April 5th, 2020

The Global Covid-19 Crisis Through an Enneagram Lens

Turning a Time of Challenge into an Opportunity for Awakening

Potential Lessons for the Enneagram types and subtypes

By Beatrice Chestnut, drawing on work created in collaboration with Uranio Paes

I offer these thoughts on the potential meaning of the global pandemic from a larger perspective, and an Enneagram perspective, with the hope of supporting Enneagram enthusiasts in seizing upon the opportunities offered by this moment to engage in specific inner work, with the conscious intention of working toward increased individual and collective awareness at this unprecedented time of uncertainty.

It seems this frightening moment may be meant to push us toward some sort of awakening—a kind of waking up out of our human sleep state that we tend to resist under normal circumstances.

I believe this experience of “forced awakening” offers specific growth opportunities and clarity around individual and collective change that can and must be worked toward with conscious intention. I think we may ride out this global reckoning more smoothly—and use it as a way of making progress in our growth journeys—both individual and collective—if we stay open to the lessons that this moment offers us—even if, of course, we also must endure a period of suffering.

There are five key themes I see arising out of this moment that may serve to focus our attention on a higher meaning in what may be an understandably scary phase of shared life experience. I will discuss three of them here in full and connect them to specific Enneagram-based insights connected to the types and instincts. I will conclude by just naming the other two.

Although we all face very real challenges daily—especially health care workers, those who are sick or fearful of becoming ill, and people everywhere affected economically by the global business stoppage—I believe we can choose to cope with these difficulties in an intentional way if we choose to view them as a chance for collective awakening. Sadly, it often takes extreme pain and discomfort for us to awaken—as the teachings behind the Enneagram tell us. When we get locked into familiar routines related to survival or just habit, it can be extremely hard to see the ways our unquestioned assumptions about how we need to direct our lives may need to be re-examined and shifted. In short, this may be a time of creation through destruction—of moving to a higher octave—a higher growth trajectory—by weathering a shock with consciousness.

To illustrate some of the potential impacts and invitations toward deeper growth, I will highlight the particular potential consequences of the present time for different Enneagram types and subtypes connected to three key opportunities for awakening.

In framing these 3 “opportunities,” I encourage us to focus on what might be birthed or renewed out of the present chaos and insecurity.

#1 The opportunity to break out of entrenched unconscious patterns produced by the forced stoppage of activities, business, and life “as usual.”

One of the main things studying the Enneagram model of transformation teaches us is that we all get caught up in deeply rooted patterns that become hard to see. And because they are hard to see, they become very difficult to even identify. And if we resist seeing what patterns may need to be changed to support our highest good, it’s hard to consciously choose to do the work to break out of potentially self-limiting patterns. But as the whole planet has been forced to “shelter in place,” we have needed to stop all normal routines. This virus has put a halt to our normal lives in ways we didn’t choose but must adapt to.

This has thrust us into a position in which we can’t help but notice what thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and reactions arise when outside forces cause us to stop all the normal patterns of our daily lives. Both our usual rhythms and routines in the world and our internal reactions to having those rhythms interrupted can become extremely clear to us if we choose to take advantage of this “forced pause.” If we can use this totally unexpected shutdown of our normal activities to create a strong intention to seek to understand the meaning of the patterns that have structured our lives in previously unquestioned visible and invisible ways, we may benefit from this moment as a potential awakening.

One of the archetypal meanings of the inner triangle of the Enneagram is the mapping out of a three-step path of growth from total identification with a “false self” to the conscious manifestation of a truer or “essential” self:

  • from “stopping” to self-observe at the 3 point–which initiates a process of dis-identification from the personality we habitually identify with and the unconscious patterns associated with it,
  • to dis-identifying more completely from the personality at the 6 point by consciously and energetically “pushing” the personality and its habits outside of us,
  • to a conscious experience of “self-remembering” at the 9 point, through which we experience a remembrance of who we really are (totally distinct from, but connected to, the personality we identified with).

