"I have personally witnessed the effect of self-awareness training on the incarcerated. I KNOW in my heart this is the only path for all of us, as a collective society that wants a better future for all involved."
— Susan Olesek, Enneagram Teacher, Founder, EPP
"In bearing witness to the courageous inner-work taking place in the unlikely place that is prison, I became downright convinced that the benefit of self-understanding through the lens of the Enneagram system is
a critical missing piece for real criminal reform."
— Susan Olesek, Enneagram Teacher, Founder, EPP
In our earliest days of teaching the Enneagram, Don Riso and I 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 Type 1s, were devoted to walking their talk, and in a relatively short time, they were gathering the support of talented Enneagram students from both the Enneagram Institute as well as from the Narrative Tradition community 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 “EPP Ambassadors”- formerly incarcerated men and women 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. 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 EPP, 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 of ourselves and our materials, I went with Susan to my first class, which was about the third session in a series of eight 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, this was just about like every other Enneagram class. What was different though was that I could feel the enormous hunger for something real in the room. 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, aka, 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 understood that whatever their misdeeds, there was a logic to what had happened, and there was still something awake and good inside of 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 in 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 they 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 one of the women's pods 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 that I did my best to answer, and they seemed particularly interested in what it was like for me to be an author - how I had fallen into such an unlikely profession as a 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. It was just straight talk from one human being to another, based in experience and presence. Again and again, the theme of openness versus 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 participated in my first two classes in a prison environment. I also noted that in the room where we did the interview and sitting straight across from me, 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 several 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 EPP 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 becoming 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 smaller 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 prior and who had some profound things to share and to ask. It was amazing to me how quickly I bonded with these guys; I felt so much hope for them.
Many of them had histories of drug abuse and criminal records that 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 State 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 very same place.
I was struck immediately by the much greater security measures. 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 months. 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 and had just been granted parole. He shared with us how he managed to hold himself together during his interview/hearing. But, he said, 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 to see incarcerated students 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 where 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 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. As in Elmwood, I was reluctant to leave the group, but let them know I would love to come back. We left the prison feeling great about the meeting and celebrating our student who was finally being released. The sun was shining gloriously and it was one of those moments where it is obvious that our lives actually do have a purpose.
I look forward to working 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 Olesek, Suzanne Dion, and Rick Olesek - the core team, and to all of the rest of the EPP Villagers for carrying this work forward.
And I give thanks for meeting the so many men and women in-custody, who like me, are on a new path to a true and real humanity.
Author and Enneagram Master Teacher
President of the Enneagram Institute
It was dark out as I approached my parked car one night last month, but I saw the light was on inside the vehicle. Seeing a shadow inside, I felt an eerie, gut-sinking-knowing that someone was in the front passenger’s seat. In a bizarre instant, I realized that I was being robbed. I felt at once terrified and equally incensed at the injustice, but kept walking towards my vehicle despite my mounting panic. What do I do? I asked myself, turning and looking frantically around.
The irony of the timing of this happening immediately struck me, since I was returning home from a three-hour volunteer training at San Quentin State prison. I work there with lifers teaching the Enneagram, a psychological system which elucidates why we do the things we do. Feeling primed by the Correctional Officer, who punctuated the training with shocking stories of the horrible acts people are capable of committing, I grabbed my wits and searched for help. I didn’t want to be the mom of three boys, shot dead in a Trader Joe’s parking lot, any more than I wanted to be a fool who stood idly by while being violated.
I pleaded with a passing man to help me, who pulled the passenger door open and startled the trespasser. A young, scruffy looking 20-something-year-old man spilled out of my car. The contents of my glove compartment were recognizable in his half-opened back pack. Never before have I experienced my Inner Witness more perceptibly than in the surreal five minutes that followed; never have I felt more outside of myself while observing my own thoughts.
I felt my body begin to shake as I screamed at this total stranger in an uncomfortably intimate face-to-face and demanded: “What are you DOING?! EMPTY YOUR BACKPACK, PUT EVERYTHING ON THE GROUND!” I felt like a cop. Oh my God, who are YOU?! I questioned myself, shocked at my own behavior…
[Aside: Since learning the Enneagram, I have identified with a Type One, a dutiful, rule-abiding, “perfectionist,” an “anger type” with a serious record of swallowing rage “for the good of” all kinds of things, but at a severe cost to myself. Allowing anger to move through me freely is like the wild frontier for my Type.]
Who WAS this person shouting, and from where did she come? I felt my fury at what was unfolding in front of me fuel me into outraged action, and yet, I also felt both my feet on the ground. This was uncharted territory for me, for sure, and I watched with a rubber-necked fascination at this unfolding of a new part of me – quite beside myself.
Amazingly, the man did as he was told. Crouching down, he furtively began dropping items on the pavement between us – a pair of tennis shoes, an eyeglass case, someone else’s wallet - I collected my things, clutched them to my chest, and senselessly began to eat one of the carrots out of the half opened bag I just bought minutes before. What’re you DOING?! I chided myself, incredulously, watching my own incoherent behavior with one eye, and that of the man in front of me with another.
I started to gather that he was actually not violent. In an odd way, I already felt sorry for this kind of harmless thief and his sorry lack of savvy. Nevertheless, I heard myself continuing to scream at him. He seemed queerly detached – like maybe he’d been yelled at in his lifetime, I considered. I only half wanted to detain him until the police arrived. The small, indignant part of me felt this was the “right(eous) thing” to do. A slightly wiser part of me knew their arrival would solve nothing.
I’ve been working with people convicted of everything from bank robbery, to murder, to rape in prisons and jails for the last six years. One thing I know, for sure, is that by the time people are acting out in the ways in which this man was behaving, they’ve long since justified their own dysfunction with a litany of wrongs that have been “done to them.” All human behavior is an attempt to get a need met. I teach this. Somehow, in that tense moment I recalled it, and knew this to be also true for him. Though I could judge him in a heartbeat – and, in fact, was – his behavior was just part of his desire to survive and this, apparently, was his strategy.
Remarkably, in a twisted sort of demonstration of his moral cognizance he tried to right the wrong-doing in which he was enmeshed. “Here!” he said, pulling a plastic bag of pot out of the backpack and shoving it towards me. I could recognize his barter – my receipt of this valuable contraband for his hopeful pardon – but I couldn’t quicken my self-observations to keep pace with the spin of my own ego which was still bent on adjudicating his “misconduct.”
“I DON’T WANT YOUR DRUGS!” I barked back, shunning this ill-begotten bribe and reached my hand into his bag to see what else of mine he had. Offended now, his willing window of appease slammed shut and he snatched his bag from me, showing anger for the first time: “Now you’re stealing MY stuff!” He accused me and stood up. I shook my head at his reasoning and felt his last statement shift our exchange so far beyond surreal that I was jolted back to reality. I stepped back and looked at this human being. I considered his wildly rationalized indignation with just a little more presence. His willingness to cooperate exhausted now, we assessed each other face to face once again, for a few more fleeting seconds.
I come by compassion for others readily. Too readily, I’ve been told. I’m quick to recognize the traps we lay for ourselves; the repetitive habits of thinking, feeling and behaving we call personality and how we get in trouble with it, again and again. I regularly sit inside the bars – real or metaphoric - offering this “key to freedom” called the Enneagram to people. On this peculiar night, however, I felt the key turn in the lock of my own cell.
Until I went to prison (to teach the Enneagram), my own ego kept me shackled to the narrative I began to tell myself after my mother’s suicide at age five: “You’re not good enough.” I’ve served a self-imposed life-sentence while trying to square my mother’s inability to find her own worth with my own struggle to do the same. This is my personal prison. I catch my inner critic in the act regularly; it’s uncompromising rage at the unfairness in the world seems always just below the surface. The scariest place, for me, is to recognize – in real time – that I’m angry. Being willing to follow my fury to it’s source is akin to looking under the bed when I was eight - terrified of what I might find. But I take heart in what David Whyte says:
“Anger is the deepest form of compassion for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”
I was angry at the distress this man’s actions triggered in me that night – absolutely. But, as it turns out I had a litany of wrong-doing I was tapped into myself. I was irate at the Correctional Officer who scared me enough to question the viability of my work earlier that evening. I was infuriated by the mass incarceration in the state of California, enraged by this man’s lack of care for his own soul and at my own lack of faith in the justice system. I was exasperated at the lack of opportunity our system provides incarcerated people to actually heal.
