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The Enneagram of Incarceration

— By Susan Olesek ~ Certified in the Narrative Tradition in January of 2009, Susan's found herself on a path teaching the Enneagram to those society's just about forgotten — take a moment to follow her inspiring journey, she's surely on to something spectacular!

The Enneagram in Prison with Susan Olesek

To give you a little background: One in 100 American adults is incarcerated. Ironically, though our personality creates a prison of our own making, as a society we collectively dismiss these human beings, and in so doing participate in an incredible waste of human potential. I have become passionate about teaching the Enneagram as a means to escape a pattern of destruction and suffering with those who have been written off. I have discovered that working with the incarcerated reveals how much we actually resemble, and could stand to learn from this forgotten population, as well as how much they stand to gain from studying the Enneagram.

As I approached the classroom reserved for inmates participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), on my second day of teaching, I sensed a commotion and heard screaming. Here, I must admit that my self-pres instincts kicked in, reminding me that I was in a prison. I looked around quickly, trying to discern what was happening. Kristie, my PEP escort and steady support for each visit, simply grinned at me, "Oh, they're really ready for you today."

As she opened the door, a bellow of excited cheering erupted from within. I saw that the guys had created a human tunnel, standing two-by-two, one hundred and twenty people deep, with their raised hands touching at the fingertips – a “London Bridge”-- the likes of which I have never seen! With what seemed like a strobe light, and music blaring, they uproariously ushered me in, cheering and calling out. I’d seen some footage on YouTube of this rite of passage carried out by previous classes (no doubt a part of founder, Catherine Rohr’s legacy). And so, with gusto, I embraced this huge gesture of inclusion for every bit that it was worth to me. Letting out a holler, I hunched over and sprinted through the tunnel, slapping the hands above me all the way around the perimeter of the room, feeling like a rock star when I arrived at the podium! Breathless, my hand on my bursting heart, I thanked them with a smile so big it hurt, promptly forgot my plan for a morning meditation, and stepped happily into the world of the Enneagram facilitation. Let it begin!

Eighty-six men are emerging from incarceration to transformation in Cleveland, Texas, as the newly formed Class XIV. These men bear heart-warming similarities to their PEP predecessors in their determined, enthusiastic approach to learning the Enneagram. They also bring their own unique stories, tales of brokenness, which I simply could not dream up, and life experiences from which they survived seemingly against all odds. But, they collectively exemplify the PEP spirit of optimism and change which captures my admiration, and renews my inspiration time and again.

During my visit into the unit, countless men approached me confidently, beaming with outstretched handshakes, thanking me heartily, “For coming all the way from California for us!” The pleasure was equally mine, for they are a magnificent corroboration of something I am readily accepting these days, which is that when student and teacher find themselves infinitely grateful for each other’s presence, things are just as they are meant to be. Dare I use the “P” word? Just perfect.

Something I have discovered as a type One, “The Perfectionist” who identifies with the need to be in command of my environment, is how much emotional holding goes on within me during periods of intensity. I would say two days in a correctional facility qualifies as such. I returned to my hotel room each night, exhausted and exhilarated, absolutely satisfied, yet somehow unsure that I had anything significant to blog about. What I find as I begin to write, however, is that just under the surface tension I wear so well – “Get it right. Keep it together. I can do it. -- in the space where I allow myself to slow down and breathe, is an abundance of sentiment and tears for these men and their stories, that I’ve carried close to my heart all day. Men who remember a father trying to kill him, siblings who were split up in divorces, physical abuse, a demand to be tough, abandonment, the incarceration, surviving the “hood.” There is so, so much to contain. Another dear One, Suzanne Dion, and I reflected on how Five-like this feels, needing the sanctuary of fulfilled responsibility before One is entitled to the fuller range of her feelings.

Of course, sometimes my emotions got the better of me and slipped right out, for which I am only too glad. I felt more empowered than ever by the wisdom of this shrewd system to return the I-dare-you-to-see-me-look of an otherwise intimidating, unsentimental Eight. His eyes were his “tell” of a nostalgic innocence toying with revealing itself, but under an impressive posture of such control. I appreciated how even these men, from whom we often want to run, need merely the guarantee of safety to expose their well-armored hearts. I dared one back, challenged his soul to surface, and could do little about my own teariness when he towered over me, and did exactly that. In light of his tentative step into vulnerability, the place where Eights feel they are giving up all their power, I say, “Bravo!”

There are so many significant stories that deserve highlighting from this visit, but I would say that my most poignant experiences were woven through the short out-breaths between panels, when men approached me individually to share something more intimate than there was space for with the group at large.

One very sober Seven waded gravely into emotional waters, unable to quell the pain any longer of lost parents and a sibling, and a distant relationship with his wife. You could practically see the straining into his heart from his head, which desperately wanted to project his previous lack of capacity to grieve onto other people whom, he perceived, wouldn’t give him a safe space to do so. Over what felt like a handful of power sessions at the side of the room, I quickly became privy to his self-described pattern of hurt, and the onslaught of rationalized distractions that ensued. Noticing his eyes just barely containing their sadness, I held onto his handshake long enough to inquire whether he was able to give himself a safe space to grieve.

I could feel my frustration arise from being forced to move through such important issues at lightning speed, the pressure of leading the next panel quickening most conversations to abrupt endings. There was never enough time to listen as long as I would have liked. But, when I began to accept our venue for what it simply was, I could allow for the possibility that this fractured way of processing was probably just right, with built-in reprieves from painful sharing. And, to his noteworthy credit, this man did not seem inclined to escape (a more comfortable Seven stance, to be sure.) He returned to me again and again, so determined to find the finger-holds to do the remainder of the hard work on his own after I left.

