The Enneagram of Wholeness: The Centers and the Levels of Development as Tools for Awakening

Click here for The Stages of the Work

The Real Meaning and Purpose of the Levels of Development
Most of us originally discover the Enneagram as a typology: it draws meaningful distinctions about the nine different ways that people approach their lives and relationships. We learn how an Enneagram type Two (The Helper) is different from an Enneagram type Five (the Investigator). We learn to distinguish between these different types and, in the process, find the one that most fits our own temperament. As many people now know, finding our own basic personality type can be a fascinating journey of discovery. It can also help us recognize many unrecognized features of our personalities as well as of the personalities of the important people in our lives.

More profoundly, the Enneagram is a map of wholeness, a way of recognizing and investigating different dimensions of our inner experience. Quite literally, all nine of the Enneagram types operate within each of us. Some of them are part of our familiar self-image, while others remain more unconscious and obscure. But when we say, for instance, that “I am an Enneagram Seven,” we are really saying that type Seven is dominant in our personalities — not that it is the only type we need concern ourselves with. In other words, it would be more accurate to say that our type is really our basic type and that the other eight types are energies that also manifest themselves in our overall psyches to varying degrees. Understanding this has profound implications for how we use the Enneagram on ourselves and with others.

Indeed, the Enneagram symbol itself suggests how the nine types are not merely “points,” but facets of a dynamic and deeply interrelated wholeness. The nine energies flow from one to another in specific and meaningful ways. Indeed, the Fourth Way tradition from which the Enneagram is drawn teaches the symbol not as nine static categories but as a mandala of dynamic unity. Likewise, our approach emphasizes the fluid, growth-oriented aspects of the Enneagram, both as a way of moving beyond simply categorizing people and as a way of opening us up to a more direct experience of the qualities of Living Presence that move in all of us.

Our primary interest is in using this system as a tool and guide for exploring the depths of the human soul. Our ego fixations, while important to understand, are not the ultimate focus of our interest. (The personality is necessary in the course of our development as human beings, but is not the part of us the can bring fulfillment, wisdom, peace, love, strength, or any of the other qualities that comprise what Gurdjieff called “a person without quotation marks.”) We do not see the development of the ego or the personality as a mistake, but as a necessary stage in the development and maturation of a human being — and as a stepping stone toward a deeper realization of our True Nature. We also agree that as all spiritual traditions teach, paradoxically, the ego is also a barrier, an obscuration of the truth of who we are. It is in distinguishing the real role and nature of the ego-personality from our Essential nature that the Enneagram can be most helpful.

Rightly understood, our basic type is the primary way that we attempt to compensate for a lack of contact with the depths of our Being. Each person undergoes a gradual loss of this contact with Being in early childhood, and this loss is felt as utterly catastrophic — a leaving of our personal “Eden” — giving rise to the three central, underlying emotional reactions of the ego: rage, fear, and shame. The subsequent loss of direct awareness of Being and the development of the nine archetypal egoic patterns are interrelated and are necessary in every child’s development. But they are also the sources of our deepest hurts, terrors, and insecurities. To cope with these profound losses and with the extremely painful feelings they engender, each person draws upon their innate temperament to develop specific strategies for minimizing the pain of their loss — and also for dealing with whatever parental and social deficits existed in their childhood environment.

Ultimately, our egos are only partially effective at shielding us from the results of our loss of contact with our True Nature. If the early holding environment created by our caregivers was adequate, we grow up with a functional ego that allowed us to get through life without too much discomfort. Even so, many of us remain restless: we have a nagging feeling that something essential is missing, that we are not experiencing the deepest levels of our identity or of reality. Our dissatisfaction with conventional reality and with our assumed identities can become a “fire in our hearts” — a burning desire to awaken to the truth of reality and of our place in it. We become willing to move against the tide of what we have been conditioned to believe is “true” and “real.” Only then do we become ready to face the enormous gap between who we have taken ourselves to be and the truth of who and what we really are.

As originally presented, the Enneagram spoke to this dichotomy between what is real in us, our Essence, and what is borrowed and unreal in us, our ego or personality. Specifically, Oscar Ichazo taught the Enneagrams (or “enneagons” in his terminology) of the Virtues and the Holy Ideas as reflections of Essence as well as the enneagons of the Passions and the Fixations as reflections of the ego-personality. One of the hallmarks of the great spiritual traditions is that the quality of Presence distinguishes the Essential from the egoic, the real from the illusory. Knowing the difference between the two is at the core of any authentic spiritual teaching. In Enneagram terms, to the extent that we are aware of the truth of what is here and now, in our bodies, in our hearts, and in our minds, we are moving toward Essence or Being.

