So, this past weekend I went to an enneagram workshop. Since a couple of people had expressed an interest in my experience, I thought I'd post a summary here. The workshop featured Helen Palmer and Terry Saracino and titled "Enneagram Type and Opening to Spiritual Experience." As some of you may already know, I don't necessarily have a clear and open relationship with either religion or spirituality at this point. While I still feel like a Christian, I haven't been able to get past my fundamentalist upbringing and the feeling of judgment and inadequacy that it engendered. I tend to be defensively analytical and protect myself from by evaluating things from a logical/scientific viewpoint. I can also be judgmental about some kinds of "woo-woo" (aka alternative) spirituality, as well.
So, all that is to say I didn't feel terribly open-minded about the spiritual aspects.
What the conference was like
I attended the conference with my mother, since she had been interested in having me attend an Enneagram conference for a long time. It provided a way to get to spend some time with her, and to get more direct experience with the enneagram. When I arrived, it seem like it was a vast sea of middle aged women. I, at 42, was at the younger end (although there were a few 20-somethings and 30-somethings there, too). I would guess it was maybe 25% men. At first, I feared I would feel terribly out of place. However, by the end of the conference I think I was more at home there than I would at a software engineering conference (despite being a computer programmer).
The conference sessions cycled between several different activities. There were lecture sessions, practice sessions (kind of guided meditation), type panels and type groups. Things weren't laid out all at once in a cut-and-dried fashion, but instead touched on difference aspects of the enneagram and tended to circle back around, kind of adding layers of depth and understanding over time. It was kind of an organic approach, which wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. I think it would have driven some kinds of people crazy, who need things explained in more rigid order.
The lecture sessions were gradual in how they introduced the types. There wasn't, initially, a big emphasis on the enneagram types, but instead started more from the object-observer relationship. The whole weekend there was a continued focus on the inner-observer (called inner-witness when talking about spirituality), and how its ability to discern when we are falling into automatic, type-driven behavior offers a way to break out of the patterns of suffering, and a means to actually choose and act authentically. When we are acting from our enneagram type's compulsion, we have no choice and are unable to be vulnerable and directly encounter real life. Life only happens in the moment, and when we act out of compulsion we aren't even aware of what's happening now.
Each of the lecture session hit on some aspect of the types, so that by the end of the weekend we had covered a fair amount of material on each type. The repetition of returning to each type thematically helped reinforce one's understanding of each type.
The practice sessions weren't quite meditation sessions, since they were more guided and the session leader talked periodically throughout (only a few minutes, at most, would go on between talking). In way, they were a nice introduction to meditation and the relaxation response (more teaching meditation than being meditation). The session leader would hit on points from the session, and helped introduced beginners (like me), to help discern between the inner observer and type-driven behaviors. It also focused on areas of attention (like thinking, memory, imagination, planning) to which the conscious mind directs its attention. In meditation, you are trying to let go of all that. Meditation is useful because it helps one discern when one is falling into automatic type-driven behavior, and also teaches a relaxation response. Eventually, one can distinguish when one is falling into compulsive behavior, draw back, pause, center oneself, and then actually be receptive to what happening and choose more freely.
So, in a way, meditation is useful because it loosens the grip of one's enneagram type and the constriction of attention and energy it can cause. It strengthens the inner observer, allow one sufficient detachment from the obsessions of type to be able to encounter more reality, and less one's own obsessions and projections.
As a meditation noob, I found these sessions initially a big challenge. I found my mind racing off in various directions, and it was difficult to detach sufficiently. I didn't have a big problem detaching from the external world and being internal, but stopping my mind from analyzing things and trying to break things down and make connections was extremely difficult. I would also find myself distracted by bodily sensations as well. (I was too warm for most of the conference, so always being too warm and sweaty was an ongoing distraction).
The type panels consisted of representatives of each type on stage, each answering the same set of questions about their type. The session leader would ask questions to draw out key points. Often the focus was on how miserable people had been when they'd be trapped by their type's compulsions, and how they were progressing towards being able to experience and choose. These sessions really helped draw out the feel and distinct nature of the types.
