Literally false

Google has now officially recognized the cultural way we use the term “literal” and “literally”. Literally now means “not literally true but is used to express strong feeling.” The new meaning of literal is symbolic! Literally.
What is important here is that for many Americans, only the literal is true. If something is true it is literal and if it is literal it is true.
Some destructive consequences cascade from this premise. First of all, most of our language is symbolic. “I know where you’re coming from” does not refer to geography.” “I’m feeling blue does not refer to pigment.” Furnish your own myriad of examples.
Here’s how that affects our use of the Enneagram. When people do things that don’t make literal sense, they are usually acting out of unconscious beliefs that DO make sense, but that sense is expressed symbolically. Our inner world is structured according to our enneagram style and most things that we do that are literally opaque make sense if you know the enneagram. When a Six doubts more than makes sense, when a Five seeks more information when she has plenty, when a One spends too much time polishing a report – the list is endless – their actions are symbolic. They have a meaning but you must be able to read symbols. When Bill Gates, a 5, said his $100 BILLION “could all be gone tomorrow,” he was telling the symbolic truth: Fives “know” they may not ever have enough to be secure.” So when I coach, I have the client address the symbolic content of any self-defeating behavior. Self defeating behavior is literally stupid, but is probably serving a strong symbolic purpose. I may a six failing at work in order to be loyal to my father’s scorn of rich bastards.
If you don’t know that most truth is symbolic, then you can’t understand the Enneagram. Much of what we do is to act out our Enneagram understanding of reality.
Any approach to Enneagram spirituality will be futile if we are not capable of thinking and speaking symbolically. A literal understanding of scripture, or any literature except legal documents, will result in a crippling fundamentalism.

Three again

I’ve just moved and was walking in a nearby park. I asked directions from a man about my age. He was friendly, pointed out my path and then began talking about himself. He spoke for about 5 minutes without stopping. He told me the shorthand narrative of his life. He did not mention wife, children, sports, politics, weather or sex. He recounted his business successes and failures. He was clearly a three. He didn’t give me his name, he gave me his accomplishments. In fact, he listed his accomplishments, all the way moving here from the coast in 1962 up to last year. Then he asked my name. Only then when I asked him his name did he reveal it. His name was his success narrative. That’s what is meant by Threes identifying with their role.

Machine thinking

My example of the intern working to death prompted a request for refinement. I was told “He was ill with a brain disease (epilepsy) and was completely at choice.”
I have some trouble with the notion that someone is both ill and completely at choice, but there is a way, and it is an Enneagram trance that illumines that way.
Let’s say my premise has merit: that our culture – corporations and the multitudes alike – operate out of an unhealthy style 3 trance in which work is how you earn love, so the more work you do, the more you will be loved.
Then layer that with a machine mindset by BOTH the corporation and the intern. The machine mindset is entirely quantitative: more is better. (Did that intern really do any good or creative work after the first all night?) The intern is, in a certain sense, “at choice,” because he thinks he is a machine and he will just work and work and not pay attention to his bodily fatigue or lessened awareness–like a machine. You just “drive” yourself further. Our language gives the game away.
This is how cultural enneagram styles and other cultural patterns work. We think we are doing what we want, but we are told / manipulated / persuaded/ advertised/ threatened / rewarded for thinking that our best interests are served by working like a machine. We “choose” to work really hard because we think it is virtue. So hard work is a virtue (and how many times in public debates have you heard the term “hard-working Americans?” Well, if a little virtue is good, and you are not tuned into your body (no money in that), you could work yourself to death.
For a fine book dealing with how much we should work and how we should NOT work like machines, try Tony Schwartz’s “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.”
Within the Enneagram, Threes most apt to think of themselves as machines. They talk of being “driven,” of “making pit stops,” or of “burnout.” They really get into considering “time is money.”

Unfortunately, tis so

The news today reports on the Wall Street intern who died from working all night for 3 days in a row. That is what happens when you think people are machines: you just drive them further, harder, longer.
Within the Enneagram, we should keep in mind that our biological systems differ from person to person. Mechanical thinking flattens or ignores our inner differences. The machine mentality that killed that poor intern may not kill us, but it does make us stupid. Ask the teachers who are “teaching to the tests” mandated by No Child Left Behind. The standardization destroys real learning.
So while we are in a back to school mode and wanting not to be mechanical…what is your learning style? What do you do well and what do you do poorly. And as a coach I will tell you to do as little of what you do poorly as you can. Do more of what you do well.
The Enneagram is an excellent way to break down the standardization inculcated in our schools and cultivated in corporations.

The machine age

The cultural and corporate assumptions of the United States are mechanical. A machine differs from an animal in several important ways. A machine is designed to do one thing. Cars move, hammers pound and knives cut. Pounding with a knife, or trying to drive a hammer doesn’t work. Corporations are designed to make money. The term “bottom line” refers to the purpose for which the corporation was invented. All other consequences are “side” effects. (Like the impact on the community, the environment or the employees). A second characteristic of a machine is interchangeability of parts. If my car breaks down, I can replace the broken part, usually perfectly. Corporations replace accountants with accountants and assume the job will be done in exactly the same way.

The Enneagram is so helpful because it is a description of how we are not interchangeable with the ease that a fuel pump or software package is. Our inner lives differ sharply; our talents, preferences and attitudes vary from person to person. Perhaps an example will help. If you are assigning a task, a Six will usually want fairly detailed instructions. A Seven will often not want and may not follow the instructions on how to do it, but may just need the desired outcome. My own perfect job was at Credence Cassettes, the AV division of the National Catholic Reporter. The publisher said my job description was to put the then new invention, the audio cassette (remember them?) at the service of the church. Which I did for 25 years. No further direction was given or wanted. That would not suit a detail-oriented person. A Six or One might have found that too vague.


As a coach, I frequently find it helpful to remind clients they are animals. Our Enneagram habits have neurological pathways. And when we are stressed physically (tired, pressured, frightened, malnourished), our Enneagram habits become more pronounced. Apparently when we lack physical resources, we fall back on ingrained (prewired?) habits that take less energy. Instead of facing reality, we do what we learned young – our Enneagram patterns.
So one of the things you can do to reduce the powerful of your enneagram habits is take care of your body. Get enough sleep, eat real food, hang out with your friends — all the usual good advice can make a difference in how you copy with the parts of your Enneagram habits that are counter productive.


When we face our environment with only some of our resources, we tend to use our enneagram habits instead. A five will tend to gather more information, a nine might watch more TV etc.
The sensitive enneagram coach must be aware of the context in which our enneagram habits are trying to cope. Context is always important. The fundamentalists of the right illustrate the bankruptcy of taking scripture out of context, but coaching without paying attention to the personal and public environment is the same error.
The United States is usually considered a style 3 environment: high performance, possibly workaholic, focused on systems and efficiency and marked by a pragmatism: do whatever has to be done to get the results the system is made for. This can often lead to a mechanical mindset: people are cogs in machines. Here is an article of today’s headlines about the context in which I and many of you live.