Interview with Don Riso: On how to read personalities and discover your true self
by David Ian Miller, from his series Finding My Religion in The San Francisco Gate for Monday, March 5, 2007. Republished with permission.
Full disclosure: I’ve always thought of personality tests—the kind that supposedly reveal your true essence after you answer a bunch of cryptic questions—as the laughably simplistic instruments of lazy guidance counselors and dull-witted HR managers.
Then my friend Doug suggested I check out the Enneagram, a method of classifying people into nine basic categories. I told him to forget it—no online quiz is going to tell me who I am. But Doug, an enthusiastic “early adopter” in the realm of spiritual exploration, has turned me on to some interesting insights over the years. So I took a short test that revealed that I am a Type 6: committed, security-oriented, engaging and responsible as well as anxious and suspicious. OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about that last part, but the more I thought about it—and the more I read about sixes—the more accurate this description seemed to me. Since that time, I’ve been giving the test to friends and family, and almost everyone has found the Enneagram categories both interesting and revealing.
In delving deeper, I discovered the Enneagram is more than just a personality-typing system; it’s also used as a tool for personal growth and spiritual development. Many people use the nine Enneagram types—which are based on an ancient nine-pointed symbol found in many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Jewish mysticism and Sufism—to learn what’s keeping them from becoming their highest selves and to move beyond those blocks to a more enlightened state.
To learn more about the history and modern use of the Enneagram, I spoke with Don Riso, co-founder of the Enneagram Institute in Stone Ridge, N.Y., and the author of several best-selling books on the subject. Riso, a former Jesuit, believes the Enneagram can enable people to break free of their illusions about themselves and the world, as well as become slightly less anxious and suspicious human beings.
What does the Enneagram tell us about ourselves?
Human beings are on automatic pilot much of the time, and as a result we do not see ourselves. We often don’t see the aspects of our personalities that are self-destructive, that threaten our relationships, our happiness and even the welfare of the world. The Enneagram, as I’ve defined it, is a guide to self-observation. It is a way to map the spectrum of personality and illuminate those dark areas.
What are some of the things that might be revealed?
I’m a Type 4, so I’ll tell you about that type. The self-image of the four, especially at the lower levels of their development, is that “I’m a victim. Everybody is taking advantage of me. I feel like an open wound.” But what is not easily seen in most fours is how aggressive and condescending and really nasty they can be to other people. Their self-image of being the vulnerable victim covers that over.
One of your contributions to the study of the Enneagram is the idea that different personality types move through levels of development, that there is a low and a high functioning version of each personality type. How does that work?
As I was studying the Enneagram personality types in the ’70s, I realized that there were nine distinct levels within each type—nine levels of being. You could spend your whole life on one of these levels. Or you could move from one level to another, as most people do, depending on various circumstances and the stresses operating on them from moment to moment. The idea of the levels explains how two people of the same personality type can operate very differently—and seem to others to be different character types. For example, Saddam Hussein and Martin Luther King are both eights on the Enneagram. But they are obviously very different. That’s because they are operating at different levels of development within the framework of the eight personality type.
How do you move from one level to another?
Well, the easy answer to that is you have to have awareness and be willing and able to go against the habits of your personality type. The levels are a measure of our fixation—and the measure of how asleep we are to ourselves and to reality. A person who is low in the levels is so asleep to themselves, so alienated from the truth of who they are, that they cannot see themselves. They need the help of some external force—Enneagram knowledge alone is not enough. They need therapy or a spiritual teacher, a guide to greater awareness and objectivity of some kind. You need somebody to act as an external mirror and guide to a new understanding of reality.
How can the Enneagram be used as a spiritual tool?
To me, reality is spiritual. If God is real, God is by definition the most real thing there is. He is the “really real,” and spirituality refers to an awareness and experience of that level of reality.
The world of maya, the world of illusion, in which we live, is not “the really real.” We think we are awake and that we’re dealing with reality, but we are not. Instead, we are dealing with mental constructs: our projections, our reactivity, our fears—all kinds of things in our mental world.
And the Enneagram helps us wake up?
Sometimes we wake up spontaneously. Or we have an emergency or a sudden “shock” of some kind that helps us to awaken, at least momentarily. And then you have the opportunity to either change your ways or to go back to sleep again.
Unfortunately, awareness usually fades pretty quickly. The Enneagram teaches us about the many ways in which we shut down our capacity to see reality directly and go to sleep to ourselves. In that way, it provides a spiritual path for us to follow, a way to wake up in the world.
The Enneagram has become popular in recent years with churches and other religious groups. Yet some religious institutions, like the Catholic Church, have been critical of this trend. What are their concerns?
