Not Navel-Gazing: How the Enneagram Can Change the World

As someone drawn to working with the depths of our inner territory, I want my devotion to development to be relevant and helpful in the context of practical life and collective troubles. I don’t want my reflection to be a way of disengaging or bypassing what’s happening around me.

These questions rise up:

    • Why would I turn my gaze inward when there is so much to attend to in the world?
    • Isn’t it just indulgent navel-gazing to self-reflect and focus on my development when things feel on fire or under threat around me?
    • Where do my inner work and my work in the world intersect? 


How would you answer these questions for yourself?

Several things spring up for me.

Make It Stop!

First, I want to acknowledge that there is typically a temptation to try to manage distress in our favorite ways when things are stirring us. Whether we prefer to step back from our upset, to become an expression of it, or to try to get on top of it in some way, our usual patterns can get super-charged when things look threatening.

  • Have you noticed your usual Enneagram type strategy turning up the volume lately? 
  • Are your reactions and judgments familiar ones?

Indeed, we often want to bypass our difficulty. Many people use prayer, meditation, or self-analysis to try to suspend or escape their distress. This move isn’t inherently problematic. It can be valuable when this helps us experience ourselves in a more resourced and wise way as we dip into another state of being.

I just want to acknowledge that focusing inwardly can happen in a way that shuts out other aspects of reality. This is where the “navel-gazing” criticism comes from.

Inner and Outer

While it can feel there’s a binary choice about either an inner or an outer focus, when we pay attention, we can see that these two realms are constantly influencing one another.

Your inner ego-framework regularly projects its expectations and filters your perceptions in ways that may not be objectively accurate. For example, at type Six, if I’m expecting that the world around me is rife with hidden dangers or downsides, I’m less free to experience a situation freshly- to sense directly whether I should be on guard or whether I can relax. Thus, my inner world is affecting how experience the outer world.

Likewise, there are structures among groups- be they family systems, ethnic or cultural groups, political parties, socioeconomic classes, or business teams- that affect how we experience ourselves inwardly. For example at type Four if I live in a family that appreciates me when I am contained and intellectual, this outer realm shapes me to think of myself inwardly in this way and to judge or reject myself when that’s not the case.

So, it would make sense that my level of self-awareness internally could affect both how I see what’s happening around me and how I choose to engage there. And when I’m not so practiced at working with my filters and my reactivity, it is harder to choose to act in a way that’s different than my default approach.

In today’s world, we are required to function in complex and ambiguous situations. The sometimes overwhelming sophistication of current systems can make relying on our ego-structure very attractive. Especially in times of stress or disorientation, we are highly subject to the blind spots of our Enneagram types.

  • What helps you notice your blind spots in action?
  • Consider a blind spot of your type that you have some awareness of. How has it been showing up lately?  

Inner and Outer – MLK

Several individuals we see as having had profound impact on social change also have devoted themselves to seek more self-knowledge in difficulty.

Mahatma Gandhi’s impact as an individual on an entire empire continues to inspire so many today. He said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”

Nelson Mandela once said, “one of the most difficult things is not to change society—but to change yourself.”

In Enneagram circles, it is imagined that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Enneagram style was likely type Eight. I imagine that if King had not done conscious work to balance out the forceful, confrontative tendencies of type Eight, he would not have been able to effect the kind of change and inspiration that he did. I see deep mindfulness and discipline in him that delivered in key moments of stress.

I believe Dr. King was able to channel the energy of his passion and power in a way that was outside the conditioning of personality style in such moments. For example, after being hit in the head with a rock while marching in Chicago in 1966 and forced to his knees, he paused, regrouped and rose again to march on.

When asked about his experience, he said with a little chuckle, “I’ve been here so many times I’m immune to it.” Working with our reactions over time does take away the power of others to define us or devalue us.

Instead of the attack deterring him or bringing out his defenses or his offenses, he said, “I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open.”

I’m going to assume that King wasn’t aware of the Enneagram. I will guess, however, that he learned to override his automatic reactions to effect the change that was needed in the world.

