Finding and Letting Go of the Self through the Enneagram and Spiritual Practices

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 10.35.41 AM.pngThis entry describes a two-fold project in which students (1) seek to identity their Enneagram personality type, and then (2) design a spiritual practice to let go and purify this preferred way of being in the world. In this way, students begin to practice a potentially lifelong dynamic of simultaneously finding and letting go of the self.

“If psychological work helps us find ourselves, spiritual work takes a step further, helping us let go of ourselves.”

– John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, 97.


Dear Students,

This semester in “Service, Society, and the Sacred“* I want you to explore yourself at a level of depth and specificity that I assume you have never done before. Ideally, this self-exploration will give you some clue about your life purpose. That may sound over-the-top grand, but I don’t believe it’s too early for you to understand something about your soul’s purpose in your experience as a high school junior or senior.

So far I have offered a method by which to search for wisdom, which is teaching about and training of the three intelligence centers of the body, mind, and heart. All of us are to some degree “asleep” because not all of the three centers are functioning in a Image result for wake up memehealthy way; the goal is to “wake up” all parts of yourself. Since the mind is typically overdeveloped at HKIS, we have focused on the other two centers, implementing a 10-day project on nutrition that has sensitized you to your body, and exploring your heart intelligence through emotional triggering exercises, non-reactivity, insight therapy, and spiritual practices.

Now with this general introduction to theImage result for alex grey man in universe body-mind-heart framework in place, the next stage in our journey will be to go into greater depth in two ways: (1) more concentration on your personal needs and (2) consideration of the interrelationship between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life. This means that you will go deeper within, while at the same time exploring the big picture of the cosmos: a micro-macro investigation.  screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-8-32-29-pm

Before getting into the specifics, I want to better define what I mean by these two dimensions:

(1) The horizontal dimension focuses on your personality, your identity, your personal growth, the work you choose to do, acting in your social world, making a difference in the ‘real world’ of space and time. It generally requires a great deal of concentration and discipline. This is the inner world of PSYCHOLOGY.

(2) By contrast, the vertical dimension is about letting go, it’s about being rather than doing, it’s about emptiness more than fullness, opening to a spiritual self which, according to all the religious traditions, can experience what might be called Being or Presence.  It is about spaciousness, gathering of attention, and raising energy to a higher state. This involves the invisible world of SPIRITUALITY.

How do these two dimensions relate? John Welwood explains succinctly: “If psychological work helps us find ourselves, spiritual work takes a step further, helping us let go of ourselves.” We have entered into the world of paradox in which truly living means grasping and letting go, finding and losing, working and relaxing, speaking and being silent. I hope to put these two dynamics into practice TOGETHER so that you experience both the searching and the letting go, the psychological growth and the spiritual purification at the same time.

I. Finding Yourself Through the Enneagram

To learn about yourself, I would like to introduce a psychological tool called the Enneagram that provides nine different ways to make sense of the world. While all of us have all nine types inside of ourselves, each of us also has our own particular approach to the world that is seen predominantly through one of these types.The premise is that all of us grow up with some body-mind-heart imbalance based on our particular enneagram type, and that this imbalance becomes the chief feature of our horizontal, ego-based life. In other words, your most prominent personal strength could at the same time become the most significant limitation or handicap to your full flowering as a human being. The solution for each of the nine types is to recognize and let go of this strength/limitation, and open up to the vertical world of Presence.

What we will try to accomplish in this activity is figure out what is your main type. This may give you some incredible insights about your identity, which psychologists say is the main goal of adolescence.** This is truly exciting, as it may help you figure out what is your most valuable gift to the world!

Image result for enneagram

Following an introduction of each type in class, you will use the Enneagram Institute’s website to better identify your personality type. Read through the types, try to identify yours, and listen to the 4-5 minute type description by Don Riso. Feel free to interpret the statements to fit your own experience. Following your thorough investigation of information on your Enneagram type, include these aspects in this general order in your presentation:

  • Explain your basic type and give examplesRelated image from your own life.
  • Identify your basic desire (or virtue)
  • Identify your basic fear (or passion)
  • If you feel comfortable with this, share your self-evaluation of how healthy or unhealthy is your type.
  • Think through whether you see yourself as your types, suggests as a body (8,9 1), heart (2,3,4) or head (5,6,7) type (see the helpful chart at the bottom of the entry comparing the body, heart, and mind in terms of sleep and waking up.)
  • Using the Riso-Hudson Personality Types book (copies are availableImage result for enneagram riso hudson in class), try to identify your wing (e.g, a two with a one-wing is “the servant” (90), while a two with a three-wing is “the host/hostess” (p. 92), the descriptions of which are found near the end of each chapter).
  • Share some recommendations from the website or your own reflections that will help you becoming a higher functioning version of your personality type.To learn more background about the Riso-Hudson approach to the Enneagram, hit here.
  • Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 10.41.59 AM.pngImage result for enneagram riso hudson
  • Type 8 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 9 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 1 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 2 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 3 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 4 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 5 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 6 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson
  • Type 7 video intro and lecture transcript description by Russ Hudson

Learning more about your personality is crucial in this process of opening to wisdom. But the goal of the enneagram is not to create a high functioning ego, for that is insufficient to carry us to the higher goal of self-realization. This is where the vertical dimension comes into play.  Don Riso and Russ Hudson comment on this dual horizontal-vertical dynamic in the Wisdom of the Enneagram: “We Image result for wisdom of the enneagrammust remember that the personality [horizontal dimension] cannot solve the problem of the personality, and until our Essence [vertical dimension] is deeply felt and is guiding our activities, the personality can do little except to “not do” its old tricks. The process of integration is not about what we “should” do- it is a process of consciously letting go of aspects of our type that block us. When we stop holding on to defenses, attitudes, and fears, we experience an organic unfolding and balancing as natural as the blossoming of a flower. A tree does not have to do anything to go from a bud to a flower to a fruit: it is an organic, natural process, and the soul want to unfold in the same way” (93). This leads us into the second part of this project.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.51.22 PM

I include this “worldview question” slide above to emphasize that just because I’ve asked you to do a spiritual practice does not mean that you have to believe in a vertical dimension of reality. I know that is a massive existential question. Just as some Buddhists do all kinds of spiritual practices, yet do not believe in God or even the existence of the individual soul, all I ask of you is to do the practices and see what happens. I’ll leave the philosophizing to you. Meanwhile, we will see if these practices do indeed help you to let go of yourself and provide assistance in the search for wisdom. 

