That's a big promise, right? Stick with me to learn how to tap into this seemingly forgotten knowledge about human nature.
The Enneagram comes from the greek words, ennea (meaning nine) and gram (meaning something written or drawn). Thus it refers to the nine pointed symbol that has been used as a map of natural processes and human nature for thousands of years. The symbol as we currently know it illustrates nine different aspects of human consciousness and personality, each representing different automatic habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. The way we use the Enneagram today blends modern psychology with the wisdom of ancient cultures to reveal why we are the way we are and how to make lasting change.
Let's dive into the symbol and what each of the pieces represents. My hope is that it will help you see some of the internal logic of the system and appreciate the depth of wisdom contained in that funny symbol.
What you might not know is that the Enneagram is as much a model of natural processes as it is a psychological typing tool. The three pieces of the symbol represent specific laws that govern our existence. Put together, they offer powerful knowledge of ourselves and a path of transformation that is unique to our wiring.
“The symbolic power of the Enneagram comes out of [an] ancient tradition that views geometry as sacred - as revealing an archetypal patterning or order that structures the growth process of living things, whether it be the petals of a flower, the unfurling of a fern, the dimensions of a seashell, or the development of the human psyche.”
- Beatrice Chestnut, The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge
Let’s examine each of the parts individually.
The circle is the foundation of the Enneagram symbol. It represents infinity, wholeness, and the natural order of the universal. For millennia, religious have seen it as the oneness and eternal nature of God. The circle is the underlying unity in all things, even when that unity isn’t visible.
According to Beatrice Chestnut in The Complete Enneagram, “The Law of One as represented by the circle was a metaphor for the cosmic creation process beginning from a dimensionless center and expanding out equally in all directions.”
The circle also represents enclosure. It creates a boundary around the personality described in its interior, and opens up the possibility to move beyond the conditioned self outside of the circle. In other words, if the interior of the Enneagram symbol describes nine ways of being in the world, then the circle is there to remind us that we can choose to step outside of those into something bigger and more expansive and mysterious.
The inner triangle represents the three forces that must enter into all acts of creation - the active, passive, and reconciling (or neutral). Trinitarian ideas show up is most world religions, but you can think about this more simply through the idea of a sailboat. The boat is the passive force, the wind is the active force, and the sail is the reconciling force.
According to Chestnut, “When we see that something is stuck in the same place and not coming to fruition or completion, this is often because a third force is lacking. Until we transcend our ego-based viewpoint, however, we usually don’t have the perceptual ability to see the third force at work.”
You can see the Law of Three illustrated in the three types that make up the inner triangle in the Enneagram symbol, representing the three aspects to bring something into being - an advancing force, a resisting force, and a reconciling force that mediates between and brings the two together.
Type 3s are actively doing. Type 6s resist with doubts and questions and tests. And type 9s work toward consensus and harmony.
While the Law of Three describes how things come into being, the Law of Seven describes how things happen in a process or steps. It reveals a cyclical process of transformation, and reflects the idea that the only constant in the universe is change.
Movement along the arrows of the Enneagram highlight specific steps in a cycle of transformation.
Personality can be seen as a form of getting stuck or fixated at one point on a natural path of change. Thus, according to this law, using our defense mechanisms to protect ourselves will only interfere with the natural flow or rhythm of life.
The hexad shape illustrates that nothing in life happens in a straight line, but there are always highs and lows along the way. It symbolize the dynamic and always changing nature of being. Nothing is static, everything evolves or devolves, but in ways that are predictable by their nature or by the forces at play.
You can see examples of the Law of Seven in the Western musical octaves, the Periodic Table, and the days of the week.
Nine is the final number in the base-10 mathematical system and it symbolizes the highest achievement in a specific endeavor. The ancient Greeks also called nine “the horizon” as it represented for them that which encloses or binds the essential elements into a whole. You can see the significance of nine in several classic texts, including the Kabbalah Tree of Life, the nine lands visited and the archetypal journey of the Odyssey, and in the sins or unconscious patterns that prevented people from reaching heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
When you put the symbols together, you get the Enneagram. Chestnut states that “together these symbols communicate the idea that we live in a universe that is perpetually developing and that there is an essential unity behind the multiplicity of forms evolving in the natural world.”
How beautiful is that? When I first encountered the Enneagram, I felt like it articulated a deep truth that resonated with my intuitive knowing. Not unlike how I felt when I read Plato's allegory of the cave. Once I understood its historical roots, it made sense to me. It helped me see how all of this wisdom is related and likely has common roots.
It does seem like everything changes and the more we resist that truth, the harder life can be. It also seems like we behave according to predictable patterns - once you know to look for them. I can see in my life that I'm prone to acting out of an unconscious state, and that when I wake up to my patterns, I have the opportunity to make different choices and find perspective beyond my own cultural or family conditioning.
“Every part of the Enneagram reveals psychological and spiritual truths about who we are, deepening our understanding of our predicament while simultaneously suggesting solutions to that predicament.”
- Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types
Hopefully you can see how the wisdom of the Enneagram taps into universal laws and archetypes. This ancient symbol can provide clues to understanding ourselves and the world around us. I'm looking forward to sharing more of the tools it offers to unlock your potential.
If you would like to know more about the symbolism of the Enneagram, read Chapter 2 in Beatrice Chestnut’s book The Complete Enneagram or Chapter 2 in The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson. If you would like to know more about the history and origins of the Enneagram teachings, please refer to Chapter 2 of Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. I heavily relied on these texts when developing this content. They are great resources if you want to dig deeper.
Feel free to contact me if you want to know more. I'd be happy to do an informational call or setup a session with you.