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What Are Instincts?


  • If instincts express the somatic intelligence of our vital energy, or life force, where are you right now currently experiencing this vital energy if you take a moment to connect with the sensations and drives of your body? Where are your instincts currently wanting to express themselves? 
  • John Luckovich suggests that “our instinctual needs help us to get underneath our beliefs about what’s driving us”. How would you formulate your current  understanding of what is driving you at the moment? Perhaps thinking about this in the sense of activities you would like to carry out today, and what is driving your need to do these things? But also with regard to your values, life “purpose” or direction.
  • Considering all nine needs through which our instincts work, have a look at each need and think  how satisfied you are with how these  particular needs are being met by your core instincts? So in terms of self preservation needs (physical well-being, sustainable, self regulation, resources and foundations), which of these needs is being met well by your self preservation instinct, and which of these might need some assistance from a non-instinctual source? Do the same for sexual needs (sex, chemistry, loss of self), as well as social needs (relatedness, belonging, context/vocation).
  • Do you feel a sense of frustration in terms of how your innate instincts are meeting/not meeting your needs, how does this frustration present itself to you in words, feelings, or sensations? How is this deprivation felt in your bio-psycho-spiritual system? How does this then translate into descriptions or narratives presented to consciousness by your personality structure?
  • If personality is “merely a psychological tool for meeting our needs“, in what way is your personality style currently getting in the way of meeting your primary needs?
  • In what way are your body’s “real needs“ being denied or hindered in some way by the desires of your ego? 
  • What are the tools and practices you are currently using to self regulate we’re experiencing suffering or overwhelm in some way? To what extent are these working, or not working, for you? 
  • What are some practices you follow to be present in your body?
  • Where do you feel the most “vulnerability and fear“ with regard to your dependency on external resources (which are not always available or compatible with our needs)?
  • What is your understanding of “essence“ and in what way do you see your own essence, as sometimes or often being overridden by instincts and ego in the pursuit of egoic self actualisation (lifestyle, sexual partners, self-esteem/status)?
  • How would you differentiate between your actual needs and your ego-driven wants/desires? 
  • In what ways have you noticed your personality adapting to meet your needs?
  • Have you ever noticed your ego’s desires overriding your body’s well-being? How did this/does this affect you?
  • Can you identify a dependency on external resources in your life? How does this affect your sense of security?
  • How do you perceive the balance between autonomy and dependency in your life?
  • How does your understanding of your personality as a tool for meeting your needs influence your perspective on your identity?
  • Can you think of ways in which you unknowingly relate to your instinctual needs more from emotional and mental associations rather than the body’s own intelligence?
  • What does autonomy look like for you, and how does it align or conflict with your need for external resources?
  • Reflect on the last time you experienced stillness. How did this impact your sensitivity and clarity of consciousness?

“The human animal is composed of two natures, the animal or lower self and the spiritual or higher “human” self, and this because the former is necessary to the development of the latter.” – The Zohar

What is Instinct?

Instinct is the most basic arrangement of awareness in organisms.

Life responds to stimuli, seeks substances for energy, develops, and reproduces, and these actions are all supported by instinct, acting as basic vehicles of awareness. Instinct is the foundation from which every other capacity of an organism emerges. Human beings live in animal bodies that require regulation: the needs and drives of the body are powerful and intense, rooted in our personal survival and the survival of our species. They express our vital energy, our “life force,” equipped with millions of years of somatic intelligence to support and make possible our survival and thriving. Because of this, our Instinctual Drives exert a tremendous influence on our psychology and, therefore, on our spiritual development. With the right cultivation, they are able to support us in expanding the horizons of how we experience ourselves, how we relate to our own life force, and how we create conditions for fostering greater depths of presence.

Instinct is easily trivialized and dismissed as simply the primitive forces and behaviors that keep us from dying, but in fact they serve a much greater role. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (2003) explains, our biological systems are forces that strive for life’s thriving:

the innate equipment of life regulation does not aim for a neither-here-nor-there neutral state midway between life and death. Rather, the goal of the homeostasis endeavor is to provide a better than neutral life state, what we as thinking an affluent creatures identify as wellness and well-being (p. 35).

