All the way into my adulthood, while I could manage a pretty significant number of external achievements, I could just barely tolerate my own interior dialogue. The positive ways in which other people saw me — even people whom I respected — was not how I saw myself. I came from a loving home, but I had also survived serious trauma.
When I first went to prison to teach the Enneagram, I met people — by the hundreds — whose internal dysfunction and self-hatred had overtaken their external decision making. They’d been through hell. I saw that I had a knack for facilitating a dialogue between who people truly are (how I somehow just see others) and what “happened to them.” In so doing, I really understood how hard it is to get an accurate read on ourselves and how terrified we can be of really looking within — in case our worst fears are actually realized.
I can’t say I’ve seen it all, but sitting with people in prison breeds a pretty robust frame of reference for the crazy lengths we go to avoid ourselves. I started to appreciate the precious role I was given when people entrusted their stories to me, their egoic maneuvers, and heartaches, and profound pain. It is astounding how much we will reroute our lives in order to sidestep exactly those things of which we are most afraid. I received these gifts and put them gently aside, one by one, making room for the greatest gift I hoped they would reveal to themselves — their own true nature.
After bearing witness to countless courageous men and women reconnecting with the small, disowned parts of themselves, I rather reluctantly noticed a petulant, rather terrified little girl in the corner of her own personal prison. Her arms folded and her foot tapping, she was waiting on the world to change before she would fully venture it herself. Over the years, I’ve softened as much to her as I have to my clients, and I finally motioned for her to come along with the rest of us. Luckily, she chose to do just that.
People think I do the work I do with troubled populations out of the goodness of my heart; in part, I surely do. But, honestly, I think I do it as much because it gives me the courage to keep up my own damn part of the bargain. Teaching others to be loving and kind to THEM keeps me honest “and kinder” with myself.
EPP stands for Enneagram Prison Project, a nonprofit organization built on a conviction. It is dedicated to making a much needed difference. EPP is a tiny group of committed people who set out to impact a system that really, really needed a new possibility.
EPP is each of us doing our own work and each of you doing yours — the best we can. But, as George Ivanovich Gurdjieff himself said, “It’s not just difficult to do this work alone, it’s impossible.”
Forming an organization on this single, profound thought, and around a tool as profoundly self-revealing as the Enneagram means that we do the work together. EPP takes Enneagram teachers, who’ve embodied a deep understanding of the human psyche and spirit, inside of prisons and jails. Our clients value the process of self-understanding enough to offer it to the people in their custody.
At EPP, we think the incarcerated are most deserving of this razor-sharp self-assessment tool that helps them to see why they do what they do. Historically, the Enneagram has found itself primarily taught in privileged, educated, white, esoteric circles, but truly, its wisdom has always been intended for anyone and everyone with a genuine desire to know who they really are.
EPP has made it its mission to bring this invaluable tool to the people who need it the most.
Going to prison brought Susan face to face with her ego. When she was given the chance to sit with people behind bars, she began to understand what it really means to come up against the self.
Susan says, “I finally got how fiercely (and unconsciously) we defend, deceive, and depend upon psychological mechanisms and constructs to keep others from knowing us and ultimately from knowing ourselves.”
Witnessing all that transformation was like going to church, without the guilt. Susan kept going back to learn more, to see herself more clearly, to experience more of “that kind” of raw change that going to prison and working with inmates provided.
Eventually, Susan says she started to feel like she was getting away with something profound. She was witnessing transformation, change, and the human potential coming online as no one had ever told her would be possible. As a result, Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) was born. Susan become convicted that self-awareness, self-regulation training, via the Enneagram system of self-assessment and self-knowing, had to be brought to those in need of understanding themselves. EPP is about bringing invaluable insights to those who deserve the best possible chance, at a second chance.
Society calls them “career criminals,” but many have come to know them as “EPP Ambassadors.” Soon enough, when they hear about 5% recidivism rates, our government may just be calling them “the proof.” Anyone paying attention can see the profound evidence that change is not just possible, it is happening real-time; gradually and sometimes in startling strides. The most radical demonstration of all, however, is when determined “former felons” return to prisons not as recidivism stats, but as the next generation of EPP teachers and inspirations.
That’s right, what we know as “the work” of self-realization starts from the “inside out,” and therefore so does the EPP Ambassador recruitment process. I have often joked, in mock self-deprecation, that I am just “some white lady with a poster,” until a program participant really does “the work.” Because you know, the Enneagram is flat out an amazing system, however, unless and until it is practically applied to a real life, a genuine human dilemma, it’s merely theory, just another tool in the box.
But, it takes more than a minute to do this work…
Currently incarcerated inmates “doing time” spend hours and weeks on end unpacking defense mechanisms, avoidance patterns and idealizations, a process many of them have affectionately coined “doing me.” While we “do time” together, EPP students (and I, too) vacillate between admitting to our own antics and aggressively defending them. Fairly predictably, though, people who may start out with a big egoic defense: “Well, that’s just me!” follow up with a more somber: “Oh, $#*!, that’s also me!” and so goes the process of waking up.
