This is a blog that I’ve known for some time would be one I would write, but that knowing was in the deepest recesses of my heart and mind, perhaps in the hope that it wouldn’t be this soon. And now I am only hopeful that I can do this complex, loving, dynamic, honest, funny, sweet man justice. He was a major Enneagram leader of the 20thand 21st centuries; a profound teacher, author and creator, and his contributions will be missed in a most global way. One always had the sense that, even when sick, Don was everywhere, so wide was his reach.
Don left us on August 30th, after having been ill for several years with a variety of physical afflictions, some life threatening and some just very painful and debilitating. He tried really hard to stay on this planet, but it was not meant to be. And Russ Hudson says he left in peace.
I could write about all the things Don did, from forming the Enneagram Institute, putting the Enneagram on the public map globally, writing one of the best written and most accessible Enneagram books (The Wisdom of the Enneagram) along with Russ Hudson, and more. The Enneagram as we know it would not be nearly as accessible or well-known were it not for Don. But I’m going to choose a different route, writing about Don as the man I knew and who was a beloved friend for many years.
Don and I were very close, an odd couple really, given that my Enneagram training had come from Helen and David, so I knew them better in the early years and am still very close to them both. Over time though, through my work with the IEA (International Enneagram Association), I got to know and love Don quite deeply. We became friends and confidantes, sharing feelings and uncensored thoughts with no fear that either would violate the other in any way, and I respected him immensely. I also got to know and appreciate Russ Hudson, but this was really through Don. Several years ago, Russ told me, “I need to know you better because Don likes you so much.” And, I liked him so much.
So here are some stories (and there are many I can’t share because our relationship was a private one; one through 2-3 hour phone calls every few months or lengthy emails that then morphed into a need to talk via phone):
Going Beyond His Own Space
When I wrote my first book (Bringing Out the Best in Yourself at Work, 2004), the prevailing thought-form out there was that Don would never endorse a book that was written by someone who had not trained with him; the same thought-form was also there in terms of Helen Palmer as well, though I’m not sure anyone ever tested either assumption. I sent Don my book because I knew him reasonably well and respected him. To not ask Don felt disrespectful, and all he could say was “No.”
Instead what I got was a beautiful endorsement that sits on the back jacket cover, but what I received by way of email was really more compelling and amusing. Don said, “I agree with 99% of what you say in your book, and that’s a first for me.” Even better was his one area of critique: “My only concern is that your book may be too well-written, and this could be a problem.”
The Don I knew was generous (his unequivocal endorsement made a huge difference), loving (his love for the Enneagram and for people permeated everything he ever did), and so truthful (as you can read from his comment). Fortunately for me, his concern did not manifest into reality, but the beauty of his honesty will stay with me forever.
Ethics and the Enneagram
Don was passionate about ethics and the Enneagram, and we had hours of conversation about ethical issues, both the principles and the specifics. We were each a listening post and advisor to one another. The content would range from intellectual property, people claiming to know the Enneagram and teach it when they either had no training or hadn’t learned much from being trained, and Enneagram teachers not having their type right. I think from Don’s perspective, he was more concerned about teachers not having their type right because they were not sufficiently self-aware or, even worse, they were aware but were “wannabes.” In other words, they refused to acknowledge their real type, which was pretty obvious, because they wanted to be perceived in the bigger Enneagram world as having some quality associated with another type – a 3, for example, who wanted to be perceived as intellectual so claimed to be a 5, or a 1 who wanted to be viewed as creative and so claimed to be a 7. He wasn’t so agitated when it was a look-alike or a wing-arrow confusion.
These ethical areas really bothered Don, even more than they upset me (though I also have a lot of energy about these topics). But what was compelling about Don was how deeply he cared about these issues, holding a firm stake in the Enneagram-ground about them, being able to so coherently express his thoughts and feelings about them, and then, ultimately, accepting he really couldn’t do that much about it.
Many of these conversations ended with Don saying, “Ginger, the Enneagram is bigger than any of us, so we really don’t have to worry about it.”
Dialogue, Not Debate
Don was known for having strong, reasoned views about the types of some public political figures, which he wrote about in articles in the Enneagram Monthly or posted on Facebook. The difference between Don and some others who type public figures publicly is that Don didn’t do this because he wanted to be perceived as the expert on typing public people. He did it because he really believed it was important to understand these people who might have such grave influences over our lives.
So I always respected his intentions, even if I sometimes disagreed with how he typed a public person. Mostly I agreed with him (and his ample reasoning), but one case in point is President Obama’s type. Don strongly believed Obama to be a 3; I think Obama is a social subtype 9. I knew Don thought Obama was a 3 from an article he wrote; he knew I thought differently from a YouTube video I did.
But what really mattered is that when we talked about our points of view regarding Obama on the phone, the conversation was so delightful, mostly a dialogue of inquiry and curiosity, with each of us saying, “Oh, that’s true,” or “I don’t’ think so; I think this,” or “Let me think about it some more.”
All too often, Enneagram teachers (and Enneagrammers who aren’t teachers) get into such caustic, accusatory, and downright disrespectful arguments about who is right regarding the type of a public figure. Yes, Don would hold his ground, but no, Don was more interested in discovery and dialogue than being right or putting the other person down.
It takes strength, courage, confidence, and a deep love of the Enneagram to handle it this way.
For me, Don was all about love: love of the Enneagram, love of what he was doing with his life, love of people in particular, love of new ideas and new pathways to take the Enneagram. Was he a saint? I hope I have not painted him in this way. Maybe he was a saint or an angel, it doesn’t matter to me, really. He was so utterly human, vulnerable, smart, curious, committed, searching, always growing, and forever I will hold him in my heart.
In loving memory and to honor Don’s life and contributions to the Enneagram, a Don Riso Memorial Fund has been established, with proceeds going to people around the world who cannot otherwise afford to attend The Enneagram Institute events.
You can donate by clicking Don Riso Memorial Fund.