The Embodied Enneagram
by Peter O’Hanrahan
One of the great virtues of the Enneagram system is its holistic view of people and personality type. Each of us has three centers of perception and intelligence: intellectual, emotional and physical/instinctual. George I. Gurdjieff, who brought the Enneagram to the West, developed an early holistic curriculum in his "Fourth Way" school, with methods based not just on the first way (of the body), or the second way (of the heart), or even the third way (of the mind) but all of them together. He combined sacred music and dance, teaching stories, and physical tasks with awareness practice while describing people as "three-brained beings." In this way he foreshadowed modern research into the Triune Brain - brain stem, limbic system, and neo-cortex. There have been many other pioneering holistic teachers, people like Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, Ida Rolf, Wilhelm Reich, and Carl Jung. But it wasn't until the 1960's and 70's that the emerging holistic movement began to impact mainstream medicine and psychology.
We most often begin our study of the Enneagram from a cognitive perspective. This makes sense given that the process of self awareness and self understanding begins as an intellectual function. Yet the work must address the passion/emotion of our type and our instinctual subtype as well. However much we value logic and rational thinking, most of the world, much of our daily lives, runs on instinct and emotion. Certainly these two "lower" centers have had a much longer course of development, through millennia of human evolution, than our more recently arrived "top brain."
Both personality and character structure are formed through the activity and presence of all three centers. Our identity is based not only in the mental ego but also in patterns of emotion and sensation. As Jung said: "... psyche depends on body and body depends on psyche." Even though different approaches to human development emphasize one center over the others, it makes sense to be aware of the total system. At times it will be important to concentrate on working directly with the feelings and the body.
Using a somatic approach enables us to bring attention to the body and emotions in the context of type structure, to "ground" our intellectual study and spiritual interests, to create an embodied approach. We are both spiritual and biological beings. Understanding the passion (emotional habit) of our type and our instinctual subtype(s) helps us unify these two aspects of ourselves. By integrating the Enneagram with somatic (body oriented) psychology we gain access to a wealth of practical techniques to work on ourselves and our relationships.
In the field of somatic psychology, teachers and authors have described a core self that can be found underneath layers of armoring or social conditioning. In a close parallel, the Enneagram work describes an essential self that can be reclaimed from underneath the layers of personality.
In 1933, Wilhelm Reich wrote his book "Character Analysis" in which he made the case for addressing the entire character structure of people in therapy rather than just their neurotic symptoms. Although his character types were somewhat limited, this was the first study to describe people in terms of a comprehensive, functioning system.
An early student and associate of Freud, Reich was a fiery and eccentric genius, a counter phobic Six on the Enneagram, who blazed a trail of new discoveries about the importance of the emotions and sexual functioning in physical and mental health. His work began with psychoanalysis, continued with community birth control clinics and sex education, and led to the founding of what we now call holistic or somatic psychology. Reich was eventually drawn to research and "discover" the fundamental life force of the universe, which he called "orgone." (We are more familiar with this concept in terms of chi, ki, or prana).
Reich originated a number of crucial somatic concepts. He was the first to notice that people's "neurotic" problems were not only reflected in stuck patterns of thinking, what we would call the fixation of the type, but also in patterns of emotional holding and chronic physical tension which he called "body armor." He thought it necessary to go beyond talking, that deep therapeutic work should involve breath-work, emotional release and direct massage on the body armor. Reich understood the pulsation of the life force in the body, the centrality of the breath, and the way that character structure reflects early trauma and repression of unacceptable feelings and impulses. New generations of therapists and body workers have incorporated these insights and developed a variety of skillful techniques which go far beyond what Reich had at his disposal.
Reich described the body armor as being organized in horizontal layers or segments operating at cross purpose to the vertical pulsation of life energy in the body. These seven segments of armor - ocular, oral, cervical, thoracic, diaphragmatic, abdominal, pelvic - operate somewhat independently of one another, although they combine to make up a total system. But there is more to it than just physical tension; there is emotional content held in each area, part of each person's history. As massage practitioners know, even without much psychological training, when you touch people in certain ways it's likely to bring up feelings. Sensation, emotion, belief systems , and personal stories are all right there under the fingertips. Fortunately there are ways to work with each segment of armor - ways to relax or tone the area, ways to nurture and bring awareness, and ways to encourage the release of withheld feelings.
Character structure is not written in stone, but in flesh and blood, neural pathways and limbic connectors. With care and respect to the functional integrity of each person's structure, there are opportunities for deep healing and growth. As body-based therapies, Reichian work, Bioenergetics, Somato-emotional release, trauma resolution work and related methods blend remarkably well with the Enneagram. This system offers the most effective way to understand and work with the nine types of character structure.
When it comes to somatic descriptions of the nine types, there are general patterns and lots of individual differences. For one thing, body type has a huge affect on how people experience themselves somatically. A person with a large, muscular body (mesomorph) will have different abilities and challenges in life than someone with a more slender and sensitive body (ectomorph), even if they share the same personality type. Early experience in childhood has a lot to do with the kind and the amount of body armor we carry around. Plus, through therapy and inner work people make big changes in the way they inhabit their bodies and express their emotions.
What the Enneagram provides is a key to understanding the major issues of each type, the shifts in structure as people move to their stress and security points, and how to best apply each method or technique to the individual. Instead of "one size fits all" we are better able to tune in and be intelligent about what each person needs to feel safe and supported.
