EPP Founder, Susan Olesek, will be joined by members of the global EPP community to share how EPP is responding to our evolutionary purpose during the COVID-19 outbreak. This virtual call will introduce guests to EPP’s practices for creating safe spaces to cultivate compassionate community, meaningful connection, and healing in the world.Register
Formerly incarcerated individuals engage in a dialogue with high school students about their shared experience studying the Enneagram
Jeff Limon had envisioned a “perfect life,” but those plans were derailed when he began struggling in graduate school. Eventually he dropped out, became deeply depressed, and turned to drugs to numb the pain. His addiction ultimately landed him in Santa Clara County Jail, which is where he first learned about the Enneagram — an incisive psychological tool that teaches people how to identify entrenched patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that underlie our actions.
While in prison, Limon became a student of the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), a nonprofit dedicated to serving the incarcerated and their potential future. Limon became an Ambassador for EPP upon his release, and on Thursday, January 23, he and other formerly incarcerated individuals who learned the Enneagram in prison spoke at Los Gatos High School (LGHS) alongside students participating in the Enneagram Teen Project (ETP) — a pilot program of EPP.
“I truly believe that had I discovered the Enneagram in my youth, the ensuing insight I would have gained from it would have better prepared me to navigate the trials and trappings of my life. The wisdom I have gained through studying the Enneagram has allowed me to make sense of and be at peace with my 17 years of addiction and all its associated tragedies,” says Limon. “Imagine being able to appreciate and be proud of the best things you like about yourself, while at the same time accepting and having compassion toward and the ability to work on what you find most challenging. My study of the Enneagram has afforded me this.”
During Thursday’s event, high school students navigating the stresses of youth found common ground with men and women who have served years in prison, ran with gangs, battled decades of addiction, and still found freedom — on the inside — before they even got out of prison.
“The Enneagram has allowed me to see the parts of me that have grown from all the things I have endured. It’s also taught me to accept every part of me and to better understand how I react and behave in situations and to learn to love all of myself as much as I love my strengths. Because once we accept ourselves, we can share that feeling of love with others,” says LGHS student Sara, an ETP participant.
Funded through a grant from Los Gatos High School’s New Millennium Fund, the Enneagram Teen Project is introducing self-awareness education to more than 200 high school juniors and seniors through a modified version of EPP’s program.
For the last decade, EPP Founder Susan Olesek has been on a mission to help people understand why we do what we do through the Enneagram Prison Project. She’s also an LGHS parent, which inspired her to launch the Enneagram Teen Project.
“EPP’s vision has always been to free people — all over the world — from the prisons of our own making. Enneagram Teen Project emerged from this vast vision quite organically,” says Olesek. “Personality is a survival strategy that starts in childhood. Equipping youth with the tools to foster a deeper sense of self-connection, self-compassion and self-awareness is a necessary progression to helping adults who seek to understand what’s been driving them since they were kids. As a pilot project of EPP, ETP is advancing dialogue around social justice issues related to mass incarceration in our country by empowering the next generation with the most important thing there is: self-knowing.”
ABOUT THE ENNEAGRAM AND EPP
The Enneagram is a profound psychological tool that acts as a roadmap to our ego-structures and has been gaining pop-culture status in recent years. This tool cuts across cultures and languages, as well as ages.
EPP offers self-awareness training programs to those in jails and prisons from California to Minnesota, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and France with unprecedented success. Learn more about EPP at www.enneagramprisonproject.org
Why is it that even long after we have found our Enneagram type, we can still find navigating the territory of our personality to be so confounding?
This workshop will introduce foundational principles of the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), a paradigm-shifting approach to how we heal. EPP’s tried-and-true method has been used to guide some of society’s most hurting members out of the confines of their own mind and body, and back to lives of freedom and purpose.
Starting with the premise there is nothing wrong with you, we will use the Enneagram as a system to remember what is right about you. In this first-of-its-kind offering, you will be in the company of those who want to “re-member” the best parts of ourselves.
Together we will…
- Uncover how we build our own personal prisons by understanding how personality forms;
- Deepen our ability to listen with reverent stillness – beyond our judgments and aversions; and
- Be more able to stay warmly compassionate for ourselves and others in the midst of our reactivity
Participants are asked to complete the following pre-requirements:
- Read the Wisdom of the Enneagram book by Russ Hudson and Don Riso
- Know your own EnneaType
- Have previously explored your own Enneagram type either with a coach or through another introductory workshop
- Possess a genuine openness to learn about self and share in that process with others
Please note: Any exceptions to these requirements must be cleared with one of the course facilitators.
Special Panel Presentation:
This workshop includes a special panel demonstration of “the work” by EPP Ambassadors. EPP Ambassadors are members of our community who have journeyed their own interiors whie incarcerated as EPP in-custody students. Today, these men and women are genuine agents of change, modeling for all of us what liberation is possible when we understand how to unshackle ourselves from self-limiting beliefs of the past.
Since 2016, Susan Olesek and James Flaherty have been enjoying the evolving partnership between two highly aligned organizations: New Ventures West and Enneagram Prison Project. Together these two visionaries have laid the foundation for interested, certified New Ventures West coaches to volunteer their time to coach and support EPP Ambassadors, those once incarcerated who are navigating newfound freedoms “on the outside.”
