Maybe the most important thing that we get from a qualified and experienced Enneagram teacher is a lineage. When we become a part of a lineage, we become part of an unfolding flow that is bigger than us alone. It sometimes feels like stepping into a river. The rushing waters of the generations that have gone before you are now pushing you forward. Suddenly our struggles aren’t just ours, isolating us from the rest of the world; they are the same struggles that others have faced before us. We aren’t easily swayed by the news of the day because what we know and experience is grounded in tradition. We are able to welcome new information and other points of view with open minds because we’ve seen and experienced how important it is for our understanding to develop and grow from generation to generation.
When my now wife and I had been together a little over a year, our relationship hit the rocks in a big way. I was in the middle of a difficult career transition and a major depressive episode, and she was still knee-deep in the emotional processing of her divorce. When she asked that I move out, I was heartbroken and infuriated by a request that I felt was asking too much. Luckily for me and our relationship, my spiritual director at the time had been through similar trials in his marriage and was able to not only give me the sage advice I needed but also let me know that what I was feeling was normal. He reminded me what I agreed to when I signed up for “the spiritual life.” He reminded me of my spiritual lineage. He was able to show me that what my wife and I were going through was something many relationships face at some point or another and how my spiritual tradition taught that shifting my attitude could create new openings for growth and connection for both me and my wife. Had I not had his influence in my life, and thus the influence of everyone who had gone before us both in our spiritual lineage, I would have made the mistake of throwing away the best thing that has ever happened to me. Being in that lineage gave me the context I needed to make sense of a very trying situation in my life.
Being a yoga therapist, and consequently a movement professional, I see all sorts of new movement and exercise crazes pop up almost every day. From Bikram to CrossFit, from Pilates to MovNat, each of these movement modalities promises to revolutionize your body and your life. When I first started teaching yoga and being interested in working with the body, I felt myself constantly jumping from one modality to the other, which was extremely disorienting because their philosophies often contradict each other. When I started working with my teacher and investing my time and energy into yoga therapy and the viniyoga tradition, I realized that what I was missing was not the best new way to move a body but a deeper understanding of why I work with the body the way that I do. As I continued to work with my teacher and grew to understand more of the philosophy behind viniyoga, not only did I become a more effective and confident yoga therapist; I was less bothered by the revolving door of movement fads in my Instagram feed. My lineage helps me to feel more grounded in the work I do both personally and professionally.
A common experience I hear from people who are just dipping their toes into the Enneagram waters is that there seems to be so much conflicting information. Depending on which book you read or which accounts you follow on social media, you could end up with completely different information about the system and how to use it. When you don’t have your own sense of lineage, it can feel nearly impossible to make sense of all the different ways people have interpreted this system. When you find a teacher and style that works for you and you commit yourself to it, though, the way is clearer. When I first encountered the Enneagram, I read Richard Rohr and Riso and Hudson, I took classes using Suzanne Stabile’s curriculum, and I followed as many Instagram accounts and YouTube channels as I could. I learned a lot but still had trouble navigating all the differing approaches. When I became a part of the Enneagram community here in Austin, which is based in the Narrative Tradition, something clicked for me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I knew that this was the way I wanted to both learn and teach the Enneagram. Not only did the path forward in my career become remarkably clear, but suddenly all the different approaches to the system seemed to make more sense. Once I had grounded myself in my own lineage and understood more clearly where I was coming from, I could also see more clearly where everyone else was coming from. Now, this isn’t to say that when you find your lineage, you stop listening to everyone else—quite the contrary! Once you have grounded yourself in your lineage, you are able to listen more openly to what others have to say without fear of being constantly swayed by shifting thoughts and ideas. A lineage is never an excuse to insulate yourself from others but an invitation to listen more deeply.
When you are unaware of your lineage, it’s easy to assume that your personal experiences are universal. Just like when you discovered the certain ways you see and respond to the world through your Enneagram type, you also discover that others see and respond to it in eight different ways. This not only makes more sense of the ways you see and respond to the world but also brings a deeper understanding to how other people operate in the world. In essence, becoming clear about your lineage is about adding context to what you know. So many times in the Enneagram world, and in life in general, our disagreements and conflicts could be short-circuited by simply having a better understanding of where both parties are coming from. When I’m unsure of where I’m coming from, or where others are coming from, it’s easy to assume that I’m right and other Enneagram teachers are wrong. As I come to a deeper understanding of my lineage and the lineages of others, I can see that it’s not that one of us is right and the other one is wrong but that we’re simply approaching the issue from very different vantage points and trying to get very different things from it. This not only helps me clarify why I believe what I believe but also brings me to a deeper appreciation of those who disagree with me.
