Tag Archives: Enneagram

Neuroscience, Buddhism, and the Enneagram

Current neuroscience research supports the Buddhist belief that we are sleepwalking through life (“budhi” means to wake up), as well as the theory behind the Enneagram that we are all on autopilot most of the time. Although we have the impression that our behavior is consciously chosen, consciousness comprises only a small part of our brain’s activity—and consciousness is both limited and a huge energy hog. The vast majority of our thoughts, feelings, and actions are the result of brain activity we aren’t even aware of.

It can be hard to come to terms with the idea that we’re not consciously choosing every single thing we do. Even if we don’t always like what we’ve done—or at least the results—we want to believe we have freely chosen to do those things. Choice and freedom go hand-in-hand for us, and free choice means we have the ability or power to decide and to act of our own free will. But the reality is that our unconscious rules us to a considerable extent; and there is no way for us to directly access the unconscious.

We evolved this way in order to increase our chances of surviving. If we were forced to consciously think about everything we do, starting when we get out of bed in the morning, we would quickly deplete our brain’s reserves of conscious attention. Then, when a situation arose that required conscious attention, we wouldn’t have any left to devote to it. The expression “brain dead” aptly describes this state.

When we’re “brain dead,” our brain hasn’t really stopped functioning. We probably can’t solve a tricky problem or plan a complex project or learn and retain new information. But our unconscious is still operating just fine. It can get us home while looking out for any potential danger, take us through the operation of familiar kitchen appliances or drive-through restaurants to get us fed, and make sure we complete our regular bedtime routines.

Those are the kinds of things our unconscious does best. It’s always looking out for us, which is a very good thing. However, it has much more influence over us than we’re aware of, and it’s been influencing us our entire lives. After decades of believing we’re running the show, it can be tough—and initially alarming—to recognize how little control we actually have.

Yet, waking up to this state of affairs and figuring out where to find the autopilot switch is the only chance we have of actually gaining some control. Neuroscience is now giving us an opportunity to take a peek under the hood, so to speak. It’s fascinating to me. The research supports what I’ve been aware of ever since I was introduced to the Enneagram nearly 20 years ago–and what Buddhism has been telling us for centuries.

Type 9: Notoriously in Need of a Nap

9This is the video clip of Type 9 from understandingpersonality.com, the last one in the series. Viewing this from my perspective as an 8, I was keenly aware of being impatient at how slowly the keywords appear in the beginning and how many times the people being interviewed pause.

“Oh, get on with it,” my inner voice nearly shouted. Then I stopped and took a deep breath.

While 8s visibly expend their energy, 9s expend their energy internally. If you didn’t know that, you might wonder why they are the ones who are so tired. But I get that being a 9 can be exhausting. And I thought this was the most profound statement:

There’s a moment where you stop adapting.

You can almost feel this woman letting go. Ahhhh. 

Type 8: We Get the Job Done Right

Sunburst_8Here’s the video clip on Type 8 from understandingpersonality.com. After watching this a couple of times, I still had trouble relating to several of these people and their descriptions of their personal experiences. I thought that might be because I have such a strong 7 wing. But I’ve watched 8s on other videos with whom I’ve identified quite closely. Then I noticed that someone else commented that he or she thought only one of the people in this video is actually an 8. I don’t know whether that person was another 8.

I call a spade a spade, and I use it.

Ha! That was my favorite comment. It made me laugh out loud. But what I related to most were the two comments about dealing with “fools.” My partner used to threaten to get me a T-shirt (one in a series) that said “Does Not Suffer Fools Gladly.”

Type 7: Always Leave Them Laughing

Number 7Here’s the video from understandingpersonality.com on Type 7. 7s are pretty insistent about what’s important to them–they are, after all, one of the aggressive types.

Often, as they themselves say, 7s “bring the sunshine in.” So we like to be around them.

I must have light, and I must have laughter, I must have humor, I must have friends, and I must have people. I’m drawn to groups having fun. I need to have that. And I must have that because it’s as vital as water. The major part of my life is probably fun.

Type 6: Suspicious Minds

number_6This video clip on Type 6 from understandingpersonality.com suggests that life, for 6s, is akin to being trapped in an endless Halloween scene–or a scary fairy tale with no happy ending in sight.

