Beyond the Enneagram: A Conversation with Marilyn Vancil

Enneagram diagram

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Marilyn Vancil about her second book, Beyond the Enneagram: An Invitation to Experience a More Centered Life with God. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

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Heath Davis Havlick: Hi, Marylin. Let’s jump in –talk a little bit about how you first encountered the Enneagram and what drew you to it.

Marilyn Vancil: Great question. Well, it was in my late thirties. And my husband, we were part of a parachurch ministry. My husband, Jeff, brought home this cassette tape set by Richard Rohr. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and it has this weird symbol on it, and it was called “Naming Your Illusions.” And I was like, “What the heck is this?”

So, I was not interested at all, but my husband listened to the cassettes on his big boom box out working in the yard. And he said, “Oh, I found myself but I didn’t find you yet, but I’m still listening.” And then when he came to the Nine, he was laughing, like, “Oh my gosh, this is my wife.” He said, “I think you should listen to these.” So, I did and oh, then I was hooked! Because I was so fascinated with recognizing myself and recognizing him. It explains so much about me and how I think, and it was so lovely as a Nine to think I have a personality. I just felt like I was kind of vanilla or anemic somehow because my husband has such a strong personality as a Three. I was just going along with everybody else, so it was nice to know that there was a reason for that.

Then I wanted to study more, and I bought more books. And I just remember weeping as I read my type. It was just so helpful to me to understand myself and then to really value and have compassion and understanding other people. I just kept it as a hobby for a while, but I always had this sense that I wanted more people to know about this. It was a hidden, quiet thing at that time. Not too many people knew about it. And probably my evangelical friends, if they knew the trainings I went to, would think I’d gone over the edge!

HH: Yeah. I have a friend who used to tease me and call it mind control. “How’s the mind control thing going?”

MV: Yeah, it definitely can be off-putting for the Christian. And in fact, it is kind of surprising that it’s gotten traction in the Christian sphere in the last couple of years.

HH: That brings me to my next question. You may know that an author and speaker recently came out with this Instagram video talking about how the Enneagram is demonic. And I wrote a whole blog post in response to it after really seeking the Lord. I was like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s true, God, but if it is, I need to leave it. So, I need you to tell me what’s up.” So, I just wonder what you would say to Christians who might be concerned about the demonic or if it’s New Age-y.

MV: Yeah. I’m hearing that question more and more since that video came out. Well, the first thing I would say, of course, is that I thought it was New Age when I looked at the Enneagram symbol. It is off-putting that way, and the name is weird, so it raises questions. But, you know, I think we gave over this whole piece of spirituality to the New Agers, who are actually on to something. We Christians became very left-brained. Very focused on right doctrine.

HH: That’s a beautiful assessment. I haven’t quite put that piece together that we abdicated the spiritual component of our faith, and the New Age picked it up and ran with it. It seems like the New Age is full of people who want to experience their beliefs. It reminds me of a great book, The Master and His Emissary. Do you know that book? It’s about the whole right-left brain dichotomy. And how society values one side of the brain and then a couple hundred years later we value the other. And of course now, with post-Enlightenment Christianity, that’s what the West tends to be focused on. It’s that whole concept of “Let’s make sure we’re right.” It’s very left-brain.

MV: I’m reading a similar book. It’s called The Other Half of Church.

HH: I just read that!

MV: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? And it’s very down to earth and applicable. But back to your earlier question about the origins of the Enneagram. Quite honestly, I don’t really care about sources. I think that all good things come from God, and there’s just so much good and helpful information in this – but it’s not the be all, end all. It can become a form of idolatry or a way that people think all the answers are right here in this one symbol. And also, I think of Steve Jobs. If you read his book or about how he came up with the Apple – it was all when he was on LSD! And we’re talking on our Apple phones. We’re not saying, “Oh, where did this come from?” I think about the Christmas tree or Easter bunny, too. So, this doesn’t bother me.

HH: I think that’s a great answer, actually. One of the things that I say is that the Enneagram saved my friend from a life of despair. That’s one of the things that I think people don’t understand. Jesus is amazing and the Holy Spirit can transform everything. But your level of emotional health is what determines what you’re able to receive. So, you can be a Christian your whole life and stuff still never gets regenerated. Never gets transformed into the image of Jesus, because you’ve got so many wounds that you can’t get past them to get healing and transformation. The Enneagram helps you see that truth, and especially in a non-judgemental way. You don’t have to feel like a spiritual loser anymore, and you now have another tool to help you move toward healing.

MV: Right. That’s so good. I had someone say to me this weekend, “Oh, the Enneagram saved our family. I realized my daughter was a Four and I’m a blazing Eight and I never understood her. And then when I could see her as she was, I could enter into her world.” There are all kinds of stories like that. So, I just see the Enneagram as good. It’s a helpful tool, so mysterious and enlightening and insightful.

