The Insider

The EPP Blog

Men of Namur II

EPP Guides + The Men of Namur Graduating Pilot Class May 2018


“The human being is a subtle mechanism, equipped with individual springs, developed in the early years of life in reaction to the surrounding world. Understanding the workings and gears of one’s own mechanics can help to overcome their pitfalls, to enhance their assets, to know oneself better, to know others better and to function better together, in a logic of individual and social development.”

—Christine Schmit
Director
Namur Prison, Belgium


Jeane-Phillipe Koopmansch

“I want only a small thing…” the Training Director said, speaking French to our closing circle, gathered inside the small prison, just outside of Brussels. He smiled at all of us looking back at him expectantly. “I only wish to change the world.” The man-of-the-hour was Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, who has spent the last three years teaching the Enneagram to over 500 prison administrators, and whose dream it has been to teach the Enneagram to “his” detainees since learning the system himself five years ago. Finally, last month, with hearts racing and hopes soaring, a committed team of apprenticing Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) Guides gently descended upon seventeen unsuspecting incarcerated men, determined to lend their hearts to this long awaited opportunity.

Exactly a year ago, Helen Palmer and I spent a quiet moment chatting at the memorial service for our colleague, and my teacher, the beloved Dr. David Daniels. Helen told me then that she had recently met a Belgian prison director who impressed her with his presence and vision. It seemed an auspicious venue to connect on this topic with Helen, the matriarch of the Enneagram community, who – much like David always was – is an ardent supporter of EPP. A truth-telling Type Six, Helen wastes not a syllable when she speaks, so her enthusiastic endorsement of Jean-Philippe was not lost on me. I didn’t know then that I would spend the better part of the next year in collaboration with both this visionary man and CAP Enneagram, a newly formed organization in Belgium whose mission it is to bring the Enneagram to marginalized populations.

Susan Olesek in front of Namur Prison

Piloting our eight-week program over a four-day intensive in Namur prison was something EPP had not attempted before. It is our vision to see the Enneagram taught in every jail and prison in the world. Scaling a project with such a hope, in a country where I was a stranger, with a language I did not know, and customs with which I am unfamiliar, felt like more than just a small leap of faith. But, something larger than me holds everything, and I could especially sense this holding around this project.

We arrived at the prison at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, dressed in EPP t-shirts, and formed a circle outside the prison gates. I inhaled deeply and sighed as I looked at this eager crew with gratitude. I felt a long way from Cleveland, Texas, where I first went to prison to teach the Enneagram nearly nine years ago. The anxiety that used to consume me in the face of the unknown was replaced by a giddy anticipation. Though I didn’t know exactly how, I felt that the next four days would work the edges of each of us, leaving everyone of us changed for the better.

We passed through security without issue, and then made our way through the prison in single file. I read our tagline on the back of the EPP t-shirts in front of me: “Freeing people from the prisons of our own making.” I felt the juxtaposition of our hopeful ensemble moving through the stale, smoke-filled air as we passed the prison staff, who greeted us with friendly expressions of curiosity. Winding up a narrow, spiral staircase to a second tier, we walked past tiny cells, some with their cell-doors ajar revealing men sitting on their edges of their beds, just waking up. Many looked up and smiled “Bonjour!” as we passed them. I marveled at the congeniality people seem to manage, even after years—or even decades—in a place as hope-depriving as prison. Feeling their dignity, and the way language connects us to each other, I practiced one of my small handful of French words, greeting folks with “Salut!” a little self-consciously.

We arrived at what would be our “classroom” for the next four days, a large auditorium with tiled flooring and bare walls that announced our entrance with a somber echo. We quickly formed another circle to get centered for the morning, but before I could get my bearings, the door burst open again and 17 men dressed in white streamed into the room, much like the light from the windows streaming in just above us. The men were lively and friendly, immediately welcoming us with hearty handshakes. I recognized some from our recruiting session a month earlier and loved the sense that we had already begun building trust and credibility by coming back to Namur, as we said we would. I was struck by the Belgian custom of acknowledging each other with intention, people looked up at each other, and said the other person’s name – small gestures, perhaps, but ones that felt refreshing given our givens. Countries, like people, are known to have personalities, and I was learning how Belgium is considered to be a Type Nine country. Called “the Peacemakers,” Type Nines can make everyone and everything feel included; this put me at ease. There in the prison, Belgian kisses were replaced with two handed handshakes, and pleasant salutations. I didn’t feel threatened or unsure despite the unknowns of this country or institution, It felt like I was on my home turf at San Quentin and the county jails of California.

EPP Student

We were to remain in that room together until 3:30 p.m. interrupted like clockwork only for meals and breaks—“to have a piss and a smoke”—a schedule to which we were instructed to strictly adhere. There were no “agents” among us. The correctional staff left us to ourselves, and I was glad that we would be unencumbered by an administration whom, I figured, the men probably held suspect. Being alone with our in-custody students is always the way I prefer to work in prison, as building trust does not come easy.

Carafes of hot drinks and platters of pastries were brought in and placed on tables, a treat which I knew Jean-Philippe, a self-preserving Type Nine, had orchestrated to sweeten our introductions. It worked. We got acquainted quickly, feeling more like fast friends in an out-of-town retreat, than teachers or students in a prison program. Before long, we formed our chairs into a large circle, some men balancing two or three croissants on a knee, holding their cup of “chocolat” as they looked around at the group.

My need for a translator marked the economy of time dramatically. Reducing the Enneagram to its bare elements, I tried to efficiently explain that though Enneagram Prison Project originated in America, where I have been teaching the Enneagram in jails and prisons since 2009, the Enneagram itself is ancient. I let the students know that this system is one which helps us to explore not just what we do, but the unconscious reasons why. I further shared how the self-limiting beliefs we developed as children are related to both our biology, and the very environment in which we were raised.

They men listened intently. Feeling encouraged, I continued…

EPP Student

Somehow we get the idea that we are not enough, I told them, in nine different ways—at some level—we all believe this, and have some very good evidence that “made us” conclude our limiting beliefs to be true. Eventually we become so overidentified with the repetitive, patterned ways we think, and feel, that we do things automatically, without even thinking. Our negative beliefs end up running us, actually. We become so overidentified with them that, eventually, we cannot tell the difference between the habituated us, and who we truly are at our heart of hearts. Our core beliefs become like a kind of prison. The men were nodding, some crossing their arms, and others leaning into the circle, on the edge of their seats. The way out of these self-limiting “personal prisons,” I added with emphasis, is to know ourselves.


The Enneagram holds the key, I told them, like a map of ego-structures, showing us the way to unlock the structures that keep us from experiencing the one things we all want most—to know and feel ourselves to be loved.


(from left) Namur Prison Director, EPP Student, Nadine Nepper, EPP Student

There was silence as the men took in what I said. Then, one by one each of the EPP Guides introduced themselves. In their own, very personal words, the others reliably shared how this insightful, psychological system had changed them in a profound way, too. It had positively impacted their ability to deal with the hardest times in their lives. The guides said knowing themselves made them better parents, helped them to forgive someone, stay married, or deal with people who used to frustrate the hell out of them. With each introduction I sensed our collective credibility deepen. I felt an upwelling of gratitude for these guides and the faith they had put in both me and the mission of EPP. I also felt the responsibility of forming this special circle, knowing that I was actually completely powerless to even make myself understood in it without Vibha, the most gentle Type Nine, at my side who volunteered to be my translator. I felt how each person contributed to our container with their presence. My social subtype got a little spring-in-its-step as I felt how true it was that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Joëlle Legrand and EPP Students

Finally, I asked the detainees why they were there… Some with confidence, but mostly with a shyness which I found quite tender, one by one they admitted that they were curious. Some of the original men we had met on our recruiting trip the month before stood and shared how, since that day, they became intrigued to hear more. They felt something “different” about the people who visited from EPP during that one hour, something felt inviting, and compelled them to come back.

