I learned a term from a friend the other day: catalytic cycle (props, Alisha!). In chemistry, it applies to a process where a catalyst launches a reaction, then the product interacts with the catalyst, which in turn launches a new reaction in an endless loop.
I’m no chemist, so I could have something skewed here, but I think it’s a perfect analogy for the cycle of ego and reactivity. As mentioned in a previous post, Dealing with Difficult People, egoic behavior tends to create more egoic behavior unless acted upon by Presence.
For example, let’s say we have some long-standing unresolved issue with a friend, co-worker or significant other. It’s territory we’ve gone over again and again and it always results in a standoff. It’s happened so many times that it’s now a pattern. When stimulus X presents itself, reaction Y always happens and it recycles ad nauseum.
One of the arguments my parents used to get into was catalyzed by my father’s habit of undressing when he came home from work. He would start shedding clothes as soon as he shut the front door and there would be a trail of clothing from the door to his recliner where he’d spend the evening in his underwear until dinner. My mother would see the trail and start complaining about how he expected her to constantly pick up after him to which he’d respond that he’d had a hard day at work earning money to support the family. She’d respond that she’d worked just as many hours as he had and yet she was still expected to clean up and cook dinner. It was at this point that the shouting and throwing things would usually begin. This exact argument repeated itself nearly every weekday evening. It is perhaps an extreme example, but you get the point.
My mother, a One, saw his habit as interfering with her efforts to keep the house in perfect order. My father, an Eight, saw his home as the one place where no one should ever be able to tell him what to do. Both Eight and One are Belly center types who seek autonomy, and at the heart of it, this is what their argument was really about—not household chores and work schedules. Each one was trying to assert their authority over the home and saw the other as trespassing upon it. Since autonomy is a core concern for both types, it’s understandable from this perspective why this issue caused such heated reactivity.
With Presence, perhaps they could have seen what was at the root of this impasse and had a frank conversation about what compromises could be made so that each would feel that their autonomy needs were being met. Unfortunately, I don’t think this ever happened for my parents and the weight of it continually frayed their moods and interactions.
So, how can we apply Presence and the Enneagram to our own relationships so we don’t get caught in this endless cycle of ego and reactivity?
According to Eckhart Tolle, there are several portals to Presence which include mindfulness and tuning into the body or the breath. It takes practice to develop Presence and this is especially true when we’re trying to do so during a conflict, which is Ego’s favorite playground. This is why it’s crucial that we practice Presence regularly. If the resistance we experience trying to become present when we’re calm could be likened to the pull of gravity when jumping six inches off the ground, then becoming present during a heated conversation would be like a space shuttle trying to launch into orbit. The more practice we have at it, the more natural it becomes. The more present we are during our day, the more likely we are to notice the contraction of Ego trying to take control. If we can notice that contraction and use it as our cue to drop into deeper awareness, perhaps we can take the reins back from Ego before things spiral out of control.
Presence gives us the space and clarity we need to do some observation of ourselves and our situations as well as the perspective we need to not take everything so darn personally. The Enneagram gives us the knowledge to discern our patterns and motivations. Using them together, we’re well equipped to break the cycle. But Presence is the key. We can use the Enneagram to hypothesize and find patterns all day long, but without Presence, it remains purely theoretical. If we continually practice Presence, as soon as the thought, “here we go again,” crosses our minds, we’ll know it’s time to really pay attention.