April 3rd, Easter Sunday, 2021
The uncritical acceptance of claims from distant "authorized” sources of the Enneagram is simply sloppy thinking. Standing on shaky ground and appealing to authority to prove that one way is more "authentic" or “righter” points to nasty rivalry. In this essay I will examine some of the claims about the origin of the Enneagram that began to appear about 35 years ago, and have subsequently been repeated, embellished, and distorted. But first I will try to describe the context for Naranjo’s introduction of the Enneagram.
SAT, Berkeley, California 1971-1976
When I joined SAT in 1973, most of us did not look on Claudio Naranjo as a guru. I was so wary of being branded as a Moonie that I only allowed myself to think of him as an extraordinary professor—not the Teacher of the Age, not an enlightened being, and certainly not an avatar. I was aware that he had had a profound insight, perhaps even an enlightenment experience that tied together long years of study and psychological investigation while he was working with Óscar Ichazo in Arica, Chile, and I was simply grateful to be present while he unpacked that inspiration.
The number of people in the first SAT groups ranged between 35 and 50. We came from all walks of life; there were psychologists, a Jesuit priest and a Franciscan Friar, two seminarians, one former nun, a devotee of Swami Rudrananda, a rabbi’s wife, and one woman who’d been associated with the Gurdjieff Foundation; professors, several Phd.’s, two medical doctors, school teachers, at least one lawyer, more than a handful of psychology graduate students, body workers, therapists, a film-maker, a martial artist, a C-level New York fashion executive, Ravi Shankar’s mother-in-law, one professional journalist and a film distributor, but there were also carpenters, house painters and a French hippie. We were mostly white, gay and straight, a large proportion of Jews, one Muslim and a few asians. Claudio turned no one away.
We met on Tuesday and Thursday nights for 3 to 3 and half hours, with at least one Saturday day-long session a month plus several longer retreats each year. Claudio worked with us mostly in a group setting. His original presentations were dense; they required time to digest and put to use. His directions, or indications were for everyone but, particularly when he worked in the manner of Fritz Perls, he focused on the individual student and his or her fixation. He talked with us, asked questions, responded to our questions, returned us over and over to our own interior spaces where he thought we might profitably investigate, and, as he said to me, “discover a rich vein.”
It was an oral tradition. There were no texts though there were Enneagram diagrams with simple notation which most of us used to scribble down our own observations. We all kept notes; we shared and compared them with each other. Detailed notes with full sentences were highly regarded, and there were several meticulous recorders. In addition to Claudio’s presentations, people also circulated Óscar’s proto-analysis from people who’d traveled to Arica Chile. I mention these notes because they became the basis of the wider study by the small group of Jesuits and other religious who began to use the Enneagram in Chicago under the tutelage of Bob Ochs, SJ and Aubrey Degnan as well as the New Age audience who began to work with Helen Palmer. Enneagram literature did not start flooding the market for another 10 years.
We also promised not to speak about the Enneagram outside the group because, we were told, confidentiality was integral to self-discovery. We promised not to use certain ‘teachings’ until we’d received permission from Claudio. This was mainly intended for work that we would do with others, although, in some instances, that promise included our private conversations with group members. The initial intent was not to protect materials and income as intellectual property, but it did set the stage for later lawsuits. Now that both Claudio and Bob Ochs have died, and so much material is already public, I feel no obligation to remain silent.
Fact or hearsay about the Enneagon/Enneagram’s Sufi origins
There was talk about the Enneagram originating hundreds of years earlier in a Sufi school, but I just nodded my head in agreement with a vague notion that there were, of course, esoteric roots. It made little difference. For me, like most of Claudio’s early students, the profound experiences of self-recognition proved the power of the teaching.
Some did speak of “The Work” and “The School” in almost reverential tones which was an acknowledgement of the teaching of Mr. Gurdjieff and its Sufi origins. Most of the written accounts of the Enneagram teaching in the West repeat the claim of an esoteric teaching handed down through the Naqshbandi Sufi School which was founded around 1380. The great light of Sufism in the West, Idries Shah, confirmed that the symbol, the nine-pointed figure, existed in the Naqshbandi line. The figure of the Enneagram is also found in the record of Mr. Gurdjieff’s teaching—which of course lends the authority from another respected source.