- Susan Olesek is a Human Potentialist in pursuit of what is possible for people. She is also the Founder of Enneagram Prison Project, a global, non-profit organization on a mission to help the incarcerated to understand why we do what we do using the Enneagram to inspire transformation – on both sides of the bars – through self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-compassion.
- James Flaherty, MCC is the founder of New Ventures West and co-founder of Integral Leadership LLC. James is also the author of Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others, which is widely recognized as a seminal text in the field of coach education. He coaches EPP Ambassadors and has served as an Advisory Board Member for Enneagram Prison Project since 2016.
“It is true that we are called to create a better world. But we are first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task: that of creating our own lives.”
I was invited, and I accepted the invitation of EPP, The Enneagram Prison Project, to attend a symposium inside San Quentin State Prison in California. Prior to entering the prison on the day of the symposium, I had met many of the people involved with EPP, including the Ambassadors, men and women who are former incarcerated students of Susan Olesek, and her trained guides. I had heard their stories and witnessed, through their own words, how the enneagram program taught inside the prisons had changed their lives. Certainly their stories are compelling and life-altering. They are lovely people for whom I cheer and wish the best. They are an inspiring and a wonderful reminder of how we “do the work together.”
My biggest takeaway was that the enneagram study really works! I had the amazing opportunity to talk with many of the incarcerated who were present and told me how much they had learned about themselves. What was even more evidenced was how comfortable they were in the presence of each of us. We shared a common bond: our interest and work with the enneagram tool. We spoke the same language and in their eyes I saw and experienced connection.
There are faces I will never forget. Whatever I expected before I went into the prison, those thoughts and preconceived notions evaporated within seconds, including my experience studying the enneagram. As the chapel filled with the students, they immediately dispersed among the visitors and I found myself gob smacked by the feeling that they were welcoming me. I was in their home and they were making me feel welcomed. I’m not sure what I had expected, but whatever it was, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and easy they made our introductions feel. We were simply one, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries…pleasantries that were authentic and genuine. As a first timer, I was made immediately welcomed. I observed that those who were more familiar…who were guides or had been into the prison before…they were easily recognizable to the students. It was like a family reunion, where everyone was happy to see the other and took up precisely where they had left off. And I observed that they worked the room like the hospitable hosts that they were.
It was a beautiful day on the peninsula. The prison personnel were accommodating. We moved about in the room that was the prison chapel with tremendous freedom to congregate and speak openly. The camaraderie was palpable. I’m not sure I’ve ever attended a more free-flowing event. As the room filled and we took seats, I found myself filling up with love and connection and extreme gratitude to be a part of such an extraordinary event. I wanted to savor every moment.
When the time came to leave and we gathered, as is the custom at EPP, in a circle to share one word to represent our presence there, I could think of many. Love, connection, and friendship came to mind, and I chose gratitude. I felt so grateful to walk among those who were really doing the work to know themselves…to unlock the doors to the “prisons of their own making.” I was struck by how well they were succeeding at it. Helen Palmer, in her remarks to the group, reminded the room over and over again that they “had time” to do the work. While I do not believe any student in that room believed that they did not have time, I do believe that they heard her message with the good intention with which it was delivered. The people, the program, and the work had, without doubt, changed their lives and their understandings of their true selves and their individual gifts and where and how they fixate in type. They brought their humanity and their connectivity to all in the room with them that day. And it hung like an aura amongst us all, shining a light of benevolence and compassion throughout the space.
As I took the long walk down the sidewalk toward the parking lot, away from the chapel, the prison, the courtyard, the guards, the clanging doors, the solemnity and friendship inside, I thought about my own work. The students on the inside had profoundly done more than remind me that the work is never done. They afforded me an opportunity to observe my own reactivity and to even see my own gifts. Always I have been taught that you need a teaching, a teacher, and a community. I believe that now. I see that now. AND, most importantly, as Susan Olesek teaches, “we do the work together.” She taught our hosts that and they taught me that that day in San Quentin.
One of the EPPeeps, Slam, came to the [International Enneagram Association] conference with a huge roll of stickers, little tan hearts that said “love.” Everyone he met got a little tan heart to wear — I personally brought like five of them home with me. Throughout the next few days, you could tell who Slam had met because they were carrying a little bit of love with them. The stickers were a sweet gesture but also a great visual for one of the themes of the week: presence. Slam’s presence — and love’s presence, and EPP’s presence — were on proud display by everyone he had reached. When Susan talks about presence, she often mentions a kind of gauntlet thrown down by Russ Hudson: how much presence can you tolerate? After a really incredible week with EPP, I think I’m able to tolerate and appreciate a lot more of it.
Throughout the week, people were present in the most refreshing, literal meaning of the word. Instead of retreating behind their phones as we so often do, people were open and ready to connect. And it turns out that people are interesting — every person I spoke with had fascinating stories or wild insights or a heartening curiosity to learn more about everyone around them. The men I talked with in San Quentin were eager to share their presence. The conversations that could have lasted for days were condensed into a meal and a few minutes around the presentations, but we managed to discuss everything from the Enneagram to our families to voting. They asked incredibly perceptive questions, and I struggled to match the depth of their awareness. I was surrounded by the most welcoming community, and they made me strive to be constantly present so I wouldn’t miss a moment of it.
