EPP Guides + The Men of Namur Graduating Pilot Class May 2018
“The human being is a subtle mechanism, equipped with individual springs, developed in the early years of life in reaction to the surrounding world. Understanding the workings and gears of one’s own mechanics can help to overcome their pitfalls, to enhance their assets, to know oneself better, to know others better and to function better together, in a logic of individual and social development.”
Namur Prison, Belgium
“I want only a small thing…” the Training Director said, speaking French to our closing circle, gathered inside the small prison, just outside of Brussels. He smiled at all of us looking back at him expectantly. “I only wish to change the world.” The man-of-the-hour was Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, who has spent the last three years teaching the Enneagram to over 500 prison administrators, and whose dream it has been to teach the Enneagram to “his” detainees since learning the system himself five years ago. Finally, last month, with hearts racing and hopes soaring, a committed team of apprenticing Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) Guides gently descended upon seventeen unsuspecting incarcerated men, determined to lend their hearts to this long awaited opportunity.
Exactly a year ago, Helen Palmer and I spent a quiet moment chatting at the memorial service for our colleague, and my teacher, the beloved Dr. David Daniels. Helen told me then that she had recently met a Belgian prison director who impressed her with his presence and vision. It seemed an auspicious venue to connect on this topic with Helen, the matriarch of the Enneagram community, who – much like David always was – is an ardent supporter of EPP. A truth-telling Type Six, Helen wastes not a syllable when she speaks, so her enthusiastic endorsement of Jean-Philippe was not lost on me. I didn’t know then that I would spend the better part of the next year in collaboration with both this visionary man and CAP Enneagram, a newly formed organization in Belgium whose mission it is to bring the Enneagram to marginalized populations.
Susan Olesek in front of Namur Prison
Piloting our eight-week program over a four-day intensive in Namur prison was something EPP had not attempted before. It is our vision to see the Enneagram taught in every jail and prison in the world. Scaling a project with such a hope, in a country where I was a stranger, with a language I did not know, and customs with which I am unfamiliar, felt like more than just a small leap of faith. But, something larger than me holds everything, and I could especially sense this holding around this project.
We arrived at the prison at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, dressed in EPP t-shirts, and formed a circle outside the prison gates. I inhaled deeply and sighed as I looked at this eager crew with gratitude. I felt a long way from Cleveland, Texas, where I first went to prison to teach the Enneagram nearly nine years ago. The anxiety that used to consume me in the face of the unknown was replaced by a giddy anticipation. Though I didn’t know exactly how, I felt that the next four days would work the edges of each of us, leaving everyone of us changed for the better.
We passed through security without issue, and then made our way through the prison in single file. I read our tagline on the back of the EPP t-shirts in front of me: “Freeing people from the prisons of our own making.” I felt the juxtaposition of our hopeful ensemble moving through the stale, smoke-filled air as we passed the prison staff, who greeted us with friendly expressions of curiosity. Winding up a narrow, spiral staircase to a second tier, we walked past tiny cells, some with their cell-doors ajar revealing men sitting on their edges of their beds, just waking up. Many looked up and smiled “Bonjour!” as we passed them. I marveled at the congeniality people seem to manage, even after years—or even decades—in a place as hope-depriving as prison. Feeling their dignity, and the way language connects us to each other, I practiced one of my small handful of French words, greeting folks with “Salut!” a little self-consciously.
We arrived at what would be our “classroom” for the next four days, a large auditorium with tiled flooring and bare walls that announced our entrance with a somber echo. We quickly formed another circle to get centered for the morning, but before I could get my bearings, the door burst open again and 17 men dressed in white streamed into the room, much like the light from the windows streaming in just above us. The men were lively and friendly, immediately welcoming us with hearty handshakes. I recognized some from our recruiting session a month earlier and loved the sense that we had already begun building trust and credibility by coming back to Namur, as we said we would. I was struck by the Belgian custom of acknowledging each other with intention, people looked up at each other, and said the other person’s name – small gestures, perhaps, but ones that felt refreshing given our givens. Countries, like people, are known to have personalities, and I was learning how Belgium is considered to be a Type Nine country. Called “the Peacemakers,” Type Nines can make everyone and everything feel included; this put me at ease. There in the prison, Belgian kisses were replaced with two handed handshakes, and pleasant salutations. I didn’t feel threatened or unsure despite the unknowns of this country or institution, It felt like I was on my home turf at San Quentin and the county jails of California.
