E Is for Enneagram


The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

A Is for Autopilot


You can probably think of a few examples of operating on autopilot. An obvious one is driving a familiar route while you’re lost in thought and then being unable to recall the trip itself afterward. That can be a bit unsettling, but it happens all the time. It’s normal. Your brain knows how to operate your vehicle because operating your vehicle is a routine and your brain is wired to commit routines to memory. You can access them faster that way, and the conscious part of your brain is free to attend other things. Autopilot allows you to do one thing while you’re thinking about something entirely different.

Because your unconscious knows how to operate your vehicle, you don’t have to think about it while you’re doing it. It wasn’t that way when you were learning how to drive and you had to focus all your attention on it. And it isn’t that way now when you’re on a steep or dangerous road, trying to locate an unfamiliar address, or faced with a detour. But under ordinary circumstances, your unconscious can handle the task of driving, and many other tasks, just fine.

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.David Eagleman

The conscious part of our brain, which thinks logically, sets long-term goals, and can imagine things being different—the source of our desire for change—processes only about 40 bits of information at a time. However, the part of our brain that usually runs us, which is completely uninterested in our long-term goals and is intent not on change but on maintaining the status quo, processes a whopping 11 million bits of information at a time. So it’s just easier for us to follow the path of least resistance, go with the flow, and think, feel, and do whatever we’ve always thought, felt, and done before.

Get Me to the Church on Time

When you get into your car to go to work—or to the supermarket or to your friend’s house—you don’t need to think about how to start the car or back out of your garage or get to your destination because you do it on autopilot. Autopilot is less effective when you want to take a different route or make an extra stop. It can also take you somewhere you don’t want to go; for example, if you head out in the direction of your workplace and forget you need to turn left instead of right because you’re meeting a friend at a restaurant instead of going to work.

Your brain’s autopilot thinks it knows where you want to go, and it’s going to do its best to get you to the correct destination.

It does the same thing with other routine behaviors, such as opening a bag of potato chips. If you usually eat the entire bag of chips, once you open the bag, autopilot will get you to your destination of eating everything in it. You don’t need to tell it to do that. But if that’s not what you want to do, you’re going to have to tell it over and over again until it rewrites the chip-eating program.

alphabet-changeThe conscious part of your brain may clearly see the benefit of change and may want to make a change, but it’s slow, lazy, and easily depleted. Much of the time, it’s offline. The unconscious part of your brain—your autopilot—actively resists change, and it is fast, vast, and always on. Unless you make a persistent effort to convince it otherwise, your brain’s autopilot won’t take your half-hearted attempts to chart a new course seriously. It will keep “correcting” you back to the same old well-worn path, taking you to work when you want to go to the restaurant and taking you through the entire bag of chips instead of stopping after a handful.

Repetition and Persistence

Just as an airplane’s autopilot is a sophisticated navigational system that makes flying safer and more efficient, our brain’s autopilot is a sophisticated navigational system that makes living safer and more efficient. We can’t disable it, and we wouldn’t want to. But we need to know its limitations and how to work with it if we don’t want to simply be at the effect of it.

Think about how much repetition and persistence it takes to learn to play a musical instrument well or ride a bicycle or ice skate or dunk a basketball. You can’t become a pianist after a few sessions with a piano or by willing yourself to get better. It takes hours of practice, playing the same exercises over and over until both your hands and your brain know how to play them without your having to consciously think about every little movement.

You can get autopilot to work for you rather than against you, but only if you recognize that repetition and persistence—not willpower—is the key to lasting change.

This is the first post in the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Buddhism, the Enneagram, and Neuroscience

I got up so tight I couldn’t unwind
I saw so much I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

 —words by Mickey Newbury, vocals by Kenny Rogers

The “human condition,” according to at least three sources—Buddhism, the Enneagram, and now, neuroscience—is that we’re all operating on autopilot, asleep at the switch, in a “consensus trance,” staggering through life like zombies. We humans have been advised as to what condition our condition is in for 2,600 years or more. There’s not much left to debate about it.

