“Spiritual development is a long and arduous journey, an adventure through strange lands full of surprises, joy, beauty, difficulties, and even dangers.” –Roberto Assagioli
Across traditions both mystical and philosophical, we’re told that any amount of existential clarity begins with a journey into the depths of the self. Since before the Ancient Greeks first probed their citizens to “know thyself,” people have been on a perpetual quest to understand the human condition. Most wisdom traditions teach that self-knowledge begins with an investigation of ourselves in relationship to others. For example, the Ten Commandments, which are seen as paramount guidelines for Judeo-Christian believers, explore man’s relationship to God and to other humans as a precursor for all else. The essential goal of this type of self-realization is a non-selfish one; the aim is universal transformation toward peace, enlightenment, even Nirvana.
Long before modern psychological science offered a window into human personality and behavior, the Enneagram emerged as a tool for understanding the self. This ancient system maps human personality types and the ways they interact with one another. It has gone through several transformations throughout its history, synthesizing and re-synthesizing traditions along the way. Because of this evolution, the Enneagram’s exact origin is not entirely clear. We do know, however, that a Greek-Armenian philosopher and world traveler named George Ivanovich Gurdijeff, brought the symbol and its dynamic parts, to the modern Western world in the late 19th century. In its modern formulation, the Enneagram fuses psychology with ideas from various religious and spiritual traditions.
The word Enneagram stems from the Greek words “ennea,” meaning “nine,” and “grammos,” meaning “figure,” and it is represented by a nine-pointed shape, which consists of a circle, a triangle, and a hexad. The elements of the complete figure invoke the infinite mandala and unity of existence (the circle); the power of the trinity, common in almost all religious traditions (the triangle); and the dynamic perpetuity of life’s cyclical change (the hexad). The power of the symbol itself, which dates back to Babylon around 2500 B.C., lies in its suggestion that all of the parts are contained within the whole, thereby reminding the individual of her own infinite potential to scale the spectrum of humanity.
Functionally, the shape organizes nine personality types, which are further grouped into three main centers, each consisting of three types: the body center, the heart center, and the mind center. These centers point toward the predominant mode from which a person operates, and therefore, the epicenter for potential imbalances for the ego self—the self we project or imagine ourselves to be. These three centers, also known as triads, are sometimes broken down as the instinctive, the feeling, and the thinking. These centers are thought to constitute the three basic components of the human psyche and operate from different areas of the brain: the root brain, or instinctual brain; the limbic system, or emotional brain; and the cerebral cortex, or the thinking part of the brain.
In the preeminent text, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, authors Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson explain that the heart of this system is “the universal insight that human beings are spiritual presences incarnated in the material world and yet mysteriously embodying the same life and Spirit as the Creator.” The second core truth that the Enneagram conveys “is that we are much more than our personality. Our personalities are no more than the familiar, conditioned parts of a much wider range of potentials that we all process.” This understanding that we are all in some way meticulously bound by a foundational life force, regardless of doctrinal differences and personal tendencies, can be uplifting for the individual and uniting for the broader human community.
One of the defining features of understanding the Enneagram—in contradistinction to astrological signs, for example, which preordain our behaviors, lies in the methodology by which it classifies the human. The basic concept is that the nine types all have essential qualities that are basically good and at our most creative levels of existence, we can traverse the Enneagram with ease and levity. As we devolve into more controlling levels of consciousness, we limit our ability to act from a place of balance, and our essence qualities can skew toward the neurotic or psychotic. And so, like Jung’s system of psychological types or the Ayurvedic doshas, these categories are helpful tools for us to understand our tendencies, our fears, and our desires so that we may strive for balance.
The quest toward understanding the essence of who we are might begin with a categorization based on patterns and tendencies, but Riso and Hudson suggest that classifying ourselves frees us from some predestined life, and in fact allows us to go forward into the world with a strong sense of self, knowing that we have the infinite potential for flexibility and change.
“Liberated souls exemplify the essence qualities of their type and they also have facility and look at the world through a new lens,” says Hari Prasad, a professional coach and consultant based in New York City, who uses the Enneagram in his coaching. Below, Prasad and his business partner Rasanath Das, a former Bhakti monk and investment banker, share the central characteristics of each of the nine personality types. When investigating the psyche of each type outlined here it’s key to consider, “What are the basic fears and desires that cause me to act, feel, or think in one way or another, and how does that affect my essence qualities?” (You can also take this personality test from the Enneagram Institute to determine your exact type.) As an individual begins to classify herself and her community and understand the complex interrelationship between these types, she is able to know where, exactly in her patterns and tendencies, her personal work is.
THE BODY CENTER
The first center, the body center, is what Das calls, the “grossest and most accessible” of the three centers. “For body-centered people,” he says, “Sensation is the major characteristic of presence, as opposed to action.” The three body-centered Enneagram types are The Challenger (8), The Peace-Maker (9), and The Moralist (1).