The existence of a distinctive figure only demonstrates the probability of Sufi origin, perhaps adopted by the Naqshbandi. It indicates nothing about the secret origin of any four Enneagrams—Fixations, Passions, Virtues, or Holy Ideas—that Ichazo introduced and Naranjo elaborated.
What chance is there that this Enneagram has been passed down from an identifiable school, even as a secret teaching? Can we find traces of that secret?
Mr. Gurdjieff’s use of the Enneagram
G. I. Gurdjieff wrote: "The knowledge of the enneagram has for a very long time been preserved in secret and if it now is, so to speak, made available to all, it is only in an incomplete and theoretical form of which nobody could make any practical use without instruction from a man who knows."
We know that Mr. Gurdjieff used the Enneagram, that he praised it, that he said that it expressed all the universal laws, that his students had a series of sacred movements that followed the directional lines of the figure. The picture at the top of this essay is that sacred dance. There is, however, no evidence in the primary sources about the Work that he used the Enneagram/Enneagon of Fixations, Passions, Virtues, or Holy Ideas.
Gurdjieff’s pupil P.D. Ouspensky recorded comments about the Enneagram in his book, In Search of The Miraculous (1949), and another famous pupil, John Bennett, applied the Enneagram of Process to systems theory, organizational design, group dynamics, and psychotherapy. Neither of these sources, however, specifically point to protoanalysis or the system that Claudio or Óscar describe.
Claudio was conversant with Mr. Gurdjieff’s work, his writing and that of his important disciples. For Claudio, Gurdjieff was the epitome of teacher as trickster, a role that Claudio loved. But he never claimed that he had been trained or authorized by any of Gurdjieff’s successors.
But to my mind, the most interesting possible evidence that Gurdjieff might have used the Enneagram comes from some of the personal accounts of pupils in France and America. In Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil's Journey, C. S. Nott describes Mr. Gurdjieff’s efforts with one student to identify her “chief characteristic” before she had to return to England. Mr. Gurdjieff directed her, but the struggle to identify the lynch pin in her personality was her task and only hers. It was, he said, the key to her self-remembering. Perhaps Gurdjieff used the 27 variations of a nine-pointed figure in his exploration, but again we have no evidence. If he did, you might suspect that he passed that knowledge to his chief disciples, but any “evidence” that he did is just a guess and, in any case, bears scant resemblance to either Ichazo’s or Naranjo’s use of the Enneagram.
In Taking with the Left Hand, How the Enneagram Came to Market (1996), William Patrick Patterson who is an authorized teacher in the Gurdjieff lineage writes a blistering account of what he considers the current Enneagram enthusiasts’ misappropriation of the Gurdjieff work, some of which I found persuasive until he tries to locate the Source of the Enneagram in ancient Egypt. If we have to start digging back that far into a mysterious history to support self-analysis, the enterprise is hopeless, and we are lost.
The difference between Ichazo’s Enneagon and the work of Naranjo
If I were to imagine a best case scenario, Ichazo, during that first Arica training, might have sensed that Claudio had an insight that he had to explore—a vocation in the classical sense of a path that he had to follow to the end—and that the work itself would be richer. However, I can find no evidence for my scenario in any of Óscar’s writings that are available to the public.
Claudio referenced Óscar’s talks on the Enneagon and protoanalysis given at the Instituto de Psicologia Aplicada (Santiago) in 1969, and Óscar finds no fault in Claudio’s report.
