Changing Our Minds About Incarceration

Enneagram Prison Project’s Compassionate Application of the Enneagram Behind Bars

By Susan Olesek, Founder of Enneagram Prison Project

Until I went to prison to teach the Enneagram, nothing could dissuade me from my tightly held belief in my own lacking. Nearly a decade of working with people trapped inside their mindsets of “criminal thinking” has shown me the self-same way in which we get stuck inside the prison of our own minds. Interestingly, it is in the reflection of hundreds of our incarcerated students that I am repeatedly shown how it is possible to do something that’s very difficult — change our minds about ourselves.

Recently, a man whom I have worked with for many months waited patiently after our class and asked to speak with me. This is a student who rarely talks without being invited into a conversation, but that afternoon I could sense he was holding something with great weight. I learned that after serving nearly a lifetime in prison he is soon going to the parole board where he will have his first face-to-face opportunity to be accountable to his victim’s loved ones. Enneagram Prison Project’s curriculum is designed to help our students take responsibility not just for what they have done, but to understand the reasons why. This tender student wanted my support in learning how to talk about his past, something I began to suspect that he had never done before.

This man’s whole chest and legs were shaking. “Do you want to sit down?” I offered. He did, gratefully. He faced me with his back to the door, a vulnerable move men rarely make in prison and which he later told me was in an effort to eliminate his chance to escape our conversation. With great measure he dared to tell me about how he assaulted and raped a woman over three decades ago. His admission came swiftly, but the words following his sharing were thick with shame and stuck in his throat. It was as if it this horrible incident had just happened yesterday. He raised his eyes to meet mine for the first time since we sat down and I could see how clearly he was grappling with his remorse. I nodded my encouragement to him. “You can do this.” I told him.

My student is a Type Nine, “the Peacemaker.” Nines come to teach the rest of us about belonging. With presence, the Type Nine can sense the importance of every being in the room. One of our EPP Guides says that when you sit next to a Nine you get the feeling that everything is okay and that they need nothing from you. That is exactly how I felt in this man’s presence. He is so mild it is almost possible for him to disappear in class, he seems to require so little from the rest of us. Nines came to believe that if they make a big deal about themselves they will be left behind, that they could be annihilated. The bigger the ego — in this man’s case, the more invisible — the bigger the pain. What happened to you? I began to really wonder, and marveled at the courage it took to show up like this for himself.

Knowing his urgency to find the words to share his past gave me a confidence that I didn’t have when I first started teaching in prison years ago. The stakes are so high for our students. Often they are literally fighting for their freedom and need to be able to figure out what’s been driving them in order to put a stop to the very long sentences that come with their crimes. That he took the “right action” to put himself in the chair across from me showed me his determination to move the mountain of shame off of his chest. “Tell me about your childhood...” I invited him.

I then began to hear about the many physical and emotional assaults he endured as a little boy; about how he was beaten by his own mother when he was very small and watched her get beaten and abused by other men. He told me that for the last 30 years he never felt worthy or safe enough to tell anyone about what he had done, never mind to share what had happened to him. Small wonder, I thought.

The famous English psychologist D.W. Winnicott once said, “There are things that happen in childhood that should never happen. And, there are things that should have happened, that never did." I could not help but wonder how it would have changed the trajectory of this man’s life to have had just one person to help him know that the beatings and violations he endured should never have happened to him, or to those around him. No child should watch his mother get raped, beaten, violated. But, if a little boy does see such things, then he is in desperate need of someone who will gather him up in their arms to tell him that this horror he experienced was not okay, and not his fault. In the absence of this holding, a child’s psychological last resort is to act out the hurt for which he has no words. The childhood traumas played out in this man’s adult charades were the ultimate act for which he is now serving this life sentence. Yes, he is one hundred percent responsible for what he has done and he is the first to admit it. But, where were the adults to help him hold his pain when he was arrested — quite literally — in childhood? We share a culpability for his predicament and that of so many incarcerated children and adults like him.

In the short hour that we spent together, I had a chance to reflect back to this gentle Type Nine the intelligence with which he acted out the rage he must have felt. With just a little validation I could see a flash of his anger at the ways he was violated, and gradually also the enormity of his hurt. A layer or two of the deep grief and remorse that he carried with him into the classroom was peeled away that afternoon. We talked about having compassion for the little boy who really had nowhere safe to just “be.” As we spoke, his shaking stopped and he became calmer. It is remarkable what can happen when someone is simply seen. When we are witnessed for who we are today — not judged for all we have done in our past — our self-judgments can be suspended and our humanity can resurface without effort.

In the weeks to come, as we raised the bar for sharing in our class, I noticed this man’s countenance has changed. He contributes more without being invited and he meets other people’s eyes more readily than he did when he first came into the classroom. We walked through the yard together one afternoon several weeks after our confessional and he told me that he is practicing sharing with other men. The outward change in him is evident, but what is most telling is that he has apparently changed his mind about his own importance, dropping the façade of not mattering and disappearing before our eyes. For the first time, it seems, this man matters to himself. I know now that he is on his way to healing and forgiving himself for his past, a crucial step to being able to seek forgiveness from his victim’s family or society when he heads to his parole board hearing.

People told me: “You can’t teach the Enneagram in prison, they’re going to manipulate you!” But, that’s simply not what happens. With this incisive psychological tool and loving support, those who have been practically thrown away begin to do what almost no one expects them to do: they begin to heal.

The Enneagram Prison Project is on a mission to understand why we do what we do, using the Enneagram to inspire transformation on both sides of the bars through self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-regulation. Our vision is to free people — all over the world — from the prisons of their own making. Click here to visit the website. Click here to make a donation.

Susan Olesek (Pronunciation: Oh-LESS-ik), an unapologetic idealist, is a Human Potentialist in passionate pursuit of what is possible for people. As a consultant, Susan has facilitated Fortune 500 clients in the work of self-development for over a decade, but it was an opportune visit to a Texas prison that changed the trajectory of her life forever.

In 2012 she founded the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), a burgeoning nonprofit headquartered in the Bay Area of California offering self-awareness education and self-regulation training — on both sides of the bars — to those locked up in our criminal justice system and to those running it. With an ambitious vision to see her favorite transformational tool in every corner of society, EPP is now programming in unusual places of healing from San Quentin to prisons in Minnesota, Belgium, and the UK.

Ultimately, Susan has a vision for changing the prison system from one of punishment to a place of genuine healing. Susan believes wholeheartedly in everyone and anyone who’s willing to take an honest look at themselves to make deep and lasting changes starting from the inside out. She lives in the Santa Cruz mountains with her three boys and her husband, Rick, who serves as the Executive Director of EPP.

Click here to visit Susan’s website.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 12: The Enneagram Global Summit