We were to remain in that room together until 3:30 p.m. interrupted like clockwork only for meals and breaks—“to have a piss and a smoke”—a schedule to which we were instructed to strictly adhere. There were no “agents” among us. The correctional staff left us to ourselves, and I was glad that we would be unencumbered by an administration whom, I figured, the men probably held suspect. Being alone with our in-custody students is always the way I prefer to work in prison, as building trust does not come easy.
Carafes of hot drinks and platters of pastries were brought in and placed on tables, a treat which I knew Jean-Philippe, a self-preserving Type Nine, had orchestrated to sweeten our introductions. It worked. We got acquainted quickly, feeling more like fast friends in an out-of-town retreat, than teachers or students in a prison program. Before long, we formed our chairs into a large circle, some men balancing two or three croissants on a knee, holding their cup of “chocolat” as they looked around at the group.
My need for a translator marked the economy of time dramatically. Reducing the Enneagram to its bare elements, I tried to efficiently explain that though Enneagram Prison Project originated in America, where I have been teaching the Enneagram in jails and prisons since 2009, the Enneagram itself is ancient. I let the students know that this system is one which helps us to explore not just what we do, but the unconscious reasons why. I further shared how the self-limiting beliefs we developed as children are related to both our biology, and the very environment in which we were raised.
They men listened intently. Feeling encouraged, I continued…
Somehow we get the idea that we are not enough, I told them, in nine different ways—at some level—we all believe this, and have some very good evidence that “made us” conclude our limiting beliefs to be true. Eventually we become so overidentified with the repetitive, patterned ways we think, and feel, that we do things automatically, without even thinking. Our negative beliefs end up running us, actually. We become so overidentified with them that, eventually, we cannot tell the difference between the habituated us, and who we truly are at our heart of hearts. Our core beliefs become like a kind of prison. The men were nodding, some crossing their arms, and others leaning into the circle, on the edge of their seats. The way out of these self-limiting “personal prisons,” I added with emphasis, is to know ourselves.
The Enneagram holds the key, I told them, like a map of ego-structures, showing us the way to unlock the structures that keep us from experiencing the one things we all want most—to know and feel ourselves to be loved.
(from left) Namur Prison Director, EPP Student, Nadine Nepper, EPP Student
There was silence as the men took in what I said. Then, one by one each of the EPP Guides introduced themselves. In their own, very personal words, the others reliably shared how this insightful, psychological system had changed them in a profound way, too. It had positively impacted their ability to deal with the hardest times in their lives. The guides said knowing themselves made them better parents, helped them to forgive someone, stay married, or deal with people who used to frustrate the hell out of them. With each introduction I sensed our collective credibility deepen. I felt an upwelling of gratitude for these guides and the faith they had put in both me and the mission of EPP. I also felt the responsibility of forming this special circle, knowing that I was actually completely powerless to even make myself understood in it without Vibha, the most gentle Type Nine, at my side who volunteered to be my translator. I felt how each person contributed to our container with their presence. My social subtype got a little spring-in-its-step as I felt how true it was that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Joëlle Legrand and EPP Students
Finally, I asked the detainees why they were there… Some with confidence, but mostly with a shyness which I found quite tender, one by one they admitted that they were curious. Some of the original men we had met on our recruiting trip the month before stood and shared how, since that day, they became intrigued to hear more. They felt something “different” about the people who visited from EPP during that one hour, something felt inviting, and compelled them to come back.
EPP Students introducing themselves
Only one of athe men appeared disinterested, nonchalant. He was a little flip, making jocular commentary not quite under his breath. I felt his feigned indifference, his testing of things, of us. I noted his defenses, and the deference to him by some of the other men seated nearby. No doubt, this man was a powerful presence in the room; one didn’t need any translation to confirm it. I remembered that he had been in the original recruiting session and smiled to myself. We can’t help but to draw close to the parts of us which desperately want to heal. His presence in the room would be more purposeful than we could know.
Lest I leave the impression that it was all croissants and hot chocolate in the prison of Namur, however, it was not. As the morning progressed, I chose my words carefully, relying utterly on Vibha, who tirelessly translated my every thought. I felt the urgency of all I wanted to convey at once, and my mounting frustration at not being able to facilitate in my usual style or pace. Teaching the Enneagram is a transmission—a conveyance of a deeply meaningful system— from one to another. Feeling for the pockets of resonance when teaching something so empowering to a group is something I relish. The men were riveted, but impatient. In the spaces between my English sentences they eagerly leaned into the EPP Guides on either side of them who helpfully whispered clarifications, quickly adding their own explanations in French. With each sentence, it seemed, the volume in our cavernous container quickly escalated. It took several seconds of shushing to regain the quiet we needed to continue each time.