But if that’s the human condition, why can’t we just go with the flow? Why not simply accept things as they are? Why should we care or make the effort to become more aware? Buddhism, the Enneagram, and neuroscience, while in agreement on the nature of the human condition, have slightly different answers to the question of why we might want to do something about it.

Buddhism: We Want to Get Out of Jail

We’re stuck inside this prison we ourselves constructed, and we want to locate the exit.

Most traditional spirituality and religion, including Buddhism, really, is really about … How do we get the hell out of here, and how do we get away from the Earthly mess, or the limitations or the conditioning? How do we rise above it, how do we go through it, move through it, how do we evolve beyond it? —John Welwood

This is more or less an attempt to escape the human condition or at least escape the suffering and unhappiness it gives rise to. In Buddhism, you escape from this prison by achieving Nirvana, either in life or after death. The perspective is that much of “the Earthly mess” is illusion and we can free ourselves from its pull—and from the cycle of life and death—by waking up to that reality.

You are already enlightened. All you’ve got to do is stop blocking yourself and get serious about attending to what’s going on. You are not lacking a thing. You only need to stop blocking or interpreting your vision. Steve Hagen, Buddhism Plain and Simple

Buddhism gets it right that we create much of our own dissatisfaction, suffering, and unhappiness. But it gets it wrong about why and how we do that, as well as about how much power we have to stop doing it and to get in touch with so-called reality. Perception is not reality. Our inherent and limited perceptive abilities constrain us from making direct contact with “reality,” and there’s nothing we can do to change that no matter how enlightened we may be. That’s also part of the human condition.

There is a lot more to Buddhism than this, of course. Perhaps its greatest contribution has been the attention it has given to developing awareness, both self-awareness and awareness of the world around us.

Enneagram: We Want to Be Authentic

We’re at the effect of our compulsions and aren’t acting freely or making free choices and we want to locate our true selves so we can act authentically.

The wisdom that is foundational to the Enneagram propels us out of that stuck place where we are caught in the cares and anxieties of life, and it guides us toward our souls. The Enneagram reveals the relationship between our souls (or true selves) and the experience we have of ourselves daily, which we usually name personality and which, in reality, is a combination of our true personality with our false personality (emphasis theirs). —Kathy Hurley and Theodorre Donson, Discover Your Soul Potential

According to most teachers, writers, and practitioners of the Enneagram, operating on autopilot keeps us out of touch with our essence. When we’re at the effect of our type-related compulsions, we’re not acting authentically. But if we can recognize and transcend the automatic behavior of our Enneagram type, we can get in touch with—and act from—our essential nature.

By helping us see how trapped we are in our trances and how estranged we are from our Essential nature, the Enneagram invites us to look deeply into the mystery of our true identity. It is meant to initiate a process of inquiry that can lead us to a more profound truth about ourselves and our place in the world. —Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram

This is an attempt to strip away the veneer of the human condition (our false personalities) to get at something that’s deeper and truer, but a bit hard to describe and contact. What is our true identity? Is it our soul or is it something else altogether? And what profound truth are we being led to? How will we know when we’ve found it?

Searching for our true, authentic identity seems to be a bit of a fool’s errand, given that in recent decades, psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and people in many other fields have reached the conclusion that rather than being one self, we are actually many selves.

The esoteric elements of the Enneagram seem to fascinate the majority of people who work with it. It hasn’t been around—or at least hasn’t been known—as long as Buddhism, but it has given rise to a number of variations just as Buddhism now takes many different forms.

The Enneagram tends to be spot-on when it comes to identifying the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and even motivations of the different types. In that regard, it’s an incredibly practical and useful tool for identifying our autopilot, asleep-at-the-wheel behavior. But things quickly become muddled when we start trying to identify and home in on that nebulous thing called essence or soul.

Neuroscience: We Want to Understand How Our Brain Actually Works (or Do We?)

