The Enneagram—Psychic Babble

No fad has swept through Catholic seminaries and retreat centers in recent years with as much fervor as has the Enneagram. Teaching the Enneagram, variously billed as “the mirror of the soul” and “a map to the psyche,” has become the new profession of former priests, who offer it as a spiritual guide and an aid to pastoral practice. Welcome in some dioceses, reviled in others, the Enneagram is a growing source of controversy among Catholic professionals in the fields of education, counseling, and priestly formation.

Shrouded in an ancient, semimysterious past, the Enneagram Theory of Personality is often compared to the better-known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. What most Catholics do not know is that the Enneagram has its origins in the occult, specifically in alchemy, Sufi mysticism, whirling dervishes, astrology, Hindu mantras, and the occult Kabbala.

Catholic defenders of the Enneagram, anxious to shed any relationship with the occult, point to similar teachings in early Greek geometry, Pythagorean seals, the Desert Fathers, Christian Mystics, and Scripture. As one trainer explained, “What is good we may appropriate for Christianity, just as we did with the thought of Aristotle.”

What’s Your Type?

The Enneagram’s proponents claim that it is superior to all other systems of personality theory. Extolled as a psychological tool for self-discovery, the Enneagram typology is employed in business and management training, family counseling, education, and a myriad of self-help groups.

Study of the Enneagram has exploded—hundreds of books and tapes, dozens of schools, countless seminars and retreats are available to the public. Each teacher or “master” gives his or her school a particular flavor. Leaving aside the intricacies of the different teachings and the squabbles among factions, a basic outline of the Enneagram provides a framework for an examination of the theory and its application.

Greek for nine (ennea) letters (gramma), “Enneagram” stands for both the symbol and the typology that has grown up around it. The symbol, which some call the “Face of God,” consists of a circle enclosing an equilateral triangle and two incomplete triangles that meet in nine points along the circle’s circumference. The typology is based on the nine points, each of which is ascribed a particular personality trait or style of character. How those styles are labeled—either as positive (reformer, helper) or negative (self-righteous, manipulator)— depends on your school of thought.

Enneagram theorists assume that everyone responds to the world from within the fixations of their type. The goal of Enneagram practitioners is to achieve liberation from the ego limitations determined by one’s placement on the circle. The discovery of one’s location, one’s point-on-the-circle, say believers, also is the discovery of an inner dynamic that indicates the direction of change leading to freedom from “brokenness.”

Once you have determined your type or number, principally by “auto-diagnosis” with the aid of a teacher, you’ll soon understand why your behavior follows certain patterns. Equally intriguing, of course, is that you also may solve the mystery of your spouse’s stubbornness or your pastor’s love of tradition.

Thus, in theory, the Enneagram provides tools that enable you to relate to others more effectively. By detaching yourself from your point on the circle and moving toward the center, you gain the enlightened perspective of truth in the round. Once capable of seeing reality from the center—that is, detached from the deficiencies of your type—you rediscover the “divine within,” unified now with the whole of reality. Enneagram gurus caution that few reach this lofty goal; most content themselves with a lifetime of movement toward the center.

For example, one Enneagram theory identifies the following nine personality types, each with a “root sin” and “wings” or tendencies toward those types on either side of their primary fixation.

Subscribers to Enneagram theory concede that at the identifying stage, it is critical that one be honest and not attempt to choose a type, but recognize what one is. “Why prefer one personality over another when all are equally dysfunctional? Who’d prefer leukemia to lupus? The goal is to become healthy,” commented Jack Labanauskas, copublisher of the Enneagram Monthly magazine. Admitting that self-description often leads to wrong typecasting, many teachers advise working with others who know you, and taking multiple classes until you are confident you have arrived at your correct identification.

After a correct diagnosis, the objective is to dismantle the fixation by seeking its redemption in a corresponding virtue. Thus an anger-fixated 1 seeks tranquillity, while the greed-dominated thinker, type 5, is counseled to learn to love, and so forth.

The enormous appeal of this typology is the belief that one gains a guilt-free blueprint to the soul: “What’s wrong with me? Why do I always do this?” In response, the Enneagram comforts its believers with the teaching that we are not responsible for our behavior patterns. Having arrived in this plane whole—before the world inflicted its trauma upon us—we became determined at our respective points along the circle, perhaps as three- or four-year-olds. Trapped in this type, the personality has an excuse for everything, “Well, what did you expect—after all, I am a 3.”

Roots of an Occult Practice

As the popularity of the Enneagram grows, so does the concern that this bogus New Age practice is being more widely accepted among Catholics. That’s the opinion of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., of the University of Dallas. Pacwa is best known for his witty and intelligent debunking of the New Age movement. “I was one of the first teachers of the Enneagram in this country,” he reports, “and I learned it in Chicago from Father Bob Ochs. I taught it to Father Richard Rohr in his kitchen! Now he is an Enneagram expert with books and tapes, hopping across the country giving workshops.”

