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  • Writer's pictureRev. Ani

The Enneagram & Self-Transcendence: What does the research say?

~converting vice to virtue on the path of personal transformation


Hearing the Call and Setting Out on the Journey


The storyland you are entering tells the tale of my scholarly research, and so I believe that it is fitting to give you, my companion, some context. My experience with the Enneagram Personality Typology System (EPS) began about 14 years ago when a friend urged me to take the EPS assessment. I was serving as a psychotherapist in private practice at the time, and my immediate reaction was aversion. I didn’t want to see a client walk through my door and think, “Oh here comes a Type ___,” so I didn’t take the assessment. Looking back, my response demonstrated my ignorance of the system.

A few months later, my friend followed up and asked, “Hey, did you ever take the Enneagram assessment?” Well, I decided to be direct and tell him that I didn’t plan to take the assessment, and I gave him my reasoning behind that choice. He accepted my explanation but emphasized that he thought I would find meaning in knowing my type. Still, I didn’t complete the assessment.


Not to be daunted, the same friend inquired about the assessment again after several more months. By that point, I had been getting virtual neon signs from the Universe that read, “Take the Enneagram assessment! Take the Enneagram assessment!” I thought, “Okay, already! I’ll take the assessment!!”


Well, the results of the assessment radically illuminated the way I interact with the world and allowed me to recognize the dynamic that was driving my automatic thoughts and habitual reactions. Knowing this pattern and engaging in the practices that facilitate the transcendence of my type has greatly increased my sense of freedom and reduced the suffering that occurs from holding tightly to the defenses of the personality. Utilizing the EPS has proven to be one of the most important tools of self-awareness and self-transcendence that I have ever experienced. So it turns out . . . my friend was right.


Why Self-Transcendence Matters


Addressing psychological and emotional health is a cogent issue today. Besides just coming out of a global pandemic, wars and natural disasters are having a major impact on our ability to thrive, as are racial unrest and political strife in the United States. As a species, we are also adjusting to the effects of social media and choosing to relate to devices as a default, instead of connecting personally to one another.


Interestingly, research conducted by Shamblaw and colleagues on coping during the pandemic showed that positive reframing was one of the most important skills for mental health. Positive reframing refers to changing the mental commentary that we have running in the background of our lives from a toxic narrative to one that is truthful and supportive. For example, a simple switch from, “Nothing ever goes right for me,” to, “I have the internal resources to deal with this,” can go a long way.


Likewise, Schnitker and colleagues suggested that within a positive reframe, a transcendent narrative identity can foster virtues such as hope and joy. A transcendent narrative is one that embraces an identity of belonging to something larger than an “all about me” mindset. So, in this context self-transcendence may be defined as meaning making beyond the self.


The opposite of self-transcendence is egocentricity. This way of relating to the world is characterized by a disordered focus on self-defense, self-absorption, and self-preservation. Not surprisingly, research by Zappala found that as egocentricity increases, wellbeing decreases.

Self-transcendence is the essence of existence. ~Viktor Frankl

Why would esteemed psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, make such a bold assertion? The research of Pamela Reed, who has been studying self-transcendence for over 30 years, can provide some answers. Through Reed’s investigations, she has found that self-transcendence is fundamental to wellbeing, an integral factor in personal growth, facilitates a sense of interconnectedness, and encourages a meaningful synthesis of the aging process.


Recognizing the benefits of self-transcendence, one might ask, “How do I cultivate self-transcendence?” Well, the time-tested habits of mindfulness and self-reflection have been shown to contribute to self-transcendence. And correspondingly, personality typology systems can aid in self-reflection because they are linked to an increase in self-awareness and can reveal implicit patterns. One such typology system is the Enneagram Personality Typology System (EPS).


Basic EPS Concepts

Remember, the enneagram does not put us in a box, it shows us the box we are already in — and the way out. ~Don Riso and Russ Hudson

One: Humans are either free or in bondage.


In the EPS, personality type represents bondage and transpersonal Essence represents freedom. Personality is a conditioned structure that responds to life according to historical interaction with the world. It is focused on doing and relates itself to anticipated future outcomes and past pains. It is typically thought of as a product, meaning that people often refer to themselves as a noun. Egocentricity is a hallmark of this way of relating to the world and is characterized by a state of strain, resistance, and distress. This passage from the Tao Te Ching (v. 1) is an apt metaphor for personality:

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name . . .

