Remembering Don Richard Riso

It has been 10 years since Don Richard Riso, a founder of The Enneagram Institute, passed away on August 30, 2012. On this occasion, Brian Taylor and Russ Hudson share some personal reflections about Don, his contributions to the study and development of the Enneagram, and his impact on the Enneagram community.

On September 2, 1975, while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Don Riso made a vow that he would dedicate the remainder of his life to the study and development of the Enneagram.  Starting with a handful of sketchy, yet enticing, notes which he had first encountered two years earlier, he resolved to see whether these elementary concepts, if studied, corrected, expanded, and refined, could be reconciled with contemporary psychological theory.  After twelve years of reading, conceptualizing, writing, rewriting, enthusiasm, frustration, and excitement, his first book, Personality Types, appeared in 1987.  Other best-selling books would soon follow, along with workshops, seminars, and trainings, and a host of international Enneagram students and colleagues, the most important of whom is without doubt his teaching partner and collaborator, Russ Hudson.

Russ shares his remembrances and gratitude for Don in a separate piece which accompanies this one.  We were both astounded that this August 30, 2022 is already the tenth anniversary of Don’s passing.

Don’s work was always original, elegant, precise, masterfully expressed yet always accessible. He introduced new theories and terms to describe the nine basic Types, all of which have been subsequently embraced by others in the Enneagram field, frequently without any awareness of the source of these insights and discoveries.  Such concepts include, among others, the “basic Type,” “primary” and “secondary” Types, “characteristic temptation,” “saving grace,” “missing piece,” “lost childhood message”, the “Hornevian Groups”, the “Harmonic Groups”, “Basic Fear”, and “Basic Desire”.  Utilization of these descriptive expressions, Don felt, provided a clearer understanding for points of comparison among the Types, while also affording more specific support for students to explore what lies beyond ego structure. 

Perhaps his greatest contributions are the Levels of Development which reveal the “inner logic” of each type, clarifying the possibilities of growth that freedom from ego can provide, and the Core Dynamics, a powerful interlocking system of fears and desires with corresponding attitudes and behaviors at each Level that link that Level to those Levels above and below it in a movement toward or away from Presence.

Always warm, kind, wise, personal, patient, and compassionate in his teaching, he exemplified the highest qualities of the Enneagram.  One of his students observed on Facebook at the time of his passing, “He soothed my fears, he calmed my uncertainty, he opened his heart and, through that, he opened mine. He was a beacon in the dark, a hand when I needed it…. You brought out the best in me and loved the worst—the part that needed loving the most.”

Don was a heart-filled and thoughtful individual, aware of himself, his strengths, and his weaknesses, and, most importantly, tireless in his dedication to helping each of us uncover the more conscious aspects of our True Self.

As Don wrote in his private, and as yet unpublished, notes, “Great things will be done in and through us if we give ourselves to the Powers that want to work through us.”

Rest in peace, my dearest friend, and thank you.  I love you and miss you.


Don’s desk in Cambridge, MA, c. 1976, when he was beginning work on Personality Types.

It is hard to believe that we are now ten years away from Don Richard Riso’s untimely passing. The years since that day in late August 2012 have been quite a ride, with many highs and lows for me and for The Enneagram Institute. But I think this anniversary is a good time to reflect on who Don was and on the impact that he had on the Enneagram world.

One very positive thing that I notice these days is that there is a growing recognition in the Enneagram field of just how enormous Don’s contributions were. More and more, across discussions on social media, and in published writings and articles, I am seeing Enneagram teachers and students grasping how much the current explosion of interest in the subject rests on work that Don did on his own in the 70s and 80s and later when I joined him starting in the 90s. Increasingly, people are recognizing the importance and brilliance of Don’s work with the Levels of Development, and the great care with which he sought to carefully describe the psychological patterns and mechanisms of each of the types. I cannot really imagine what the field would be without his pioneering work, and it is likely that, without it, I would not have been interested enough in it to make it a significant part of my own life’s work. I see the imprint of Don’s work in a myriad of Enneagram writings and teachings, and whether acknowledged or not, his contributions to Enneagram studies remain pivotal.

Don considered himself first and foremost a writer. And there was seldom a day that he was not engaged in that practice. I was always amazed at his fluidity and ease with taking ideas and giving them verbal expression, as well as his musicality with language. Don knew when a sentence sounded right, but also when it flowed. As a good Enneagram Four, he was seeking a beauty in his prose, even when describing something technical. This was certainly true in his published books, but was also true in the letters and private communications some of us were lucky enough to receive. Don really did do his best to create a life of beauty, richness, and heartfulness, and to share this with anyone who was interested. You might celebrate him by picking up one of his books and savoring the language he used to convey these human truths.

Another huge contribution from Don was his spirit—the way that he approached the material, and the way he sought always to be a support for his students. Don enjoyed teaching and was masterful in his presentations, but was even more gifted in one-on-one sessions, and he steered many students and clients toward healing and better lives. His warmth, depth of experience, and humor won the day on many occasions. Along similar lines, Don had a great humility around his journey with the Enneagram. He knew that he did not know everything there was to know about it—really, who could? He was willing to learn, to ask questions, and to change his views when a better expression or theory came up, whether from his own mind or from another teacher. This openness led to many new discoveries and to many of the gems that found their way into his books and writings.  My hope is that the newer generation of Enneagram presenters will continue with Don’s receptiveness and humble attitude.

As a Four, Don was indeed a person of deep feelings—sometimes passionate, sometimes expansive. But this also made him an extraordinary friend. When I think of him now, I am of course grateful for the incredible gift of our work together—both the writing and teaching, and the repartee and rapid exchange of ideas that we were well known for. But I also think much of what became important elements of our teaching came from our wide-ranging and largely unedited conversations. We could talk about anything and did! When either one of us was grappling with an idea or having some new extraordinary experience—inner or outer—we would always tell each other first. One of the ways I miss Don every day lies in this. When I am seeing something wonderful in my travels, or having some new insight into human nature, the first thing that comes to my mind is to tell him about it. And honestly, I do. And I feel somewhere, he is receiving that and sending me back his responses. We had some difficulties here and there, as will occur in any long-term friendship, but my overall memory of our time together is one of joy, of discovery, of a lightness of heart, and most of all, a profound gratitude. As I look back on my own journey, it is clear what a central figure Don has been and remains.

The last quality I feel called to remember at this time is Don’s loyalty and devotion. He was certainly devoted to the teaching and dissemination of the Enneagram, but he was also deeply spiritual, and profoundly devoted to God. People do not always remember that he came to the Enneagram from approximately twelve years of Jesuit seminary training, and while his spiritual journey went through many transformations, his devotion to God only grew stronger. It was central and powerful in the time of his passing. Don was also devoted to his friends and loved ones. He curated his inner circle and sought to be there for his intimates in every way he could. His long-time devotion and loyalty to his life-partner and spouse, Brian Taylor, was exemplary—a real example of what a long-term relationship can be. It was powerfully moving to me to see the life that Don and Brian cultivated together, building a solid foundation from their relationship that touched positively on many other areas of life, and without which, Don’s work with the Enneagram would most likely not have come to fruition.

Looking back on all of it today, on my meeting with Don back in 1988, on Don and Brian’s partnership and all that grew from it, on the ways in which a deeper sense of spirit and calling kept encouraging all of us on to the next step of the path, it all seems providential. I felt then and feel now that our time together was somehow destined, and every day feel gratitude for our shared journey, and for what came through us to reach the world.

I hope you are resting in peace and love, Don. You are missed every day.