Moving on the lines  – the Enneagram as a dynamic system  by Peter O’Hanrahan

Moving on the lines – the Enneagram as a dynamic system by Peter O’Hanrahan

P O'Hanrahan“Are we just one personality type?” is a common question in Enneagram workshops. The answer is “Yes and no!” The Enneagram is a dynamic system, meaning that we are not limited to just one point on the diagram; we often move around to other Enneagram points depending on our needs and circumstances. While we keep our basic personality type as “home base,” we also spend time visiting and inhabiting other personality types. However, this is not a random process. The Enneagram diagram itself indicates the patterns or pathways that each personality type tends to follow.

Since the symbol itself is quite striking, when people first encounter the Enneagram they often wonder if the lines in the diagram mean anything. They are indeed important; the lines trace the routes along which we travel when we go through shifts of awareness and behavior in our daily lives. We move along these lines from one point to another. Sometimes we go back and forth very quickly, hardly noticing the change in our outlook. At other times we may experience a more dramatic shift, or spend quite a bit of time in a point other than our basic personality type.

It seems that there is some inherent, organizing intelligence in the diagram itself. In this way the Enneagram is different from other personality systems. There are other useful systems which describe three, four, or sixteen types. But the Enneagram is more than a simple list; it’s a holistic system based on the symmetry and mathematics of this ancient diagram. Apparently the lines indicate the ways that energy moves in repeated patterns. When it comes to people, the lines seem to carry important information about our psychological patterns.

This part of the Enneagram teaching is somewhat mysterious. How could the lines of this diagram predict the behavior of people in daily life? We have every reason to be skeptical. Certainly there is no scientific proof! How do we know this isn’t some form of New Age hocus pocus? The only real answer is by testing the theory, by seeing for yourself if it has any practical value. You may be able to observe in your own life the patterns of behavior described by the lines of the diagram. Now that the Enneagram has been used by hundreds of thousands of people over several decades, there does seem to be a consensus that the lines do mean something, even if there is sometimes disagreement over exactly what that is.

The next section discusses some of the concepts underlying the “Lines of the Enneagram” theory. It’s not strictly necessary for understanding personality type. If you like, you can skip it and go directly to the section on “Wing Points and Dynamic Points” and how this applies to your personality type.

The Lines of the Diagram

There is a body of Enneagram teaching which has traditionally used this diagram as a way of understanding the “natural laws of the universe,” e.g. how all events or phenomena move in patterns. This study was based on both the properties of numbers and the use of intuition; as far as we know, it began long before the scientific discoveries of recent centuries. In the modern era, patterns of energy can be studied and quantified in more precise ways, although some topics, things like quantum physics, still challenge the limits of our current analyses. There may well be large meta-patterns that we don’t yet fully understand. In earlier times in human history, scholars and thinkers tried to explain the natural world through the use of numbers and diagrams such as the Enneagram. While we don’t highlight this use of the Enneagram in our discussion of personality types, there are some interesting numerical aspects which can help us in our study of human beings.

If you look at the nine-pointed diagram, you will see that there are two overlapping sets of lines. One is the triangle joining points 3, 6, and 9. According to tradition, this “inner triangle” illustrates the “Law of Three” which shows up in both religious and secular contexts. In Christian terms this corresponds to the Holy Trinity, the three major aspects of Divinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. (There is also a Hindu Trinity). In secular terms, the Law of Three might be described as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

George Gurdjieff, who brought the Enneagram to the West in 1915, introduced the concept in this way: Point Three is the place of initiating energy (Holy Affirming); Point Six is the place of resisting and developing energy (Holy Denying); Point Nine is the place of mediating and harmonizing energy (Holy Reconciling).

What’s fascinating about this is that the personality types whom we associate with these points seem to embody something of these qualities. Threes have that wonderful initiating, go-forward spirit. Sixes often say “Hold on a minute: let’s develop this idea further, let’s find what’s wrong with it and come up with a better plan.” And Nines are people who seek balance and harmony; they are innate mediators. (In a more humorous vein we sometimes describe personality types 3, 6, and 9 has exhibiting the qualities of Holy Yes, Holy No, and Holy Maybe).

The lines of this inner triangle connect these three personality types. In the next section we will look at how they move back and forth from one point to another under different conditions.

In any event, there is something very useful about this idea of  “threeness.” In order to start a new project or activity we need to have enough motivation and “initiating” energy. But as we all know, things don’t simply move forward in a straight line. There is always resistance or some kind of obstacle in the way, either something in ourselves or something in our environment which needs to be overcome (often both). If we are able to engage this set of obstacles in an intelligent way, to see it as a useful part of the process, our original plan or intention evolves into something even more successful. Another way to say this: if we are able to have a good conversation, or a productive conflict, between the initiating parts and the resisting parts we move to some kind of resolution, or synthesis. Without this process, projects or people don’t develop and grow into something greater.