Regrettably, some people want to understand how the brain works in order to manipulate people into doing one thing as opposed to another or into buying whatever they’re selling. But that isn’t unique to this day and age. And some are hoping brain research provides evidence to support their particular beliefs and positions so they can be proven right.

Most of us are satisfied with our theories about ourselves and accept them with confidence, but we rarely see those theories tested. Scientists, however, are now able to test those theories in the laboratory, and they have proven astonishingly inaccurate. —Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal

All these theories were based on an assumption—that human behavior was the product of knowledge and conscious intention. We believed that if you educated people, and provided them with accurate information, and offered them the right incentives, and threatened them with suitable punishments, and appealed to their better natures, and marked the exits clearly, the errors would vanish. Bad outcomes had to be the product of stupidity, ignorance, and bad intentions. —Shankar Vedantam, The Hidden Brain

Inevitably, what we have learned from neuroscience in the past few decades has undermined a lot of what we previously thought and believed about the mind and brain. I think the biggest revelation has been the discovery of the extent to which we are quite irrational yet fail to see and acknowledge this basic fact of life. Blinders firmly in place, we operate as though we are rational and we expect other people to be rational, too. But rational acts are the result of conscious (System 2) thinking, which is generally in short supply and often misapplied. Our belief in our rationality is not supported by the evidence.

This isn’t just opinion; it has now been repeatedly demonstrated and the reasons for, and the underpinnings of, our irrationality have been explained in great detail. No matter how much we want to believe otherwise, we are not rational animals. We do not act rationally. We do not think rationally. It’s not just that guy over there who’s irrational or the members of that other political party. It’s you and me, too.

The preface to the book Beasts by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (ex-psychoanalyst and former director of the Freud Archives) is titled “Can the Human Species Wake Up?” It begins with this quote:

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. —Stephen Hawking

Moussaieff’s book is an examination of human nature, particularly in regard to our propensity for cruelty, violence, and war. Whereas we often describe people who behave badly as “beasts” (of the animal kingdom), no other animals demonstrate the type and degree of violence humans do, to each other and to other creatures. Yet we continue to see ourselves as rational beings, superior to those “beasts.”

The main thing we can wake up to, according to the findings of neuroscience, is the full extent of our limitations. This is quite a different message from the ones we get from either Buddhism or the Enneagram. It doesn’t feel like good news. It’s not easy to accept. But the fact that, bottom line, we are all irrational beings explains quite a bit about humans and human nature. And the implications for us as individuals, groups, nations, and the entire human race are nothing short of enormous.

The second part of the quote from John Welwood (in the section on Buddhism) is this:

And I think the problem we’ve seen over time, over the centuries, is that spirituality then is completely cut off from daily life, and our spirituality and religion is not transforming daily life. You can see after thousands of years, we’ve had thousands of years of Buddhas, people who’ve been waking up and having beautiful, transcendent realizations, but how much of it percolated down into daily life, and into the human realm of our lives and what’s going on on the planet? Not very much, I have to say. So I think the time is calling on us to say, if we want to survive as a species here, you’re going to have to really bring the largest truth down into the very heart of how you relate to other people and how you relate to yourself in a personal way as well.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the “largest truth” turns out to be the one now being illuminated for us by neuroscience?

What Can We Do?

Buddhism, the Enneagram, and neuroscience all have practical tools to offer us for approaching and dealing with the human condition. Each tool is certainly useful by itself, but combining them creates a synergistic effect, enhancing all of them, and giving us the best chance of transcending those limitations—at least a little.

Buddhism: Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a great practice for increasing awareness and quieting the mind. Instead of being completely at the effect of what is going on around you or inside your own head, you can stop for a period of time to simply be present and aware of those things, non-reactively.

Mindfulness meditation has a slew of physical, mental, and emotional benefits, including:

  • Lowering stress
  • Reducing chronic pain
  • Improving sleep
  • Treating heart disease
  • Alleviating depression and anxiety
  • Improving recovery outcomes for substance abuse

It can even change your brain for the better.

