A group of half a dozen people sit in a circle on big Ikea chairs, drinking coffee from hip, branded mugs while a group leader reads from a workbook. Everyone is keenly interested, jotting down copious notes on worksheet paper. One guy even brought a computer.
We’re at a church in Nashville and from a distance, this looks like some sort of self-help group, which is apt enough. This is an Enneagram class, one of several the church offers, and the people are here to help themselves in the most foundational way someone can—by understanding themselves.
“My husband and I come from a probably more traditional, Gospel-centered perspective and that’s why we’ve spent the last 15 years bringing what we know of the Enneagram into that sector,” says Beth McCord.
McCord runs Your Enneagram Coach, a website designed to walk people through the basics of the Enneagram and get some coaching on their own type in particular. She says that the Enneagram is spiritually “neutral,” but has significant appeal for Christians—if they can get over their initial fear of it.
“They’ll say well that’s not in the Bible,” she says. “Well, the Myers-Briggs isn’t in the Bible. You know, there’s lots of things that aren’t in the Bible but are still helpful.
“If they take the time to hear how we use it from a biblical perspective they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this makes sense. There’s no problem there,’” she continues. “It’s when they have misconceptions that they get all freaked out.”
McCord used to deal with this sort of skepticism a lot more than she does now. Over the past few years, she says, the Enneagram’s reputation for changing lives has preceded it.
The Enneagram isn’t a new phenomenon. Depending on who you ask, its earliest iterations were either in the 1950s or the 1910s, though there are some experts who say versions of it can be found in the writings of fourth-century Christian mystics (and there are some who trace its roots all the way back to ancient Egypt). But it is a phenomenon, and it has gained a fresh popularity in recent years, particularly among Christian circles, thanks to hearty endorsements from people like Richard Rohr and Elizabeth Wagele, though their interpretation is occasionally chuffed at by students of other Enneagram traditions.
And if the question of the Enneagram’s origins is a bit murky, then the question of what it actually has become today is nearly as inscrutable. Ask 100 devotees of the Enneagram what it is and you’ll get 100 answers, most of them bespotted with vague language and words that don’t seem to mean much of anything, and several definitions contradicting one another so violently you wonder if these people are talking about the same thing. It’s a personality test. A path to wholeness. A way to process your trauma.
Perhaps that is a strength of the Enneagram. The fact that it can be so many different things to so many different people. But if the Enneagram’s multitudinous uses have helped it become all things to all people, it’s also in danger of trivializing it and diminishing its full potential. Ironically enough, a system designed to help people understand themselves is in danger of being misunderstood.
Hannah Paasch is a Phoenix, Arizona, resident who says she was introduced to the Enneagram by “an otherwise extremely boring ex-friend” and it promptly changed her life. Or more accurately, changed how she saw her life.
“I was instantly drawn to it because it seemed to illuminate for me patterns of behavior that I had seen both in myself and in others,” she says. She read Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson’s Personality Types-one of the key contemporary academic treatises on the Enneagram which devotees refer to in hushed, respectful tones—and got hooked.
“I spent the next 10 years really reading everything that I could about it,” Paasch says. Eventually, she felt comfortable enough with the material to start creating some of her own. She’s even working on a book, out next year, to help introduce the Enneagram to a new generation: Millenneagram.
“It went from being kind of a silly obsession of mine to something where I had done such a large amount of research on interpersonal relationships for so long that I started doing all of the Millenneagram stuff and making up questionnaires to find more about how people tick and understanding the different numbers and whatnot,” she says. “So I’ve gone in deep.”
She says she’s excited to see the Enneagram experiencing a boom season, but she’s nervous too.
“I am frustrated by the amount of people who just want to throw their Myers-Briggs [type] and their astrology sign and their Enneagram number on their Twitter bio and go,” she says. “Some people, I can tell, are really genuinely engaging with the material and some people are like, ‘I’m a 2 and a 4 with a side of 8!’ and I’m like, no, none of that makes any sense at all.”