This forced stoppage of life caused by the life-or-death need to stay at home and shut down businesses and economic flows has brought us to exactly this kind of collective “stop,” through which we are invited—or pushed—to notice who we really are by seeing how we normally operate and by the experience of consciously noticing all that happens when we have a complete break from our usual patterns and processes.

 

Enneagram insight: We are being invited to stop and self observe in order to break through denial and other defenses that prevent us from seeing what’s happening at a deeper level (within us and around us).

It’s hard for people of all types to stop and observe the patterns and unconscious habits that drive them. Here are some of the ways three of the Enneagram types may be challenged and some suggestions for ways to take this as an opportunity for the development of new capacities.

Threes have a tendency to maintain a constant sense of motion—of forward progress toward goals and achievements. This stoppage challenges even the healthiest of Threes to really slow down and not just re-create an active life during the mandatory “shut down.” Threes may look disconnected from their emotions, but Threes are emotional types and when things slow to a stop, Threes get deprived of a central coping strategy—pushing away feelings that allow them to focus all their energy on working tasks and goals.

But our emotions exist to provide us with important information about who we are and what matters to us. And when Threes do the work of allowing more of a conscious experience of their own emotions, they have the opportunity to experience more of who they really are—their “real self.” When Threes accept the invitation to “stay home” and slow down, they create the space to learn more about who they really are when not in motion. When they can take the opportunity to spend more time engaging with their emotions and learn to tolerate any discomfort associated with this, they can reframe the avoidance of their own feelings with self-compassion and see their path of growth as going directly through embracing all feelings as healthy, revelatory, and enlivening.

Eights may find it difficult to endure the global “lockdown” because they become accustomed to taking action, moving things forward, and expressing power in the world. It can be challenging for Eights to feel constrained and limited. This may be an unfamiliar feeling for Eights and may lead to emotions like fear or powerlessness. It can be hard for Eights when they can’t bring their strength to bear to affect what’s happening. While Eights have a lot of natural power, this crisis is beyond any one person’s ability to affect change—we simply must connect more with others to make things happen.

When Eights can welcome the experience of vulnerability—both in terms of acknowledging the real limits of their power and allowing for more contact for their inner sensitivity, they can naturally balance out their ability to be strong out in the world with a greater capacity to manifest the biggest strength of all—the strength to express weakness and rely on others.

Sevens may find it hard to focus on the positive and seek freedom when experiencing more forced limitations at this moment. They may feel their automatic mental escape pathways blocked at this strange moment. Sevens have active minds and usually adopt a fast pace to move things forward—a pace that is now necessarily slowed down in ways they may find uncomfortable. Sevens sometimes have difficulty sinking into the present moment without automatically distracting themselves with possible future scenarios—but right now, they may be plunged into a present-time situation that’s harder for them to think their way out of.

But Sevens can make use of this time not by doing a “work-around” with their ego, by thinking outside the box in this decidedly “outside-the-box” time, but by allowing themselves to slow down and sink into the experience of whatever is happening now, even if that experience delivers feelings they may not be used to or forces them to confront problems they may not know how to “solve.” Underneath their eternal optimism, Sevens can be pessimistic in believing that if they allow in uncomfortable emotions, like fear or anxiety or pain, they may be stuck in them forever. This moment provides Sevens with an opportunity to learn to allow in all their emotions while developing more faith that if they fully experience them, they will go away. Let in suffering, so it can eventually depart.

 

#2 The opportunity to break out of delusions about connection and create real connection.

 This difficult time offers us the opportunity to learn to discern between the illusion of connection and the experience of a deeper sense of connection—real contact with others we need so much as humans—produced by our forced separation from each other and our need to work together to survive. This may include a conscious reevaluation of even some of our closest relationships to ask ourselves if they are really serving our growth or if we are relating to others on autopilot, based on fear or a need for security that is actually holding us back. Alternately this moment also has the potential to clarify the importance of relationships that really do have value to us, and allow us to strengthen and deepen those connections.

