Look for the little yellow arrows | Using the enneagram like a Pilgrim

I’ve recently moved into a little cottage just outside of St. Andrews, which works well for me as it is a season filled with writing and research. The alpaca and sheep in the field are good company as the days grow longer, and my normal 10pm bedtime feels just a bit too early, since it’s not even getting dark until well after 10. I love summer In a way I didn’t used to. I’ve always had a tendency to connect with Fall and Winter, but Summer has become an increasingly important and enjoyable season to cherish. And, although it doesn’t get overwhelmingly warm here, I happen to be sunburnt as I just returned from trip to Spain with my mom. Maybe you saw it on my Instagram, but she just turned 60 and walked the entire Camino de Santiago. I got to join her for the last week of her walk. And it was such a gift.

Most days we walked about 15 miles, but one day we walked a big 22. Our walking included plenty of reflection with one another, conversations with fellow pilgrims, and silence. If you’ve walked the Camino, you know that there are little yellow arrows all along the way helping guide the pilgrims as they wind through towns and encounter forks in the road. We only missed a couple of them, but to no terribly detrimental detours! As we walked, we also took a memory journey, making our way through both of our lives, 5 years at a time—0-5, 5-10, 10-15, etc. It was a lovely way to scaffold our remembrance—and really tough to remember anything from 0-5!

Among the fascinating conversations that emerged as we looked at our lives and years we spent together from our different perspectives (my 0-5 was her 30-35), was a conversation about our relationship and how it has transformed over the years. To be frank, I didn’t like my mom when I was kid—and she knew it. In fact, once she even said to me, “I know you love me Annie, but do you like me?” I think I avoided answering it and felt guilty about the non-answer. To add insult to injury, I did like my dad. We were really similar—he could mirror the parts of myself that I’d identified with—my exploration of ideas, my athleticism, my use of language. I have a very clear memory of sitting on the stairs while he edited a paper of mine in middle school. In this memory, he tells me about the difference between “explicit” and “implicit” meanings in words because he didn’t think a word I was using in the paper was exactly what I meant.

He didn’t necessarily love me because of those things we shared, but it surely connected us. So, meanwhile, young Annie somehow decided that those were the reasons I was loveable. I loved those things about me, and I grew more and more attached to them—as far as I was concerned, these characteristics were me. My mom didn’t care about those things as much. Though she is brilliant (and I’m more and more aware of the brilliance of people who don’t think their ideas are the only ones these days), she wasn’t particularly interested in debating with me about my ideas, and she certainly didn’t want to give me attention because of them. She knew I was more than my personality…but I didn’t yet know that. A huge part of my identity development was about becoming significant, and so much of my significance was about being an individual with unique ways of thinking. At that time I didn’t really need anyone or want to be around anyone who didn’t acknowledge or add to my significance in some fundamental way.

Those who’ve been around these parts know that I identify with the Type 4 structure, and the story I just told is deeply consonant with a typical 4ish experience. But, interestingly, my mom and I barely talked about the Enneagram as we recounted the movement in our relationship, about who I was and what I needed as a kid. She knows quite a bit about the Enneagram (she’s a great listener who has been listening for years!). We simply reflected and shared and accepted and appreciated the experience of the other person. We asked more questions. We tried to understand how that had affected our other relationships. It was such an incredible gift to receive my young self and my mom at the same time, a gift that I know many don’t get to receive. Thanks mom!

I want to tell you about this because these days there is a lot of Enneagram information, a lot of memes, a lot of charts (all helpful in their own right!), but we cannot forget that the goal of working with these type structures is to get into our own territory, to get our feet on the ground, and to learn to walk with compassionate presence to what is real. We don’t know what we will asked to pick up, to put down, to offer, or to receive to get to these vulnerable parts of ourselves. But, like the Camino, it is a long walk, best done with companions that you’ve chosen and ones that appear at the just right time. There are arrows everywhere, and sometimes we miss them, but we can always find our way back. You can always find your way back to the road—there is no way of straying too far.

Why not encounter the Enneagram like the yellow arrows of the Camino? A series of suggestions about the directions you might walk. Notice, listen, walk. Notice, listen, walk. Notice, listen, walk. If you don’t notice the arrow, you can still notice the path and the direction, you can still enjoy the journey. The arrows aren’t the destination, they don’t point back to themselves. They are strategically placed to remind you that there are other ways. Let them guide you into the territory. It doesn’t mean the road won’t be hard, or that you won’t feel alone or exhausted, or that you won’t sprain your ankle. But the Enneagram isn’t a cure all, its just a guide along the path so that you can stay awake to the journey.

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