Honestly, though, much deeper than any of these ideological distractions, I was mostly angry at how many years it took for me to find self-worth enough to put a convincing voice to it. For years and years I have awakened in a panic from dreams in which, though someone was harming me, I did not speak up. In this man’s desperate self-sabotage that evening I dimly recognized my own terrified reflection and this is what I was shouting at until my voice went hoarse.
My own wrath nearly spent, the intruder must have realized that I wasn’t going to physically apprehend him. Without struggle, he side-stepped the way I had been boxing him, corralling the scene, and then suddenly, with little ado, disappeared quickly into the night. As I stood there silently watching him go, my heart still pounded so fast it actually hurt, but I knew that the baffling turn of events that I had just witnessed contained the paradox with which I wrestle most.
My type defaults to right and wrong, good people and bad people, should and should-not’s. I suddenly saw things with better measure. Good/bad is a construct of my ego; an axle of seeming truth around which I have wrapped my personality. There are human beings to whom things have happened, out of which we each try to survive. Life is not black and white, it’s actually totally murky.
This experience begged the question I have often used in my own marketing slogans: “Who are you, really?” I am about forgiveness, but I often come by compassion far more easily for people whom society labels “offender” than I can hold for myself. I think, in fact, that by immersing myself in my work with the incarcerated, I can distract myself from this unwillingness to work on this part of myself. That night I got schooled in how to come into balance; how not to leave myself out of the equation. Compassion is an exchange of energy that needs to be directed inward as much as to another, not more, not less.
With the hindsight of that moment, I’ve begun including myself in the justice I purport to seek. As I reflect on the ways in which I can leave my history of self-abandonment in the rear view mirror, I know better how to model this for others trying to do the same. The lesson: “teach what you need to learn” comes in unsuspecting classrooms. This homeless man – whom the police knew by name when they arrived belatedly– was every bit my teacher. I can be furious at his behavior and care about him, see him and see myself, hold him – best I can – whilst holding onto myself.
BIO-SUMARY ABOUT SUSAN OLESEK: After working with hundreds of inmates and the Enneagram, Susan witnessed the powerful influence ego has on the choices people make and realized that, “We are all in a prison of our own making in the way we suffer our personalities.” Seeing firsthand how this “road-map” to personality systematically explains not just what we do, but incisively unearths the reasons why, Susan began to appreciate the Enneagram as the “missing piece” to criminal reform and founded The Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) in 2012. With unwavering compassion for the human condition, Susan Olesek brings her profound appreciation for the Enneagram System to those living behind bars – both literally and metaphorically. Certified in two schools of Enneagram Studies (Palmer-Daniels and Riso-Hudson), Susan also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Occidental College. She teaches across the US, in corporations, in her private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, and to her favorite audience – inmates. Susan’s driven by a wholehearted conviction that anyone brave enough to take an honest look at themselves is deserving of the personal liberation possible as a result.EPP BLOG | SPRING 2015 | ENNEAGRAM PRISON PROJECT | EPP AMBASSADORS IN ARIZONA
ROBIN CAMERON: Since EPP Ambassadors Elam Chance and Vic Soto are now living and working in Prescott, it was a no-brainer to invite them to the Sedona Enneagram Study Group. Everyone was taken in by their presence, honesty, and Enneagram work ethic.
We have folks in the group who do prison work themselves, but the bottom line, which made the day and put us all on equal footing, is that everyone in this group knows – as anyone with EPP knows, "We are all in a prison of our own making." We all have mental and emotional habits of type and a defense mechanism to keep them in place, all of which calls for our attention, intention, and a well-practiced Inner Observer if we hope to ever be free.
Besides participating in the class and having good conversations during breaks, Vic heard my cell phone ring during the panel, along with everyone else. Now mind you, I NEVER have my cell phone near me in the group, let alone when I’m interviewing a panel, but someone was going to use it to take pictures. In trying to keep it quiet, I hung up on my cousin and said with disbelief, “Do you believe I just did that!?” To which Vic said, without skipping a beat, “Yes, I do!” The place erupted with laughter. Indeed, we are all together in this boat – from Ph.D to EPP, moving forward, naming our type structure, and laughing at ourselves in the process! It was an honor to meet Vic and Elam at the Arizona Enneagram Association (AEA) workshop and to invite them to the Sedona Enneagram Study Group. We look forward to our continued growth together as an Enneagram “community of practice,” which is reflected in the comments from group members, included below.
One month later, Elam Chance joined Vic Soto in attending the April meeting of the Sedona Enneagram Study Group, all to our mutual advantage. Having met Elam at the IEA and reconnecting with him in March, the connection with me was already made. But he’d also connected with several others in Phoenix, and as Elam introduced himself to the group and explained with a great big smile how he knows his type is a 7, the connections continued. Not only did his caring for others and lightening their load with laughter come across, his genuine gratitude for the Enneagram and EPP and what they have meant in his life was palpable.
Elam’s honesty and up-frontness added to the emotional safety-net of the group, which constantly invites people to open up and be real. The joy was infectious and as meetings go, well, we’re always astounded at how the structure the Enneagram provides us such solid footing to move out of our emotional and mental habits of type into the freedom and flow of Virtue and Holy Idea. We consider ourselves blessed and Vic and Elam modeled the Old Testament edict, whether they knew it or not, that tells us we are blessed to be a blessing. It’s reflected in the comments from the group that follow:
"One thing I appreciated about meeting Vic was how much the Enneagram has helped him re-envision himself and the potential of his life. I got the sense that it helped him recognize the positive aspects of his nature, and how his natural leadership could be turned toward positive purposes for himself and many others. I also felt so strongly that I was hearing from the authentic Vic, not from someone who was just good at saying what people want to hear. I wish him many blessings as he continues on his own path and on his path of helping others!"
– Paul H., M.A. Type 4
"Elam's openness and transparency about his life is so real that it has opened a door for me to feel safe to be more transparent myself."
– Nancy S. Type 2
"Sometimes your journey in life will have you cross a path with someone you never thought you would meet! Once you meet EPP Ambassador Victor Soto, your life will never be the same. One can learn so much from Victor's experiences and his knowledge of the Enneagram that it is a pleasure meet him."
– Jennifer G. Type 8
"Elam reminded me of the saying in the Course of Miracles that, "When I am healed I am not healed alone." His words of Truth and Gratitude brought tears to the eyes of many at the study group who recognized the Power of his words. I will hold a space of peace and love in my heart for him, seeing him doing Holy Works to help heal himself and our world."
– Sandi G. Type 7
"In a prison environment where personal change is unlikely, Victor lives the transformative power of the Enneagram."
– Kathy L. Type 3
"Not only am I moved to tears at the depth of self disclosure that Elam exhibits and his refreshing willingness to do so, I have to believe that wherever his life takes him now his exposure to the Enneagram will truly have changed his life. And I believe with his charismatic personality and his obvious willingness to continue this work, he will change the lives of everyone his life touches.”
– Jan B. Type 7
I have had three nephews in prison, one who is still incarcerated. Learning the Enneagram myself and learning about EPP and talking with Vic Soto gives me hope for a prison system I have felt is nothing but a punitive lock-up that breeds hopelessness.
– Nancy S. Type 2
"Elam Chance has clearly used the Enneagram to structure and illuminate his life. He has absorbed and internalized the material in a profound and central way, down to his toes, and he uses his new understanding to make sense of what happens and what to do about it. I don't hear that he's confused about himself or what he's doing. A terrific illustration of the power — and truth — in the Enneagram."
