Using the Enneagram with Judith Searle


© 1997 by Judith Searle

 Many writers on the Enneagram have pointed out contrasts, connections and complementarities between the symmetrical left and right halves of the diagram, and my understanding of the system owes much to their observations. Even more intriguing to me is the lack of symmetry between the top and bottom halves, with the Nine point at the top of the figure directly opposite the gap at the bottom between Four and Five, which is the largest physical space between any two adjacent points on the diagram.

 What are we to make of this imbalance? I ask myself. In what way does Nine represent the complement or opposite of the open space? 

  Most commentators on the Enneagram of personality agree that the Nine point represents a combination of the other eight fixations or styles. If we say that each of the points represents a strategy and the Nine point represents a combination of these strategies, then what threat are all these defenses designed to counter? 

 It seems to me that the gap at the bottom of the diagram must represent the void. It has been here with us all along, hiding in plain sight.

 Mystics, poets, novelists, psychologists and philosophers have characterized this emptiness at the heart of human existence in various ways: "the hole," "existential anxiety," "the silence," "the abyss," the "dark night of the soul," "absolute zero," "death." When Joseph Conrad at the end of his classic novella Heart of Darkness writes about "the horror," it is perhaps this vision of ultimate nothingness he has in mind.

 So terrifying is this sense of emptiness underlying our lives that each of us has to devise a way of denying it, inventing for ourselves an identity, a form of provisional Being to counter the ultimate Nothingness. In a sense, we are like children inventing various strategies to distract ourselves from the threat of the bogeyman. 

 Distilled to their essence, the possible defenses against the specter of nonexistence are limited; they number nine in all:

 o One says, "If I can make myself and everything around me perfect, maybe I will be safe."

 o Two says, "If I can make others love me and depend on me, maybe I will be safe."

 o Three says, "If I can establish a public image of myself as a successful person, maybe I will be safe."

 o Four says, "If I can make friends with the darkness and become a connoisseur of my own pain, maybe I will be safe."

 o Five says, "If I can keep my mind focused on grasping the world's complexities, maybe I will be safe."

 o Six says, "If I can stay alert to all possible dangers and find trustworthy allies, maybe I will be safe."

 o Seven says, "If I can distract myself with pleasure and avoid thinking about the threat, maybe I will be safe."

 o Eight says, "If I can intimidate and dominate others, maybe I will be safe."

 o Nine says, "If I can keep an open mind about all possible strategies, maybe I will be safe."

 In each of these statements, the "maybe" represents the chink in our best suit of armor. Shakespeare in his play Richard II gives an eloquent summary of this aspect of the human condition:

             ...for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antick sits
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and killed with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humoured thus
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle-wall, and farewell king!
     (III, ii, 155) 
 The strongest clue to the nature of the empty space at the bottom of the diagram lies in what is directly opposite it: the peaceable kingdom of Nine, in which much energy is devoted to denying the negative aspects of life. For Nine the combination of all eight strategies leads to a kind of immobilization that makes me think of the myriad thin strings, each in tension, that immobilize Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. This immobilization-in-tension serves as a living counterpoint to the immobilization-in-lack-of-tension that we see in death.

 Several analogies may be useful in discussing the nature (and necessity) of this essential opposition/complementarity between the Nine "all that is" and the ultimate nothingness. Certainly it is intriguing to note the parallel with the zero/sum or zero/one aspect of modern mathematics, which many writers have observed is the basis for the internal structure of the Enneagram diagram (in terms of the way the directions of the arrows relate to common patterns of human psychodynamics). Figure/ground and yang/yin also have interesting resonances with the Nine/gap relationship.

 Two further analogies I find especially useful are the connections and complementarities between sound/silence and light/darkness.

 In a sense, the darkness of the empty space between Four and Five provides the essential context for viewing the spectrum of light in the nine Enneagram points. Each of the points One through Eight has a skewed view of reality (as if seeing reality illuminated by light of a particular color, so that it is not possible for any of these points to view reality in its true aspect). Directly opposite the absolute darkness of the gap is the Nine's white light, which combines all the colors of the other eight points. The Nine, seeing with "equal eye," is so dazzled that the image of reality dissolves in light and cannot be focused on clearly. So Nine's vision of the truth is ultimately just as distorted as that of the other eight types. 