But the movement between “essence” and “personality” is not a simple on-off switch. Most people (who are, after all, usually deeply identified with their personality and its issues) do not suddenly “decide” to shift their attention and thus arrive at a profound state of realization and spiritual liberation. Of course, spontaneous break-throughs and other kinds of epiphanies do occur, but they are relatively rare and cannot be counted on. More often, people live within a certain continuum of personality consciousness that they take to be themselves. The continuum of a person’s consciousness may include states of clarity and transparent Presence, states of mild ego identification, deeper states of reactivity and mechanicality, states of deep self-alienation, suffering, and self-destructiveness — and everything in between. In short, in any given moment, we are more or less present and more or less in contact with Being. The less present we are, the more we become completely identified with our personality and caught in the web of illusions and self-defeating patterns that ultimately make it up.

Beginning in 1973, Don Riso was developing the idea that each of the nine Enneagram types had to have different manifestations depending on the degree of a person’s psychological health at a given time. This was based on the observation that a person might be healthy (or high-functioning), average (or “normal”), or unhealthy (and destructive of self and others) depending on what was motivating him or her at any given time. He also observed that while people’s basic type tended to remain the same throughout life, as Enneagram theory said, their state within the continuum of their type fluctuated a great deal from day to day, as well as during the whole of a person’s life. He saw that in each type, the continuum contained observable and predictable clusters of traits that a person of that type constantly moved among. The Levels of Development provided a way of tracking each type’s movement along a continuum toward more freedom, consciousness, and Being in the higher Levels — nor toward more reactivity, self-destructiveness, and compulsivity in the lower ones.

In 1977, Don worked out the fundamental patterns of the Levels and their meanings. He realized that each layer of the healthy, average, and unhealthy ranges of Levels had within it three subordinate Levels, thus yielding a total of nine Levels for each type. (The nine Levels do not refer to the nine types. For example, a person who is a type Six personality is not going to be more likely to be at Level Six, nor is there anything about Level Six that is particularly characteristic of type Six individuals.)


With this important addition to the Enneagram, the system acquired a more complete way of describing human personality. In the language of the pioneering philosopher of consciousness, Ken Wilbur, the Levels of Development give the Enneagram a necessary vertical dimension. (By contrast, the traditional Enneagram offers only a set of horizontal distinctions — that one type differs from each other type in certain ways, as defined by their characteristic “Passion” and Fixation” and other related characteristics. As relatively limited as this information is, the fact that there are nine distinct personality types that can be described in relatively clear and simple terms — and that these types have fundamentally different approaches to life — is an extremely powerful insight, as anyone who has studied the Enneagram knows.)


By introducing this vertical axis to the types, the Levels make room in Enneagram theory for some of the most important things that we find in human nature itself: evolution, change, fluidity, compulsion, conflict, contradiction, paradox, continuity, choice, freedom, and mystery — among many other truly human qualities. A person who knows the Levels of their type can recognize where they are on the continuum of consciousness in a given moment — and how they can move toward a deeper realization of their Being. Ken Wilbur has stated that only with this vertical dimension taken into account does the Enneagram system move toward being a complete psychology.

The “engine” that moves each type down the Levels is the interplay of fear and desire at each Level, starting with the Basic Fear and Basic Desire of each type. (More profoundly, the patterns of reinforcing fears and desires represent the ego’s attempts to find something real on which to base its own existence. Ironically, and tragically, this actually only creates a “flight from the self” which undermines the person’s ability to reground in reality. The further a person goes down the Levels, becoming caught in the web of personality, the more difficult it is to experience Being, truth, or freedom — among many other Essential qualities.) Thus, the Levels are not simply a description of each type’s move toward a deeper identification with the ego and its defenses — but are a way of illuminating humanity’s psychological and spiritual enmeshment in the worlds of fear, attachment, and illusion.

Each Level can be seen as a measure of the degree of our ego fixation. Going down the Levels we encounter increasing identification with the structures and defenses of the personality. Going up the Levels we see the stages of inner development and maturation of the self. By combining the horizontal distinctions of the Enneagram with the vertical distinctions of the Levels, we arrive at a system that shows the unique pattern by which each type develops or falls into deeper identification with the ego. (Interestingly, each Instinct (self-preservation, sexual, and social) also manifests differently depending on the Level of the person.)