– Caislin W., Ph.D. Type 7
"I enjoyed hearing how Vic was introduced to the Enneagram and how it transformed his life in the penitentiary. It was wonderful to see his strength and understanding as he spoke to our Enneagram group."
– Marjorie W. Ph.D Type 3
"It takes a wise soul to recognize an opportunity to shift, to grow. One must be ready and open to that which resonates with them. Elam is one such soul. His clarity and honesty about how he approached his life in the past rang with self-awareness. I enjoyed his willingness to share, his gentle and easy countenance, his sense of humor. It was clear to me that the Enneagram has provided a platform of structure and another way of doing life that works for him. This system makes sense to him, as it does to those of us who continue to show up and explore how it works in our lives. It feels important to point out this fact: that Elam was wired and ready to embrace the Enneagram when offered to him, which speaks to his ability to listen to and act on his inner guidance. He was 'in the vicinity' of these teachings and he paid attention. And that takes a wise soul."
– Big Love, Sally G. Type 4
Recently at the Sedona Enneagram Group, I had the rare pleasure of meeting Mr. Soto and hearing his deeply moving story. He told of how, in the midst of his life in prison, he was able to take advantage of an opportunity to learn about the Enneagram provided by EPP. Learning about the different Enneatypes and his own type was a true revelation for him, allowing him to see through the persona he developed to survive in the world he was born into and to see tangible possibilities for growth. It was inspiring to hear that Vic intends to move forward by sharing his experience and the potential for change with others whose lives had taken a direction similar to the one he followed for many years.
–Craig S., EdD Type 5
"Queer, but honest, odd, but nice, to sit in a room with a couple of people who have been in prison. I never have...been in prison or in the same room with anyone who has. Elam, as is Vic, was "regular," honest and earnest, humorous too. People are locked up in prisons for way too many reasons. So happy the Enneagram Prison Project is an avenue for change and self-understanding!"
– Mary G. Type 3
"Vic Soto is a powerfully genuine man, with an interesting and inspiring story to tell. He shared himself, his family involvement in the gang/drug/crime culture, ultimately assuming the leadership role that was his inheritance, his birthright. He learned about himself; then a pivotal moment arrived, a crossroad where, and with support from his Enneagram teacher, he chose a new path, enlightened by the lessons learned. Vic demonstrated the need for and power of the Enneagram."
– Mary G. Type 3
"Having Vic here on a panel showed a new perspective on the Type 9 and on the 9's line to Type 6. To have a young man — one with Vic's experiences, brings other aspects of the Type 9 to the fore. I was given much to think about even though my partner of more than 30 years is a Type 9."
– Maureen N. Type 8
"If it is not beneficial, it is artificial" — EPP Ambassador Elam Chance. It is amazing to see how the Enneagram tool teaches and connects people. That connectivity is apparent when you meet Elam Chance. As soon as he smiles, the connection begins. When he begins to speak, you yearn to learn more about him. It is a two-way connection that benefits us all."
– Jennifer G. Type 8
BIO: Jeff Limon is a tenacious, Type 1 Enneagram student currently enrolled – for the second time – in EPP's 8-week program at Elmwood Correctional Facility. Jeff provides an incisive perspective on the impact Enneagram Prison Project is having on his life.
When my conventionally happy life started to veer off course, I made things worse by making a series of choices that seemed to put me on an inevitable collision course for disaster. I've always had a great pride in my ability to understand and grasp the reasoning and theory behind things, but for whatever reason, I could not fathom why or how my life spiraled out of control in such a spectacular fashion. The last decade and a half of my life has been an odyssey of feeling lost and confused, battered by depression and drug addiction and a criminal lifestyle that has led me in and out of jails and institutions. Every time I would reach the shore and gain my freedom (either from jail or drugs), I found myself still a prisoner in my own skin, but why?
I came from middle-class Silicon Valley suburbia. I am educated, was raised properly in a big family, and at one point, I was living the American dream, only to throw it all away. I've always known that my struggles with drug addiction are what drove me to a life of crime and the accompanying loss of everything dear to me. My early forays into recovery required that I accept the simple fact that I’m an out of control addict, to simply accept that I’ve lost all control of my unmanageable life. The work that I have done while in custody also built upon this premise.
Without addressing my need to understand how I could have become an addict in the first place, I found myself serving a life sentence in the cell that is my own mind.
I am excited beyond belief to be able to attest that the Enneagram Prison Project has provided me with the key capable of unlocking this prison of my own making.
The Enneagram Prison Project has provided me with valuable insight into my inner workings (nee personality) which has, in turn, illuminated the dark alleys of my mind that have previously led to dead ends when it came to understanding what drives my addiction and therefore my criminality. I cannot stress enough how valuable and liberating this is. The structure and setting provided by the EPP coupled with a highly trained facilitator creates an environment previously unheard of (at least by myself): an atmosphere where hardened men feel comfortable and free enough to not only learn about themselves, but to talk about this experience as well.
This is huge.
The irony of feeling “safe” enough to do gut-wrenching work that leaves men vulnerable, in a dangerous and hostile environment like jail/prison, is not lost on me.
The miracle is that the EPP allows for this to happen, which enables myself and my fellow inmates to not only discover characteristics and traits about ourselves, but also the origins behind them, how they contribute to the behavioral patterns that bind us and bring us to jail.
This knowledge is what’s going to help us to remain free from addiction, free from jails, and free from the prison of our own minds.
Thank you EPP.
A hundred days since his release from jail, Victor Soto blazes an impressive re-entry trail putting a Type 9's “Right Action” into the spotlight.
Getting involved in the Enneagram class - offered at Elmwood Correctional Facility while I was "doing time" back in early 2014 - was the best decision I could have ever made in my life! Meeting Susan Olesek and having the opportunity to partake in her class was life-changing. Since getting out of jail on December 22nd of 2014, my entire life has changed. Actually, ever since I got Involved with the Enneagram, things have started changing inside of me. While I was incarcerated, I told Susan that my dream was to run a rehabilitation center for EPP one day. While I was still incarcerated, she brought Rick Benson (Enneagram Type 8 in the addiction recovery industry) to visit me in jail and he told me he would help me. I wasn't sure if he meant it...
Immediately after my release, I moved from San Jose, California to Prescott, Arizona to attend an out-patient treatment program through Rick's network. Even though I have two years clean and sober, I readily joined this program because I needed to learn the ropes and saw it as a great way to get my life on track. To stay honest with you, I would have never made it up here without the help and support of Susan Olesek and Rick Benson. In the four-and-a-half months since I came to Prescott, I have been promoted to a house manager at a house called Next Step and began working in the office at a treatment center called True Accountability.
Wait, working? If you follow my story then you know that I haven’t had the easiest life or made the best of choices. I have spent the better part of my youth in and out of prison and did so as an adult for the last 16 years. Working a “regular job” has never really felt like an option for me. But that’s all different now. Since the move, I have been involved with some really cool things. This spring I got to meet and hear the famous Father Richard Rohr speak in Scottsdale, Arizona and met many loving and generous people who run the Arizona Enneagram Association.
While I was at the Richard Rohr event, I was invited to join an Enneagram study group out in Sedona Arizona held by Robin Cameron, a great woman and an excellent teacher. I have met so many incredible people since I have been on this path with the Enneagram and the EPP! I get to help out with special events and I even got to help with the EPP’s just-wrapped film shoot. What is more, I get to do what I love to do most and that’s helping others in their life struggles.
I am still on the path to get certified as an Enneagram teacher, and I completed the Intensive 2.0 in Menlo Park this past winter. I will be taking the next part of the training this coming August 2015.
The EPP, using the Enneagram, some hard work, dedication and support is what has made all of this possible for meI I now know too that learning to believe in myself had a lot to do with it as well.
Even as a Type 9, it’s okay to have and allow good things to happen for you in your life, it really is! Life is not all that bad when doing it the “correct way” and being a “square bear!”