Impulsivity and reactivity run high in the populations we serve, these characteristics we see so regularly in our students are often the unfortunate remnants of the horrific traumas, and tragic, neglectful, abusive childhoods which they have suffered. As they began expressing the all-too-normalized painful stories of their past, with a poignant sadness I recognized that these “men in white” were just like the “men in blue” at San Quentin, and just like everyone I seem to work with, no matter what their clothes or color of their skin. They were hurting people. Period. But, what is truly different, and actually matters the most, is how our incarcerated students—so, so sadly—have not received the adequate holding that is desperately needed in order for a child to learn to manage upsetting emotions and regulate the stresses of life. This is why people begin to run their personalities ragged.
We become fiercely addicted to the dopamine hit we get from our egos each time we—temporarily—stave off the terror of the present moment. When that is not enough, we will do literally anything to get out of ourselves.
Everyone deserves and desires their peace of mind, and the chance to be free inside. For those of us who get in such trouble with our personalities, however, our brains and its systems cannot reliably offer the relief we seek from chronic fears and frustrations. A lot of people say things like “I don’t know why I keep doing such and such, it’s crazy.” But, all human behavior is very intelligent. We are just attempting to realize what we know to be our inalienable right, the right to be loved. I can recall Dr. Daniels saying: “We just want to have a good life!” Though, our attempts to do so may momentarily calm our anxieties and numb our furies, our personalities are futile at giving us any real or lasting relief. It is our right to feel aligned, and capable, noble and loved, but we often have no idea how to generate these things inside of ourselves. The resolution that we truly seek is an “inside job,” how apropos to be where we were to teach this.
I felt bolstered by years of steeping in the teachings of our EPP Advisor, Dr. Gabor Maté, whose wisdom runs deep in the EPP curriculum. I now know not only the importance of early attachment, but the crippling effect of its lack. When I start noticing the tell-tale signs of traumas—the legs jiggling nervously discharging energy, the crossed arms, and the reactivity that comes unbidden and unconscious, I begin wondering—as I always do—what happened to each of these guys when they were kids? How did they end up there in prison?
No mother sets out to raise a murderer, or a thief, and no child is born evil. If ever there was a recipe for the “making of a criminal,” abusive or neglectful parenting is the key essential ingredient, one that is—tragically—practically a given in the childhoods of those we strive to serve. I felt the sameness of these men to the thousands of others with whom we have now worked over the years. Some men, like the Type Five who shared extraordinary insights and poetry that unfolded from him class by class, had clearly begun the journeys of their own interiority long ago. Many others struck me like a class of young boys, all clambering up a ladder to peer into their own psyches, with little restraint or filter. Truly, the presence of all fourteen of us from EPP felt needed in order to hold them, and keep them from falling recklessly, headlong right into themselves. Feeling protective of their process, and the urgency of our charter from Jean-Philippe’s administration, I thought of an old expression: “There is much to do here, so let’s go slowly.”
Vibha Gosselin pictured
Vibha tenaciously translated my every thought with a graceful cadence that inspired me to learn French myself. The men listened to her with expectancy and I felt my deep trust in her knack for finding not just the equivalent to the words I spoke, but the spirit behind them. At one point she looked at me, hopefully, and said that some of the men were asking if it was okay to switch from the formal “vous” to the more familiar “tu” instead? This was a moment Vibha had already anticipated, and prepared us for. I felt grateful for the way she had of helping me to feel so connected even though my not knowing French had such a potential to leave me feeling left out.
The whole room murmured our mutual agreement, and… through Vibha’s capable holding, I felt us cross a threshold that moved well beyond a language barrier. It was as if the walls of Namur Prison filled in around our container, settling all of us a little more firmly “on the inside.” Experiencing this familiar patience in Vibha was extraordinary. She continually found a way to lend her voice on behalf of so many who are not heard, stating an ineradicable truth, that everyone matters. Working alongside such a gentle soul as Vibha, I admired the deep respect she held for each of us who spoke, the patient regard she brought to everyone in her field. I sensed the men fell for her, as I had long since done, too.