If you’re at all familiar with the Enneagram, it’s probably via numbers like this, or “Enneatypes,” as the Enneagrammers themselves will call them. “Enneagrons,” if you want to get technical. There are nine numbers, each associated with a different “archetype” of person. In many contemporary Western traditions, largely thanks to the work of Riso and Hudson, these types are each given a name. “Sevens,” for example, might be known as “enthusiasts,” or “3s” as “achievers.”
These nine numbers can each have several different “wings”—elements of one of the other numbers, usually immediately adjacent, that are incorporated into their own type—shifting some of its specifics. So, for example, if you’re a 6 (a “loyalist”), you’ll probably either have a 5 or a 7 wing. In these understandings, all sixes have baseline “loyalist” characteristics, but your wing will change how those traits play out in your life, conflicts and relationships.
If you’re confused by the numbers, you’re not alone. But know this: If someone explains the Enneagram to you in a way that seems simple, you can be sure that they are not explaining it correctly.
That’s the caution offered by Christopher L. Heuertz, author of The Sacred Enneagram and 20-year student of its ways. He strongly cautions against what he perceives as a gross oversimplification of the Enneagram which renders it little more than a narcissistic party trick, about as substantive as a BuzzFeed quiz.
“With the Enneagram of Personality, when someone first comes across it, they hear it and they love it, because they’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s true, I’m totally like that,’” Heuertz says. “And it’s funny and endearing, and you can see this in your partner or your friends or your community. But the real challenge right now is to resist the reductionism of reducing characters to quirks, to labels and to personality.”
By way of explanation, Heuertz talks about the mystic origins of what we now know as the Enneagram, which began with Oscar Ichazo, a Bolivian teacher who received the wisdom of the Enneagram in a dream.
“He went into sort of a seven-day divine coma,” Heuertz explains. “It was essentially a hallucinogenic prayer. And he said that during these seven days, this angel came to him and exposed to Ichazo 108 different, what he then called En- neagons. So this angel comes and gives him 108 Enneagons, or now what we call Enneagrams. And really just one of those 108 is the Enneagram of personality.”
Whether or not you track with the idea of Ichazo having a divine revelation that led to the Enneagram of Personality, the verifiable parts of this story actually do check out. Ichazo would go on to found the Arica Institute, where the Enneagram was taught as one part of a much more holistic system called the Protoanalysis, which posited that it was a comprehensive understanding of the fully enlightened human being.
Much to Ichazo’s consternation, one of his students, a Chilean-born psychiatrist named Claudio Naranjo, applied the mystical qualities of the Enneagram to a psychological model more palatable for Western audiences. The Enneagram of Personality, as we understand it today, was born.
This is complex, but it’s important to understanding why the modern idle chit chat over your Enneagram personality type is a bit simplistic.
“It is helpful,” Heuertz admits. “It is clear that the Enneagram does sort of expose repeating patterns in human character structure archetypes that are sort of observable. But I think if you don’t really understand the essence of what’s behind it, you’re just fueling your own narcissism and you’re weaponizing something. You might be super interesting at a dinner party, but that’s not the point, you know?”
Well, then. What is the point?
“I usually try to say that [the Enneagram] is a sacred map of our soul,” Heuertz explains. “And, you know this, the map isn’t the journey. The map informs the journey. So if the Enneagram is a sacred map of our soul, if it’s a compassionate sketch of possibilities of who we can become, then what it actually helps us do is excavate our essence.”
Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs or Gallup’s Strengthfinders focus on what you are. The Enneagram of Personality does this too, but it’s also interested in what you could become—both for better and worse. Like any map, you not only see where you are, but you see where specific turns will take you—and you can be better prepared to determine your destination and know what to do if you get lost along the way.
Paasch puts it another way: “I would say that the Enneagram is a tool for illuminating the ego-fixations and mind ruts that one has created in order to integrate as a human being.”
“People have grown up with a lot of unsolved trauma, a lot of coping mechanisms, a lot of unhealthy cultural and social expectations,” she continues. “And all of that has been piled on from a very young age, so being able to speak and act out of our truest self is often something that we aren’t conscious of not accessing.