I can’t talk about my experience with EPP without mentioning how proud I felt to be Susan and Rick’s niece the entire time. I spent my week marvelling at Susan’s powerful, heartfelt delivery of EPP’s message and at Rick’s genuine investment in every conversation with everyone around him. It was so cool to see them in their element, and the joy and passion they bring to their work is truly inspiring.
The most powerful expression of presence I experienced was when the EPPeeps found themselves out on the hotel patio late Saturday night. I had already been moved by the strength and authenticity of the community I had just become part of, but our presence that night was completely humbling. We laughed and joked, but we also created a space to share and cry and really talk. It was beautiful and overwhelming and galvanizing. The ability to connect that deeply is a true testament to the community that EPP has fostered, and I’m so grateful to have been there.
My experience with EPP has shown me that this presence is from where the world can start to change. Since I’ve been back home, our country has been bombarded with heartbreaking news on all fronts. Hatred and fear have done some devastating damage, and the nation is splintering and bleeding and crying out for help. I’ve seen enough humanity, however, to still have hope. At the end of the long night on the patio, all I could think was how badly we all need more of this – this communication, this love, this presence. There is no simple solution to the messy tangle of problems that surround us, but finding and cultivating some shared presence might just be the first step.
By: Donna Woodrow
Since my return from EPP’s Guide Training Program in March, I have been experiencing high levels of motivation and excitement to transform myself, and to change the world in a positive way. I had never imagined that I would look so forward to going to prison, or that once inside, I’d resist leaving. Parting with the men and women on the inside resulted in a deep cavern of longing in the pit of my stomach, and a large voice in my head was objecting… “but I haven’t finished my transformation yet, and what beautiful souls to do this with, can’t I stay just a little bit longer so we can all continue to grow?”
My time in California has touched my heart and mind forever. I know without a shadow of a doubt that this work is important, and that little old me, has the capacity to facilitate transformation from the inside out. My deepest gratitude to the support network of EPP and the profound change that they have facilitated in me.
I’ve been home for a few months now and as it turns out, the process of changing the world (and myself) comes with a few challenges along the way. The development of the legal structure and entity of EPP Australia has been a deliberate process requiring a healthy ration of patience. We are receiving overwhelming support from many members of the public, and the Enneagram community in Australia. We ask those committed and interested souls to bear with us a little longer as we prepare to share our journey thus far in Australia and prepare to invite others to contribute to this work.
On behalf of we who make up the EPP Australia Board, Kyle, Tamara Pickard, and myself, we are so excited to be a part of the global cavalry for Enneagram Prison Project. Stay posted for some exciting updates soon, direct from down under.
To Contact EPP Australia please send email to [email protected]
During the course of the past six months Christine there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes activity and conversations on the, why, when and how involved in establishing EPP UK. We have been involved in a wide-range of discussions with people working in the prison service, Enneagram teachers and students, coaches and business contacts as well as regular meetings with EPP Founder Susan Olesek and her husband EPP’s Executive Director Rick Olesek, who are based in San Francisco area.
EPP-UK’s founding trustees (Alan Hodgetts, Sam Ewell and Christine Adames) are working on the application and processes needed to establish a UK charity. We are aligning our mission, values and objectives with those of EPP while also taking into account the specific requirements of the Charity Commission.
Guided by EPP Core Values
By: Susanne Gawreluk, Britt Ortmann, and
|One year ago this month EPP Ambassador Alex Senegal and EPP Founder Susan Olesek invited 60 plus guests of the IEA Minnesota Chapter to consider what it would take to start a local EPP Chapter. Over the next twelve months, with EPP Chapter Leader Susanne Gawreluk at the helm, and tirelessly supported by EPP Guides Phil GebbenGreen, Britt Ortman, and the IEA Community, EPP Minnesota is on the map! The work to start a new chapter has been unpredictable and intense, but incredibly rewarding. In all that we do, we seek to be guided by the Core Values of EPP. Here are some stories from our first few months through the lens of those values from those on the front line…
WE ARE FLEXIBLE
From Phil: Our very first class at Shakopee Prison happened to fall on National Severe Weather Awareness Day. So ten minutes into our 2.5 hour class, the buzzer sounded and we all headed into the hallways. Susanne, Britt, and I sat down against the wall, turned to each other and said, “Flexibility!” and began re-doing our already full Day 1 curriculum. Forty minutes later we returned to our classroom, but no students returned. A passing Corrections Officer let us know that all “offenders” needed to return to their housing units for a “nose count.” How long would that take? Another 30-40 minutes–leaving us plenty of time to figure out how to build a container of trust and introduce the Enneagram in the short time left. Here is the miraculous report: with one hour left and our adrenaline pumping, the women returned to class and immediately jumped into the material, soaking it all in, sharing with depth and vulnerability, and showing overt excitement. What felt like a ruined class turned into an experience of connection and trust.
