“Ha ha ha, bless your soul / You really think you’re in control?”
—Gnarls Barkley

“In the spark of the soul is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams and something like a burning fire which burns incessantly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit of God.”
—Meister Eckhart

The Levels of Development are arguably the most valuable contribution to the Enneagram work that Don Riso made. This is not to discount his precise and eloquent descriptions of the types, correlations with other psychological systems nor his work in emphasizing the spiritual dimensions of the Enneagram, which are all significant elements in how we understand the system today. But the Levels of Development set his work apart from that of other teachers: first for their ability to describe the wide variance in each type; second for serving as a uniquely articulate tool for measuring progress on the Enneagram path, and third for taking a previously horizontal model of personality and combining it with the vertical model of the Levels, resulting in a sophisticated, three-dimensional model capable of encompassing the broad range of human expression.

However, they are usually presented in a downward-bound fashion with the implicit message that dropping down the Levels is a mistake brought about by a series of cognitive errors. While it gives us a powerful and insightful birds-eye view of exactly how each type makes its characteristic logical but misguided conclusions that lead them to bring about their own Basic Fear, perhaps dropping down the Levels is something we’re supposed to do.

In the story of Adam and Eve, they were told not to eat the forbidden fruit and we’re left to wonder why on earth God put the tree there in the first place. Perhaps they were supposed to eat the fruit and that is precisely why God told them not to, knowing how reverse psychology is one of the most effective ways to get the job done. By eating the fruit, humanity became self-aware as God intended so that we could mature spiritually through the labor of drawing close again to the God who never left us. So, too, maybe we’re meant to succumb to our egoic fallacies so that we can learn to pull ourselves back from the outer darkness we ourselves created.

We enter life in an Eden-like infant state of consciousness, undifferentiated from the external world we find ourselves in. Life—through the symbolic Fall of developing an ego and learning to survive in a world primarily populated by other egos of average health—is never easy nor without conflict, so we eventually learn to defend ourselves with our type’s pattern of coping mechanisms and generally come into adulthood living in a contracted, defended manner that is shut down from the vastness of life and Divine love. This leaves us with a very narrow view of reality because in this state, we are unable to take in, much less cope with the vastness of it.

If we’re lucky enough to have the will and the means to do the tough work—both psychological and spiritual—of unraveling that hard ball of contraction, we emerge spiritually mature, profoundly present, and capable of bringing a light into the world that is megawatts brighter and with more potential to transform the lives of others than would be possible otherwise. Because our being has been purified by the fire of awakening and surrender, the Essential qualities of unconditional love, joy, wisdom, etc. have more space to manifest within us and express themselves through us without interference from Ego.

Thus, it is important for us to go through this. We cannot do this without a body, without an ego, and without a life to confront us with the complications and problems needed to force us into the choices for growth we need to make over and over again. This is a process of refinement that is solely responsible for smoothing off the rough edges of our yet immature souls. Our problems seemingly tear our lives apart but in the end turn out to be the very process that helps us break open. In P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, Gurdjieff even went so far as to say that if there were nothing to provide this friction, it would have to be artificially created. Our “problems” are the very fire upon which we can surrender our layers of Ego… if we can bring ourselves to do so.

Based on my own experience and my best effort to generalize it, here are the steps up the Levels. I will focus on Levels 7 through 3 because this is where my experience lies. Also, it has been my experience that we have more control over our movement in the average range (Levels 4-6) than in either the healthy (Levels 1-3) or unhealthy (Levels 7-9). Moving up the Levels in the unhealthy range requires significant outside influence compared with the primarily internal influence required in the average range. In the healthy range, it seems to be more about Grace and a willingness to surrender control than anything else. But no matter where we are, I would say that a good part of this upward movement is necessarily mysterious. This work requires some openness to Divine intervention, Grace, or at least some faith in the ultimate goodness of life because without that, we are left to our own devices. Just like we can’t force, cajole, shame or effort our way into health, we need some spark of Essence to get things moving upward. And for that spark to even grab a foothold in our consciousness, we must trust it more than we do our habitual patterns.

Let Go and Let God

From the Level of Violation (7) to the Level of Overcompensation (6)

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
—Psalm 51:10-12

Here, we have to cross a shock point and this requires a dramatic realization of our own inadequacy to improve our circumstances using the methods from the past. Likely brought to this point through intense suffering, we feel we’ve been forced into a corner. Perhaps getting to the point of destroying our relationships with anyone who is trying to help us, or even attempting to end our very lives just to end the pain, we give up on the Basic Fear to Basic Desire pattern. In a way, we throw our hands up in the air, crying out to God for the help we need to turn things around. We realize to some small degree the futility of our previous efforts and we feel we have nothing left to go on. This brings about the amount of surrender needed to clear out some of the damage we’ve allowed our souls and psyches to collect. We release thinking of life and the world as being adversarially opposed to us, and the need to defend ourselves against what we see as life-or-death situations. We release relating to others and life as if they were out to harm us, and this creates a minuscule opening in the egoic armor for just enough light to get in. As small as that chink in the armor is, this shift takes a profound amount of effort and psychic energy in the act of surrender because at this Level, we’re profoundly disturbed and within range of losing all touch with reality and completely destroying everything we care about. Therefore, this realization can be monumentally difficult given the patterned thinking and behavior we’ve developed so far, and will likely require external help such as therapy, a twelve-step program or some other method of intervention to put the brakes on our self-destructive patterns.


