A practice of care-full attention

The resources

As I have been dipping in and out of enneagram resources over the last few months I have noticed three threads that seem to be worth pulling a bit more.

Firstly, the descriptors of the nine types often offer stories of what it’s like to be a Nine, or a Two or whatever as well as some indications of the kinds of things that are important to each style or are valued by each style. We have already noted that different types, in response to external circumstances, may act in ways that can look the same but are prompted by different values and goals. For example, Nines and Twos will seek to resolve conflict quickly by placating and pleasing, soothing and smoothing, but the impulse to do so is motivated differently. This means that being aware and awake to your inner motivations is key to identifying your style – much more than any specific behaviours.

Since the enneagram offers us a map for spiritual growth with some pertinent and potentially life saving short cuts, it’s worth taking the time to make sure that you really are starting from where you are – and not where you’d like to think you are, or where everyone else says you are. What that really means is that while the style descriptions can be helpful as a way of identifying your enneagram style, it’s recognising the passion of that style at work in you that really puts the X on the spiritual growth map.

The passion of each style is what drives the personality – the ways that the passion is embodied and manifested in your life. To begin with, we are all completely identified with the personality which is the mask we constructed as children to stay safe in and make sense of the world with the hope that by wearing it we will be loved and accepted – or at least allowed to be part of the family group.

The personality mask was formed without our conscious participation, so to observe it in action requires us to choose consciously to hold an inner space where we can watch from.

Contemplative practices form a holding space and develop our ‘holding space’ muscles so that once we are familiar with the energy and attention it takes to watch the flow of thoughts, emotions and sensations in our practice, we can begin to bring that same energy and attention to the rest of life.

So once again, we find ourselves back with the invitation to cultivate our capacity to become the silent witness compassionately observing the inner flow of thoughts, emotions and sensations.

This leads me to the second thread, which is that compassionate stance. The silent witness, the inner observer – these terms sound cool and detached. That’s not what we’re aiming for. The space you are holding is a heart space. A kind, warm and generous haven of welcome and acceptance.

Speaking from my own experience, I have found that the space itself has been easier to hold than this compassionate stance. It seems to be a widely reported reality that self-compassion is somehow far harder than other-compassion. If that sounds true for you, then you might be interested to know that Sounds True have a whole series on developing self compassion, which you might want to check out.

There are probably lots of things that contribute to why self-compassion is so hard, and as you know, I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if it is in some part due to the way we regard our own inner child?

This little one who is needy and tiresome, who is curious and innocent, who is fearful and frustrated, who is lonely and overwhelmed, excited and eager – this one started all the trouble. This one did the things that caused us to experience not getting enough or not being enough. In my experience, holding a compassionate space to watch the thoughts come and go without judgement means first of all welcoming the little one in that space.

And finally, the third thread, which is the capacity to observe in the midst of life unfolding. This is a bit like learning to drive. At first, everything is overwhelming – steering, speed, gears, clutch, indicators, other vehicles etc. etc. Just getting in the driver’s seat is anxiety inducing. But slowly the body learns and the mind learns and then it becomes easy and can even be enjoyable.

So moving your contemplative practice into daily living can feel overwhelming and at times impossible. It would be nice if this shift happened as a result of the practice itself, and it does a bit – you may find after some time with a regular practice that your sacred word rises as you are sitting in the waiting room for an appointment, or standing in the queue at the supermarket; out walking your mantra synchronises with your breathing; driving a well known route you tune into the expanding compassionate inner space even as you are attending to the road. But these tend to be dips in and out of the regular, habitual, personality driven auto pilot rather than engaging an intentional practice of living awake.

Unlike learning to drive, though, we don’t have to jump right in and manage all the things all at once to avoid crashing. We do get to take things slowly, learning to make small changes and take small steps on the way to wakeful, joyful, grateful, compassionate abundant life.

And so, to….

The Practices

lectio divina

The opening verses of psalm 139 offer an image of God as one who sees and knows you completely, from before you were born and forevermore.

Centre for Action and Contemplation Living School teacher Jim Finlay likes to say that there has never, never, never been a time when God didn’t love you and there will never, never, never be a time when God stops loving you. Take a moment to breathe in this truth, letting it fill the heart space within and then as you slowly read these lines from the psalmist out loud, listen for the word or phrase that draws you.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
 Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
 You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Take some time to reflect on what is happening in your life and in your inner world, asking yourself what is this word or phrase saying to me about these things? Where does this word intersect with my life? What might I want to do in response?

Chat with the inner child

There are many different ways you may like to try engaging with the young you. These offer you the chance to hear and understand your own deep beliefs, fears, desires and delights. You may be surprised, and you may uncover things you no longer hold as true. Listen with acceptance nonetheless, the safe place allows for honesty and growth. Whatever you choose, approach the practice with as much compassion as you can muster.

Draw a picture

Get yourself some crayons and a piece of paper and pause for a few slow, deep breaths. Remember compassionate acceptance, warm welcome, or just open the door a crack – whatever you can manage – then simply ask your little one a question… maybe: Ok, show me what it’s like to be you? or: what do you want? or: how are you feeling? You may find your own questions rise…Let the child draw in response – using your non-dominant hand can be helpful, and don’t think too hard about it, trust what comes has meaning even if it’s not immediately obvious to grown up you.

Have a writing conversation

Use your non-dominant hand to write responses to your questions for your inner child. These might be along the lines of: What do you want? What are you afraid of? What do you believe about yourself/others/the world? What do you like about yourself? What don’t you like?

Writing with your non-dominant hand requires patience…give the child some time to say what needs to be said and compassionately observe how hard that is.

For both of these practices, take some time to reflect on what the drawing or conversation might tell you regarding your passion driven personality.

Embody compassion

There are several ways that you can practice self-compassion through the day. You can pick one or try all of them and see if one feels more effective depending on the circumstances. You may find that varying the practice helps to keep it fresh – or not.


Tuning in to and giving attention to the breath is always a route to embodiment, grounding you in the reality of Now, opening you to the flow of air, energy, thought, sensation, emotion all coming and going. Focus on the breath wherever you feel it most – at the nose, in the chest or the abdomen – let it anchor you in the safe haven of inner calm. Breathe. Observe. Compassion.

You can also try a deep sigh – one with feeling. Inhale deeply, sigh it out, letting go. Ahhh!

Kind Touch

When we are hurting in any way, kind touch is comforting and connecting. Place a hand on your cheek and lightly stroke, or put your hand over your heart and bring your attention with it.


Stretch out the shoulders, drawing them back and down. Get up if you are sitting or sit if you’ve been standing. Move away from your desk or phone. Shift perspective physically and as you do so, shift awareness to the heart, the compassionate inner space.

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