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The Core Qualities and Accelerators: Finding the “Heart” of the Enneagram

This post is an excerpt from “The Notes and the Melody: An Introduction to the Awareness to Action Approach to the Enneagram,” by Mario Sikora. The book can be obtained here

The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms… 

George Santayana

There is a lack of romance, perhaps, in all this talk of genes and biology and neural rewiring in the previous chapters of this book. Where is the “heart,” one might ask, the aspiration to something more majestic contained in this view of the psyche? court-oak-2314686_1280

Pragmatic though this model of the Enneagram is, the spirit does bloom and it is found in the “Core Qualities.” This chapter addresses the Core Qualities—aspects of human nature that make up the best of what we are and point to the potential of what we can be. It also addresses the “Accelerators”—practices that aid in the development of the qualities. Though I’ve referred to them as “Basic Qualities” in past articles and trainings, the word “basic” never felt quite right—it seems a bit too flat and lacking precision. “Core” Qualities seems to work better, pointing to something at the heart of our experience; something essential.

(Note: The Core Qualities are derived from the concept of the “idealized aspects” that Sandra Maitri writes about in her book, “The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram.” For philosophical reasons beyond the scope of this chapter but hinted at in the Appendix, I take a slightly different approach to the concept.)  

Looking back over the previous chapters we see that the notes we use to compose our individual melodies are falling into place: The instinctual biases are non-conscious drives that urge us to satisfy our needs, shape our values, and increase the probability of our survival and the replication of our genes. The strategies are the habitual themes of how we go about satisfying those needs and interacting with the world; in a sense, they are about the ways that we do. The Awareness to Action Process is a method for how we can grow to navigate our world in more adaptive ways. The core qualities, as you will see, are ways of being, states that we experience and that comprise our deeper sense of self.

These qualities are not all-inclusive—there are numerous aspects of the human condition, both positive and negative, that could be discussed but are not fitted to the nine points of the Enneagram. Nor can the Core Qualities (or any element of the Enneagram) be traced to any single genetic or neural source, and any discussion of an evolutionarily adaptive explanation for them would be mere speculation. Thus, I can’t explain the “why” of this list of qualities, but it is a list that maps well to the Enneagram and has proven to be useful for growth.

Since May of 2003 I’ve had the indescribable joy of watching my four boys, Adrian, Alec, Alexei, and Andrei, enter the world. Each one was unique at the outset and remain unique today. But upon arrival, each one also possessed qualities shared by each one of us—qualities that, though immature in form, are the root of something that will be much greater with the proper nurturing. The best way to understand the Core Qualities is to start with what they look like in very young children and contrast that with what it will look like when more fully formed.

When a child comes into the world, one’s response to them is intuitive and emotional rather than logical. From a coldly rational perspective a baby is a debit on the balance sheet rather than an asset. They disrupt your life, ruin your sleep, cost you money in ways you couldn’t have imagined, and they mess up your favorite shirts. The older they get, the more they cost and the grander the scale of trouble they can cause. It is a miracle that anyone has children.

And yet….

When the nurse places them on the table to clean them and weigh them and you have finished counting their fingers and toes—ensuring that there are ten of each—and you see that there are no noticeable physical problems that you have to worry about, you realize that you cherish these little nine-pound “debits” more than life itself. (Yes, I said nine pounds; we breed them big in the Sikora household.) After you take them home you observe them and the way that others respond to them and the nine Core Qualities start to become clear.

The first quality you are struck with in the presence of an infant is basic, fundamental goodness. When you look at them you do not see evil, sin, or moral short-coming; you see something pure, a moral cleanness, a radiance. The child also possesses a quality of objectivity—the absence of the preconceptions, judgments, and prejudices that the rest of us carry around. You notice the merging, or compassion, between mother and child, the child’s ability to key into the mother’s emotions and read the subtle signals of mood and response.

