The origins of the Enneagram are in the esoteric Christian teachings of the Desert Elders.
Sitting across the dining table from the quiet woman, we were dumbfounded. “I have a book,” she said in a low voice faintly touched with a British accent, “that links Gurdjieff’s teaching with the writings of the Fathers of the Church and Mount Athos.” A few hours later, when she gave us the book, we realized it said even more than that.
It revealed the origins of both The Fourth Way or The Work, as Gurdjieff alternately called his system. It also revealed the origins of the Enneagram to be in the writings of some of the earliest and most studied Christian mystical writers.
That means that the Enneagram by itself is only one part of the picture. It diagnoses the problem; but for the solution you have to go to the tradition of healing from which the Enneagram has sprung.
The Work and the Enneagram
For years, as Enneagram teachers and writers, we have used Gurdjieff’s Work as a context for teaching how the Enneagram leads to psychological and spiritual transformation. G. I. Gurdjieff (b. 1879 — d. 1949) called his system of principles of inner growth The Fourth Way, claiming it transcended the three traditional spiritual paths of the monk, the yogi, and the fakir. He taught that it is possible to live The Fourth Way while still living in the world rather than living a socially isolated life in an community of like-minded seekers.
We have found many points at which the Enneagram of personality and The Work or The Fourth Way converge and shed light on each other. Because they have so much in common, we have intuitively felt that they have common origins, but we didn’t know where.
Until now! The book that the British nun gave us — A Different Christianity — led us to several other books. Our research using these books and conversations with the British author of A Different Christianity have revealed a common origin of these two important tools.
A Common Origin
The origins of both the Enneagram and The Work lead back and converge in a place that Gurdjieff himself pointed to, but for some reason few have followed his clues. What clues? Two statements of his in particular.
Toward the end of his life, Gurdjieff repeated more and more frequently, “All I’m doing is teaching esoteric (or inner interpretation of) Christianity.” The second statement Gurdjieff made to his student Boris Mouravieff, a Russian emigré to Europe and fellow student of the principles of inner change. When Mouravieff asked him, “What is the origin of your esoteric teaching?” Gurdjieff enigmatically replied, “Maybe I stole it.”
From where could Gurdjieff have stolen an esoteric understanding of Christianity? From the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, also called the Desert Elders, whose teachings have been followed in the monastic tradition of the Orthodox Church. The writings of the Desert Elders recently have been translated by scholars in a more accurate version than ever before. This new translation has revealed in the a hitherto lost complete inner Christian tradition, a path of mysticism that includes the seeds of the Enneagram. British scholar Robin Amis details these findings in A Different Christianity (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995).
Who Are the Desert Elders?
The Desert Elders of the Church are saints, mystics, and theologians who lived during the first five centuries of the Common Era. Since most of them were from Greece, the Near East, and Egypt, the Desert Elders were familiar with Greek philosophy. After Socrates and because of his influence, Greek philosophy turned from an empirical study of nature to inner questions of meaning and value. In their thinking, the Desert Elders relied heavily on Plato and the Stoic school of philosophy. Plato taught that this material world was a reflection of a spiritual world; he also quoted Pythagoras as saying, “All the world can be explained by the numbers one through nine.” The Stoics taught moderation and fulfillment through moral living.
For these men, Christian faith has little to do with doctrines, telling people what to think or believe, or especially with institutional and organized religion as it often is today. The Desert Elders were interested in experiencing God and in how people experience the spiritual world inside themselves.
One of the Desert Elders, Evagrius Ponticus, also became specific about the kinds of psychological patterns that keep human beings locked in themselves and in inner turmoil. In listing them he named eight of the nine passions of the Enneagram; fear is the one he left out (see “Are the Origins of the Enneagram Christian After All?” by Andreas Ebert in the January 1996 issue of the Enneagram Monthly for a more complete explanation).
Furthermore, the Desert Elders also described how the passions are formed as we give into suggestions from the mind that affect the heart and capture the will. Therefore, one of the practices that the Desert Elders taught, translated into modern terms, is “awakening the mind in the heart.” Emotions left to their own devices become passions, while by studying and observing one’s emotions, one learns not to react to exterior stimuli but to weigh the consequences first by awakening a love of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the mind of the heart.
The teaching of the Desert Elders has been kept alive, to varying degrees in different centuries, in the Orthodox monasteries of Russia and Greece, whose expression of Christianity is more mystical and very different from the Christian experience in the West. That’s where the Desert Elders and Mount Athos meet.
How Gurdjieff Translated the Desert Elders for the Modern World
Gurdjieff often said he had a unique tutored education at the hands of Russian Orthodox priests. He also was clear that, among his many travels, he paid extensive visits to Mount Athos, a peninsula off the coast of Greece that is home to twenty monasteries and is the heart of the Orthodox tradition.
It was in these experiences that he learned the esoteric tradition of the Desert Elders and saw how effective it is in elevating humanity and opening consciousness. This explains Gurdjieff’s plans to take a group of his students to Mount Athos toward the end of his life. When that venture fell through, he told his students that, after he died, they should go to Mount Athos and connect with the tradition there.
