Articles about the Enneagram|
Interview with Don Riso
On how to read personalities and discover your true self
From his series Finding My Religion in The San Francisco Gate for Monday, March 5, 2007
Full disclosure: I've always thought of personality tests—the kind that
supposedly reveal your true essence after you answer a bunch of cryptic
questions—as the laughably simplistic instruments of lazy guidance
counselors and dull-witted HR managers.
Then my friend Doug suggested I check out the Enneagram, a method of
classifying people into nine basic categories. I told him to forget it—no
online quiz is going to tell me who I am. But Doug, an enthusiastic "early
adopter" in the realm of spiritual exploration, has turned me on to some
interesting insights over the years. So I took a short test that revealed that
I am a Type 6: committed, security-oriented, engaging and responsible as well
as anxious and suspicious. OK, I'll admit I wasn't crazy about that last part,
but the more I thought about it—and the more I read about sixes—the more
accurate this description seemed to me. Since that time, I've been giving the
test to friends and family, and almost everyone has found the Enneagram
categories both interesting and revealing.
In delving deeper, I discovered the Enneagram is more than just a
personality-typing system; it's also used as a tool for personal growth and
spiritual development. Many people use the nine Enneagram types—which are
based on an ancient nine-pointed symbol found in many spiritual traditions,
including Christianity, Jewish mysticism and Sufism—to learn what's keeping
them from becoming their highest selves and to move beyond those blocks to a
more enlightened state.
To learn more about the history and modern use of the Enneagram, I spoke with
Don Riso, co-founder of the Enneagram Institute in Stone Ridge, N.Y., and the
author of several best-selling books on the subject. Riso, a former Jesuit,
believes the Enneagram can enable people to break free of their illusions
about themselves and the world, as well as become slightly less anxious and
suspicious human beings.
What does the Enneagram tell us about ourselves?
Human beings are on automatic pilot much of the time, and as a result we do
not see ourselves. We often don't see the aspects of our personalities that
are self-destructive, that threaten our relationships, our happiness and even
the welfare of the world. The Enneagram, as I've defined it, is a guide to
self-observation. It is a way to map the spectrum of personality and
illuminate those dark areas.
What are some of the things that might be revealed?
I'm a Type 4, so I'll tell you about that type. The self-image of the four,
especially at the lower levels of their development, is that "I'm a victim.
Everybody is taking advantage of me. I feel like an open wound." But what is
not easily seen in most fours is how aggressive and condescending and really
nasty they can be to other people. Their self-image of being the vulnerable
victim covers that over.
One of your contributions to the study of the Enneagram is the idea that
different personality types move through levels of development, that there is
a low and a high functioning version of each personality type. How does that
As I was studying the Enneagram personality types in the '70s, I realized that
there were nine distinct levels within each type—nine levels of being. You
could spend your whole life on one of these levels. Or you could move from one
level to another, as most people do, depending on various circumstances and
the stresses operating on them from moment to moment. The idea of the levels
explains how two people of the same personality type can operate very
differently—and seem to others to be different character types. For example,
Saddam Hussein and Martin Luther King are both eights on the Enneagram. But
they are obviously very different. That's because they are operating at
different levels of development within the framework of the eight personality
How do you move from one level to another?
Well, the easy answer to that is you have to have awareness and be willing and
able to go against the habits of your personality type. The levels are a
measure of our fixation—and the measure of how asleep we are to ourselves
and to reality. A person who is low in the levels is so asleep to themselves,
so alienated from the truth of who they are, that they cannot see themselves.
They need the help of some external force—Enneagram knowledge alone is not
enough. They need therapy or a spiritual teacher, a guide to greater awareness
and objectivity of some kind. You need somebody to act as an external mirror
and guide to a new understanding of reality.
How can the Enneagram be used as a spiritual tool?
To me, reality is spiritual. If God is real, God is by definition the most
real thing there is. He is the "really real," and spirituality refers to an
awareness and experience of that level of reality.
The world of maya, the world of illusion, in which we live, is not "the really
real." We think we are awake and that we're dealing with reality, but we are
not. Instead, we are dealing with mental constructs: our projections, our
reactivity, our fears—all kinds of things in our mental world.
And the Enneagram helps us wake up?
Sometimes we wake up spontaneously. Or we have an emergency or a sudden
"shock" of some kind that helps us to awaken, at least momentarily. And then
you have the opportunity to either change your ways or to go back to sleep
Unfortunately, awareness usually fades pretty quickly. The Enneagram teaches
us about the many ways in which we shut down our capacity to see reality
directly and go to sleep to ourselves. In that way, it provides a spiritual
path for us to follow, a way to wake up in the world.
The Enneagram has become popular in recent years with churches and other
religious groups. Yet some religious institutions, like the Catholic Church,
have been critical of this trend. What are their concerns?
