How Can the Enneagram Community Stay True to Its Roots and Embrace Science? Part 3 of 3 by Jack Killen, MD, Eric Meyer, PhD, and C.J. Fitzsimons, PhD



This is the third part of a report on a session at the 2014 IEA Conference, which grew out of an essay in the 2013 issue of the Enneagram Journal[1]. The session used World Café methodology to explore participants’ perspectives regarding the proposition that science offers knowledge, tools, and methods that can further progress toward the IEA’s vision of a world in which the Enneagram is widely understood and constructively used. In this third part of our report we present a distillation of the World Café discussions, and offer some concluding thoughts of our own on future directions. We hope through this three-part report in Nine Points to continue and expand discussion about nurturing a scientifically oriented sub-culture within the Enneagram community.


The session began with two brief introductory presentations by Jack Killen (see Part 1), and Eric Meyer (see Part 2). These presentations were intended to set the stage for small group discussions using the World Café method, which were facilitated by CJ Fitzsimons (figure 1). We developed six discussion table topics to explore a broad range of participants’ attitudes, opinions, desires, and concerns about the question posed by the session’s title:

  1. Participants’ own doubts about or conflicts with Enneagram theory or teaching
  2. Embracing a more scientific mindset within the Enneagram community
  3. Reconciling traditional wisdom and scientific perspectives
  4. Fostering credibility in the “outside” world
  5. What progress in Enneagram studies would look like
  6. Traditional roots that should be preserved

In three rounds of World Café rotation, which lasted 20 minutes each, we asked participants to discuss the following questions, one per round, in sequence:

  1. What is your vision for this topic?
  2. What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?
  3. What steps could be taken to move forward?

Participants were asked to capture notes on paper “table cloths” during the discussion (figure 2). At the conclusion of the session, one “anchor” participant who stayed at each table provided a brief report summarizing the major points raised throughout the three rotations.

Summary of World Café Table Discussions

Approximately 40 participants took part in the World Café discussions. All of the notes from each of the six table cloths are tabulated in the appendix at the end of this report.  Viewed in totality they provide a glimpse into the content and tone of the discussion at each table. The remainder of this section summarizes the “anchor” participants’ highlights of the entire discussion at each table across all three rounds, offered during the report-out.

Topic 1: Participants’ own doubts about, or conflicts with Enneagram theory or teaching.

  • Does our type really remain constant over our lifetime? How do we know this?
  • What role do nature, nurture, and choice play in the genesis and evolution of type and subtype? How can we know more?
  • Is it really possible to be objective in observing or studying inner process?
  • Are good/bad, vice/virtue dichotomies true? Accurate? Useful?
  • Could the community tolerate a higher level disagreement or skeptical inquiry?
  • Correlations between Enneagram and Myers-Briggs types

Topic 2: Embracing a more scientific mindset within the Enneagram community

  • Vision: better understanding of science and scientific methods, and the importance of critical thinking and epistemic clarity
  • Vision: have and use more evidence-based practices
  • Challenge: possible hurt feelings, community discord resulting from more skeptical questioning or challenging of claims made by teachers or authorities
  • Challenge: Potential economic threats to teachers or schools
  • Next Steps: foster more inquiry and questioning; normalize asking of skeptical or challenging questions; develop community tools, methods, norms, to foster respectful questioning

Topic 3: Reconciling traditional wisdom and scientific perspectives

  • Participants found this a difficult topic, in part because many did not feel well informed about scientific perspectives or methods.
  • What is authentically “traditional”?
  • How and when should we be fostering respectful but critical questioning?
  • Focus research on specific topics of likely interest to the outside world that would help us tell our story to others (e.g. leadership qualities and the Enneagram), not on “proving” the Enneagram per se.
  • Methods should fit the questions; use scientific methods for scientific questions, and spiritual methods for spiritual questions.

Topic 4: Fostering credibility in the “outside” world

  • Who is “the outside world” we should care about fostering credibility with? Science? Others?
  • Don’t worry about the opinions of others, doubters, scientists, etc. Go on about our business.
  • Use evangelical, testimonial approaches, celebrity promotions and popular media – carefully.
  • Learn from the lessons of others who have faced similar challenges – e.g. management science.

Topic 5: What progress in Enneagram studies would look like

  • There would be more standardization of language and concepts.
  • Proponents of new ideas would clearly reference foundations of earlier work.
  • More rigorous attention to documentation of sources and practices
  • We would utilize opportunities to employ and learn from technology.
  • Greater demographic diversity
  • Funding for research

Topic 6: Traditional roots that should be preserved

  • The central place of narrative exploration and description
  • The importance of self-discovery, self-observation, and self-typing
  • The Enneagram as one part of a psycho-spiritual tool kit, integrated with other modalities
  • The diagram
  • 3 centers of intelligence
  • The name Enneagram


As these summaries and the appendix notes suggest, the small group discussions were rich, spirited, and yielded much insight into participants’ attitudes, opinions, desires, and concerns about how the Enneagram community can stay true to its roots and embrace science. In general the group seemed supportive of the notion of fostering a more scientifically oriented sub-culture within the IEA. This support took two forms. First, while the group clearly embraced the Enneagram as a powerful vehicle for personal and spiritual growth, participants also shared doubts or misgivings about a number of classical Enneagram teachings, and at least two mentioned they welcomed openness to discussion of them.