However, Gurdjieff was cognizant of how the off-putting pietistic language of this religious tradition conflicted with the growing agnosticism of Western culture. That’s why he translated these principles into terms that were free from association with any particular religion, added to them some other principles he learned along the way from other traditions, and dressed the whole system up in an exotic presentation he called The Work.
The Enneagram was a part of the teaching of The Work, though it was not the Enneagram of personality as we know it. Gurdjieff easily could have first seen the Enneagram in his studies with his Orthodox priest tutors, especially if the symbol originated with Pythagoras as many believe. He could also have easily seen it again in his contact with the Moslem mystics, the Sufis. From one or both of these sources, he also received the principle that every person is governed from within by what he called a “chief feature.”
The genius of the Enneagram of personality, as it was introduced in the 1960s by Oscar Ichazo, is that it is a development of these disparate ideas. It identifies the notion of chief feature with the passions named by Evagrius Ponticus and lays them accurately around the nine-pointed Enneagram symbol.
The Enneagram’s Origins in Ancient Traditions of Healing
Two aspects of this discovery are particularly important to us. First, the methods they describe, though spiritually demanding, are simple. They’re easy to learn, easy to remember and, with a spiritual motivation, easy to use.
Second and most importantly, they describe a clear, complete, and coherent tradition of healing the human soul. That means that there is a time-tested science of understanding human nature — how it is created, how it is broken, and how it is healed — into which the Enneagram fits. It also means that when you’re stuck on your personal journey, there is a reliable body of wisdom that can guide you to your next step.
One example of this ancient wisdom that is translated for modern times through the Enneagram is the Three Renunciations. The Desert Elders taught that to follow a spiritual path we renounce the desire for worldly things, the passions or the negative side of the emotions, and our dependency on human knowledge so that we can be filled with divine knowledge. They taught that the fourth and final step is God’s as God draws the willing person into the divine presence.
Through the Enneagram, we can translate these ideas into working with the three centers. The three centers are jumbled in us, connected to each other in mechanical ways that make us cling to our attitudes and beliefs rather than opening ourselves to the new experience of transformation. The three renunciations take many years of intentional work to accomplish, but once they are accomplished the transformation happens in an instant.
Through the first renunciation we strengthen the gut or doing center, freeing it from attachment to the cares and anxieties of daily life and pointing it toward intentional action as well as to creative leisure. Through the second renunciation, we strengthen the emotional or feeling center, freeing it from the passions that drive our Enneagram compulsion and pointing it toward conscience, humility, and unconditional positive regard for self and others. Through the third renunciation we strengthen our intellectual or thinking center, recognizing the limits of our knowledge and opening to the wisdom that comes through intuition and inspiration.
As Gurdjieff taught along with his students and colleagues P. D. Ouspensky and Maurice Nicoll — relying on this same ancient tradition — only by opening and freeing these three lower centers can we have access to the higher centers. The Desert Elders called it opening the higher intelligence — “the mind in the heart” — so that it could perceive uncreated light. In Gurdjieff’s system it is called attaining objective consciousness. As higher centers begin to open, they communicate to us inspired wisdom that speeds up the process of simplifying ourselves, so that finally everything in us wants one thing and one thing only, to live in the truth that is love that is beauty.
Therefore, the result of combining the Enneagram with the tradition of the Desert Elders is the slow subsiding of the inner disturbances so accurately described by the Enneagram, and the revelation of the true self or essence that is beneath them. The objective consciousness that is the goal of Gurdjieff’s system is the same as the union with God of which the mystics speak. Whether you practice a religious tradition or not, it is possible to attain this state of consciousness through spiritual practices.
As we continue our inner work and study, we are making yet one more delightful discovery. Because the inner or esoteric tradition is one, the Enneagram principles that we are learning and teaching are universal.
However, since each exoteric or outer tradition has interpreted these principles in its own terms, you can learn and teach these principles in several different “languages.” There is a Christian terminology for it, a Buddhist terminology, a Jewish terminology, an Islamic terminology, and most importantly for many reasons, there is the impartial terminology of The Work.
In most respects, the terminology of The Work is still our personal favorite because it is an objective interpretation of these ideas. It avoids the confusion people face with terminology that can trigger some unpleasant associations with religion.
But if you’re explaining the Enneagram to people who need to connect it to their religious tradition, the words are there for you. We’re beginning to detail this cross-referencing of terminology in Partners in Transformation Level 2 Seminar, “The Enneagram in the Healing Tradition®,” and to practice the inner work it describes.
The Enneagram in a Healing Tradition
Teaching the Enneagram in the context of healing the human soul has become our passion. We continue to put details on the system with our own inner experience of this material. The system is growing in completeness and coherence as we work with it. The fruits of this work can be found in our Partners in Transformation seminars, and it will influence all our future books and articles.
In Level 1 and Level 2 of our Partners in Transformation Seminar Series, we continue to teach the Fourth Way, the way of spiritual transformation for people living in the world who can learn to use the events of daily life as their school of transformation. As we continue to flesh out this system of transformation with our new research, we look forward to collaboration with any and every person who wants to understand the Enneagram as an important diagnostic tool in the context of a tradition of healing the human soul.
© 1998, Enneagram Resources, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Kathy Hurley and Theodorre Donson