A First Encounter With The Enneagram: Part One

A First Encounter With The Enneagram: Part One
Words by Evan Barbee
Illustration by Chris Koelle

Invitations into “enlightenment” are often at hand. We are all visited by moments that crack into our awareness, stirring us awake to a greater sense of reality beyond our day-to-day routines. These burning bush moments that shift us powerfully, if not permanently, are often hidden among the small, unappreciated, or downright uncomfortable aspects of our life. Teacher, author, and psychotherapist Paula D’Arcy once said, “God comes to us disguised as our life.” My moment of encounter when the clouds parted and the dove descended was not obvious in its magnificence, but rather arrived quite rudely in the form of cholera while in India, and alongside the three most troublesome questions I had ever asked:


“Who am I?”

“What the hell am I doing with my life?”

“Why am I doing what I’m doing?”


These questions had driven me to India in the first place. Born to a large family in a small town, and growing up in an east Tennessee culture that swung conservative in both its politics and religion, I found myself dazed and confused at the age of 26. Externally, I had been going through the motions of love and work, while internally a profound numbness pervaded my experience and kept me from deep feeling and true participation. I was anesthetized and daydreaming of a full life, but upon waking had not the slightest idea of how to live it. So I did what I had done many times before and many times since—I made a huge overcorrection. Despite having never been much farther than the few soft, green states bordering my childhood home, I booked a flight to India.

I was registered to volunteer with Mother Teresa’s order, Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata. It seemed brave and felt important at the time. I naively thought of it as my chance to “help.” Oddly, what I met in those crooked alleys humbled me. Amid the excess and poverty, celebration and desperation, was a persistent call for me to acknowledge my own suffering before assuming I could effectively serve others. I began to unravel.

Psychologically rattled by the intensity of the environment, emotionally fragile, and physically sick, I found myself confined to a bed with cholera a few weeks in. While as miserable as I ever had been, I picked up the one book I had absent-mindedly tossed into my suitcase before leaving. The book was called The Wisdom of the Enneagram, and in cracking its spine I made my first deep dive into an oral teaching tradition that detailed my experience so accurately I felt that in some parallel universe I could have written it myself. Like a map that shows me where I am in the moment, where I have been, and where I long to go, the Enneagram held a lamp of insight over my life and I felt I had both seen and understood myself for the first time.

Arguably the oldest known study in human behavior, the Enneagram’s foundations date back to the fourth century. Throughout its fascinating history, many significant developers have refined and enriched this system. Though no one owns the Enneagram and anyone interested can author a book on the subject, there does exist a direct lineage of teachers. These individuals have carried the value and spirit of this work forward through time, always emphasizing our innate ability as human beings to grow beyond our perceived limitations through the practice and development of self-awareness.

A synthesis of spiritual tradition and psychology, the modern Enneagram describes nine archetypal “paths” or “patterns” of personality. These patterns are related to the way we engage life through one of our three centers of intelligence: the body, which is more instinct-oriented; the heart, with its emotional intelligence; or the mind, with its capacity to process the world in a cognitive way. There is now a body of scientific evidence to suggest that we are born with a strong neurobiological predisposition to lean more heavily toward one of these three intelligence centers, greatly influencing and informing our relation to our environment and to other people.

The Enneagram suggests that we are born with an undistorted nature and view of the world around us—trusting, receptive, undefended. As we develop, we realize that our environment isn’t entirely safe. We have needs that aren’t met or a part of us feels threatened in some way. Out of necessity, we develop a survival strategy called the personality, a protective shell that we built as young children to help us navigate a world that felt threatening to that larger, truer sense of self. The strategy worked. It allowed us to participate in our families and in the world while effectively protecting us from harm. It worked so well that we used it every day until we forgot that we were not this strategy. We forgot that our real self, our truest nature had been folded up neatly during those developmental years of early childhood and put away. In essence, as one of my teachers explained, “Your personality is what shows up when you don’t.”

What sets the Enneagram apart from other personality typology systems is that it addresses not only patterns of behavior and tendencies but also the motivations driving these habits. This work shows us how to retrace our steps in a sense, so that we can find our way back “home.” More a process of self-remembering than of becoming, the Enneagram asserts that less progress is made through sheer effort of will, spiritual piety, or intellectual achievement than by relaxing into a realization which feels terrifyingly simple: what we long to be we already are. One can wonder if this wasn’t what Jesus had in mind when he suggested that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, in order to get home, we must be like little children.

What happened in my life post-India is the story of me struggling, as does everyone else, to realize what I already know. My spiritual practice is one of allowing the unraveling to continue. I’m more convinced now than ever that enlightenment is not a fixed state reserved for the most holy and evolved among us, but the ability to hold our brilliance and our messiness, our light and our darkness, at the same time. I am still asking those three questions, well aware that I may never be certain or fully satisfied, but somehow knowing that in the asking is the answer, in the seeking is the finding.