The second set of lines inside the Enneagram is the one that connects points 1, 4, 2, 8, 5, and 7. This is used to illustrate the “Law of Seven,” a number set which is associated with the seven notes of our musical scale. While the Law of Three has to do with qualities of energy, or three different kinds of force at work, the Law of Seven has to do with the movement of energy – the progression of steps or the chain of events in every activity or project. Some people have found the Law of Seven very useful in planning their work, making sure to include the necessary steps and the interventions that are key components of keeping things moving toward a successful conclusion. However, this is outside the scope of our current discussion. For now we can simply notice how this set of lines, and the relationships between the numbers on this set of lines, inform our study of personality type.

If we divide 1 (or unity) by the number 7, we get a repeating decimal: .142857142…. So it follows that the lines inside the Enneagram follow this progression of numbers. According to Enneagram theory, the personality types here (Types 1, 4, 2, 8, 5, and 7) move back and forth along these lines under different internal conditions.

Two kinds of movement – Wing Points and Dynamic Points

There are two kinds of movement on the Enneagram; each has a very different quality. One is the movement around the circumference of the circle to the points on either side of our personality type. These neighboring points are called “Wing Points.” The other is the movement inside the Enneagram to the two points connected to our own point by the straight lines. These are called “Dynamic Points. “

We’ll start with wing points, the two points next to our own “home base” on the circumference of the circle. It’s as though these points are our close neighbors and we can visit them easily since they’re right next door. So it doesn’t take much to move over and adopt the point of view and the personal style of our wing points. While they are different types from our own, they are not so different that we can’t easily see the world through their eyes or take on their habits, both good and bad. When people are first discovering their personality type they often identify with one or both of their wings. In fact some people may see themselves almost equally in two neighboring types. They’re not sure which one is their primary type.

Perhaps one reason for this is that every personality type can be described as a combination of the two wing points. For example, if we blended a Nine and a Two we’d come up with something that looked like at One. And if we blended a Four and a Six we’d come up with a Five.

We have access to both of our wings. Each has a different set of resources and characteristics that we will find helpful at times. However, there is some evidence that one of these wings is more familiar, or predominant. Some Enneagram authors have gone so far as to describe 18 variations of personality type organized by the predominant wing. You can observe yourself to discover whether you have such a predominant wing or whether you experience yourself moving to both wings on an equal basis. Whichever pattern holds true, it is clear that our basic personality type is heavily influenced by the presence of these wings, leading to important fluctuations in our behavior and perspective as well as interesting variations among the nine types.

In contrast to moving to our wing points, the movement inside the Enneagram is not an easy visit next door but rather a significant shift in our experience of ourselves. We call them dynamic, or psychodynamic, because our personality goes through a major, if temporary, change. We are in a very different point of view and style of behavior. We notice it, and often the people around us notice it. Sometimes these shifts are upsetting and confusing, as though they were happening outside of our control. But when we are aware of these shifts and can manage them properly, they can be very fruitful for our personal and professional development. It’s as though we have access to a whole new set of resources, and it’s a set that adds value or creates needed balance to our usual personality. Moving to these dynamic points can help us step out of the box, expand our options, and become less stuck in our habitual style of responding to the world around us.

Whether we are on the inner triangle (connecting points 3, 6, and 9) or on the other set of lines (connecting points 1, 4, 2, 8, 5, and 7) there are two lines connecting our personality type to two other points. However, each line has a different “direction” and a different quality to it.

In one direction (we generally say the “forward” direction) lies our “resource point.” This is a point where we can access some important quality that helps us take action in the world. Many Enneagram teachers call this the “stress point” because either 1) we go there when we are under significant stress; or 2) we go there to access the intelligence and competencies of that point, yet we find it stressful to be there. Both statements are true, but since “stress point” has a negative connotation we are using the term “resource point.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing! But it can be very uncomfortable.

In the other direction (we generally say “moving back”) lies our “relaxation point” or “heart point.” When we travel in this direction, we move to inhabit a personality type that is considered to be very valuable for our  personal growth and transformation. This point seems to hold a key to many of the underlying issues of our personality as the “shadow side” or the undeveloped side of ourselves. It’s as though we have to relax and let down our usual defenses, letting go of our normal way of seeing the world in order to open up and become more flexible and more vulnerable. When we feel safe and secure we are able to go deeper within ourselves, learning more about who we really are and becoming more available to intimates and loved ones.

Of course getting in touch with core issues and feelings in our relaxation point can be very challenging. There’s a tendency to snap back to our personality type with its familiar point of view and standard operating procedures. However, if we can stay long enough in our relaxation point to integrate the lessons there, we can re-inhabit our personality type with much more balance and integration.

According to the Enneagram, we move “forward” to our resource point in this way: 3 goes to 9, 9 to 6, and 6 to 3 (3963). Or on the other set of lines:  1 goes to 4, 4 to 2, 2 to 8, 8 to 5, 5 to 7, 7 to 1. (1428571). Moving to our relaxation point we move “backwards” in the opposite direction: 3 goes to 6, 6 to 9, 9 to 3. (3693) On the other set of lines: 1 goes to 7, 7 to 5, 5 to 8, 8 to 2, 2 to 4, 4 to 1. (1758241) This will become clearer as we go through the nine personality types and talk about each one in turn.

 

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