When you go out into the world with your child you see the way complete strangers react to his presence—stopping to marvel, smiling and opening doors, gathering to “ooh” and “ahh”—and you realize the value that people see in infants regardless of their lack of contribution to the common good. Despite the compulsive need we have to figure out what family members a newborn child looks like, each child is different, with their own individual fingerprints, footprints, DNA, and personality. The lack of a fully-formed prefrontal cortex means that infants respond to their environment instinctively and intuitively, relying on their non-conscious processing rather than logic to guide them in problem resolution.

The young child has a persistent confidence in its ability to get what it wants and a relentless confidence to get the things that will satisfy his survival needs. At about three months you smile at the baby and he smiles back; and sometimes he smiles for no discernable reason beyond an inherent feeling of joy and well-being. Soon that smile turns into a chortle and then a laugh and suddenly there is more light in the world. A few months later, the child’s energy and vitality become evident. When they are engaged there is perpetual movement marked by incessant exploring, experimenting, and testing of limits. (For about a month after my second son started walking it often required two adults to change his diaper because he simply refused to be still. By the time he was two years old, if he was not otherwise engaged he would simply stand in the middle of the living room and spin dervish-like to his own inner music.)

The paragraphs above provide us with a list of nine core qualities that map to the points of the Enneagram:  Benevolence (Point 9), Objectivity (1), Compassion (2), Value (3), Individuality (4),   Intuition (5), Confidence (6), Joy (7), and Vitality (8). These qualities are not fully formed in the infant (they, like the child, are in their infancy), and there is nothing mystical about them. They are not analogous to Platonic Forms or Ideals (see Appendix) and they will not appear in full glory if we “just stop doing our personality.” They need to be nurtured so they can mature and unfold over time.

A useful metaphor for understanding this evolving and developmental nature of the core qualities is the acorn and the oak tree. The maturation of an oak tree depends on a number of factors. The genetic code needs to be intact, with the oak tree having passed on a complete set of instructions to its offspring. Likewise, external factors have to be just right—the acorn must find its way to fertile soil and then be blessed with adequate water and sunlight. Working together, these factors affect the growth of an acorn, determining whether it takes root at all, whether it grows tall and strong, or whether its growth is stunted. The fundamental components of the oak tree are contained in the acorn and under the right conditions the acorn will eventually grow into an oak tree, but the acorn is not an oak tree when it falls from the tree to the ground.

The Core Qualities work the same way. Benevolence, for example, is an inherent aspect of the human condition and it is found in every child but it looks very different in an infant than it does in a 15-year old, and it looks different yet again in a mature 50-year old. These qualities cannot be rushed into maturity; they need seasoning and experience to come to full fruition. You can no more force their development than you can get an oak tree to grow by pulling on its branches. You can only create favorable conditions for and minimize impediments to their growth.

Unfortunately, in the same way that not every acorn becomes an oak tree, most of us are become out of touch with our Core Qualities and they remain stunted if we don’t know how to nurture their growth.

Before describing the Core Qualities further, let’s look at how their development becomes impeded in the first place.

At first, the parent is charmed by these qualities in the child. They are, after all, the heart of the human condition, the glue that binds us together. Soon, however, something starts to change. As the parent (and others in the holding environment) starts to focus on socializing the child, the child picks up signals and messages that cause him to start losing confidence in these fundamental ways of being.

The child starts to hear “Be a good boy for Mommy today,” “Stop that; that’s bad!” and a host of other messages delivered unintentionally that causes him to lose confidence in his Benevolence or his inherent “goodness.” (After all, I must not be inherently good if I have to be told to be good.)

The child starts to adopt the biases and prejudices of the parents and adding her own along the way, stunting Objectivity.

Disappointment in the parent’s ability to satisfy every need causes resentment in the child, which combined with a bombardment of messages from society advocating self-interest and hostility, lead to a turning inward that stunts the maturation of Compassion.

Soon, the child has to start demonstrating her Value rather than having it assumed. She has to perform to gain the acceptance of others—cleaning her room, doing her homework, getting good grades, and so on. The feeling of inherent worth becomes a distant memory.