But let’s not hate on personality. There is no value judgment on personality, for it is part of the human experience and a state of awareness that has gifts to offer. Our conditioned reactions helped us survive. Recognizing when we are kidnapped by our conditioning/personality is an opportunity to ground in the present moment and to practice self-compassion and kindness.


In contrast to personality type, Essence is an unconditioned way of engaging in the present moment. It is a state of Beingness, a process rather than a product, a verb instead of a noun. Some of the fruits of this way of being are ease, flow, and peace. The difference between Essence and personality is akin to the distinction between real life and a photograph. Essence is simply being. Personality is being this or that.


Similarly, Essence may be likened to water; personality, to a wave. To touch our Essence, we need look no farther than our own shared, sacred heart. Stilling the ripples of the mind and dropping into gratitude, the heart expands as the mind lets go of concepts. Again and again, we detach from our identity as wave and rest in the depths of our true nature, water. Top down, we release the commentary to rest in silence. Bottom up, we engage the body in activity that will bring it into balance and ease.


This excerpt from Black Elk’s The Sacred Pipe illustrates the idea of Essence:

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

Two: Self (type)-transcendence is the purpose of the EPS.


The EPS is not better than other personality typology systems. It is simply different in its intent. For example, while the objective of other popular systems, such as the Myers-Briggs or the Big Five, may be described as self-development or an increase in self-awareness, the purpose of the EPS is self- (type-)transcendence.


Three: The practice is the point.


The EPS is designed to combine knowledge with practice. Knowledge of our personality type’s mental fixation, customary emotional reactivity, and habitual behavior shows us our prison. Practice provides the means of release. Core practices of the EPS are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-inquiry. According to the research results of Tia Rich and her colleagues, consistently engaging in contemplative practice is correlated with increased wellbeing and self-transcendence.


The contemplative practices associated with utilizing the EPS are self-observation, mindfulness, relaxing into the moment, and open receptivity. Self-observation is the practice of noticing the cues of one’s body, one’s mental narrative, and one’s emotional reaction when one is upset or uncomfortable. Through self-observation, we can “catch ourselves in the act,” so to speak, thereby making space to center and regroup. Mindfulness is the exercise of being fully present in the moment, not lost in thought or kidnapped by emotional reactivity, but awake and alert to the reality of right now. Relaxing into the moment is the enactment of connecting to the breath and consciously releasing any mental, emotional, and physical resistance — the personality’s armoring. Open receptivity is the intentional disidentification with the conditioned responses of the personality. This stance of openness allows one to welcome, rather than oppose, experience and to access natural intuition.


Four: While each EPS type has an inherent truth (holy idea) associated with it, there are three inherent truths that are fundamental to the EPS, in general.


The first inherent truth of the EPS is Holy Perfection. This is the idea that there is an objective perfection to the unfolding of life as it is. Only our judgment and incomplete knowledge make it seem otherwise.


The second inherent truth of the EPS is Holy Truth. This is the concept that all is One. Nothing and no one is self-sustaining. We are interdependent with one another and arising in relationship.


The third inherent truth of the EPS is Holy Love. This is the belief that everyone and everything that exists has an intrinsic preciousness and is loveable. There is an organic goodness to life.


Five: The EPS is a whole-person, sacred psychology that posits three centers of awareness which correlate with each of three triads within the Enneagram diagram.

Enneagram from “File: Enneagram.svg,” by Twisp, February 2 2008 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enneagram.svg).

In the public domain.


Within the Enneagram diagram, types eight, nine, and one represent the body/instinctual triad; types two, three, and four represent the heart/feeling triad; and types five, six, and seven represent the head/thinking triad. Part of the work of the EPS is integration of these three information processing centers through meditation, heart-opening practices, and body-based exercises, such as conscious breathing.


Jack Killen, 33-year biomedical research veteran at the National Institutes of Health, suggested that the EPS three centers of awareness are related to the triune brain. Killen posited that the instinctual center is correlated with the reptilian brain, which is online at birth and regulates the body’s instinctual processes, such as sleeping, eating, crying, breathing, hunger, pain, urination, defecation, and experiencing temperature. Together with the hypothalamus, the reptilian brain maintains our basic life support system and the body’s internal balance.