They provide a foundation for life to flourish, to be enjoyed, and for finding personal meaning and fulfillment. The instincts carry deep biological wisdom of what our needs are and how to skillfully fulfill them while remaining adaptive and resilient. Our living is an expression of our instinctual capacities, and much of the joy of living is thanks to life actualizing itself through the instincts. They are the cornerstone for our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.

“Instinct,” however, is a slippery word that can mean many different things to many different people. What is commonly referred to as “instinct” runs the gamut of the most basic autonomic functions of the nervous system that sustain life on a biological level, to the entire organization of our psyche and social systems, depending on the field of study and the source in question. In common vernacular, instinct generally refers to autonomic functions and simple reflexes, such as the glances and smiles exchanged when we’re attracted to someone, and even our capacity to read, take note of, and recall the faces of other people. Other times, instinct is meant to capture our desire or knee-jerk reactions.

In the context of the Enneagram, we are concerned with how the body and psychology impact consciousness, and therefore, how consciousness becomes identified with instinctual agendas. We don’t become identified with pure physical appetites like hunger or lust, but we can with the motivational drive to care for our physical well-being, with the drive to elicit the sexual choice of a potential partner, and with the drive to create relationships and increase our sense of belonging.

Neuroscientist Donald Pfaff (1999) describes drives as having two main elements. First, a generalized arousal system in the brain produces the energy and motivation to satisfy biological needs.

Secondly, a specific constellation of brain systems produces the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors associated with each particular biological need. As we will see, this is exactly what the Instincts of the Enneagram are: biological drives with specific neural networks, neurochemicals, and motivations to address specific needs.

Instead of focusing exclusively on descriptions of behaviors and personality traits, as is often the case with works on the Enneagram of Personality, this article will help you to also understand the Instinctual Drives in terms of aims and energies. “Aims” refers to the goal of Instinctual Drives, which is to fulfill specific biological needs.

They are motivational drives with a definite function and purpose rather than vague catch-all terms. “Energies” refers to the specific qualities of excitation, attention, and psychological boundaries that the energy of the Instinctual Drive is expressed as, which we’ll be calling “Instinctual Approaches” in other articles. They support the pursuit of instinctual needs and deeply influence the texture, shape, and boundaries of attention. Understanding instinct on these terms can help us be less “in our heads” about trying to match our usually-faulty self-perception with a written description and orient us to observe the forces of instinct in real-time.

The needs and approaches help us to see what is motivating us, what needs are not being adequately addressed, and how we unconsciously prefer and apply certain instinctual strategies while ignoring others. This creates an imbalanced “mismatch” of intentions and behaviors. These distinctions can also reveal how we misread our own biological and emotional signals in a way that reinforces a negative psychological status quo. When we view the instincts this way, we understand them and recognize them in ourselves with greater nuance and specificity.

Instinctual Needs

Each Instinctual Drive exists to address specific needs grounded in biology. These needs are more than just basic survival maintenance; they speak to a quality of physical, emotional, and psychological well-being that is necessary for a satisfying and well-rounded life.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is probably best known for his creation of a hierarchical map of human needs, from basic survival and maintenance of our organism to satisfying conditions that support the actualization of an individual’s potential. The map of needs he created was a pyramidal diagram that ranged from basic physiological needs, such as the need for water or to expel bodily waste, to needs for actualization and increased consciousness.\

While some dispute how accurate and scientific this model is, it nonetheless has value. Maslow’s model went against American cultural narratives, which are generally disdainful of need and the expression of need, as well as the state of psychology at a time when the emphasis was on psychological dysfunction. Maslow’s real contribution was recognizing and articulating that there is no clear universal baseline of what basic needs are—needs are varied, dynamic, and dependent upon where we are developmentally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. Additionally, Maslow was able to intelligently articulate how basic needs manifest at different levels of development, and that even at high levels of development, basic needs are still present. How needs are managed at one level differs greatly from how they are addressed at more basic levels.

What we can draw from Maslow is the understanding of how central a solid foundation in the well-regulated body, instincts, and personality is for the development of true consciousness.