“Those four days with the 18 men of Namur, my fellow guides, Susan and Rick felt like a long shared journey of doubts overcome, tears taking us to a deeper place, laughter connecting us and yes, the light in the eyes of the people in the room, the smiles and the silent holding of each other made the walls of the prison disappear.
Apprentice guides, detainees, master trainer, et al became both students and teachers to each other in a humane moment of humility before the wonder that is life weaving its magic “when a small group of committed people” gather. “We do the work together” Susan’s oft-repeated words would remind us all to come back to our common purpose and that is what helps us get a taste of what true freedom feels like no matter which side of the bars we find ourselves on.”
Type Nine, EPP Guide
Interestingly, many of the “gatekeepers” whom Enneagram Prison Project frequently encounter in working in jails and prisons are Type Nines. This is a pattern we have noticed with those in the roles from Programs Managers to Sheriffs, and yet again showed up in the Belgian Prison Director, Jean-Philippe. Long before we were even a fledgling program, the first Program Manager EPP worked with at the local jail, Neelam Wadhwani (who identified quickly as a Type Nine) quietly required me to prove that I would not abandon “her men” by patiently waiting to see how long I would continue to show up for them as a volunteer. The essential intelligence the Nines bring to the world is crucial, but to this project the Type Nines are beyond an asset, they are a gift.
These “instinctive types” resist reality being the way it is, defy being controlled by things they find unfair or unjust. We can use anger as a stalwart opposition, or as a mobilizing energy. It makes sense to me that it is the Type Nine’s innate knowing that we need one another which comes through in a project that aims to remedy the plight of those marginalized. Their intrinsic understanding of our collective worthiness is what the healthy Nines highlight by way of their organic inclusion. Nines steadfastly insist on not leaving people out. Recently, our Type Nine Ambassador, Alex Senegal, who was in our very first pilot class said to our class at the Reentry center: “There isn’t one of us who is any less important than anyone else.” Indeed, if Alex didn’t do the beautiful work he has done inside of himself, Enneagram Prison Project would not be what it has become.
It took us the better part of that first day before we could find our rhythm. I did plenty of breathing to keep my own reactivity at bay as the days passed. The aloof man, who appeared to be the “shot-caller” in the group, eventually identified as a Type Six, a “Loyal Skeptic,” which all of us knew could be either the most paranoid, or the most loyal of all the types. His egoic stance could change from moment to moment, and—in fact—often did. He continued to prove himself as well-respected and intimidating. I studied the detached way in which he held himself, in such contrast to the warmth that lingered behind his smile. His eyes were dark with their deep sadness, and the indifference of his aloof body language betrayed a scared person who had—no doubt—known tremendous pain. He boasted his past brutalities to the other guides during the breaks. These shocking tales momentarily deflated even our Type Eight, “the Protector,” who was distraught at our team meeting, and wondered aloud to the rest of us, could his tales be true? As she shared how they pained her to hear, my appreciation for what vulnerability really means to the Type Eights grew. I listened to this usually robust and hearty woman as she sat somewhat shattered in her chair, quite literally willing her own heart to remain open to both her process, and to this man. If she could manage to stay with her own fragility she might model to this man – and who knew for how many others—just how to open their hearts, too.
A few of the guys regularly interjected our meditation practices—right up until the last day—with uncontrollable laughter, covering their mouths and unable to stop themselves. One, identified as a Type Eight. Fascinatingly, with my eyes closed in the beginning of the meditation I could hear what seemed like sobs coming from him, and then, in an instant his grief turned to chortling, near hysterics. Laughter, I knew, is just another defense. I opened my eyes to take in this guy after each centering practice. I found him just like a little kid, looking over at me trying to contain himself, still red-faced, rubbing his eyes, wet with tears, holding his hands up to gesture an apology of mocked helplessness. His “Mia culpa!” revealed his Italian heritage and made it impossible for me to remain frustrated with his outbursts when I saw him like that.
The other EPP Guides translated for me our Type Six’s ongoing disdain for and distrust of America, our politics, and—I quickly deduced—also of me. His overt hatred of Americans only made me long to pull my chair up next to this guy and understand where did that come from? I finally got a chance to visit with him during lunch on the second day when he asked me what I thought of our president. Dana Vitorelo, one of our most dedicated EPP Guides with whom I work here in California, is herself a Type Six. I recalled Dana once telling me: “When the Six is challenging you, we are looking for you not to flinch.” I looked at this man, who had spent nearly two decades in prison, straight in the eye and told him—unflinchingly—how disgusted I am with our current administration. We experienced a truth-telling moment in our shared disdain, and—for just a second—I felt his skepticism lift, and something else fill in the space between us.
