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Enneagram Theory: The Three Centers of Intelligence


There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

– Kurt Lewin*

Because I have 35+ years as an OD consultant, I have lived by this quotation from Kurt Lewin.

Jerry Wagner, in his keynote address to the International Enneagram Association Conference in 2010 reminded us, with great humor, the need to question the veracity of the Enneagram theories we use: is it true, what’s the source, how do we know? And so what?

In the next series of blogs, I plan to share the key theories about the Enneagram that I most often use, why I believe they are likely true, their source as I know it (the source I give may have had another source of which I am unaware), and why they are practical. I’ll also be asking a few Enneagram teachers who are part of the Enneagram in Business Network to guest blog on their favorite theories.

I always use the following criteria before I use a theory in my work:

What is it?
Who is the source; is that source reliable?
Is it a true enough model or theory that describes some aspect of reality better than other models?
Is it practical and useful; does it help us do something we can’t do as well without it?

The Three Centers of Intelligence

What is it?

Instead of intelligence being only in the mind, we actually have three Centers of Intelligence: the Mental (Intellectual) Center, the Heart (Emotional) Center, and the Body (Physical) Center. To be whole, integrated and conscious, to be alive, awake and centered, and to be less ego-fixated and more conscious requires our being able to access all three Centers and to use all three in productive integrated ways. It is more complex than stated above – for example, the Mental Center is not just about the mind nor is the Body Center merely about body sensations and taking action – but the complexity just gives more to debate for now.

How the Centers of Intelligence relate to the Enneagram is something like a piece that helps us put together parts of the puzzle. First, three of the Enneagram styles are formed in one of the Centers: Fives, Sixes and Sevens are formed in the Mental Center; Twos, Threes and Fours are formed in the Heart Center, and Eights, Nines and Ones are formed in the Body Center. Understanding this gives us a way to group 9 styles into three sets of 3. In addition, the 3 styles within each Center share some common characteristics.

For example, the Head Center styles are three styles formed in response to the emotion of fear: Fives withdraw from fear of intrusion, Sixes try to anticipate and plan in advance for negative scenarios or go headlong against the fear (counter-phobic Sixes), and Sevens try to avoid their fear of discomfort, pain and restriction by engaging in a continuous flow of interesting ideas and novel experiences. The Heart Center styles are formed in response to sorrow (some call it shame) for not knowing or accepting who they really are and creating a substitute image: Twos create an image of being likable and thoughtful; Threes create an image of being confident and successful, and Fours create an image of being different and unique. The three Body Center styles are formed in response to the emotion of anger and also issues of control: Eights express their anger directly and try to take control by taking charge; Nines are called “anger that went to sleep,” suppressing their anger in order to not cause conflict and resist being controlled; and Ones exhibit suppressed anger – anger that emerges as flares of resentment – and assert control by being self-controlled and highly structured.

Second and equally important, since we all have all three Centers of Intelligence within us, the Enneagram can show us the way that each Enneagram style tends to use and misuse each Center of Intelligence. Thus, accurately knowing our style helps us understand how we effectively use as well as distort each of our Centers, thus paving the way for development work – perhaps it should be called “fun” and not “work” – that is specific for each style to clear up the distortions.

As just one example, Enneagram Nines, like all of us, have common distortions in each Center, distortions that are specific to their style. In their Head Center usage, Nines can collect so much information from so many perspectives that they become confused as to which information is the most relevant or important. In their Heart Center usage, Nines can be over-empathic with people with whom they have positive rapport and under-empathic with individuals they do not, in particular, people who they perceive as chronic complainers. When Nines use their Body Center, they can distort with regard to steadfastness or holding their ground. For example, Nines can become overly stubborn when they perceive another as trying to control them, but not firm enough in maintaining, expressing, and acting on their own positions and beliefs, especially when faced with opposition.

The source?

The notion of humans having three Centers of Intelligence, each of which is equally important, comes from centuries of Eastern philosophy. It is not new, though newer to those of us who live in the West who have valued mental intelligence above all else.

In addition, the work of Gurdjieff, a forefather of the modern Enneagram, focused not on personality types or distinct numbers, but on the Centers of Intelligence (as well the energies at each point, the dynamics and movements along the lines, and more). But, he perceived that awakening and balancing the Centers in each of us as central to our emerging consciousness.

In more modern times, Enneagram authors and teachers Kathy Hurley and the late Theodorre Donson focused on the importance of working with our Centers of Intelligence. Kathy and Theordorre always said they were strongly influenced by the work of Gurdjieff.

Is it true?