WE DO THE WORK TOGETHER
From Britt: We work in solidarity with the folks “on the inside” to work through the parts of ourselves that prevent us from being present to our lives. We all participate in teaching and learning, in both giving and receiving, and in holding and being held. That we do the work together gives me hope, encourages us all to trust the process, and reminds us that – at our core – we are so deeply connected as human beings. Our experiences are unique, yet the ways we live in the prisons of our personalities manifests similarly. We cannot do it alone; we are doing the work together.
From Susanne: You can trust me when I share that the chaotic unpredictability of teaching in the prison system requires a mighty leap of faith! Maintaining a calm grounded presence and surrendering to the benevolence of the universe is a continuous tango. Trusting that we will get enough class time is futile. There is never enough time. We have learned to trust that bringing our best selves every week is more than enough. Halfway through our first class a woman excitedly raised her hand and boldly announced that she would like to be our first Minnesota EPP Ambassador. She is completing her 15-year sentence next year, and I trust that her wish just may be so!
WE HAVE INTEGRITY
From Britt: It’s no surprise, as we follow in the spirit of our courageous Type-One founder, that the word integrity is reflected in the core values. This is what makes EPP so special. We carry a deep awareness of the vulnerability we are inviting from our students in order to heal and we hold that space with complete respect, reverence and intention. We are mindful of the deep privilege it is to be invited into our student’s journey of growth and healing. We are committed to doing no harm. Our focus is to reflect what is good and lovable about each one of the EPP students.
WE ARE COMPASSIONATE
From Phil: After just three weeks in a prison classroom, I already felt a change in my heart and my attitude toward life. In most situations in my life, when I am caught in my Type-Eight mindset, I just assume that I am the most powerful (and smartest…and bravest, etc.) person in the room. This mindset has often served me well as a leader and teacher. It’s also a lie I tell myself to protect myself from hurt. When I walk into the classroom at Shakopee, I have a very different feeling. Even though I am the largest human and only male in the room, I feel no need to exert dominance or strength. Instead I feel only love. More than that, I feel like I am a part of a circle of love, that I am as much student as teacher, that I am as willing to both accept the offerings and love of others, as I am willing to share myself with them. Each time I have left these prison classrooms and thought to myself: I want all of my life to be more like this, filled with love, and support, and freedom, and hope.
WE ARE GRATEFUL
From Susanne: I am wholeheartedly grateful for the opportunity to share my attitude of profound gratitude to Britt and Phil. Thank you both for joining me in the dream of pioneering the first chapter of EPP in Minnesota. This journey has included enduring numerous triumphs and disappointments over the past several months. Who knew that ‘getting into prison’ would be so difficult? Thank you for your consistent belief in the work and your dedication to see this through. I am grateful for you, Phil and Britt! And I am grateful to how lives are being changed in Minnesota due to the power and love of the Enneagram Prison Project.
EPP-Minnesota will finish up its third 10-week program at Shakopee in January. We have hopes to expand to Lino Lakes Men’s Prison in the near future.
|“One year after being introduced to EPP, being an EPP Guide has changed and deepened almost every aspect of my life. Both going through EPP training and showing up each week at Shakopee Prison have made me a calmer, more open and accepting, wiser, more loving, more emotionally expressive, more inclusive and more forgiving human being. I am very grateful. I am more unconditionally positive and trusting, which might be easy for a Seven, but is a stretch for this Eight. I have cried more in church and in front of my family over the past year than in the past twenty years combined. Crazy. And it’s partly because when I said SCARED for my one word in our closing circle in MN last November, and Susan whipped her head around and just looked at me.”
Minnesota“I’ve learned things I’ve waited my entire LIFE to learn about myself in just 12- weeks.”
Type 7 Graduate
Elmwood Correctional Facility, CA“This class made me realize that I never truly understood myself. I learned it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s safe to allow people to get to know me, to let them in.”
Type 8 Graduate
Elmwood Correctional Facility, CA
“Thank you for offering such a class at a place like this. It helped me get through week after week…”
“Understanding my type has brought so much compassion for myself… Today I’m still that loving caring person, but I’m more mindful of my needs and more open to help… I understand that [love] includes us taking care of one another and not just me taking care of the world alone.”
The thing that was most surprising was how this pattern was traceable all through my life. I learned that I have good intentions and a good heart, but I am too critical most of the time. I do have value, people do like me. Thank you for helping me to understand myself better. You’re just like a doctor, you helped me heal me.
“I was always learning something about myself every single class. I learned why I am always trying to help people and that I need to love myself more, just be me. It was insightful to learn that it’s okay to let pride go. If I need help [I can] just ask for it. This has no doubt been the most beneficial class I have ever taken in my life. I recommend it for everyone and anyone.”
“I’m wondering, what are you doing in an armpit prison like this in the middle of Belgium, and how did we get so lucky?” the man dressed in prison-issued white clothes sitting across from me asked incredulously in French. I knew there were not words enough to answer him and we were out of time. Honestly, I was asking myself the same questions.
Last month twenty mostly Belgian Enneagram teachers who represent CAP Enneagram, a nonprofit on a mission to bring the Enneagram to marginalized populations, gathered at a prison training center in Marneffe, Belgium and put their hearts to the work of learning Enneagram Prison Project’s (EPP’s) approach to teaching the Enneagram to the incarcerated.
After an intensive, deeply connecting training, EPP Belgium’s pilot class of trainees bid one another farewell the day before with the expectation to meet in prison together the following month. My last stop before returning to California was to recruit for our pilot class of students.
