Humans cannot be hacked

“Hack your vagus nerve!” claims the latest and most unintentionally ironic social media headline to trigger my annoyance. Humans cannot be hacked. To imply that they can, whether by hacking their reward systems or nervous systems or biological functions or Enneagram types is not helpful.

humans cannot be hacked. this quote from When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate backs me up on this.
Quote I doodled while listening to the book When The Body Says No by Gabor Mate.

What exactly are we trying to do here?

The definition of “hack” has evolved from “to cut with rough or heavy blows” to the modern usage of “use a computer to gain unauthorized access to data in a system” to “a strategy or technique for managing one’s time or activities more efficiently. ”

I know when people use the word “hack” they mean a useful shortcut, but the sound of the word carries its original sense of violence and violation. To me, that is an important clue.

Research shows the vagus nerve is involved in a wide range of bodily functions, and having poor vagal tone is associated with a variety of disease states. Poor vagal tone can mean your system is in a stressed fight/flight mode so often, it can’t easily return to a calm, happy place. Can threatening to hack yourself really bring true relaxation and healing? My intuition says no.

That said, I am a total geek when it comes to physiology and science. I love learning about how complex our bodies are – not so I can control it, but so I can bow down to it. Our bodies deserve reverence, not resentment. This is a good article on some of the ways we can explore our experience through the lens of the vagus nerve.

Don’t just hack – ask!

What all the hacks – and most of the good resources, even – miss, is the big question: WHY! They skip right from symptom to “cure” without looking at the underlying cause.

WHY are you breathing shallowly (or deeply)?

WHY are you tired (or wired)?

WHY are you not okay with your current state?


Forgive the all caps. That is a very crude way – a language hack, if you will – of getting my intensity across in print. If I could, I would whisper. Better yet, you can whisper to yourself:

Why is my intelligent body breathing this way?

Why do I want to feel differently than how I am actually feeling right now?

Why do I feel the way I feel?

Why do I think I need a hack to fix me?

Ask – and then listen for the answer. It might not come immediately, but when it does, your vagal tone will naturally improve because you will have gotten to the root of the issue. All the cold showers and breathing exercises in the world – as well as all the Enneagram books and quizzes – can’t help you if you won’t help yourself by listening to your own wisdom. Tuning yourself out causes stress – I know because I have many years of experience doing just that! That is why I feel so certain that humans cannot be hacked.

There’s a good reason humans cannot be hacked

With both the Enneagram and the vagus nerve, there isn’t a “right” way. It is a sign of health to be able to shift states appropriately. Context matters! Sometimes we need to be assertive, other times passive. Sometimes we should run for our lives – but a lot of the time, we really aren’t in danger. Yet, since our culture holds certain states in high esteem and degrades others, we demand justification of ourselves if we aren’t in the “good” states. As if people truly are machines that should work endlessly without complaint.

We can care for ourselves and others when we pay attention to what we are experiencing in the current reality. Humans cannot be hacked. Let’s stop pretending that side-stepping what our bodies are trying to communicate is a desirable thing.

Pay attention. That’s all you can do.

In case that is all a bit too abstract, here is a simple example. For several days, I was aware of the possibility of coming down with a cold. There was a tickle in my throat and just a slight feeling of being off. We went camping. The feeling stayed with me, but I didn’t get sick. We came home and I went to bed practically as soon as the sun went down. I was more tired than normal, and I had jury duty the next day.

The getting sick feeling was stronger in the morning, but I overrode it. I had to go to jury duty. I did not want to reschedule. I shut down (unconsciously, but very obviously in retrospect). I repressed my coughs and sneezes in the courtroom. I went for a walk at lunch. I drank extra coffee to stay awake. I survived rush-hour traffic to make it home – and then I collapsed. I was sick.

blue sky and rocks at joshua tree national park
I love the rock formations at Joshua Tree NP.

This isn’t a “poor me, I shouldn’t have to do jury duty” story. I made a choice. I am happy with my choice. But our choices always have consequences.

Progress, not perfection

The old me would have continued to deny I was sick. I would have taken cold medicine to repress my symptoms and continue “functioning.” But I know better. I know the real cure is rest. So I drank tea and laid around listening to audio books.

