Book club: Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram

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Sandra Maitri’s The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram was recommended to me by Jett Psaris, the teacher who lead the midlife crisis workshop I attended last year. I was asking her for some guidance on how to proceed with my “trying to do the same things, but in a different way” practice… which includes figuring out how to continue my career as a service writer/publisher, while also integrating my newfound understanding that I am completely clueless, and who am I to try think I know what’s best for anyone — least of all myself?

I used to be really sure I knew who I was, and then I realized it was all bullshit, and now I’m like “But wait, people still ask me for advice like I know wtf the I’m doing and how am I supposed to do that when I understand that I know nothing!?”

“Do you know your Enneagram type?” Jett asked me, and I was all, oh yeah sure. I’ve been vaguely familiar with the Enneagram as a personality typing system. It’s like Myers-Briggs, but different? When I took one of the online tests in my early 30s, I tested as a type 7 (the enthusiast). Then, earlier this year a friend asked me about it, and I tried testing again… and this time tested as a type 3 (the achiever).

Crap. Like so many things in my life, I find now in my 40s that I actually have no fucking clue who I am or what any of this means. I get that ultimately they’re all just archetypes, and we all have some of each quality within us, but still. I was confused. (AGAIN! Always?)

“Ok,” Jett said. “It’s not uncommon for those two types to get swapped. Tell me this: do you like planning things, or finishing things?”

“Finishing them,” I said. “I want my trophy at the end!”

“Do you dawdle, or are you fixated on efficiency?” Jett asked me.

“Efficiency is my everything,” I said. “I’ve built a whole business on efficiency!”

“Right,” she said. “So you’re a Type 3. You were just a 3 who picked enthusiasm and adventure as the ladder you wanted to climb for a while.”

Then she told me to read this book (the whole book, not just the section for my type), so that I could better understand not only my personality, but on a more meta level, the motivations behind the personality… the soul behind the self.

Ok, so let’s talk about the Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram

First, I think it’s worth recognizing that The Enneagram is not especially cool right now. It came to popularity in the US in the ’70s, and while astrology has gotten a breath of fresh air through the social justice lens of folks like Chani Nicholas, there’s no similarly hot new take on The Enneagram. It’s not hip, and when I mentioned reading this book to a couple people, I was met with a few eye-rolls and “Oh god, THAT stuff.”

So I get that: this is not new, and it’s not hip. But you know what? This book cracked some things WIDE open for me. Before, I saw personality types as a way to understand myself and my quirks. My motivation was basically knowing who I was, because I saw my personality as ME, so reading about my personality was basically just a gentle form of mental masturbation. (omg, I’m soooo this way! omg, I’m sooo that way! This is so me! I’m so great/so awful!)

Early on in this book, the author makes a great point about how sure: you can study your prison walls really carefully and understand the materials its made out of super thoroughly… but wouldn’t it just be nice to NOT be imprisoned?

Your personality is that prison cell, and this book wants to help you see outside it.

This book helped me understand that personality is just a construct — it’s not actually me. That said, through examining the shape of construct, I can understand the spiritual gaps and wounds behind it, and have a more direct awareness of who (or maybe more like WHAT) I actually am.

The idea is that if you understand the spiritual challenges that caused your personality/ego structures to defensively build up in the particular ways they did, you have valuable information about how to start dismantling those structures to better access your more authentic self — the you behind the you that you THINK is you.

I found this book to be filled with profound wisdom, hugely useful for both understanding my own damages and defenses and root issues, as well as those of the people around me. The author provides remarkable insights into why certain folks are just so fucking irritating in those certain ways! I recognized almost everyone I know in the archetypes of the Enneagram, and gained crazy insights and compassion into the pains and insecurities behind all my favorite/least favorite people’s maddening idiosyncrasies.

That said, I deeply appreciated the author’s cautions NOT to weaponize the book’s information — you could use these insights as a way to harshly attack or armchair analyze people. For me, though, I found that once I understood the spiritual reasons behind certain personality quirks, I was then able to access waaaaaay more compassion for the folks exhibiting those quirks. Things that used to be irritating or downright enraging about people in my life, now strike me as understandable and sad. Now that I better understand what can cause the personality issues we all have to deal with in each other, I have access to a deeper well of compassion for all the common, relatable ways we’re broken.

Of course, I gained the most compassion for my own dang broken self. This book saw into my biggest weaknesses, called out my greatest shortcomings, and illuminated issues that I was so blind to that at first I was like “Naw!” …and then upon further inquiry, I was all “Oh shit.” It made me feel like I better understood the hole that my ego structures built up around protecting, so that I can finally look at the gaping void and work on attending to it, instead of defending it.