Namur prison houses 200 men. It took us some time to enter the facility which was not unlike the institutions in which I am accustomed to working in California with its sally-ports and clanking doors. There were men in cells three tiers up, the metal bars were covered with chipped, white paint and the air smelled of cigarette smoke. Instantly at home, I found myself engaged with the guys despite their broken English and my non-existent French.
There were just five of us: Vibha Gosselin, a long-time supporter of EPP who, with the patience of Mother Teresa, had been my ears and mouth translating my English to French, and interpreting the trainee’s French into English for hours upon days; Dorothée Nichols, who spent the last year translating our text book, the Wisdom of the Enneagram, into French; my long-time friend and EPP Assistant for the week, Lauren Roskoph; and, Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, the current Director of Training for the Belgian correctional administration. This determined man has been teaching the Enneagram to 250 correctional officers annually for the last three years. It has been Jean-Philippe’s hope to bring Enneagram Prison Project to his “detainees” as he affectionately refers to them, and my delight to meet this gentle Type Nine, who–in every way–exemplifies his Mediator/Peacemaker personality.
Countries, like people, have Enneagram types and Belgium is a Type Nine country. Like Jean-Philippe himself, Belgium’s people are laid back, with an affable, sunny way about them. Jean Philippe took time to greet everyone–officers and men-in-white alike–leaving no one out. The correctional officers received him and one another with Belgian kisses and a warmth one would find in our homes during the holidays. It was heartwarming, if not a little confounding, “This is Belgian prison?” I mused to myself, feeling my happy anticipation of what was to come.
We learned that just five men had signed up for our first-time offering based on a flier that was circulated a few weeks prior. Excellent. We seemed to collect these courageous five as we made our way through the prison. The prison director, whom we learned is an Enneagram Type Three, “the Performer” was happily hustling more men to sign up as we went, rallying them: “C’mon, even I did this course, and it was really helpful! We ended up in a sparse, but large, echoing room with just a table and about a dozen chairs. As we sat down for our one-hour presentation Jean-Philippe whispered to me: “You have fifteen minutes.” Apparently it was “frites day” and the detainees were not keen to give up their lunch. After many years teaching in prison we have developed core values and “We are Flexible” is at the top of our list.
I took in the men in for a just a minute. Folks in our prison classes always strike my heart immediately and a virgin class–where no one knows anything about the Enneagram–are precious. These guys were curious and maybe a little awkward, one young man was all jacked up with bulging muscles, another was sitting on the edge of his seat, his leg bouncing, another sat with his arms folded. They were alternately joking and dubious, but grew silent as Jean-Philippe told them about his role as training director and his hope to bring the EPP program to them since first hearing about it several years ago. With the need for translation reducing our 15-minutes in half, I dropped into my reason for visiting them as I sensed they would want to know.
“We are here to let you know about a pilot program that we are offering here next month. It’s a course that will teach you about who you are. We use a psychological tool called ‘the Enneagram,’ which helps us to understand the cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns that helped us to survive our childhood. We all have ways that we keep thinking the same things, replaying feelings even though they make us sad or angry or scared, and doing things which we don’t even want to do, but cannot seem to stop. Do any of you relate to this?”
Heads nodded, and they grew more focused. I continued, “We’re asking you to do something that may be unusual and that is to trust us even though you’re in prison. I am a mom of three boys and I find the Enneagram to be my best parenting tool. It probably saved my marriage. I was first invited to teach the Enneagram to incarcerated men and women when I was a new teacher eight years ago. When I went to prison to teach, I realized that I believed in everyone but myself.” I took a breath and made a conscious choice to share the part of my past that has been the backdrop to so much of my trouble in life.
“You see,” I continued, “…when I was five years old my mother took her life. It left me feeling like there was something wrong with me for her to do that. Interestingly, my sister thought it was her fault, and my brothers thought that it was because of them. Even my father believed it was his fault. But, who was it 100% about?” The men were quiet. I waited while the translation caught up to me and they answered my question “It was about…her.” they said. I nodded. Lauren saw the jacked up guy swipe at a tear on his face. And I felt just how present we all had become. I felt gratitude for them and an up-welling of compassion. I know it sounds odd, but I loved them in that moment. I continued…
“The men I met in prison taught me about self-acceptance. I learned from them that there was nothing wrong with me. I want you to know that we know there’s nothing wrong with you, either. But you may have forgotten what is right about you, and that’s just what the Enneagram helps us to see. What is so helpful is how this self-development tool helps us to understand not just what we do, but the unconscious reasons why. I have been teaching this system in the U.S. prison system for 8-years with a very positive response from incarcerated men and women there. We believe everyone deserves to know themselves like the Enneagram allows us to do.”
Thinking that we must have exhausted our fifteen minutes, I paused for a moment and looked back and forth between Jean-Philippe, the prison director, and the men. Someone translated a comment from the men for me, “They said, please don’t stop talking. They don’t care about their lunch.” Three more men entered the room and sat down. Jean-Philippe welcomed them and shared about his own insecurities when he learned the Enneagram for the first time. The prison director added that he thought it was crazy when he first heard about it, too. “But,” he added helpfully, it’s been quite powerful for me and I know you will like it. Dorothée added her own experience and found herself with a few tears. The men looked confused by her tears, but didn’t move from their seats. It was quiet again.
