Instincts as Celtic Knot – A Moving System

by | Aug 14, 2018 | Enneagram

One Moving Symbol meets another – the Celtic Knot

 When considering the Instinctual Subtypes, there seems to be widespread belief amidst teachers that our stacking or sequencing order is relatively fixed. Whether the word is “stacking” or “sequencing”, both imply an ordering or hierarchy. Whether there are large gaps in the vertical stacking order between Instincts, or shorter gaps, or whether there are two nearly on top of each other with the third Instinct way down at the bottom, or the opposite of that, a vertical ordering of these Instincts is largely accepted as the way to view this system.

Many agree that the stacking or sequencing order will temporarily recalibrate in average to healthy people when a stressor requires this movement. For example, if a SX Dominant person learns he has a serious health issue, he may move into SP Dominant to deal with his health, but will default back to SX as soon as the stressor subsides. Or a SP Dominant person may activate his SC Instinct if she loses her job and needs to network to find her next one. The conventional wisdom in the Enneagram world seems to be that once everything settles down, this person will return to his relatively fixed Instinctual order, with the Dominant Instinct back on top. At best, the Instincts will grow equal legs making for that nicely balanced three-legged stool, an apt and often used metaphor. But does life really unfold in such a linear way?

Recently, an image came to mind of a Celtic Knot with three intersecting loops and an intertwining circle in the middle, and it caused me to re-imagine the relationship between the Instincts themselves, as well as in relationship with the Enneagram Symbol.  Might we envision the three Instincts as each of the loops in the Celtic Knot, overlapping with the other loops/Instincts and intersecting with the interior circle itself?

Gurdjieff called the Enneagram a “moving” system, which is why he had people move, whirling through the lines, points and circle of the Enneagram Tetrahedron Symbol on the floor to help integrate somatically and energetically into wholeness – to become Anthropos, fully human.  Why would the Instincts be fixed and the Enneagram be “moving”?  Is it more likely that both of these two systems are actually moving systems, as everything in the entire Universe is according to Gurdjieff, and according to science? 

Perhaps what we are actually looking at is two moving ancient sacred symbols intersecting with one another like gears on a bicycle, or a double helix, or our bodily systems, or our solar system.  Indeed, there are shock points where collisions occur, which are needed to keep inertia from taking hold, as the Laws of Three and Seven suggest. We are even told planets will collide at some point in time.  Whole systems evolve and devolve with this movement of cycles intersecting. When it comes to ourselves, when our dominant Instinct settles after an activation, do we actually return to a fixed, predetermined Instinctual order, or do the gears of Type and Instinct continually evolve into something new and unexpected as our lives unfold?

Those who have worked with the Enneagram for many years understand that it is a system of differentiation, not of exclusion. We have all the Types within us, and we have all the Instincts within us as well.  I understand the value in initially finding ourselves in a particular Type – we do need to observe our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving in order to to know where our work is. For the same reason, I also see how it is useful initially to determine our Instinctual ordering. However, with both Type and Instinct, there is a point where it no longer serves to think of either in this fixed way.  Doing so can lead to a reductionistic view of the Enneagram that I believe should be avoided.

Before furthering my musings on this topic, I would like to review what the Instincts are.

A Brief Summary of the Instincts

Every one of us is born into the world with certain propensities which make up the part of our personality that we refer to as “nature”. These natural propensities mix with our environment and our conditioning, or what we call “nurture”, to develop a personality. Personality is defined as the relatively enduring patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This is what the Enneagram system refers to as Type.

In some ways, these Types can be traced back to the defenses or coping mechanisms we learned for surviving in the world psychologically.  There is growing evidence that unresolved transgenerational traumas, bio-neurological predispositions, and even past life influences may affect our personality structure. But for the purpose of this article, I will stick with a more psychological point of view. Claudio Naranjo suggests that the Passion (emotional habit) of the Type manifests around three years of age and that the Fixation (mental habit) manifests sometime around six years of age. This begs the question –  what drives our survival needs in our earliest years?