Pacwa’s book, Catholics and the New Age Movement, devotes a chapter to the Enneagram, “Occult Roots of the Enneagram.” An enigmatic Greek Armenian, George Gurdjieff, born in Russia about 1870, is generally acknowledged as the bearer of the enneagram to the West. His autobiography relates his travels through Central Asia, Tibet, and India. Gurdjieff’s wanderings led him to Nasqshbandi Sufis and their claim to be “Masters of Wisdom,” where an inner circle of enlightened masters teach these ancient truths, orally, to selected student-seekers. The esoteric teachings that characterize their beliefs were revealed to men by spirits called “Transformed Ones.” Gurdjieff gathered a band of believers and in Moscow they established The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Fleeing to Paris and on to New York following the Bolshevik Revolution, Gurdjieff set up shop, teaching “Esoteric Christianity,”

A catalog of the beliefs of Gurdjieff’s Esoteric Christianity includes the head, heart, and gut division of man, which must be kept in balance by spiritual dances (based on enneagram dynamics) ensuring that one remain spiritually awake. Most importantly, the essence of man is the material of the universe—a divine essence. According to Margaret Anderson, author of The Unknown Gurdjieff, few people are able to shed their ego—the personality style adopted at age three—in order to release their essence, entrapped by the personality. The spiritual exercises taught by Gurdjieff were designed to effect that transformation.

Gurdjieff’s zeal for the enneagram lay in its power to reveal to men the cosmic process—the natural ordering of the universe—as he believed the enneagram reflected the numerical order of the universe itself. The symbol’s numbering also fascinated mathematician Peter Ouspensky, who became a Gurdjieff disciple. The mathematical fact that 1 divided by 7 results in the repeating, nonterminating decimal .142857, without the digits 3, 6, or 9, while dividing 3, 6, or 9 into 1 results in self-repeating decimals was believed by Ouspensky to be the mathematical map of a harmonic universe—a divine inner order of all things. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky revered the enneagram to such a degree that they taught “Only what a man is able to put in the enneagram does he actually know, that is, understand.”

Gurdjieff’s work evolved into the “Fourth Way,” which is a method of achieving inner perfection in ordinary life, rather than withdrawing from the world as do the yogi, fakir, and monks. The goal of Fourth Way practitioners is an accelerated transformation, returning to pure essence.

Gurdjieff, though he described the enneagram as the ultimate arbiter of truth, is not credited as the source of the Enneagram personality typing system. That claim is held by Oscar Ichazo. Ichazo’s Enneagrammatic theory of “Protoanalysis” is recognized as the first systematic application of the enneagram to personality theory. His lifelong study spans three continents and brought him a United Nations award. Ichazo’s initial encounter with the ancient symbol reads like mythology:

In 1943 I inherited my grandfather’s library from my uncle Julio, who was a lawyer and a philosopher. It was in an ancient text (a medieval grimoaire) about the Chaldean seal (enneagram) where I first came across this diagram which, for the Chaldeans was a magical figure. . . . In 1949 I started reading the work of Ouspensky, and in 1950 in Buenos Aires I was invited to a closed study group of Theosophists, esoteric Rosicrucians and Martinists, where I participated in long discussions about the work of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Here is where I first pointed out to this group that all the ideas proposed by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky could be traced to certain forms of Gnosticism and to specific doctrines of the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Manichaeans.

During his twenties, Ichazo traveled through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir to study with the Sufi’s before returning home to craft his new theories. Ichazo’s work in Trialectics, described as the logical laws of the “process of becoming,” was complete by 1960. It became the principle behind Ichazo’s Protoanalysis, which is a method “to acquire the supreme Good of enlightenment and unity with the Divine.” Throughout South America groups formed to investigate this new synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and religion, and by 1969 in Santiago, Chile, Ichazo presented his teachings on Protoanaylsis and the doctrine of “Fixations” at the Institute of Applied Psychology. Soon thereafter, an American group of students, including Claudio Naranjo, traveled to Arica, Chile, for a ten-month study with Ichazo and his method of analysis.

Ichazo moved his base to New York by 1971, founding the Arica Institute. Since that time Arica schools have opened worldwide. Arica claims to teach the deepest states of Protoanalysis, or the nine Divine Gnoses. The Arica school represents the founding of modern enneagrammatic practice, and is one of its two main branches. Its followers hint it is the only uncorrupted Enneagram teaching available.

Arica training and rituals include: Black Earth of Perfect Harmony Ceremony; Chua Ka; Psychocalisthenics, and The Nine Ways of Zhikr. A description of The Nine Ways of Zhikr is instructive: “To Zhikr is to repeat the name of God. In the Arica Zhikr, Toham Kum Rah, the internal mantrum of the Divine, is repeated to specific patterns of music, movements, and breathing to produce a state of mystical ecstacy and union with the Divine.”