One of the men spoke up and someone translated. “I think what you mentioned about trust is already happening, because of what you have shared about yourselves.” Bolstered by their feedback we explained a bit more about how this complex psychological sytem works and asked for whatever questions they might have. One man said: “You know, I look at this diagram and I think I am the one who cannot stop doing things. I never stop, and I’ve always been that way.” Wondering if he could be a Type Three, “The Performer/Doer,” whose addiction is to success and accomplishing things, I took a guess and offered, “Your work is not to do another thing, but to just be. That is enough.” Another man spoke up and said: “I’m always giving to everyone else. Even when I don’t like people I’m giving to them!” His peers erupted into laughter, corroborating this self-disclosure. Wondering if he could relate to an Enneagram Type Two, “The Helper,” I offered to him, “Your work may be to give to yourself for a change.” These simple exchanges seemed to satisfy something among them. And then we were really out of time.
I asked one last man what he was thinking and he answered: “What are you doing in this armpit prison in the middle of Brussels and how did we get so lucky?” We told them we would be back in a month and after a round of two handed handshakes and smiles the five of us reluctantly made our way out of the prison.
Already a month has passed and in that time The Wisdom of the Enneagram has been published in French, our list of interested detainees has increased from five to twenty-six, and all of the men will be given a copy of their text book tomorrow. This week half of EPP Belgium’s apprentices will join us for an intensive Enneagram experience in prison and what I know for certain is that none of us will ever be the same.
In our earliest days of teaching the Enneagram, Don Riso and I were became aware of something that we had not anticipated: that the work we were doing was reaching prison populations and having a positive effect. We received letters from incarcerated people sharing their realizations with us, and we were always deeply moved by these testimonies. We felt renewed in our conviction that with the right information and the right holding environment, that people with very difficult histories could turn their lives around. We met with a number of individual counselors who were training with us over the years and who were using the Enneagram effectively with people in prison and were always inspired by their stories. We felt that a concerted effort from individuals in the Enneagram community could perhaps make a big difference in the lives of the incarcerated, but we were not the ones to start such a major initiative.
Enter Susan Olesek and Suzanne Dion, who contacted us with just such a proposal. We were deeply impressed with their sincerity, their sense of mission, and their humility in wanting to really learn the Enneagram material from the deepest place—a process that is of course much more than merely learning the information. In short, we saw that Susan and Suzanne, as good Enneagram Ones, were devoted to walking their talk, and in a relatively short time, they were gathering talented Enneagram students from both our Enneagram Institute as well as the Narrative Tradition, and a number of other schools—all drawn together by the vision of using this amazing tool to make a difference in the world. Don and I enthusiastically backed this project and made any teaching resources we had available for the good work that the nascent Enneagram Prison Project needed to accomplish their mission.
Our next great delight was meeting a number of the first “ambassadors”— formerly incarcerated men and woman who had learned the Enneagram through EPP and were motivated to share their experiences both inside and outside the prison systems. I was deeply moved by their stories, their realness, and their genuine turn toward what in my view is what the Enneagram is really about: not simply typing people, but using this profound system for the genuine transformation of the human psyche. And hearing the stories, the transformation was real, obvious, and affecting. I now count a number of the EPP ambassadors as close personal friends, and feel this work is perhaps one of the greatest gifts that has come out of this system of self-understanding.
As you may know, Don Riso passed away in 2012 after a long and brave battle with cancer, but he left the world knowing some of the good that we had done, and encouraged me to continue to work with EPP in any way possible. I wholeheartedly agreed, and was honored to become an official advisor to the Project along with my dear friend and colleague David Daniels, who had already done some work with the team in a prison. Still, I wanted to taste firsthand the work EPP was doing, and was determined to find a way to contribute more directly. I had several conversations with Susan about coming to one of the prisons with her, but given my very heavy teaching and travel schedule, the opportunity did not arise until this March, 2016.
In short, I was scheduled to come to the San Francisco Bay Area for a retreat, but came a few days early to be able to join Susan and Suzanne on teaching trips to two prisons: Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, and San Quentin Maximum Security Prison in Marin County. After a couple days rest in San Francisco, I was brought at dawn to Elmwood to have my first session.
Many years of meditation practice and inner work come in handy when you enter an environment as intense as a prison. Yet, I noticed in Susan and Suzanne a lightness that was supportive, and actually found myself feeling much more at ease than I would have imagined. We passed through security into this inner world, and after some brief organizing ourselves and our materials went with Susan to my first class, which was about the third session in a series for a group of men who for various reasons were being isolated from the rest of the prison population.
What struck me immediately is that the faces I saw there were much like any class I have ever taught. I saw quite a range of expressions; everything from eagerness to wariness, from soft relaxation to tense defensiveness—in other words, like just about every other Enneagram class. What was different was that I could feel the enormous hunger for something real—these men did not want to be “cheered up.” They wanted truth, something that they could live with.