Second, many participants commented in various ways on the need for education about science, including its culture and methods, and concerns about how these could operate in the context of the Enneagram community. To this end we applaud the addition of a “Science” track to IEA’s 2015 annual conference. At the same time participants’ comments suggest additional steps the organization could consider, beyond soliciting proposals for “science track” sessions from professional IEA members. We suggest this could include convening invited, scientifically oriented presentations or workshops, either at the annual conference or as free-standing forums. Such an initiative would have goals of educating the larger Enneagram community about relevant science and its potential place in our work, exploring how we might go about developing evidence to support or refute empirical claims about Enneagram theory or applications, and seeking to promote interdisciplinary collaboration by involving “outsider” scientists who have overlapping interests. In addition, the IEA could assume a more active role in promoting critical thinking, and creating “safe space” where evidence about novel ideas or approaches is explored critically, and doubts or skepticism can be voiced respectfully.

It is also important to note that even within the somewhat self-selected audience that would attend a session on this topic, there was disagreement by some with the generally supportive majority.  For example, some participants expressed opinions that the session felt “elitist”, that science is untrustworthy, or that scientific involvement with what they valued about the Enneagram is inappropriate or irrelevant.  To whatever extent this is more than a matter of personal taste, it would be useful in future discussions to work toward a clearer understanding of the difference between two distinctions: empirical/non-empirical, and objective/subjective.  Our intention in this discussion was to argue for a more consistently empirical approach to empirical matters, not a purely objective approach that would ignore or devalue important subjective aspects of Enneagram work.

The fact is that science still has very much to learn about subjective human experience, and investigating the Enneagram could provide opportunities to remedy that.  Western science has long tended to ignore or avoid subjective experience (particularly of a spiritual nature). There are both historical reasons arising from restrictions imposed upon science centuries ago by a then more powerful Church, and scientific reasons related to methodological challenges in studying subjective experience scientifically.  However, this is changing rapidly as scientists increasingly recognize the limitations of cognitive models that regard people as entirely rational actors, and technological advances (e.g. neuroimaging) have revealed fundamental roles played by emotion and other non-cognitive or unconscious processes in the functioning of the human mind.  The result is growing recognition among scientists of the importance of taking subjective qualities of inner experience and personal interaction seriously. It is entirely plausible that the Enneagram community’s elegant and detailed descriptions of inner experience may lead to a deeper understanding of subconscious psychology, and when coupled with current scientific models of personality which focus on objective, measurable traits and behaviors, may lead to a much richer scientific understanding of personality in particular.

Concluding Thoughts

Spirituality arguably doesn’t require the involvement or support of modern science; can it still benefit from it?  The Dalai Lama himself has not only expressed interest in what scientific study of meditation might reveal, but recognized a fundamental similarity of approach, writing: “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.”[2]  Surely we can embrace scientific investigation in the same spirit.

We take as a given that the Enneagram community knows something very important and valuable to share with the rest of the world.  And not only in everyday family or work situations: the work of teachers like Susan Olesek with the incarcerated, or Michael Naylor with individuals in recovery, suggests an understanding of type-related patterns and insights into deeper aspects of the inner experience that could help even with some of the world’s most difficult and persistent sociopolitical problems.

How then can we do the most good?  It would be easy to automatically assume that reaching a wider audience simply means teaching the Enneagram to ever more people, and trying to bring them into the Enneagram community we have and know.  But we may already be reaching the limits of this approach, and should be prepared to look beyond it.  Continuing to elaborate “the Enneagram” as an isolated system or subject is likely to have limited impact if most people won’t be interested in thick books full of patterns, associations, and unsupported speculations, but instead will want (if we can get their attention) to extract its key insights and compare and combine them with other relevant sources and methods.  If we’re serious about the goal of a world in which the central principles of the Enneagram are widely used, we need to think not just in terms of enlarging our cozy esoteric circle, but of offering up what we’ve found and helping the world make the fullest use of it.


Appendix – Compiled Table Cloth Comments

This lists all of the decipherable notes on all six tablecloths. We have arranged them according to the round they seemed the best fit during the preparation of this report. A few obvious doodles are not included.


Round 1: What is your vision/perspective for this topic?

States │ Stages │ Maturity │ Bell curve {this was a drawing) │ Not either/or {this was a drawing} │ Integration/disintegration │ Doesn’t pose the “why” questions │ Nature/nurture/choice │ Type doesn’t change │ Can your type change? │ How did we get our type question; nature/nurture – don’t know │ Catholic influence, dichotomies │ Teachers telling students their type

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

Type discovery seems to be dependent on the ability to observe objectively. Is this possible? │ Either/or dualism │ Use of language │ Why bother with the doubters? │ Want to be respected │ Observed behavior is it judged by justification │ Is it important to tolerate conflict – yes – makes room for good discussion │ Need for different names of numbers │ Is it possible to observe objectively? │ Incomplete knowledge of language │ What roles do empirical claims play in relationship to scientific research?