I don’t know the spiritual orientation of most of the men in the room, but I do know that this class took to the “in and down” awareness practices with virtually no resistance. Sustained by the openness of the prior class to witness the Inner Observer, I took several opportunities to invite the men to turn their attention through thoughts and feelings, which are always changing and shifting, to that steady place in our bodies that constantly grounds and supports us all, in the breath. By so doing, I welcomed the chance to connect in this most fundamental, human way with each of them at once. I cannot express the enormity of the powerful energy that emits from a group of this caliber.

After two days of thoroughly revealing each of the nine types, our grand finale emerged organically, in response to the men wanting to know how the Enneagram informs relationship. I appropriated the mind of a Five, “The Observer,” to design a panel of “cellies” (an affectionate term for cellmates) representing all nine types. Sometimes, this pairing results in most unlikely, deep friendships, and other times well, not so much.

This resident Five proved just the man for this task, easily recalling who had lived with whom over the years. He has become very knowledgeable about the Enneagram. No surprise there. He knew that he could lean on his own cellie, a Six, in order to fill the panel as promised. The somewhat reluctant “Loyal Skeptic,” admittedly anxious, was swayed to participate when an appeal was made to his dedication to PEP. God love the devotion of the Six, who served as a forthcoming, warm example of his own character structure. My resourceful accomplice further supplied me with a typed list of the panelists, their types and short bios, before he went off into the unit to procure whichever panelists weren’t in the current training for me – a magnanimous Five at his delightful best.

The panel proved to be an amusing way of looking at the Enneagram with some much needed levity. An Eight, who is clearly working his growth edge by learning to contain the huge energy he has available to him, sat sandwiched between his current and former cellies, a Three, and a Two. These two heart-types both reported that their Eight was easy to live with because of his straightforward manner, They were always clear about his needs (for space and control), and could therefore work to accommodate him.

The Two, however, known as “The Helper,” self--deprecatingly admitted to how hard it was for him to live with someone who seemingly needed nothing. “Can I get you something?”


“A cup of tea?”

“ No.”

“How about now?”

“ NO!!”

The Eight, ever in his own dance with control, then admitted to how challenging it was to have someone needing to help him all the time, further disclosing that if and when he actually did want a cup of tea, “I wasn’t about to tell him!” It was impossible not to empathize with his soft-hearted cellie, who just needed to be needed in order to find his place in the relationship.

As it seems to invariably happen, the Nine panelist, “The Mediator,” was the very last to speak. His former cellie, a One, had just finished describing their living arrangement as very easygoing, not too noteworthy, even hard to fully recollect. But, hold onto your hats when the Nine received the mic! He began by recalling the “sloppiness” of the One, his incessant talking, and the emotionality he brought with him. The Nine’s feelings spilled out right before us. When I questioned him about whether he ever voiced any of the anger, which he clearly now felt, when they were cellies he replied, “ No. It didn’t really matter too much.” I would beg to differ, and told him so, looking to support his belated sense of being worth it now. I quickly rallied some applause for my fellow One who heartily laughed his way through the slew of criticality directed at him, and informed us that just 10 minutes before the panel, he’d actually asked his former cellie if he might live together again sometime, to which the Nine had replied, “Sure!”

PEP is savvy in the ways in which it utilizes the talent and experience of graduates, who are awaiting parole, to enhance the current classes. Former students become teachers, peer educators, and leaders. They are encouraged to take the introductory workshop again, and because they do, the Enneagram knowledge base they bring with them seasons the incoming group in significant ways. These are the men who truly hold the space for what I teach, by modeling how to instantly silence a room, respectfully ask questions, and in general leave me feeling like absolute royalty. When they take a seat on the panel, I know that we will all benefit from the self-awareness they have been cultivating.

I feel a growing camaraderie with many of these men about whom I have written, and at least as many whom I have not. Admittedly, it is a mixed bag to feel joyful to see some of the same faces when I return because, of course, I so want them to realize their hard earned freedom. But, for those who have time remaining inside, I reap the benefit of a deepening connection each time I come. One Eight, whom I went head-to-head with on panel about vulnerability last November, proudly told me that he was voted as the most transformed in his class! Another Eight from November is being released soon, and he’s over halfway through his undergrad degree. The Six, whom I met in February, told me that he took to heart our exchange about not getting the “big words,” by increasing his vocabulary daily. He has a bright, shining light about him, yet is so dubious of his effect on people who affectionately see him as I do. I consider it such a privilege to bear witness to their beautiful, unselfconscious unfolding over time.

After mentioning an upcoming opportunity to work in maximum security prisons, a few men gently approached me, addressing my obvious naiveté, and somberly asked me to be careful there. Kristie led class XIV in offering a blessing on me and this work. They were instantly on their feet, arms outstretched and resting on one another’s’ shoulders, a virtual wall of protective care and support. As this body of extraordinary men converged their hearts, minds, and physical presence on this common intention, their positive energy was visceral. I felt solidarity in what they represent for one another, and a humbling, overwhelming knowing of who these men are, once again, for me.

Susan Olesek has been immersed in the field of Enneagram studies for the last 12 years. Certified in Enneagram Studies in the Narrative Tradition, Susan brings a lively compassion to her instruction, and is driven by a passionate conviction that anyone brave enough to take an honest look at themselves is fully deserving of the liberation that comes from knowing the Enneagram. Based in Los Altos, California, Susan demonstrates a wholehearted, tender regard for the human spirit in her teaching and private practice. For more information about Susan and her work, please visit her Website at www.susanolesek.com.


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september 2010

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