Mindfulness is a specific application of System 2 attention, and since System 2 attention is limited, you can’t be mindful either all or most of the time. It’s not so hard to maintain a mindful state if you live cloistered or in a monastery. The fewer things you have to mind, the more mindful you can be. But if you live in the world as we do, and have the brains we have, you simply can’t be mindful all the time.

If we attempted to be mindful—that is, pay conscious attention—to every single thing from the time we woke up in the morning, we would quickly deplete our reserve of conscious attention. Then, if a situation arose that required conscious attention, we might not be able to think clearly because we wouldn’t have enough attention to devote to it. That’s an example of being “brain dead.”

We have to allocate our System 2 attention to various activities throughout the day, and there’s no point in allocating it to insignificant activities we can perform on autopilot given that we do need to use it for more complex activities.

In Living the Mindful Life, Charles Tart says:

We can have levels of mindlessness, ranging from simple inattention to the immediate physical world through insensitivity to our interactions with others we care about to a deep and fundamental mindlessness about our most important values and real nature.

I think it’s a mistake to think of these as simply different levels of the same thing (mindlessness). What he calls inattention to the immediate physical world is simply System 1 doing its thing. There’s nothing wrong with it per se and there’s no way to stop it.

What we can do is aim for practicing mindfulness meditation (or any form of mindfulness) on a regular basis instead of trying to be mindful all the time. Practicing mindfulness meditation will allow us to detach from our monkey mind, at least a little, and allow us to slow down, breathe, and notice some of the things we usually tune out of our awareness.

Enneagram: Develop the Habit of Self-Observation

The Enneagram shows us how each of us is asleep by describing our automatic reactions (or compulsions). It’s possible to spend an inordinate amount of time in a fruitless search to discover the underpinnings of our recurring patterns of behavior. Why do I do this? What causes me to react this way? The antidote for that is to see ourselves described in a book by an author who doesn’t know us, and to learn that a multitude of other people we’ve never met, with entirely different backgrounds from ours, share those patterns of behavior with us.

While we can certainly observe our thoughts, feelings, and reactions without knowing anything about the Enneagram, knowing the characteristics of our Enneagram type can save us a lot of time by providing us with some direction as to what to focus on or pay attention to. If we want to stop being at the effect of our autopilot behavior, it’s helpful to have some understanding of what that behavior actually is.

If we know we tend to have a particular reaction or pattern of thought, we’ll find it much easier to begin recognizing it when it shows up. If we don’t know what to look for, we’re in the position of trying to find multiple needles in multiple haystacks.

When you strip the esoteric and spiritual elements away from the Enneagram, what remains is an extremely practical and valuable tool for seeing our own autopilot behavior clearly and understanding other people—without judgment. The danger from a little knowledge of the Enneagram is a tendency to use it as an excuse for our behavior and/or as a rationale for stereotyping other people. Combining mindfulness with self-observation puts the brakes on those tendencies.

What we can do is learn the particulars of our Enneagram type and then develop the habit of observing those thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and reactions in ourselves. The Enneagram doesn’t explain every single aspect of every person. It’s not a Theory of Everything. But it does give us a context for our behavior. By observing what we tend to do, we can begin to see some of our own limits and limitations. We have to know what we’re doing now before we can do something else.

Neuroscience: Face the Facts

This is our basic human situation. Most of us sense that something is amiss with our lives. But we haven’t any idea what our problem really is, or what we should do about it….All the pain we bring to ourselves and others—the hatred, the warring, the groveling, the manipulation—is our own doing. It comes out of our own hearts and minds, out of our own confusion. Furthermore, if we don’t see exactly what the problem is, we’re going to perpetuate it. We’re going to teach our children our confusion, and we’ll go on, generation after generation, doing more of the same to ourselves and to each other. —Steve Hagen, Buddhism, Plain and Simple

Although this quote is from a book on Buddhism, it applies just as well to what we’re learning about the human condition from neuroscience. As long as we don’t understand how our brain actually works, we’re going to keep doing the same things, making the same mistakes, and passing the whole mess on to the next generations.