It’s hard to feel safe when the witches and goblins are always after you. The deer-in-the-headlights expression on this 6‘s face below says it all.

The comments definitely have a theme. Here are three statements from three different participants:

…a constant checking for what’s going on
…you’re always watching your back
…it’s all about staying safe

Maybe 6s should come equipped with eyes in the backs of their heads.

No ToE (Theory of Everything)

No person

I have enjoyed learning about and working with the Enneagram for the past couple of decades because it explains—amazingly accurately—so much about how we humans actually function. I’ve gotten to know myself much better as a result and have learned to curb some tendencies and to live with some shortcomings. Best of all, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, at least a little. I’ve also gotten to know others on a deeper level as a result of using the Enneagram.

But sometimes I think we ask too much—or expect too much—of the Enneagram. As comprehensive a tool as it is, the Enneagram can’t and doesn’t explain everything there is to know about us. It is not the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything.

One aspect of the Enneagram that has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years is identifying the so-called Instinctual Variants, and more recently Instinctual Variant Stacking. The concept seems to have originated with Oscar Ichazo, but it has been considerably expanded and given greater significance than it once had. The purpose of the Instinctual Variants, and the stacking thereof, appears to be to try to explain the differences within types. (This is what I’ve read, not just my interpretation.)

Well, of course there are differences within types. And there are all kinds of things that could explain them, most of which have nothing at all to do with the Enneagram. More than 10 years ago, my partner in crime Elizabeth Libbey and I devoted a great deal of time and effort reviewing a large portion of Enneagram literature and looking at how the Enneagram maps onto or corresponds with other psychological, sociological, and neurological research. We found a solid basis for the Stances (Aggressive, Compliant, and Withdrawing), but nothing comparable in regard to the Instinctual Variants. In fact, I came across research results that flatly contradict that what the Enneagram community considers “Instincts” have anything whatsoever to do with actual biological instincts. That’s why I don’t write about that particular topic here.

Trying to fit all the disjointed, fractured, and misshapen pieces of us inside the Enneagram doesn’t seem realistic or useful to me. And I wonder if that isn’t what turns some people off about personality typing systems. I think that who we are is much more complex and mysterious—and ultimately unknowable. I also think that’s a good thing!

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Type 5: Sponging Everything Up

fiveHere’s the clip on Type 5 from understandingpersonality.com. I think it’s fascinating that two of the people interviewed referred to having a “black hole” inside. The waiter I tentatively identified as a 5 last fall also made a reference to black holes.

There’s this black hole inside, and if you know enough you’re safe.

Could this be coincidental or might it be a commonality among 5s?

The Categorizing Habit

brainSometimes people resist learning about the Enneagram (or MBTI) because they don’t like the idea of categorizing people—and they themselves are especially reluctant to be categorized.

But it turns out that our brains categorize things and people all the time at the unconscious level. And this can be very useful.

In Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow says that categorization is one of the most important mental acts we perform.

One of the principal ways we categorize is by maximizing the importance of certain differences…while minimizing the relevance of others. If we conclude that a certain set of objects belongs to one group and a second set of objects to another, we may then perceive those within the same group as more similar than they really are—and those in different groups as less similar than they really are. Merely placing objects in groups can affect our judgment of those objects.

Substitute “persons” for “objects” and you can see how categorization can lead to problems.

Our brains categorize other people whether we’re aware of it or not. And how our brains categorize them determines how we react to them and often how we treat them. But since this categorization is unconscious, we aren’t aware of it.

I remember that when I moved to New Mexico from California, I soon made the acquaintance of several other 8s. Immediately, I felt comfortable with all of them as a result of our similarities. Although we all have significant differences, those differences did not seem as important as our similarities so I downplayed them.

Categorizing people by Enneagram type is usually a conscious and deliberate process. But the traits and characteristics we associate with different types—and our attitudes toward them—may not be entirely conscious. Those unconscious attitudes may lead to negative stereotyping we aren’t even aware of.

So we don’t really have a choice when it comes to our brains’ categorizing habit and we aren’t privy to that information. But we can pay attention to the way we use the Enneagram to categorize people. We can notice when we perceive all 2s or all 9s as being alike. We can remember that although all 2s and all 9s have a lot in common with each other, each 2 and each 9 is different from the others. And even though we may not be 2s or 9s, we still have things in common with them. They are not as different from us as our categorization might imply.