HH: Absolutely. So, you and I both started learning the Enneagram when most people had ever heard of it and people couldn’t figure out what I was talking about. Now that it’s become mainstream, it’s sort of a double-edged sword. What issues have you seen with Enneagram usage now that it’s become mainstream? You touched on it just briefly a minute ago, but please elaborate.

MV: Well, when I first learned the Enneagram, the phrase that caught my attention is “The Enneagram doesn’t put you in a box; it helps you get out of the box you’re in.” I thought that was such a helpful way of putting it. But now with the mainstreaming of it, people want to categorize; people want to limit. They’re creating stereotypes and categories. It’s limiting the exploration of people, stories and their whole life because just think, “Oh, you’re a Two. Now I know you. I know everything about you.” But everything about us is not just determined by our type.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is that people think they’re experts on it just because they read a book. I went through training: I learned how to use the Enneagram appropriately and how to help others use it appropriately. So, it feels like it’s handled too lightly, too casually. The other thing is all the social media memes and, you know, every year there are lists of what a Nine wants for Christmas – it’s always a cozy blanket. That isn’t what I want for Christmas! I’m not that person who sits on the couch all day in a cozy blanket.

HH:  Right. It is fun to look at the memes once in a while and chuckle and yet at the same time, as you said, an Enneagram type in no way encapsulates the totality of what a human being is individually. Just a quick example with me: I’m a self-preservation dominant Seven. Two different people in two different settings have said to me, “Oh, so you’re really good at making money, huh?” And I’m like, “No, I’m terrible at it!” But it’s an example of how people get these ideas and then that’s gospel truth for all iterations of self-preservation Seven.

I think that’s why initially, this information was only allowed to be transmitted orally. I think it’s because it was understood that it was powerful and it could be so powerfully misused that people really wanted to steward it and make sure that people knew what they were talking about and not to use it for spiritual abuse purposes. And so, were you a little shocked at how all of a sudden this title wave came in of Enneagram stuff? It just kind of happened.

MV: It was so bizarre. The book The Road Back to You is what really opened the floodgates. How did that even get published?

HH: On that note, let’s talk about your book, Beyond the Enneagram. I really like your discussion of bounded set thinking. I haven’t heard that term but I certainly identify with having done it and watching other people do it. Could you just expand on that a little bit?

MV: Sure. Bounded set and centered set are mathematical terms, I believe. And then they were used in some work about the church, that churches can be either bounded set or centered set. A bounded set church would be that everybody who comes here has to believe the way we do and dresses like we do. This is our church and this defines our church and, if you belong here, this is what you are and do and be. That’s really defined, it’s static, it’s not so messy. And it can be really comfortable, too.

With the center set, there’s the center of something and all the members of the set are related to the center point and moving towards the center. But there’s this wide range of membership, so to speak, in the set. And it’s messy and it’s not defined and it’s dynamic because people are moving towards the center. As I heard that, I could see that in the use of the Enneagram. It can become so bounded set – like I do this, I don’t do that. And so if you belong in the set of this type, this is you and you’re defined. So, I was thinking about God inviting us to the center. God designed us and is drawing us to the center in life with him and to his love. Then the Enneagram could be very helpful. The intent of it is to live a more free, more centered and more balanced life instead of being stuck in my type. And in my first book, Self to Lose, Self to Find, I introduced the idea of trying to find the spiritual center represented in this work with the Enneagram because we have the head, heart and gut centers of intelligence, but we have a spiritual intelligence, too.

So, I put it in the middle, and the reality is that the closer we are to the middle, the more we are equidistant from all the types and expressions of all the types and all the qualities. If we’re on the outside, stuck in our number, then we’re just stuck there and not very free. That’s the invitation I wanted to offer: movement toward the center, not just being in a bounded set or speaking of other people that way. And of course, I do it, too. It’s part of our human nature. Of course, we want and need to sort things out. We need to know the difference between a dog and a cat. But, that doesn’t work as well with human relationships or the human story, because we’re so complex and beautiful and mysterious.

HH: Yes. Amen to that! And I love that point that as we come closer to our spiritual center, we’re equidistant to all of the numbers. That is beautiful. Now this idea of bounded set versus centered set thinking leads us to your development of the drawing. And I love that double meaning: it is a drawing, but it is the drawing of God towards him and towards our true self. Talk a little bit more about that – the process of creating that diagram and the process of how we move towards that center.

MV: The drawing really came about when I was thinking, as I mentioned earlier, about where the spiritual center is located. So, that’s the middle; it is a triangle with a heart in it.

That triangle representing the triune, relational God but also represents our invitation to be in that relationship. God is drawing us to relationship with him. And as we move towards the center, the more we become aware of that relationship and of our authentic self. I wanted this drawing to indicate the journey, the pilgrimage that we’re all on. And it’s certainly not a straight line.