I like being part of society and a productive member of it as well, being “part of the problem” is no longer my way of life, being part of the solution is.
EPP Ambassador Victor Soto spent the last two years serving time in a California county jail. At 38 years of age and labeled a “career criminal” by the corrections system, Vic spent the majority of his life in and out of prison. Finally, sick of his history and ready to make a real and lasting change, in January of 2014 he enrolled in an eight-week program with Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) at Elmwood Correctional Facility in California.
Vic applied the profound wisdom of the Enneagram system to change the trajectory of his own life. On December 23rd, he was released from custody with a new lease on life. With the magnanimous support of EPP’s strategic partner, Rick Benson — a big-hearted Enneagram Type 8 who works tirelessly in the Addictions Recovery sector and who visited Elmwood Correctional Facility with Susan earlier in 2014, Vic enrolled in a rehabilitation program in Arizona beginning in January. Last week he embarked on the first leg of his certification towards becoming an Enneagram teacher with Palmer-Daniels. EPP believes wholeheartedly in Victor Soto, but even more importantly, Victor Soto now believes in himself
As I started the Enneagram Intensive 2.0 in Menlo Park, California last month with Dr. Daniels and Peter O’Hanrahan, I was still kind of uncomfortable being around “normies.” (That’s what guys like me, who’ve been inside “the walls” for years, call the rest of you “normal” folks out there…)
I have done enough work around the Enneagram to realize that my thoughts about “them,” the normies, not accepting me were actually my own projections. But, it wasn't until we started doing the panels for all of the different types that I began understanding - really seeing - that “they” too have dysfunction and problems in their lives. Hearing their stories really opened my eyes; just because it doesn't look like there's anything wrong in someone’s life, doesn’t mean there isn't anything wrong. The thing I’ve repeated in my head for years, "DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER!" was coming back to haunt me.
During the Enneagram 2.0 Intensive training, we got to the Type 9 panel, which is mine, and I wasn't really sure what I was going to say. Why? Well, firstly, I have a very long rap sheet, and secondly, I just got out of jail on December 23rd, 2014. I was the only one of “my kind” in the training. That said, I have become a firm believer in being honest, so that's just what I decided to be, honest. I told my story, beginning with me being taken away from my mom at the age of seven, how I became a part of the foster care system, how my dad went to prison, how I started to do drugs when I was only seven, and then about living on the streets followed by and adult life of incarceration. I really wanted my classmates to see how much I have worked on myself, and maybe, I just wanted “to show them.”
In a way, they also showed me. The last thing I ever expected was the compassion that they felt for me. David Daniels and Peter O’Hanrahan are two of the most unique men I’ve ever met in my life. The wisdom that they shared with the class was insightful and empowering; their compassion, was so unlike anything I’ve ever known.
I could never thank Enneagram Prison Project and ESNT enough for the opportunity to work with David and Peter like I did. I am grateful to everyone who helped to make this happen in my life. That I can continue on the path that I‘m on, and continue working towards becoming a certified Enneagram teacher, has become a dream of mine. I want to give back and to be there for people just like me. I want to show that hope exists for everyone.
Well, I showed them and I guess they showed me, too. It went both ways, because after I was finished with the panel and the class ended, a lady by the name of Julia approached me and asked if she could give me a hug! She said that she was touched by my life's experiences and struggles. She could see that those experiences have helped me to become the man that I am today. That was a “WOW!” moment for me. Never in my life have I ever thought that I could ever have such an affect on anyone.
As we continued talking, Julia told me that the rest of the white ladies there all wanted to be where I’m at; to have what I have. What? I couldn’t comprehend what she was telling me. I'm looking at this woman thinking that she, like all the others in the class, have it all together, what could I possibly have that they could want? So, I asked her. Julia explained that seeing how I was able to turn my life around after surviving my childhood, my experiences on the street, and my life “behind the walls,” was really something. The next thing she said really blew me away. She actually said: “I envy you.” and she was sure a few others felt the same way.
The day after the training was complete I received an email from another one of these amazing ladies. She wrote:
“Victor, it’s early in the morning on Saturday and the day after getting home from our workshop. I am reminiscing about the time together with all the incredible people I met, you being one of those. Thank you for making the access to the radio show easy for us to listen to. Hearing your voice and listening to your story has a place in my heart that is filled with love. You're a man who can walk in a room and be seen, heard, respected, and love. Having our paths cross has been a teaching for me and opened my heart just a little more. Thank you for what you are doing now and in your future. I can easily say, Victor you're one of the most authentic, sweetest, and lovable men I have met.”
- Amanda West
These women really opened my eyes to a bigger picture. They were open and honest in sharing how I touched their lives. I am beginning to see what Julia and Amanda were trying to tell me about the importance of accepting who I really am as a person. I do continue to fight with myself inside and I can see that I have a habit of doubting my impact. This is part of me being a Nine. But, if I am honest with myself, I guess I really do have an effect on others when I share my story and life experiences. I am starting to see what I can show others; what I can do to help other people’s lives when I make myself a priority.
I can honestly say that without the Enneagram Prison Project, I would not be where I am today. Just yesterday, it seems, I was wearing state-issued black and white stripes, on the yard, looking at the end of another jail term. Today, thanks to EPP’s partnership with Rick Benson, I have just been promoted to House Manager at a sober living environment program in Arizona called Next Step. I am on track to certify to teach the Enneagram, I am an EPP Ambassador, and I am working in the field of addictions and recovery.
This is the life I have wanted to lead and now I can see the path. If you look at what the Enneagram did for my life and how dramatically I am changing, just think how much better working with the Enneagram can make yours! It’s real powerful, don't you think?
Like I’d been slapped, I suddenly felt the weight of Vic’s re-entry, his life, his past. Vic just shrugged and smiled at her, telling her yes, he was, and she pleasantly began to direct us somewhere, but together we interrupted her. “We’re just trying to get a birth certificate.”
I watched my friend as we walked away from the woman. “Yeah.” he told me matter-of-factly, nodding: “It’s like that.” I felt my naiveté with some annoyance. I am on a steep learning curve.
I spent the last 72 hours with Vic doing re-entry between the DMV, three court houses in a five-mile radius, 90-minute lines for clerks who take no appointments, and our stint at the Hall of Records. I watched as clerk after clerk, their official name badges pinned over their own wounded hearts, projected who knows what concoction of their own inadequacies onto “big, bad Vic” with their curt, un-forthcoming answers to his questions. He represents every former felon they’ve ever encountered. I watched as they softened when I interjected myself on his behalf, feeling both insulted for Vic and irritated with myself at my surprise.
But then I remembered something, a helpful reminder from my colleague, Leslie Hershberger, and her lovely teaching about what to say to ourselves when the Inner Critic acts up. I quietly told myself: “But, of course.” I’ve just spent the last eleven months with Vic immersed in the investigation of what turned out to be his very tender heart. Of course I am surprised. You see, I teach an Enneagram course at the jail where he was incarcerated, and he has been an avid student. Honestly, all I see when I look at this man is the gentle giant I know him to be – inside and out. But, of course...
Vic’s a Type 9, a “Peacemaker.” He actually hates violence and would never intentionally hurt people. That’s ironic because for the majority of his 37 years, Vic says he was a “gang banger” and will readily admit that he was very much a part of the destruction in other people’s lives by selling and using drugs. He spent 16 years in and out of prison. Type 9s want more than anything to belong and running the streets has been Vic’s way of belonging to the only world he’s ever known. Using drugs was his way to escape from the intense conflict that has been brewing around and inside of him since he was six years old.
He’s repeated his pattern of avoidance and “narc’ing out,” two pieces of his own defense system, a long while now, a life time, actually. But now he’s onto himself in that way where, after we’ve studied ourselves long enough, we suddenly realize that we know too much and we can’t go back to how we used to be. Vic is ready to try something different and this man has some serious potential. I’ve been recruiting him for EPP since we first met.