Where religious people get scared about the Enneagram is that it’s not dogmatic. It’s not a religion. It is an invitation to spirituality, to learn about spirituality for yourself and to investigate your own experience of the divine in your life. That kind of message can be threatening to some mind-sets. In my opinion, the big problem with religion these days is that people are not taught how to have spiritual experiences. If they did, then they might not need organized religion anymore—at least, that is the underlying fear.
How has the study of the Enneagram affected your spiritual life? At one time you were a Jesuit seminarian, right?
Yes, I was studying to be a priest, but then I left before ordination.
Earlier in my life I would have said I was a Christian, and probably kind of smug about it, too. I’m not now. As Gurdjieff said, I think I am still trying to become a Christian. I realize how far I am from being someone who always, in every circumstance, really manifests and lives the teachings of Christ.
You also explore other spiritual traditions. Which ones have influenced you the most?
Buddhism, absolutely. Sufism has also been important to me. I would say that my spirituality is fairly nondenominational. I think the seeking comes from a desire for the truth in whatever form it appears, especially in my own personal experience. I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I’ve never been one to read tons of books to find answers.
How do you use the Enneagram in your spiritual practice, if you do?
One of the primary spiritual practices is observing yourself at all times and in every circumstance, particularly when you are in the presence of people. This is more than simply a psychological practice, because one is bringing awareness and acceptance into one’s life and the lives of others by being a manifestation of compassion. I do that as much as I possibly can, every day. What I know about the Enneagram has made that process of self-observation much more efficient, much more clarifying. I also sit (or meditate) daily and have several other practices which are private but which have helped me a lot.
Some researchers regard the Enneagram as pseudoscience. How do you respond to such criticism?
As of a few years ago, there wasn’t much hard science behind the Enneagram. But that’s changing. We’ve done the first round of research in a laboratory setting, which I think is very strong, and there is going to be even more. The second round of research will completely answer that objection, I think. The research is being done in an independent and nonbiased way by a highly regarded group of statisticians and psychometricians in the U.K. who are well on their way to proving that the nine types of the Enneagram do exist. But, despite this, there will always be critics and skeptics who will not believe anything. So I’m not taking time trying to convert people. Ultimately, people either see the fundamental truth and utility of the Enneagram in their own lives and experience, or they do not.
One idea that seems hard to swallow is that there are only nine different types of people in the world. How can that be true?
Do you really think that nature would allow that every individual would be completely and totally unique in every dimension? That would mean there would be no common language. There would be no way of communicating with anyone. There are huge domains of commonality that allow us to survive. And the personality types are, you could say, fundamental domains of commonality on a psychological level. Besides, saying that there are only nine personality types in the Enneagram is a simplification. Within each of the nine types there are different instincts, or subtypes. If you account for all of those, you get almost 500 different variations of the human personality.
Still, that doesn’t seem like that many types of humans when you consider 6 billion people live on the planet.
If you look at the color spectrum, there are just seven colors in the rainbow but there are thousands of hues and saturations of different colors. In other words, 6 billion people on the planet can be reduced to being one of two sexes (as a major distinction), and they can be reduced to being one of nine personality types (as another major distinction). This is not all they are, of course, but distinguishing and understanding people has got to start somewhere —with some kind of mental categories.
Are some types on the Enneagram believed to be better than other types?
No. One of the important features of the Enneagram is that it’s totally “democratic.” You could say that some types are better at a certain tasks or learning styles but not that one type is better or worse than any other type. However, you could say that some types fit better into certain cultures than others, because culture itself is an expression of the personality types. Cultures don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of a historical development of the sort of predominant personality styles,
Can you give me an example?
The Revolutionary War in America happened during the Enlightenment. The mind-set of that era was very puritanical, on the one hand, but also promoted the idea that people were reasonable—this was the Age of Reason, after all — and that problems could be solved through the exercise of reason.
This is all consistent with personality Type 1 on the Enneagram. So it was a good time to be a one: If you were a one, you fit right into that culture.
What are the characteristics of the Type 1?
I call the one the reformer, the type of person who is principled, purposeful, self-controlled and a perfectionist. This is the type of person who is always identified with, you could say, the rational mind. He feels that he must really control himself and make himself and the world better. He also believes he must resist any impulses and personal feelings in order to rise higher.
Do certain personality types get along well together, while others might tend to clash?
Every type is potentially compatible with any other type. So we can’t say that if you are a six you should avoid twos or that you will like ones. What we say is that any two people who are healthy will get along—and any two people who are in the average range will have conflicts—and if either or both are in the unhealthy range, the relationship will not be easy. In fact, it will be very destructive.
What we teach is that if you put any two types together, there will be typical issues that will surface that will be challenges to the relationship. That doesn’t mean the relationship is impossible. It just means that there would be typical things that you should be on the lookout for. That’s something that’s really worth knowing.