The instinctual needs are the primary motivations for our behavior and the major force behind our personality. Since our habitual state of awareness is quite limited, most of the time we have incorrect assumptions about what’s motivating us. The instinctual needs, then, help provide a first step in penetrating a layer of our psychological onion by getting underneath our beliefs about what’s driving us, which is vital for awakening from our automatic state. Having an objective view of our real physiological and emotional needs also helps us to take better care of ourselves, but more importantly, it helps us to be real with ourselves.

It is crucial to understand that a great deal of the human struggle to meet basic needs and much of the suffering that results is due to environmental factors, like political, economic, and social climates, abusive relationships, degrading work, or dangerous living situations.

This should not be overlooked or ignored, though it is beyond the scope of this article.

Each Instinctual Drive is a motivation to fulfill three basic biological and emotional needs, making for a total of nine needs. It is coincidental that the number matches with the points on the Enneagram, although there seems to be nothing random about the triadic pattern that emerges from everything based in the Enneagram.

The Needs of the Instinctual Drives are:

Self-Preservation Needs:

Physical Well-Being: The need to care for the body. This includes attending to matters of health, safety, and comfort.

Sustainabile Self-Regulation: The need to cultivate skills and capacities necessary for independent self-regulation and resiliency in the face of challenges.

This is the need to strike a “dynamic equilibrium,” to find a balance between activity and rest, adaptability and durability, and to feel our own autonomy and competence.

Resources and Foundations: The need to have resources and assets available for our physical well-being. Our foundations, such as home, work, and family, are resources and provide a basic sense of orientation. Foundations serve as touchstones around which our lives are organized, usually as an expression of our values. Included here is our lifestyle, the sensibility informing the rhythms of our daily living.

Sexual Needs:

Sex: The need to elicit the sexual choice of potential mates and the need for sexual contact and release.

Chemistry: The need to seek and find complementary energies, including a need to feel “chosen.” Chemistry is the means by which we sense a creative possibility and enlivening influences.

“Loss of Self”: The need to get beyond ourselves and our usual psychological boundaries, a temporary dissolution of the habitual experiences of selfhood as a kind of self-renewal.

Social Needs:

Relatedness: The need to be in a relationship and maintain close emotional contact with others, whether friends, partners, or family. This is our need for emotional intimacy and for giving and receiving attention and care.

Belonging: The need to feel belonging with someone or something, to feel we matter and are a part of something greater than ourselves. Another way of expressing this need is as a need for community, collaboration, and for a sense of place and support.

Context/Vocation: The need to interpret the boundaries, expectations, and structures of interpersonal dynamics. This recognition further motivates us to participate in the lives of others beyond self-interested pursuits and to understand one’s part in a greater whole. This may manifest as the need to give to or serve others, to create meaning for oneself and others, and to share one’s gifts and vocation.

The impact that having our needs met has on our felt sense of well-being and wholeness is hard to measure or capture in a description, but the experience of relief and pleasure is clear. When a need is met, whether physical or emotional, a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters are released to regulate and restore our nervous system. As physical and psychological health and well-being improves, we relax, happiness increases, compulsions decrease, distress lessens, and we can step outside of the egoic mental and emotional patterns that are reactions to an unregulated body. An inability to meet one’s basic needs, on the other hand, leads to intense distress and psychological imbalance.

Recognizing what needs require attending to, versus what needs our ego wants to overindulge or ignore, begins with presence in the body. Taking real care of our needs lessens the “volume” of unconscious associations and reactions of anxiety and distress.

Thus, personality, including fears and narcissism, can be rendered more transparent, flexible, and strong instead of fragile and rigid. We can have more inner resources and energy for dealing with life and for relating with others, and more importantly, we have more energy and more force behind our attention for our presence and inner work.

These drives are our life force, and allowed to operate unobstructed from the interference of outdated psychological content, they seek and foster conditions that literally make us more alive. If we are truly following the energy of the instincts, they imbue us with nourishment and meaning, and when our instincts are in a natural alignment of service to our welfare, our health, vitality, and psychological well-being flourish.