Susan masterfully got things started and asked the men to check in about where they were at, and to say something that they had come to appreciate about themselves. A lot of my work with people ends up being about helping them to have some kindness toward themselves, and to better manage their potentially brutal super egos—or inner critics. I saw instantly that Susan had grasped the importance of this crucial holding, and was skillfully and sensitively getting the men to look at themselves from a bigger perspective than they were used to. After everyone weighed in, at Susan’s suggestion, I took a little time to go around the Enneagram and talk about what was true, real, and beautiful about each of the nine points. I could feel a softening in the room as these men took in that whatever their misdeeds, there was a logic to what had happened, and there was still something awake and good in them. I could feel even the more tentative and suspicious members of the group were opening up, having some laughs, and feeling okay to join in with what was happening.
At the end of the session, the guys were downright effusive in their enthusiasm, and their gratitude. There were many hugs and actually a feeling of affection quickly formed. It is like that when people are present with each other. I have noticed over the years that people in Enneagram trainings often form bonds of friendship with each other that can be among the strongest and most important in their lives, even though they were only together for a week or so. When people are present with each other, they actually meet each other. What was touching and amazing was that it was just as powerful with these incarcerated men, and in fact, happened even quicker. I felt perhaps these guys had not much to gain in any pretense, and recognized correctly that for them to change their lives, some more radical form of showing up would be required. I can still feel the connection in that room as I sit writing this now.
I did not really want to leave, feeling we had just got something good going, when it was time for me to go to join Suzanne who was in the midst of an ongoing class for some of the women in the prison. These women were lively! I felt instantly a very different atmosphere than with the men. We sat in a circle, and as with the previous group, the women took turns sharing what was up for them. Instead of teaching anything formal, I participated in a conversation, listening as much as sharing. These ladies had many questions which I did my best to answer, and they seemed particularly interested in what it was like for me to be a writer—how I had fallen into such an unlikely profession as writer and teacher of the Enneagram! We talked also about relationships, and the challenges of being vulnerable to another human being. Needless to say, this was a big topic, and the conversation was free of religious or New Age clichés of any kind: just straight talk from one human being to another, based in experience and presence. Again and again, the theme of openness vs self-protection came up in these prison sessions, but it became for me a big theme of the days starting with these women. I talked with them about how all of the personality types were based in some kind of split in us, and the terrible point at which we human beings feel we have to leave parts of ourselves behind. I explained that the whole point of the inner work with the Enneagram was to find those splits, and to let presence, really a form of healing “grace” help us experience what we are in more wholeness, beyond any such splits. I could tell how well Suzanne had been teaching this group, because they followed what I was saying with relative ease, asking powerful questions along the way.
After the women’s group, we had a quick lunch, and I did a video interview for EPP which was rich for me, having just taught my first two classes in a prison environment. I also noted that in the room where we did the interview, there was an art project made by the prisoners, a set of tiles painted to create the image of “The Sleeping Gypsy” by Rousseau. It is a beautiful painting—the original hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it was striking to see it there because it was Don Riso’s all-time favorite painting. I took it symbolically as a “wink from the beyond” about what we were doing.
After lunch, we had our third and final session of the day which was with a large group of men who had been doing the Enneagram work with EPP for a longer stretch. There were a few in the class who were taking it as a repeat course having gained so much benefit from previous classes. What was evident was the greater level of listening, presence, and maturity in these men. I could feel “The Work” in them, and they were ready and able to participate in a deeper level. They all checked in, and I felt moved to share with them more of my own personal journey, including some of the difficulties I had traversed in my younger years.
Again, the comments, and the sharing would have been extraordinary in any setting. I heard and felt real self-knowledge and real humility. I felt that a lot of these men, if they stayed the course, might do some wonderfully positive things both in the system, and “on the outside” when that day came. Having met my friends who were now Ambassadors, who had been through these courses and come out the other side, it was moving for me to see these men in the midst of this alchemical process, on their way to be truly amazing human beings.
A highlight for me of this section was near the end of our time, when Susan and Suzanne had us break into groups to discuss what each of us had been realizing about ourselves through the work. I was given the privilege of working with the guys who had taken the course several times and who had some profound things to share and to ask. It was amazing to me how quickly I bonded with these guys, and felt so much hope for them.
Many of them had histories of drug abuse and criminal records which stemmed from their use, but also from activities that grew out of their addiction. We talked about learning to stay present with kindness, even to our difficulties, and that we could see the real transformation in each other. One of them shared that this seemed almost like some kind of magic, but that he could not deny the effect it was having on him and on his friends in the group. There were laughs and tears, and intimate human moments. I can still see their faces vividly in my mind’s eye. I wish so much for these guys.
The following day was yet another completely different journey. I was picked up by Susan and Suzanne in San Francisco, and we traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County to enter San Quentin Prison. I have to say this place had resonance for me from my childhood. One of my cousins fought in Vietnam and lost his eyesight there. When he returned to the USA, after his hospitalization, he came to live with my family in Colorado. He and I were both big music lovers and he had the then new album of Johnny Cash in San Quentin. I remember thinking it remarkable that Johnny Cash was allowed to go in and entertain the inmates at this famous maximum security prison, and what it must have been like. Now, nearly a half a century later, I was going to be working with inmates at the same place.