 To use the analogy of sound, we may say that points One through Eight play a melody in different musical keys, with Nine playing the same tune in all keys at once; at the bottom of the diagram, in opposition to this flood of dissonant sound, is silence. 

 Both light and music have a relationship to rates of vibration (motion), with the gap between Four and Five representing absolute stillness, which may be what T.S. Eliot was referring to when he wrote about "the still point of the turning world." His image of the center of a turning wheel also resonates with the circularity of the Enneagram diagram.

 Just as light is inconceivable without darkness and sound is inconceivable without silence, so life--in its nine basic aspects as charted by the Enneagram--is inconceivable without death. The gap at the bottom of the Enneagram diagram is, in a sense, the key to its deepest resonance. It is paradoxically the source of both the ultimate horror and the ultimate meaning in our lives.

 It is possible to see the Enneagram figure as a stylized human body (in a loose relationship to Leonardo's famous drawing), with the head at Nine and legs at Four and Five. If we follow the implications of this idea, the gap is, in a very real sense, the anus at the bottom of the world through which we all must ultimately be expelled. But it can also be seen as the birth canal through which we all enter. Stanislav Grof, among others, has pointed out the psychological similarity between the classic near-death experience and the experience of birth--both of which often involve memories or images of moving through a tunnel toward a source of light.

 The Enneagram, viewed in this context, is a kind of geometric rendering of the only living creature that knows the inevitability of its own death.

  In view of this opposition between life and death at the heart of the diagram, it is possible to see in a different context the common problems that various commentators on the Enneagram have observed at points Four, Five and Nine.

 I would suggest that Four and Five, the two types that flank the gap, in a sense do not have wings to each other so much as each has one wing to the ultimate darkness. Both these types are notable for their problems with identity. Four solves the problem by defining its identity in its capacity for feeling, while Five defines its identity in its capacity for thought. But both are vulnerable, in their pathological levels, to a perceived "loss of self," a special relationship with the abyss.

 In the case of Four, there is a strong affinity with the dark places, as we see, for example, in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale":

                    . . . for many a time
   I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
   To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
   To cease upon the midnight with no pain . . . .
 I would suggest that Four actively seeks connection with the darkness as a way of "pumping up" feelings, then uses those heightened feelings as evidence of authenticity (and identity): "I am my feelings; look how strong and deep they are!"

 Five is as preoccupied with the void as Four, but Five's attitude is one of aversion, visible in the works of writers in the "horror" genre from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King. The last stanza of Robert Frost's "Desert Places" can serve as a succinct example of the Five perspective:

 They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
 Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
 I have it in me so much nearer home
 To scare myself with my own desert places.

 In contrast to Four, Five is fleeing from the panic engendered by the emptiness, trying to shape thoughts into a coherent system that might constitute an identity: "I am my thoughts; look how logical and reassuring they are!"

 In a sense, Nine is as vulnerable to a loss of self as Four and Five, but Nine's problem arises from the reverse situation: "flooding" rather than "emptiness." One might say that Nine lives across the street from the abyss, while Four and Five live next door to it. Or, to put the comparison in a Buddhist context, we might say that the Four has a craving for the void, the Five an aversion to it, the Nine ignorance (or confusion) about it. 

 All of which is not to suggest that Four, Five, and Nine have any more or less insight into ultimate truth than the rest of us--only that their particular problems may be clarified by seeing them in the "light" of the darkness at the bottom of the diagram. 

 Interesting as it is to observe particular points in relation to the gap at the bottom of the Enneagram, I find it even more intriguing to speculate about the implications of the gap as it relates to a broad range of human systems.

 I believe it is possible to see the range of possibilities within each category of system as fitting the template of the nine points (nine basic strategies to deal with the void). It seems evident that all religions have been devised by human beings as a response to the fact of mortality, and it would be an interesting exercise to lay out the world's belief systems on the Enneagram diagram. I believe the same is true of other systems such as philosophy, psychology, and government. 

 As I see it, the Enneagram diagram is not only a template for all human systems, it is also unique in the way it addresses the fundamental question of why we are driven to devise systems in the first place. In this sense, once we recognize the position of the void as a key element of the diagram, the Enneagram can serve as a kind of Unified Field Theory of human systems.

 As Bertrand Russell (a probable Five who understood philosophical systems as well as anyone who ever lived) put it, "Only upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."


The above article was published in the September 1997 issue of Enneagram Monthly.