EPP Students introducing themselves

Only one of athe men appeared disinterested, nonchalant. He was a little flip, making jocular commentary not quite under his breath. I felt his feigned indifference, his testing of things, of us. I noted his defenses, and the deference to him by some of the other men seated nearby. No doubt, this man was a powerful presence in the room; one didn’t need any translation to confirm it. I remembered that he had been in the original recruiting session and smiled to myself. We can’t help but to draw close to the parts of us which desperately want to heal. His presence in the room would be more purposeful than we could know.

EPP Student

Lest I leave the impression that it was all croissants and hot chocolate in the prison of Namur, however, it was not. As the morning progressed, I chose my words carefully, relying utterly on Vibha, who tirelessly translated my every thought. I felt the urgency of all I wanted to convey at once, and my mounting frustration at not being able to facilitate in my usual style or pace. Teaching the Enneagram is a transmission—a conveyance of a deeply meaningful system— from one to another. Feeling for the pockets of resonance when teaching something so empowering to a group is something I relish. The men were riveted, but impatient. In the spaces between my English sentences they eagerly leaned into the EPP Guides on either side of them who helpfully whispered clarifications, quickly adding their own explanations in French. With each sentence, it seemed, the volume in our cavernous container quickly escalated. It took several seconds of shushing to regain the quiet we needed to continue each time.

Impulsivity and reactivity run high in the populations we serve, these characteristics we see so regularly in our students are often the unfortunate remnants of the horrific traumas, and tragic, neglectful, abusive childhoods which they have suffered. As they began expressing the all-too-normalized painful stories of their past, with a poignant sadness I recognized that these “men in white” were just like the “men in blue” at San Quentin, and just like everyone I seem to work with, no matter what their clothes or color of their skin. They were hurting people. Period. But, what is truly different, and actually matters the most, is how our incarcerated students—so, so sadly—have not received the adequate holding that is desperately needed in order for a child to learn to manage upsetting emotions and regulate the stresses of life. This is why people begin to run their personalities ragged.


We become fiercely addicted to the dopamine hit we get from our egos each time we—temporarily—stave off the terror of the present moment. When that is not enough, we will do literally anything to get out of ourselves.


Everyone deserves and desires their peace of mind, and the chance to be free inside. For those of us who get in such trouble with our personalities, however, our brains and its systems cannot reliably offer the relief we seek from chronic fears and frustrations. A lot of people say things like “I don’t know why I keep doing such and such, it’s crazy.” But, all human behavior is very intelligent. We are just attempting to realize what we know to be our inalienable right, the right to be loved. I can recall Dr. Daniels saying: “We just want to have a good life!” Though, our attempts to do so may momentarily calm our anxieties and numb our furies, our personalities are futile at giving us any real or lasting relief. It is our right to feel aligned, and capable, noble and loved, but we often have no idea how to generate these things inside of ourselves. The resolution that we truly seek is an “inside job,” how apropos to be where we were to teach this.

EPP Student

I felt bolstered by years of steeping in the teachings of our EPP Advisor, Dr. Gabor Maté, whose wisdom runs deep in the EPP curriculum. I now know not only the importance of early attachment, but the crippling effect of its lack. When I start noticing the tell-tale signs of traumas—the legs jiggling nervously discharging energy, the crossed arms, and the reactivity that comes unbidden and unconscious, I begin wondering—as I always do—what happened to each of these guys when they were kids? How did they end up there in prison?

EPP Student

No mother sets out to raise a murderer, or a thief, and no child is born evil. If ever there was a recipe for the “making of a criminal,” abusive or neglectful parenting is the key essential ingredient, one that is—tragically—practically a given in the childhoods of those we strive to serve. I felt the sameness of these men to the thousands of others with whom we have now worked over the years. Some men, like the Type Five who shared extraordinary insights and poetry that unfolded from him class by class, had clearly begun the journeys of their own interiority long ago. Many others struck me like a class of young boys, all clambering up a ladder to peer into their own psyches, with little restraint or filter. Truly, the presence of all fourteen of us from EPP felt needed in order to hold them, and keep them from falling recklessly, headlong right into themselves. Feeling protective of their process, and the urgency of our charter from Jean-Philippe’s administration, I thought of an old expression: “There is much to do here, so let’s go slowly.”

Vibha Gosselin pictured

Vibha tenaciously translated my every thought with a graceful cadence that inspired me to learn French myself. The men listened to her with expectancy and I felt my deep trust in her knack for finding not just the equivalent to the words I spoke, but the spirit behind them. At one point she looked at me, hopefully, and said that some of the men were asking if it was okay to switch from the formal “vous” to the more familiar “tu” instead? This was a moment Vibha had already anticipated, and prepared us for. I felt grateful for the way she had of helping me to feel so connected even though my not knowing French had such a potential to leave me feeling left out.

The whole room murmured our mutual agreement, and… through Vibha’s capable holding, I felt us cross a threshold that moved well beyond a language barrier. It was as if the walls of Namur Prison filled in around our container, settling all of us a little more firmly “on the inside.” Experiencing this familiar patience in Vibha was extraordinary. She continually found a way to lend her voice on behalf of so many who are not heard, stating an ineradicable truth, that everyone matters. Working alongside such a gentle soul as Vibha,  I admired the deep respect she held for each of us who spoke, the patient regard she brought to everyone in her field. I sensed the men fell for her, as I had long since done, too.


“Those four days with the 18 men of Namur, my fellow guides, Susan and Rick felt like a long shared journey of doubts overcome, tears taking us to a deeper place, laughter connecting us and yes, the light in the eyes of the people in the room, the smiles and the silent holding of each other made the walls of the prison disappear.

Apprentice guides, detainees, master trainer, et al became both students and teachers to each other in a humane moment of humility before the wonder that is life weaving its magic “when a small group of committed people” gather. “We do the work together” Susan’s oft-repeated words would remind us all to come back to our common purpose and that is what helps us get a taste of what true freedom feels like no matter which side of the bars we find ourselves on.”

—Vibha Gosselin
Type Nine, EPP Guide


Interestingly, many of the “gatekeepers” whom Enneagram Prison Project frequently encounter in working in jails and prisons are Type Nines. This is a pattern we have noticed with those in the roles from Programs Managers to Sheriffs, and yet again showed up in the Belgian Prison Director, Jean-Philippe. Long before we were even a fledgling program, the first Program Manager EPP worked with at the local jail, Neelam Wadhwani (who identified quickly as a Type Nine) quietly required me to prove that I would not abandon “her men” by patiently waiting to see how long I would continue to show up for them as a volunteer. The essential intelligence the Nines bring to the world is crucial, but to this project the Type Nines are beyond an asset, they are a gift.

These “instinctive types” resist reality being the way it is, defy being controlled by things they find unfair or unjust. We can use anger as a stalwart opposition, or as a mobilizing energy. It makes sense to me that it is the Type Nine’s innate knowing that we need one another which comes through in a project that aims to remedy the plight of those marginalized. Their intrinsic understanding of our collective worthiness is what the healthy Nines highlight by way of their organic inclusion. Nines steadfastly insist on not leaving people out. Recently, our Type Nine Ambassador, Alex Senegal, who was in our very first pilot class said to our class at the Reentry center: “There isn’t one of us who is any less important than anyone else.” Indeed, if Alex didn’t do the beautiful work he has done inside of himself, Enneagram Prison Project would not be what it has become.

It took us the better part of that first day before we could find our rhythm. I did plenty of breathing to keep my own reactivity at bay as the days passed. The aloof man, who appeared to be the “shot-caller” in the group, eventually identified as a Type Six, a “Loyal Skeptic,”  which all of us knew could be either the most paranoid, or the most loyal of all the types. His egoic stance could change from moment to moment, and—in fact—often did.  He continued to prove himself as well-respected and intimidating. I studied the detached way in which he held himself, in such contrast to the warmth that lingered behind his smile. His eyes were dark with their deep sadness, and the indifference of his aloof body language betrayed a scared person who had—no doubt—known tremendous pain. He boasted his past brutalities to the other guides during the breaks. These shocking tales momentarily deflated even our Type Eight, “the Protector,” who was distraught at our team meeting, and wondered aloud to the rest of us, could his tales be true? As she shared how they pained her to hear, my appreciation for what vulnerability really means to the Type Eights grew. I listened to this usually robust and hearty woman as she sat somewhat shattered in her chair, quite literally willing her own heart to remain open to both her process, and to this man. If she could manage to stay with her own fragility she might model to this man – and who knew for how many others—just how to open their hearts, too.

