Practicing Relinquishment: The Enneagram Goes on Retreat 

“Every movement toward the humiliation of the false self, if we accept it, is a step toward freedom and inner resurrection.” 

– Fr. Thomas Keating 


Many of us have no idea how addicted we are to human striving, hard work, and performance-oriented drivenness until we actually stop. This may be one of the most shocking realities we face while on retreat—that there is a direct correlation between the discomfort we feel when we cease our relentless human striving and how deep our addiction to activity and achievement actually goes. In fact, we could almost predict that those who are most uncomfortable with the non-activity of retreat are most addicted to activity as a way of avoiding inner emptiness and shoring up their sense of self with external accomplishments.

To say no to our compulsive doing is uncomfortable in the short term, but relinquishment is one of the most essential invitations of retreat. True inner retreat requires that we relinquish all our attempts to fill the void in the usual ways and peer into the abyss of our loneliness and emptiness long enough to find God there.  

But how do we know what to relinquish and how to relinquish it while on retreat?  What does relinquishment even look like? 

Relinquishing our Addiction to Productivity

One of the great ironies of retreat is that overachievers tend to approach retreat as a place to get something done. True confession: I cannot tell you how many times I have gone on retreat seriously intending to be on retreat but also secretly hoping that I would accomplish something—everything from writing thank you notes to getting books checked off my reading list, to finishing a major book project! I’m hoping I can get two for the price of one—get a retreat AND get something done. How great would that be? 

But retreat just doesn’t work that way; when we fool ourselves into attempting to be productive on retreat, we leave more exhausted than when we came.  Even if we are able to set aside our obsession with productivity in the outer world, we might be tempted to watch ourselves while on retreat to see if anything is happening and to evaluate whether we are “making progress” spiritually. If this happens, we need to shut it down right away. Dallas Willard offers this wisdom:

“Even lay down your ideas as to what solitude and silence are supposed to accomplish in your spiritual growth. You will discover incredibly good things. One is that you have a soul. Another, that God is near and the universe is brimming with goodness. Another, that others aren’t as bad as you often think. But don’t try to discover these or you won’t. You’ll just be busy and find more of your own business.

The cure for too-much-to-do is solitude and silence, for there you find you are safely more than what you do. You will know this ‘finding of your soul and God’ is happening by an increased sense of who you are and a lessening of the feeling that you have to do this, that, or the other thing. That harassing, hovering feeling of ‘have to’ largely comes from the vacuum in your soul, where you ought to be at home with your Father in his kingdom. As the vacuum is rightly filled, you will increasingly know that you do not have to do those things—not even those things you want to do.”

Wow. Read that quote twice if you need to. By relinquishing normal patterns of human striving and hard work, we can become aware of the vacuum we keep trying to fill by doing stuff and achieving things. With enough inner stamina (from having rested) and enough outer support (from the retreat environment) we may be able to refuse our tendency to fill the vacuum in all the normal ways and instead allow the fullness of God to seep in, which is satisfying beyond anything we can do for ourselves.

Relinquishing False Self Patterns

Many of us are deeply, hauntingly aware of our false-self patterns—all the ways we have learned how to avoid relinquishing ourselves to God. This awareness might have been aided by working with a variety of tools designed to help: a twelve-step program, the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, the seven deadly sins, a 360 performance review at work, or psychological insights gained through therapy. Whatever has contributed to our self-awareness, another invitation of retreat is to consider the false-self patterns you are most aware of right now and ponder what it might look like to practice relinquishing those patterns while on retreat.

Since our earliest days, we here in the Transforming Center have used the Enneagram—a typology that describes nine patterns by which human beings attempt to secure their survival and avoid their primal anxieties—as a tool for self-knowledge leading to deeper levels of transformation.   It occurs to me that each of the nine types have their own challenges and invitations to relinquish false-self compulsions while on retreat.  The willingness to be in touch with these primal instincts and observe their hold on our lives gives us the opportunity to ask: What would it look like for me to relinquish myself to God on retreat as it relates to my false-self patterns?  