The limbic system or mammalian brain, directly above the brain stem, is the second part of the triune brain. Killen proposed that the limbic system, the home of our emotions and our ability to cope within social systems, corresponds to the heart center in the EPS. The limbic system also helps us sense danger, discern pleasure and what is unnecessary for survival. Whereas the reptilian brain is online at birth, the limbic system develops in relation to the environment. In a very real sense, the development of the limbic brain is the creation of our conditioned responses to life. The limbic brain gives us a felt sense of the world, rather than making cognitive sense of a situation.


Finally, the neocortex is the top layer of the brain and the center of our rationality. Killen suggested that the neocortex corresponds to the head or thinking center in the EPS. These frontal lobes equip us to use language, assign meaning to information, employ creativity, plan, predict, and use abstract logic. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, trauma expert, the emotional brain, a combination of the limbic and reptilian brains, is a global response system; whereas the neocortex or rational brain analyzes data. The neocortex is also where empathy originates through the vehicle of mirror neurons. These receivers allow us to ascertain intentions and emotional states, imitate, and synchronize or entrain with others.


Six: EPS philosophy proposes that there are nine perspectives or patterns of understanding the world, within which are various nuances.


According to the EPS, each of the nine types (seen around the circle of the diagram) have unhealthy coping strategies with which they are associated; notably, a mental fixation, a vice/passion, and habitual behavior. Each type also has specific healthy coping approaches that assist in the transcendence to Essence; namely a holy idea/inherent truth, a virtue, and a mindful response.


So to recap, the basic concepts of the EPS are:

Humans are either free or in bondage, according to their state of awareness (Essence/personality).
Self (type)-transcendence is the purpose of the EPS.
The practice is the point.
Three inherent truths (holy ideas) are fundamental to the EPS: Holy Perfection, Holy Truth, and Holy Love.
The EPS is a whole-person, sacred psychology that posits three centers of awareness which correlate with each of three triads within the diagram.
There are nine perspectives or patterns of understanding the world, within which are various nuances.

My Research


Soon after I experienced my “Enneagram enlightenment moment” all those years ago, I started voraciously studying Enneagram philosophy. Correspondingly, because I found such meaning in what I was learning, I began offering this system to my psychotherapy and spiritual direction clients. Anecdotal evidence abounds regarding the benefits of the EPS, and research has been conducted on the EPS’s use in various areas; such as furthering adult ego development, empathy, leadership, mental health, mindfulness, organizational productivity, relationships, and counselor supervision. Yet, according to the comprehensive literature review conducted by Hook and colleagues in 2021, out of the 104 existing empirical studies on the EPS that were written in English, none directly assessed the level of self-transcendence of individuals seasoned in utilizing the EPS compared to that of the general population. Because of my personal experience and as a clinician, I have a vested interest in the efficacy of the system; and as a social scientist, I wanted to know, “Does the system do what it says it does?”


So for my dissertation research, I set out to answer the question, “Is utilizing the EPS correlated with a higher level of self-transcendence than is found in the general population?” My hypothesis was: There are statistically significantly different levels of self-transcendence between those who utilize the EPS and those who do not.


How I Organized My Study


After reviewing the scientific literature on the EPS, I discovered that most of the studies that attempted to demonstrate cause and effect, meaning that they did a pretest — intervention — posttest, had problems in their design. The time and content of interventions varied, the credentials of the presenters were diverse, and there was little to no accountability as to whether the participants were consistently engaging in contemplative practice after the intervention. A longitudinal study with tight controls and accountability seemed too ambitious, so I decided that I needed to keep my study simple. This meant that instead of having a causal research design, I elected to implement a correlational study (which investigates relationship rather than cause/effect).


I chose a quantitative design that utilized a combination of three surveys: The Quiet Ego Scale (QES), The Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory (ASTI), self-transcendence sub-set, and The Metapersonal Self Scale (MPS). In considering which scales to use, I wanted to have instruments that captured different nuances of self-transcendence. For example, Wayment and colleagues developed the QES to assess the hypothetical convergence of perspective taking, inclusive identity, detached awareness, and growth that is reflective of a reduction in egotism. I selected this scale because all four factors connote an ability to step out of one’s EPS type conditioning to assume a broader view. A sample question from the QES is, “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”


The ASTI conceives of self-transcendence in the context of wisdom. I decided to utilize only the self-transcendence subdimension of the ASTI because it directly addresses the experience of transpersonal awareness. A sample question from the ASTI is, “I feel that my individual life is a part of a greater whole.”


