When I meet Don Riso, he is unlocking the door to a red 1850s barn in Stone Ridge, revealing the light-filled interior where people from around the world have come to discover themselves through the ancient symbology known as the Enneagram. At first the teacher and author seems guarded, like the keeper of secret, cosmic knowledge. And in a way, he is. But all of that falls away when we settle into his intimate office tucked inside the barn, where he gets talking about his lifelong passion: a study of the nine basic personality types that all people, according to Riso, fall into. Self-knowledge of this kind, he says, is potentially transformational. Here in this barn—the home of the Enneagram Institute, which Riso cofounded with his work partner, Russ Hudson—students have had powerful epiphanies and breakthroughs in understanding themselves and their relationships. “Oh my God,” Riso recalls one student saying, “that just answered why my first marriage failed.” Or, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have wasted 10 years in graduate school.”
If it sounds like New Age hocus-pocus meets “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” consider this: Books by Riso and Hudson—Personality Types, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Understanding the Enneagram, Discovering Your Personality Type, and Enneagram Transformations—have sold over a million copies worldwide. Known in certain circles of psychology, self-help, and spirituality, the Enneagram [pronounced ANY-a-gram] is part mirror for the psyche, and part blueprint for personal and spiritual growth. “Ennea” means nine—and at the core of the Enneagram philosophy is a symbol resembling a nine-pointed star inscribed in a circle. The symbol dates back possibly to Pythagorean times, says Riso, and was used for hundreds of years as a way to understand the interrelatedness and universal order of all things. In the early 20th century, the Armenian spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff revived and explored its sacred geometry, while later thinkers (Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo) came to apply it to a theory that posits nine basic personality types corresponding to each of the nine points in the symbol. The Enneagram has become synonymous with this theory, which has been expanded and refined by people like Riso and Hudson, two of the foremost teachers in the field today.
Personality: A Road Map for Life
Before I meet Riso at his 72-acre property and barn, I take the online RHETI (Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator) test to discover my basic personality type. At first, I’m resistant to being typed. It feels dehumanizing, like being told I’m actually one of the numbered Cylons in Battlestar Gallactica. And the test—some 145 questions that force me to choose between blanket statements about myself (e.g., “Basically, I have been easygoing and agreeable” or “Basically, I have been hard-driving and assertive”)—is at times exasperating. When it’s complete, I’m informed that I am a Seven—The Enthusiast. Reading the full description on the Enneagram Institute website, I find that many of the characteristics describe me well (optimistic, impulsive, and overextended, with a tendency to feel scattered when I’m stressed). And when I read about the “key motivations” of Sevens, I experience the “shock of recognition” that Riso describes as subjective proof of the theory’s validity. It turns out that we Sevens are driven to maintain our freedom and happiness, and to keep ourselves excited and occupied—often as a ruse to discharge pain. I read on to find a diagram of my defense mechanisms and pitfalls, as well as a portrait of my abilities and potentials as I follow a specific trajectory toward self-realization.
This is juicy stuff, and insightful for sure—but I still wonder if something as complex as a human being can be boiled down to one particular personality archetype that dates back to the dawn of homo sapiens. Reading the descriptions of all nine types, I find connections to each one. Riso concurs that each of us contains aspects of all nine types, yet one type will be dominant for every individual. He goes on to dash any idea that the Enneagram is a one-dimensional model by accounting for hundreds of nuances within each type. For example, in addition to the dominant type, everyone also exhibits a “wing,” or subtype, that influences his personality. Riso’s model also outlines various “levels” of health within each type, with the highest level reflecting self-actualization and the lowest level indicating mental pathologies or psychosis (most of us, naturally, fall somewhere in between). With each layer of detail, the model begins to look more sophisticated. And the Enneagram symbol—with its series of arrows showing the interrelationships between each type in the directions of disintegration and growth—starts resembling a compact universe of the psyche expressing its own self-contained and strangely gratifying logic.
Riso says that he, too, initially approached these ideas with skepticism. A former Jesuit raised in New Orleans, Riso was living as a seminarian in Toronto when he first came across some early notes about the Enneagram in the early 1970s. “I thought it was hokey stuff, just another California fad, and not too interesting,” he recalls. “But I found myself going back to it. I really focused on it and I had a revelation that there was something there. The descriptions of the types were very sketchy, but they gave me the main thrust.” Leaving the Jesuits, Riso relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he used the library at Harvard to read widely in psychiatry, philosophy, and anything that would feed his knowledge of the Enneagram. He also watched interviews on “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show” and through observation started building up his own understanding of the types. “After about two years of this I thought I was either going to stop this stuff and go find a job, or I was going to continue. I was testing to see if this held water or not. And it did.”