Dr. Gabor Mate, EPP Advisory Board member
“We readily feel for the suffering child, but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.”
The difficult behavior in the EPP classrooms reminds me of when children “act out” in school. Dr. Maté helpfully points out that such kids are doing the only thing they can manage to do when there seem to be no words to articulate the deep pains they have suffered. Some of our students have witnessed their mothers selling their bodies in front of them, and their fathers brutalizing their mothers. They have suffered terrible, relentless beatings as little kids, some were totally neglected. So many of the things I hear of are too tragic for me to imagine, but then, I regularly encounter new stories trumping the last ones in their horrific honesty. These men were the kids whom we sent to the principal’s office, the ones our society has put on indefinite “time-out,” separated from everyone else, hoping that they would sort out the disorganization they were railing against inside of themselves, by themselves. Their behavior was not crazy, our treatment of them, that was the crazy part. How in the world do we expect people to heal?
“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”
Recently, I saw a radical facebook post of a school that sends disruptive kids to a meditation room where they are met by a gentle adult who warmly welcomes them, and empathizes with how hard it can be to sit still. The children are shown to a colorful mat, and taught to breathe in order to calm themselves down. It is a huge part of our EPP charter to show our students how they can learn to hold their hurts, to have the possibility of regulating their internal state.
It became clear that the agitated Italian was impacting those sitting closest to him. I understood. His outbursts were upsetting—both to himself and to others—continually pulling our attention back to him. Some quickly tired of this, even before the first morning was over. One guide seated next to him, let out his frustrations in the safety of our EPP check-in circle, “I’m not his babysitter.” he declared, having repeatedly encouraged the detainee to focus. Of course, the detainee actually lacked the capacity to do so, and that was precisely the problem. How much distress did he suffer to keep his brain from developing those pathways? I fretted for them both. In some ways, it was not the detainee’s fault that he got so agitated that quickly, nor was it unreasonable to grow weary of his reactivity. We agreed to move guides around to share the supporting roles we played. I smiled empathetically feeling for both him and for our student. I trusted the teaching that was there for each of us, remembering how many times my best growth as a teacher was when I took the chance to remain the student myself. “I guess we will have to love him extra hard.” I said to our frustrated guide, not having much time to offer more before the break was over and we returned to our seats.
The pace of what was unfolding for each of us was surreal. I found re-grouping regularly when the men took their breaks to be my touchstone, a way to compare notes and ascertain what was happening. The combination of the progression of the material juxtaposed with the translation of the many moments I was trying to keep stride with, left me feeling continually out of step. As the person “in charge” and simultaneously the least bilingual person in the room, I felt like a news editor taking in reports from all sides of the circle, trying to determine where and how to go next. There came a moment when I suddenly realized that insisting on modeling the majority of the teaching – as I had planned to do – with the tedium of the translation that this would require, could cost us the cohesion of the class.
Jacques Prémont, Alain Mosmans and EPP Guides sharing the love!
Each of the apprenticing guides in the room had demonstrated their capacity to teach the Enneagram during their training; my instincts nudged me to get out of the way to allow them to do so. As I turned the teaching over to them something magical happened. These Enneagram teachers showed themselves to be fluent in their knowledge of the Enneagram, and easy in their delivery. They engaged the detainees with ease. Each next guide charged the room with the style of their own personality type, and experience, using fresh material from their own lives. It was captivating for me and for the students. I cast a look towards Philippe Halin, who along with Jacques Prémont, co-founded an Enneagram school in which several of the guides had been trained. Vibha whispered in my ear, quietly translating the teaching now happening in front of all us. For the first time since we had arrived, I was able to be an observer and I could now sense the solid, trustworthiness of the EPP Guides who would be the ones charged with carrying on the support of the men of Namur Prison when I left. I physically noticed my body acknowledge that the men were in good hands, and I exhaled with a visceral relief.