A few of the guys regularly interjected our meditation practices—right up until the last day—with uncontrollable laughter, covering their mouths and unable to stop themselves. One, identified as a Type Eight. Fascinatingly, with my eyes closed in the beginning of the meditation I could hear what seemed like sobs coming from him, and then, in an instant his grief turned to chortling, near hysterics. Laughter, I knew, is just another defense. I opened my eyes to take in this guy after each centering practice. I found him just like a little kid, looking over at me trying to contain himself, still red-faced, rubbing his eyes, wet with tears, holding his hands up to gesture an apology of mocked helplessness. His “Mia culpa!” revealed his Italian heritage and made it impossible for me to remain frustrated with his outbursts when I saw him like that.

The other EPP Guides translated for me our Type Six’s ongoing disdain for and distrust of America, our politics, and—I quickly deduced—also of me. His overt hatred of Americans only made me long to pull my chair up next to this guy and understand where did that come from? I finally got a chance to visit with him during lunch on the second day when he asked me what I thought of our president. Dana Vitorelo, one of our most dedicated EPP Guides with whom I work here in California, is herself a Type Six. I recalled Dana once telling me: “When the Six is challenging you, we are looking for you not to flinch.” I looked at this man, who had spent nearly two decades in prison, straight in the eye and told him—unflinchingly—how disgusted I am with our current administration. We experienced a truth-telling moment in our shared disdain, and—for just a second—I felt his skepticism lift, and something else fill in the space between us.


Image result for gabor mate

Dr. Gabor Mate, EPP Advisory Board member

“We readily feel for the suffering child, but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.”

—Gabor Maté


The difficult behavior in the EPP classrooms reminds me of when children “act out” in school. Dr. Maté helpfully points out that such kids are doing the only thing they can manage to do when there seem to be no words to articulate the deep pains they have suffered. Some of our students have witnessed their mothers selling their bodies in front of them, and their fathers brutalizing their mothers. They have suffered terrible, relentless beatings as little kids, some were totally neglected. So many of the things I hear of are too tragic for me to imagine, but then, I regularly encounter new stories trumping the last ones in their horrific honesty. These men were the kids whom we sent to the principal’s office, the ones our society has put on indefinite “time-out,” separated from everyone else, hoping that they would sort out the disorganization they were railing against inside of themselves, by themselves. Their behavior was not crazy, our treatment of them, that was the crazy part. How in the world do we expect people to heal?


“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”

—Fyodor Dosotyevsky


Recently, I saw a radical facebook post of a school that sends disruptive kids to a meditation room where they are met by a gentle adult who warmly welcomes them, and empathizes with how hard it can be to sit still. The children are shown to a colorful mat, and taught to breathe in order to calm themselves down. It is a huge part of our EPP charter to show our students how they can learn to hold their hurts, to have the possibility of regulating their internal state.

It became clear that the agitated Italian was impacting those sitting closest to him. I understood. His outbursts were upsetting—both to himself and to others—continually pulling our attention back to him. Some quickly tired of this, even before the first morning was over. One guide seated next to him, let out his frustrations in the safety of our EPP check-in circle, “I’m not his babysitter.” he declared, having repeatedly encouraged the detainee to focus. Of course, the detainee actually lacked the capacity to do so, and that was precisely the problem. How much distress did he suffer to keep his brain from developing those pathways? I fretted for them both. In some ways, it was not the detainee’s fault that he got so agitated that quickly, nor was it unreasonable to grow weary of his reactivity. We agreed to move guides around to share the supporting roles we played. I smiled empathetically feeling for both him and for our student. I trusted the teaching that was there for each of us, remembering how many times my best growth as a teacher was when I took the chance to remain the student myself. “I guess we will have to love him extra hard.” I said to our frustrated guide, not having much time to offer more before the break was over and we returned to our seats.

The pace of what was unfolding for each of us was surreal. I found re-grouping regularly when the men took their breaks to be my touchstone, a way to compare notes and ascertain what was happening. The combination of the progression of the material juxtaposed with the translation of the many moments I was trying to keep stride with, left me feeling continually out of step.  As the person “in charge” and simultaneously the least bilingual person in the room, I felt like a news editor taking in reports from all sides of the circle, trying to determine where and how to go next. There came a moment when I suddenly realized that insisting on modeling the majority of the teaching – as I had planned to do – with the tedium of the translation that this would require, could cost us the cohesion of the class.

Jacques Prémont, Alain Mosmans and EPP Guides sharing the love!

Each of the apprenticing guides in the room had demonstrated their capacity to teach the Enneagram during their training; my instincts nudged me to get out of the way to allow them to do so. As I turned the teaching over to them something magical happened. These Enneagram teachers showed themselves to be fluent in their knowledge of the Enneagram, and easy in their delivery. They engaged the detainees with ease. Each next guide charged the room with the style of their own personality type, and experience, using fresh material from their own lives. It was captivating for me and for the students. I cast a look towards Philippe Halin, who along with Jacques Prémont, co-founded an Enneagram school in which several of the guides had been trained. Vibha whispered in my ear, quietly translating the teaching now happening in front of all us. For the first time since we had arrived, I was able to be an observer and I could now sense the solid, trustworthiness of the EPP Guides who would be the ones charged with carrying on the support of the men of Namur Prison when I left. I physically noticed my body acknowledge that the men were in good hands, and I exhaled with a visceral relief.

EPP Guide, Dominique De Staercke and an EPP student

“How do you measure the unmeasurable?” one of our EPP Guides recently asked me.  Though there was no metric marking the self-revelations piling upon one another, the momentum we were gaining was palpable. The men started “getting it.” How we are so patterned, so predictable. Philippe led a series of type panels on which guides and students sat together, and we could register the transmission of the teaching through the answers of the panelists. The Enneagram swiftly ushered us past the many languages represented in the detainees, permeated the various cultures, and had no regard for the range in ages, equally impacting everyone. Some were just in their 20s, but there was an older, revered gentleman everyone called “Pappi” who appeared to be in his 60s. He was willing, but moving through the panels with a furrowed brow, trying so hard to make sense of things. The pair of Threes, who seemed to have consumed the entire Wisdom of the Enneagram book they’d only just received, regaled us with their charming stories of being the best. They were practically teaching the rest of the class, wow-ing us with their solid, competent comprehension. Though they were just newly acquainted with their personality styles they reminded me exactly of the many Threes with whom I have worked at Google, taking in “the work” with competence and alacrity.

We took lunch together daily, and afterwards we hung out on “the yard,” which consisted of a small slab of concrete, and some grass. My husband, Rick, EPP’s Executive Director, picked up a basketball and the Type Threes, “The Performers,” shot hoops with him and a few other guides. A Type Seven, “The Enthusiast,” Rick remarked, “It’s hard to be separate when you are aiming to play something together. Something came out of our bodies on the court in there, just playing three-on-three…I didn’t care about the outcome, I don’t think any of us did. We were passing and including—we were communing—finding common ground. It was magical.” Indeed, the Threes later said playing together was the highlight of their whole week.

EPP Students play basketball on the prison yard with EPP Guides

There was only one toilet near the yard which we had to go into the agent’s station to use, but outside there was a bare urinal, without a stall, set against the far wall. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that an EPP Guide used the communal spot to relieve himself, just as our students had no option but to do. It may sound odd, but I appreciated the familiarity our guide assumed in this simple act of erasing the implicit lines of “us” and “them,” which were unspoken, and yet, so obvious. In San Quentin there is a bathroom in our classroom that “free people” are allowed to use, but the men are required to walk across the yard to another building. The unfairness of this angers me. Somehow, this guide’s refusal to balk at the conditions of the prison was—to me—like a mark of devotion; something not demanded, but freely given.