The type groups were just grouping people together by type with a chance for discussions. Both days at lunch were type groups, and there was an additional session as well. These groups are both helpful for feeling the camaraderie of one's type, and also for people (like I was) who aren't 100% certain of their type. (More in that below.)
Determining my Type
More personally, one reason I attended was to grain more certainty of my type. I'd pretty much narrowed down to 5, 9 or 4 (in that order). So, the first group session I attended the 9 table. I quickly got a sense that the feel of the table didn't seem right to me. It did remind me strongly of a coworker from work, though, which was kind of amusing. I next visited the 5 table, which turned out to be a much better fit for me.
I wish I had spent time with the 4s as well, since some things the 4s said on panels resonated with me a bit. Still, the level of emotionality and drama I got from chatting with 4s seemed far higher than my own. I felt like I tend to give out more emotional energy than the 9s (who seemed to need energy to reflect back in order to get going), but less energy then the 4s (who seemed to want to suck the marrow out of relationships, periodically throwing off lots of emotional energy).
So, if I had it to do over again, I would have spent some time at the 4s table (just to be certain), but I mostly felt confirmed in being a 5w4 by the end of the weekend. I still suffered pangs of doubt at various points (when something a 4 or a 9 would say seemed right), but really the best fit seemed with the 5s.
What I liked
1) I thought both the speakers were great. Terry Saracino was particularly good at drawing out and clarifying on the group panels. Helen Palmer was great at laying things out in a no-nonsense kind of way, and often threw in dry humor that helped things from getting insufferably precious or heavy.
2) I thought the type panels and tables were very helpful. They didn't always cover everything I wanted them to, but I was continually surprised by how touching some people's stories were (especially on the panels). They were also surprisingly helpful at engendering compassion for types I might normally find easy to hate.
3) I liked being challenged by the mediation and spirituality talk. It wasn't easy for me to take, but it good to have one's preconceptions challenged a bit. I feared the weekend would be full of woo-woo spirituality types what would set off my critical, analytical side by making claims I found ridiculous. There was very little of that, and I found most people to be surprisingly authentic and grounded.
4) On a more personal note, it was interesting to have my mom there to compare and contrast experiences with. I also found out some details about my personal history, like the first months of my life were a very chaotic time for my family, and there was lots of turn-over in caretakers for me. I probably had a succession of about 6 different women taking care of me during the first few months of my life—my parents were living in Thailand, had nannies taking care of me while my identical twin brother was critically ill, and my older brothers were trying to attend a Thai school. That's a much more stressful chaotic early environment than I would have imagined for myself.
What I Disliked
1) I didn't like the almost cult of personality awe that people held Helen Palmer in. I think she was great, and obviously has had a huge impact and is an extremely effective teacher and advocate. I was relieved she seemed to try to undercut the hero worship when possible.
2) I didn't like the more "churchy" feel of people saying "uh-huh" and "mmmmm" kind of agreements after many statements. I didn't let it bother me too much, but for someone with a less-than-entirely-positive church background, it was a little offputting.
3) I didn't like feeling like a meditation noob and feeling "less advanced" than many of the people there in that area. I also suspect I'm more bound by my compulsions than people who have worked on that aspect of themselves. I hate being ignorant about things, so that part was a challenge.
4) I didn't like the general lack of MBTI knowledge and felt it muddied the waters at times. For example, there was a type 5 at the type 5 table who said things like "type 5s are all about the facts" and how he had been, like most 5s, "totally unaware of emotions." Neither one of those fit an iNtuitive 5 or a Feeling 5 very well, respectively. I personally feel like a good understanding of MBTI type can help untangle the defenses from other parts of the self.
So, overall it was a positive experience. At the very least, it's lots of grist for the internal mill. It did reinforce my conviction that the enneagram is mostly about one's defense mechanisms (which fits in well with Pat Wyman's approach). Those defense mechanisms prevent us from experiencing life in the present, being vulnerable and having choice. Helen Palmer's background in both zen meditation and psychology (at at time when those two approaches seemed very much at odds) convinced her that meditation was a way out of the enneagram, type-driven compulsion that leads to suffering. I was convinced that it is certainly a valuable means, yet I don't yet feel ready to adopt it as my primary means. I am going to talk to my therapist about it, since he's been doing meditation for years.