I do believe it is true enough, although I don’t claim to yet fully understand all of its vast implications for our growth. Why do I believe this? Gurdjieff and his followers worked with this extensively and I have great respects for his insights and knowledge. Through discussions Kathy and Theodorre as well as hearing them present on the topic of Centers and their importance to understanding the Enneagram system and types, the notion on Centers and how they are used and misused impressed me.

And from my own experience – my self-work and my extensive work with the Enneagram in organizations, I moved from “I think it’s true” to “I know it has a great deal of truth.” This is described below.

Is it practical and useful?

A resounding yes! Using the three Centers of Intelligence describes something that seems real enough, helps us identify our Enneagram styles more accurately, and helps us grow.

It seems to be reasonably accurate and very useful; most people, even if they don’t know the Enneagram, can relate to this idea: my head says one thing, my heart another, and my gut is saying something else. This seems to be part of the human experience, especially when we are confused. When I use this concept in my corporate and non-corporate programs – I use an activity in which they walk around moving from one Center to the next as a way to discover their primary Center and their lesser-used ones – almost everyone relates to the idea of having three Centers and can even locate them physically.

In teaching the Enneagram, I have learned that teaching it first by Centers and then the Enneagram types within each Center helps people grasp the system more quickly and readily. The Enneagram becomes a 3X3 system instead of a 9 number system, and this helps with absorption and retention. Thus, using the Centers of Intelligence is invaluable in teaching and identifying type. There are some Enneagram teachers who do an excellent job of grouping people by Center first, then helping them differentiate between the styles within that Center.

The Centers of Intelligence are also useful for growth. From my own experience as a Two, examining how I use, misuse, overuse, and under-use my three Centers has made a big difference in my own growth. For example, I recognized that I over-used my feeling or Heart Center, undervalued my Mental Center for many years, and was ignoring my Body Center – actually, my ignored Body Center was colluding with my Heart Center to repress my feelings. In other words, fewer physical sensations and fewer deep feelings. In still other words, if I don’t pay attention to my gut (or mind!), my heart can do whatever it want without regard to other facts I actually knew.

Also useful is how the Centers of Intelligence frame why we are working with the Enneagram and how to use the Enneagram for development. I often say this: Knowing your Enneagram style is interesting, but that is not the purpose of this work. The purpose is to gain greater access to each of your Centers of Intelligence, to use them in productive rather than non-productive ways, and use them in an integrated way, not as separate functions operating within you.

And more about Centers

I do believe there is a vast richness in working with the Centers of Intelligence that will be a source of rich learning. I’ve also learned from working with thousands of individuals that just because someone is a Head, Heart, or Body Center-based style does not mean they relate experientially to that Center as their primary Center. For example, many Threes actually report that their Heart Center is their least accessible Center; this makes sense since many Threes use their Heart function to read other people’s reactions to them, but not to feel their own feelings or to empathize with others. And many Nines report that they have most access to their Heart Center and the least to the Body Center. This also makes sense because when put your anger to sleep as Nines do – and anger resides in your gut – your Body Center as a whole may be taking a nap.

What I’ve also observed is that most people have a primary Center, a secondary Center, and one that is more dormant, but that the secondary and dormant Centers do not map exactly to specific types. For example, some Eights are Body, Heart, Mental, but other Eights may be Body, Mental, Heart. I do have a strong hunch that Enneagram subtypes play a role in this hierarchy.

Finally, some people report having equal access to all three Centers, and this is what I’ve learned from this. Some who say they have equal access to all three Centers actually have very limited access to any of them. They tend to be people who have limited experienced self-observing. And there are people I’ve met who do have almost equal access to their Centers. In most cases, there’s a reason – for example, a person who would normally have little access to the Body center but has studied martial arts for years; the person who used to not have much Heart Center access, but who experienced an emotional trauma and rather than contracting, opened up; a person whose Mental Center was not used very much, but went through a rigorous Ph.D. experience that opened up a whole new world.

So agree with me, disagree with me, or add to what’s been said. But please don’t believe all this to be absolutely true just because I said so. Discover it for yourself. Explore, examine, and experience!

The next blog will be on defense mechanisms.

*Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist of the early 20th century who is considered to a pioneer of modern social, organization, and applied psychology. Even more, force-field analysis, action research, and change theory all bear his name. Beyond this, National Training Laboratories (NTL) and the field of organization development (OD) owe their origins to Lewin and his work.

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8 years ago

Brilliant! As a nine, it took quite a while for me to figure out what my number actually was. Through some very good coaching I have become a lot more aware of my thoughts and actions, and of where my decisions come from. As a result, I can see in myself what you have said above about the nine. I can see all three centres working in my life in almost exactly the way you explain. I am usually very aware of which parts of myself are in charge in any particular interaction. As a new teacher, I am beginning… Read more »


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