(This post originally appeared as an article in the October issue of Nine Points Magazine, the International Enneagram Association’s quarterly online publication. For more information, go to www.internationalenneagram.org.)

In the first part of this article, which appeared in the last issue of Nine Points Magazine, I discussed my concerns about discussing spirituality when using the Enneagram in business. My first concern was with the fuzziness of the word “spiritual.” Specifically, “spirituality” has, to many people, connotations of the supernatural—claims about reality or experience that cannot be explained by natural means. I made the case last time that once one crosses the line from the natural to the supernatural, one is arguably on the turf of religion. As I explained, there are legal and ethical concerns about introducing religion in work-place training programs in the US, at least, and I prefer to stay well away from that hornet’s nest. (Some would make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious;” while I appreciate the intended difference, either term would run into trouble under the federal guidelines I discussed in the first part of the article.)


I also raised a philosophical concern with the Neo-Platonic Essentialism at the heart of much teaching about the Enneagram, and the related belief that there is a “false” self and a “true” self.


Many Enneagram teachers assert that our personality or Ennea-type is in some way a substitute for the lack or wounding of an aspect of the “real” (or Essential) self, and that if we can in some way cast out the false, the real will shine through. While this may be a somewhat useful metaphor, many take this belief in Essences to be literal. I believe there are consequences to this, and the focus on Essentialism can be a diversion from the real work on oneself.


Thus, there are two reasons why Essentialism is problematic:


The first reason is simple veracity and intellectual integrity: since the Enneagram is rooted in a tradition of people who called themselves “seekers after truth,” it should matter to us whether or not something we believe and teach others is actually true.


The second reason is efficacy: if we are seeking to create change in ourselves or others, our efforts will be aided by an accurate understanding of the nature of the human condition and hindered by an inaccurate understanding.


As I explained in the last article, there are two ways to use the word “essence.” The first, which I’ll refer to as small “e” essence, is an inexact word that strives to capture the ineffable heart of something. We use this term colloquially when we are trying to identify a core element or characteristic of a person or thing. The other use of the word is what I’ll refer to as big “E” Essence, and this word has a very specific meaning in philosophy. It refers to Plato’s teaching on “Ideas” or “Forms.”


In his attempt to explain why imperfect things share common properties, Plato asserted that there must be a plane beyond our normal experience where the properties exist in a perfect and unadulterated form. He called this the realm of the Forms, Ideals, or Essences. (Please note: throughout this article I will use each of these terms because they have a slightly different meanings; however, like the names of the three members of the Christian Trinity, they refer to pretty much the same thing.)


Plato’s idea dominated Western thought for nearly two millennia, and it was applied to much more than the human condition. In fact, it was applied to the whole natural world as Aristotle took the idea of Essences and based the concept of “species,” or things of a common type, on it. While the Greeks understood that the nature of things was to change, they believed that they didn’t change that much and that things of a species shared an Essential quality that marked them as members of that species. Even non-sentient things had Essences—water, for example, had an Essential “aqueous-ness”—that helped to quench the thirst of both people and fire.


As John Dewey pointed out in his essay, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” the concept of “species” took hold deeply “by its application to everything in the universe that observes order in flux and manifests constancy through change. From the casual drift of daily weather, through the uneven recurrence of season and unequal return of seed time and harvest, up to the majestic sweep of the heavens–the image of eternity in time–and from this to the unchanging pure and contemplative intelligence beyond nature lies one unbroken fulfillment of ends.”


Yes, the natural world showed variation, but it was variation within a given range—people are people, dogs are dogs, roses are roses; the temperature won’t rise much above or below a norm—but that range never strays far from the Essential quality of the species. The world was as it always was and as it would always be, though perhaps the things in it could move ever closer to the Ideal of the particular species.


This perception about the way of the universe is understandable; we now know that the history of the universe and all the things that are in it is one of oh-so-gradual-but-perpetual change, but these findings are relatively new. While we know that creatures often evolve over the eons to things fundamentally different in kind from their ancient ancestors, our ancestors only saw the relative fixity of nature. Year after year the cycling of the seasons led to predictable patterns in weather, children were born that, while slightly different from their parents, were clearly human; oak trees issued acorns that in time grew into new oak trees. Why would they assume that things change in dramatic ways; that they might ultimately become of a completely different kind? They simply didn’t have any indication that this was the case.


The idea of the Essences was also applied to concepts like beauty, truth, and goodness; it was believed that these abstracts existed a priori (“without prior”) on some plane, and that the human expression of them was a pale substitute of the Ideal. The goal of life was to somehow apprehend the Ideals and try to embody them instead of the false or degraded versions. The concept came to heavily influence Christianity when it rediscovered Aristotle. Sin became a “missing of the mark” of the Ideal and we need to understand what, for example, true “Goodness” was so we could try to embody it. Western philosophy became marked by the search for absolutes. Questions such as, “What is beauty?” and “What is truth?” came to dominate it, based on the assumption that these things really existed “out there” somewhere and were waiting to be revealed.