We sometimes need a visual to help us understand. just like the Enneagram is a great visual that helps us have understanding. So, God is in the center, and around that I have the fruits of the Spirit plus a few other words that I see as the images of God represented by the Enneagram. And then there’s a circle of the affirming love voice. When we’re in our authentic self, we know God, and God speaks to us and we know we’re significant, we are valued, we are loved. Of course, that’s not an exhaustive list.

If you go to the outside of the drawing, it’s all those barriers and obstacles like our perceptions, deceptions, wounds, sins, choices and protective strategies that keep us bound on the outside. And then within that circle is the accusing fear voice that says you’re bad, you’re ugly, you’re inadequate – all these negative messages. So, it’s moving from the outside circle to the inside towards the center. That’s where we’re living in a freer, more centered, more open life with God, and with more awareness of ourselves and awareness of God and God’s working, the life that God created us for.

This my way of illustrating the spiritual journey. It doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all. But I just wanted to put the Enneagram in a bigger story than just on its own. And there is one picture in the book where I show where the Enneagram does fit on. It’s a circle and there’s a place for the Enneagram on this journey that is really helpful and moving us towards our authentic self.

HH: I love your diagrams; I think they’re spot on. As I was learning the Enneagram, I understood from the beginning that it was for spiritual transformation. When I read the first book and I learned my type, I understood the spiritual implications and how intense and important this information was.

I want to talk about this quote from your book, which is so full of beautiful quotes. But this one I love because I’m familiar with it and it just stuck out to me again: “The spirit of truth itself will always set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” We need to talk about that because the Enneagram has become so mainstream, but it’s not just a meme or a parlor game. How do we get people from the parlor game level to the spiritual transformation level of the Enneagram?

MV: Great question. That quote is in Richard Rohr’s first book on the Enneagram. The Enneagram isn’t supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to get to your ego and your underlying self-protective patterns that hold you back. But in order to get there, you have to name. But we don’t like to admit that we’re prideful or greedy or lazy, for instance. And so we have to be willing to go there.

And when we admit these things, they lose their power and then we can move from there to freedom. We need to tell the truth about ourselves and even about our story. It’s hard to look back and say, “I came from a difficult family” or “This really hurt me early on.” This is really the beginning of freedom. But it takes some excavation. And that’s not easy.

HH: Once I found out I was a Seven, I said to God, “ I can’t ever unsee this and I don’t want to be a liar anymore. So help me do this and keep at it and not just see this as the latest shiny object and then move to the next thing.” Because that’s what Sevens do.

MV: As I said, from my own journey, at first, I was just so relieved. It was like, “Oh, this explains me.” But then it started to get miserable. My husband was horrified from the beginning when he saw the deceit and the image consciousness of Type Three. It’s an interesting journey. You’re horrified and then you realize it’s not your fault. And also, we have these treasures that God has put in us that we can bless the world with as we become more of our true selves. So, don’t try to whitewash the hard stuff, because it’s hard and it will always be hard. But there is also a beauty in our personality types.

HH: Yeah, which God redeems and pulls out of us. So, the thing that’s so frustrating is you can’t make people be healthy, you can’t make them want health for themselves.

MV: But you know, you and I do what we can, and all of us who are in this work do what we can to just encourage people bit by bit and one by one and hope that they will desire health for themselves.

HH: This next question follows from the last. What do you think is the best way to learn the Enneagram and incorporated into your life?

MV: I think the best way to learn it is not to start with the test. I really do love David Daniels’ Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition where you really explore, do the self-reflection, you continue to learn and grow. I love their type panels – just hearing other people’s stories. Reading books like ours helps, too – describing it in ways that are both positive and not so positive.

And then you start paying attention to your own life. It takes paying attention instead of being on autopilot. Curiosity is a big piece. For instance, “Why did that conversation with that person really bother me? Oh, I felt dismissed.” Or threatened or whatever else. Then you can recognize your personality patterns.  

HH: I would say, too, to get in a group if you can. I have an EnneaGroup that’s been meeting for years. We meet once a month and it’s so helpful to have a group of people to do this kind of work with. It’s just like having a church community. You know, you can’t really do Christianity solo And I don’t think that this work is either. You realize you need some people to come alongside you and walk that same path with you and understand the lingo and the difficulty of the journey and also to celebrate the wins as well.

HH: What’s next for you?

MV: I don’t know yet. I do say that I’m not writing another book.

HH: Oh, really?

MV: I think I poured it all into this one. Now, if God comes back to me, like he did with this one…But my next project is to create a study guide for Beyond the Enneagram. I did a group all summer, once a week. I had a group of about 16 people from all over the country who offered to read my book, and we went chapter by chapter, and they gave me potential questions and said what stood out to them. It’ll just be available on my website for sale, not a published book.

I offer spiritual direction, so I will keep doing that. I am just waiting and still recovering. I think I call it post-publishing stress syndrome. So, I’m enjoying a little bit of a break. God has a way of showing us the next thing to do.

HH: Indeed he does! Well, thank you so much, Marilyn, for some of your time. It’s been delightful to speak with you.



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