Here are some brief descriptions of the somatic patterns of the nine types.
Point One - Ones tend to be grounded and practical, good at the tasks of daily life. As body-based types they usually have abundant physical energy and a high bioenergetic charge, but they keep "top down" control over their feelings and impulses. This intense self-control and a demanding inner critic give rise to lots of physical rigidity and tension, particularly in the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Teeth grinding or TMJ are possibilities. In some Ones, over time the face can take on an expression of angry judgment or resentful martyrdom. Ones benefit from releasing their anger in safe situations and learning to relax into pleasurable sensation.
Point Two - As feeling types, Twos experience a buildup of energy, and sometimes tension around their chest, diaphragm and shoulders. Very empathic and attuned to others, they may restrict or suspend their own breathing while waiting for other people's approval. Although full of energy and expressive in their upper bodies, it can be hard for them to sense their lower bodies and stay grounded. They tend to "spill over" and discharge their anxiety or uncontained emotional energy through talking and relating. It’s not uncommon for them to “somatize” or convert unacknowledged feelings into physical symptoms.
Point Three - Threes are feeling types who, like the Twos, hold a lot of energy in the area of their chests. But rather than feel their own feelings, they prefer to channel everything into action, productivity and results. With their high charge, it's hard for them to sit still. Some Threes are quite expressive, but if they are more on the rigid side, they may accrue lots of tension around their heart. Emotional pressure builds up but the lid stays on. They are the original “Type A’s” and are vulnerable to early heart attacks or a weakened immune system. Often a single, dense layer of armoring over the chest covers up underlying grief.
Point Four - Fours are more aware of their emotions than many types but they are biased towards sad feelings. Being happy or having fun is more challenging. They can be very expressive and dramatic, sometimes overly so; they can be very quiet and withdrawn, even to the point of depression; or they can swing back and forth from one extreme to another. It's hard to establish an emotional middle ground. Their physical energy tends to contract and collect in the middle of the body, which is why self expression through music, dance, writing, creative work, or parenting is so important.
Point Five - Fives tend to stay up in their heads and avoid experiencing much in their body or emotions. It's easy for them to become very "quiet" energetically, to the point that other people may have trouble sensing or feeling them. In particular, energy is withdrawn from the periphery of the body and collects in the core. Very sensitive to sound, touch, intrusion etc., they hold most of their tension in the gut rather than in the musculature, although the rib cage can become rigid depending on the level of fear in the body. They benefit from slowly deepening the breath and bringing sensation to their physical body.
Point Six- The nervous system of the Sixes is highly reactive - the flight or fight, fear/aggression mechanism is easily triggered. The cautious or phobic Sixes tend to withdraw, either by physically leaving situations or going up into their heads - fear is layered on top of aggression. The counter-phobic Sixes have aggression on top of fear and tend to accumulate more muscular tension and rigidity. With many Sixes, the eyes can become either suspicious and guarded, or fearful and protruding. The diaphragm is a particular control center, with a stop/go, halting style of breathing and speaking. Learning to feel safe in the body is a key issue.
Point Seven - For Sevens, energy and attention tends to go “up and out” rather than “down and in.” In contrast to the Fives, physical energy moves to the periphery of the body and away from the core. Sevens tend to stay over-stimulated with ideas, substances, or adventures depending on their body type. They are often quite physically loose and flexible. Their body armor is less about physical tension and more about patterns of avoidance as seen in the “held up” upper chest and shoulders. They "go away" from sad or painful feelings into their minds. Their challenge is to get "down in” their bodies and stay grounded.
Point Eight - Eights like to keep a high level of physical energy. They are attracted to intensity, and get bored or impatient very quickly. This often reflects a process of self-deadening, or a toughness which makes it hard to experience more subtle sensation and calm states. They are quick to anger, and often have trouble with impulse control. Physical armoring (chronic patterns of muscular tension) throughout the body help them ward off softer feelings or needs, which are guarded deep inside them. We often see a quality of fierceness in the eyes. Eights, more than other types, demonstrate the tension between vulnerability and defensiveness.
Point Nine - Nines prefer to stay comfortably undercharged. Good at belly breathing, they usually avoid breathing into the chest unless they are exercising and discharging their physical energy. While they can hold tension in parts of their bodies, the more common issue is a lack of tone - a problem with being under-bounded rather than over-bounded. Nines will avoid their anger for the most part, which contributes to them being dispersed or disassociated. Or they may blow up with little self control. Their major work is to stay present and in touch with themselves, particularly in the face of discomfort.
© Peter O'Hanrahan 2008 - 2019
Peter O'Hanrahan has been using the Enneagram to inform his work as a body-based therapist and counselor for 35 years. He has a private practice in Richmond CA and teaches workshops on the "Embodied Enneagram."
The Embodied Enneagram Handbook
Click here to purchase The Embodied Enneagram Handbook as a PDF download. by Peter O'Hanrahan
The Embodied Enneagram Workshop
Singapore, Sept. 20-22, 2019
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"Body awareness is an important part of working with our personality type. It provides a way to manage our reactivity and achieve a grounded, embodied presence. It opens the door to the intelligence and resources of the Body and Heart Centers, which are vital for making effective decisions, developing healthy relationships and living a full life." Peter O’H