Psychology with a bit of soul

Published Aug. 13, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

Could it be that the enneagram, hailed by some as a powerful consciousness-raising tool but derided by others as no more than a fad, is coming of age?

The century-old enneagram traces its roots to Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, and it has been spread with missionary zeal to Catholic retreat centers around the world.

But never has the enneagram, with its patented nine-part breakdown of personality types, been accepted in mainstream psychology circles.

However, the enneagram and its "sacred technology" were on full display at a four-day conference here co-sponsored by one of the nation's most eminent medical training grounds _ Stanford Medical School and, more specifically, the school's Department of Psychiatry.

Scattered about the Stanford campus during the Aug. 4-7 conference were 1,400 enneagram enthusiasts from 17 countries who attended some 100 workshops to learn how to use the enneagram as a corporate management tool, a way to mental health, a path to spiritual insight and a window into "the intuitive wisdom of the body."

It took only a few hours with enneagram aficionados for outsiders to learn the lingo of this psycho-spiritual subculture rife with inside jokes, knowing nods and numerological one-liners about spaced-out Nines, aggressive Eights and "counter-phobic" Sixes.

According to the enneagram, Nines are mediators, obsessively ambivalent; Eights are extremely protective with a need to be in control; Sixes tend to be fearful, dutiful and plagued by doubt.

Using the enneagram as an aid to personal growth dates back some 100 years, when it was borrowed from Sufism and repackaged for modern use by G.J. Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic and occultist.

Some date the underlying philosophy of the enneagram back even further and see it as a psychologized version of Christianity's seven deadly sins _ envy, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust, anger, pride _ with fear and vanity thrown in for good measure.

In the 1970s, enneagram workshops became popular among spiritual searchers at places like Esalen, the famous human-potential movement spa on California's Big Sur coast.

At about the same time, it was discovered by a small band of Jesuit priests who began spreading the gospel of enneagram to Catholic retreat centers around the world.

One of the organizers of the gathering, Professor Michael Ray of the Stanford Business School, admitted that the university was somewhat ambivalent about hosting a gathering that included so many mystics, psychics and other esoteric explorers.

But Ray, a social psychologist who specializes in business applications of creativity and innovation, sees the enneagram conference as part of a "long history of psychic research" at Stanford.

David Daniels, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford and a main organizer of the conference, said he sees a spiritual component to the enneagram and views it as a way to "bring soul back into psychology."

As enneagram worships become more widely used among Roman Catholic nuns, priests and lay people, traditional Catholics have begun to question its use in churches and religious retreats.

The Rev. Mitchell Pacwa, a Jesuit priest and former enthusiast, now says the nine-point enneagram is based on "biblically false doctrine."

In an article in the Christian Research Journal, Pacwa warns of enneagram counselors "roaming through the church, subtly taking people away from Christ their Lord and perhaps doing damage to their psyches."

Until a recent spate of hot-selling enneagram books hit the market, public knowledge of the enneagram had spread slowly through a grapevine of home meetings and worships at spiritual retreat centers.

Enneagram author and conference organizer Helen Palmer traces the network back to a class taught in 1971 in the home of Berkeley psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, whose work at Esalen sought to integrate Western psychotherapy and Eastern spiritual traditions.

Naranjo had learned of the enneagram from Oscar Ichazo, a mysterious Chilean who said he learned of the technique from a secret Sufi sect.

In all, more than 30 books have been published on the enneagram over the past decade, with worldwide sales of more than 1-million.

In a keynote address to the conference, Los Altos, Calif., psychologist Robert Frager warned that the greatest danger among enneagram students is the tendency to oversimplify and start stereotyping everyone around them _ forgetting that there are people behind the numbers.

"No personality theory is right about everybody all of the time," he said.

Don Lattin writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.