The Catholic Connection

Claudio Naranjo, a Fulbright scholar who studied with Ichazo in Chile, generally is credited with beginning the other branch of Enneagram teaching. Naranjo, a medical doctor and psychoanalyst, conducted research in psychopharmacology and taught psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A Guggenheim Fellow at the Institute for Personality and Research at UC Berkley, Naranjo left academia after his first visit with Ichazo in the late 1960s. Known for integrating Western psychotherapy with Eastern spirituality, he persuaded more than forty friends and followers to join him in his year’s sojourn to Chile.

Upon Naranjo’s return to California following his apprenticeship in Chile, a notice was posted at the Jesuit seminary in Berkley inviting interested persons to attend an introduction to the Enneagram given by Claudio Naranjo, M.D. Two of those who attended Naranjo’s seminar were Helen Palmer and Bob Ochs, S. J.

Like dropping a pebble in a pond, so has the Enneagram spread since that first Berkley seminar. Palmer, a psychologist and a leading Enneagram teacher and writer, acknowledges a Catholic upbringing, but, according to her assistant, incorporates “facets and traditions from all the great religions.” Fr. Ochs moved on to Chicago, where he taught the Enneagram to confreres and seminarians, including Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., and Fr. Pat O’Leary. Fr. Jerry Hair taught the Enneagram at retreat houses. Fr. Colin Maloney taught at the Jesuit theologate in Toronto, passing the Enneagram on to Tad Dunn, who trained novices. Fr. Richard Riso, too, was among the early students of the Enneagram. Pacwa remembers:

It was like a plague! Deacons and seminary candidates were required to be typed before entering seminary. It was pseudo-spirituality. We were encouraged at Enneagram workshops to use hallucinogenic drugs to achieve the altered states we were told we would later learn to reach on our own without the use of drugs. This pseudo-spirituality teaches that what you see in altered states of consciousness is the reality, our unaltered state is illusory.

Pacwa is quick to point out that most teachers at parish centers, retreat houses, and workshops are unaware of the occult roots of the Enneagram. “Many, many good people and pastors have become entangled in this. They were brought the Enneagram by someone they trusted, so it’s taught at parish retreats and workshops—they have no idea what this is.” Pacwa’s revelation has been unwelcome in some locales, while other dioceses have called on him to combat the system’s popularity. Stressing the Gnostic theology at work in the Enneagram and all its offshoots, Pacwa further attacks the use of the system in psychology: “For pastoral counseling, the Enneagram is neither theologically correct nor psychologically effective.” Nevertheless, the Enneagram continues to be widely taught in official Catholic settings, most recently by former priest, Pat Aspell, at the 1997 National Conference of Catholic Deacons.

The Rohr Connection

Popular retreat master Fr. Richard Rohr penned Discovering the Enneagram: Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey. Rohr’s particular twist attaches a “root sin” to each fixation, and uses religious language for many of his explanations. Our root sin, in his scheme, is the obsession that defines all our choices, the friends we make, the jobs we take. This root sin is the source of our energy—the backside of our virtue.

Rohr is founder and director of the Albuquerque Center for Contemplation and Action, a gathering place for heterodox, dissident teachers. Visitors to Rohr’s center include: Matthew Fox, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Joan Chittister, Daniel Berrigan, Edwina Gately, and Bishop Raymond Luker. Rohr retreated for a month of contemplation to the cottage of his late mentor, Thomas Merton, before withdrawing from New Jerusalem, a lay community he founded, in order to establish his Center for Contemplation and Action.

Pacwa points out that the Enneagram pioneers were lapsed Catholics. “Gurdjieff left the seminary as a teenager. His parents wanted him to be an Orthodox priest; his own interests were in science.” Gurdjieff’s book, Meetings With Remarkable Men, recounts his fascination with the occult, including telepathy and astrology. He simply wandered off into Central Asia in order to follow his occult interests. Living with the Naqshbandis he learned that faith arose “from understanding . . . the essence obtained from information intentionally learned and from all kinds of experiences personally experienced.” This claim is clearly opposed to Christian teaching: faith is a gift, freely given, independent of understanding.

Oscar Ichazo, Pacwa explains, “at age six became disillusioned with the Catholic Church because its teachings contradicted what he learned through an occultic out-of-body experience. He rejected what his Jesuit teachers told him of heaven and hell, claiming to have been there and learned more than Christ and the Church.” According to Pacwa’s research, Ichazo now declares he is a “master” in touch with previous esoteric masters, including the dead.

