Enneagram Centers of Knowing and the Understanding of the Sacred

One of the very helpful things that the enneagram offers within the centers of knowing is a framework for understanding how humans have incorporated, or come to understand, the interaction of the sacred into life as they live it. This has come to me out of countless conversations with directees and also in a sustained reflection on how the centers of knowing can help us understand the evolution of human consciousness. When it comes to applying these ideas to humans’ interaction with the sacred, we can perhaps apply this to individuals, to groups, even to societies and cultures. The enneagram also offers much guidance as to how individuals act out the trauma of not having their preferred center of connecting to the sacred affirmed and acknowledged, something that I will also address here. 

It is not for me to say which of the following ways are better than others as likely the best way forward for the world is an acknowledgement and balance of the three centers. The reader will likely find benefits and pitfalls in each way of understanding the sacred, but my purpose remains to encourage the reader and the seeker in their awareness of the different ways to experience connection rather than just one. 

It is perhaps most familiar for us to understand and incorporate the sacred from the head center of knowing. This takes the form of having a set list of doctrines, beliefs, and interpretations of scripture and defining the rest of life according to those. Life itself, as well as the sacred, has to line up to our beliefs about it. We are likely very familiar with this way of understanding as our society, culture, and humanity has settled in this stage of human consciousness evolution. Our religion, economics, politics, and psychology are very influenced from the head center. This looks very top-down and likely has a lot to do with the incorporation of phonetic written language, which seeks to hold meaning consistent across time and location. David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous, is a brilliant exploration of this subject. One of the marvels of this head-centered way of incorporating the sacred is that oftentimes there is a distinct disconnect from reality. The meaning originates in the human mind, or the mind of the individual and gets applied to all others. One might experience various degrees of dualistic thinking, fundamentalism, and other ways of forcing reality through a pre-established set of beliefs. We might also note that this way of thinking of reality and how the sacred fits into it has allowed for much abuse of other people groups, much imperialistic and colonial action throughout the expansion of Western culture. 

It was my conversations with numerous women and men about their extreme dissatisfaction and mistrust of this way of experiencing their spirituality that helped make this all more clear. When we have grown up learning that what we have been taught is the only way to understand the world, and we grow disillusioned with this, it feels like there is nowhere else to turn. This really is the trap of head-centered knowing. If there isn’t a logical explanation that lines up with a pre-determined framework, other experiences and ways of understanding don’t hold weight. Unfortunately, we are seeing the impact in real-time of what religion, psychology, economics, and government flowing out of theory first can do to the world.

The second way of incorporating the sacred into our lives comes from the heart center of knowing. Some may recognize this as it is somewhat validated in our culture and shows up in some areas of belief and relationships. When we incorporate the sacred from the heart center, the reflection is first on how we relate as humans to each other. “This is what feels good when I am with my family, friends, loved ones, or nature… so this is what God must be like.” Jesus’ saying rings true here: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” While the head-centered knowing was very top down, this tends to be more level and egalitarian. The focus is on our relationships and connections. I have heard from so many people how they find their meaning when they are with others. God speaks to us through the mouths of people we care about. 

It seems to me that there are many people who survive a head-centered approach by utilizing this heart-centered approach to their spirituality. When asked, they couldn’t give a theoretical framework, but they just love being together with others. I can’t say that a lot of these individuals are in places of power or leadership in religious communities, mostly because this way of understanding the sacred is not one of power, control, and predeterminism. It does, however, remain rather anthropomorphic, but not necessarily human-centric (which is most common from the head center). When we make meaning from the heart, the reflection comes from our connection with others, our relating in community. As mentioned before, we tend to think that the divine operates this way as well. 

Finally, there are some who incorporate the sacred from the body or from an intuitive way of knowing. This tends to be much more bottom-up than the other ways of making meaning. When an individual or group of people experiences the sacred from this center, they start with life as they experience it, what they are paying attention to and perceiving, and what they sense with their five senses. This tends to be much more organic, much more oriented to time and place. It is likely that this is what we see in indigenous spirituality, as groups of people interacted with the rest of nature around them as part of their community. Body-centered knowing tends to gravitate to story, myth, and oral culture with an affirmation that it is the natural cycles and changing of seasons that demonstrate how the sacred is part of the world.