By the way, this is not unlike the awakening that happens inside of corporations, or the monthly workshops in my own little sheeshy town in California. Because the human condition is just that, human. Somehow, though, when we get wind of how this magnitude of change happens in prisons and jails we all sit up in our chairs just a little more. We all try hard not to ask ourselves a really difficult question, and I’ll just be blunt: “If they can do it, what’s my problem?” I can venture this guess about you because I’ve asked it about myself.
Ambassadors who are willing to continue their self-study upon their release have already turned some necks in the Enneagram trainings they’ve attended at retreat venues around the country. People frankly just don’t see these guys coming. Time and time again, EPP Ambassadors end up surprising the pants off of everyone – themselves, corporate CEOs, and quite honestly myself included. For the most part Enneagram rookies report, in hindsight, that they didn’t anticipate the kind of revelations they’d have from this kind of self-study. How could we? It is a journey, and who would have thought that a trip around a funky little diagram could pack such a punch?
The people poised to carry the work of human transformation furthest forward are those who have traveled the furthest depths of themselves. We have an eye for this potential inside of EPP. When we see someone who gets the Enneagram all the way under their skin, we are so inspired that we can barely contain how much we care to see them succeed.
Men and women who have survived serious abuse, familial dysfunction, and then our criminal justice systemand who have managed to keep their hearts open earn a different kind of badge. Holding out for oneself long enough to try to change “one more time” after that kind of trip is as humbling as it is heroic. Frankly, these are the folks who get me out of bed in the morning. These guys fuel my willingness to tolerate the tantrums of incredibly powerful people, running massive organizations as they frantically do exactly what folks behind actual bars have done – hide from themselves.
Anything EPP might hope to say about “the theory” behind bringing the Enneagram to criminal reform pales in comparison to hearing what someone who has done hard time and who has applied the Enneagram could offer. I know a little bit about this population EPP hopes to serve, but truly, these women and men are the experts and have much to teach those of us who want to help.
Before I went to prison, I imagined myself to be much more open-minded about the people I’d find there than I actually was. I told my colleagues how surprised, how blown away I was, actually, by the humanity I found within prison walls. Witnessing the projections and assumptions I made (and continue to find myself sometimes making) and that others so innocently make about inmates remains humbling and eye-opening.
Those incarcerated men and women who have taken the Enneagram teaching to heart are the future for all of us “doing our work” and are the future of the Enneagram Prison Project. They have demonstrated the tenacity for self-inquiry, they “did their time” and figured out what got them in so much trouble with their personality in the first place. If this only lowered the recidivism rate, their efforts would be absolutely worthwhile, but these guys bring a level of credibility to EPP and to the Enneagram itself, that is indescribable.
These willing men and women have come to mean the world to me.
“”As an inmate, I found myself lost and struggling to find out what had gone so wrong in my life that I no longer deserved freedom. As a student in one of Susan Olesek’s first prison classes, however, I learned that I not only deserve freedom but that I also hold the key to my own personal freedom by simply taking an honest look at myself, my choices, and my behavior. I directly credit Susan for being part of the most positive change my life has ever experienced.”
— Clay Tumey | Former Inmate and Current EPP Ambassador | Cleveland Correctional Facility | Austin, TX
“The work that my teacher and mentor does is like no other I have ever been involved in or introduced to. Susan Olesek has such passion for what she does and for the people that she teaches. It’s great, and to tell you the truth, it’s because of the way that she teaches that I stayed with the program and her class. It works and it was working for me and still is. The compassion and genuineness that she displays and gives is unheard of compared to other teachings and programs that I have taken. I have had the pleasure of co-teaching a class with her not too long ago and I will tell you this, it was a little intimidating, because she is that good at what she does, and I as the student just don’t want to mess up! But it turned out to go very well; I want nothing more than to make her proud, and I think I have. Working with Susan has really changed my life to a life I really never thought was possible, but learning from her was the tool that was missing. She gave me the answers and guided me to the right path in life. The person who is writing this letter is a real person today. Someone who takes care of himself, because, he knows he matters today! My needs are important and these are some of the things that I did not know only three years ago. It’s crazy how a teacher can come in and make you feel like a real person and see you for who you really are, and that’s what Susan does! She has a gift, and everyone should get to be part of it.”
— Victor Soto | Former Inmate and Current EPP Ambassador | Elmwood Correctional Facility | Milpitas, CA
“From sitting in a prison cell, considering myself to be apt enough to anticipate any and every move and playing mental chess as my way to survive, I took pride in knowing what’s going to happen three moves ahead of time. I have to admit now, while I am sitting here in this moment writing this, I never saw “her” coming. That “her” is Susan Olesek. And thank the Universe that I didn’t, because this woman has taught me so much, mentored me when no one else would, and saw something in me that I couldnt see. Susan Olesek helped me to become a better man and become the father I so desperately wanted to be. For that, I am eternally grateful. But that’s not what gets me. Susan impacts everyone’s life in such a beautiful way, in a way that makes them feel like I do. Susan Coleman Olesek, I am so honored to have had you come in to my life and allow me to be a part of this big beautiful EPP family of ours!”