It’s important here to note that we’re all a part of many lineages, most of which we didn’t choose. As we become more curious about the lineages we belong to, consciously or unconsciously, we find that some lineages are passed down by blood, like high blood pressure or the color of our skin. These lineages are biological and thus cannot be changed but in some cases can be managed and shifted. Clearly, I can’t change the fact that I’m white, but I can use my inherent privilege to center more marginalized experiences. I can’t help the fact that I have a family history of high cholesterol, but I can shift my diet and lifestyle to keep it from having negative effects on my health. Other lineages we find ourselves in are cultural in nature and are often passed down through family of origin, like diet or religion, and are therefore much more malleable, and we can even choose to set them down altogether (if we are aware of the depth to which they affect us, that is). Discerning between these two types of lineages can be difficult, but with some self-observation and scathing self-honesty, we can understand more of where our lineages come from and how to work with and shift them when our trajectory has us heading in a direction that is less than desirable.
I started practicing and teaching yoga at a time when what we here in the United States call “yoga” was at the height of its popularity. It had even reached the small town in Arkansas I found myself in, so clearly it was having a moment. I liked the way my body and mind felt after this specific kind of movement, and I was learning how to enjoy meditation, but most of the yogic philosophy didn’t make its way into my awareness for several years. As I learned more about the history of the field I was making my career in, an interesting conversation was brewing with my peers and colleagues around the cultural appropriation of yoga. I was shocked to hear about the harm that was being done to the Indian folks who developed and sustained the traditions I was benefiting from and the ways the “yoga” I was learning had been whitewashed to be more palatable for Westerners. I was heartbroken to discover that my participation in this life-giving practice was actually perpetuating a lot of harm. For a time, I considered just dropping the whole thing. “Maybe this just isn’t for me,” I thought. But thanks to some wonderful teachers, I learned that the problem wasn’t just that I was a white person practicing a tradition that was developed by people who didn’t look like me, but that I was unaware of how my cultural background was affecting how I engaged with what I was learning.
From there, I spent countless hours working to increase my awareness of how my cultural conditioning was affecting how I saw the world and seeking to learn the yogic traditions from as close to the source as I had access to. This deeply changed how I practiced and taught yoga, and I’m a better teacher and practitioner for it. By understanding that many of the concepts of yogic philosophy that directly influence the practices I was engaged in are antithetical to the way I had been trained to see things by my culture, I was able to more consciously work to build new ways of thinking about these concepts. To use the biblical analogy (calling on my own inherited religious lineage), I had to put the new wine in new wineskins. But before I could even do that, I had to realize I had an old wineskin to begin with.
When we are establishing ourselves in a new lineage, we have to engage in a certain amount of internal, and often unconscious, translating. In many ways, it can feel like learning a new language. Can you imagine attempting to learn a new language without knowing what language you were speaking to begin with? It almost hurts my brain to think about, but that’s essentially what we’re doing when we move into a new lineage—whether it’s something like starting a yoga practice or even joining a new spiritual community—without being aware of our current lineage and how it’s shaped the way we think, feel, and move through the world.
Often the Enneagram is described as a map, and to be honest, I find this metaphor extremely helpful. It can be used as a map of human personality and personal and spiritual growth, but just like any map, if we want to get anywhere, we’ll also need some directions. The part most people take for granted is that for that map and those directions to be of any help at all, you’ll need to know where you’re starting from. Without this critical element, you’ll just end up wandering in circles and most certainly not getting where you want to go. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of the Enneagram; it offers us the understanding that, from a personality perspective, we’re starting from nine different places. We all have the same map, but because we’re starting in different places, we’re going to need different directions. When we take this element of the Enneagram and apply it to our greater cultural and biological backgrounds, it’s easy to understand why having a better grasp of where we’re starting from is so crucial.
It’s easy to think of our learning and growth as a personal and individual experience. We make our way through grade school and then maybe college or trade school, and we move up the ladder with little thought given to how we’re obtaining all this information. The truth is that all learning, development, and growth are more like a stream, and we’re simply being carried along by the flow. Our teachers teach us, as their teachers taught them, and so on back to the beginning of time. We’re always a part of this flow whether we know it or not, and as you know, water always takes the path of least resistance. If we simply allow ourselves to be carried along without being aware of where we’ve come from or where we’re going, we could very easily end up somewhere we don’t like. By becoming more conscious of who has been teaching and setting examples for us and more intentional about who we choose as teachers, we can drastically change our relationship to what we’re learning and create more opportunities for real, tangible, and sustainable growth. We can’t always change how the river is running, but if we get out our oars and row, we can choose which side of the river we end up on.
This article is an excerpt from The Conscious Enneagram, chapter 4: Learning from the Flow.