At the stroke of midnight on December 23rd, I picked Vic up from Elmwood Correctional Facility in California when he was released. That was a first for me. I sat there at 10:30 p.m., waiting the requisite 90 minutes for the “processing” of those about-to-be-released. I counted a crowd of 35 family and friends sprinkled on the seats, each awaiting someone they cared about, like I was, and I noticed a little boy with hair to his shoulders who was about five years old. I overheard that he was waiting for his mom to get out.
Another woman, who seemed to be his grandma, was cheerfully talking to the boy about what was happening. “She’s in there and waiting, too.” the grandma assured the boy. “They’re all going to come through that gate in a minute and then they’re going to cut off that bracelet off her arm.” The little boy nodded. He looked completely at ease in the jail lobby, weaving between the kiosk full of re-entry documents and his grandma’s legs. He ran to the bathroom and returned, making up a game as he darted about. This place was not new to him, he was obviously a regular.
As midnight approached, the crowd at the jail grew. I noticed the boy and his grandma run into more and more people whom they knew; some were from their neighborhood, some they recognized from when they “did time” at Elmwood. They were reminiscing about the different programs they’d completed on the inside, recalling the guards, the friends and sons they knew who were still there now. I thought about this little boy and wondered about his future surrounded by the familiarity of incarceration. Statistically, he has the highest chance of going there himself because of his family circumstances alone.
When Vic was in first grade his dad went to prison. The the courts separated him from his siblings into foster care and he became a child of the state, raised by “Mother California” and later on by his grandmother. Can you recall where you were when you were six years old? Sadly, Vic’s story is a heart-breakingly typical one. Vic may have spent the last two years incarcerated, but this particular example of generational incarceration has come to a hault.
And why's that? What’s different this time, you ask? I’m glad you asked...
When I first met him, Vic sat quietly slouched in his chair, feet crossed at the ankles. If I didn’t have a 17-year-old Type 9 in my life – who has trained me so well, I might have mistaken his quiet disposition as disinterest. Every time I asked him a question, however, I was struck by the ownership he was already willing to take for his emotional life, his past, and more importantly, for his future. He was tired of himself, and of his past. To paraphrase Henry Cloud, the pain of being the same now outweighed the pain of changing. I listened as Vic considered Type 8, his strong wing, and walk gingerly around the Type 9 issues. Finally he landed firmly in "9" territory with a cat-ate-the-canary grin any student of the Enneagram system knows all too well, sheepishly admitting: “Yeah, that’s so me!” From that day on, I knew Vic was waking up.
In fact, Vic is the kind of student every teacher wishes for. He did each assignment with wide-eyed intention, he read and re-read the Wisdom of the Enneagram book and shed layer upon layer of habits as he did so. Gradually, he sat up in his chair and called out other men to take an honest look at themselves too. Vic graduated in EPP’s first pilot program at Elmwood last February and then – hungry for the truths about himself he was discovering – he repeated the course four more times.
EPP was honored to interview Vic this past spring “from the inside” for the Enneagram Global Summit. You can listen to his recording by clicking here. Vic said:
“The Enneagram was the icing on the cake. It was the missing piece that I was needing to finally understand why I did the things that I have done and why I have the habits that I have when it comes to taking care of what’s important in life. While taking the class I got in touch with some really deep emotions that I didn’t even know were there; feelings that I didn’t know existed. It was a really emotional experience for me, but I’m glad that I did it. When I exit this institution I will be exiting with the utmost positive attitude and for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid of what good life is waiting for me.”
Vic’s birthday was December 24th. Talk about new beginnings. Guess what he asked for for his birthday? To register for the first week of Palmer-Daniel’s Enneagram training on January 31st in Menlo Park, California. He wants to certify to become an Enneagram teacher. Vic’s dream is to run an addictions center some day. He explains:
“There is a calling for everyone in the world and I believe I have found mine: To help others just like me, to give them a place to turn to when they need help, or a place to live so they can get back on their feet with job training skills and life skills that will help them in the future. I truly believe that everyone deserves a second chance, no matter what mistakes they may have done in life.”
EPP plans to see that Vic gets his birthday wish. We want to see that he starts the first year of his new life on the right foot. I suspect that you believe in second chances, too.
If just 10 of us contributed $200, we could fully scholarship Vic’s tuition AND room and board for this upcoming training. Wanna chip in on the most unique birthday gift you’ve ever given someone? Click here. We would be honored to make room for you to sign your name to his birthday card next to ours.
Sometimes we give to a cause and we don’t really know what our money does. In this case, you get to sit in the front row of Vic’s cheering section. You can get to know him, witness his growth as he goes, and watch him as he ends the cycle of incarceration in his family. You can know – without a shadow of a doubt – that you made it different.
We’ll make sure you hear about his progress.
It takes a village and boy do we have one!
With love and gratitude,
Susan Olesek | Founder Enneagram Prison Project
MY SECOND WEEK OF ENNEAGRAM TRAINING WITH RISO-HUDSON
Our class of 52 broke into groups of six to eight persons each. For this exercise, we were given a sentence to complete, otherwise known as a stem. Regardless of the stem, this kind of exercise tends to be easy for me, so I volunteered to speak first. The person to my left would follow me and complete the stem in their own way, followed by the person to their left and continuing clockwise around the circle until it was my turn again, and we repeated this for about five minutes, each time completing the stem with our own immediate thoughts.
The stem was, "When I am in tune with the depth of my heart. . . "
“When I am in tune with the depth of my heart,” I began, “I feel soft.” This was my best attempt at describing an experience I rarely have. Yes, I have a heart, and yes, I feel emotions. But I’m not sure I even know what being in tune with the depth of my heart means. While it might have sounded good to everyone else, I was totally faking it, but at least I tried. Maybe something real will come up next time it comes around to me.
The girl next to me takes her turn. “When I am in tune with the depth of my heart,” she says and then goes into some description about birds or something else natural and beautiful. Then it is time for the next person, then the next person, then the next person.
Listening to the statements of those in my group, I get a sense that my I feel soft is probably pretty accurate for some. Everything these people say is soft and buttery. Maybe I don’t relate yet, but I’m about to have a second chance. “When I am in tune with the depth of my heart,” I say, “I feel a little jealous and perhaps envious of people who get to experience it more than I do because it’s not something I really understand, I think.”
I said more than I wanted. This is supposed to be about the heart and all that is good. In my attempt to connect, I somehow managed to weave a couple of deadly sins into what should have only been a statement about being in tune with the depth of my . . . heart?
But it’s an easy group, and they don’t seem too affected. The person next to me just picks up and finishes the sentence in her own beautiful way, as does the young man to her left, then the next person, then the next person.
Although I’m supposed to be present and listening intently to the things that these people experience when they are in tune to the depth of their heart, I cannot help but disconnect and sink into my own mind – a much safer place than my heart – as I try to solve this minor internal issue I am having. In a few short moments, it will be my turn again and I really need to think of something to share besides jealousy and envy. I’m melting with embarrassment at the thought being the only one who has no earthly idea what it feels like – hell, what it even means – to be in tune with the depth of my heart. When it’s my turn again, I say, “When I am in tune with the depth of my heart, I feel kind of mushy inside.”
The stem floats around the circle, completely unaware that I don’t know how to make sense of it. There is a wonderful woman in our group from South Africa. I had the privilege of talking with her at dinner the night before, and I liked her because she immediately got my joke about having previously lived in a gated community – a common euphemism for prison. Now I’ve suddenly recalled a word she used in a completely different exercise earlier today, and apparently it’s how I feel when I am in tune with the depth of my heart. Mushy? I can’t even lie with my own words now. I subconsciously stole her word to tell my lie.
Continuing, each person is explaining their experience with something about a tune in the depth of their hearts or whatever, but I’m lost. The people to my left share until the people to my right share, and it is about to be my turn again. But I’ve decided against trying to tell another lie. Instead, I’m just going to confess to my group that. . .