One answer to this question is that the Instincts are key to our physical survival as individuals and as a species. Our physical body must survive (Self-Preservation – SP) to grow into adults who can then mate (Sexual – SX)  and pass on their individual DNA, reproducing for the perpetuation of our species (Social – SC). Bonding together in social groups helps increase the odds of survival. Our instinctual drives may come into play before our emotional and mental habits develop. There is a survival intelligence at work with the Instincts that does not come from our head or our heart, but is firmly planted in the intelligence of the body.

More than traits, characteristics, and behaviors, the Enneagram system first and foremost describes “energies”. We use language to describe traits, characteristics, and behaviors in order to point towards some understanding of these energies. But the focus of attention and motivational drive of each type and instinctual subtype can be missed if we get too caught up in these type descriptors. With this in mind, I will give a brief overview of each of the Instinctual energies.

The Three Instinctual Drives

 All animals share in common three basic drives which are essential hard wiring for surviving in the world. We are all driven to Self-Preservation – all life seeks to go on living. To stay alive, first and foremost, we must have food, water, clothing, and shelter. The Sexual/Attraction Instinct drives our biological imperative to mate and to pass on our genes, whether we choose to act on it or not. Hormones play a part in this. And finally, the Social/Affiliative Instinct is about the species’ survival – all species seek to continue.  Social units often better the odds.

When individuals are in an unhealthy place, the passion of their type can amplify the extreme tendencies of their Instinctual Subtype.

Self-Preservation Instinct (“SP”)

Healthy SP individuals have a sensible, grounded, common sense feel to them. They see the practical realities of what life requires in terms of health, home, money, body, and well-being, and how to meet those requirements. Their feet are firmly planted on the ground.

 When they are in an unhealthy place, the Passion of their Type mixes with this Instinct, which can lead people to obsess about or neglect their SP concerns. For example, Nines can be mindful and awake in establishing practices that keep their finances, body, and home in a state of well-being. However, when they move into the unhealthy levels of the Nine, the passion of sloth (self-forgetting) can come into play, and this can show up as obsession or neglect of home, body, finances and health. In an unhealthy state, the Nine may begin to forgo their conscious choice of eating well and exercising, instead getting lost in watching TV and eating junk food. Similarly, a healthy SP Eight may have a reasonable reserve of necessities should an earthquake hit or there be another financial down turn, but the passion of lust can show up in an unhealthy SP Eight through hoarding and obsession. An extreme image that comes to mind is of an unhealthy SP Eight man living on his land in a remote wilderness, with “No Trespassing Signs” planted everywhere, gold coins buried in his backyard, his doors triple locked, plenty of guns and ammunition that he’s not afraid to use, and a deep freezer stocked to last out a two-year siege.

There have been many arguments about whether altruism actually exists in human beings. I believe it does, if by altruism we mean a willingness to sacrifice the self for another. The Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived Auschwitz while his family perished describes this as “the self-transcendence of human existence”.  In his book Man’s Search for Meaning he describes the inner experience he had that moved him to give another prisoner his bread, and to stay behind when he had a chance to escape to take care of a sick man in his charge. I believe a higher human consciousness may have been at play here, so that Dr. Frankl, in effect, elevated the SP Instinct to include others as part of his own self-preservation.

The Sexual Instinct (“SX”)

The SX Instinct is often called “One-to-One” in Enneagram circles.  I believe this is a misnomer and misses an important point.  People with the Self-Preservation or Social dominant instincts have their own versions of one-to-one relationship. For example, SP people often enjoy finding a mate who they can hang out with, together taking care of their shared well-being.  Similarly, SC dominant people can cultivate one-to-one relationships for the shared vision and contribution that the group will make. A family is a SC unit with a vision of a future together in which there are many one-to-one relationships.  I choose the word Sexual Instinct as I don’t feel the phrase One-to-One truly represents the specific instinctual energy.

Whether we act on it or not (and homo sapiens may be the only species to actually have that choice), we are driven to mate. This is the Sexual Instinct at play. Hormones play a large part. All life seeks to continue, and we are driven to reproduce and pass down our DNA. Animals instinctually engage in all kinds of behavioral displays to attract a mate, and a female in estrus becomes irresistible to her male counterpart. We human animals have the same instinct.

