Romancing the Enneagram

We’ve all done it—taught and written that the Enneagram has been transmitted from an ancient oral source. At the end of Discovering Your Personality Type, even I gave thanks to “those ancient masters who have handed down to us the profound wisdom of the Enneagram.”

I can now see that this was mistaken, and that the truth of the origins of the Enneagram is both simpler and more complex than that. The reason for the confusion is that most authors either state or clearly imply that the Enneagram is an “ancient Sufi teaching,” with the further implication that it has been transmitted through a long-standing “oral tradition.” Whereas there are valid traditions that use the plain symbol of the Enneagram (the Gurdjieff Work for example), it has not yet been shown that any tradition, including that of the Sufis, was the sole origin of the Enneagram personality material as we now know it. While the symbol itself has been traced to ancient times, most of the associated language, ideas, and descriptions are contemporary and are based on the types as presented by Oscar Ichazo. Confusion has arisen by blurring the distinction between the ancient Enneagram symbol and the modern psychological applications that have subsequently been developed.

For various reasons, most of us Enneagram writers have been guilty of promoting the Enneagram as an ancient Sufi system. No doubt at one time we were all sincere in believing that the Enneagram teachings came from the Sufis, as the early folk lore surrounding the early Enneagram had it. Emphasizing its alleged Sufi roots lent the system a certain cachet and air of mystery. It also gave the Enneagram something of the weight of authority and the believability of being part of a tradition teaching. However, propagating this vague, romantic view of its lineage has been harmful to those of us who have been engaged in doing original work with it.

The problem is that those who are doing original work are seen as merely transmitting an existing body of knowledge that is in the public domain, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example. Many teachers and writers felt that they could therefore help themselves to the work of others with impunity.

No Ancient “Oral Tradition”
A bit of reflection and some basic research will reveal a fact that all the major Enneagram teachers would probably acknowledge: the personality types as we now know them do not exist in an ancient “oral tradition.” In fact, most of the major teachers in the field have made statements to this effect.

In view of this fact, it is therefore necessary to distinguish between an “oral approach” or a “panel method” of teaching the Enneagram-both of which are certainly valid-and a continuous “oral tradition,” of which there really is none.

Credit for developing the Enneagram, as it is currently being taught around the world, must go to Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo, as well as other first-generation writers, not to mysterious Sufis from the distant past. Thus, while many Enneagram authors are aware of a wide range of spiritual traditions and have looked to them for inspiration, none of the first-generation authors has been supplied with secret teachings from an ancient Enneagram School. Indeed, most of what we now know as the Enneagram of personality types is the result of thousands of hours of work by individual authors using a wide variety of methods to gather and develop their material. For better or worse, there have been no Sheiks ringing our doorbells to deliver manuscripts from Afghanistan.

Until there is a direct, proven source to guide us, we must look to ourselves to discover what the Enneagram reveals about human nature. While we must be respectful of such “traditional teachings” as there are from Ichazo and Naranjo, even these are not “written in stone,” as it were. Many of their ideas were simply early formulations as they groped their way into the creation of the modern Enneagram.

Moreover, we can see that no single teaching method is more authentic or more historically sanctioned than any other. While the panels are useful as a way of introducing people to the system and giving beginners some concrete impressions of the types, they also have major shortcomings and only one or two major teachers even use the panels consistently. In short, it is clear that a variety of approaches to both teaching and learning the Enneagram is best. Russ Hudson and I are continually attempting to develop the Enneagram in new and useful directions and to present our findings in the clear and accessible books. Rather than look to the past, we continue to look to the future to see what clarity we can bring to Ichazo’s and Naranjo’s early ideas, as well as to the new ideas and practical applications we have developed ourselves.

However, as long as misinformation about the origins of the Enneagram continues to be propagated, plagiarism of materials and a spirit of mistrust will also continue. If cooperation is going to take place, we all need to acknowledge the work of others and the value of their different approaches. We need to stop spreading false information about the “oral tradition” and how the Sufi Enneagram is in the public domain. We need to have clarity, integrity, and the courage to challenge distortions and untruths. We need to stop “romancing the Enneagram.”
—Don Richard Riso