Moving from the hard work of self-observation to the compassionate work of self-remembering leads us to the thrilling work of living into the gift of our freedom. But this is harder than we realize because many of us suffer from a spiritual fear of heights. It’s as if we only allow ourselves so much growth before we start doubting or before we roll out our inner critic’s mental tapes calling out our subconscious imposter syndrome.
It’s like this. Our physical bodies have a set point or a weight range that’s biologically programmed for optimal functioning. The set point isn’t always the ideal weight for our height and age, but it’s where our bodies have learned to manage. These set points are stubborn, that’s why some of us struggle to lose weight and keep it off. I’ve attempted to drop fifteen to twenty pounds from time to time, but when I’m successful it’s not long before that lost weight somehow, slowly but surely, creeps back.
What we learn from our body’s set point is that if we want to lose weight and keep it off, then we need to maintain a new set point for an extended period of time so our body’s intelligence can reorient and recalibrate.
I believe the same is true for our psycho-spiritual health. We all seem to get stuck at a comfortable psycho-spiritual set point that keeps us from growing. And it’s daunting to shake up this set point because it requires much of us.
This is why meditation is so hard for most of us. But it’s also why meditation is so important for all of us. I love the old Blaise Pascal assertion: “All human evil comes from this: our inability to sit still in a chair for half an hour.”
Once we find a contemplative practice that seems to work, there’s some early excitement about the impact it has on us and the immediate changes we experience. But it doesn’t take long for the difficulty to show up once our practice sets in and the demands of life become distracting strains on our commitments to mindfulness. It’s also frustrating for those of us who experience positive changes at the beginning of adopting a new practice, only to have those transformations drastically slow down if not stall entirely.
One of the founding board members of our nonprofit organization and one of our dearest mentors, the late Father Thomas Keating, used to instruct folks incorporating a Centering Prayer practice to commit to two twenty-minute meditation sits twice a day for six months before giving up on the practice. It really does take that long for most of us to experience a change in our psycho-spiritual set points.
Sadly, most of us won’t give it six months. We’d rather stay comfortable where we’ve learned to function. This kind of stretching feels too hard to commit to, even though the bigger picture shows the real and rewarding benefits that we’d like to have . . . if only we could have them without all the work. Others of us do embark on a commitment to our inner work, only to second-guess the fruits of the transformation we experience.
I’ve suffered this self-limiting commitment to my own stalled set points over the years. At certain points in my life, especially when I found myself on the verge of much-needed spiritual breakthrough, I’d somehow convince myself I didn’t deserve the growth I had worked so hard for, or that I wasn’t worthy of it. Just as I was about to live into some of the gifts of my contemplative practices, a part of me tucked in the darkness of my shadow would self-sabotage and subvert my growth. There was a fragment of my identity that wanted to keep the whole of myself stuck in the past where things seemed familiar and comfortable, even if unhealthy.
This is where friends showed up and community became so important.
I can’t image a better illustration than what may be the most visually enthralling ten minutes of modern cinematic storytelling. Set in 1740 near where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay share borders, the 1986 film The Mission tells the story of two men, Father Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit missionary priest played by Jeremy Irons, and Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary slave trader played by Robert De Niro (who coincidentally happened to play Frankenstein’s monster in a 1994 film).
The priest and the soldier fight for the souls and the bodies of the same Guaraní tribe. One attempts to convert them to colonial Christianity; the other traffics them as slaves to plantations owned by colonial Christians.
After returning from an expedition to enslave captured members of the tribe, Rodrigo Mendoza discovers that his younger brother and fiancée are having an affair. Out of rage he kills his brother. Then out of sorrow he requests the most severe penance from Father Gabriel. Consequently, he undertakes an agonizing journey of reconciliation.
Rodrigo Mendoza is invited to join the Jesuit mission in the mountains, but part of his atonement journey is to bundle up his armor and sword, the symbols of his past transgressions, and drag them with a rope as he climbs a treacherous mountain to the Jesuit’s mission. The climb is arduous, to say the least, as Mendoza navigates jagged rocks while the bundled net of his former military tactical gear constantly gets trapped in the crevices.
Upon arriving at the mission, completely exhausted and on his knees, unable to take another step, members of the Guaraní tribe recognize Mendoza. One of them grabs a long knife and rushes up to him, pressing the blade against his throat. The Jesuits back off, realizing that because of the injustices Mendoza has inflicted upon this community, the tribe must deal with this on their own terms. After a few tense moments, the young man uses the knife to cut Mendoza’s burden loose, freeing him from his past and welcoming him into this new future.
What a powerful story of belonging. What a powerful snapshot of forgiveness.
You see, the burdens we drag through life and try to reconcile are inevitably too heavy for us to carry. In some cases, we unnecessarily tether ourselves to our pasts, waiting for the offended persons of our previous lives to free us through their forgiveness. We need both the experience of belonging to others and the experience of belonging to ourselves. When we either accept the whole of ourselves, or experience others’ acceptance of the whole of us, it makes belonging more possible on both accounts.
Like the Guaraní tribe members, the Holy Ideas and Virtues stand to greet us with all our baggage and set us free.
Why do we tie ourselves to the burdens of our Passions and Fixations? Why won’t we allow ourselves to let go and embrace the truest parts, the most beautiful parts of ourselves, that for whatever reasons we’ve forgotten? Perhaps in part because our baggage is familiar to us, even comfortable. But there’s no denying it weighs us down.
If the Enneagram only offers nine mirrors for us to see ourselves without also offering nine road נּꬾmaps for what we do with self-knowledge, then we can’t help but spin the wheels of fueling our narcissism and harming the tenderest parts of ourselves.
I believe the Enneagram’s most essential invitation is toward self-compassion. If we can practice radical self-acceptance for ourselves, we cannot help but extend that very same undiscriminating acceptance toward others. And that compassion leads to gentleness with self and a renewed love for the world. If our interior life is centered in the reality of our belovedness, we will in turn project such a force of love into the world. In Enneagram language, the Virtues are the gifts of the heart that is centered in the reality of so radical a love.
Excerpt adapted from The Enneagram of Belonging: A Compassionate Journey of Self-Awareness by Christopher L. Heuertz. © 2020 by Christopher L. Heuertz. Published by Zondervan. Used by permission. Published in the Enneagram Monthly February/March 2021, Issue 259 page 10.