Social media, travel, and communication technologies like the internet and video conferencing have made us more interconnected globally than ever before. You can talk with someone on the other side of the world instantaneously or travel there in less than a day. And we have a global economy in which a disruption in one part of the world immediately affects the stock market in another part of the world. On a daily basis many of us “chat” or converse virtually in different ways through social media. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other online forums give us the experience of a kind of social contact and interaction that didn’t exist just 15 years ago.

And yet, at the same time, we are extremely politically divided, nationalistic groups that leverage xenophobia and demonize “the other” have been on the rise, and high suicide and addiction rates reveal the lack of real social connectedness and human support in our world today. The tenor and substance of interpersonal interaction on social media can be false, contentious, or superficial while advancing the perception of interconnectivity. And globally, Brexit, Trumpism, and the rise of a kind of narrow-minded nationalism in different countries suggest a movement away from greater unity and cross-cultural understanding toward increased barriers, suspicion, hostility, and separation.

In light of all this, this crisis reveals to us our essential equality as humans, the potentially positive side of global interconnectivity and inter-dependence, as well as the reality that we need to work together to survive. My teaching partner and friend, Uranio Paes, recently posted a short video in which he pointed out an important example of the “law of three,” one of the universal principles foundational to the Enneagram—the dialectic between equality, liberty, and fraternity. We need greater fraternity to balance the tensions between equality and liberty that have, unchecked, led in many cases to countries with a dangerous level of economic inequality and hostility toward those who are different and migrants forced by unsafe conditions to seek refuge in other countries.

This international emergency absolutely requires us to work together through coordinated action with other countries, at the very moment when global cooperation between leaders has broken down. We are being forced to reckon with a situation in which, without some kind of awakening, the trend toward greater isolation, nationalism, and self-interest may endanger our very survival as a species.

This virus doesn’t discriminate between classes of humans and crosses all borders. We need each other to survive on this planet. And this crisis brings this into focus. The emails we have been sending and receiving now start or finish with a wish for “the safety and health of you and your family.” Small kindnesses between strangers have become more highlighted, more meaningful, and more poignant at a moment where every other person you encounter could also be an infectious agent of disease.

But “infection” can mean being contaminated by a life-threatening virus or being uplifted by a life-supporting gesture of love or generosity. We can be brought down by fear of infection by a deadly viral microbe—or welcome the infectiousness of a spontaneous smile from a stranger or a helping hand to someone in need. Everywhere there are new experiences of kindness and support—the warmth delivered by the person who lets you take the last rolls of toilet paper at the supermarket or the thoughtfulness of the neighbor who checks in on you. Just today I almost couldn’t buy a coffee at my local coffee roastery because they were only taking cash and I had only brought a ten-dollar bill, and another customer immediately offered to buy my coffee with her credit card.

 

Examining the role of our instincts through the lens of the Enneagram model also underscores another angle on this.

People who have a dominant social instinct—the drive to focus on the larger system or the collective—may be especially triggered now, in good ways and challenging ways. People with a dominant social instinct may feel the pain of not being able to connect with others in the usual ways. And they may feel challenged by the global situation in unique ways as they tend to have a sensitivity to situations in which, collectively, people are at odds with each other in ways that threaten individuals and group dynamics on a large scale.

But if “dominant Socials” use this moment as an opportunity to draw on their gifts for inspired collective action on behalf of the whole, they can serve as the leaders we need now to help us learn to grow together through this crisis. If they can communicate more and lead others in taking action to advance cooperation and greater understanding between groups and cultures, they can help us emerge from this pandemic in a healthier place as a global community.