Referring to Richard Rohr’s descriptions in his book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, I have riffed a little on what it might look like for each type to hear their own invitation to surrender themselves more fully to God while on retreat and then attempt to say yes. While the invitations are deadly serious, there is a certain playfulness that can be really healthy as well.  See what you think! 

The Enneagram Goes on Retreat 

If you know your Enneagram number, you can go right to your number below; however you do not need to know your number to benefit from the following descriptions.  If you do not know your number, simply read through the descriptions and note any phrases that resonate with you and cause you to say, “That’s me! Those are feelings I have.  That is something I would do!” And let that be your invitation to practice relinquishment—on retreat and in life.  

Type One—The need to be good and perfect.” On retreat, consider giving up any attempt to “get it right.” Rather than asking how things might be improved, just enter in—trusting that this is what God has for you. If there is anything about your retreat time or the retreat house or the retreat schedule or the retreat leadership that you feel is lacking or could be done better, relinquish your impulse to fix it or improve on anything; receive it as it is and let it be good enough in God’s hands. Let yourself be good enough, too. Resist the urge to have a perfect retreat or to turn this into a self-improvement project. Experiencing the pure beauty and wildness of nature also can be deeply moving because you don’t have to fix anything. Everything is perfect just as it is, which gives you a connection with “holy rightness.”

Type Two—“The need to be needed.” Notice how it feels to be served rather than to serve. How comfortable or uncomfortable is this for you? Rather than focusing so much on what you can do for others, be present to your own needs, trusting God to meet you in that place. Receive the care and service others provide as God cares for your needs. When the impulse to help or to serve others comes upon you, can you relinquish that impulse and instead ask God to show you what you might be avoiding within yourself that needs attention, love, and care?

Type Three—“The need to succeed.” Determine not to manage your image at all while on retreat, including any subtle ways of advertising yourself by talking about your roles, titles, accomplishments, or the book you’re writing. Notice how comfortable or uncomfortable this feels. Sit in your cell and notice your sense of self (or the lack of it) beyond all your doing—even if it’s uncomfortable. Be vigilant about your tendency to appear more put together than you are and to turn even this retreat time into a project, a place of productivity, or a success story. Relinquish such impulses to God. Lay them down and just be. 

Type Four—“The need to be special.” As you arrive and move through this retreat time, notice any attempts to draw attention to yourself—flashy clothes, dramatic makeup and jewelry, how you introduce yourself to others, whether you expect or demand special treatment. Relinquish these attempts to be seen as special and sit with whatever you feel. (I remember asking a female four on retreat to come to a spiritual direction session without her makeup on—just once—so she could experience being a bit more real and less dramatic. It became a turning point!) Face the undercurrent of sadness and emptiness that often runs beneath everything. Mourn your losses. Follow the schedule and guidelines set for the retreat rather than giving in to the feeling that you are so special you don’t need to! Be normal and experience how special that is.

Type Five—“The need to perceive.” Since fives rely on information and knowledge in order to feel safe, preferring to hold themselves back and observe, determine to engage fully and not hold yourself back. Relinquish your need for more information and enter into whatever experiences are offered on retreat—whether you understand them or not. Feel your feelings. Cry your tears. Get a massage or do something else that helps you be in your body. Relinquish your emotional stinginess and give yourself fully to God. Believe that experiencing God may be more important than knowing more about God. And let go of your reading list!

Type Six—“The need for security.” Sixes prefer structures and beliefs that help them feel secure; they are typically afraid to risk moving outside the external sources that provide them with this feeling of security, which can make the risky invitation of retreat feel rather challenging. Since your posture toward new people and ideas is often mistrust, you will tend to engage retreat with questions such as: Is the theology of the person who is teaching right? Am I using the right prayers? Am I saying them right? Is it okay to take communion differently from how I’ve been taught? Is the Enneagram Christian or is it a tool of the devil? See if you can let this go. Notice what you’re afraid of and choose it anyway. If a teaching challenges your theology, open up and wonder whether God might have something for you. When you feel anxious, identify the fear underneath and choose to trust God right there in that place. Let the unpredictability of retreat time be your invitation to trust God and trust your own inner authority.

