Enneagram Makes a Difference — 2. Discernment
This reflection is part of a series exploring an approach to the Enneagram* that is nuanced, applied in daily life, and grounded in the Spirit. Additional posts are linked below.
IS THAT YOU, GOD? OR JUST …ME? When I teach on spiritual discernment, variations of that question create a vital theme: What’s the relationship of our personality or ego to Divine Guidance? It varies! Some people are hesitant to trust the Spirit might speak to them inwardly; others struggle to “hear” the voice of the Divine over the inner chatter; and some falter at acting on the guidance of an Inner Teacher.
As we sort, sift, and attempt to distinguish Holy Guidance for our ordinary lives—a broad working definition of spiritual discernment—I trust that some of our inner experiences reflect God’s presence and sense of direction. But some don’t. We can be sidetracked by unconscious impulses, habits of thought or feeling, and subtle needs for security, approval, or control.
That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It’s the most useful tool I’ve found for recognizing and tending our personality patterns—the “ego” or “False Self.” Through nine personality profiles and endless subtleties, the Enneagram helps us see through or beyond a limited sense of identity. In classic Christian lingo, we are prepared to discern and surrender our “self” into God: “Not my will, but Thine.”
Enneagram wisdom strengthens our spiritual discernment by offering relevant paths forward for unique personal challenges in decision making. There’s more than one road, and there is a compass.
The compass draws attention to our varied capacities for thinking, feeling, and doing. These natural resources are thoroughly mapped by the Enneagram (called “Center’s of Intelligence”). Some of us are strong thinkers, others lead with emotions, and some are wired to get things done.
Because one capacity is strongest, without intentional inner work the other capacities tend to take a back seat. The goal is integration of all three in a given moment—a balance that allows for a wholeness of presence and responsiveness to any situation. It takes effort because our least developed capacity will feel wimpy, unnatural, and pretty much worth avoiding!
Stories—Discernment As a Four
Here’s how spiritual discernment and the Enneagram work in real life for me. The stories that follow will likely not mirror yours. I don’t claim to have things all figured out, but I offer myself as example, with my own tendencies and obstacles to sensing the Spirit’s way for me. It’s about how God gets through to me, or doesn’t.
I identify with Enneagram type Four, so along with Types Two and Three, emotions are up front as my strongest Center of Intelligence. I used to imagine that if I didn’t “feel it,” discernment wasn’t happening. Not true. Actually, I often overemphasize emotions. Now I know how to question my feelings, especially the challenging ones. I can open them to the Spirit with, “Is the story I’m telling myself [and having feelings about] True? Is it really?”
Now I know that discernment isn’t just about feelings. The best discernment happens in graceful integration of feeling, thinking, and doing. For a Four, “doing” and body-based “intelligence” are weakest. Types Five and Nine share this “repressed” doing response in Enneagram lingo. Other Types will be weaker with thinking or emotions.
The Enneagram helps me recognize when I’m slow to act, even about discernment. By nature, I actually expect discernment to take a while. But why couldn’t it be fast? I was working with someone for whom decision-making with the Spirit came quickly and confidently. My hesitant approach, full of self-doubt, was truly not of the Holy. That ministry colleague challenged me to trust differently. I’ve been learning to trust God more with my doing. Other Enneagram Types would need to grow in trust with their feelings or thinking.
So I watch for my hidden bias to slow down decisions or to avoid doing something altogether. I see how the Spirit’s guidance can be instant as well as discovered in laborious “process.” At times, I’m realizing that the Spirit’s leading is clear to “do” without much thought or feeling. I admit I still like careful, process-style approaches. It feels less risky, or “safer.” But God’s leading isn’t always “safe,” right?
I am also prone to putting off tasks I don’t like: house cleaning, calling for a doctor’s appointment, or submitting expense receipts. Those tasks aren’t glamorous or deeply meaningful, but they are important. My faith and faithfulness are about ordinary actions too. It’s harder to “hear” the Spirit’s prompting through a layer of procrastination.
Matter Infused with Spirit
Body-awareness is low, low, low in my consciousness. It’s the work of a lifetime to pay attention to my physical cues—even hunger (Is that why I’m so grumpy?) or fatigue (Time for a break, Chris.). I’ve realized I miss important signals for discernment when I’m not paying better attention to my physicality. There can be quite subtle physical shifts: heaviness in my chest, a warm kind of energy rising toward an action. My body helps me recognize what I’m ‘supposed’ to do next…or not do.