There are many other important practical implications of the Levels. We have written about them in all of our books, although the most explicit, systematic treatment can be found in the revised second edition of Personality Types (Houghton-Mifflin, 1996). The following chart provides a very brief synopsis of what occurs at each Level.

Levels of Development Chart

1 Level of Liberation: Ego Transcended — Balance & Freedom
2 Level of Psychological Capacity: Ego is Identified with as the basis of a Particular Mode of Being
Level of Social Gift: Ego Operating in a Constructive Way, Successfully Sublimating
Level of Fixation: Losing Contact with Presence and Awareness, the Beginning of “Sleep” — as Ego-Role assumed
Level of Interpersonal Conflict: Ego Controlling Environment to  get its needs met — Manipulative & Defended
Level of Overcompensation: Ego Inflation, Aggressive defense of Ego-Identity. Demanding that others/reality support the ego-agenda
Level of Violation: Ego willing to violate self and others to maintain itself. Abusive, Devaluing, Desperate (Serious pathology arises)
Level of Delusion and Compulsion: Ego-self out of Control and Out of Touch with Reality (Major Personality Disorders)
Level of Pathological Destructiveness: Extreme Pathology or death (Psychosis)

As Russ Hudson began working with Don in the late 1980’s, they began to realize that the means of moving people up the Levels of Development was the depth and quality of Presence that could be awakened in the person. Concomitantly, the lack of Presence, the lack of awareness of what one was doing and feeling in the here and now, was the primary way by which one became trapped in increasing identification with the images and defenses of the ego structures. It also followed that using the Levels to alert people to behavior that indicated that they were losing Presence could function as an “alarm clock” to call them back to the present moment, and thus, move them up the Levels.

This also revealed what was useful about knowing one’s basic type. The issues of the basic type could be relied on to show up over and over again with astonishing persistence. Awareness of these issues could thus serve as a constant reminder to “wake up” in the present moment — to emerge from the ego’s limited perspective and to re-engage contact with other aspects of the person’s experience. For instance, a Four (caught in a deep identification with an emotional reaction) could recognize her state as simply a manifestation of her ego dynamics at a particular Level. She could breathe more deeply and thus come into greater contact with physical sensation. Breathing and reconnecting with herself physically could break the “Four trance” in the moment and allow her to not continue to act out her Four-ish reactions. By not acting out, she would gain perspective and awareness of herself — and her newly freed awareness would be able to operate at a higher Level of Development, one that was in greater contact with Being in the moment. Indeed, as soon as we are becoming more present, we are moving up the Levels.

Of course, the issues of one’s basic type are never the only patterns that crop up. As we become more skilled in observing our reactions and self-images, we will inevitably discover our own inner One, our inner Two, our inner Three, and so forth, no matter what our basic type may be. To think that one is free of issues around aggression because one is not a type Eight, or that one does not have issues with judgment because one is not a type One is folly. Further, as we understand each of these components of ourselves with kindness and compassion, we are better able to be with others regardless of their type, and to facilitate their own discovery from a place of gentleness and understanding.

Further, the Levels teach us to be patient with our process. While it is indeed possible to have moments where we are graced to experience ourselves beyond the confines of our ego identities, these experiences seldom last for long. Usually traces of them remain, but we often end up either frustrated with ourselves for having “lost” our higher state of consciousness, or we go around acting as if we were still in a state of enlightenment. Both of these are big traps in Inner Work. They can be avoided, however, if we learn to be more awake and non-judgmental about our actual behavior and manifestations in this very moment.

The Levels can help us focus on the real — on the truth of what is really happening in us — so that our Inner Work can become more grounded. Once we stop criticizing ourselves for not being enlightened, we can actually become interested in exploring the truth of our experience in the here and now — the real condition of our soul. As we continue to do this, our spiritual realizations gradually begin to affect all the different parts of our personalities — especially those parts of ourselves that are not particularly interested in spiritual work. With patience and humility, we are gradually transformed, and those higher states cease being “experiences” that come and go. They start to become the very core of what is living our lives.

The Levels can really support us in this process because they can help us to see important developments in our inner work that we might otherwise fail to notice. While we fluctuate up and down the Levels constantly, at any given time in our life we usually have a particular Level that feels the most familiar. It is the one that we tend to return to, all things being equal. We call this familiar Level our Center of Gravity.