Where religious people get scared about the Enneagram is that it's not
dogmatic. It's not a religion. It is an invitation to spirituality, to learn
about spirituality for yourself and to investigate your own experience of the
divine in your life. That kind of message can be threatening to some
mind-sets. In my opinion, the big problem with religion these days is that
people are not taught how to have spiritual experiences. If they did, then
they might not need organized religion anymore—at least, that is the
How has the study of the Enneagram affected your spiritual life? At one time
you were a Jesuit seminarian, right?
Yes, I was studying to be a priest, but then I left before ordination.
Earlier in my life I would have said I was a Christian, and probably kind of
smug about it, too. I'm not now. As Gurdjieff said, I think I am still trying
to become a Christian. I realize how far I am from being someone who always,
in every circumstance, really manifests and lives the teachings of Christ.
You also explore other spiritual traditions. Which ones have influenced you
Buddhism, absolutely. Sufism has also been important to me. I would say that
my spirituality is fairly nondenominational. I think the seeking comes from a
desire for the truth in whatever form it appears, especially in my own
personal experience. I've never been much of a joiner, and I've never been one
to read tons of books to find answers.
How do you use the Enneagram in your spiritual practice, if you do?
One of the primary spiritual practices is observing yourself at all times and
in every circumstance, particularly when you are in the presence of people.
This is more than simply a psychological practice, because one is bringing
awareness and acceptance into one's life and the lives of others by being a
manifestation of compassion. I do that as much as I possibly can, every day.
What I know about the Enneagram has made that process of self-observation much
more efficient, much more clarifying. I also sit (or meditate) daily and have
several other practices which are private but which have helped me a lot.
Some researchers regard the Enneagram as pseudoscience. How do you respond to
As of a few years ago, there wasn't much hard science behind the Enneagram.
But that's changing. We've done the first round of research in a laboratory
setting, which I think is very strong, and there is going to be even more. The
second round of research will completely answer that objection, I think. The
research is being done in an independent and nonbiased way by a highly
regarded group of statisticians and psychometricians in the U.K. who are well
on their way to proving that the nine types of the Enneagram do exist. But,
despite this, there will always be critics and skeptics who will not believe
anything. So I'm not taking time trying to convert people. Ultimately, people
either see the fundamental truth and utility of the Enneagram in their own
lives and experience, or they do not.
One idea that seems hard to swallow is that there are only nine different
types of people in the world. How can that be true?
Do you really think that nature would allow that every individual would be
completely and totally unique in every dimension? That would mean there would
be no common language. There would be no way of communicating with anyone.
There are huge domains of commonality that allow us to survive. And the
personality types are, you could say, fundamental domains of commonality on a
psychological level. Besides, saying that there are only nine personality
types in the Enneagram is a simplification. Within each of the nine types
there are different instincts, or subtypes. If you account for all of those,
you get almost 500 different variations of the human personality.
Still, that doesn't seem like that many types of humans when you consider 6
billion people live on the planet.
If you look at the color spectrum, there are just seven colors in the rainbow
but there are thousands of hues and saturations of different colors. In other
words, 6 billion people on the planet can be reduced to being one of two sexes
(as a major distinction), and they can be reduced to being one of nine
personality types (as another major distinction). This is not all they are, of
course, but distinguishing and understanding people has got to start somewhere
—with some kind of mental categories.
Are some types on the Enneagram believed to be better than other types?
No. One of the important features of the Enneagram is that it's totally
"democratic." You could say that some types are better at a certain tasks or
learning styles but not that one type is better or worse than any other type.
However, you could say that some types fit better into certain cultures than
others, because culture itself is an expression of the personality types.
Cultures don't just come out of nowhere. They come out of a historical
development of the sort of predominant personality styles,
Can you give me an example?
The Revolutionary War in America happened during the Enlightenment. The
mind-set of that era was very puritanical, on the one hand, but also promoted
the idea that people were reasonable—this was the Age of Reason, after all —
and that problems could be solved through the exercise of reason.
This is all consistent with personality Type 1 on the Enneagram. So it was a
good time to be a one: If you were a one, you fit right into that culture.
What are the characteristics of the Type 1?
I call the one the reformer, the type of person who is principled, purposeful,
self-controlled and a perfectionist. This is the type of person who is always
identified with, you could say, the rational mind. He feels that he must
really control himself and make himself and the world better. He also believes
he must resist any impulses and personal feelings in order to rise higher.
Do certain personality types get along well together, while others might tend
Every type is potentially compatible with any other type. So we can't say that
if you are a six you should avoid twos or that you will like ones. What we say
is that any two people who are healthy will get along—and any two people who
are in the average range will have conflicts—and if either or both are in
the unhealthy range, the relationship will not be easy. In fact, it will be
What we teach is that if you put any two types together, there will be typical
issues that will surface that will be challenges to the relationship. That
doesn't mean the relationship is impossible. It just means that there would be
typical things that you should be on the lookout for. That's something that's
really worth knowing.
Used with Permission
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