This global emergency may also especially trigger people with a dominant self-preservation instinct—they may become more fearful or more anxious than usual. They may find their attention drawn to ways their lives and livelihoods are threatened in a way that feels hard to manage. And it may be hard for them to feel safe in reaching out to others in the ways they may need to maintain life-supporting connections.

But, if self-preservation subtypes can take the opportunity provided by this crisis to find conscious ways to self-soothe and work against their tendency to contract in the face of fear, they can use this as an opportunity to learn to connect in healthy ways to themselves and others. It can help Self-Preservation dominant people to engage in a lot of self-care, allow themselves to ask for support from others, and work against the tendency to give in to fear by focusing obsessively on threats or behaving in ways that make them more isolated and fearful.

While it’s less clear the way this specific disaster may activate the sexual instinct, we can imagine that for many people who have a dominant sexual instinct, it might mean becoming more controlling and assertive, more intense or intensely emotional, or more competitive and protective of special individuals and relationships. People with a dominant influence of the social instinct may act out in different ways if they are not making an effort to be more conscious of their stressful reactions at this time, including over-focusing on specific people in their lives, wanting to exert control in ways that may not be possible or advisable, and experiencing bouts of anger when things in their world are not subject to their control.

But if sexual subtypes can use this opportunity for heightened self-awareness, they can channel their natural intensity and assertiveness to further positive causes, intentionally subject their sexual drive to a bigger focus on the social/collective realm, and deploy their care and attention on a wider ranger of people in their lives, not just the usual suspects.

 

Importantly, this may be a time of re-grouping—of re-assessing and recalibrating what we each need from relationships, what we allow ourselves to receive, and how deeply we allow ourselves to connect. It will be important for people of all types to notice how they may resist forming deeper or more loving connections in ways they may not see—and take this opportunity to work against those tendencies. Times of suffering can initiate growth if we face them consciously, and these kinds of moments can also shed light on the question of what people we need to be connected to because they are, like us, on a conscious path of self-development. Being engaged in sincere inner growth work necessarily means being more closely connected to people who are also doing intentional inner work and moving farther away from those are not.

 

Enneagram insight: We are being invited to explore what defines real connection, our true needs related to connection, and ways to create deeper connection in our lives based in truth.

Twos can sometimes settle for fake or shallow connections when what they really want is deeper relationships based on real love. They can fear intimacy and so settle for getting approval rather than doing what it takes to forge deeper connections. Because they may pridefully think they are “good at relationships” because they focus attention on supporting others when in reality, they block themselves from receiving the love and other good things others might truly want. They may feel challenged to connect on a deeper level out of a fear of intimacy or a lack of experience truly being able to stay open to another when they can’t control how others see them or if they will be rejected.

Twos can work against these tendencies by taking the opportunity of this strange pause to state more truthfully how they feel about people and what they want and need from the people in their lives, even though they may not always get what they want from others. It will help them to learn to surrender a sense of control in relationships by expressing their real needs, communicate more honestly about what’s in their hearts, and have the courage to receive whatever comes—desired or not—rather than try to manage their impression or avoid the truth.

Fours often feel challenged in relationships with others even though they focus a lot of attention on connection and disconnection. When fixated in the personality, none of us really get what we seek in relationships—it takes going to a higher level. Fours can focus too much on their internal feelings and fantasies about what’s happening in relationships as opposed to discerning what’s really happening on the outside. They can get caught up in comparing themselves to others or focusing on what they lack or what’s missing in others or in situations. And they may assume they aren’t worthy to achieve the connection they long for and give up in ways they see and don’t see. They may defend against being truly open to connection by unconsciously amping up the drama of intense emotions or taking too much responsibility on themselves for managing what’s happening in relationships (and then shutting down or getting resentful).

But when Fours intentionally balance their inner capacity for emotional sensitivity with more empathy for and attunement with others’ feelings and needs, they can more powerfully achieve the deep connections they yearn for. When they can rise above the ups and downs of their vacillating emotional states, they can view relationships and their own capacity for receptivity with greater objectivity and equanimity.