You’re Not What You Think
Intrigued by the claims of the Enneagram, I start looking for types in everyone I know. My father, I decide, is a Five (The Investigator—cerebral, capable, innovative). And my old boyfriend from college is nothing if not a Four (The Individualist—creative, dramatic, temperamental). Certain women I know identify as Twos (The Helper—interpersonal, self-effacing, people-pleasing). It’s an addictive game, and eye-opening—leading to mini epiphanies about how and why my worldview has clashed at times with that of certain friends and family members. Through this lens we seem more alien to each other than ever, since the question of “what makes you tick” differs for each type on the nine-pointed circle. Yet I see what Riso means when he says the Enneagram can be a great tool for understanding and improving relationships. He believes that all types can be compatible, as long as they’re healthy types.
Then, just as I’m starting to get comfortable as a Seven, just as I’m starting to feel less like a Cylon and more like a fleshed-out person who can own her Sevenness (I kind of like being called “fun-loving and spontaneous”), Riso reveals the flip side of the Enneagram. He tells me that the nine personalities are in fact false personalities—constructs that we present to the world. “We think our personality is real, and from one perspective, it is,” says Riso. “You have certain beliefs, you have certain talents, that your behavior kind of matches. Your personality has an explanatory power, but it’s not the whole picture. There’s something else behind it that is your Consciousness, which is not constrained or conditioned by your personality. Freedom lies in being able to have a gap—in being able to perceive the difference between your Pure Consciousness, which the mystics and spiritual teachers all talk about, and your personality, which is generally running the show, and which most of the time you totally identify with.” At first this comes as a shock. After all this pageantry of self-exploration, my personality in the end has nothing to do with me? Riso nods. “The Enneagram does not actually tell you who you are,” he says. “It tells you who you are not.”
The Path to Self-Liberation
The Enneagram’s spiritual layer can reveal itself as transcendently pleasing and true, serving as a reminder of the deeper Self beyond personality and the connection to Spirit that lies beneath it. On a practical, everyday level, the idea of the “false personality” can be very freeing as well. Roxanne Howe-Murphy—who runs an Enneagram-based coach training school and writes books on the subject in Half Moon Bay, California—says that when she first discovered the Enneagram around 1990, it turned her life upside down in a positive way. As a student in Riso and Hudson’s Part 1 training (the Enneagram Institute’s extensive training program has attracted some 2,000 students), Howe-Murphy learned that she was a Nine (The Peacemaker—easygoing, self-effacing, complacent). “I thought, ‘They’ve read my journal!’” she says. “It was absolutely true to my experience. I had a life history of backing away from things. I was a university professor, but I can tell you that I wasn’t assertive, didn’t know how to get my voice heard. When I was introduced to the Riso-Hudson work I saw that the way I had known myself was not just me but a reflection of a certain personality style. This wasn’t the truth of me.
Knowing this gave me a huge amount of choice. I didn’t have to be this way. I could see myself with compassion; I could speak up and let myself be heard and known.” These days it would be hard to recognize the old Howe-Murphy under the outspoken woman that she has become. “There is a tendency for people to use their type as an excuse,” she says. “That’s not the purpose of the Enneagram. Its purpose is to help us wake up to who we really are underneath our personality.”
Riso and Howe-Murphy agree that, ultimately, the Enneagram is asking us to be more present. “The Enneagram helps our students become aware of themselves in the moment—really see their personality in action as it’s occurring,” says Riso. “That’s the path of liberation. As soon as you start seeing yourself doing something and you know the consequences of your automatic reactions, you don’t want to do it anymore. It can be painful. You need a teacher so you don’t get lost or discouraged. If you persist, it gets easier. You see the old sources of suffering dropping away. You’re more relaxed, graceful, and flowing because you’re not resisting reality.” In the end, Riso suggests, it’s about gaining the free will to move toward your greatest potential. “You can’t help but become conditioned by your childhood, your parents, and the world around you. They made you who you are, with your genetic predispositions. But there’s freedom from that too, and it’s through awareness.”