EPP Guide, Dominique De Staercke and an EPP student
“How do you measure the unmeasurable?” one of our EPP Guides recently asked me. Though there was no metric marking the self-revelations piling upon one another, the momentum we were gaining was palpable. The men started “getting it.” How we are so patterned, so predictable. Philippe led a series of type panels on which guides and students sat together, and we could register the transmission of the teaching through the answers of the panelists. The Enneagram swiftly ushered us past the many languages represented in the detainees, permeated the various cultures, and had no regard for the range in ages, equally impacting everyone. Some were just in their 20s, but there was an older, revered gentleman everyone called “Pappi” who appeared to be in his 60s. He was willing, but moving through the panels with a furrowed brow, trying so hard to make sense of things. The pair of Threes, who seemed to have consumed the entire Wisdom of the Enneagram book they’d only just received, regaled us with their charming stories of being the best. They were practically teaching the rest of the class, wow-ing us with their solid, competent comprehension. Though they were just newly acquainted with their personality styles they reminded me exactly of the many Threes with whom I have worked at Google, taking in “the work” with competence and alacrity.
We took lunch together daily, and afterwards we hung out on “the yard,” which consisted of a small slab of concrete, and some grass. My husband, Rick, EPP’s Executive Director, picked up a basketball and the Type Threes, “The Performers,” shot hoops with him and a few other guides. A Type Seven, “The Enthusiast,” Rick remarked, “It’s hard to be separate when you are aiming to play something together. Something came out of our bodies on the court in there, just playing three-on-three…I didn’t care about the outcome, I don’t think any of us did. We were passing and including—we were communing—finding common ground. It was magical.” Indeed, the Threes later said playing together was the highlight of their whole week.
EPP Students play basketball on the prison yard with EPP Guides
There was only one toilet near the yard which we had to go into the agent’s station to use, but outside there was a bare urinal, without a stall, set against the far wall. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that an EPP Guide used the communal spot to relieve himself, just as our students had no option but to do. It may sound odd, but I appreciated the familiarity our guide assumed in this simple act of erasing the implicit lines of “us” and “them,” which were unspoken, and yet, so obvious. In San Quentin there is a bathroom in our classroom that “free people” are allowed to use, but the men are required to walk across the yard to another building. The unfairness of this angers me. Somehow, this guide’s refusal to balk at the conditions of the prison was—to me—like a mark of devotion; something not demanded, but freely given.
EPP Guides (from left): Pascal Ledouble, Dorothée Nicolas, Nadien Nepper, Alain Mosmans, Dominique De Staercke, Vibha Gosselin, Joëlle Legrand, Leslie Curtis, Philippe Halin, Susan and EPP Executive Director, Rick Olesek
In fact, none of the apprenticing EPP guides complained about our early arrival, they did not seem to mind the long days locked in a room together, they gratefully consumed the prison lunch, and made no protest at things like having to “take a piss” on the yard. I started to trust that these Belgian EPP Guides (and, there were a few French too, I must rightfully add) just seemed to be there for the love of the work. In the beginning, I didn’t know how I would find so many other people in the world like the EPP Guides now surrounding this project. There was a cohesion that happened while—together—we waited for the toilet and transformation with the patient strain of those who somehow knew there was actually nothing more for us to do.
More than once, some of the class jokesters who seemed to get taken out every time the Italian lost it, came to me – a translator in tow – explaining their “misconduct,” and asking my “forgiveness.” Their contrition and earnestness made me want to hug them as I smiled absolution their way. These small gestures they made were deeply connecting. To me, they were mini testaments as to how “those people” in prison cared about all of the same sorts of things those of us on the outside do. Though simple, their conscientious attempts to repair our connections showed how they felt the same tender regard for us, as we were overwhelmingly feeling for each of them. The Enneagram was absolutely deepening every one of our conversations, but the loving interactions that interwove our experience played at least an equal part in allowing for what was happening between us.
At the end of Day 2, I took time to assign a biography assignment to be written in the third person, a task straight out of the Wisdom of the Enneagram book. The men listened to the instructions with obvious discomfort, and then, one who identified as a Type Six called out, “No way!” in English. I anticipated this nerve the assignment had just struck, and patiently responded to their reactions. Our EPP Guides are required to complete this same assignment, and I’ve seen how much resistance even highly developed teachers have to such an intimate exercise.