My take on discernment and body signals holds that “the body” (or “flesh” or “material things” in the old language) is not separate or less than “spiritual” things. We are not physiological machines. We are matter infused with Spirit.
This is the ancient Christian wisdom on the “incarnation,” not a new age discovery. Spirit was “enfleshed” in Jesus and is embodied in us, too. Jesus’ Way took on some dualistic Greek ideology in the early decades that separated body and spirit, with many unhealthy implications over the centuries. In spiritual discernment, we’re invited to pay attention to our physiological signals and actions. That’s because we are always embodied and our discernment is always embodied. That’s fairly countercultural.
Embodied Discernment in Action
An experience of embodied discernment surprised me on retreat a decade ago. I was meeting with the leadership team before a final session, and two of them wanted to do a closing worship full of high energy joy. They went on an on about options.
My whole being felt heavier and heavier, till I could barely move. I said a few things, and tried to catch a ride on their bouncy-fun-train, but it wasn’t working. Finally, I fell silent and checked out, thinking, “Let them do their thing.” The story in my head became, “There’s something wrong with me, here. I’m not happy like them.” Negative comparisons turn to toxic shame in Type Four personality patterns. Ugh.
I’m grateful my ministry colleagues were wise and discerning. They noticed my lack of engagement and asked good questions. They recognized something of the Spirit in my physical experience. We named sadness about the ending of the retreat group’s two year program cycle. After some tending, we discerned together to begin the closing morning with honest attention to the grief in the room. It was a game changer!
In the final retreat session, there were tears for many, but they were cleansing, thankful tears. We actually got freed up to do some sweet celebrating before departure. The group truly “went out with joy” (Isaiah 55:12).
I’ve never forgotten that strange heaviness as a discernment signal. It seemed something like the dragging of my inner spiritual heels. It wasn’t a full “Stop!” but a need to “Wait. Pay attention. There’s more here.” I didn’t know the Enneagram then. Now, that discernment lesson has new vocabulary and resonance.
Discerning with All Our Doing, Thinking, and Feeling
The best spiritual discernment is more than getting our thoughts in order, a peaceful feeling, or a gut sense. Relying mainly on one capacity—thinking, feeling or body sense/doing—is too limited. I’m up for the adventure of opening a fresh kind of attentiveness to the Spirit, all of my resources available to the Divine. How about you?
Human beings are a mix of spiritual influences and the realities of our human nature and contexts. I trust that the Compassion of God meets us in that very real jumble, and knocks on our inner doors. To live in discernment, every moment of every day, means we are prepared to open our thoughts, feelings, and actions to the Spirit. Nothing held back.
How do you hear the Holy One with your mind, body, and emotions? How do you respond to inner Guidance?
If you’d like to learn more about yourself through the Enneagram, you’re invited to a residential retreat, Oct. 19-22nd in Mt. Angel, Oregon (details below). No experience with the Enneagram or Quaker spirituality needed. We’ll explore the strengths and challenges of thinking, feeling, and doing for each of the nine personality types. For those who continue in online sessions with the Way of the Spirit program in 2024, we’ll address spiritual discernment for specific temperaments. I’ve been amazed how much difference the Enneagram makes for our growth in faithfulness. Join us!
Accepting application through September 27th for up to 15 people.
An Approach to the Enneagram
*If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it’s an ancient wisdom tool describing nine personality “types,” or ways of seeing and experiencing the world. The Enneagram Types have unique strengths and challenges, so at its best the Enneagram can prompt astonishing psychological and spiritual growth. It helps us tend what we bring to relationships, work, and a life of faith and faithful service or activism.
If you’re considering attending an Enneagram retreat or workshop through the Way of the Spirit program, these posts can help orient you:
- Enneagram: Not a Test — Introducing the Enneagram as much more than a one-off personality test
- Enneagram: Coming Home — Charting varied paths of growth toward True self or Enneagram Essence
- Enneagram: For Integration — The Enneagram maps our thinking, feeling, and doing, and invites the best, healthiest use of all three capacities in a given moment.
- Enneagram Makes a Difference: Relationships — Honoring diverse temperaments offers tools for connecting and building compassion.
- Enneagram: Helpful Quaker Baggage, Pt 1 — Like Quaker spirituality, the best of the Enneagram encourages attention to both the inner life and outer relationships.
- Enneagram: Helpful Quaker Baggage Pt 2 —Like Quaker spirituality, the best of the Enneagram emphasizes process over outcome, integration of the inner with outer life, and the sacred with the ordinary