A bell rings, signaling the exercise is over. Russ, our teacher, suggests we thank our group members and return to our seats. As always, there is a time for sharing. Several of the people in class share their experiences and what they got from this exercise, but all I got was a headache.
People are talking about radiant this and happiness that until my ears reduce everything to a low hum. It’s nice having an internal mute button when the world morphs into an audible pile of bullshit. Two people or three or six or nine people share their thoughts with the class, which Russ translates into wisdom. Isn’t it wonderful? No!
When I am in tune with the depth of my heart. . .
I’m not angry, but hell no. I raise my hand, and the microphone is passed to me. Before I speak, I realize that my comment is going to come across funny, so I erase any trace of humor from my voice. “I would rather be in tune with the depth of my head,” I said without preface.
Predictably, a few scattered giggles show up throughout the class, and I’m immediately enraged. I’m mad as hell, so I notice that feeling as I dismiss the rage and maintain focus. I never lose eye contact with Russ, and I flatly say, “I’m not trying to be funny.” He could tell.
He’s staring at me with intent. No, he’s not staring. He’s holding me. I’m on the verge of falling off a cliff, but Russ is there, focused and holding on for dear life. My dear life. I can feel it, and others in the class know something is happening, and they disappear. Their bodies remain in their seats, but I don’t see them, and they don’t make a sound.
I wasn’t admonishing the laughers when I said that I wasn’t trying to be funny. I definitely wasn’t clarifying myself to Russ. He’s wise enough to know I wasn’t going for laughs, but I needed the clarification for myself – aloud, but still just for the sake of me. Even if nobody else in the room knew, I needed to acknowledge that this was serious shit.
With more shame than I can describe, I explain that while we were doing the exercise, I was merely saying words. I wanted to participate – even tried to participate – but there was a resistance that exposed my inability to be in tune . . . with the depth . . . of my . . .
I’m a Type 5. Head Type. Thinker. With a Type-4 wing. Heart Type. Huh?! This doesn’t make sense. How can I have such a disconnect with my heart? Russ explains his own experience. I am thankful – so thankful – that my teacher is a Type 5. Of course he’ll know how I feel, what to say, if anything.
But the hum in my ear returns, and all I see are his eyes. I vaguely hear something about him seeing how close I am to coming over or through. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s talking about, but he adds that they’re ready for me, whatever that means.
All I can think about is the edge of the cliff and the room full of people who are now staring at me. Letting go would be the easiest thing to do, but I’ve learned that easy doesn’t always translate to good or right.
I’m sitting in a chair that is to the far right of the fourth row, and he’s standing at the edge of the stage. I have nothing to say. I drop my hand, taking the microphone away from my mouth, and I’m just lost. I’m not giving up, but I don’t know what or how to do whatever I’m supposed to do.
So confused and lost. What the hell is going on here? Why are my ears making this noise, and why does my head hurt so much? How is this room so painfully quiet? Why is my chest on fire?
From the beginning, my eye contact with Russ has not wavered, and he’s stayed right there with me the entire time. I’m not sure he’s even blinked yet. It’s not a staring contest; it’s a connection, and it’s freaking me out but comforting me at the same time. I think I hear him ask, “What do you need?”
How the hell would I know?! You can’t cook with a calculator. I don’t have the right tools for this. My confusion grows to a point that it swallows my anger. There are so many things to be angry about – those few people who laughed, my shameful admission, my complete inability to talk right now – but I just shrug and silently beg that I won’t have to say it.
“I just. . .”
Hold it together.
“. . .want. . .”
Slow and steady.
“. . .to cry. . .”
If you whisper, your voice won’t crack.
“. . .like a little kid.”
My stomach is shaking fast and hard with painless electricity. My whole body is quivering, but I’m not cold. I don’t recognize another word he says, but he’s still there at the edge of the stage, maintaining connection with me. Thank god for eyes.
A few moments stretch into eternity, and nobody says a word. The entire room allows whatever is taking place, and I am grateful. There is a tension that I can’t avoid, but I also can’t do anything to relieve it. Paralyzed with the pain of needing something that I can’t even ask for, I’m drowning.
I’m stuck, but he’s not. He’s not stuck at all! He’s off the stage and headed toward me with a head full of compassionate steam. A heart full of steam. This is what I need! This is exactly what I need! I stand up to walk toward him, but it’s too late. I can only take a single step because he has already taken the rest. As I bury my melting face into his shoulder, he wraps his entire life around me and it’s real.
It’s so real.
I’m so weak that I can’t even close my eyes. All I see is a field of bright green, the color of the shirt that I am howling into. This friend of mine is holding me. Literally. I am weeping uncontrollably, sobbing and unwilling to even attempt to quiet myself. This is what I need. This is all I need.
My knees buckle, but I remain upright. My chest collapses, but I stay intact. My support is wrapped around me – not under, above, or behind me.
After a few minutes into eternity, I pull back and reconnect with the eyes. Russ keeps his right arm around me, but his left hand is directly in the center of my chest.
This is your heart.
When I am in tune with the depth of my heart, I feel free.
My mind is a safe place, but I am free to experience my full self, not just my head.
I don’t betray my intellect when I allow my heart to open up and see the world.
I can also allow my heart to open up and be seen by the world.
I am not a robot. I am a living, breathing thing who will die without my heart.
When I am in tune with the depth of my heart, I feel alive.
MY LEARNING JOURNEY TO SCANDINAVIA
And so it is the case for all of us. Our "minds" are the weapons. It's the human mind that turns a baseball bat in to a weapon, a first-class fork on an international flight into a weapon, a knife or hammer from tools in to weapons. And, it is the human mind that sees the man inside the prisoner, the need behind the behavior, the person who lies beneath the personality. The mind is a tool, or a weapon, however we choose to wield it.
My conversation with a guard at an “open prison” on an island off the coast of Norway, which I visited last month, was just one of many that made deep impressions on my already idealistic heart. After nearly a year of paying attention to the remarkable media stories in which the Norwegians and Danes do criminal reform so differently (admittedly, much, much better) than we do here in the U.S., I set out to do some research of my own. I have to admit, part of me had an underlying sentiment of: Come on… is it really as good over there as we hear? So, I must admit to you now, the answer is no, it’s even better than we hear.
During a recent Nine Domains Workshop with Dr. Margaret Smith, our class looked at the U.S. prison system and came up with an ideal model for how reformed prison could look here in the United States. At the time, it may have felt like a far-reaching exercise in utopian thinking, but one that I happened to like immensely. I will tell you that in Norway and Denmark, however, these are not pie-in-the-sky ideals to which we speak of, they are in fact reflected in reality. I was blown away. In the seven prisons and halfway houses that I visited, I repeatedly found the people at the gates as well as those behind the desks and holding the keys to the cells to be the most compassionate and optimistic “caregivers." They see inmates not as “offenders,” but rather as people who need help, and they treat them as such. What is more, they believe that people can change. How novel.
By “open prisons,” a practice inherent to both Denmark and Norway, I mean that inmates can leave during the day to go to work or school. I learned of a man who was not yet allowed the privilege of leaving – a trust that’s earned over time – and he lamented to a guard about his daughter’s performance at school, which he was loathe to miss. The guard looked at this man and told him, “Then go. Go and come back. Go on.” The man – an inmate, need I remind you – did just that. Upon returning himself to prison, as promised, this huge man stood in front of the guard and thanked him, weeping with gratitude.
What really stood out to me was the complete absence of aggression, and the resulting sense of humanity within the prison walls. Without the usual stripping of identity to which we are so accustomed here: no uniforms, no government issued numbers replacing names, it felt downright pleasant. This stems from their philosophy, laid out plainly in the Danish prison handbook, which states that the notion of reducing criminality must first include: “Human Worth.” Our guide happily shared a copy of this with us. The handbook states: “All prison and probation work shall respect the individual person and generally accepted human rights.” They do not just pay lip service to this, it's common practice.