It is this final way of knowing that seems so far removed and so misunderstood from our majority culture of head knowing. Amazingly, many of the same “truths” about reality that are being discovered by the top down-, information- and theory-led world that we live in have been lived and experienced by body-centered peoples for centuries. This is because these cultures have been paying close attention to reality and life as they experienced it, day in and day out for hundreds and thousands of years. The truths about the world were experienced in their bodies in tangible and natural ways. It is this way of knowing, and heart-centered knowing as well, that needs to be honored and affirmed in those who feel lost and disillusioned with the head-centered systems that we are surrounded by. I have asked many directees who don’t know where to turn, “Can you trust your five senses? Can you trust what you are experiencing every day? Why not start there?” Perhaps, we can learn to fall in love with life as it comes to us, not determine how life should be and force the world to fit into that framework.

The enneagram, in its distinction of nine personality types, gives us an understanding of how individuals relate to themselves, the world and the sacred. Because each of us feels most at home in our various “centers of knowing,” we know what it is like to come up against organizations, culture, and systems that are dominated by head-centered knowing. Many of us have been told, or educated, or subtly (or not-so-subtly) led to believe that there is one way to view the world. Our responses to what often feels like gaslighting or indoctrination are likely varied depending on our personal preference for understanding but can all be felt as deep trauma. For those who are head-centered, the common trauma response of being shut down by the powers that be is most often cognitive. An individual may just come up with another theory to live by. Denial is common as well, which we can see when it is quite clear that reality does not line up with someone’s way of thinking. Finally, and sometimes most destructive in the need to be on top is to recapitulate the head-centered domination and engage in an endless power struggle for whose view of reality is the most powerful. Countless wars have been fought because of this head-centered approach to a head-centered control. 

For those in the heart-center, the trauma response to head centered domination is very heart and feeling focused. How many men and women are swimming in shame, self-doubt, and depression because their heart and relational ways of encountering the sacred haven’t been honored? Of course, those operating from the head have a theory or belief about this… it’s because we really DON’T deserve God’s love and need (a specific version of) faith to make it better. There’s the trap. This leads to brokenheartedness, an eagerness to please, low feelings of self worth, and so much more. 

The trauma response from the body-center towards the oppression and control of head-centered powers is perhaps the most tragic of all. As I already mentioned, the body-centered and intuitive ways of knowing come from the ground up, from the seasons, from place, from nature. Because this way of experiencing the world and the sacred is so easily oppressed by head-centered powers, we can see how indigenous communities were decimated by technological and scientific advancements. Head-centered cultures thought they were helping the “savages” by educating, illuminating, and evangelizing them.. when in fact, their cultural ways of encountering the sacred and community were dismantled. The trauma response of a body-centered person most often looks like forgetting. For me as a 9 on the enneagram, this word breaks my heart. Any first-hand account of the obliteration of indigenous communities will speak to the abandonment of the language, the ceasing of the rituals and the rights of passage, and the generational forgetting of the old ways. With individuals, forgetting looks like numbing out, abandoning one’s passion and areas of meaning, and in a physical sense, not caring about one’s health anymore. Sometimes, individuals will “forget” in an opposite way of needing to control, resist, or obsess about the “perfect” way to be. What is forgotten here is the subtle, earth- or reality-connected intuition of meaning and the sacred.

I will again say that this understanding and application is not a matter of one approach being better than the others. Just as we need all the numbers and facets of the enneagram, so also do we need all the ways of knowing. Balance is required, however, for us to evolve and shift our current level of functioning in the world of humans first, top down, use and discard, and theorize before experience. There needs to be affirmation of other ways of knowing, even affirmation that some ways may actually be better for the world as a whole. Our current way of encountering the world, one where the sacred comes first from our own ideas and thinking, has proven to be destructive and unsustainable. So change must happen and perhaps this may be a way forward.

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