From the Level of Overcompensation (6) to the Level of Interpersonal Control (5)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
—Anaïs Nin

In comparison to crossing the previous shock point, this shift requires a less dramatic realization, and less energy to make. However, while Level 6 is significantly less traumatic than Level 7, there’s still quite a lot of suffering here and that is likely the only thing motivating us to do the work. We come to the realization that it just might be that a good amount of our problems are self-created, we’re not just victims of life and Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We begin to understand that in order to correct the trend that we’ve established with ego-inflation and self-centeredness, we will need to put forth some amount of effort and take a look at how we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in our relationships, and life in general. We get our first inkling of how obnoxious our behavior has been, and while this realization is accompanied by some amount of repentance and compunction, we’re still in a pattern of ego-inflation. We’ve allowed in a little bit of light to show us how we’ve landed ourselves in this situation, but we’re still caught to a degree in the pattern of blaming others and circumstances for our problems.

The Conversion of the Heart

From the Level of Interpersonal Control (5) to the Level of Imbalance (4)

“Real healing only happens when we realize our interconnectedness to each other.”
—Pema Chödrön

Here, we begin to realize how our behavior has harmed ourselves and those we love and most want to keep in our lives, and how it has contributed to bringing about our Secondary Fears, and perhaps even our Basic Fear depending on how far down we dropped in past experience. This is perhaps the first time we allow ourselves to be deeply touched by the effects of our egoic behavior and are granted a perspective that shows us how misguided our efforts to control ourselves and others have been. We see now that rather than bringing our desires closer, we’ve pushed them even further out of reach by our attitudes and behaviors. This is necessarily heart-breaking and can be accompanied by profound sorrow. We mourn the tragedy of how we’ve abandoned ourselves, and the circumstances that got us here. This sorrow is neither a self-convicting, guilt-inducing process nor are we blaming anyone or anything; it is a profound cleansing that carries compassion rather than judgment. It allows us to see ourselves and our circumstances with more objectivity than usual, and we see that we did the best we could given our capacity to quell the driven nature of Ego. From here, we make a commitment to take some personal responsibility, to be our best selves, and to make our best attempt to stop harming ourselves and others.


From the Level of Imbalance (4) to the Level of Social Value (3)

“When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation
 we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
—Joseph Campbell

Like moving across the shock point between the unhealthy and average range, here we’re moving across another shock point which again requires a greater act of surrender than those required while moving within the average range. However, this is the one that breaks us open. With perhaps our first encounter with Presence, this surrender has the quality of self-emptying in which we truly begin to release our egoic identifications and attachments, including our social role from Level 4. It is a profound shift in the amount of control we think we can exert on reality and we release the amount of effort we feel we need to put into maintaining a “self.” We get the clearest view yet of the relative insanity of Ego’s machinations in that the steps it takes to bring about its desires are exactly the ones necessary to prevent them from ever occurring. With this awareness, we just have to laugh (and weep) at the utter ridiculousness and futility of it all as we are finally able to put more trust in our Essential natures to take us home than in the inner three-year-old whom we’ve allowed to run our lives thus far. As we do so, we’re able to relax around our Basic Desire and Basic Fear and to watch the shenanigans of Ego from the point of view of the Inner Witness to a degree that we couldn’t have conceived of previously. While Ego’s activity still occurs in us, we now have the faith and the capacity to not get hooked by it, and thus its power to dominate our thinking and decision-making is dramatically reduced. This leaves us more connected and responsive to our bodies and environments, with clearer minds and purer hearts. This self-emptying is exactly the shift that takes us from the hard, contracted ball that has to compete in the world with all the other contracted balls, to the compassionate, loving, open Presence that has the power to inspire a shift in others just by giving them permission to relax. With the simple act of becoming one less point of pain on the planet, we now have the capacity to effect real change in our lives and the lives of those we encounter.


The Dance of Life

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it,
 no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
—Frederick Buechner

Our ability to participate fully in our lives is completely dependent upon our capacity to be receptive to life’s cues and to relinquish the limiting habits and beliefs that keep us defended and shut down from perceived internal and external threats. Each and every moment presents us with a choice: do we let go and remain open, come what may, or do we stop our ears, cover our eyes and turn our backs in a misguided attempt to defend ourselves from that which is already here? We must be willing to allow our hearts to be broken wide open again and again, and we must love truth above all things to keep making the liberating choice. It requires falling in love with what is most real and most true within us so we can keep taking the leap of faith that each moment asks of us. In the beginning, it appears difficult, counterintuitive and even painful, but if we can stay with the seeming brutality, we eventually learn to embrace this truth and to love it. And when we can do that, life responds in kind to embrace us and guide us home.

Photo credit: shewatchedthesky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tagged on:         

2 thoughts on “Cultivating a Heart that Can Contain the Infinite

  • September 10, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Love your writing. Clear, intelligent, informed by experience. Keep it comin

    • September 16, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Thanks so much!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.