The Enneagram is (Still) Having a Moment – But Where Did This Ancient System Come From?
I was 24 years old when I walked into a bookstore in Los Gatos, California and bought my first book about the Enneagram. I had never heard of the personality system, but the symbol on the cover intrigued me.
The timing could not have been better. Just months before, I learned that my live-in boyfriend was stealing money from me. The Florida vacation, the fancy dinners, and the expensive gifts were all being funded by money heisted from my own bank account.
I may have stumbled across the Enneagram by accident, but it became the best tool to help me understand what had happened. This ancient personality system is like the Rosetta Stone of human nature. It gave me a context and translation for what was otherwise mystifying behavior.
Why would a person steal from his girlfriend to take her on a vacation? The Enneagram offered an explanation.
What is the Enneagram and where does it come from?
The Enneagram is a system of human personality that helps to explain why people behave the way they do. It suggests that your experience in life is dictated largely by where your attention goes. The system is complex, but in its simplest terms, it outlines nine distinct habits of attention and how they influence behavior.
The information the Enneagram offered me was tremendously valuable, but as I learned more, I became curious about its roots. Who invented it? Where did it come from?
I quickly discovered that – it’s complicated. The origins of the Enneagram can’t be summarized in a sentence or two. To learn the history of the Enneagram, you enter a world of sacred geometry, esoteric mystery schools, ancient Greece, and Sufi wisdom.
To unravel the mystery of the Enneagram, I needed a guide, so I spoke with Enneagram educator Stephanie Davis.
Davis has been working with the system for over 30 years. She’s been certified with Helen Palmer/David Daniels, Eli Jaxon-Bear, and Tom Condon, and she’s trained with Russ Hudson and Don Riso. If you don’t recognize those names, don’t worry - it’s enough to know that they’re a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the Enneagram community.
But perhaps most intriguing, Davis was a member of one of Claudio Naranjo’s Seekers After Truth (SAT) groups. These groups were the starting point from which the Enneagram leaked out to become available to a larger audience.
Davis got right to the point. “There are many layers in understanding the Enneagram. There is the symbol as a geometric shape – a circle, a triangle, and a hexad which is derived through sacred geometry, probably dating back to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. But that’s just the symbol. No one was using the word “Enneagram” at that time.”
“In the 1900s, the Russian philosopher Gurdieff is the first person we know of who discussed movement and flow as part of the shape. It is not clear where he got this information, but we know he traveled extensively and studied in esoteric schools in the East. The symbol of the Enneagram is described as a schematic of perpetual motion, and I think of this as the ‘process Enneagram’.”
The Enneagram symbol - a universal map for any journey
If you’re familiar with Enneagram, you probably understand it as a personality assessment, much like the Myers and Briggs personality system or the Big Five. But aside from the nine types, there’s wisdom coming from the geometry and flow within the Enneagram symbol itself.
So much wisdom, in fact, that P.D. Oespensky, a Gurdieff scholar and author of In Search of the Miraculous declared that all knowledge can be included in the Enneagram. “For the man who is able to make use of it, the Enneagram makes books and libraries entirely unnecessary,” he wrote.
Davis offers a clearer explanation. “What he meant was that the Enneagram is a process map that you can lay different topics onto, and if you get the correct placement and flow of information on the symbol, you can have complete knowledge of the body of information. It’s profound when you really think about it.”
In other words, the Enneagram is both a noun and a verb. It’s a universal methodology you can apply to almost any body of knowledge.
When Enneagram met human psychology
What happened next is fascinating. Bolivian-born spiritual teacher Oscar Ichazo was introduced to Gurdieff’s concepts, including the dynamic Enneagram, in the 1950s. He studied with a diverse group who brought their knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Kabbalah and other Eastern philosophies to the Enneagram.
Independently, Ichazo had studied Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, and may also have been influenced by early Christian teachings. His knowledge base was vast.
“It was Ichazo who decided to lay the topic of human psychology onto the process map of the Enneagram,” Davis explains. “He developed the “Enneagram of Personality” which is what most of us think of when we hear the word ‘Enneagram.’”
“However, he didn’t focus on personality profiles as much as passions, virtues, and ego development. And it is important to remember that the use of Enneagram was just a small part of what Ichazo was teaching in his Arica school in Chile.”
Putting meat on the Enneagram’s bones
From the deserts of the Far East to the hills of Chile, the roots of the Enneagram were already proving to be deep and expansive.