There is also no evidence that Óscar had any contact with a Fourth Way teacher, at least one connected directly with Gurdjieff or any of his disciples. James Moore wrote an article on the dissemination of the Enneagram in South America. (I've published this essay by one of the second generation of Gurdjieff's students in the UK). He concludes, “Analogically Ichazo’s enneagram is to Gurdjieff’s what the New Guinea cargo-cults are to aviation. Ichazo’s 63 ‘domains, energies, divine principles, fixations, virtues, passions, and psychocatalyzers’ seem stuck around the symbol au choix like so many bird-of-paradise feathers.” 1
An Enneagram teacher, Subhuti, who was an early student of Óscar, says that Óscar “denied that he got the Enneagram symbol from Gurdjieff….Actually, the truth was more mundane: he got it from his uncle’s library. In a 1996 magazine interview, Ichazo explained that when he was 12-13 years old, he inherited an esoteric library from his uncle Julio, who was a philosopher….Ichazo hungrily devoured these books, hoping to find reassuring answers for his paranormal states. He came across the Enneagram symbol while studying an ancient text from the Chaldean civilization, which existed around 600 BC, in what is now known as Iraq, and whose citizens appear to have been fascinated by numbers.”2
The Arica Enneagon, both protoanalysis and the way that a student worked with it, was quite different from Claudio’s understanding and practice. I knew several Esalen pioneers who had been in Arica with Claudio. They reported that Óscar typed people by looking at their faces: a slight elevation of an eyebrow or crinkle around the mouth was as clear an indicator as any standardized personality test.
The next day Jack tested this theory by showing Óscar a bunch (40 or so) of self-typed enneagrammer photos; he insisted Jack put the type the individuals thought they were on the photo. Jack would have preferred Óscar would type them straight, and Jack could later compare. But cagey as Óscar was, he insisted. Ok so he agreed with about 40% of them as being typed accurately--not a very high % but definitely better than a casual 11% chance of blind guessing. Jack later sent the same photos to an advanced student of Ichazo’s, who was presumed to be good at this, and he disagreed with Ichazo’s conclusions in more than 50% of the cases. So much for the reliability of this system. Even if Ichazo was 70-100% right, he was not successful in transmitting that skill to his students.
After a lot of discussion and comparison of typing, several of the people who had been in Arica with the first Esalen group concluded that Óscar used a different Enneagram, which he called the Enneagon.3
[A decade or two after Jack’s visit with Óscar, he started using enneagram instead of enneagon as if surrendering to the fact that “enneagon” did not manage to “neuter” enneagram and thus send all the enneagrammers flocking to Arica.]
Óscar by his own admission had no dispute with Claudio’s Enneagram teaching, but by the same token, he did not authorize Claudio’s work. Óscar’s lawsuit was directed at Helen Palmer’s popularization, not Claudio’s work from which she derived her materials. (ARICA INSTITUTE, INC. v. Helen PALMER and Harper & Row Publishers is online). Claudio did not alter the derogatory names of the points that Óscar used to identify each fixation, though Helen created a whole new “kinder, gentler” lexicon. Was she just changing the names to refine a pedagogical technique or was this an attempt to avoid the intellectual property rights lawsuit that eventually transpired? Don Richard Riso and anyone else who feared Arica lawsuits also altered the names.
But my question is whether the impulse to alter other things, a little here and there, to avoid charges of intellectual property theft distort the teaching? Did Helen wind up off base as Óscar claims? Here is what he had to say about Helen’s version of the Enneagram (and others who follow the Narrative tradition). “The work of the enneagram authors is plainly unscientific and without rational foundation, because it is based on dogmatic formulations as opposed to the Arica system, which under any measure is logical and scientific and is based on rational metaphysical propositions and ultimate theological truth.” 4 This statement can of course be disputed as Óscar can’t call his formulation scientifically provable and solid given that he himself claims to have created/originated many of the ideas. How can Mozart claim originality of his music as also being scientific, as the exact tunes were not recorded before?
Óscar or his deputies typed the student while Claudio’s typing was conversational, investigating together with the person. Only after a period of study, Claudio typed you. If you thought you demonstrated the characteristics of a particular point, he might ask you to investigate that possibility. There were times when he just told you where to look. And he didn’t always get it right himself, and from time to time revised his analysis which is true in my own case.
Among the current variations of the Enneagram work, only Helen et al insist, as a “principle of the school,” that the participant determines which point he or she owns. It is often a promise in the “narrative” tradition that you will discover your type after one weekend workshop. Frankly Helen’s promise seems to me to be a sales pitch. Certainly early protoanalysis often seemed purposefully vague—sometimes your type was switched after several months or, as in my case, years of work.