The Challenger (8)
Eights are indomitable beings, known for their fortitude, vivacity, and majesty. “When an eight walks into a room,” Prasad said, “everyone knows.” Eights invoke reverence. Their basic desire, which emanates out of their aliveness and strength, is to make things happen—with force, acuity, and efficiency. “Eights love to be the originator of something,” Prasad said; they tend to be leaders, and though they are types who go out of their way to save lives, they are willing to make “noble decisions that might not be popular.” The prime source of weakness, then, is a fear of withering away. As primal, body-centered folks, eights will “dismiss anything that brings them in touch with their human weakness,” said Prasad. At their most controlling levels, they can be aggressive, closed off, and dismissive. The deep personal work of the eight is to accept and integrate their vulnerability, without pushing it away or meeting it with strength. When the eight can relax into her own softness and areas of weakness, she will be the strongest version of herself.
The Peace-Maker (9)
The essential qualities of a nine are wholeness, unity, and flow. “They embrace the world with inclusivity,” Das said. Nines prefer to move down unobstructed paths, where they feel comfortable and calm. The basic desire of a nine is for everyone and everything within their sight—both internally and externally—to be complete and harmonious. Though they are great ambassadors and mediators, their deepest fear is to lose the world of internal peace. On a visceral level, says Das, “the world feels broken and overwhelming.” At their freest, nines are highly communicative, with a profound capacity to listen; at their more controlling levels of existence they can become passive aggressive, apathetic, and non-committal. Though nines are emotional beings, they steer clear of negativity and will mute their emotions if they stir up too much discomfort. For a nine, precisely because they hate being in the spotlight, their deepest work is to step into their own power, and come to terms with their own unique importance.
The Moralist (1)
Gandhi was a one. Ones have an intuitive sense of right from wrong, are innately wholesome, and reach towards an embodiment of the sacred. They care about goodness and purity, and therefore their greatest fear is of corruption—that somehow they’ll lose their innate goodness, and internal moral compass. Ones have incredibly high standards for themselves, and as Prasad points out, “they have a hard time accepting validation.” They want their actions to match their words, and therefore hypocrisy actually feels viscerally painful, says Das. Ones are often lawyers or religious leaders, as they love to debate and they often teach by example. They’re apt to rebel against improper conduct, and they often feel that the battle or the process towards an end is equally as important as the goal itself. Though they’re deep seekers, their quest can feel lonely because they’re so tied to a pure and sacred life. Because they can come across as harsh, they can—at their more controlling levels of existence—tend to alienate friends or loved ones, because they themselves simply cannot accept their own impurity. Prasad and Das offer a powerful exercise for ones: “Catch yourself when you’re angry with others for falling short.” If a one can learn to regulate himself, precisely in service to the higher good they so worship, they’ll thrive as the powerful leaders and teachers they were meant to be.
Related: A Core-Strengthening Yoga Sequence
THE HEART CENTER
Because the heart centered personalities are the most inherently sensitive and emotive of the nine types, they are constantly engaged in a struggle of seeing themselves clearly as they are versus seeing themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world. As Riso and Hudson put it, they are concerned with self-image: “the attachment to the false or assumed self or personality.” Underneath all of their warmth and sociability, their work revolves around shame, or the question posed by Das and Prasad: “How available am I to the world?”
The Helper (2)
Twos are natural mothers. They are nurturing, tender, sweet, warm, and full of empathy. They effortlessly endear others, and generally have a pleasing demeanor. In spite of what may seem like selfless and unforced ability to dole out love and warmth, the basic fear of all twos is being loveless, or devoid of intimacy: what Prasad called being “left cold in a world without affection.” Twos need to feel wanted, needed, and loved, for their prime sense of identity rests on their ability to give to others in their time of need. Twos love to love, and they are great at it. Still, their effusive, bubbly, nurturing spirit can sometimes be received as disingenuous or obsequious. For twos, the deep work rests in their ability to accept their own neediness; they’ll be the best helpers if they can ask for it themselves. The two, instead of constantly giving outwardly, should, as Das and Prasad suggest, carve out time to connect purely with themselves: Resist the urge to connect with others, and tap in to your own needs.
The Achiever (3)
Most of us can instantly spot a three: they are hyper efficient, confident, slick, radiant, and powerful. They’re also the types who seem to be operating in life as if it were a “constant interview,” says Das. The essential qualities of a three are glory, value, and hope: They provide the shining example of all that is possible, while simultaneously grasping their own and others’ worth. Threes love being around other amazing people; they are people of vision, who feel that “patience is not a virtue,” Das noted. Threes suffer from shame, and at the more controlling levels of existence can become self-ingratiating, opportunistic, manipulative, and narcissistic. Though threes are fantastic at putting themselves out into the world, they struggle with coming to terms with their full self. Instead of constantly trying to impress others, the three can work towards equilibrium through a practice of resistance: Resist the temptation to speak about the self, and instead ask about others with genuine interest and patience.
