A Simple Framework for Mindfulness and Self-Discovery
“The Enneagram helps us to let go of the limiting mechanisms of our personality so that we can more deeply experience who and what we really are. It provides insights that can help in freeing us from our fears and conflicts … but information alone is not enough to free us. Instead, we need to understand the transformative process and our role in it. The paradox is that we cannot bring about our transformation, yet without our participation, it cannot be done.”
Riso & Hudson (2000, pp. 2-3)
In my life, the simple rules of thumb have been the easiest to remember. When something is conveyed in a concise framework, it is more retainable and more readily shared with others. My own practice of mindfulness is supported by reducing the lessons of brief assessment to a memorable checklist rooted in a personality model that offers behavioral insight promoting self-discovery. My purpose here is to briefly introduce the enneagram model of personality and share a mnemonic device I developed to guide my own mindfulness.
The relationship between personality and mindfulness is self-evident. Personality is defined as a person’s lifelong set of traits and characteristics, while mindfulness is defined as a person’s awareness of internal states and attunement to surroundings (VandenBos, 2007). Even before my decision to do psychology graduate work in later life, I was fascinated by the insights available from various personality assessments. It has been particularly interesting to see how each model can be a lens of its own kind and how my self-understanding also deepened when the results corroborated one another. o personality model has provided more insight about myself than the enneagram.
The term enneagram comes from the Greek words ennea (meaning nine) and gramma (meaning sign or figure) (Rohr & Ebert, 2006). The contemporary enneagram model of personality is a geometric figure that represents the relationships among nine sets of personality traits or personality types known as Enneagram Types (Riso & Hudson, 1999, 2000, 2003). The geometric figure is portrayed below:
This nine-point figure of the enneagram was first widely touted in the early 1900s by George Gurdjieff, a Greek-Russian philosopher, as a means of representing a wide variety of systems and processes (Gurdjieff, 2012: Wellbeloved, 2003). The typology was first applied to personality in the United States by Bolivian philosopher Oscar Ichazo in the 1950s (1982a, 1982b). It was further popularized in the 1970s by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo (1990, 1995).
Within a few decades, thousands of people were introduced to the enneagram by authors and teachers such as Helen Palmer (1998, 1995), Richard Rohr (Rohr & Ebert, 2006) and the founders of the Enneagram Institute, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (1999, 2000, 2003, 2018). Although Gurdjieff’s primary uses of the typology were not focused on personality, his Fourth Way work has strong foundational ties to the enneagram personality approach. The Fourth Way promotes the power of self-observation to integrate mind, emotions and body for personal growth. It is embraced in the advanced enneagram work taught by the Riso-Hudson Institute today (Riso & Hudson, 2018).
The Riso-Hudson model uniquely combines traditional enneagram-based personality trait typology with other theoretical overlays including stress-related type dynamics, instinctual predispositions and levels of development offering insight into individual functioning and progress. The levels of development are of particular interest for mindfulness because they define for each enneagram type the range from high-functioning to low-functioning based upon an individual’s stage of personal growth and current responses to life stresses and circumstances. This notion of progress gives a vertical dimension to the otherwise flat, horizontal plane of the circle of nine types to make the Riso-Hudson enneagram model into a more fully integral psychology (Bland, 2010; Wilber, 2000).
Unlike many approaches to personality, the enneagram purports to show us not only the bright side of our personalities but also to reveal the subtle ways in which we defeat ourselves (Rohr & Ebert, 2006, p. xvi). Mindful acceptance of self-defeating patterns promotes growth and enables deeper insights that can drive personal improvement. Benner (2004) points out that many personality models highlight the most attractive traits. He says the enneagram goes deeper to less attractive fatal flaws. He offers, “No one should work with the enneagram if what they seek is flattery. But no one should fail to do so if what they seek is deep knowing of self” (p. 68).