But wait of course I have a few caveats

This is all to say, the book is tremendous, and gives SO MUCH food for thought. I am sure I will be rereading sections of it many times… that said, I do have some quibbles:

  1. The writing style is unnecessarily complex/esoteric at times. I realize that the author is trying to convey a huge amount of information, but there were certain parts of the book (especially the introduction!) that felt almost intentionally complex. The more spiritual reading I do, the more I have come to appreciate writers who do NOT try to hide their concepts behind big words or complex sentence structures. (…And I say that as a writer myself who loves big words!) It feels like the author really wants to make you work for your insights, which is fine I suppose… but it makes it hard to recommend the book to people who aren’t deeply into personal development or psychology. I’d love to recommend this to everyone, but I know the writing style will turn some peeps off.
  2. The book has repeated opaque references to something called The Diamond Method, which felt out of context and confusing and even vaguely culty. One minute we’re talking about nine personality types, and then all of a sudden we’re talking about pearls and yellow and what? If I wanted to read about The Diamond Method, I would have sought it out.
  3. This is not a book with practical how-tos and actionable to-dos. The summary of how to work on the spiritual issues behind each personality type basically boils down to “know your core wound, stay present with the discomfort of it instead of defending against it, and then keep practicing staying present until it stops hurting as much… then eventually you’ll feel liberated!” Cool story bro, but some folks might want more specifics.
  4. Ug, there was some freudianism, and even some hints of phrenology?

I would love to read an updated edition… the book is almost 20 years old, and contains a lot of outdated cultural references. It’s easy to just read around them, but the information contained in the book is SO POWERFUL that I’d love it to be updated and relevant to younger, more current readers. Can Chani Nicholas mentor some young queer POC writer who’s studied this and can translate the material to be more culturally relevant?

Other books I’m obsessed with right now: How to Be an Adult in RelationshipsEmergent StrategyThe Body Keeps The Score (For more, follow me on Insta)

Anyway, I don’t want my quibbles to be taken as disliking the book. I LOVED IT and it was one of the most powerful reads I’ve had this year. Like Attached, it made me feel like I had new keys to understand myself and others in super useful ways. So much compassion! For those who are willing to dig deep and look unflinchingly at their spiritual and psychological wounds in the hopes of attending to them and growing forward into a less ego-driven version of themselves, I HIGHLY recommend it.

I was reminded of how last year in that workshop I took, Jett Psaris shared a vision of how our personalities are the outline of ourselves, and our truest selves are actually the starlight that shines through that outline. This book helped me identify less with the outline, and more with the star stuff.

Comments on Book club: Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram

  1. Just wanted to say a big thanks Ariel for this and other recent pieces on the resilience topic. After tipping over the anxiety cliff edge a few years back followed by similar realisations, your posts are giving me so much motivation to ‘dig in deep’ and not just settle for the functioning sort of place I’m back to.

    I exhaled properly for the first time in ages while reading these pieces, at relief others are muddling their way though this too. I know many people have anxiety, but always felt quite alone in this, for me it’s always been more complicated than worrying and physical responses and although somewhat helpful I didn’t seem to fit the CBT path I was sent down (by the absolutely incredible, but on mental health front bit limited, NHS here in the UK).

    Your resilience pieces and the comments have shown me I’m not alone, not helplessly broken and can work with this! What you’re sharing offers that peer support so many people can’t find, I find it almost impossible to really speak about this with friends and family, because anxiety and all it’s tangled roots underneath get in the way and wrap me back up.

    Thanks for the leg up I didn’t know I needed!

    • HELL YES FOR DIGGING DEEP! One of the most valuable things I feel like I’ve learned in the past couple years is that that feeling of being separate and suffering alone? That feeling is super universal, and in some ways… when you’re feeling the MOST alone, is actually when you’re the LEAST alone, because we are all united in that pain! We all suffer, and we all think we’re alone in our suffering… it’s a clever trick our minds play on us.

      Regardless, I’m so glad these posts are feeling useful to you. This stuff is ugly and humbling to share, and to be completely transparent: these posts are not great for traffic or my bottom line. But this is the stuff that matters to me these days, and I figure even if appeals to less people, it’s got greater value to the few people who it resonates with.

      Love to you.

  2. Yes! I love the enneagram. When I started working with two years ago I thought, “Whoa – this explain how I’m wired so well! Why was I 36 before I discovered my own instruction manual?”

    If you want some voices speaking about the enneagram who include younger and queer people, I’ve got the podcast for you! I haven’t listened to this episode yet, but since you’re a 3 I’ll link to this one:

  3. “Stay present with the discomfort” = repeated message from the Universe I DO NOT want to listen to but probably will have to at some point!
    Awesome post x

  4. Oh man, I was SUPER INTO the enneagram for a while in high school/college. I’m the most Type 4 that ever walked the face of the planet (seriously) and I tended to use it as a “this is why I am the way I am, sorry, can’t change, just deal with it” addition to my lets-always-play-the-victim hobby. Maybe it’s time to revisit…

    • I’ve been joking that basically the Offbeat Empire might as well have been called the “Enneatype 4 Empire.” I might be an type 3 (being offbeat was just the ladder I chose to climb), but I’ve got some major 4-wing action in there FOR REAL.

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