I was struck immediately by the much greater security measures. Yet we entered the prison with relative ease—Susan told me this was quite unusual. I was going to be working with a group of “lifers,” men with life sentences, who had been meeting together for some time, and who had created a place for themselves in the tough prison environment in which they could let down their guard a bit, and share more of what was inside their souls. Susan and Suzanne had been working with this group for several weeks, and they knew the basics of the Enneagram and many seemed to know their types. Shortly after we arrived, I was introduced to the man who had created this group, and he seemed incredibly centered and open. As it turned out, earlier in the morning, this man who had served some 33 – 34 years in prison, had been granted parole. He shared with us how he managed to hold himself together during his interview/hearing. But after stepping outside of the room in which the interview had occurred, he fell to his knees weeping with gratitude. No wonder there was so much softness in him. He greeted me warmly and seemed delighted to see Susan and Suzanne.
After this short but powerful exchange in the courtyard, we went directly to a smallish room with a group of chairs arranged in a circle, and one by one, the men from this group entered and took a seat. I could feel them regarding me with great curiosity, and some of them started chatting with me before the rest of the group arrived. They shared over and over how amazing it was to be seen, to be treated as a human being. They offered that this was one of the main things they loved about working with Susan and Suzanne, and how healing it was for them. One of them offered that if we could see him with such kindness and realness, knowing that he had committed very serious crimes, it enabled him to do so too. It was very apparent that Susan and Suzanne had done tremendous work to build trust with these guys, and their affection and appreciation they held for these two women was palpable. It made it easy to enter a more intimate conversation and to use our time together most powerfully. And the session was very intimate indeed.
I would emphasize that all of these men were well aware that they had done some terrible things, and they were not “easy on themselves” at all about this—quite the contrary. Most of them had been in prison for 30 years or more. One “youngster” was there only 27 years! They had few illusions about themselves, but they were, against all odds, willing to see that there was something more to who they are, and to feel all that would arise in the process of seeing that. I could see too that these men were in different stages of this journey. Some were still very hesitant to trust. Others were just beginning to open up, and still others were beginning to face the legacy of childhood trauma and deprivation that had led them to such extreme actions. Some made breakthroughs during the meeting. One man sitting near me was initially quite resistant, but upon hearing the conversations and feeling that we really were there to see him, began to tear up silently. When we had a closing meditation, he held my hand tightly and kept saying “thank you.”
As with the last group at Elmwood, this meeting was more of a conversation than a class. And again, these men wanted to know about me, where I came from, and how I got into the work I was doing. They told me that they could tell I “understood the streets.” When I shared with them that I was from New York City and that I had lived in the East Village “back in the day” there were laughs of recognition. One of them shared he had been worried that I would be some kind of “Ivy League professorial a**h***” but was much relieved that I was a “real guy.” The theme of realness was there throughout all of the classes, but most clearly here in San Quentin. There was really no room for spiritual posturing, or patronizing language of any kind. And I loved it! I had a great time with these men, talking about “real stuff.”
In Elmwood, and in San Quentin, I noticed the copies of the book I had written with Don Riso, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, and it was really moving for me to see how carefully the people in these programs had been reading the book. Writing a book is so different from the performing arts. In the latter, you get instant feedback about how the audience is responding to your work. But in writing, you send your message out to the world and hope for the best. So over the years I have been privileged to sign many heavily annotated copies of our books, but it was especially poignant for me seeing these people using the book as a kind of life line—as a way to remember a bigger picture of themselves which is exactly what we wrote the book to do.
The only teaching I did grew out of our conversations. I talked a lot about mercy as something distinct from self-pity and that mercy was a sign of real strength. I talked about how mercy could only grow from a genuine empowerment that came from self knowledge and self mastery—from being powerfully present in ourselves. I talked about how the ego substitute for empowerment is control, and the more disempowered and scared we feel, the more we need to control everything around us and inside us. The men got very excited about this concept.
I was aware that they lived in a world were vulnerability was seen as weakness and to be avoided at all costs. But I shared with them that real strength had sensitivity in it: like a great martial arts master. And who was going to be better able to take care of himself? The tough guy or the sensitive martial arts master? In other words, we were exploring the split between self protection and openness. I wanted these men to have a taste that from presence, grounded in themselves, they could be both, and in fact, they were already both.
After our meeting, a man who was in charge of the special programs at San Quentin checked in to see how we were doing, and then invited us outside to get some group photos. We were all in a great space and I really look forward to seeing those photos. As in Elmwood, I was reluctant to leave the group, but gave and received some big hugs, and let them know I would love to come back. We left the prison feeling great about the meeting and celebrating our friend who was finally being released. The sun was shining gloriously and it was one of those moments were it is obvious that our lives actually do have a purpose.
I do hope to work with EPP again, and will continue to devote my resources and those of the Enneagram Institute, to supporting this very necessary work. For those of you already involved, thank you! And for those of you thinking about it, I am sure there is a place for you in the greater work of transformation that the Enneagram is part of, and to which those of us in EPP are dedicated. And I especially give thanks for Susan, Suzanne, Rick, and Mark, and all of the core team for carrying this work forward, and I give thanks for meeting these men and women who like me, are on a new path to a true and real humanity.
Author and Enneagram Master Teacher
President of the Enneagram Institute