It was at this moment of resistance when Philippe asked to speak to the class, and took a seat at the front of the room. Turning in his chair to address the Type Six who protested the loudest, Philippe said: “I, too, was asked to do this assignment and resisted it.” He confided to us. “But, I did it. And Pascal (one of the guides seated nearby) was the one who was to reply to me in writing. And, when I read what he wrote, I felt that I was seen as I never had been seen before, with such a love that I had never experienced in quite that way. It was extraordinary.” There were tears in Philippe’s eyes as he extended the invitation to this man, in particular, and the group at large, imploring them through his own example to simply take a leap of faith. Then it was one of the Threes, God love him, who spoke up to say: “Why did we come here, but to take a chance to learn and to grow?! I will absolutely do this assignment!” When we returned the next morning, every man except two had written their biography, and some had added multiple extra pages. By the end of the class all of the men had participated in this courageous act of self-reflection.
By Day 3 we started to hear comments around the circle by some of the men that they were not planning on coming to the last class, stating somewhat petulantly that they were becoming too attached, and that the last class would be too sad for them. I know many of us shared their sentiments, and we said as much. We reassured them that a smaller group of us would absolutely be returning, but we felt the sting of what it feels like to open our hearts knowing that they might be crushed, rejected, not seen, or abandoned… That night each EPP Guide brought a precious biography home with them to write an empathic response to what was so daringly shared. I thought of how many hundreds of cups of tea I have poured myself while I poured my heart over such priceless writings. I know how attached we EPP Guides become to each of our students. That night the guides with whom I was sharing a house were up well past midnight penning their replies, and I was once again floored by their commitment. I felt like the cavalry had arrived, at-the-ready to fend of brutal childhoods, and the self-hatred that ensued, with their lances of love and compassion.
On our final morning we could not start our circle until Jean-Philippe arrived as his presence was much anticipated. As a Director in the Prison system, Jean-Philippe, understandably, was not able to participate in the four days with all of us, even though he had been such a conduit for us to be there together, and had done the EPP training with all of us. This was a great sadness to him, I knew, as he desperately wanted to be among the EPP Guides for this experience.
As I stole a glance around our circle I could see that some of the men were literally on the edge of their seats. Listening to his opening remarks, which he spoke with tears in his eyes, “I only wish to change the world.” was a statement that now resonated deeply with each man. They understood, at some level, that the Enneagram is a tool to do just that. These students were hanging on the words from one of “them,” a representative from the prison system towards which they have so much built up resentment.
Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, Director, Penitentiary Staff Training Academy and EPP Students
The Enneagram was a playing-field-leveler as this man from the top of the prison system commented on how the Enneagram helped him, too, realize the personal prison that he makes for himself. That this psychological system had also given Jean-Philippe a chance at an internal freedom, was remarkable. We all felt the gravitas of what was transpiring.
EPP student, Type Six
I caught a glance at Pappi, our Type One, who still sat with his arms folded in a typical Type One style of self-containment. His forearms were snug across his heart, but his head was cocked to one side and his eyes were soft. He had lost the frustrated look he came into the program with just three days prior. And the Type Sixes—the Sixes!—damn if they didn’t look like they were ready to lead Jean-Philippe’s charge. Mr. “No-Way!” a Type Six who had vacillated relentlessly back and forth between Type Four and Type Six all the way to the last hour of class, suddenly stood up tall and said with confidence: “I’m a Type Six, clear and strong!” remarking how the Enneagram had helped him to see the terror that had prevented him from knowing his own internal guidance. We applauded for the confidence that was now this man’s for learning to trust himself.
EPP Student, “Pappi”
The sweet sorrow of this final circle was accentuated because some of us were actually leaving as we lived at a great distance from this prison, and—of course—because the men were staying behind. But, after our morning coffee, we paired those who had written biographies with the guides who had written responses. In the U.S. we know our students cherish these replies. Some students say they put their guide’s letters to them on the ceiling of the bunk overhead and read them every day. Others, who have taken our program six and seven times, have told us that sometimes they pull all of their responses out at once just to remember what it feels like to be seen, to be loved. And so, I expected that we would need to give this exchange between student and guides due time. Processing the heart takes a minute, and it is so worthwhile.
