By David Potter 3-22-2017

In a season of doubt and yearning for God, I discovered the transformative power of the Enneagram.

When I first learned about the nine-pointed Enneagram of Personality, with its circle of numbers assigned to temperaments or postures in the world, I was mostly indifferent to it. I had little interest in having a rigid description of myself projected onto me and didn’t want what I assumed would be the inevitable onslaught of prescriptive analysis from co-workers and friends. While I have since learned this reveals much about myself, I initially resisted and put the Enneagram as a personality test or label aside.

But the more I learned the Enneagram as a tool for spiritual growth and transformation, primarily through Fr. Richard Rohr’s book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, the more I came to embrace it. While its origins are contested — some claim it is more than 4,000 years old — the Enneagram has long offered people of faith a foundation to sustain vibrant spiritual lives. In identifying and examining the behavioral patterns in my own life through the lens of this system, my understanding of my relationship to the divine slowly began to shift and reorient. As my eyes were opened to my way of being in the world, an opening of sorts also began to take place inside of me.

I still find myself in a place of discovery, after several years as a committed student of the Enneagram. I have found the system holds wisdom much deeper than mere personal self-knowledge. Because the same patterns that exist intrapersonally also manifest themselves interpersonally, the Enneagram can also teach us how to nurture community.

Here are five lessons drawn from the Enneagram for those who seek to create justice and community in the world.

1. To be reconcilers, we must first be reconciled to ourselves.

Social transformation is limited by the extent to which people have themselves been transformed. Without engaging in a crucial (and oftentimes uncomfortable) process of addressing the areas in our own lives desperately in need of healing, we lack the capacity to imagine a desired future that includes the interests of all. The wounds we carry limit our vision, as our work increasingly reflects our own grievances. 

The Enneagram teaches that each personality type has certain compulsive behavioral traits. Without critical awareness to these motivations, we succumb to the same ruts that have long pre-determined our choices for us. In developing an ability to see these patterns and make conscious decisions, we can move from self-interest to collective-interest. 

2. Real community emerges from real people.

Most people present themselves in a series of complex layers, designed to conceal their deficiencies. With each role we play in life, we carefully choose the right mask to successfully hide what we are afraid to reveal to others. In choosing comfort over real connection, we stay on the surface level of full humanity, and cast a shadow over what Thomas Merton referred to as our "true self."

Exploring the depths of our own humanity and living from a place of authenticity enables real presence with others. Once we develop self-understanding, we can begin proactively creating space for the whole of our being — including the “positive” qualities, as well as the less appealing ones. This practice of extending hospitality toward ourselves enhances our ability to empathize with the lived experiences of others.

3. Transformation requires a renegotiation of old narratives. 

Far from a neatly labeled box in which you are forever forced to reside, the Enneagram provides a framework to liberate yourself from old ways of being. In The Road Back to You, Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile emphasize that the challenge for most folks is to "identify your personality type but not identify with it." Once we've developed the ability to see our old worn-out way of being in the world, it can be easy to cling to these broken habits. Here's the good news: We are not confined to this reality. Instead, the Enneagram extends an invitation to transformation.

In order to move forward, we must engage the past and hold it with the present. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa, we won't get anywhere unless we move from singular narratives to a shared narrative. If we are to build beloved community in the U.S., we need to renegotiate our identity — which includes engaging messy truths and moving through them toward a desired future.

4. Social change is dynamic and non-linear. 

The construction of the Enneagram forms a web of relationships connecting each type. The process of personal growth and increasing maturity will move you through this web. This process is referred to as the "path of integration." In this journey toward integration, we interact with and appropriate the positive qualities of other types. In disintegration, we take on the negative qualities of other types. It is an ongoing process and we never fully arrive. (This is true individually and communally.)

Relationships between people reflect the individuals themselves. They are dynamic. They ebb and flow, growing and evolving with time. We are complex creatures, and our journey toward wholeness and togetherness is a living process. To stagnate and stop exploring the depth of our interconnectedness is to cease living.

The Enneagram offers a gentle reminder that processes of change are non-linear, and that we must embrace the living nature of social change.

5. Beloved community requires courage and accountability.

Transformation, whether offered through the Enneagram or elsewhere, is limited by the courage of those who receive it. Like someone who looks in a mirror and immediately forgets what they look like after departing, knowledge is futile unless taken accountability for. We can close our eyes and pretend circumstances or negative behavior patterns don't exist, but we can't passively will our way into a new reality. Personal growth happens as a result of intentionality and a commitment to doing hard work.

Those who have done the hard work of “coming alive” within themselves till rich soil. Out of this place, beloved community will flourish.

David Potter is the Special Projects Manager for Sojourners. 

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