Type 4: Wheeee!

4The folks in the Type 4 video from understandingpersonality.com do seem to be  very dramatic. Being second best might not be ideal, but does it really stack up as a tragedy? This clip makes me wonder what type the interviewer is.

 

Mediocre or ordinary is like a swear word. Like that’s the last thing you would want to be.

Look, a Bird!

Procrastination

Everyone procrastinates at one time or another, but not everyone is a habitual procrastinator. Procrastination is a characteristic often associated with 6s. It is also quite often linked with perfectionism, as if perfectionism is a direct and quantifiable cause of procrastination. This is one of those things I’ve always wondered about because 6s have never seemed like perfectionists to me.

6s can be full of anxiety, however; so maybe anxiety leads to procrastination. But according to the research, the anxiety people feel when a deadline is staring them in the face and they aren’t sure they can meet it is the result of having procrastinated.

According to analysis of about a hundred studies involving tens of thousands of participants, anxiety produces a negligible amount of procrastination at best—and even that tiny amount disappears completely after you take into account other personality characteristics, especially impulsiveness.
–Piers Steel, Ph.D., author of The Procrastination Equation

Impulsive?

It turns out that perfectionists actually tend to procrastinate less than other people do, which makes sense when you think about it. According to Piers Steel, it’s impulsiveness that is “the nickel-iron core” of procrastination:

[I]mpulsiveness creates procrastination because it makes small but immediate temptations, like playing Minesweeper or updating your social network status, especially attractive. The reward might be small but the delay is virtually nonexistent. On the flip side, large but distant rewards, like graduating or saving for retirement, aren’t valued much at all. Despite their importance, these long-term goals don’t motivate us until the march of time itself eventually transforms them into short-term consequences. Only in those final hours do we frantically try to catch up on what we really should have addressed long before. The more impulsive you are, the closer to deadlines you need to be before you’ll feel fully motivated.

Or Distractible?

That makes sense, but I wonder if distractibility—which means to turn away from the original focus of attention or interest—might not be a more apt term for this than impulsiveness—which means to act suddenly on impulse without reflection.

Just as everyone procrastinates from time to time, anyone can become distracted. But maybe some Enneagram types are naturally easier to distract than others.

1s, 2s, and 6s, the Compliant types, are prone to getting caught up in, and distracted by, whatever is going on in the immediate moment, at which point they lose sight of the bigger picture. It seems like they have a more difficult time keeping focused.

9s are notorious for their low distractibility threshold. One 9 in an Enneagram video confessed that even if she had to be somewhere at a particular time and was already late, she might still find herself at home picking dead leaves off of her plants. Random elements in the environment reach out and grab 9s’ attention. “Look, a bird!”

4s and 5s are not naturally focused on or attuned to the demands of the external world. When they put things off, is it because they are procrastinating or because they simply don’t care? Maybe it’s the same thing. Steel says:

Two big contributing factors to procrastination are straightforward: low self-confidence and the aversiveness of tasks. If we doubt our ability to complete a chore and find it as exciting as watching concrete set, we are more likely to put it off. It is no wonder that taxes, which are both difficult and boring, are famous for making procrastinators out of almost all of us.

So 4s might be inclined to procrastinate about boring tasks and 5s about tasks they feel less confident about doing successfully.

7s are sometimes described as impulsive and other times as distracted, as if the terms mean the same thing, which they don’t. I think impulsive better defines them than distracted, but they are likely to procrastinate when it comes to doing things they see as painful or unpleasant.

8s are usually very focused and don’t appear to be procrastinators, but they are no strangers to it. For one thing, they tend to avoid doing things that aren’t a part of their current agenda. For another, they don’t see a problem in putting things off till the last minute, or not doing them at all, figuring they can deal with the consequences.

3s may be the least likely of all the types to procrastinate. Their drive to succeed means they need to do whatever they attempt well. Procrastinating would be too dangerous a game to play.

Go ahead, procrastinate

How much do you procrastinate? Here’s a link to a procrastination survey you can complete. It might be an interesting distraction.