EPP Guides (from left): Pascal Ledouble, Dorothée Nicolas, Nadien Nepper, Alain Mosmans, Dominique De Staercke, Vibha Gosselin, Joëlle Legrand, Leslie Curtis, Philippe Halin, Susan and EPP Executive Director, Rick Olesek

In fact, none of the apprenticing EPP guides complained about our early arrival, they did not seem to mind the long days locked in a room together, they gratefully consumed the prison lunch, and made no protest at things like having to “take a piss” on the yard. I started to trust that these Belgian EPP Guides (and, there were a few French too, I must rightfully add) just seemed to be there for the love of the work. In the beginning, I didn’t know how I would find so many other people in the world like the EPP Guides now surrounding this project. There was a cohesion that happened while—together—we waited for the toilet and transformation with the patient strain of those who somehow knew there was actually nothing more for us to do.

More than once, some of the class jokesters who seemed to get taken out every time the Italian lost it, came to me –  a translator in tow – explaining their “misconduct,” and asking my “forgiveness.” Their contrition and earnestness made me want to hug them as I smiled absolution their way. These small gestures they made were deeply connecting. To me, they were mini testaments as to how “those people” in prison cared about all of the same sorts of things those of us on the outside do. Though simple, their conscientious attempts to repair our connections showed how they felt the same tender regard for us, as we were overwhelmingly feeling for each of them. The Enneagram was absolutely deepening every one of our conversations, but the loving interactions that interwove our experience played at least an equal part in allowing for what was happening between us.

At the end of Day 2, I took time to assign a biography assignment to be written in the third person, a task straight out of the Wisdom of the Enneagram book. The men listened to the instructions with obvious discomfort, and then, one who identified as a Type Six called out, “No way!” in English. I anticipated this nerve the assignment had just struck, and patiently responded to their reactions. Our EPP Guides are required to complete this same assignment, and I’ve seen how much resistance even highly developed teachers have to such an intimate exercise.

Philippe Halin

It was at this moment of resistance when Philippe asked to speak to the class, and took a seat at the front of the room. Turning in his chair to address the Type Six who protested the loudest, Philippe said: “I, too, was asked to do this assignment and resisted it.” He confided to us. “But, I did it. And Pascal (one of the guides seated nearby) was the one who was to reply to me in writing. And, when I read what he wrote, I felt that I was seen as I never had been seen before, with such a love that I had never experienced in quite that way. It was extraordinary.” There were tears in Philippe’s eyes as he extended the invitation to this man, in particular, and the group at large, imploring them through his own example to simply take a leap of faith. Then it was one of the Threes, God love him, who spoke up to say: “Why did we come here, but to take a chance to learn and to grow?! I will absolutely do this assignment!”  When we returned the next morning, every man except two had written their biography, and some had added multiple extra pages. By the end of the class all of the men had participated in this courageous act of self-reflection.

By Day 3 we started to hear comments around the circle by some of the men that they were not planning on coming to the last class, stating somewhat petulantly that they were becoming too attached, and that the last class would be too sad for them. I know many of us shared their sentiments, and we said as much. We reassured them that a smaller group of us would absolutely be returning, but we felt the sting of what it feels like to open our hearts knowing that they might be crushed, rejected, not seen, or abandoned… That night each EPP Guide brought a precious biography home with them to write an empathic response to what was so daringly shared. I thought of how many hundreds of cups of tea I have poured myself while I poured my heart over such priceless writings. I know how attached we EPP Guides become to each of our students. That night the guides with whom I was sharing a house were up well past midnight penning their replies, and I was once again floored by their commitment. I felt like the cavalry had arrived, at-the-ready to fend of brutal childhoods, and the self-hatred that ensued, with their lances of love and compassion.

EPP Student

On our final morning we could not start our circle until Jean-Philippe arrived as his presence was much anticipated. As a Director in the Prison system, Jean-Philippe, understandably, was not able to participate in the four days with all of us, even though he had been such a conduit for us to be there together, and had done the EPP training with all of us. This was a great sadness to him, I knew, as he desperately wanted to be among the EPP Guides for this experience.

As I stole a glance around our circle I could see that some of the men were literally on the edge of their seats. Listening to his opening remarks, which he spoke with tears in his eyes, “I only wish to change the world.” was a statement that now resonated deeply with each man. They understood, at some level, that the Enneagram is a tool to do just that. These students were hanging on the words from one of “them,” a representative from the prison system towards which they have so much built up resentment.

Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, Director, Penitentiary Staff Training Academy and EPP Students

The Enneagram was a playing-field-leveler as this man from the top of the prison system commented on how the Enneagram helped him, too, realize the personal prison that he makes for himself. That this psychological system had also given Jean-Philippe a chance at an internal freedom, was remarkable. We all felt the gravitas of what was transpiring.

EPP student, Type Six

I caught a glance at Pappi, our Type One, who still sat with his arms folded in a typical Type One style of self-containment. His forearms were snug across his heart, but his head was cocked to one side and his eyes were soft. He had lost the frustrated look he came into the program with just three days prior. And the Type Sixes—the Sixes!—damn if they didn’t look like they were ready to lead Jean-Philippe’s charge. Mr. “No-Way!” a Type Six who had vacillated relentlessly back and forth between Type Four and Type Six all the way to the last hour of class, suddenly stood up tall and said with confidence: “I’m a Type Six, clear and strong!” remarking how the Enneagram had helped him to see the terror that had prevented him from knowing his own internal guidance. We applauded for the confidence that was now this man’s for learning to trust himself.

EPP Student, “Pappi”

The sweet sorrow of this final circle was accentuated because some of us were actually leaving as we lived at a great distance from this prison, and—of course—because the men were staying behind. But, after our morning coffee, we paired those who had written biographies with the guides who had written responses. In the U.S. we know our students cherish these replies. Some students say they put their guide’s letters to them on the ceiling of the bunk overhead and read them every day. Others, who have taken our program six and seven times, have told us that sometimes they pull all of their responses out at once just to remember what it feels like to be seen, to be loved. And so, I expected that we would need to give this exchange between student and guides due time. Processing the heart takes a minute, and it is so worthwhile.

EPP Student reading Biography feedback

The men dispersed into quiet corners and stairwells of the room, taking in their responses with the tentative excitement of one who finds a promised letter in their mailbox, not totally trusting what it will say, but eager to read its contents. Unfortunately, on that final day inside, Philippe’s personal circumstances prevented him from coming to the prison again with us, but he gave me the response he wrote anyway. I watched from a short distance from Pappi, one of the few men who spoke English, as he sat taking in the words from Philippe, his fellow Type One. I watched Pappi pour over his letter, and when it seemed that he had finished reading, I gingerly sat down next to him where he remained very still. I gently turned to ask Pappi what he was feeling. As this grandfatherly man looked up at me I could see that his eyes were full of tears. He was confused, bewildered, actually. And what he said to me was: “Who are you people? I don’t even understand. I have never been spoken to like this in my whole life!” He was flummoxed, utterly without further words, and I smiled at him with my own tears, loving his undefended heart.  Not yet having read what he wrote in his French bio, nor what Philippe had responded, I knew it wasn’t actually necessary to do so. I knew that the transmission of the Enneagram and the spirit of EPP was well underway in this man, in this prison of Namur.

EPP Student and EPP Guide Sophie Fetu

It was then that I looked up and noticed that all around the auditorium our students were sitting, huddled next to their guides, slumped in the recognition of themselves, their long buried fears at last seen and heard without judgment. I noticed our Italian, who had become utterly beloved by the group, was holding his head, in deep process with his fellow Eight who offered him her forthright, gentle reminder of his lovability.

EPP Student and EPP Guide, Nadine Nepper

Many of them stood up from our final circle wiping their eyes, clearly altered and bewildered by this onslaught of care over the last four days. So many of the guys approached me, unable to find Vibha in our chaotic sea of goodbyes and just spoke in a flood of love and appreciation for what had transpired. I got it, I knew, and I felt it too. With Jean-Philippe and another director in the room we were allowed to embrace each other with the overwhelmingly full hearts we had been holding and this was a tremendous release for all of us.

With great reluctance, it was finally time for the men to return to their cells, and they extracted themselves from our final lingering moments and said our fond farewells until we meet again. It is simply not possible to name the “bigness” of what transpired inside of that little prison in Namur, nor in each of us. We came away changed in ways that we may not ever fully articulate. The work those men did gave me such great joy to witness, and an even greater determination to realize EPP’s vision, freeing people—all over the world—from the prisons of our minds.