The SX Instinct arouses and regulates the nervous system. Intense, exciting, activating, energizing, initiatory and creative are words that are used to describe people with this as their dominant instinct. SX energy is not the same as a heart connection, attachment, or bonding, though at the higher levels of consciousness it will include these. Simply put, we can love someone who we don’t feel attracted to, and we can be attracted to someone we don’t love. Nor is this energy about sexuality. It is more about the nervous system’s arousal – think Kali, the Goddess of birth and destruction. This energy can manifest in the juiciness of an idea shared, the thrill of an extreme sport, or maybe just dancing Zumba to a heavy bass beat. I have heard it said that the SX Instinct dominant person is sometimes the least likely to need the sexual act precisely because so much of life is experienced through a sexual or arousal “lens”.  We might differentiate this energy from heart energy by saying that the SX Instinct regulates the nervous system while the Heart center, with its need for connection, attachment and bonding, regulates the limbic system. Sex was happening long before the mammalian brain and its corresponding need for attachment ever came into existence.

Denial of sexual energy can wreak havoc, as we have witnessed with some priests of the Catholic Church who have tried to rid themselves of these forces, with the result being extremely damaging expressions of it with innocent children. From human trafficking to sado-masochistic sexual practices, to snuff pornography, there is no shortage of witnessing how this energy can incite nefarious actions in the world.

In a healthy SX dominant instinct person, this energy is harnessed and put to work in relationship as creative, activating, life-giving energy. The healthy SX Instinct person will be fully awake to this energy and find healthy expressions of it in both their personal life and in the world. When healthy, the sexual impulse regulates our nervous system and mixes with the higher levels of consciousness, manifesting in the juicy, exciting, activating arousal that comes from connecting, attaching, and bonding with another  – this could be referred to as the energizing experience of Eros.  Even a hermit or a monk in a monastery can have plenty of this energy.  Read the writings of Rumi or Thomas Merton to sense the erotic force from which their words emerge. Stephen and Ondrea Levine, in their book Embracing the Beloved show us what is it to bring this instinct into the higher levels of consciousness in a marriage, and ultimately to healing in the world.

If our strongest instinct is Sexual and it is in an unhealthy place, the instinctual drive will amplify the passion of our Type. For example, imagine a SX Two who doesn’t know her own needs, and has seduced an intimate or friend by giving everything she believes is needed (this is the passion of pride, expressed as Seduction/Aggression in the SX Two). She can become very aggressive towards that person if her demands are not met. Similarly, a SX One, who brings tremendous zeal to reforming his intimate partner, can get very angry when the partner doesn’t comply to doing it his “right” way.

The Social Instinct (“SC”)

The Social Instinct can be seen in the family unit, and sometimes in mammals living together in groups. Mammals give birth to live young and nurse them until they are capable of surviving on their own. With some species, the father stays and the family unit remains intact while vulnerable young are being raised. In others, it is the mother and her offspring that form the family unit. Many mammals survive in groups, such as a pack of wolves, a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, or a troop of apes. This social context increases the chance of survival of the species.

People with a healthy Social Dominant Instinct demonstrate relational awareness. They sense the “flow” in a group, whether there is give and take in the conversation, and how to plug in. They have a sense of their own contribution and the contribution of others, are conscious of how they are “showing up”, and seem to be aware of the different positions or roles necessary to the group’s survival.

When a Socially dominant person moves into the unhealthy ranges of type, this Instinct mixes with the type’s passion and shows up in obsessive, compulsive and neglectful ways. For example, a SC Three in the lower ranges of health will not just strive for achievement and prestige. The passion of deceit mixed with the SC Instinct can drive the person into using people, propagandizing, cheating, and deceiving themselves and others, all for self-aggrandizement and to create the winning image. An unhealthy SC Five (Totem Five) can obsess about being the most knowledgeable on his topic, be stingy or avaricious with this knowledge, and share only with his chosen few. More importantly, he can lose touch with his body and heart centers, with his “knowledge” not leading him to true wisdom. On a grander scale, I believe that whatever Hitler’s type was (the Enneagram community loves to speculate!), his SC Instinct completely distorted it, driving him and his Nazi followers to bring devastation to the world.