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Use only numbers │ Raise the questions needs to be done. Examine the things we take for granted. │ What are questions that need to be asked? │ Develop a discourse to speak in a civil and scholarly way. │ Typing celebrities – this behavior is 3-like │ Coordinate Enneagram with Myers-Briggs │ Get rid of negative words


Round 1: What is your vision for this topic?

Structured engagement │ Willingness to engage in scientific research │ More evidence-based practices

Epistemic clarity and categories │ More open discussions aimed at unity │ For teachers to have understanding of the scientific method

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

Science is really complicated │ Hurt people’s feelings │ Exposed private agenda │ Will strip away illusion │ Beware reification │ Possible concretization │ Sell fewer books │ Limit definition and understanding of humanity │ Destroys the mystery! │ What scope is there for “evidence based” practices? How applicable are they? │ Question and test empirical beliefs if possible

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Humanize science │ Better science instruction in context │ Define objectives of research clearly │ Watch for self-fulfilling prophecy │ Embracing inquiry │ Normalize asking questions │ Learn how to ask questions │ Critical thinking │ Cognitive biases │ Education │ Start simple: OK to ask questions │ Cite sources │ Approaches to how to access/teach/talk about science


Round 1: What is your vision for this topic?

Bridge │ Neurotransmitters │ Neuroscience has ways of measuring states of being! │ 3 Brain model – triune brain │ Ideas openly shared and (?)restated │ Spiritual practice-metaphysics │ Enneagram of personality │ Empirical theory of mind │ Progress: mistakes recognized and corrected │ The questioning mind │ Evolutionary “Law of 3” – thesis, antithesis, synthesis in universe │ Not trying to prove the Enneagram

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

What mean by tradition? Whose tradition? │ Tradition = a whole. Science needs to test the pieces │ Originally a mystery, not scientific │ Secrecy of traditions │ 3 traditions of knowing: (1) Philosophy – with Enneagram; (2) Mystical – with Enneagram; (3) Empirical – not with Enneagram  │ In science it is OK to ask questions and not something to take personal │ Science requires fallibility and testing │ 1620 Francis Bacon │ Are lines in the Enneagram empirical?

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Systems theory approach │ To move toward reconciliation we must create the space/opportunity to question tradition/sub-theories/models │ Consider research on specific elements of interest to tell the story – e.g. leadership qualities and the Enneagram │ Practice what we preach about receptivity and reactivity │ Stress test all the “traditions”


Round 1: What is your vision for this topic?

Media coverage à anecdotal testimony │ Celebrity endorsements (e.g. Oprah) │ Awareness │ Evolutionary consciousness │ Modeling │ Boundary confusion $ vs. purpose │ Fuck the scientists │ Not just affluent white people │ Don’t’ worry about the doubters │ Gallup │ We are only at the beginning │ 400 peer reviewed journal articles

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

Raises risk of creating ego-based determinants/damage │ Ego survival where © = livelihood │ Organized, etc – Enneagram community not united enough to be effective in fostering credibility in the outside world; too much ego; we don’t walk our talk │ Consensus on the model │ Against: fads in nutritional advice with every new study

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Case studies │ Solid accreditation process │ Acting it out in the world (making the link in vivo) │ Dissertation research │ Personal significance │ Outcome studies │ Organically allow unfolding │ Accreditation │ Look at how others have learned, e.g. management science


Round 1: What is your vision for this topic?

Diversity – expand demographic │ Scientific standardization – consistent traits and motivation │ Rigor │ Using technology to scientifically measure and correlate if the theories are valid or not │ Re-examination of basic premises │ Research progress enhances that Enneagram is valid

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

Risk to reputations │ Need for broader idea re the scientific method – i.e. a more non-reductionist approach

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Engage young adults to contribute to research – break out of business professional center │ Opportunity to study the process of our teaching methods │ Learning through imitation │ Money – need a benefactor │ Repeatability │ Waste of time proving it empirically │ Transform the value of the IEA when they provide support and funding


Round 1: What is your vision for this topic?

Living system │ Storytelling, individual narratives, panels │ Need good facilitator │ Need a group │ Agree there are 3 centers – head, heart, gut │ Enneagram = 9 ways of being │ Gurdjieff │ 9 capital sins │ Preserve self-observation │ Diagram │ Self-typing │ Part of a tool kit │ Numbers for types (9)

Round 2: What obstacles or challenges do you see in moving toward that vision?

Subjective │ Not consistent │ Meaning of numbers might not be the same │ Number ranking │ Roots adhered to could inhibit new ideas

Round 3: What steps could be taken to move forward?

Working together to discuss/locate “roots” │ Group work │ Always integrated with proven, tested or widely practiced therapeutic methods and process

Figure 1. World Café Discussion

Fig 1 World Cafe IEA 2014

Figure 2. Sample World Café Paper Table Cloth

Fig 2 Table Cloth


[1] “How Science Can Help Solve the Enneagram’s Credibility Problem”. CJ Fitzsimons and Jack Killen. Enneagram Journal, 2013.

[2]Tenzin Gyatso, 2005: The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.

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