The Men of Namur bid farewell!


After our pilot class had concluded, Jean-Philippe wrote to me and shared how astounded another Director from Namur Prison was by the transformation she witnessed in some of the men with whom she met with in the days following. She wrote her observations for him to share with EPP here:

After four days of Enneagram training, Mr. X, who has been in prison for 18 years, told me, upset, “I haven’t been the one acting all this time, it was the child I was at 12.  I let him because I thought that was the way to go.  It was just when I was 12, but it’s not anymore.  I got stuck in my past history and 18 years spent with this master aboard my life, this shell that I no longer need… I don’t know who I am anymore.  I don’t know who I’m gonna become.  But what I do know is I can drop this shell.  There’s someone else inside me.  I’m scared but, for the first time in my prison life, I feel recognized and I sincerely want to smile and say “thank you”.

—EPP Belgium Student


“The human being is a subtle mechanism, equipped with individual springs, developed in the early years of life in reaction to the surrounding world. Understanding the workings and gears of one’s own mechanics can help to overcome their pitfalls, to enhance their assets, to know oneself better, to know others better and to function better together, in a logic of individual and social development.

—Christine Schmit
Namur Prison, Director


Enneagram Prison Project has an enormous vision coupled with the knowledge that—if we are to make lasting change outside our prison walls, we must first be willing to journey the prisons we make for ourselves, and we believe that the Enneagram is just the tool to accomplish such a vision.


Jean-Philippe Koopmansch

“In 2010, seeds were sown in my administration. These seeds are germinating today and giving more meaning to our work to all my colleagues and me: putting the human at the centre and giving sense to what previously had no meaning.

There are encounters that change a life… When I met the enneagram in 2010, I knew very immediately and instinctively that it would change mine. There are no other words to express simply what actually happened. The best part of this story is that this “encounter” took place within an administration, my administration, the prison administration. Our work must make sense. And the fact that an administration might have thought to offer such a tool as the Enneagram to its employees speaks volumes about this quest for meaning in our work. When I decided to follow the Enneagram certification program with Eric Salmon in Paris, I heard about a project called Enneagram Prison Project. And I caught myself dreaming… Years later, following encounters that only the universe—in its great wisdom—could foresee for us, Susan Olesek was in Namur Prison and EPP Belgium has become a reality. I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario. Susan,  her partner, Rick and all these EPP Guides are now a meaningful light in the prison world.”

—Jean-Philippe Koopmansch
Director of Training
Marnef Prison, Belgium

The Men of Namur I

“I’m wondering, what are you doing in an armpit prison like this in the middle of Belgium, and how did we get so lucky?” the man dressed in prison-issued white clothes sitting across from me asked incredulously in French. I knew there were not words enough to answer him and we were out of time. Honestly, I was asking myself the same questions.

Last month twenty mostly Belgian Enneagram teachers who represent CAP Enneagram, a nonprofit on a mission to bring the Enneagram to marginalized populations, gathered at a prison training center in Marneffe, Belgium and put their hearts to the work of learning Enneagram Prison Project’s (EPP’s) approach to teaching the Enneagram to the incarcerated.

After an intensive, deeply connecting training, EPP Belgium’s pilot class of trainees bid one another farewell the day before with the expectation to meet in prison together the following month. My last stop before returning to California was to recruit for our pilot class of students.

Namur prison houses 200 men. It took us some time to enter the facility which was not unlike the institutions in which I am accustomed to working in California with its sally-ports and clanking doors. There were men in cells three tiers up, the metal bars were covered with chipped, white paint and the air smelled of cigarette smoke. Instantly at home, I found myself engaged with the guys despite their broken English and my non-existent French.

There were just five of us: Vibha Gosselin, a long-time supporter of EPP who, with the patience of Mother Teresa, had been my ears and mouth translating my English to French, and interpreting the trainee’s French into English for hours upon days; Dorothée Nichols, who spent the last year translating our text book, the Wisdom of the Enneagram, into French; my long-time friend and EPP Assistant for the week, Lauren Roskoph; and, Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, the current Director of Training for the Belgian correctional administration. This determined man has been teaching the Enneagram to 250 correctional officers annually for the last three years. It has been Jean-Philippe’s hope to bring Enneagram Prison Project to his “detainees” as he affectionately refers to them, and my delight to meet this gentle Type Nine, who–in every way–exemplifies his Mediator/Peacemaker personality.

Countries, like people, have Enneagram types and Belgium is a Type Nine country. Like Jean-Philippe himself, Belgium’s people are laid back, with an affable, sunny way about them. Jean Philippe took time to greet everyone–officers and men-in-white alike–leaving no one out. The correctional officers received him and one another with Belgian kisses and a warmth one would find in our homes during the holidays. It was heartwarming, if not a little confounding, “This is Belgian prison?” I mused to myself, feeling my happy anticipation of what was to come.

We learned that just five men had signed up for our first-time offering based on a flier that was circulated a few weeks prior. Excellent. We seemed to collect these courageous five as we made our way through the prison. The prison director, whom we learned is an Enneagram Type Three, “the Performer” was happily hustling more men to sign up as we went, rallying them: “C’mon, even I did this course, and it was really helpful! We ended up in a sparse, but large, echoing room with just a table and about a dozen chairs. As we sat down for our one-hour presentation Jean-Philippe whispered to me: “You have fifteen minutes.” Apparently it was “frites day” and the detainees were not keen to give up their lunch. After many years teaching in prison we have developed core values and “We are Flexible” is at the top of our list.

I took in the men in for a just a minute. Folks in our prison classes always strike my heart immediately and a virgin class–where no one knows anything about the Enneagram–are precious. These guys were curious and maybe a little awkward, one young man was all jacked up with bulging muscles, another was sitting on the edge of his seat, his leg bouncing, another sat with his arms folded. They were alternately joking and dubious, but grew silent as Jean-Philippe told them about his role as training director and his hope to bring the EPP program to them since first hearing about it several years ago. With the need for translation reducing our 15-minutes in half, I dropped into my reason for visiting them as I sensed they would want to know.

“We are here to let you know about a pilot program that we are offering here next month. It’s a course that will teach you about who you are. We use a psychological tool called ‘the Enneagram,’ which helps us to understand the cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns that helped us to survive our childhood. We all have ways that we keep thinking the same things, replaying feelings even though they make us sad or angry or scared, and doing things which we don’t even want to do, but cannot seem to stop. Do any of you relate to this?”

Heads nodded, and they grew more focused. I continued, “We’re asking you to do something that may be unusual and that is to trust us even though you’re in prison. I am a mom of three boys and I find the Enneagram to be my best parenting tool. It probably saved my marriage. I was first invited to teach the Enneagram to incarcerated men and women when I was a new teacher eight years ago. When I went to prison to teach, I realized that I believed in everyone but myself.” I took a breath and made a conscious choice to share the part of my past that has been the backdrop to so much of my trouble in life.

“You see,” I continued, “…when I was five years old my mother took her life. It left me feeling like there was something wrong with me for her to do that. Interestingly, my sister thought it was her fault, and my brothers thought that it was because of them. Even my father believed it was his fault. But, who was it 100% about?” The men were quiet. I waited while the translation caught up to me and they answered my question “It was about…her.” they said. I nodded. Lauren saw the jacked up guy swipe at a tear on his face. And I felt just how present we all had become. I felt gratitude for them and an up-welling of compassion. I know it sounds odd, but I loved them in that moment. I continued…

“The men I met in prison taught me about self-acceptance. I learned from them that there was nothing wrong with me. I want you to know that we know there’s nothing wrong with you, either. But you may have forgotten what is right about you, and that’s just what the Enneagram helps us to see. What is so helpful is how this self-development tool helps us to understand not just what we do, but the unconscious reasons why. I have been teaching this system in the U.S. prison system for 8-years with a very positive response from incarcerated men and women there. We believe everyone deserves to know themselves like the Enneagram allows us to do.”

