Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas, by A.H.Almaas, Diamond Books, Berkeley, CA, 1998, 296 pages.


          I have long been very interested in the integration of psychology, psychotherapy, and spirituality. In that regard I found this book to be fascinating. The title of the book, Facets of Unity, refers to the nine points on the Enneagram. If you have not already heard of it, the Enneagram is an increasingly popular personality typology. It is much like the Myers-Briggs test in that regard but it is easier to remember the different types of the Enneagram since they are simply the numbers 1 through 9. However the Enneagram itself is not simple.  It is based on a broad and complex existential foundation. Its roots are obscure and are purported to derive from ancient Sufi beliefs and practices. Some of the popular books about the Enneagram’s nine personality types seem to underrepresent this foundation.

         The underlying theory of the Enneagram has to do with the fundamental nature of reality. It posits that the ultimate reality is such that the universe is essentially a benevolent and loving unified whole, which Almaas says is synonymous with God and a number of other terms in various spiritual and religious traditions. It is further postulated that each of us is capable of coming to know and experience reality in this manner, resulting in a particularly joyful way of living. The obstacle to living perpetually in this joy has to do with the nine points on the Enneagram.

          Beneath the conception of the Enneagram as a personality typology is the idea that it refers to nine different ways in which we become blind to the essential nature of reality. Each of the nine points represents a particular Holy Idea, or attribute of the Divine. These are Holy Love, Holy Perfection, Holy Truth, Holy Omniscience, Holy Will, Holy Wisdom, Holy Origin, Holy Strength, and Holy Harmony. When we are unable to see these holy ideas or attributes of the Divine we become unable to see the underlying love and benevolence of the universe. The use of the Enneagram as a personality typology is derived from the idea that each person has one of these Holy Ideas that is particularly difficult for him or her to see.  This relative blindness leads to a specific delusion about reality.  For instance the person who has trouble seeing the Holy Truth of the underlying unity of the universe will suffer from the specific delusion of duality, especially in terms of seeing himself or herself as separate from the rest of the universe.  The specific delusion leads to a specific difficulty, in this case “a sense of badness, guilt, and fundamental sinfulness.”   One then attempts to cope with the specific difficulty through a specific reaction, in this case self-blame.  This attempt at coping in turn defines the overt behavior and the subjective experience of the personality type associated with that point on the Enneagram.

          The nine types of the Enneagram can easily be thought of spirituality disorders, akin to the personality disorders on Axis II of the DSM.  However, these nine types, along with the psychological and spiritual dynamics associated with them, could also account for almost everything else in the DSM.

          There are several things about this book that particularly intrigued me. One of them is the author's insistence that all people have difficulty with all nine Holy Ideas, so that a person who is designated as being a certain type really only has a relative degree of difficulty with the particular Holy Idea associated with that type.  Viewing it this way moves one away from thinking in terms of a personality typology and more in the direction of a universal human challenge to see reality clearly. Because of the interests I mentioned earlier, I was particularly intrigued with the way in which the author frames the difficulties of seeing reality within a particular psychological point of view as having not only psychological implications, but also psychotherapeutic implications.  In particular Almaas makes frequent references to Winnicott and his concepts of the holding environment and basic trust.  Essentially he says that one must either be fortunate enough to find basic trust early in life through an adequate parental holding environment, or one must find later in life a sufficiently safe holding environment that will allow for the development of basic trust.  Almaas makes clear that doing this work as an adult––i.e., pursuing the attainment of the direct awareness of the nature of reality––requires working through the specific psychological and spiritual injuries and deficiencies resulting from one's personal history. Although the ultimate goal is enlightenment or self-realization, the difficult psychotherapeutic work that will be required is not ignored, as it seems to me it often is by those who have had a brief glimpse of such a state and the possibilities it presents.

          The last nine of the 17 chapters of the book are devoted to each of the nine types on the Enneagram, and they account for more than two-thirds of the total pages in the book. When I first began reading these nine chapters it seemed to me as if they were unnecessarily repetitive, since the fundamental principles were the same in each one. However I soon realized that hearing these principles over and over again as they apply to the specific blindness to the Holy Idea for a particular point had some cumulative effect on my grasping the underling principles. This effect began to show up when I meditate, as I began to notice that having these principles floating around in my head sometimes has an impact on what I experience in meditation. When I notice that my mind has wandered away from my breath I am sometimes aware of the concept of ultimate reality as a way of thinking about that from which my attention has wondered.  While thinking about such a concept is of course an additional distraction from the breath, it does bring a certain peacefulness that perhaps makes surrender to the moment just a touch easier.