Via Claus’ introduction, last winter, I began communicating with Marcus, a man who did the majority of his sentence in the aforementioned prison for a murder he committed nearly eight years ago. Not long after we connected, Marcus messaged me on Facebook. I couldn’t get my mind around this. “Hang on, aren’t you in prison?!” I messaged him back. “This is crazy.” A few weeks after we “met” online, he asked me if I wanted to Skype. You’ve gotta be kidding me. I thought. He wasn’t. Now I understand that the “freedoms” he enjoyed, while still technically imprisoned, fall under the notion of “Normalization,” the first principle of Denmark’s Prison and Probation Service. To quote the manual: “By establishing conditions which differ as little as possible from […]daily life outside prison, the ground for aggression and apathy are reduced and the negative effects of a prison sojourn are limited.”
Marcus has done his time in the truest sense of those words and he is lovely. With the help of a psychotherapist, he has dug deep into the abusive background that preceeded his own violent tendencies. He has obtained his schooling degrees and during the end of his prison term he met and married his beautiful new wife, a clear upside to the fact that prisons are co-ed. As my Texan cohorts have been schooling me to ask, gentle readers I want to know: Are you pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down?! Damn, we can do so much better! Marcus is putting his mind to his Enneagram studies and is considering becoming an EPP Ambassador. With his already proven tenacity towards transformation coupled with his newfound appreciation of the Enneagram and Claus’ formidable support, Marcus has a lot going for him. In Norway, things became even more inspiring, as if that were possible. At Bastøy Prison, people who are incarcerated for anything from murder to sex offense to selling drugs can apply to finish their sentences of two to five years on the island.
For Norwegians, there is no such thing as a life sentence. Norway abolished life in prison in 1971 when it adapted its legislation to reflect reality. The law reflects the country’s culture and belief that prison is for rehabilitation not punishment. For those living in the U.S., this immediately begs the question of what to do with severe cases of mass murderers like Norwegian, Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in 2011. Even in such a case, the belief remains that everyone could eventually have the chance to get out and rejoin society. There is, however, a discretionary prison board in place to evaluate such extreme cases, which the people of Norway seem to really trust.
A PARADIGM SHIFT IN THINKING
This ideology feels almost too big to get our minds around here in the U.S. where we basically say, “You do the crime, you do the time.“ There’s an overt satisfaction when severe punishment for human beings who lose touch with (their own) humanity is administered. When we perpetuate the sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP), which some call, “the other death penalty,” we certainly seem to have decided that for some people rehabilitation is not possible. There are 40,000 people with LWOPs doing time in the United States.
The basic belief at Bastøy, however, is that everyone is eventually going to become someone’s neighbor, so they get started learning how to help the men get working on this. Everyone? Yes, everyone. People with sex offenses, murder or rape charges...everyone comes back to society. The only parameters are that one needs to be willing to work. Horse-drawn carts pepper the dirt roads on which strong, sturdy and friendly men go about hauling lumber, tending the garden and landscaping. It is a stunning island and the colorful yellow and red houses are picturesque.
The men do “empathy training” with the animals, midwifing the cows and horses, or helping them to mate. One story I was told included a man who brought 40 sheep onto the truck for slaughter. When it arrived via ferry on the mainland; however, the truck contained only 39. Apparently, the man had become so attached to his sheep, that after he loaded the herd, he went out the front door with one tucked under his arm. Another man walks about the island with a calf whose mother refused to bond with it, following the man’s every step. It was precious, and very moving, to be among the guards and to see the obvious care they have for the inmates. My Utopian mind was spinning.
Though we had never met, Camilla Kokai, a Norwegian Enneagram teacher, who is all heart and then some, welcomed me to her stunning little town of Kristiansand with unending hospitality. Camilla and I found ourselves like two sisters, passionate and plodding through our countries’ prison systems and the map of the Enneagram, our own instincts providing our best direction. She invited me to tour Kristiansand Fengsel, a maximum security prison that houses 44 inmates. My recent visit to Folsom Prison with 30 "lifers" provided a stark contrast to this gentle and peaceful place. The prison director and about 16 social and prison workers first met with us at a halfway house where Camilla oriented them to the Enneagram and I explained the mission of The Enneagram Prison Project. Afterwards, we received a thorough tour of the facility, located on the 8th and 9th floor of the Hall of Justice.
With almost unfathomable caring, the director apologetically shared his regrets with us that this prison was not located on the ground level. “We don’t like that this keeps them away from the rhythms of the earth and the seasons. They cannot smell the flowers.” Camilla concurred, with a sigh: “Yah, it’s not good.” I felt like I was back at the Waldorf school where my children were first educated. I was completely dumbfounded, were they for real? I felt my own paltry expectations on behalf of the people who are part of the criminal system in which I work here in California – many of whom I have developed very protective feelings for and – felt astounded and somewhat ashamed. I thought I was an advocate, and while I very well may be, I could also clearly see that I, too, am part of the majority in this country that has become complacent, settling for inadequacy in terms of how we care (or don’t) for people who have sadly found their way into the criminal system.
It may sound a bit cliché, but honestly, the Danish lead with love, with their own humanity, and this is what makes the biggest difference for the people in their care.
Marianne Williamson says: "Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learned here."
In the U.S. we use an iron fist with people who break the law. We do so out of fear. We see the alarming escalation in our own prison population and react to it by being "tough on crime." In our mounting terror, we forget that right behind the recidivism statistics are actual people, human beings.
Behind the people are their stories – horrific ones – full of neglectful ways in which our system failed to support children. By being present to the stories of incarcerated men and women we find, finally, an explanation – not an excuse – but an inroad to understanding. The map of the Enneagram system honors every person's story; it provides a means to compassionately, lovingly address what is going on deep inside of us. When we start there, real change and lasting freedom of the most remarkable kind is possible.
"We just passed 'Blood Alley' where the homicides happen..." my escort said under his breath, as we walked together. It was twilight at Folsom Prison. The yard was packed. My companion was an employee with the California Department of Criminal Reform, whom I had just met. I felt my vulnerability and moved a bit closer to him. I generally don't have a lot of fear for my safety. I seem to prefer anxiety, induced by the fear of being unprepared or incompetent, those sorts of Type 1 concerns. So, while that moment definitely gave me pause, it still didn't impress me like the two-and-a-half hours I'd just spent with 30 "lifers." The collective hope in that room full of guys buoyed my already-determined optimism. Not missing a step, we walked on in silence towards the prison gates, my mind reeling with possibilities.
My escort, who was curious about becoming an EPP trainer, invited me to Folsom this spring to give an overview of the Enneagram for his class, to whom he teaches self-awareness. None of his students have been there fewer than 15 years. Upon arriving, I felt a sentiment to which I can never seem to find the words to convey. The inside of prison is always oddly familiar to me. I'm immediately at home.
A Type 7 in jail recently told me, "It's like I'm on a retreat." What a perfect Type 7 reframe that is, but she is of course, quite right. If one can look at it that way, being removed from the distractions of regular life is a blessing, "a retreat," from that which so readily keeps us from ourselves. No one knows this like someone who's really "doing time." I felt lucky for the unusual chance to be reminded how to really get present that evening, by some of life's best teachers. As I write this I remember Don Riso's words, with a flood of gratitude:
Living my life on the outside, I can easily convince myself that it's my kids, my husband, my busy career, my taxes...that keep me from a peaceful state. The myriad of possible places on which to pin the blame for my struggles makes an impressive list. But, tucked safely inside the real walls of a prison - away from the trappings in which we so readily lose ourselves - it is glaringly apparent that the source of suffering is not out there. It is inside me.
Wanting to pre-empt any projections, on either of our parts, I greeted each student at the door with a handshake as they trickled into the room from their dinner and other programs. One man, who later identified himself as a Type 2, took his handouts and asked me with a half-laugh: "Which Type is the bad one?" Awww, I thought. "There are no bad ones." I reassured him, feeling for the part in both of us which so readily comes up with thoughts like that.