Practicing mindfulness and developing the habit of self-observation can alleviate some of the pain and discontent. But that’s not enough. As long as we fail to acknowledge how irrational we are, our irrationality will color everything we do, both individually and as a species.

What we can do is get to know how our brain works and be mindful—non-reactively—of the limits of our perception, our control, and our rationality. We can loosen the reins on our craving for certainty and for being right. We can observe—non-judgmentally—our own cognitive biases, prejudices, and flawed reasoning. If we can accept these things in ourselves, we might have a chance of accepting them in others.

Continuing to operate under the assumption that we are rational beings—when, in fact, we are not—has consequences in almost every area of our lives and in nearly every problem we face on this planet. There may be nothing more important than coming to terms with this basic fact of life, the condition that our condition is in.

Got Free Will? Yes and No.

free willDo we have free will? To some, the answer is yes, obviously we have free will. Many others say not so fast. It’s a thorny question that has only grown thornier over the past 30 years. That’s because we’re no longer focused so much on whether an external agent or force determines what we do. Now it’s an internal agent or force we’re concerned about—namely the unconscious part of our brain.

It’s probably apparent to most of us that we spend at least part of our time on autopilot—that is, behaving automatically, not consciously registering much of what’s going on around us, or not experiencing a sense of volition or agency. Stimulus A (whether internal or external) triggers reaction B. But the growing consensus of neuroscientists and others is that we spend not only part of our time, but most of our time, on autopilot. Some have tried to make the case that all of our behavior is automatic.

On the one hand, it’s hard to let go of the notion that we have complete control over our every thought, word, feeling, and deed. On the other, that’s a lot of responsibility and a tough row to hoe. The fact that, no matter what we think—or want to think—we don’t always feel in control sets up a conflict we’ve come up with some ingenious methods to resolve.

System 1, our unconscious, keeps us alive, filters what gets into conscious awareness, and initiates most of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. System 2, consciousness, very often just goes along with System 1’s recommendations. But not always. System 2 is capable of initiating thoughts and actions on its own, apart from what System 1 suggests. It can also veto System 1’s suggestions.

So one answer to the question about whether or not we have free will is “yes and no.” When it comes to habits, routines, or anything else System 1 is responsible for—when we’re operating on autopilot—we aren’t really acting freely. But when System 2 gives critical attention to System 1’s suggestions and either vetoes or sanctions them—or when System 2 initiates thoughts or actions of its own—we can say that we are acting freely.

There may be no outside agent forcing us to behave a certain way. But since we normally don’t consider the unconscious to be part of “I”—who we think of when we think about who we are—the unconscious feels quite a bit like an “other.” System 1 may be my brain, but it sure doesn’t feel like me.

“Yes and no” seems to be the best answer to the question of whether or not we have free will. It’s important to recognize the situations in which we operate on autopilot because if we think we’re making choices and acting freely when we’re not, we’ll be less likely to look for effective methods to change behavior we want to change, and we won’t be able to see things from any perspective other than our habitual one.

At the same time, if we don’t recognize the situations where we have the capacity to make decisions and act freely, not only will we be in trouble, society and the entire human race will be in trouble, too. Or is this just the norm—part of the human condition?

What do you think?

You Can’t Get Off the Hamster Wheel

Large Blog Image

Your brain has a mind of its own.

It operates largely outside your awareness and without your consent.

It has developed an agenda for you that determines how you react, the way you think and feel, and what you do.

Your brain’s agenda may have little in common with what you’re trying to create for yourself, but like it or not, its agenda is your agenda.

In order to retrain your brain to get it on board with YOUR agenda, you need to:

1. Find out how your brain actually works.

2. Identify what you really want in your life.

3. Learn how to use your brain to create MORE of what you want and LESS of what you don’t want.