          Point Two on the Enneagram, Holy Will, seems to be more complex and paradoxical than the others. It refers to the idea that the entire universe is a function of the will of God (theistically speaking) or "the whole" (non-theistically speaking) and that everything we do – including my writing these words at this moment and my thinking the thoughts that preceded the writing – is a  result of this force. If a person fails to see this fact regarding “objective reality” it will result in the specific delusion of personal will.  In religious terms this illusion might be described as “a lack of faith in the action of grace.” This delusion will in turn lead to the specific difficulty that Almaas describes as a subjective sense of “humiliated castration" and the specific reaction of stubbornly attempting to control things through acts of personal will.

          Of course even if one is not primarily identified with Point Two of the Enneagram, there is a certain paradox related to the work one does to attain a state of enlightenment since everything is part of a unified whole and therefore there is really nothing to attain. At one point Almaas addresses this paradox in a way that caused me to burst out laughing. He begins by demonstrating his obviously substantial knowledge of world religions and spiritual traditions by naming some of the concepts and practices that are invoked in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment. He then goes on to say that really all one needs to do, in view of the ultimate unity of reality, is simply to relax.  Really??  Are you kidding me??  That’s it?? 

          To suggest that all one needs to do is simply relax may be a bit of an oversimplification. It begs the question of how one finds or creates a holding environment sufficient to allow the creation of the basic trust that will be needed if one is going to relax. In some way it seems that the challenge of the psychotherapist who working with an individual, a couple, a family, or a group is to help facilitate the conditions that will foster such basic trust.  In order to meet this challenge the psychotherapist probably must find and create holding environments in his or her own life that facilitate the growth of the psychotherapist’s own basic trust. Such environments can include personal psychotherapy, peer or “cuddle” (Carl Whitaker) groups, family and friends, spiritual communities, and subjective environments invoked by a variety of spiritual practices.

          The author compares the way he works with the Enneagram, the Diamond Approach, to the Buddhist practice of Dzogchen, or self-liberation.  He notes that the primary difference between the two approaches is the rapidity of the process.  Dzogchen assumes that there is only one true state of awareness and that this state is entered into completely in a moment of enlightenment. The Diamond Approach sees the process as more incremental as one works (willfully?) on one's spiritual practice. The author notes that Dzogchen is a more pure practice but that it is only for people who already are “beginning buddhas." The majority of us do not meet this requirement, which would seem to imply that something like the Diamond Approach would be more appropriate.

          Of course the other possibility that comes to my mind for those of us not already well on the way to Buddhahood is depth psychotherapy, in which an attempt is made to create a sufficiently safe holding environment that will allow greater basic trust to develop in the client. As the sense of safety and basic trust deepens it becomes possible, and quite natural, for the client to see the specific delusions (unconscious distortions of reality) that lead to the specific difficulties and specific reactions that prompted him or her to enter therapy.  In fact if it goes well the therapist may also feel safely enough held to be able to drop certain defenses and grow toward greater wholeness.

          If Facets of Unity really does displace Axis II of the DSM, and perhaps the entire manual of diagnostic categories, it may also simplify treatment planning in terms of spelling out the goals of treatment.  Near the end of the book Almaas provides a definition of enlightenment or self-realization, which would really be the only treatment goal in his system.  First he points out that it is not simply having an occasional experience of “Essence” that one might think of as “…a bit of grace that God throws you once in awhile, like a blessing that happens to hit you occasionally.”  Rather, he says, self-realization means “to become aware of, to become certain of, and to become continuously in touch with, the fact that Essence is one’s intrinsic nature.”

          In spite of the lofty goal of self-realization, here is a certain matter-of-fact quality to some of the author’s statements that sometimes felt unsettling to me. For instance, the view that the universe is essentially a loving and benevolent unity is described as “ objective reality,” with no attempt to prove or justify this point of view. Similarly, the option to view things in a theistic or a non-theistic way is treated with complete indifference, implying that such labels and concepts are utterly trivial. Although I am inclined to share these views with the author, his certitude about them is striking and unsettling.

          It is similarly striking and unsettling to read the matter-of-fact treatment of the ideas that God is all there is, that we are all part of God, that God’s essential nature is love, and that God’s will is benevolently carrying all of us forward toward a realization of the absolute and objective truth of these ideas.  I miss the awe and reverence.


                                                                                                           John Rhead, Ph.D.