The Individualist (4)
More than any other type, fours want to be close to God; too, they want to be close to themselves. In spite of this, Prasad says, “most fours are not actually God-conscious…but they are very in touch with the yearning for something.” Fours are self-inquiring, deeply emotive seekers who long to know themselves and others in an intimate and expansive way. They’re often writers, artists, and trendsetters; they work best outside of societal norms. Fours are beings of yearning existence. Their essence qualities are originality, depth, and beauty. They’re poised to assimilate experiences and communicate them in a way that can benefit others, says Prasad. But their basic fear, which for the four can be completely debilitating, is a fear of losing oneself. They want to always be startlingly unique, in a way that is both authentic and profound; their deepest fear is insignificance. So the four, in order to thrive as the sensual, expressive beings that they are, must first come to terms with their own well-being, and learn to regulate the self by seeking to understand others, rather than focus on the ways others don’t understand them.
THE HEAD CENTER
While the thinking and feeling centered types struggled, in a certain sense, with coming to terms with the self vis-à-vis the external world, the head-centered types must come to terms with their own internal, and often imagined anxieties. “Underneath their ego defenses,” says Riso and Hudson, “they carry a great deal of fear.” In order to attain the clarity they seek, therefore, they must in fact do the opposite and perpetually return to their interpersonal and intersubjective experiences.
The Investigator (5)
Sherlock Holmes was a five. Though hyper-aware, there’s a simultaneous sense of alienation and difference. More than anything, fives want to be cognitively apt and lucid; ignorance is scary. Their essential qualities are clarity, illumination, and objectivity: At their core, they want to have a pristine vision of the world, and be able to provide that knowledge to the world around them. Because of their desire for objectivity, however, they can come across as unemotional, which often bars their ability to interact with others. Fives are complicated types, for, as Das points out, “at the controlling level their quirks can be very grotesque.” They might for example, indulge in daydreams about the supernatural world, or even at the more destructive levels, experiment with pain. They communicate unemotionally and technically, and they feel lonely, constantly wondering why the people around them don’t seem to understand. For the five, all the work lies in accepting their heart. As Das and Prasad suggest, a five should constantly check in with their feelings, and then share those feelings with someone they trust.
The Loyalist (6)
Sixes often do well in the military. They can follow directions, and feel comfortable with hierarchical if not entirely bureaucratic logistical frameworks. At the same time, their relationship to authority is complex: They want to follow, says Prasad, but they also want deeply to be independent. Their essential qualities are alertness, courage, and devotion. They have “unflinching dedication, and a readiness to accept what they’re given with quiet acquiescence,” says Das. Their basic fear, then, is to lose orientation in this world, or to experience betrayal. Sixes are not leaders, and they fear not having someone to follow. These non-touchy-feely types do in fact hold the world’s organizations up—they feel the need to support everything, but they also know how to ask for support. Though they are great workers, they’re less adept at expressing their emotional desires. They can be highly anxious, and even their warmth can be seen as non-confrontational rather than actively interested, which in most cases, they are. Sixes have a hard time trusting their own knowing, and their most useful work involves the integration of others’ perspectives into their own action.
The Enthusiast (7)
Generally speaking, sevens are the life of the party; some of them, however, are content with the ‘party’ they have inside. Their joy, a prime element of their character, flows freely and abundantly out of their core. They have genuine appreciation for the gift of life, and their innate sense of freedom manifests an “endless landscape of possibility,” says Das. Their deepest fear, then, is of containment, entrapment, or pain. As a result, sevens, in spite of their constant quest for exhilarating experience, try to make themselves busy so they don’t have to experience pain. Because sevens don’t like to be tied down, they have a hard time in committed relationships, and they’re constantly worried about missing out on something more fun or exciting than where they already are. Though people can find them superficial, flighty, or ungrounded, their movement comes from a place of genuine interest for all things. “They have a profound appetite for knowledge, which at more controlling levels of consciousness can be seen as frivolous,” Das points out. Because of their need to feel unbounded, Das and Prasad recommend a practice that involves checking in with oneself every time a seven feels bored; stop and say: “This is not about me. This is something (or someone) I truly care about. And I will follow through.” Once the wildness can be addressed, the seven heralds bounty, pleasure, and true freedom.
The Enneagram, like all spiritual and psychological systems, has the potential to help us transform, grow, and improve our relationships with others. For example, if our boss is a six we may act more systematically, but if we see they’re an eight—we might be incentivized to find freedom within their dynamic structure. If we know our partner is a two, we’ll try to help them ask more, rather than fall into a mode of constant giving. We can use this system to not only dig into who we are and learn how we can channel our unique qualities best, but also in order to work better with others. Once there is understanding of how levels of consciousness affect actions, there is room to reach toward balance.
This article was made possible through the guidance and teachings of Rasanath Das and Hari Prasad of UPBUILDNYC, through their workshops on the Enneagram.
Lead Photo by Hailey Wist