— Elam Chance | Former Inmate and Current EPP Ambassador | Cleveland Correctional Facility | Austin, TX
Published on November 9 by olesek Category: donate Tags:
A contribution can start as small as $25.00, or it can be airline miles, or it can be a stock donaton too. A contribution of $500 or more puts one incarcerated man or woman through the Introductory 8-week EPP Enneagram program and gifts you your very own “Key to Freedom.” On behalf of all of EPP and its supportive colleagues, associates, we THANK YOU for your support!
Your contribution allows us to further the goals and activities of the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP). EPP is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and relies on its colleagues and friends as well as government institutions to carry out its mission of transforming the possibilities of those incarcerated through self-awareness training and practices made possible via the Enneagram. Contributions directly support EPP’s ability to build its infrastructure, create curriculum, market itself to the many prisons (and the incarcerated), reach more people, train Enneagram specialists, and stay in contact with its network of supporters, participants, teachers, and facilities.
Published on September 6 by olesek Category: what-is-epp Tags:
I went to prison on a leap of faith and an idealistic prayer, fully intent on teaching something that I had — ironically — yet to fully learn myself: that we are all in a prison of our own making in how we suffer our personalities. Almost immediately, I realized that an application of the Enneagram within this demographic was perhaps the most moving thing I had ever witnessed, but it took me more than a minute to overcome my own projections. “You’re too inexperienced, too white, too female, too sheltered…” — too many things — my ego told me, to be as effective as I felt those guys deserved a teacher to be. A nagging truth relayed to me by a mentor kept arising during this time:”You can’t take anyone where you haven’t been yourself.” Boy, did she have that right.
Working with myself on the inside, as I persisted in working alongside others “on the inside,” was simply the only way I could sense how to break out of my own personal prison. By unpacking defense mechanisms, avoidance patterns, and personal idealizations with hundreds of incarcerated participants, I slowly turned the key in the most confounding, locked up parts of myself. By alternately admitting to our own antics and seeing how aggressively we could go about defending them, I can say that I have learned a thing or two over the time I’ve done in prison. For one, I can now recognize an inner critic when I see one. What is more, I’ve replaced that inner-criticality with a far kinder, more developed inner guide. It is with my own self-knowing that I have been able to go where imprisoned men and women, literally and metaphorically, need to go in order to know themselves. We venture “there” together.
I don’t purport to know anyone else’s pain, nor expect you to know mine. We really must walk in our own shoes. But I daresay, I can pull up a chair. I’ve now sat with hundreds of men and women peering through the bars of their personal prisons together and know, that I know, that I know…that this “Enneagram thing” works when — and only when — we start from the inside out. Come and see for yourselves.
Published on May 11 by olesek Category: what-is-epp Tags:
One opportune trip to prison and the whole trajectory of my life — professionally and personally — was absolutely inspired. Seeing how one hundred incarcerated men took learning about themselves so much to heart compelled me to follow this exhilarating example of realizing the human potential with everything I had. Three years later in April of 2012, flanked by two dedicated founding board members: my partner, Rick Olesek and my colleague, Suzanne Dion,Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) was born.
Standing at the helm of a fledgling non-profit as an executive director with more vision than I had experience, I was delighted to encounter a newfound passion for social entrepreneurship. With my wits in one hand and my poster in the other, I talked my way into a local jail and before anyone could finish shouting, “You cannot possibly teach the Enneagram to prisoners!” EPP was on the map with a 5% recidivism rate. Boom.
We set out with this vision, based solely on what I had witnessed firsthand: To free the incarcerated from the prisons of their own making in every prison and jail in the United States and around the world. To that end, in the few short years since its inception, EPP has contracted with two government agencies in two different Californian counties, and offers a year-long program to lifers in San Quentin State prison. There are waitlists. We are developing an International Affiliate Program with pilots starting in Copenhagen and Helsinki. In short, this Enneagram thing works for “those folks” just like it does for my corporate clients, just like it did for the three of us. What do you know, we’re all human. We are ecstatic to grow this paradigm-shifting idea as we each grow along with it.
In fact, equal to our joy in seeing something so personal to me flourish, is the satisfying opportunity that running an organization offers me and our team to “walk our talk.” Whether it is writing company policies, defining our company culture, forging strategic partnerships, or resolving conflict, one core value we share at Enneagram Prison Project is that “We do the work together,” and, work there is to do!
I’ve got my Type 1 sleeves rolled up and am hanging on to my bursting heart as we keep pace with some incredible momentum. We are never short on material to work with, including, “The prisons of our own making” and how to move beyond them inter-personally, professionally and now organizationally.