“I think being able to understand where you are and what your particular mind ruts are—the kind of patterns of behavior, harmful or benign, that make their way through your life—you can consciously ask, Is this something I want to keep doing? And if not, How can I rewire my thoughts and behavior to accomplish the goals that I want?”
This, according to Paasch, is part of the appeal to people raised in a Christian context, where destructive theology is all too often unthinkingly communicated and integrated, leading to unexplored dysfunction.
“I think for me, and as a progressive person of faith, words like sanctification were thrown around so much as a kid and I didn’t know what that meant,” Paasch says. “Obviously, there are fruits of the Spirit, but what did that mean for me? How do I acquire those things? How do I grow in compassion and kindness when I just am the way I am?
“The concept of sanctification always felt very nebulous to me, and I think the Enneagram affords spiritual folks a way to grow in the ways that they want to, but maybe more practically. I mean, without just actually ‘praying and hoping’ and crossing your fingers that you become a better person.”
McCord agrees. “[The Enneagram] is the tool to help bring transformation. The Gospel is the transformation. And so by helping us understand, for your type specifically, what are your hang-ups and pitfalls, what happens as a human is we go, ‘I’m so terrible I’m so horrible, look at me.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s why Christ came.’ He came and took care of all of your sins, took them away and then He imputed onto you His righteousness which allows us to freely see our weaknesses without self-condemnation, shame and fear. And to then experience the true love, forgiveness, joy and satisfaction that we have in Christ, that is really where the transformation comes in to say, I’m no longer this. I’m beloved, for- given, cherished and free. That’s the work I do with my coaching, to get people to move from this to what they really are over here.”
Modern American Christians are famously wary of any wisdom that comes from beyond their own tradition, and nobody would have been surprised if they turned their collective nose up at some of the Enneagram’s spirituality (the symbol of the Enneagram of Personality—a circle with lines connecting at nine various points—is the sort of thing that would give Pat Robertson hives).
But the work of Rohr—a Franciscan friar whose books have achieved some ecunmenical popularity—has been to marry the Enneagram to a more traditional Christian framework. In 1995, he published The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective with Andreas Ebert, which beyond just harmonizing Enneagram wisdom with Scripture, also traced the Enneagram back much further than the 20th century, all the way to the Desert Fathers: Christian mystics like Evagrius Ponticus, who identified “eight deadly thoughts” and one overarching thought over them all, that do seem to loosely correspond with the modern Enneagram’s nine points and—more saliently—to the idea of the Enneagram being less of a personality test and more of a means of discovering your own identity and what that means for your spiritual journey.
“One of my teachers was Russ Hudson,” says Heuertz. “And Russ would sometimes say things like this: The Enneagram is less about nine types of people and more about nine paths to God. And I think that if we saw it that way we would really approach it differently.”
Almost everyone interviewed for this article cautioned against free, simple tests that promise to help you “Find Your Enneagram Type” (Heuertz said they tend to be loaded with racial bias and cultural assumptions, and focus on personality rather than essence.). As one person— who wished to remain anonymous—told me, “Finding your Enneagram type is like trying mushrooms for the first time. You don’t want to do it alone.”
Instead, try finding a certified Enneagram coach in your area who can meet with you to walk you through the Enneagram, get to know you a little and give you some expert opinions on what your type might be.
Educate yourself as much as possible by reading whole books—not just the chapter you think applies to your specific type. Beware flashy, bite-sized versions of the Enneagram, which can be like Bible verses—encouraging on their own, but easily misconstrued when devoid of context. And remember that the Enneagram has been around for a long time and has a lot of streams. Take care about which one you’re swimming in.
That’s a lesson Oscar Ichazo, the one most commonly credited as the principle father of the modern Enneagram of Personality learned the hard way in 1992, when he tried to sue for copyright infringement of another book about the Enneagram, saying the author was using his own ideas.
The U.S. Court of Appeals denied Ichazo his copyright injunction for a legally interesting reason: The Enneagram of Personality wasn’t an invention he’d created, but a discovery he had merely observed. He could no more copyright the stars.
In the eyes of the U.S. legal system—as well as those of a growing generation of devotees—the Enneagram is more than a personality test, a life tool or even an area of study.
It is, above all, a fact of life.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.