Does it actually really make any difference if you determine your type accurately after your first workshop? It just seems better if you wait until you have some understanding of the Enneagram and some inner experience of self-observation. Then you might have a fighting chance of being honest with yourself and becoming free. I was typed as point 7, Ego Plan, after one year in SAT and thought of myself as a Plan well beyond the group’s dissolution. More than 19 years later, Claudio re-typed me a 9. Although I’ve always appreciated the Enneagram’s power as a tool for self-observation, when I was typed correctly, it was like focusing a laser.
Some really far flung theories
I was sitting in the classroom when Bob Ochs, a well respected Jesuit, said that the Enneagram probably originated in the esoteric school that trained Jesus. This assertion is as unsupported as the claim that during Jesus’s lost years, the time between when he stood up and amazed the synagogue elder’s and his baptism by John, he was initiated and trained by an Indian guru. Yet not one person in the room challenged it, myself included.
More recently in a pastoral letter warning Catholics about using the Enneagram as a tool for spiritual direction, the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, state that "sin is indeed unhealthy behavior and can be combated by an improved understanding, but it is at its root a moral problem, so that repentance before God and one’s neighbor must be the fundamental response. Enneagram teaching thus obscures the Christian understanding of sin." They also cite numerological speculations of the Pythagoreans. Óscar also suggests this, possibly looking for some terms that he can copyright, or the ancient wisdom of the Chaldeans as possible origins of the Enneagram. Apparently Óscar loves arguments for authority as much as Catholics do.
[Or, any other movement/ideology that preceded towards more and more authority…. Which ultimately is a universal flaw in human nature that arises unless it’s consciously worked on to be avoided…. See current trends towards moving Covid from a medical epidemiological problem and using it as a tool to control populations into “wokeness” and obedience of authority… the same can be said of many of the “...isms” that are suffocating free speech and open mindedness in academia, schools and lately in censorship of ideas that mainstream media and the silicone social media find contrary to their preferred ideology
There is also speculation that the true origins of the esoteric teaching were the Jesuits or perhaps Russian Orthodox communities. Oh, what might have happened if the bishops had been fed that line? The Jesuits were in hot water anyway. (See my article "The Jesuit Transmission of the Enneagram.")
What can you do with any of this material? What does it have to do with self-discovery?
In my view, most of the speculation about the origins of the Enneagram falls into the ``best guess” category. It occurs to me that people who were raised in one of the religious traditions of the Book tend to seek a revealed Source as validation of their inner experience. I come from that tradition myself, and know how it feels.
But let me suggest another route. After more than 30 years of meditation practice, I have come to rely on a system that is empirically based. A committed group of practitioners, over a long period of time, share their experience, write about it, compare with one another, and along the way develop a system, a methodology of self-inquiry that does liberate people from the conditions and painful vagaries of living, allowing us to experience a fuller life. It might be impossible for some, but for me, this is, as Claudio pointed out to me, “the rich vein.” This is where I try to focus my attention, and it also points me in the direction of being rigorous in my self-observation.
So, what are the signs and effects of this sloppy thinking?
Most Americans would prefer to read a 600-word article in Psychology Today for their understanding of the Enneagram. Most people who attend an Enneagram workshop also seem to want to find out their type quickly. To me what seems to be lacking is an understanding of how to use the Enneagram and what practices support continuing self-exploration.
I have a close friend who did a Masters in Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica. While there were many things he appreciated about the program, his exposure to the Enneagram had to be of the 600-word variety. I have no specifics about the training of the person who presented the system in Santa Monica, but this is what my friend said to me, “Yeah, it is a great system. I once knew what number I am, but I forgot.”
This Enneagram teacher inoculated my friend against the power of the Enneagram. Of course not everyone will be attracted to the Enneagram and the self-exploration that it might offer. But this path is not available to my friend now—it is very difficult to get around the part of the mind that tells you: “you don’t need to look there, you already understand that.” Throwing up that barrier has to be credited to the teacher’s account.