The child receives constant messages labeling who and what he is, filtered through the lenses of other people, and is constantly reminded of his similarities to his parents. He struggles to individuate, searching for identity and struggling to remember his Individuality.

The child is nearly overwhelmed by her feelings of incompetence—constantly reminded that she doesn’t know anything about life. The things that adults seem to know, the secrets to navigating life that seem to come so naturally others, are mysteries to her. As a result she no longer trusts her Intuition or non-conscious “knowing” and starts to let it atrophy.

The child learns that danger lurks everywhere. “Don’t touch that stove!” “Stay out of the street!” “Don’t trust strangers!” These messages, combined with the perceived incompetence mentioned above, lead to an impediment to the maturation of his confidence. The child feels he simply may not have the knowledge and skills necessary to survive—let alone thrive—on his own.

“Stop being silly.” “Quit fooling around.” “It’s not time for playing.” “What are you smiling about?” “You are not being productive.” These, and a thousand phrases like them, serve as arrows into the heart of joy; and the child learns to repress her sense of inner happiness.

“Calm down and sit still.” “Put that down and get back in the shopping cart.” “Sit up straight and pay attention to the teacher.” Messages, all, that too much Vitality is disruptive and unacceptable.

As parents, authority figures, members of society as a whole, we act in many ways that impede the development of the core qualities in our children. When I teach this material to an audience I joke that as a parent I am fulfilling my social responsibility by stepping on the core qualities of my children, but I try to step lightly. It is unfair, and certainly unrealistic, to blame parents, authority figures, and society as a whole for impeding the development of the core qualities in our children. We each carry our own inadequacies, ignorance, and wounds into our relationships with our children. Socialization needs to occur or our children will grow into mal-functioning adults and chaos will reign in our world (even more than it seems to now).

And children are flat-out exhausting; it is difficult for any parent to match their energy. Sometimes we just need them to sit down, be quiet, and play video games for a while.

We can, however, do our best to recognize these budding core qualities and step lightly, being prepared to remedy the unintended consequences of socialization by understanding how to nurture the qualities.

 

We each have all nine of the Core Qualities and we all suffer from their stunting. However, each personality type seems to have a heightened relationship to the Core Quality located at the Enneagram point that corresponds to their type. A person of a given type both demonstrates the quality as a marked trait of their personality and is especially sensitive to the loss of confidence in that quality. In addition, the preferred strategy sometimes serves as a substitute for the corresponding Core Quality. Thus, a Seven seems to be a bit more joyful than most, but also experiences an inner sense of the loss of, lack of trust in, or disconnection from the core quality of Joy. Sometimes the Seven’s preferred strategy of “Striving to feel Excited” serves as an unconscious attempt to recapture the joy or satisfaction that feels lost. But this substitution is ultimately disappointing—akin to trying to sooth an itch on the left shoulder by scratching the right. In the Seven’s case, Joy is a way of being that comes from inside while the “Striving to feel Excited” is way of doing that generally comes from external stimulation or manufactured mental chatter. The two have a similar feel, and they might seem to be the same when we are functioning on autopilot and trapped in our story; but they are different aspects of the human experience.

When I first started teaching the Core Qualities to my coaching clients (the concept is a bit too nuanced for most corporate group audiences), I taught them that step one in growth was to apply the Awareness to Action Process to their strategies and step two was to watch for their natural tendency to express the Core Qualities. When they saw the quality, they should nurture it and give it room to breathe so it could develop and mature, rather than ignoring or repressing it as we have all been taught to do.

This willingness to allow the Core Quality to express itself rather than stomping on it is the first and most important step in nurturing them, Eventually, however, I realized that another step was needed, that there were specific practices assisted in the development and maturation of the qualities. Thus, was born “the Accelerators.”

As we said, you can’t make an oak tree grow by pulling on it, and you can’t force the maturation of the core qualities. The accelerators, however, are actions we can take that will till and nourish the soil in which the qualities grow.