I was sick for two days. Bummer. But – I used to have the same symptoms, “hack” my way through life, suffer terribly, all the while denying it, before finally going to a doctor and getting antibiotics. Two days of surrender is a bargain compared to three weeks of ickiness.

Humans cannot be hacked! We are complicated organisms requiring rest, care and love, in addition to work, thoughts and achievements. Hacks are just another way of intellectualizing, and thereby avoiding, that reality – unless you use them to dig deeper into what is true for you.

For anyone who is interested, here’s an Amazon affliate link to the book I listened to as I listened to my body and rested (thanks OC Library!), and the source of the above doodle quote.

Language matters in the Enneagram


It isn’t that I’ve had a change of heart – I still believe it is important to identify your Enneagram type by number, not name, to avoid creating yet another layer of separation between yourself and reality. However. Language matters in the Enneagram, just like it matters everywhere else.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Toni Morrison
language matters in the enneagrambut fails to describe this waterfall in quebec canada
Words fail me when I try to describe a scene as lovely as this, but here are a few: powerful, dynamic, peaceful, autumn, contrast, humbling.

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks. It isn’t that I set out to do everything differently than I normally do, but that is what happened. For two weeks, I didn’t write or read books. I used my phone for navigation and photos but little else. Zero driving, only one yoga practice, little TV or radio – I couldn’t even tune into conversations the way I habitually do as so many of them were in foreign languages.

Symbols are especially useful when you’re traveling. The little stick figure in a skirt was always a welcome sight, as I didn’t have to second-guess my tired brain’s comprehension of unfamiliar words. It is less work to send a heart or smiley face emoji than to type a response. However.

The last book I read before our trip was The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. In the dystopian world of Gilead, women (other than the “aunts”) are not taught to read. Instead, symbols are used so the working class can “function” under the regime. I’d forgotten all about this story until, while looking for coffee in NYC, we walked right by a coffee shop several times before I figured out its logo (a bottle).

Symbols are simple – life is not

So yes – symbols are useful when you don’t know or speak the language. However, there in Rockefeller Plaza after attending mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, symbols suddenly struck me as dangerous, too. It wasn’t that long ago most people couldn’t read. They didn’t need to: the church took care of disseminating the word of God to them. Capitalism is a religion in its own weird way – and is more universal than any church these days.

symbol of the cross aerial view of St. Patrick's cathedral NYC
The symbol of the cross bigger than ever from this view – yet it is dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Being inside the cathedral creates an entirely different take on reality.

We accept the green and white mermaid, and blue bottle, as a representative of sugary and caffeinated beverages. We accept the ichthys and the cross as symbols of Christian faith, even though plenty of less than ethical business owners slap the sticker on their bumper because they know it implies trustworthiness.

My point – and I do have one – is that symbols are just symbols. They aren’t the real thing. The real thing – the real mystery of life and consciousness and identity and all that jazz – cannot be summed up by a symbol, or a number, or a name. They can’t be summed up at all. But we humans have to try. Language is the best tool we have, so let’s use it – but wisely.

Language matters in the Enneagram!

We all rely on symbols and habits in some areas. That’s not a bad thing. But the point of the Enneagram is to really get to know ourselves, and for that we need language: gloriously complicated, loaded, meaningful, constantly evolving, and imperfect language. An emoji will not suffice.

In Personality Types, the authors (Riso/Hudson) give nine different titles for each Enneagram type, for each of the nine levels of health. I find this to be really illuminating, as it explains the potential in each type and also guards against the tendency to see only what you want to see.

milk and milk by products truck by brooklyn bridge
Mmmm….by products. Somehow I wasn’t tempted to indulge.

For example, it’s easy for me to justify “going with the flow” as just being me, a Peacemaker 9. Yay Peace! “Accommodating Role-Player” at level 4 isn’t exactly flattering – but “Denying Doormat” at level 7 is a true wake-up call. Who wants to be a doormat?! No one. However. The potential clearly exists – unless I wake up to what it is I’m doing in this crazy little thing we call life.

I’ve moved Riso & Hudson’s titles for each type at their absolute best and worst to my main Enneagram page. Please check it out! I hope learning about the Enneagram types at different levels of health is as useful to you as it was for me.