Bad Theology and Poor Pastoral Practice

Pacwa has said in summary, “The Enneagram is a combination of bad theology and poor pastoral practice, for which reasons I now criticize it. In the end, I quit teaching it because it didn’t work. I noticed I was always mistyping people. Fr. Ochs quit teaching it. It is not science. It is not a new psychological development.” The major objection from the scientific quarter is that no definitive proof exists for there being only nine personality types; a construct of Ichazo’s that Pacwa maintains is based on Sufi numerology. “After taking the course on the Enneagram, I searched for more information. . . . Ouspensky and other Gurdjieff disciples described cosmic interpretations, or used it to describe scientific experiments. None of them describes nine personality types.” Indeed, even a cursory examination of the leading Enneagram books demonstrates a lack of basic consensus.

Among the leaders in the Enneagram world is the former Jesuit priest, Don Richard Riso. Riso is founder of The Enneagram Institute, located in New York with affiliations in Paris, Tokyo, and Zurich. Riso trademarked the phrase describing the Enneagram as “The Bridge Between Psychology and Spirituality.” Interestingly, Riso worries about unscrupulous use of the Enneagram “bastardizing it to make it a function of our own egos, of our emotional needs, of our financial gains . . . [T]he Enneagram is much more powerful within an authentic spiritual community, led by a genuine spiritual teacher.”

That said, it is ironic that a primary concern of Riso’s has been to remove the mysticism and Sufi spirituality as the primary identification of the Enneagram, concentrating instead on research. He frets, “Without precision and clarity, the Enneagram is reduced to being simply another ‘New Age’ system.” His fear is borne out in the Enneagram advertisements promising dating based on your number, or Tarot readings based on your type.

Copublisher of the Enneagram Monthly, Jack Labanauskas was careful to point out for CRISIS that the Enneagram is neutral; that just as fire can keep you warm or burn your house down, so the Enneagram is for good or evil. Citing Claudio Naranjo’s new book, with an endorsement from Dr. Theodore Millon, professor of psychiatry at Harvard and professor of psychology at University of Miami, Labanauskas believes there is a growing acceptance of the Enneagram within the medical profession. This might not be so.

Although Milton remembered being asked by his publisher to write a blurb for the Naranjo book, he was clear that he was not endorsing the Enneagram system; rather, he was praising Naranjo as the “brilliant, intuitive clinician that he is.” Millon explained further, “A thinking process is not the framework of the Enneagram. Naranjo is insightful; he is a keen observer.” Milton expressed reservations as to the Enneagram’s theoretical model, and compared it to the Rorschach test—an intuitive tool. “It may be art, but it is not science.”

Millon offered an explanation for the Enneagram trend:

“Life is chaotic. Chaos causes fear. People who need to create order are drawn to a model that explains it all. They are attracted to a fanciful, appealing schemata that neatly divides the world into categories. Once charismatic types come on the scene to give these schema purpose and direction, it gives them comfort. Spatially constructed templates are not equal to a scientific mode. It’s not all that different from astrology.”

Suggesting that the Enneagram is devoid of any spiritual content until paired with the spiritual discipline of one’s own choosing, Labanauskas, too, resisted the characterization of the Enneagram as occult. A former Catholic altar boy, he recounts that as a teenager he developed an interest in graphology. He read The Tibetan Book of the Dead at nineteen. Transcendental meditation followed at twenty; he moved on to numerology and Tarot during the 1960s and 1970s. Labanauskas also practiced Chinese medicine in Italy before immigrating to New York, where he studied with a Tibetan group. It seems clear that for many in pursuit of “a higher consciousness” that no activity, save for witchcraft, is understood as occult.

Labanauskas, Riso, and others are earnest, warm, and intelligent men. They are, perhaps, the result of poor catechesis and the confused implementation of Vatican II. The striking factor present in all who talked of their involvement with the Enneagram is a deep spiritual hunger. The desire to be in union with God and to be whole is their preeminent goal. A disconcerting number of Catholics, even priests, who are enamored with the Enneagram are unclear on the doctrinal beliefs of Catholicism. Many fervently await a union of world religions, which they believe will initiate an era of true peace. Redemption, to most of them, means a return to a state of full knowledge from which we came. They are not reluctant to identify with Gnosticism; some suggest Gnostic teachings were unfairly suppressed by a patriarchal Church.

Pacwa reduces the problem of the Enneagram to its foundation: “We humans cannot save ourselves . . . Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace which no human can earn.” Neither is he convinced that the Enneagram can be purged of its occult roots or ever be acceptable for Christian use. In his experience, everyone who shared their excitement with the Enneagram also practiced one or more of the following: Zen, transcendental meditation, numerology, tarot, or astrology. Mixing these practices with Christianity is really no different than Santerria, where voodoo is awkwardly combined with certain aspects of Catholicism. Pacwa is unequivocal in his warning: “No Jesuit from my class, except myself, who took the Enneagram teaching is still a Jesuit today. All have left the priesthood.”


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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