DeCicco and Stroink developed the MPS scale to test their hypothesis of the existence of a third model of self-construal: the metapersonal self. Self-construal is a personal construct of one’s relationship to the world. According to DeCicco and Stroink, although not mutually exclusive, there are three primary self-construals: independent, interdependent, and metapersonal. The independent self-construal is an individualistic model that does not consider social context and defines itself in relation to personal attributes, such as “I am capable.” The interdependent self-construal is a socially-oriented, collectivist posture that establishes itself in relation to societal roles and expectations, such as “I am a mother.” DeCicco and Stroink described the metapersonal self-construal as a stance that is linked “to an Essence beyond the individual and others to a universal focus” (p. 84). I chose the MPS because of the metapersonal self-construal’s link to universalism and compassion, both qualities that have been associated with self-transcendence. A sample question from the MPS is, “I feel a real sense of kinship with all living things.”


The combined survey was built by, and accessed from, the Qualtrics experience management company. Choosing an electronic survey for the study meant that the identity of the participants was kept completely anonymous, thereby mitigating bias. The survey link was delivered via email, and the results were recorded and stored on the secure Qualtrics platform.


The Research Participants


The study group (SG) was composed of certified EPS teachers or coaches with at least one year’s experience utilizing the EPS. I selected these inclusion criteria so that I could be reasonably sure that the participants had adequate knowledge of and practice utilizing the EPS. I recruited the SG members from The International Enneagram Association (IEA), Facebook EPS groups, referral/word of mouth of the members of these communities, paid advertisement through the IEA, and Qualtrics.


The control group ( CG) was comprised of individuals from the general population who did not know their EPS type and did not regularly engage in contemplative practices. I chose these two exclusion criteria in order to control for confounding variables. I assumed that even a little knowledge about one’s EPS type might skew the results; and given that research has already found that contemplative practice is associated with self-transcendence, I needed to control for that variable, as well. The CG members were recruited solely by Qualtrics.


The total for each group was: SG = 62 and CG = 60. I needed at least 4o members in both groups in order to determine statistical significance, so I collected more than enough. Age in the SG was skewed toward younger, and in the CG, older. Ethnicity of both groups was predominantly White. Sex and gender of both groups was largely female.


The Results


The robust finding of my research is that utilizing the EPS as intended through knowledge of the system and regular engagement in contemplative practices correlates with the goal of the EPS: self (type)-transcendence.

The results do not tell us that utilizing the EPS causes self-transcendence. Likewise, we cannot specifically say what part of the process, knowledge or practice, for example, influences the correlation more. Additionally, there are limitations to the study that are worthy of note: 1) limited to English language speakers, 2) limited according to access and ability to use a smartphone, tablet, or computer, 3) unequal representation of ethnicity, sex, and gender, 4) self-selected study group participants, 5) non-generalizable to anyone who is not a certified EPS teacher or coach with at least one year’s experience in utilizing the EPS, and 6) baseline knowledge of self-transcendence level before EPS utilization was not known.


Limitations hereby acknowledged, there is one more important point to highlight. My study makes a unique contribution to the literature by being the only study to date that addresses whether there is a correlation between actively utilizing the EPS and self-transcendence. Because self-transcendence is positively associated with well-being, the data from this project may advance awareness in psychotherapists, coaches, marriage and family therapists, and spiritual directors of the usefulness of the EPS as a personal and spiritual growth tool. It’s a start!


My Conclusion


My desire in conducting this research was to highlight the relevance of self-transcendence and the EPS as a significant and possibly beneficial tool in contributing to the process of connecting to a larger reality than the finite, individual self. As spiritual teachers from a variety of disciplines have suggested, I believe that we humans are more than our limited sense of self and that being absorbed in the defense of this small self contributes to our own suffering. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton asserted,

The obstacle is in our “self,” that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will … We use all things, so to speak, for the worship of this idol which is our imaginary self.

Likewise, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote eloquently about the fact of what he called inter-being, namely that nothing is self-sustaining, that we find ourselves always in relationship to one another and every aspect of the magnificent universe. Fostering this elevated perspective is what the EPS intends.


My study demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between utilizing the EPS and an increased experience of self-transcendence. Although the survey scores cannot provide an in-depth view of the journey of self-discovery that each individual in the study group took and their time spent in practicing self-observation and mindfulness, they can point to a potential. This potential is how taking the time to recognize our mental fixations, to better understand our customary emotional reactions, to become aware of our habitual behaviors, and to regularly engage in contemplative practices can foster a more fulfilling and liberating sense of who we are and our place in this precious experience we call life.


 

References


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