EPP Student reading Biography feedback
The men dispersed into quiet corners and stairwells of the room, taking in their responses with the tentative excitement of one who finds a promised letter in their mailbox, not totally trusting what it will say, but eager to read its contents. Unfortunately, on that final day inside, Philippe’s personal circumstances prevented him from coming to the prison again with us, but he gave me the response he wrote anyway. I watched from a short distance from Pappi, one of the few men who spoke English, as he sat taking in the words from Philippe, his fellow Type One. I watched Pappi pour over his letter, and when it seemed that he had finished reading, I gingerly sat down next to him where he remained very still. I gently turned to ask Pappi what he was feeling. As this grandfatherly man looked up at me I could see that his eyes were full of tears. He was confused, bewildered, actually. And what he said to me was: “Who are you people? I don’t even understand. I have never been spoken to like this in my whole life!” He was flummoxed, utterly without further words, and I smiled at him with my own tears, loving his undefended heart. Not yet having read what he wrote in his French bio, nor what Philippe had responded, I knew it wasn’t actually necessary to do so. I knew that the transmission of the Enneagram and the spirit of EPP was well underway in this man, in this prison of Namur.
EPP Student and EPP Guide Sophie Fetu
It was then that I looked up and noticed that all around the auditorium our students were sitting, huddled next to their guides, slumped in the recognition of themselves, their long buried fears at last seen and heard without judgment. I noticed our Italian, who had become utterly beloved by the group, was holding his head, in deep process with his fellow Eight who offered him her forthright, gentle reminder of his lovability.
EPP Student and EPP Guide, Nadine Nepper
Many of them stood up from our final circle wiping their eyes, clearly altered and bewildered by this onslaught of care over the last four days. So many of the guys approached me, unable to find Vibha in our chaotic sea of goodbyes and just spoke in a flood of love and appreciation for what had transpired. I got it, I knew, and I felt it too. With Jean-Philippe and another director in the room we were allowed to embrace each other with the overwhelmingly full hearts we had been holding and this was a tremendous release for all of us.
With great reluctance, it was finally time for the men to return to their cells, and they extracted themselves from our final lingering moments and said our fond farewells until we meet again. It is simply not possible to name the “bigness” of what transpired inside of that little prison in Namur, nor in each of us. We came away changed in ways that we may not ever fully articulate. The work those men did gave me such great joy to witness, and an even greater determination to realize EPP’s vision, freeing people—all over the world—from the prisons of our minds.
The Men of Namur bid farewell!
After our pilot class had concluded, Jean-Philippe wrote to me and shared how astounded another Director from Namur Prison was by the transformation she witnessed in some of the men with whom she met with in the days following. She wrote her observations for him to share with EPP here:
After four days of Enneagram training, Mr. X, who has been in prison for 18 years, told me, upset, “I haven’t been the one acting all this time, it was the child I was at 12. I let him because I thought that was the way to go. It was just when I was 12, but it’s not anymore. I got stuck in my past history and 18 years spent with this master aboard my life, this shell that I no longer need… I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who I’m gonna become. But what I do know is I can drop this shell. There’s someone else inside me. I’m scared but, for the first time in my prison life, I feel recognized and I sincerely want to smile and say “thank you”.
—EPP Belgium Student
“The human being is a subtle mechanism, equipped with individual springs, developed in the early years of life in reaction to the surrounding world. Understanding the workings and gears of one’s own mechanics can help to overcome their pitfalls, to enhance their assets, to know oneself better, to know others better and to function better together, in a logic of individual and social development.
Namur Prison, Director
Enneagram Prison Project has an enormous vision coupled with the knowledge that—if we are to make lasting change outside our prison walls, we must first be willing to journey the prisons we make for ourselves, and we believe that the Enneagram is just the tool to accomplish such a vision.
“In 2010, seeds were sown in my administration. These seeds are germinating today and giving more meaning to our work to all my colleagues and me: putting the human at the centre and giving sense to what previously had no meaning.
There are encounters that change a life… When I met the enneagram in 2010, I knew very immediately and instinctively that it would change mine. There are no other words to express simply what actually happened. The best part of this story is that this “encounter” took place within an administration, my administration, the prison administration. Our work must make sense. And the fact that an administration might have thought to offer such a tool as the Enneagram to its employees speaks volumes about this quest for meaning in our work. When I decided to follow the Enneagram certification program with Eric Salmon in Paris, I heard about a project called Enneagram Prison Project. And I caught myself dreaming… Years later, following encounters that only the universe—in its great wisdom—could foresee for us, Susan Olesek was in Namur Prison and EPP Belgium has become a reality. I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario. Susan, her partner, Rick and all these EPP Guides are now a meaningful light in the prison world.”
Director of Training
Marnef Prison, Belgium