Type Seven—“The need to avoid pain.” Sevens typically avoid retreat because they prefer to be surrounded by fun and laughter, pleasure and positive thinking. They tend to skate along the surface of things, ignoring the more painful aspects of life. The invitation for sevens on retreat is to relinquish superficial addiction to pleasure in favor of the deeper joy that comes through communion with God in all of life—even the painful aspects. Since you are prone to addictive behavior, choose to leave your addictions behind in order to face reality head-on rather than avoiding it. Pack simply and limit your options. Feel your pain. Cry your tears. Experience the simple joy of silence, sunsets, a hot shower, sitting in the warm sun, a morning walk, having a meal prepared for you—without all the external props and stimulation. Face the dark side and find God there.

Type Eight—“The need to be against.” Since eights love being against and may even go so far as to create conflict because they feel more comfortable in a fight, your invitation is to relinquish that fighting spirit and simply submit yourself to the good that is at hand. Notice your tendency to want to take the opposite side of everything and just go with what’s going for once! Trust that good things can happen in the peace and quiet, not just when you’re fighting something. Also (and this will be hard) experience your weakness, your tenderness, and your vulnerability. Be a child in God’s presence. When the tears come, don’t be afraid that you are going soft; instead receive tears as the gift they are, an indication that you are soft in the best way: soft and malleable toward God and what he is doing in you.

Type Nine—“The need to avoid.”  It is possible that retreat might be easiest for nines because they seek to avoid everything: life, the world, evil and good, and maybe even themselves. They hate conflict and may give in to desire for peace at any price—even within themselves. For nines, retreat can be an opportunity to renounce laziness and get in touch with God-given passion and purpose—that which will get them off the couch, in touch with their giftedness, and willing to contribute their gifts in the world. Retreat is a time when they may be invited to relinquish their deep desire to avoid conflict and notice those places where God might be asking them to come forward and fight for something that matters. As Rohr says, “It helps nines when they consciously struggle to find their own standpoint instead of always orienting themselves toward others.”

Desperately Seeking Freedom 

That’s a lot of relinquishment! At this point you may be wondering why we would lay down so much that feels essential to our survival. The answer is simple: we relinquish all these things so we can release ourselves more fully to God. As frightening as relinquishment sounds, the result is spiritual freedom—the freedom to be what and who God is calling me to be—not who I have been unconsciously programmed to be, who others are telling me to be, or even who I am determined to be.

This is our true self in God, totally abandoned to the One who loves us—on retreat and always.

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God (InterVarsity Press).

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

6 Comments

  1. […] from her latest book, Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God, explains why retreat is so important. Every missionary you know needs to understand […]

  2. Denis Keith on October 31, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    The Rohr quote under the Nine description, that we struggle to find our own standpoint fit so well with another quote I read this morning from Gandhi. “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” The Heart of Leadership, Josh Freedman.

  3. Cliff on October 31, 2018 at 7:52 am

    WOW!!!!! I absolutely love listening, reading and learning from you. What a great teacher! What a powerful and insightful article! WOW again!!!!! Thank you 👏👏👏

    • Ruth Barton on November 1, 2018 at 8:06 pm

      You’re welcome!

  4. Biz on October 31, 2018 at 7:46 am

    Thanks, Ruth. Love this and the way you present retreat in your new book. It’s always fun to reread enneagram and be reminded of the obstacles and opportunities that I always embody but of which I’m often unaware!

    Now I just have to take time and practice!

    Grace and peace!

    • Ruth Barton on October 31, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      Thanks, Biz! I hope your find your retreat time soon! 🙂

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