Follow the Little Lights

Follow the Little Lights


Words by Evan Barbee
Illustration by Chris Koelle

Like many other Enneagram 1s I know, a unique orientation to the pursuit of perfection in her endeavors is most evident through the posture and precision she commands. (The word perfection, as we use it today, however, sounds a little stodgy, a little tight-laced, and falls short of describing the engine that drives Susan’s spirit.) Though her bearing is that of a prominent public figure familiar with the spotlight, she is not the product of personal celebrity, nor is she inclined toward self-indulgence. Rather, she is the culmination of some tremendously difficult experiences, and of more than a few divine appointments. Susan’s personal history and her ongoing mission seem quite the departure from what one might assume at first glance—precisely the kind of twist in a plotline that elevates a story from memorable to remarkable.

Susan is the founder of Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), a grassroots nonprofit full of fascinating characters united in their commitment to invite life into historically inhospitable places and call powerful leaders out of an unlikely population: correctional facilities and the human beings within them.

Through the Enneagram, a psychological system describing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns, EPP offers a chance for individuals to understand their past, to engage their present, and to forecast a powerful future. With a trauma-informed curriculum and an ironclad commitment to affirming human dignity, EPP is changing the minds, hearts, cultures of those who live and work within correctional facilities. This organization serves as a generator for human potential, pure and simple—and Susan is the engineer.

Though EPP has expanded affiliate programs exponentially during the few short years since its inception in 2012, the healing and growth is also retroactive. Susan herself experienced a kind of conversion experience while volunteering behind the bars of a small Texas prison years before EPP came into being. Her story runs a striking parallel to the hero’s journey, a concept popularized 70 years ago by mythologist professor Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell plotted the developmental stages of the archetypal hero: initial calling, costly initiation process, victory, and a triumphant return. This “monomyth,” found in various iterations the world over and throughout history, acts as a kind of template or reference point for stages of personal transformation that human beings can recognize in their own experience. The following is Susan’s inspiring story, shared alongside selected stages of the hero’s journey.

Call to Adventure

The hero begins in the “ordinary world” and, either through divine intervention or personal conviction, receives an invitation to leave the known for the unknown and embark on a dangerous but transformative journey.

Susan’s “normal life” involved being a mother of three young boys, enjoying the stability of a loving marriage, and sensing the comfortable predictability not unusual for the community where she lived. “I was really, really, not awake to what was going on,” she shares. “To the rest of society, I don’t think I looked that way. In short, I had a great cover, and that’s what suppression is, really.”

Though she considers raising three young men her greatest achievement, an inward longing surfaced for some important personal contribution to the world, a mission with a far-reaching impact. When she discovered the Enneagram through a parenting workshop, Susan connected immediately to the tradition, pursuing a teaching certification in 2009 with The Narrative Enneagram (TNE), and two years later with The Enneagram Institute. Shortly after starting on this path, an invitation arrived for Susan to share the Enneagram with inmates in a small Texas prison.

Road of Trials

Should the hero accept the invitation, various tasks and trials must be faced, signaling the beginning of an initiation process. The hero must prove a willingness to endure the difficulty necessary for great change to be realized.

“It terrified me. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough. That was my theme song,” Susan shares a little wistfully. She recalls with compassion the earliest days of insecurity and struggle that came with such high expectations on her own proficiency and performance. “I think that had I known, if I had really understood how much I suffer when I am by myself, then I could have made the journey easier by reaching out to the many people who loved me. But I didn’t love me enough to give myself those resources. It felt easier and more familiar to just do it alone, to muscle through it by myself, and to keep listening to my own inner critic,” she shares.

“Honestly, I showed up to that prison and I didn’t understand the Enneagram. I could teach you all the types, but I didn’t understand what it meant to be in a prison of my own making.” Referring to a metaphor which would later become a cornerstone of EPP’s brand, Susan coined perhaps the most succinct description of what the Enneagram offers: the grace to see that while it is true we have navigated life while trapped in unconscious patterns of personality, we can embrace self-awareness and create change.

In that first prison facility, Susan found her motivation, propelled into action by the suffering she witnessed in her students. She recounts being entirely devoted to the work, though not aware at the time that she too was suffering. “Hurt people are often drawn to working with hurt people,” she says. “I was.”

Meeting the Goddess

A crucial moment in which the hero experiences unconditional love, an encounter with the divine, or a spiritual transformation.

A pinnacle moment came while filming a documentary in that same Texas facility. Participants in Susan’s class were invited to share their experiences with the Enneagram and what it was like to work with her. “One by one, as they answered, each of them started to cry.” During this outpouring of gratitude and love, the inner critic in Susan’s mind, which had always kept a sense of her own worth and goodness under lock and key and just out of reach, fell silent. She realized for the first time that what she had hoped to give others, she had resisted giving to herself. “I remember thinking, I have to accept this, or else I am a fraud and negate all of their beautiful transformation. If I say this is not true for me, how could I say that it would be true for them? I was up against myself.” Keeping herself awake to this concept has been a process Susan compares to prying her heart open with a crowbar. But integrity demanded it, and nothing can stir the soul of an Enneagram 1 to action more than that very word.