Thinking that we must have exhausted our fifteen minutes, I paused for a moment and looked back and forth between Jean-Philippe, the prison director, and the men. Someone translated a comment from the men for me, “They said, please don’t stop talking. They don’t care about their lunch.” Three more men entered the room and sat down. Jean-Philippe welcomed them and shared about his own insecurities when he learned the Enneagram for the first time. The prison director added that he thought it was crazy when he first heard about it, too. “But,” he added helpfully, it’s been quite powerful for me and I know you will like it. Dorothée added her own experience and found herself with a few tears. The men looked confused by her tears, but didn’t move from their seats. It was quiet again.

One of the men spoke up and someone translated. “I think what you mentioned about trust is already happening, because of what you have shared about yourselves.” Bolstered by their feedback we explained a bit more about how this complex psychological sytem works and asked for whatever questions they might have. One man said: “You know, I look at this diagram and I think I am the one who cannot stop doing things. I never stop, and I’ve always been that way.” Wondering if he could be a Type Three, “The Performer/Doer,” whose addiction is to success and accomplishing things, I took a guess and offered, “Your work is not to do another thing, but to just be. That is enough.” Another man spoke up and said: “I’m always giving to everyone else. Even when I don’t like people I’m giving to them!” His peers erupted into laughter, corroborating this self-disclosure. Wondering if he could relate to an Enneagram Type Two, “The Helper,” I offered to him, “Your work may be to give to yourself for a change.” These simple exchanges seemed to satisfy something among them. And then we were really out of time.

I asked one last man what he was thinking and he answered: “What are you doing in this armpit prison in the middle of Brussels and how did we get so lucky?” We told them we would be back in a month and after a round of two handed handshakes and smiles the five of us reluctantly made our way out of the prison.

Already a month has passed and in that time The Wisdom of the Enneagram has been published in French, our list of interested detainees has increased from five to twenty-six, and all of the men will be given a copy of their text book tomorrow. This week half of EPP Belgium’s apprentices will join us for an intensive Enneagram experience in prison and what I know for certain is that none of us will ever be the same.

 

My Journey to the Real By: Russ Hudson

In our earliest days of teaching the Enneagram, Don Riso and I were became aware of something that we had not anticipated: that the work we were doing was reaching prison populations and having a positive effect. We received letters from incarcerated people sharing their realizations with us, and we were always deeply moved by these testimonies. We felt renewed in our conviction that with the right information and the right holding environment, that people with very difficult histories could turn their lives around. We met with a number of individual counselors who were training with us over the years and who were using the Enneagram effectively with people in prison and were always inspired by their stories. We felt that a concerted effort from individuals in the Enneagram community could perhaps make a big difference in the lives of the incarcerated, but we were not the ones to start such a major initiative.

Enter Susan Olesek and Suzanne Dion, who contacted us with just such a proposal. We were deeply impressed with their sincerity, their sense of mission, and their humility in wanting to really learn the Enneagram material from the deepest place—a process that is of course much more than merely learning the information. In short, we saw that Susan and Suzanne, as good Enneagram Ones, were devoted to walking their talk, and in a relatively short time, they were gathering talented Enneagram students from both our Enneagram Institute as well as the Narrative Tradition, and a number of other schools—all drawn together by the vision of using this amazing tool to make a difference in the world. Don and I enthusiastically backed this project and made any teaching resources we had available for the good work that the nascent Enneagram Prison Project needed to accomplish their mission.

Our next great delight was meeting a number of the first “ambassadors”— formerly incarcerated men and woman who had learned the Enneagram through EPP and were motivated to share their experiences both inside and outside the prison systems. I was deeply moved by their stories, their realness, and their genuine turn toward what in my view is what the Enneagram is really about: not simply typing people, but using this profound system for the genuine transformation of the human psyche. And hearing the stories, the transformation was real, obvious, and affecting. I now count a number of the EPP ambassadors as close personal friends, and feel this work is perhaps one of the greatest gifts that has come out of this system of self-understanding.

As you may know, Don Riso passed away in 2012 after a long and brave battle with cancer, but he left the world knowing some of the good that we had done, and encouraged me to continue to work with EPP in any way possible. I wholeheartedly agreed, and was honored to become an official advisor to the Project along with my dear friend and colleague David Daniels, who had already done some work with the team in a prison. Still, I wanted to taste firsthand the work EPP was doing, and was determined to find a way to contribute more directly. I had several conversations with Susan about coming to one of the prisons with her, but given my very heavy teaching and travel schedule, the opportunity did not arise until this March, 2016.

In short, I was scheduled to come to the San Francisco Bay Area for a retreat, but came a few days early to be able to join Susan and Suzanne on teaching trips to two prisons: Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, and San Quentin Maximum Security Prison in Marin County. After a couple days rest in San Francisco, I was brought at dawn to Elmwood to have my first session.

Many years of meditation practice and inner work come in handy when you enter an environment as intense as a prison. Yet, I noticed in Susan and Suzanne a lightness that was supportive, and actually found myself feeling much more at ease than I would have imagined. We passed through security into this inner world, and after some brief organizing ourselves and our materials went with Susan to my first class, which was about the third session in a series for a group of men who for various reasons were being isolated from the rest of the prison population.

What struck me immediately is that the faces I saw there were much like any class I have ever taught. I saw quite a range of expressions; everything from eagerness to wariness, from soft relaxation to tense defensiveness—in other words, like just about every other Enneagram class. What was different was that I could feel the enormous hunger for something real—these men did not want to be “cheered up.” They wanted truth, something that they could live with.

Susan masterfully got things started and asked the men to check in about where they were at, and to say something that they had come to appreciate about themselves. A lot of my work with people ends up being about helping them to have some kindness toward themselves, and to better manage their potentially brutal super egos—or inner critics. I saw instantly that Susan had grasped the importance of this crucial holding, and was skillfully and sensitively getting the men to look at themselves from a bigger perspective than they were used to. After everyone weighed in, at Susan’s suggestion, I took a little time to go around the Enneagram and talk about what was true, real, and beautiful about each of the nine points. I could feel a softening in the room as these men took in that whatever their misdeeds, there was a logic to what had happened, and there was still something awake and good in them. I could feel even the more tentative and suspicious members of the group were opening up, having some laughs, and feeling okay to join in with what was happening.

At the end of the session, the guys were downright effusive in their enthusiasm, and their gratitude. There were many hugs and actually a feeling of affection quickly formed. It is like that when people are present with each other. I have noticed over the years that people in Enneagram trainings often form bonds of friendship with each other that can be among the strongest and most important in their lives, even though they were only together for a week or so. When people are present with each other, they actually meet each other. What was touching and amazing was that it was just as powerful with these incarcerated men, and in fact, happened even quicker. I felt perhaps these guys had not much to gain in any pretense, and recognized correctly that for them to change their lives, some more radical form of showing up would be required. I can still feel the connection in that room as I sit writing this now.

I did not really want to leave, feeling we had just got something good going, when it was time for me to go to join Suzanne who was in the midst of an ongoing class for some of the women in the prison. These women were lively! I felt instantly a very different atmosphere than with the men. We sat in a circle, and as with the previous group, the women took turns sharing what was up for them. Instead of teaching anything formal, I participated in a conversation, listening as much as sharing. These ladies had many questions which I did my best to answer, and they seemed particularly interested in what it was like for me to be a writer—how I had fallen into such an unlikely profession as writer and teacher of the Enneagram! We talked also about relationships, and the challenges of being vulnerable to another human being. Needless to say, this was a big topic, and the conversation was free of religious or New Age clichés of any kind: just straight talk from one human being to another, based in experience and presence. Again and again, the theme of openness vs self-protection came up in these prison sessions, but it became for me a big theme of the days starting with these women. I talked with them about how all of the personality types were based in some kind of split in us, and the terrible point at which we human beings feel we have to leave parts of ourselves behind. I explained that the whole point of the inner work with the Enneagram was to find those splits, and to let presence, really a form of healing “grace” help us experience what we are in more wholeness, beyond any such splits. I could tell how well Suzanne had been teaching this group, because they followed what I was saying with relative ease, asking powerful questions along the way.