The core of the personality is the struggle of how we meet our basic needs. This has a variety of implications that underscore the value and centrality of instincts in inner work, some of which are immediately useful and some of which we’ll return to later on. First is that this structure, the personality, that we invest so much pride and energy in is merely a psychological tool for meeting our needs—it is not a viable source of identity. While we may not always be thinking about or taking direct action to meet our appetites and desires, all of the products of our personality that we’re typically quite proud of—including our deep thoughts, our emotions, our creativity, our talents—are features we have adapted that directly or indirectly support meeting one or more of the above needs, as will hopefully become clearer later on. This realization should bring us the humility and curiosity to reconsider where our attachments lie.

Secondly, this also means there is a relationship between our capacity to self-regulate and our quality of consciousness. One characteristic of the ego is ignorance about what the body needs due to its state of general physical dissociation. The ego understands what is required to reinforce identification with itself, but this means that our mental and emotional cravings are often out of sync with our body’s real needs.

There is often a great disparity between the body’s needs and what the ego craves or thinks it needs. For example, our body may need a certain amount of exercise and a certain nutritional balance, but for the ego, being comfortable all the time and eating the comfort food mom used to make may feel like well-being on an emotional level while being physically and psychologically unhealthy. It’s almost a guarantee that we relate to all nine instinctual needs more from the emotional and mental associations attached to them instead of the body’s own sensation-based feedback and intelligence.

When the ego’s desires override the body’s well-being, this creates problems for us physically and psychologically. It means our nervous system stays chronically dysregulated and our bodies become locked into patterns of stress and tension that feel “normal.”

One reason that stillness is such an important factor in spiritual practices, for example, is because it is very difficult to refine the sensitivity and clarity of consciousness when our nervous system is bound up in tension, emotional reaction, and chronic thoughts from its distress. So our inner work begins when we learn, through physical sensation, to be sensitive to our actual, present state instead of our ego’s ideas, concepts, and stories about what we need. We start to bridge this disparity by learning to consciously self-regulate.

Third, as needy humans, we are dependent on forces outside ourselves. Even if we grow our own food, for example, we are still dependent on the conditions that make growing and preparing food possible. When we are born, we’re entirely reliant on our parents, and gradually, nature and our parents direct us to being able to meet our own needs with greater skillfulness and efficiency as we grow.

However, this dependency on external resources is the source of a great deal of vulnerability and fear that are bound within the instincts and are at the core of the personality. Will the things we need always be there? Will people still want to give me their care and attention?

Most human activity is based on doing things that we think will keep instinctual resources—the objects, circumstances, and people we depend on to regulate us and meet our physical and emotional needs—accessible to us. On the other hand, it is important for people to feel they are autonomous and can meet their own needs.

Therefore, the central conflict of the personality is between one’s desire to feel autonomous and one’s dependency on externals for necessities, which will be explored in detail in another article.

The fourth implication brings the Enneagram into the mix. That is, because we mistakenly take our identity to be rooted in the personality, we end up projecting the qualities of essence at the core of our Enneagram Type onto instinctual resources. It is like we hold a dim memory of essence, but instead of seeking it directly, it is as if we are trying to evoke the feeling of essence through instinctual needs.

Most human obsession with attention, sex, and wealth boils down to unconsciously viewing instinctual resources as the keys to actualizing the Essential self. The ego believes it will self-actualize by obtaining a desired lifestyle, sexual partners, and esteem or status. When instinct and Enneagram Type are taken together, we gain a clear picture of the crux of our personal and specific pattern of how essence is forgotten and consciousness is enmeshed in instinct.

This will be unpacked in further articles. With this in mind, we can take a closer look at the role these drives play in maintaining our bodies and in our psychological make up.

You’ll notice that the following section on the Self-Preservation Instinct is shorter than the other two drives. This is not to shortchange or undervalue Self-Preservation, but generally speaking, the Self-Preservation Instinct is relatively straightforward to understand. While not to be taken for granted, there is far less cultural baggage to unpack for Self-Preservation than there is for Sexual and Social.

This is an extract from The Instinctual Drives and the Enneagram, reproduced here for study purposes for The Enneagram Book Club.