The Art of Conversion (Part 1)
And how to use the Enneagram as 'tool' rather than 'destination'
Months ago, after hearing half a dozen friends recommend Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, I finally broke down and got a copy. And I was particularly struck by one anecdote about a cowboy singer’s conversion.
At the time, this cowboy singer was by all accounts a “man’s man.” Before he found Jesus he fought, swore, drank, smoked, gambled, womanized, and buckaroo’d with the best of them. (That’s a thing, right?) He was masculine. He was American. But not exactly what you might expect from a follower of Jesus.
And then he had a conversion experience that changed his life. Or, it seemed to me, parts of it.
It’s true, after accepting Jesus he gave up the drinking and gambling and womanizing. (No small feat, that.) But I was interested by what he kept: his sense of masculinity, a temper, a conviction that strength and combativeness were inherently necessary parts of being a Christian.
Seeing through our own lens
Now, we could nuance that a lot. Maybe it’s all wrong. Maybe it’s not nearly as bad as the author makes it sound. But regardless of judging it right or wrong, the more important point here is that it was convenient.
This cowboy did experience some conversion, I’m sure. But what changed was some of the form, not the substance. This cowboy saw Jesus as the ultimate cowboy, which is to say, a reflection made perfect of his own idealized self-image. It sounds as if it wasn’t so much a conversion of the cowboy into the likeness of Jesus but of Jesus into the likeness of a cowboy.
“People don’t see things as they are; they see things as they are.”
Richard Rohr has a great line I think of often: “People don’t see things as they are; they see things as they are.” Combative people find occasions to fight. Fearful people find reasons to fear. Open-hearted people find opportunities to be open-hearted.
And perhaps none of this is all that terrible—or surprising. Divine apparitions the world over always speak the native language of the listener. (I have yet to hear of Mary appearing to someone only to speak an unintelligible ancient Aramaic.)
There’s always the risk that when confronted with an opportunity for authentic transformation the ego will find a way to make the occasion about it. None of us are immune. None of us are untouched. That’s one of the immense insights from the Enneagram. But we may not always be able to see it.
“Oh, don’t make me sing!”
I dislike Enneagram tests with a passion for several reasons, but one of the strongest is that tests are one of the surest ways to turn the Enneagram from a tool for spiritual transformation into a badge of honor for the ego.
It’s much too tempting for all of us—even seasoned Enneagram teachers—to start identifying with our Enneagram Type. There’s a strong tendency within all of us to retreat into our Type’s patterns because, in some sense, they work. Like Kristen Wiig’s “Lillian” character on SNL, we can feign a protest of, “Don’t make me sing,” but still walk toward the piano with an agenda and a smile. Our familiar Enneagram patterns make us feel some measure of love, safety, and acceptance. And though engaging with the Enneagram can feel like doing the work (and often is!), we can also easily be drawn back into our Type’s patterns—even with some relief—despite knowing those ultimately don’t serve us.
But as many of us have heard, you have a Type; you are not your Type.
But as many of us have heard, you have a Type; you are not your Type.
If you are your Type, then it’s an essential part of you and should remain… and should be protected… and should be seen… and should be celebrated… and, and, and. The danger here is that of the cowboy convert.
That cowboy saw in the invitation for transformation what he wanted to see. Sure, some of his outward behaviors changed. But the cowboy’s deeper religion—a certain Masculinity—was affirmed. Or worse—solidified and cloaked with an aura of divine approval.
If we take our Enneagram Types to be essential to who we are, then we can easily mistake our Type for the destination rather than the starting point. The goal of the Enneagram is to break out of our Type, not to entrench within it. The Enneagram shows you the box you’re already in—the prison cell that both protected and limited you for years without you even knowing. And that’s okay. And thank God it did. (Kids need some way to cope with this vast and uncertain world, after all). But we don’t want to only remain within the patterns we learned as children for survival.
We don’t want to start decorating our prison cell, praising our cell, wearing name tags that proudly proclaim, “Prison Block A,” at parties. We want to break free. The goal of the Enneagram isn’t to become an awesome version of your Type; the goal is to break free from your Type altogether.
The goal of the Enneagram isn’t to become an awesome version of your Type; the goal is to break free from your Type altogether.
Coming from the Christian tradition, the Gospels show numerous stories of the way Jesus interacted with people. I’m struck by the sheer diversity of how he is with others. It’s almost as if he has multiple personalities, sometimes displaying what feels to me like too much grace and other times what feels like incredible harshness.
But regardless of your religious beliefs, these stories show someone who is truly free—not bound by a singular need or pattern or trick or way of seeing the world. They show a person able to draw on whatever is needed in the moment, fully present to the truth of what is.
A tool for conversion… if we let it
Imagine being able to draw on an immense inner strength of purpose when needed (Eight); practice healthy detachment when needed (Five); communicate connection and safety to the vulnerable when needed (Two). That’s the promise of the Enneagram when it’s a tool for your journey of transformation, that we can draw on any energy when fully present—and even move beyond 9 distinct categories into a continuum of choices.
The Enneagram can be a tool for conversion if we let it. Or it can be a trap that gives our unhealthy patterns respectability. Or, more likely for all of us, it can offer a bit of both. I don’t think anyone can engage the Enneagram in a “pure” way because that’s not how growth happens. Instead, we can engage the Enneagram—or any tool or method or approach—with awareness and no small amount of humility. And in some mystery, the great traditions attest that that’s often enough, and that conversion into a new way of being is possible, despite the risks.
We can embrace a path of conversion into something truly new. And if the “new” looks suspiciously like a more respectable version of what the ego wants, a commitment to being as awake and aware as possible could make all the difference.
Samuel Ogles is a writer, speaker, spiritual director, and certified Enneagram teacher living in the western suburbs of Chicago. He’s on a mission to empower others with deeper insights and a vision for change. You can support this work by subscribing to this newsletter (Free or Paid version), and you can connect with him at SamuelOgles.com.