The ultimate goal of working with the Awareness to Action EnneagramTM is to nurture the development of the Core Qualities. While moving from maladaptive to adaptive application of the strategies affects our skillfulness in interacting with the world, nurturing the Core Qualities works at a deeper level, enhancing our inner experience of ourselves and the world.

The way to cultivate the maturation of the Core Qualities is to work with the strategies (and instinctual biases) via the Awareness to Action process and practice the Accelerators. They are the nourishment that helps the mighty oak tree grow.

The nine Accelerators are:

  • Point One: Acceptance—Letting go of the anger or frustration caused by expecting the world to be other than it is.
  • Point Two: Empathy—Discovering what the other person is truly feeling rather than assuming you know or not caring.
  • Point Three: Purpose—Establishing a unifying whythat prioritizes your activities.
  • Point Four: Individuation—Letting go of identifications with and comparisons to other people or imposed ideals.
  • Point Five: Conscious practiceActing with intentionality and attention to internalize mental, emotional, or behavioral skills.
  • Point Six: Evidence—Establishing and remembering one’s track record of success and competence.
  • Point Seven: Enjoyment—Bringing attention to and appreciating activities in the moment rather than thinking about what is next.
  • Point Eight: Self-discipline—Establishing boundaries, structures, and guidelines to focus one’s energy.
  • Point Nine: Generativity—Investing time and energy into the development of the “next generation.”

 

It is important to make something very clear before examining the Core Qualities and Accelerators further: As with the strategies and the instinctual biases discussed in earlier chapters, the Core Qualities are not exclusive to the personality type that corresponds to a given Enneagram point. We all have the capacity use all nine strategies, and we all tap into each of those capacities at different times and to different degrees. And because our behavioral traits are based on habitual use of the strategies, we all display some traits of all of the types.

However, what makes someone, say, an Ennea-type Four is that the strategy at Point Four, striving to feel unique, is their (non-consciously) preferred strategy; it is the one they habitually depend upon more than the others to navigate their lives and it most visibly affects the traits one sees in Fours. We all also have access to, and are driven by, all three instinctual domains, but one is dominant and influences our behaviors and values more than the other two. Likewise, we all have all nine Core Qualities and the issues that relate to their stunting, but one seems to be more of an issue; we demonstrate our particular (and often immature) version of the Core Quality more often and feel its lack of development more acutely than we do the other eight.

Below, we will look at the interplay of the Core Quality and Accelerator for Ennea-type One.

 

“First there is a mountain then there is no mountain, then there is.”

Donovan

The Zen statement about the mountain that Donovan paraphrases in his lyric points to a pattern of the mind: When we first glance at a mountain off in the distance, it barely registers with us. Yes, there is a mountain, but it carries no significance to us. When we begin to pay attention to the mountain, we start to wrap concepts around it—we think of our love of skiing and hiking, our fear of falling off the mountain, the marvel of plate tectonics—and the mountain disappears from our awareness. When we let go of the concepts, we experience the mountain again, but our experience is somehow richer. Our experience with the Core Quality found at Point One, Objectivity, works in a similar way. (Merriam-Webster defines “objectivity” as “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations,” a definition that is helpful here.)

We enter the world, while not blank slates, largely free from the prejudices and preconceptions that come to mark us later in life. The young child sees things with as if for the first time because they often are seeing things for the first time. But this objectivity starts to fade quickly. Interpretations of past events stick to us like barnacles and we project these interpretations onto reasonably similar experiences that occur later. As discussed earlier, it is human nature to create stories, to wrap concepts around our experiences and fit them into a larger context. At the same time, we recognize the need to maintain objectivity—not to rush to judgment, to look for supporting facts, to keep an open mind. Thus, we have an inner conflict—a brain structured to both rush to judgment and to recognize the need to be nonjudgmental. (A similar internal conflict is found at the Core Quality at each Enneagram point.)