II. Letting Go of Yourself Through Spiritual Practices

At the same time, the Enneagram teaches that if you use this great ability to boost your own ego, to emphasize your superiority in contrast to others, then your particular strength can actually cut you off from making a difference in the world. Identifying your Enneagram type, then, also offers warnings about the potential downsides of your personality structure.

So, how do we keep the gift but purify its self-importance? I know of no better symbol of this finding and letting go than the Tibetan Buddhist practice of mandala making. Constructing a mandala is a beautiful way to create a symbol of wholeness, and in so doing often demonstrates the artistic gifts of its creator. However, this Buddhist practice requires that the mandala be destroyed at the end of the process, graphically symbolizing that all gifts need to be purified of Image result for mandala destructiontheir egoic flavor if they are to reach their full potential. This creation-destruction dynamic is totally countercultural to the message given to you at HKIS where your achievements are always saved for some future advantage. In order for you to realize your soul’s true purpose, this practice teaches that you need to let go of your desire to bring self-serving attention to your talents and abilities.

IMG_20160502_152815 (1)

Following your tentative identification of your personality type, I want you to begin your attempt to purify your personality, which basically means training yourself to let go of your thoughts/feelings/actions/embodiments of your type. There are many kinds of spiritual practices you can use, as you can see here, but you are also encouraged to design your own that in some way relaxes your grip on your own self-importance. Here is a list of common practices:

Image result for tree of contemplative practices

In your presentation, include these elements:

  • Remind us of your Enneagram type (and if you know, your wing), including the desire and fear.
  • Explain what you think is the shadow side of your personality type that you need to purify (observe, forget about, let go, etc).
  • Share the spiritual practice that you have designed, and how it is going so far.


The goal of “Service, Society, and the Sacred” is to help you get a better understanding of your fit in the world – how your gifts and talents can make a real contribution to society. Our starting point this semester is learning about your identity, and we will use this powerful psychospiritual tool called the Enneagram to begin the journey. As Welwood explains at the beginning of this entry, we will be using psychological lenses to identity your strengths, while at the same time employing spiritual tools as a means by which to lose yourself – letting go of your need for achievement, positive self-regard, and recognition – in search of an even horizontal-vertical hybrid we call the  Larger Self.



This very helpful chart from The Wisdom of the Enneagram, p. 60, shows how the personality (small self) of the head, heart, and body types grows into Essence (Larger Self), transitioning from sleep to becoming wake. This also show why coming into the body is key for every type because the body takes the mind and emotions out of the future, past, or resistance to this moment, and opens to the here and now of Presence. 



* Course description for “Service, Society, and the Sacred”

This junior-senior religion elective aims to enable students to gain a better sense of life direction through a holistic exploration of their bodies, minds, and hearts. The starting point of this journey is the assumption that each aspect of the self – body, mind, and heart – has its own unique intelligence that it brings to bear in answering the question of purpose in life. The class, then, consists in teaching about and training of each intelligence to bring it into greater sympathetic resonance with other aspects of the self. The training of the body asks students to find ways to improve their physical health; the training of the mind challenges students to develop non-reactivity beyond their immediate impulses of like and dislike; and training of the heart uses various spiritual practices to attune students to a sense of calling in their lives. It is hoped that this intensive self-exploration will enable students to be more at ease with themselves and to better understand how they can lead a life of purpose and service to society.

** Erik Erikson on Adolescent Identity Formation in this Wikipedia entry

Erikson’s belief is that throughout each person’s lifetime, they experience different crises or conflicts. Each of the conflicts arises at a certain point in life and must be successfully resolved for progression to the next of the eight stages. The particular stage relevant to identity formation takes place during adolescence, called “Identity versus Role Confusion.”[3]

The “Identity versus Role Confusion” stage consists of adolescents trying to figure out who they are in order to form a basic identity that they will build on throughout their life, especially concerning social and occupational identities. They face the complexities of determining one’s own identity. Erikson said this crisis is resolved with identity achievement, the point at which an individual has extensively considered various goals and values, accepting some and rejecting others, and understands who they are as a unique person.[4] Once an adolescent has attained identity achievement, they are ready to enter the next stage of Erikson’s theory “Intimacy versus Isolation” where they will form strong friendships and a sense of companionship with others. If the “Identity versus Role Confusion” crisis is not solved, an adolescent will face confusion about future plans, particularly their roles in adulthood. Failure to form one’s own identity leads to failure to form a shared identity with others, which could lead to instability in many areas as an adult. The identity formation stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is a crucial stage in life.[3]

Additional Information

  1. This interview of Russ Hudson by Robert Holden, both of whom I took a class from in London last summer on the Enneagram, is a fine overview to this powerful system of thought.
  2. Helen Palmer explains how types reveal themselves in our focus of attention as well as what triggers us emotionally in this 8-minute video interview.
  3. This is a beautiful and pretty compelling placing of Paul’s inspired hymn to love in I Corinthians 13, a frequent wedding text, on the Enneagram.Related image

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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