Thursday, August 20, 2015
Much has been made of the recent polling indicating that the numbers of Americans claiming to have no religious affiliation are increasing dramatically. Sometimes we call these folks the “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that they do claim to have a spiritual dimension to their lives but don’t find it fed in traditional religious institutions. Sometimes we refer to these groups as either “nones,” indicating the box they check off when asked about religion, or the “dones,” which are people who were once religiously active but who have now given it up.
I propose the Enneagram as a way forward that does offer a pathway for spiritual growth without a lot of the institutional/credal baggage.
The entry to the Enneagram for many people is as a personality inventory tool in which nine different personality types are identified, each with distinct characteristics. This system is immensely helpful as a first step in spiritual development because it sheds so much self-knowledge and self-awareness. Once we bring into consciousness the yawning chasm that persists between our true essence and our standard ego-identity that is, once we realize the difference between who we think are and who we we truly are, we can begin to grow. It is the tension and yearning involved in becoming aware of this distinction that generates the energy to transform spiritually.
Spiritual growth means a kind of expansion, leaving behind — but including — the small, conditioned, fearful, and narrow self of our personality, and at the same time opening to the ever deeper, higher and wider perspective of the true Self. It has to do with moving through and past our fears, into a realm of increasing acceptance and awareness.
For each type this happens differently, mainly because the fear crippling each type is manifested in different ways. Each type gets stuck in a particular passion which distorts its perception of reality and conditions our reaction to events. For gut types (8, 9, 1) this primal fear is expressed as anger, for heart types (2, 3, 4) it exudes shame, and for head types (5, 6, 7) the fear is compounded. Then each type has its own particular mode of reactivity: 8 - lust, 9 - sloth, 1 - resentment, 2 - pride, 3 - deceit, 4 - envy, 5 - avarice, 6 - , and 7 - gluttony.
Once the person becomes aware of what is blocking and constricting them, they are able to turn and act otherwise. Not that this is as simple as it sounds. Usually simply being cognitively aware of these patterns does not automatically change behavior or ways of thinking. In fact, this movement from the closed, small, narrow, limited, and fearful self into the greater Self of essence, is basically the whole journey.
At first this is done by simply becoming the best and most healthy person we can be, whatever our type. This involves attention to where we find ourselves on the different levels of health. We continually “catch” ourselves acting out of our fear and exhibiting characteristics of falling into unhealthy levels, and are thus empowered to change and reverse our direction. Often this takes remarkable strength and courage, since it means breaking with life-long patterns and habits. In the beginning we are usually quite inept at it. But with time and practice, it is possible to “not go there” with respect to unhealthy and destructive behaviors.
The more healthy we become the more we start integrating the best qualities of the other types, in the order of the inner lines of the Enneagram symbol. Our self-identification thus broadens and becomes more widely inclusive. As Rumi said, “The breadth of our perception determines the effectiveness of our action.” The higher we go up the scale of health, the farther we can see, therefore enabling wiser and better informed actions.
A lot of this is what the great religions have always talked about, using different symbols and stories. The Enneagram itself emerges out of, or draws from, several spiritual traditions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and 20th century psychotherapy. In other words, we can begin to access the benefits and wisdom of these traditions, without the institutional and historical baggage that often alienates people.
And as a practicing Christian, I suspect that something like this — a community of soul healing based on self-awareness — is what Jesus had in mind in the first place.