Ones struggle with this dilemma regarding objectivity more acutely than the rest of us: they judge against subjective and internalized ideals while touting their unemotional objectivity. They struggle to separate from their judgments long enough to see if they are being open-minded and seeing a situation based on its own merits rather than their expectations of the situation and their personal sense of correct and incorrect. Like each of us, but only more so, Ones believe that their prejudices, preconceptions, and opinions are based on objective data even when they are not. They maintain a demeanor of logic and rationality while struggling to rein in subjective judgments.

Ones grow when they take time to nurture true Objectivity, the state of resting in a place of non-judgment and calmly seeing events in a larger context rather than squeezing them into the confines of their rigidly defined story.

Ones can create an environment that nurtures this quality by practicing the Accelerator of Acceptance (“to endure without protest or reaction; to regard as normal, proper, or inevitable”). Ones tend to form opinions quickly, hold them tight, and reject that which does not meet their standards or expectations. Ones benefit from embracing—rather than fighting or resenting—the fact that the world is as it is rather than as they think it should be.

A useful practice to break out of this trap is for Ones to look at the characteristics or behaviors they reject or judge in others (or themselves) and “endure them without protest” at first and grow to “regard them as normal.”  It is important to note that Acceptance is not the same as resignation. Practicing this Accelerator is not to fatalistically embrace dysfunction or not work to make things better; it is letting go of the anger we feel when things are “wrong” and working to make them better in an unemotional and clear-headed way.

I generally recommend to Ones that they focus on one behavior of one person as a starting point for practicing Acceptance. I encourage them to calibrate their expectations about the person in question and create a broader context for the “offending” behavior so it becomes less troublesome.

That is, ask questions such as: Is this person capable of change? Is the behavior really so offensive? Is it possible that I am overreacting? Is this behavior something I can live with? Then, reframe the situation so it can be palatable—“This really isn’t so bad,” “Her good qualities far outweigh the bad,” “Maybe I’m being too demanding,” etc.

Here is an example of one recent intervention. (Although it was a business client that I was coaching, it seemed most effective to start her off with a personal matter.)

Mary is a One who was often frustrated with her husband, Tom’s, inability to return from a trip to the market with all the items she asked him to purchase. She tried everything—writing detailed lists, calling him on his cell phone while he was at the market to check on his progress, getting angry with him; she even tried rationally discussing the issue to see if there was something she was doing that contributed to this behavior that she found so infuriating. Nothing seemed to work. This issue, while seeming harmless enough, came to epitomize what Mary viewed as Tom’s callous inattention to the way things are supposed to be done.

When Mary discussed the situation with me, I did not debate with her about whether her reaction Tom’s behavior was right or wrong. Instead, I asked if she felt that her efforts were having the desired effect of making Tom remember everything at the market and be more attentive to detail in general.

“No,” she said. “But he should be able to bring home everything I ask for.”

“That may be the case,” I said, sheepishly aware that my wife has the same complaint about me. “But what I asked was: Are your current tactics creating the desired changes in Tom?”

“No, they are not,” Mary said.

As we continued to discuss the situation, Mary came to realize that this one behavior of Tom’s was not a deal-breaker; that while irritating, it didn’t happen every time he went to the store and that even when it did happen the only real consequence was the inconvenience of Tom having to go back to the store to purchase what he forgot. Mary agreed to accept that Tom, like many people, is sometimes absent-minded and that it wasn’t worth the energy to change this about him even if she had the ability to do so. With this Acceptance came the agreement that she would not judge Tom negatively on this specific behavior, though she was free to still criticize as much as she wanted to about all of Tom’s other irritating behaviors. (Sorry, Tom; we’re working with baby steps here. Eventually Mary’s Acceptance will carry over into other areas.)

The aim of this sort of Acceptance is learning to let go of useless and unproductive judgments. By focusing on what small behavior to accept in oneself or another, the One (and all the rest of us) develops the habit of objectively seeing judgments rise up and letting go of them. This letting go of judgment helps us see events and actions clearly and on their own terms rather than on terms that we set for them. As we continue to consciously practice Acceptance, the quality of Objectivity, no longer finding itself repressed or rejected, will blossom.

And then the mountain is.