After the women’s group, we had a quick lunch, and I did a video interview for EPP which was rich for me, having just taught my first two classes in a prison environment. I also noted that in the room where we did the interview, there was an art project made by the prisoners, a set of tiles painted to create the image of “The Sleeping Gypsy” by Rousseau. It is a beautiful painting—the original hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it was striking to see it there because it was Don Riso’s all-time favorite painting. I took it symbolically as a “wink from the beyond” about what we were doing.

After lunch, we had our third and final session of the day which was with a large group of men who had been doing the Enneagram work with EPP for a longer stretch. There were a few in the class who were taking it as a repeat course having gained so much benefit from previous classes. What was evident was the greater level of listening, presence, and maturity in these men. I could feel “The Work” in them, and they were ready and able to participate in a deeper level. They all checked in, and I felt moved to share with them more of my own personal journey, including some of the difficulties I had traversed in my younger years.

Again, the comments, and the sharing would have been extraordinary in any setting. I heard and felt real self-knowledge and real humility. I felt that a lot of these men, if they stayed the course, might do some wonderfully positive things both in the system, and “on the outside” when that day came. Having met my friends who were now Ambassadors, who had been through these courses and come out the other side, it was moving for me to see these men in the midst of this alchemical process, on their way to be truly amazing human beings.

A highlight for me of this section was near the end of our time, when Susan and Suzanne had us break into groups to discuss what each of us had been realizing about ourselves through the work. I was given the privilege of working with the guys who had taken the course several times and who had some profound things to share and to ask. It was amazing to me how quickly I bonded with these guys, and felt so much hope for them.

Many of them had histories of drug abuse and criminal records which stemmed from their use, but also from activities that grew out of their addiction. We talked about learning to stay present with kindness, even to our difficulties, and that we could see the real transformation in each other. One of them shared that this seemed almost like some kind of magic, but that he could not deny the effect it was having on him and on his friends in the group. There were laughs and tears, and intimate human moments. I can still see their faces vividly in my mind’s eye. I wish so much for these guys.

The following day was yet another completely different journey. I was picked up by Susan and Suzanne in San Francisco, and we traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County to enter San Quentin Prison. I have to say this place had resonance for me from my childhood. One of my cousins fought in Vietnam and lost his eyesight there. When he returned to the USA, after his hospitalization, he came to live with my family in Colorado. He and I were both big music lovers and he had the then new album of Johnny Cash in San Quentin. I remember thinking it remarkable that Johnny Cash was allowed to go in and entertain the inmates at this famous maximum security prison, and what it must have been like. Now, nearly a half a century later, I was going to be working with inmates at the same place.

I was struck immediately by the much greater security measures. Yet we entered the prison with relative ease—Susan told me this was quite unusual. I was going to be working with a group of “lifers,” men with life sentences, who had been meeting together for some time, and who had created a place for themselves in the tough prison environment in which they could let down their guard a bit, and share more of what was inside their souls. Susan and Suzanne had been working with this group for several weeks, and they knew the basics of the Enneagram and many seemed to know their types. Shortly after we arrived, I was introduced to the man who had created this group, and he seemed incredibly centered and open. As it turned out, earlier in the morning, this man who had served some 33 – 34 years in prison, had been granted parole. He shared with us how he managed to hold himself together during his interview/hearing. But after stepping outside of the room in which the interview had occurred, he fell to his knees weeping with gratitude. No wonder there was so much softness in him. He greeted me warmly and seemed delighted to see Susan and Suzanne.

After this short but powerful exchange in the courtyard, we went directly to a smallish room with a group of chairs arranged in a circle, and one by one, the men from this group entered and took a seat. I could feel them regarding me with great curiosity, and some of them started chatting with me before the rest of the group arrived. They shared over and over how amazing it was to be seen, to be treated as a human being. They offered that this was one of the main things they loved about working with Susan and Suzanne, and how healing it was for them. One of them offered that if we could see him with such kindness and realness, knowing that he had committed very serious crimes, it enabled him to do so too. It was very apparent that Susan and Suzanne had done tremendous work to build trust with these guys, and their affection and appreciation they held for these two women was palpable. It made it easy to enter a more intimate conversation and to use our time together most powerfully. And the session was very intimate indeed.

I would emphasize that all of these men were well aware that they had done some terrible things, and they were not “easy on themselves” at all about this—quite the contrary. Most of them had been in prison for 30 years or more. One “youngster” was there only 27 years! They had few illusions about themselves, but they were, against all odds, willing to see that there was something more to who they are, and to feel all that would arise in the process of seeing that. I could see too that these men were in different stages of this journey. Some were still very hesitant to trust. Others were just beginning to open up, and still others were beginning to face the legacy of childhood trauma and deprivation that had led them to such extreme actions. Some made breakthroughs during the meeting. One man sitting near me was initially quite resistant, but upon hearing the conversations and feeling that we really were there to see him, began to tear up silently. When we had a closing meditation, he held my hand tightly and kept saying “thank you.”

As with the last group at Elmwood, this meeting was more of a conversation than a class. And again, these men wanted to know about me, where I came from, and how I got into the work I was doing. They told me that they could tell I “understood the streets.” When I shared with them that I was from New York City and that I had lived in the East Village “back in the day” there were laughs of recognition. One of them shared he had been worried that I would be some kind of “Ivy League professorial a**h***” but was much relieved that I was a “real guy.” The theme of realness was there throughout all of the classes, but most clearly here in San Quentin. There was really no room for spiritual posturing, or patronizing language of any kind. And I loved it! I had a great time with these men, talking about “real stuff.”

In Elmwood, and in San Quentin, I noticed the copies of the book I had written with Don Riso, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, and it was really moving for me to see how carefully the people in these programs had been reading the book. Writing a book is so different from the performing arts. In the latter, you get instant feedback about how the audience is responding to your work. But in writing, you send your message out to the world and hope for the best. So over the years I have been privileged to sign many heavily annotated copies of our books, but it was especially poignant for me seeing these people using the book as a kind of life line—as a way to remember a bigger picture of themselves which is exactly what we wrote the book to do.

The only teaching I did grew out of our conversations. I talked a lot about mercy as something distinct from self-pity and that mercy was a sign of real strength. I talked about how mercy could only grow from a genuine empowerment that came from self knowledge and self mastery—from being powerfully present in ourselves. I talked about how the ego substitute for empowerment is control, and the more disempowered and scared we feel, the more we need to control everything around us and inside us. The men got very excited about this concept.

I was aware that they lived in a world were vulnerability was seen as weakness and to be avoided at all costs. But I shared with them that real strength had sensitivity in it: like a great martial arts master. And who was going to be better able to take care of himself? The tough guy or the sensitive martial arts master? In other words, we were exploring the split between self protection and openness. I wanted these men to have a taste that from presence, grounded in themselves, they could be both, and in fact, they were already both.

After our meeting, a man who was in charge of the special programs at San Quentin checked in to see how we were doing, and then invited us outside to get some group photos. We were all in a great space and I really look forward to seeing those photos. As in Elmwood, I was reluctant to leave the group, but gave and received some big hugs, and let them know I would love to come back. We left the prison feeling great about the meeting and celebrating our friend who was finally being released. The sun was shining gloriously and it was one of those moments were it is obvious that our lives actually do have a purpose.

I do hope to work with EPP again, and will continue to devote my resources and those of the Enneagram Institute, to supporting this very necessary work. For those of you already involved, thank you! And for those of you thinking about it, I am sure there is a place for you in the greater work of transformation that the Enneagram is part of, and to which those of us in EPP are dedicated. And I especially give thanks for Susan, Suzanne, Rick, and Mark, and all of the core team for carrying this work forward, and I give thanks for meeting these men and women who like me, are on a new path to a true and real humanity.

Russ Hudson
Author and Enneagram Master Teacher
President of the Enneagram Institute

The Attitude and “5-A’s” that are Making a Huge Difference

What I Witnessed, Working with Susan Olesek and the EPP
By David Daniels, MD

Susan Olesek, an enthusiastic reformer type who had just certified as an Enneagram teacher — through the school that I co-founded in 1988 with Helen Palmer —told me about her having been invited to teach an extended Enneagram class to inmates in a Texas prison. We all thought it was kind of a big deal and very courageous of her. Four years later, I watched Susan muster up the gumption to found a nonprofit that she and her founding board members named, “The Enneagram Prison Project (EPP).” She told me that she witnessed, time and time again, the incredible effect learning the Enneagram was having on the inmates she had been teaching, and she felt compelled. She felt she had to do something to bring this system to more than just those in Texas who had found themselves in a prison of their own making, and behind bars.