Atonement of the Parent

The hero is confronted and must be reconciled to whatever force holds the most power over his or her life.

Growth is not so much an upward trajectory as it is a circular track upon which we meet ourselves again and again, as Susan describes. For her, that first encounter with the concept of self-love cracked the seal which held memories of a painful childhood at bay. The conditions of her present required that she be reconciled to her past. “I was trying to translate this mission, and I really hadn’t taken care of the stuff going on inside of me. I was just feeling so, so unhappy with who I was, and yet the vision of the project seemed so clear,” Susan shares. “So, it was an easy place to go hide out rather than to do my own thing. I ended up in therapy three times a week unpacking my childhood, which I had not done before.”

The earliest and deepest wound came at age five when her mother committed suicide. Susan’s toddler reality splintered. As she grew, she recalls internalizing the family tragedy, blaming herself for the death of her mother. During the next few years of her childhood, when most children are coddled and pampered, Susan mobilized to make what she felt were necessary reparations, doing what she could to become the best version of herself she could be.

Now in her own healing process as an adult, the mother of three sons and a growing mission, putting down that belief and accepting herself represented one of the most difficult lessons that she has had to learn. Eventually, a therapist asked her if she was ready to take 100 percent of the emotional responsibility for her life. “I was so annoyed,” laughs Susan. “I thought, Of course I am. I’m paying you!” But eventually Susan realized that in fact, she only thought she had been living in alignment with this principle. “It’s the human condition: We would all like the world to change so we could feel better, but it is an inside job. All of these cliches are tried and true.” That concept, and much of Susan’s life, now lives inside the EPP curriculum.


The hero is visited by a moment of enlightenment, a revelation or received wisdom, that clarifies the path forward.

What Susan won through those dark years of wrestling with her own trauma and defenses was something she might not have recovered by any other means. “Self-love,” she offers immediately. “That is the one and only thing that everyone is after. We are all just sort of settling for some version of it. It is a really hard thing to teach someone to tolerate his own presence long enough to find his own worth and his own ‘enough-ness’. I don’t think we can find it in any other way than to be still. The only way out is in.”

Self-love has become a prerequisite for any EPP guide interested in partnering with this organization. Susan’s husband Rick, current Executive Director and another pillar within EPP, apparently calls it the “secret sauce,” which makes Susan laugh with obvious fondness. “The only reason people actually heal on the inside is because we love them. That’s why we insist on guides who love themselves enough to be able to reflect that love back to others.”

Rescue from Without

Mentors and teachers emerge to assist the hero in returning home.

When asked who had appeared to support and encourage her along the way, Susan says that many individuals flashed across her mind, but she offered these names first:

Dr. David Daniels, cofounder of TNE, an esteemed Stanford professor and Susan’s beloved Enneagram teacher. “David helped me understand that there is no difference between people on the inside or the outside [of prison]. We are more alike than we are different.”

Ken Hartman, ex-convict and author of “Mother California,” a book which Susan discovered during her own healing process. “Ken helped show me that we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive.”

And Vic Soto, a dear student and current ambassador of EPP, whose personal transformation has been a beacon for all involved in EPP. “Vic had done 18 years in and out of prison and was such a light when I met him. He really expanded the vision of what was possible. Vic showed me that all of us are here for a very special purpose.”

Master of Two Worlds

The hero must learn to hold two seemingly opposite things in balance: the material and spiritual, or the inner world and the external world.

Present-day EPP operates with regular programming in San Quentin State Prison, Santa Clara County Reentry Resource Center, and in the Santa Clara and San Mateo County jails. EPP chapters have formed in Minnesota and Belgium, with more in the works both nationally and internationally. Partners in the work now include some of the most brilliant minds and thought leaders in the world, and today over 3,500 students have graduated the EPP program. Recidivism rates plummet among EPP students and, though the impact of this organization is undeniable, perhaps the most compelling evidence of success can be found in the brand ambassadors—former inmates who have joined the EPP ranks and are treasured among the international Enneagram community at large.

Freedom to Live

Mastery leads to freedom from fear and a greater capacity to live in freedom.

Really, as Susan observes, the “freedom to live” is a kind of invitation on offer to everyone through the Enneagram system. Asked to share any words of wisdom she would have given herself at the beginning of this journey, Susan says with her characteristic conviction, “Honor your own unwillingness to sit in regret.” This is a sentiment likely to resonate with many other Enneagram 1s who may struggle at times to express the gift they possess.

To others who may feel hesitant or resistant to embark on their own journey, Susan shares, “Follow the little green lights inside.” There will be small openings, little cosmic yes’s along the way. Look for the little invitations. “I love that quote by Tony Robbins: ‘Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.’ For me it was too painful to not say yes to this call in my heart. For those of us doing what we love, it doesn’t feel courageous; it feels needed. I couldn’t stay sitting on the sidelines of my life. I wasn’t happy there.” Something about that is reassuring. An age-old wisdom too easily forgotten, passed down from heroic Vic, to Susan, to us.

The real truths are not the ones we have memorized and can mechanically recount. The words we can trust have been earned and lived. Here is another age-old wisdom too easily forgotten, passed down from hero to hero, to Vic, to Susan, to us: “We are all here for a very special purpose.”

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