Of the more than 150 books about the Enneagram that have appeared since 1980, most seem to be written to support the authors’ teaching credentials. The books also serve as promotional materials for their workshops and, at best, study guides. Most are not rigorous psychological studies, but rather present materials on prototyping with the practitioner’s particular spin. (I find Janet Levine’s approach rather interesting, and the books of Sandra Maitri are faithful to the work of the original SAT groups. There are of course others too that I am unaware of.)
Claudio once said that the power of the Enneagram is such that it remains compelling as a system even if misused. I seem to have survived mistyping. I also have no real objection to stealing material—this is the real world. But it does become problematic if and when the materials are used incorrectly.
Helen Palmer said, “Our research has found that there are far more 8's than Naranjo.”5 Claudio did speculate there were fewer 8’s among people who did the “Work” than in the general population. On the other hand Helen’s statement might just indicate that the narrative tradition has typed more people as 8’s, and they were mistyped. Some people from the narrative tradition type George W. Bush as an 8 on the evidence that he took us to war—Bush would be a “counter phobic 6” in Naranjo’s system. Ronald Regan was a nine because he liked his afternoon nap—Claudio typed Regan a 3.
Another friend who has studied the Enneagram insists that he is a “Palmer-Riso” 8. He would be, however, a classic 9 if Claudio typed him. Though not easily agitated, there was an edge in his voice when he said: “I’m no ass kisser.” Through most of his remarkable career, he has been of service to others as a peace-maker who resolves very difficult conflicts with grace and ease. Yet, because he finds Sloth so un-masculine and un-American, he undervalues the roles in which he excels, and misses the chance of being honest with himself. In my view, this is an example of Enneagram typing becoming Ego massage oil. Inept hands have stripped away the power of the Enneagram.
Esoteric schools don’t have secrets because their knowledge bestows power that they don’t want to share. The secrets hide themselves. They do not manifest their power until they get inside a person and change their being. I think that the closest analogy to the new Enneagram system might be the Tibetan idea of torma, a teaching that remains hidden until it is ripe. (Buddhists had to devise a way of authenticating their teaching innovations and developments in the Mahayana and Vajrayana long after the Buddha’s death.)
Most people who proclaim the Naqshbandi source of the Enneagram usually haven’t got the slightest idea who or what the Naqshbandi’s history or their spiritual traditions are. Or at best they only possess hearsay knowledge. Enneagram practitioners didn’t go off to get a Phd in Islamic studies—they got an MSW so that they could take their psychological wares to the marketplace.
Mr. Patterson, you might as well locate the Source in King Tut’s tomb. When people go to a museum and see a 5,000-year-old sarcophagus embedded with gold and lapis, the secret remains safe from esoteric tampering. A mummy can’t stand up and speak unless the teacher casts a magic spell.
I have not answered my own questions concerning the value and use of the “new” Enneagram tradition. There is no answer. But I have shown that most speculation about the origins of the Enneagram only supports a “best guess.”
Donovan Bess was at 60+ SAT’s oldest member. He had been a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for most of his career. He was curious, engaging, interested in others, as well as being a seasoned self-observer. I liked him enormously. He died in Luxor when he was 81. After a day that included riding a camel and exploring the temples, he went back to the hotel with his longtime companion and died. She reported that he simply smiled and stopped breathing.
I am not seeking to prove that the Enneagram has roots in the cults of Egyptian gods or demonstrate its authority as a sure predictor of behavior, but I have felt its power in my own life. If I were looking for evidence that the Enneagram is a powerful tool in the discipline of self-exploration, Donovan pointed a clear direction in the way he lived his life right up to last hours and minutes.
1 “The Enneagram: A Developmental Study.” First published in Religion Today: A Journal of Contemporary Religions (London) V (3), October 1986-January 1987, pp.1-5.
2 “The Enneagram Wars” by Subhuti, published in Osho News, OCTOBER 21, 2017
3 In my research I discovered speculation that Ichazo renamed the Enneagram “Enneagon” for copyright purposes.
4 “Letter to the Transpersonal Community” by Oscar Ichazo.
5 Personal notes.