However, this drive, when brought into higher consciousness, can lead to the kind of social reform that Gandhi brought to India as memorialized in his grandson’s book, Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Non-Violence, or Rosa Parks in her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or Nelson Mandela in his 20 year prison term taking a stand against apartheid,  and Desmond Tutu’s action towards truth and reconciliation in South Africa, or the civil rights movement maverick Martin Luther King Jr., or the 19th century women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, or the courageous Joan of Arc, not to mention Christ, Buddha, and scores of others committed to social change.

Stacking/Sequencing – Ordering of the Instincts?

Most Enneagram teachers work from the assumption that we have a fixed stacking order or sequencing of our Instincts, with one being Dominant, another being Secondary, and the third being the Underdeveloped, Repressed, or Blind Instinct.  Here are some definitions:

The Dominant instinct is described as the most easily activated and acted out through the Type.  The Secondary instinct is sometimes understood to be in support of the dominant. Others understand it to be the one we are least activated by, that we handle with ease, and that there are not a lot of triggers around. The third Instinct, the Underdeveloped, Repressed, or Blind Instinct, is considered the neglected and/or ignored instinct, and often not valued by the person. A low SP Instinct person might judge a high SP Instinct person as being selfish, perceiving them as overly obsessed with their own well-being. A low SX Instinct person may judge a high SX Instinct person as being way too intense – just “too much”. A low SC Instinct person may judge a high SC Instinct person as superficial and lacking depth.  

I see the wisdom in working towards a balanced tree legged stool within ourselves. Some think this is best done by focusing on the Repressed Instinct and working with it energetically to find the blockages so that it can be freed to become a part of a more balanced whole, a balanced three-legged stool if you will. Others say that it is effective to self-observe with unflinching honesty, see the triggering event that leads to the activation of the dominant Instinct and distortion of the Type, and work with conscious awareness and breath to ride the waves without acting out the compulsion.  I think both are useful and necessary. I also heard someone say once that we need to start hanging out with others who have a heavy dose of our repressed instinct – we might learn something once we can get past our judgments!

Instincts as Stacking/Sequencing Order, or is it a Celtic Knot?

Coming back to my original vision of these two intersecting, moving systems of Type and Instinct, I want to explore further the idea that these are not in a fixed order, but instead are in continual movement, occasionally getting stuck somewhere before a shock comes from the outside to initiate further movement. Again, my visual metaphor for this is the Celtic Knot with each intersecting loop representing a different Instinct, superimposed on the Enneagram Symbol, with both being understood as moving systems.

In my hands-on experience with clients, in my workshops, and with panelists over the last twenty years, I have come to appreciate that human developmental stages, as well as life circumstances, can actually shift the Instinctual stacking order for long stretches in one’s life.  Thus I have come to question the idea of a permanent stacking or sequencing of the Instincts.

I have a friend, a single mother of two, who says she absolutely moved from her SX Instinct after her divorce in her thirties when her kids were young, into her SP Instinct for 20 years.  She now feels SP to be her dominant instinct.  Yet, that is not how she herself identified, nor how her Enneagram teachers identified her, some twenty-five years ago.  Back then, she was told she was very SX Dominant.  Now, twenty years is a quarter of one’s life, more or less.  I have difficulty believing that this is just a “temporary foray” into a different dominant Instinct. I have heard many other stories like this.

In a more general way, having spent many years working with families and teens and the Enneagram, it seems that many teens identify as SX Dominant, with concurrence by parents and peers. Yet, as I have watched them age, it seems fewer identify as SX over time. The same goes for people in the last third of their lives – many begin to identify as SP dominant even though that has not been the case historically.

I am not interested in serving one particular school of thought on the Enneagram. I wish to be in service to the deeper truths that tie all the various points of view together. I believe that people are amazing and that the Enneagram is extraordinary in its ability to give agency to individuals who wish to not just grow into a better version of their personality, but to truly transform. My preference is to work with both the idea of a stacking or sequencing order while simultaneously allowing for movement into a more fluid model – the moving Celtic Knot idea.

In the end, presence is about being able to access whatever Instinct is best suited to meet a situation, and then to move again as the situation changes and something else is called for.  We need more fluid models to include this kind of expansion, so that we do not begin to see Type and Instincts a fixed concepts, but as part of a greater moving and evolving whole.

I invite any questions or comments on my blog posts. Please send me an email and I will do my best to get back to you.   ~Barbara