Susan was honest with her fears and doubts when she first started out, as not many had ever attempted to teach the Enneagram system on a consistent basis in penitentiaries or jails. Would she get it right? Did she know enough? Would the inmates have any interest in this at all? Could they learn this? Would it make sense to bring this to prison? And on and on and on, she fretted quietly.

What Susan continued to share with me was her compassionate discovery of the soulful, so-eager-to-learn humans behind bars that she encountered. She would tell me of their almost willingness to devour the information and the teachings. She reported out that inmate after inmate came to understand and then became willing to share how the blind spots in their Enneagram personality structures had gotten them incarcerated. She saw them switch from blaming the system or blaming others to taking responsibility for themselves, for their choices, and for their reactivity.

I am compelled to make this point: People behind bars are people. They are just like you and me, humans just like the rest of us, with a personality structure and a boat-load of issues, challenges, and problems to cope with. More than most have dealt with abuses, adversity or childhoods you could not begin to imagine. They are not “a different species” or some untamable type of hopeless degenerate. These are sentient beings, many of which could possibly change their lives if given a bonafide chance, at a second chance. The ones “who are ready enough” can do it, if given incisive-enough tools and the support they need.

In my earlier years, I consulted weekly for two-plus years at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, California, working with jailed teenagers. I experienced how changing the staff’s attitude toward the teenaged inmates — from seeing them as human beings instead of some kind of damaged species — had a profound effect. I worked closely with the staff to foster this change in attitude and it resulted in the staff treating the teens with openness and respect, which in turn engendered positive developmental progress in the teens, that also included feelings of openness and respect.

This is what I have witnessed is happening in the work of Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), fostered by Susan’s exemplary attitude toward those who have found themselves in the cycles of pain that leads to incarceration. Susan’s paved the way for her nonprofit organization, now-developing a core cadré of specialized teachers, to bring self-awareness training, through the Enneagram system, to inmates in both prisons and jails, and doing so with a particular recipe of warmth, respect, lots of love and care, and a deep regard for each inmate’s history and humanity.

As a faculty member of the EPP Enneagram Teachers “Training for Prison” Program that was held this past April in Menlo Park, CA, I witnessed the trainees literally embrace those imprisoned, as the training included a few days actually working with the incarcerated. I even personally experienced the same paradigm shift — from fear and our society’s negative bias— to an utter acceptance, deep compassion, and regard.

This past year, I’ve had the great privilege to lead Enneagram Intensive programs for Enneagram Studies that included both Elam Chance and Victor Soto, two men who are now “EPP Ambassadors,” but who were former prisoners who had learned the Enneagram thanks to Susan Olesek and EPP, while still incarcerated. These are fine men now steeped in the study of themselves and the world around them, having gone from incarceration to wanting to make a difference in the lives of others.

These men are further exemplars of this simple fact: that working with those who are incarcerated is not to be considered working with “children of a lesser God.”

But how does such a powerful “transformation in attitude” come about?
In watching Susan and her team work with inmates, I could experience how centered, grounded, and receptive they had become in her presence and in the class.

I was taken by how much they were manifesting the 1st A of the Universal Growth Process, which is Awareness. This first A is the ability to become self-observant. The ability to ground oneself enough in one’s being, and self-witness. This is actually no small task and is the first great turn of any path of change or transformation we may hope to pursue.

I watched these incarcerated men, who had never had any training in self-observation, suddenly, begin to self-observe, thanks to the reverent teaching style of Susan Olesek, a style that has become the fundamental value system of EPP itself.

I also watched the second A of the Universal Growth Process take hold next: Acceptance. One of the most difficult and absolutely necessary parts of working with this population is to help them deal with the shame or guilt that arises as a result of the self-witnessing process, as a result of starting to become more “self” aware. Shame is so powerfully experienced in the body, almost as if “on the skin,” as shame holds within it humiliation and public scorn. It’s an experience that tells us that “we are bad, wrong, or utterly unworthy.” Guilt is a more internalized experience that tends to be directed at a behavior for which we look back on and feel bad about. Guilt’s intention is to steer us away constructively from doing something we feel bad about, again.

But here’s the key. The 2nd A of Acceptance, which means openhearted kindness toward our self and others as we become aware of ourselves and our reactions in any given moment, does not mean condoning, capitulating, or concurring with one’s own or others’ unwanted, difficult behaviors, or criminal behaviors. It means an “acceptance” of what’s witnessed within, a seeing what is, as “what is,” with honesty and humility. This simple practice has its deeply critical, necessary place in our fundamental development, as the moment we can “accept” what we just became aware of, rather than block it or deny it or argue with it, we can start to work with it. This is where studying the Enneagram comes in. Navigating what we become “aware of” becomes incredibly easy with the Enneagram’s incisive map at our disposal.

In my opinion, it can become impossible for those men and women now serving as criminals to believe in themselves enough, to go through the pain of working through traumatic childhoods and the traumatic adult experiences associated with committing crimes, without first learning self-acceptance. Once capable of self-acceptance, self-understanding becomes possible, which then leads to the development of transformation within, which leads to different behaviors without. To do this? Those serving time need an incarceration environment that does not included being labeled “lesser beings,” which further exacerbates feelings of shame, hopelessness, and worthlessness, feelings that are known to induce cycles of criminal behavior, addiction, poverty, as well as even suicide.

In observing Susan’s direct interactions with inmates, I noticed the 3rd A of Appreciation, A LOT, meaning, a consistent application of the ability to express a genuine gratitude that nurtures both the appreciator and appreciate-ee. Appreciation for what was being shared and realized by each inmate was often present. These men and women had little experience with the giving or receiving of appreciation across their lives, many of whom suffered more commonly from chronic criticism and condemnation. Believe me this, 3rd A is of great importance when working with any individuals, let alone individuals such as inmates who are dealing with unfathomable amounts of stress, despair, and conflict.

The 4th A, which stands for Action, means (1) observing both our positive (reactivity intended to make us feel better) and negative reactivity (aiming at defending and protecting, denying, resenting, or fighting), then (2) conducting an openhearted inquiry to determine its root cause, and (3) lastly, taking “thoughtful” action, action that is based on understanding what behavior —response — is actually needed and appropriate for the situation. I watched the 4th A readily utilized across the teaching efforts of EPP. The 4th A is the content part of effective interpersonal work, with the other four As constituting the process. Good work requires we pay attention to and include both process and content.

Lastly the 5th A is for Adherence, meaning, the practice of sticking with the work over time. The final step is absolutely necessary in order to bring forth lasting change. Much of our personality structure’s basic beliefs and associated reactivity occurred early in our lives. It is embedded in implicit memory, and therefore must be thoughtfully and patiently observed “when” it shows up on us and is actually occurring. This takes practice, as reactivity of this deeply rooted nature fires off rapidly, on auto-pilot, with little warning.

These five As are a fundamental part of Enneagram training and of EPP’s core teaching methods. Susan’s stunningly effective way of working with these marginalized populations, using these tools and processes — designed to catalyze definitive change — is proof of their efficacy and power. I highly recommend the adoption of the 5 As for each and every one of us working with ourselves and others on the personal growth path, including and especially, when working with those imprisoned.

Incarceration is a costly endeavor, to both the lives placed behind bars to those who fund these institutions. Paradoxically, however, incarceration “can provide” a unique opportunity for personal reflection, the time and support to do so, and groups of others that may be enlisted to help each individual do the work. With programs now coming forth such as those offered by EPP, our incarcerated population may be given a very new kind of chance at reform. One that firstly involves a paradigm shift in how we label and reach out to support people behind bars. And secondly, by bringing some of the best tools out there to these populations, something they never had access to before. Something called the Enneagram.

Enneagram Prison Project

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