By now I've come to know what to expect from people in prison who self-select into awareness programs: gratitude, humility, and curiosity. These men were much like the hundreds of others I've been fortunate to meet over the years. Many of them thanked me profusely for coming. They told me how they'd looked forward to the class for months. One or two guys sat in the far corners of the room listening intently, but volunteering very little. Most, however, were very warm and engaging, wanting to put me at ease.
Looking for proof, a man whose test results pointed to Type 5, raised his hand and challenged the validity of the Enneagram. I sparred a little with him and felt for his entry point to the Enneagram by gently throwing out as much as I could about 5s. Finally I said, "Sometimes 5s can get a bad rap for appearing arrogant..." and the other men around him absolutely erupted! They let out loud whistles and slapped their desks, calling out: "Yo, man, right!?" He stopped short and gave that tell-tale smile, which I love, the chagrined one that says, "Yeah, that's me!" And then I knew we were good. "I've got your number..." I joked with him, "You're not really cold and unfeeling, you're pretty sensitive, aren't you?" He looked at me somberly and said, "Yes, I am." The room quieted around him. "I know," I went on, "...because the 5s in my life are deeply feeling, and often when they lead with all the knowledge, it's really just a cover for not knowing how to connect." Our 5 nodded.
As we continued to unpack the Enneagram system together, our time fleeting, I felt the lurking disappointment at not having enough time to get to know these men better. But instead of dwelling on it, I decided to just be in the moment we did have, and to cover some territory around the Enneagram together, leaving the rest up to something larger than myself.
Leading with the virtues, I offered them a rough sketch of each type. "What do you love about yourself?" I asked, wanting them to recall their gifts, for their peers to hear them speak to these things. A Type 1 in the back offered: "Well, I'm an architect, and I'm really precise. Being a Type 1 helps me with my work in a lot of ways because I'm so detailed, but..." He could scarcely finish the positive without adding, "...I can be really judgmental." He grinned apologetically. I appreciated him for sharing our mutual struggle. I interrupted his dialogue with his inner critic and asked him, "...and, what else do you love about you?" He smiled and sat quietly, trying to remember. We 1s are not so quick with the list of accolades.
I thought it noteworthy that this man, who has been in prison for at least 15 years, so readily identified with his profession. The incarcerated do not see themselves merely as "just inmates." That limiting perspective is one which we so often adopt from the outside. They are fathers, brothers, and sons. One man I work with in jail is an aeronautical engineer, another is an executive. They are viable, real people who got in trouble with their personality. They are you and they are me.
As I continued to relay the nine different strategies of the types, they readily brought examples of their passions and fixations. The Enneagram system is just as reliable as the human condition. I noted this to myself for the umpteenth time with such regard for its wisdom. I used to imagine that inmates would need all kinds of coaxing to begin examining their inner lives. And while I do find that many people behind bars are tremendously defended, I also know that none of us can look at ourselves until we're ready. All of the people whom I've ever seen volunteer themselves to Enneagram studies are somewhat possessed with a drive to wake up; this I have come to trust. The men in that room were absolutely on that road, heading toward the path to freedom.
Throughout our precious two hours, I seesawed over an unspoken threshold of trust with the men. Here and there I carefully put down my Enneagram theory and just felt the weight of their experiences. Some casually mentioned having been in there for 30 years, or having lost children while they've been locked up. They shared with a startling candor that reflected their fierce resilience, on the one hand, and on the other, a detachment that underscored the magnitude of healing waiting to happen.
Not wanting to leave them without the benefit of something utterly practical, we practiced an "In and Down" meditation, Helen Palmer style. They placed their attention on the far wall, on the middle of the room and at book-reading distance. Then I had them drop into the spaciousness of their own breath. In those mindful minutes of centering it was inarguably clear, to me, that we are all in this work together.
In the end, it was me thanking them profusely, hand on my heart, and taking in the smiles around the room. Several men waited to shake my hand and ask how they could learn more. One man told me that he was getting out soon. I encouraged him to contact EPP so that he could continue with his study of the Enneagram and participate in our upstart community. They chattered with one another on their way out the door, their long day coming to an end. I appreciated their willingness to receive me as I watched them leave.
The classroom I was now leaving was several layers deep inside Folsom. On the way out, we backtracked up several flights of stairs, through so many doors I lost count, past cells stacked several tiers high, right past men showering (geeze!) and through the thick, stone walls that contained us all. As we moved through the crowd beyond "Blood Alley," I could feel the difference in energy - such a contrast to that safe container from which we just emerged. Several men made a narrow opening for us to pass. Some looked away as I made eye contact. A few challenged my gaze until I looked away.
Just before we went through final security at the gates, I noticed the guards through the windows above me in the 30-foot-tall, stone towers. The metaphor strikes me now about how we move through life from different vantage points, depending only, of course, on where we place our attention. I removed mine from that high tower and brought it back inside of myself with a deep breath. In this grounded posture, I left Folsom but remain, to this day, very much connected to the human beings I left behind inside those walls.
At the Intensive 2.0 program, a flood of emotions began to pour through me. I found myself surrounded by doctors, psychologists, writers, and other accomplished men and women from all over the world, ranging from Singapore to Holland.
Instantly, my self-doubt kicked in and I was consumed with inadequacy. Not knowing how I would be received by this community of very talented and successful business men and women, I began to obsess with the thought that I wouldn’t be accepted, and honestly, contemplated leaving.
Somehow I conjured up the courage to stay, despite my own self-deprecating thoughts. Within seconds I was greeted and introduced to people I had never met, yet they were genuinely interested in me and cared for me. There was something about the way they smiled at me – with understanding in their eyes – and the way they spoke to me with love in their hearts that made me feel something inside that I had never felt before. Or maybe I have felt it, but it must have been so long ago that I can’t remember, or identify this feeling. All I knew was that this was a good feeling and I was petrified of losing it, or letting these brilliant people down in any capacity.
A few days into the workshop, David gently came alongside me (as he would do in so many ways that week) and let me know that he could see I had a lot of the Enneagram already understood. But, he added, what you need to work on is 2A (the second in his Universal Growth Process: Acceptance). “What, David, you think I’m hard on myself?!” I asked him. He cocked his head to the side and smiled. “Okay, 2A.” I told myself.
As we went through our six days together – a group with so much diversity that we literally represent humanity and all of its walks of life – we didn’t just eat our meals together. We worked and played, laughed and cried together. Despite our social status, regardless of our race or religion, sex or orientation, we became one. Without fear of judgment, we shared our pain, hopes, and dreams. And, with open hearts we helped one another to overcome, endure, and believe in ourselves.
As our last day of the Enneagram Intensive 2.0 fell upon us, we held a closing circle to express our gratitude and were invited to share one gem, or “golden nugget” that each of us had found in our training, something that we will be taking with us on our journeys. After everyone had their turn sharing around the circle, our attention was now on our deeply loved and revered life guide/coach/teacher/instructor/mentor/guide and father, Dr. David Daniels. As he was blessing us with a few more moments of understanding, he paused and turned towards me and said: “I don’t normally single people out, that’s not what I do, but Elam…”
At that moment, my whole world collapsed, I just knew that I had done something wrong, let somebody down, and failed in some type of way. And here as I write this, as if it is not already apparent enough, (so true to type) I am afraid to quote out of fear of misquoting, but I feel the need to bring this full circle…
When David looked at me, he said that he wanted to acknowledge the work that I have done, how evident it is, and how hard I have worked to not allowmy past define me. He told me that he sees me, and that I represent the work of the Enneagram. He went on to add that the Enneagram Community was honored to have me. Everybody in the group began to applaud, and many cried…
In that next moment, I knew what that feeling was, what I have been lacking my whole life. Acceptance. 2A. I got it. They accepted me, no matter who I was. Which lead me to realize that the only person who was not accepting me, was me. This was my nugget, my gem. This is what I am taking with me from this training, and into my life.
Working together we can make a much-needed difference.