better balance between the apparent philosopher and the hidden dancer. To return to the image of stained glass, working with the enneagram often means finding new stencils, in the mosaic of our lives, for the colors that already stream inside us.

I am moved by this model because it takes seriously how scary the process of being alive can be, and how possible.


Jacob Rubin, the author of the novel The Poser, is an associate professor at SMU. Piggy Bank, his first book of poetry, was recently published by Gold Wake Press. More information about his work with the enneagram can be found here.