Presence at Pilot

The Enneagram offers a way to check ourselves, to clean up our act, to watch for the shadow side of our types. When we are acting without consciousness of these patterns, other people will likely have defended reactions to us too.

For example, if at type Three I want to help others get to the goal and skip over their feelings to do so, I may feel confused or irritated when they seem to amplify the feelings and complain more. However if I develop the capacity to notice my type pattern and then allow it to relax, more of the wholeness of me is likely to show up.  When this happens, right action for the situation often flows forth without coercion or strategic maneuvering.

It is harder to ignore people when they are really present and self-possessed.  When we can disidentify from our type’s story, there is more space for presence to take up residence in us.

Even devoted activists who believe that they are standing up for the “right thing” can be blind to how specific and narrow their perspective is. In my young adulthood the “right thing” that I’d stand up for was peace, love and understanding.  It took me awhile to see how, coming from point Nine on the Enneagram, I would privilege peace and harmony over other important virtues that might be more attuned to what was needed in a given moment (courage, truth, will, etc.). It took me even longer to digest the irony that I was intolerant of intolerance.

Today I still stand for similar things, but I experience them in a more complex way. I can see how, in my younger form, I was identified with being compassionate to all and supportive of the oppressed. Today, I am less insistent that things have to be a certain way outside of me, or that I have to be a certain way in relation to them.

This is not because I have less compassion. The compassion that rises up in me now often has a different quality. To me it feels more intelligent and free rather than knee-jerk and predetermined. Compassion is a powerful medicine, but it is not always the perfect one called for in a particular situation. Instead of my Nine personality’s compulsive or conjured compassion, I now can find myself animated by compassion that is exquisitely attuned to what’s happening in me or in others.

Because of what the Enneagram has unveiled and illuminated for me, today I can tolerate a fuller range of my own humanity. I can recognize parts of me that my unconscious Nine-ness wouldn’t allow to the party. From acknowledging that I, too, can feel hatred, to experiencing myself as rooted in my own power, from admitting that I have as many judgments as the next person, to the deep conviction that I matter, more of my wholeness is included. This is a different kind of tolerance than I’d understood before.

I am convinced that this inner-bridging that’s been cultivated allows me to be a more effective bridge in the affairs of the world. “Enemies” look different to me. I can separate myself from the “party line” when it feels out of alignment to me. I can bring my own humanity to the table with a faith that everything can be included.

If I didn’t have access to the incisive (and frequently uncomfortable) discernment that the Enneagram offers me, I can feel how my old stories could easily keep tricking me.  As Eckhart Tolle says, “unless you know the basic mechanics behind the workings of the ego, you won’t recognize it, and it will trick you into identifying with it again and again.”

As we receive revelations about our ego’s mechanics over and over, we begin to feel more like Dr. King with his little chuckle, “I’ve been here so many times I’m immune to it.”

  • Which aspects of your ego-structure trick you into identifying with them again and again?
  • How would it be if those were not as prominent? What else might you experience?

Presence as Power

The righteousness we can feel when our world view (or our culture’s view or our party’s view) is buoying us up can feel like power and belonging. But this is distinct from the quality of power and value we can experience when Presence is here.

While there are many paths that foster a relaxation of ego-structure and an opening to something more essential, I continue to find the Enneagram an extremely accurate and penetrating medium through which to see my veils and thus make it possible for Presence to find me and inhabit me again.

I’d love to hear about your experiences of how the Enneagram has allowed you to be more present to yourself and effective in the world. Please share in the comments below.

5 Responses

  1. Loved this article! I identify with type 6 and have learned lately to stop my ego pattern of trying to think situations out from every angle (so that I can be prepared for the outcome). I have been doing some short morning meditation that has helped me to be less attached to my own thoughts. I still have them but they are a little more distanced from me if that makes sense. The result is that I no longer need to know outcomes. I am actually ok not knowing. And I am enjoying the not knowing. It is freeing and fun to watch things unfold!!

    1. Thanks Jeannemarie. How exciting to feel the old pattern get freed up some. A friend who identifies with type six said she’s learned to cut herself off after two “branches” of thought as a general rule, which is another way to step off the “ride” it seems 🙂

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