Along with all of the valuable guidance available from the levels of development, I found myself wishing for a simple heuristic tool by which to assess myself at any given moment. It occurred to me that knowing my exact level-of-the-moment wasn’t as important as being able to detect and assess directional shifts up or down the levels. My training in counseling psychology emphasized the importance of helping clients to be aware of their own behavior and to come up with alternatives to improve their daily living. A key goal of person-centered treatment is enabling a client in self-awareness geared to improving daily life (Rogers, 1951). The cognitive therapies formulated by Ellis (2001, 2004) aim to teach clients to be self-aware by identifying beliefs that aren’t helpful so that they can change their behaviors in order to experience different outcomes. It seems to me that both of these therapeutic approaches promote a model of mindfulness favoring self-improvement.
During my early doctoral work in 2013, I noticed that five aspects of daily living represented dimensions across which functional variances offer insight into Enneagram level transition. I derived these five categories by coding the Riso and Hudson (1999) literature on levels of development and triadic groups into affected aspects of life. At the point of identifying the first three (conflict, hope and energy), the remaining items fell into two types of circumstances. One type of circumstance is one which people bring upon themselves as results of their own action. The other type is a life circumstance over which the individual has absolutely no influence or control. When the idea came to refer to these, respectively, as consequences and kickers, the CHECK mnemonic device was born. This five-letter word, CHECK, can be used on a periodic ad hoc basis to identify functional problem areas as a lens through which the lessons of enneagram self-discovery can be applied. The intended use of the CHECK mnemonic is to quickly self-assess by assigning, at any desired moment, a simple traffic-light color code to each letter. Green means all is well, yellow is a warning sign and red is a serious flag suggesting change is needed. A brief definition for each letter of the CHECK mnemonic is shown below:
While this approach has underpinnings across the Riso-Hudson enneagram model of self-discovery (1999, 2000), it also offers a practical, face value, ready-for-use heuristic to improve daily life without any knowledge of the model. It is significant to have easy-to-use tools for real-time self-assessment without having to rely on lengthy, formalized assessments. Certainly, such assessments have merit but cannot replace the immediacy of help made available by a meaningful heuristic tool. This process of self-observation brings the therapeutic potential of a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score into the hands of a reasonably healthy person who is committed to self-guided personal improvement. The American Psychiatric Association (2000) used the GAF scale for many years as an Axis V measure on the former multiaxial evaluation system. The purpose was for clinicians to score patients by number or number range based on observations of psychological, social and occupational levels of functioning. The opportunity offered by the CHECK mnemonic is for anyone to benefit from a simple framework to assess basic functioning. It is a simple heuristic tool that promotes and supports mindfulness.
While individuals with deep enneagram knowledge may find helpful interpretations of specific traffic light self-scoring combinations and trends, there may be more general benefit in using the mnemonic tool as a simple indicator of daily functioning. This may be sufficient to build awareness such that behavioral choices can be made before serious dysfunction is encountered. I encourage the personal use of the CHECK mnemonic to support the practice of mindfulness. I also encourage its use as homework for counseling clients. Mindful consideration of one’s current relationship to conflict, hope, energy, consequences and kickers can open the door to deeper self-understanding and improved daily life.
“The core truth that the Enneagram conveys to us is that we are much more than our personality. Beyond the limitations of our personalities [is the] largely unrecognized quality of Being or Presence … called our Essence. We do not experience our Essence … because our awareness is so dominated by our personality. But as we learn to bring awareness to our personality, it becomes more transparent, and we are able to experience our Essence more directly.”
Riso & Hudson (1999, p. 27)
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Darrell Barr is finishing his PhD in Psychology at Saybrook University. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, Barbara, and their little Morkie, Abby. Darrell believes in lifelong learning and admits his only recent “hobby” is graduate study, overshadowing interests in photography and guitar. For the past 25 years as a business analytics consultant, he has helped companies improve insights into corporate performance. Going forward, he is excited about helping individuals gain other insights by finding new ways to discover and grow.