Fives can feel challenged to maintain connections during times like these because they automatically detach from emotion and retreat inside themselves in times of emotional difficulty. They may want to connect but have a hard time knowing how to do this under the pressure of all the different kinds of challenges occurring in a time like this. It may be hard for them to resist the pull to go inside and need a lot of time to process their feelings about what’s happening. They may give in to the tendency to go it alone and not reach out—both with people at a social distance and in their own households.

But when Fives can more consciously process their emotions, both inside themselves and with others, they can make the choice to allow for more connection through the experience of shared challenge. When they can intentionally work against the urge to withdraw and allow for more feelings and more support from others, they can use this time as an opportunity for practicing moving toward others in difficult times rather than moving away.

 

#3 The opportunity to develop our capacity to respond to shocks in our lives with flexibility and acceptance.

Coping with real-world shocks can help us create greater resilience and expand our “tool kit” of adaptive strategies beyond the few usually associated with our main personality type. Each Enneagram personality represents a way of tuning into only about a ninth of reality—paying attention to the same things over and over. Shocks to the system can create fresh perspectives and stretch us beyond our comfort zone.

In teachings about the “process Enneagram,” the approach to working with the diagram that focuses on the numbers as “points” of the Enneagram diagram as a symbol of perpetual motion as opposed to a typology, point 3 represents a “shock point.” Uranio and I are working on a new “levels of development” model based on this meaning of the Enneagram as a map of a process of transformation. In this “levels” model of the Enneagram, if point 1 is a kind of “first step” around the points of the diagram (and not “Type 1”), and point 2 is a kind of second step or level of evolution (and not “Type 2”), point 3 is not so much a “3rd step” as a “shock point,” a point where the tension of two opposites becomes shifted to a higher level by some sort of “reconciling force.” This shock point gets initiated by something coming from the outside—an external input we don’t control other than to try to receive it with greater consciousness as opposed to unconscious habit.

While the meaning of this kind of a process shock point is complex, it tells us we can achieve more growth, a wider perspective, and more flexibility if we learn to flow with the shocks, to use them in a conscious way to further our development and to see them as providing an opportunity to move what’s happening, both on an individual and a collective level, to a higher level as opposed to staying or “falling back down” to a lower level of consciousness.

For instance, I think in western society today—and especially in the U.S.—many of us experience difficulties in achieving a good “work-life balance.” For many, the tension between “focusing on work” and “paying attention to what supports a healthy life” leans heavily in the direction of work. But now, we are all forced to go home—to do what work can be done in the middle of our lives. We’ve been pushed more into the life part and more away from work part in a way that has been incredibly disorienting. And again, this can cause distress in handled more unconsciously or it can be an opportunity for deeper reflection if dealt with more consciously.

On the upside, this shock may create new ways of thinking about work and life—it forces us to slow down, it’s giving us more time to think and reflect, it’s creating more time with our families—for better or worse, and it’s making us fit our work into our lives in new ways instead of finding time for life amidst a predominant emphasis on work. If you have been avoiding anything in your life apart from work, this makes you necessarily re-focus on what you may not have wanted to face in your life or your work-life balance. If you have been dissatisfied in your work, this provides a re-set if you take the opportunity to create something new as opposed to over-focus on what might be lost or not working up until now.

I sometimes use the wisdom of the I Ching, the Chinese book of change, to guide me in understanding how best to view the changes happening in my life. The I Ching view of shock is that shock is good because it reminds us that if we keep our minds open, disturbing events can be constructive of something positive: “Instead of reacting blindly to shock, we adjust our attitude to accepting, even greeting the challenge imposed by the new circumstance. In all instances in which our attitude is jolted (even in the slightest degree), we are here counseled to retain our inner balance.”

 

Enneagram insight: We are being invited to explore how expanding beyond the narrow confines our the personality we identify with helps us build more flexibility, resilience, empathy, and compassion.