The more we observe ourselves, the more we will also notice other interesting dynamics. If we drop below our Center of Gravity to a lower Level, we feel stressed and uncomfortable. We might recall that in the past, this lower Level was our Center of Gravity: it felt normal to us at that time. Now, however, this lower Level feels like an endarkenment and we generally would not choose to be in this state for long. Interestingly, a movement in the reverse direction is also strangely uncomfortable. For example, if we were to rise above our Center of Gravity momentarily (because we were at a particularly good workshop or in the presence of a true spiritual teacher), we might feel wonderful, but out new state does not feel like us. Our higher Level is truly a more free and unbounded state, but we do not yet know how to hold it or to incorporate it into ourselves. Our higher Level’s state becomes something fleeting, like a drug experience. This is why it takes many such experiences of being free and unencumbered by our usual ego-personality at the higher Levels before we trust the truth of our Being. Until then, we will return to our usual Center of Gravity (wherever it may be along the continuum) because it feels like our old familiar self.

But here again, the Levels help us to understand a profound spiritual truth: that shifting our state is not the same as having a real, transformative spiritual experience. Indeed, the point of Inner Work is not to merely shift our state, but to shift the very stage of our consciousness, our Center of Gravity. Transformation is the process of moving our consciousness up the Levels within our type until we gradually leave the realm of personality and move into the realm of Essence. Of course, moving our Center of Gravity up even one Level is an enormous accomplishment and everything in life changes when we do so. While it is necessary to have experiences of the higher Levels, this is not the same thing as living in them. To shift our Center of Gravity permanently entails a profound reorganization of our sense of self, and everything that holds it in place. If we are sincerely on the path toward the Real, we will experience many such shifts — each the result of years of Inner Work, and each a beautiful fruition of the transformational process.

From this perspective, the point of the Enneagram is to guide us to an ongoing and direct experience of Being itself. The structures of our personality are useful in this work in as much as they serve to remind us to continually return to the here and now. Here, too, the Levels are useful signposts. We can see that the Levels correspond to the traditional Sufi teaching of the Three Journeys. In this teaching, the first journey is the Journey TO Presence. (The seeker is trying to remember the Beloved amidst the tidal waves of ego activity and mental chatter. He is struggling to remember that he can be present and awake to the mystery that surrounds him. He sees that his ego seems to forever have other plans and devalues taking even a moment to find out what is actually the truth occurring in and within him.)

The second journey is the Journey WITH Presence. (At this stage, Presence is more stabilized as part of the seeker’s ongoing sense of herself and of reality. The seeker experiences a relationship with Presence, much like the relationship with a lover. Sometimes the relationship is intimate and deeply satisfying. At other times, the seeker feels more distant or possibly even frustrated, but still the seeker remains aware that the lover, the Beloved, is always near.)

The third Journey is the Journey AS Presence. (At this stage, the seeker arrives at a true realization of the non-dual nature of reality and knows that what he is as his deepest identity IS the Presence itself. He understands in a clarity beyond words that he and the Beloved are one, and always have been. This is the condition of union mystics speak of and that is possible for everyone to remember and regain if we allow ourselves to move into the depths of our own soul. When we do so, we directly experience the Oneness of Being, not merely as a philosophical or spiritual position, but as a lived reality.)

The chart below shows the Levels and the Three Journeys. Note that the three unhealthy Levels require a different work — the repair and support of the basic ego identity. For many people, this is a necessary part of their Inner Work. The healing process is part of every path, and is profoundly spiritual in its own right.



Of course, Level 1, the Level of Liberation is not the end of the journey, but marks the beginning of the journey “as Presence.” Attaining Level 1 is merely the end of the range of experience where it is meaningful to talk about personality. Thus, Level 1 is not a “finish line,” as if there could ever be one.

In the same vein, to speak of oneself, or another, as “enlightened” in the sense that someone has no more to learn, nothing more to realize, is not the deepest truth. From Level 1 onward, Being continues to unfold its mysteries with greater beauty and magnificence. Indeed, True Nature is infinite, personal, immediate, and timeless — it is therefore highly unlikely that it could be entirely realized or explored in the course of a single human life. As we understand this, we relax into the moment, we breathe, and we open ourselves to what the vast, mysterious, loving Reality is showing in this moment — the only one we really have.

For an expanded example of the Levels for Type 8, click here.

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