As our understanding of the natural world began to grow, the idea of Essences started to lose its grip. As we learned about chemistry, for example, we learned that it wasn’t the Essential “aqueous-ness” of water that put out a fire; other dynamics were at work. Today, few people take the idea of Essences seriously when it comes to understanding the nature of things. As Dewey points out, we would laugh at someone who “accounted for the fact that opium put people to sleep on the ground it had a dormative faculty.”


When it comes to biology, we have come to understand that the whole idea of “species,” as Aristotle understood it, is wrong. Even today, biologists don’t agree about what it means to be of the same species because all living things having evolved “from one form or a few” (to use Darwin’s famous phrase), and are related on the tangled bush of life. (Life is too interwoven to be thought of as a “tree of life” and that term is out of favor in biology.)


We take this view because we can look at the DNA of any two of a given kind and see differences, and we can look at the DNA of any two random members of different kinds and see similarities. In other words, we can look at the DNA of two chimpanzees and see variation, and we can look at the DNA of a chimpanzee and a sea slug and see much more variation, but still some similarities. Why? Because all creatures came from the same source an unimaginably long time ago.


The one area where people still cling to this idea of Essences is when it comes to understanding human nature. Many still want to insist there are some kind of perfect, eternal, “unborn” (to use Oscar Ichazo’s term*) qualities of human nature that we have somehow lost contact with. These qualities are our “real” self and the “personality” (however one may define that) represents a “false” self. It is further believed that these Essences also exist on some plane outside of the individual, and that the individual manifestation is a reflection of the greater Essence, that we are an individual spark of a greater fire and if we can find some way to clarify or dilute the false self the real self will shine through.


It’s a nice thought, but in addition to there being no actual evidence to support it beyond the desire to believe that it might be true, there is an inherent logical flaw in the argument supporting the existence of Essences in humans. It is the flaw that Dewey pointed out: we know that humans have evolved from very different life forms, and that our nature has not been the same since the beginning of time. If we know that our nature has not been the same forever, how can eternal and unchanging Essences be part of our nature?


Here’s another way to look at it: among our ancestors is australopithecus africanus, a four-foot tall hominid with a brain 35% the size of ours who roamed through southern Africa about 3.5 million years ago subsisting on fruits, vegetables, and tubers. If Essence is eternal, is one to believe that a. africanus had the same Essential nature that we do? It seems somewhat absurd to believe they did. And if they didn’t, how can these Essences be something a priori, eternal, and “unborn”?


Therefore, it is illogical to believe that there is a “real” self that is related to something external and eternal; that belief is both unsupported by any measurable or empirical evidence and logically flawed.


Despite these points, I suspect that people who are attached to Essentialism will not let go of it easily. The irony is that the very same evolutionary mechanisms that explains why Essentialism is untrue explains why we believe it to be true.


Evolution works by passing on traits that aid survival; it does not necessarily pass on traits that promote accurate understanding of the world (we need tools such as logic and science for this). Essentialism is a way of thinking that helps put order on the world and actually allows us to come up with a simple (if misguided) explanation that frees us to move on to more pressing matters.


For example, children are content to believe that thunder and lightning are the work of the gods because they are unable to comprehend the concept that the discharge of excessive electrons in the atmosphere causes lightning, and that crossing the sound barrier causes a sonic boom. As we learn the natural mechanisms behind thunder and lightning we let go of the supernatural explanations for them. Life works like this—when we learn natural explanations we let go of our illusions. Unfortunately, the empirical explanations for human nature are as yet incomplete and, to some, emotionally unsatisfying. In the absence of explanation many need to insert one—regardless of whether it is true or not—rather than being able to sit comfortably with the mystery of not knowing.


The biologist Ernst Mayr did not refer to Essentialism as “the cold, dead hand of Plato” for nothing; it grasps our ankle from the grave still. Our nature primes us to be intuitive Essentialists, and it is a characteristic of the human condition to use our capacity to reason (even in erroneous ways) to support our emotion-based intuitions. This felt-sense and intuitive need for Essentialism will cause many to hold on to it, which is unfortunate because in addition to veracity there is the issue of efficacy to face. There may be some metaphorical value to the concept of Essententialism, but we can easily err when we believe the metaphor to be true.


Delivering a workshop a couple of years ago I was accused of doing superficial, “cosmetic” work because I was ignoring Essence. The critic used the analogy a drop of wine spilled on a white table cloth and said that, by ignoring the concept of Essence, my approach was like placing a glass over the stain to cover it rather than scrubbing the cloth clean. In truth, however, if Essence does not truly exist, then the labor spent on trying to scrub the table cloth clean is time and energy wasted.



My goal when working with my clients is to help them develop wisdom, compassion, and efficacy in the context of their work in order to improve their relationships, their sense of personal well-being, and their business results.


My preference when working with clients is to stay away from any unsupportable illusions that part of our nature is transpersonal and unchanging, and focus on what we know to be true: that change and transformation happen best when we work with the clay we have rather than the essence that we don’t, that the mind is of one thing, the expression of synapse-based workings of the brain, and that we can grow most effectively when we work with an understanding of how we can change the way our brains really work rather than focus on of letting go of some allegedly “false” thing and embracing some allegedly “real” thing that doesn’t actually exist.


*See AH Almaas’s “Facets of Unity,” p. v.

Leave a Reply