Our next stop is the San Francisco Bay Area, where Ichazo’s student Claudio Naranjo taught as early as the 1970s. Davis was a member of one of his subsequent SAT groups, so I was eager to hear about her experience with him.
“Those SAT groups were intense! Naranjo didn’t teach the Enneagram directly–he never said "here’s an Enneagram seminar." He used the Enneagram as a tool for his broader teachings. He would break us into type groups a lot and use the system that way as we mined our shadow side and things like that.
Naranjo, a trained psychiatrist, learned about the Enneagram from Ichazo.
“He put meat on the bones of the framework. If Ichazo is the father of the Enneagram, Naranjo is the mother. Ichazo planted the seed and Naranjo birthed, if you will, the psychological descriptions of the nine types. Based on his own training, his influences, and his experience, he fleshed out the nine personality styles and then the 27 subtype descriptions,” Davis explains.
From here, I knew the story well, as it is part of Enneagram lore. Naranjo’s small, exclusive SAT groups from the 1970s, much like the one Stephanie was in later, were supposed to keep the information secret.
But the secret leaked out, and more and more people began learning about the Enneagram – but the paths went in a few different directions.
Different lineages, same landing place
One place the Enneagram went is to the Jesuit community. Robert Ochs, a Jesuit, learned about the Enneagram from Ichazo and Naranjo’s work. He spread the information and, by the late 1980s, the Enneagram had become entrenched within the Jesuit community. Don Riso, a Jesuit seminarian, got the bare-bones notes and spent years in independent research and study, exploring how to apply the skeleton frame to more practical applications.
In 1987, Riso published a book, Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. This is the first of many books he authored on the Enneagram – and the book I picked up in the Los Gatos bookstore.
A year later, in 1988, Helen Palmer, an intuition teacher studying the work of Naranjo, published The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and Others in Your Life. Palmer’s work is part of the ‘Narrative Tradition’ lineage of the Enneagram. Davis explains what that means. “Helen applied Naranjo’s concepts to the narrative style she used in her intuition training to develop a more narrative-focused Enneagram. This was based on people sharing their experience to illustrate their Enneagram type.”
Impressively, while both the Jesuit lineage and the Narrative Tradition lineage had different development paths, they landed in much the same place when it came to describing a high-level overview of the nine personality types.
Enneagram in the 21st century
In 2013, Beatrice Chestnut wrote the highly influential book The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge. This book uses the teachings of Naranjo and gives us the first published descriptions, in detail, of the 27 subtype personality profiles.
I asked Chestnut about what inspired her to write The Complete Enneagram.
“I never set out to study the subtypes, but in 2004 when Claudio Naranjo presented on the topic at the International Enneagram Conference, I was really surprised by the way he described the 27 personality profiles. He added so much more detail and information to what I had heard described before.”
“Naranjo and his associates at that conference helped me see that I was a self-preservation Type 2, which I never knew before. This was tremendously useful information – it was like I got a whole new angle into my own mind. When I learned my subtype, I went on a mission to learn everything I could about Naranjo’s approach. I wanted everyone to have access to this subtype teaching because it helped me so much. I’m a researcher, so I pointed my analytical skills at finding and analyzing every piece of information I could find that Naranjo had said or written about the subtypes. This was the basis for my book.”
In the end, what did the Enneagram teach me about my boyfriend?
It turns out, many things. As I studied the system, I learned about wings, arrows, subtypes and more. Eventually I found the Enneagram levels of development, the high and low side of each of the nine habits of attention. During this study, I found my boyfriend.
He was likely a very unhealthy Type 3 Achiever, obsessively focused on image and playing a role. He wanted to look like the “perfect boyfriend”: someone who would buy his girlfriend a Dalmatian puppy, take her to Disney World and treat her to nice dinners. The fact he didn’t have the money to do that became part of the web of deceit that unhealthy Type 3s can build.
The Enneagram offered me a path to healing, as it has for many others. Perhaps this is why the fact there is no clear answer to where the Enneagram came from has never bothered me.
What’s more exciting is the future. As Helen Palmer wrote in the foreword to Ginger Lapid-Bogda’s book Bringing Out the Best in Yourself at Work, “The Enneagram is arguably the oldest human development system on the planet, and like all authentic maps of consciousness, it finds new life in the conceptual world of each succeeding generation.”
Its roots may be mysterious, but the Enneagram seems to have its moment for every generation. And that means we can look forward to many new spins on this fascinating – and ancient – personality system.
Now you know the roots of this fascinating personality system, why not try it out for yourself? Take the Enneagram test here to discover your type in minutes, and gain valuable insights for life.