We are more than our personalities—by developing new capacities in the face of shocks we grow beyond a fixed set of patterned reactions and develop more of our higher potential—both individually and on the collective level.

Ones may have a difficult time flowing with the changes happening now, as they habitually rely on adhering to specific rhythms, routines, and processes to structure their everyday experience and help them maintain a sense of well-being in the world. Ones embrace the predictability and manageability of regularity as they feel supported by knowing the rules of a given situation and feeling a sense of control over achieving positive or ideal outcomes. It may be harder for Ones to adapt to radically changed circumstances than other types because they feel a deeply rooted sense of the need for control and may inhibit their own impulses to feel or react to the disruptions happening now.

But if Ones can take advantage of the current time to practice having more flexibility, adapting more to the particular needs of the moment, and allowing for more of their emotions and impulses to guide them. Rather than the usual tendency toward self-sufficiency, it will be good for Ones to learn to depend on others, stretching themselves to tolerate a lower standard of what’s ideal in favor of being more open to collaboration and delegation. Ones also benefit now from adjusting their view of what’s “optimal” in a given situation vs. what might be achievable—there may be no time for perfect in the current moment.

Sixes can be calm in a crisis, as their normal mode in personality tends toward preparing for the worst. But in an extended period of an unprecedented global emergency, Sixes may feel anxious when they sense the gravity and scope of this pandemic and see the ways everyday life has been altered and threatened. Sixes may struggle to contain their fears and anxieties at times as there are so many ways that normal life has come to feel out of control and uncertain. And their specific responses to the fear that may naturally be sparked now will likely vary by subtype, as the three Sixes vary more from each other than in most of the other types.

But whether, as a Six, your response is to become highly fearful and uncertain, to lean into learning and finding good authorities to listen to in order to direct your choices and behavior, or to go against fear with strength and determination right now, Sixes can benefit now by seeing this moment of shock to strengthen their skills in coping with fear in conscious ways. They can also use this time as another opportunity to own their strength and courage and develop more trust and faith in others and in higher powers—whether that means some of the heroic leaders that are emerging at this moment or a higher spiritual power that may be manifesting in mysterious ways to use what’s occurring as a means of awakening and positive change.

Nines tend to resist change when gripped by the habitual tendencies of their personality type. When operating at a less conscious level, they may go to sleep to their own power and strength to initiate or manage unpredictable circumstances, or stubbornly resist being aware of ways they seek to stay comfortable or fail to activate their natural leadership ability if they get caught up in worrying about others or disoriented by disharmony.

But Nines can use this crisis as an opportunity by becoming more intentionally self-reflective and more focused on developing a clear agenda about what they can to do deploy their natural strengths and powerful energy. It’s a moment for heroes to emerge, and while Nines can be reluctant leaders, they can also be unselfish and effective leaders. By seizing this as a moment to own their authority, create necessary conflicts in the service of higher purposes, and step out in front when their particular skills are needed, they can take advantage of this moment to both develop themselves and help others.

 

Lastly, here are two more opportunities that I see as being born out of the current crisis. It’s my hope that we can also take advantage of the moment, though it’s painful, to focus on cultivating more truth around these. When we can each do our inner work it makes a difference collectively. Thank you for reading this far.

#4 The opportunity to learn the difference between what’s true and false—between delusion and reality—produced by a public health crisis emergent in our “post-truth” “fake news” political and cultural environment. An actual life-or-death emergency has a way of clarifying what’s true and what’s not.

#5 The opportunity to choose love and courage over fear and anxiety produced by a global crisis that understandably inspires legitimate fears of losing one’s life, one’s loved ones, or one’s livelihood.

 The current moment has brought into clear focus as never before the reality that we need each other to survive—when we compete and compare we become alienated from the people all around us, but when we collaborate and cooperate we make progress toward a higher state of being and a better world.