is It: est, 20 Years Later
published in Quest magazine,
Channel-surfing at one in the morning recently,
I landed on “Semi-Tough,” a
'70s Burt Reynolds film that contained a parody of Werner Erhard
and the est training, (the original, two-weekend crash course
of the Human Potential Movement.) “Freidrich Bismarck,” the
film's Erhard look-alike, tosses off remarks like “There
are no answers, because there are no questions,” and graduates
of the “BEAT” training are quick to assure their
friends that they are “perfect just the way they are.” When
Burt “gets it,” he reassures Jill Clayburgh, who
isn't at all sure if she got it, that that is certain evidence
that she did. Get it.
I got it in 1975, in a Hilton ballroom in Boston. What was "it"?
And do I still have it? If not, when did I lose it, and can
I get it back? These questions may sound tongue-in-cheek, but
actually point to something quite profound - namely, "it."
(Note: this is not an investigative whatever-happened-to-Werner
Erhard story; my most recent information is several years old,
when he appeared on the Larry King Show, live from Moscow,
claiming he couldn't safely return to the states because Scientology
essentially had a contract out on his head. This is long after
est had evolved into "The Forum," a course which
continues to be offered all over the world (now “The
Landmark Forum”); and several years after Erhard had
sold the organization and left the country following a damaging
expose of his personal life on "60 Minutes." But
that's another story.)
Perhaps the most eloquent and concise description of "it" that
I have ever come across is from an Alan Watts essay, "This
"To the individual thus enlightened it appears as a vivid
and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as
it is at this moment, as a whole and in every one of its parts,
is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification
beyond what it simply is… the mind is so wonder-struck at
the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they
are, including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst,
that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection
and beauty of the experience… The central core of the experience
seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate
now, whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all
That, in a nutshell, is "it," and as Watts indicates,
it occurs now. And I do believe, some two decades later, that
that is what I got at the est training. Of course, that was
then. (Although when I got it, it was now.)
Known for developing its own, somewhat cultish language,
perhaps the most essential catch-phrase of the est training
is, is; and what isn't isn't." When that statement is
considered thoughtfully rather than dismissed as sheer psychobabble,
the world itself stops for a moment, and the mind becomes silent.
There isn't anything to fix or change. In this moment of now,
all is exactly as it is, and as it isn't, and it can be no
other way. This is one definition of "perfect."
For example: feeling sad?
"Rocks are hard, water is wet, and you're feeling sad," an
est trainer might have responded, matter of factly. You don't
try to "get rid of" the sadness any more than you
would attempt to change the nature of rocks. It is simply part
of the "what is-ness" of the current moment of your
experience. Your reaction to it, trying to push it away, effectively
roots it more firmly in place.
"When you allow something to be," Erhard used to
say — and he meant anything, even cancer — "it
will allow you to be." And the flip side: "What
you resist, persists." (Some of these early est'isms
have been mainstreamed into the therapeutic community, their
source long forgotten.)
The purpose of the est training was to "transform your
ability to experience living [my emphasis] so that the problems
or situations in life that you are trying to solve or are
putting up with will clear up just in the process of life
would shift, they promised, was how we experienced things,
not the things themselves. Life, the trainers said, would
be exactly the same after the two-weekend course as before.
The same bills would need to be paid, we'd be dealing with
the same issues and problems. But we would experience them
with" them in such a way that they would essentially
solve themselves, or at the very least be seen as "opportunities."
And what is this other way of experiencing? To engage life
exactly as it is, unfiltered by our likes and dislikes, our
preferences and aversions, our strongly-held beliefs and
opinions about how things should be or could be. It is to
unconditionally accept the "way things are." (And
Watts was quick to point out, lest one think that this point
of view in some way equals happiness, that it doesn't; for
one's own unhappiness is merely another set of phenomena
to witness impassively.) No experience, high or low, can
be left out of the equation. "Be
unhappy, when you're unhappy," a trainer might have
said, a variation of the Zen notion, "eat when hungry,
sleep when tired.") What is, is; and what isn't, isn't.
(Applied to sexuality later in the training, this became "when
you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not.")
One of the main arguments that opponents voiced against
Werner's work was that "you can't package and sell enlightenment
in a few days, because people spend years and years doing
austere spiritual practices, and often still fail to 'get
response to this was, "No, people spend years and years
not getting enlightened — when they finally get it, it happens
in a flash, it takes no time at all, it happens outside of
time." In other words, enlightenment could just as well
occur in this moment of now, after some forty hours of sitting
in a hotel ballroom, as in the moment of now that occurs
after forty years of sitting in a Zen monastery. (Now is
now, even when it's later.)
People who never did the training generally assumed that
it was simply a random, watered-down amalgamation of many "growth" exercises,
thrown together into a slick package for the masses, who
would have to sit for long hours and not be allowed to pee.
But in fact, Erhard had a much more sophisticated vision.
I considered the training to be a brilliantly conceived Zen
koan, effectively tricking the mind into seeing itself, and
in thus seeing, to be simultaneously aware of who was doing
the seeing, a transcendent level of consciousness, a place
spacious and undefined, distinct from the tired old story
that our minds continuously tell us about who we are, and
with which we ordinarily identify. It was the first real
awakening of my spiritual journey.
But a glimpse of the Promised Land is not a permanent residence.
I've been mulling all this over for twenty years: clearly
the experience opened a door of possibility in consciousness,
revealing a grand and ecstatic vista, but to live in that
place requires spiritual practices, discipline, commitment,
perseverance and grace. And perhaps more than forty years.
The paradox of the path to enlightenment is that the only
place to go is here, and the only time to go is now, and
yet to truly be fully present in the here and now may require
years of striving to seemingly get somewhere. The two play
off each other and keep the game going. The est training,
in a sense, was saying, "it's
more fun to try to become enlightened if you're already enlightened;
otherwise you may have to wait forever."
Not too long ago I was exiting the main terminal at Dulles
Airport when I spotted a familiar face:
"Randy MacNamara?" I exclaimed. He had been one of
my original est trainers. "November '75, Boston," I
told him, by way of identifying myself. After a few remarks
back and forth, I said, "Well, it was a great weekend,
twenty years ago." And in true trainer form, he instantly
got to the point:
"Does it still impact your life?"
"Well...sure, yes," I replied. And then he hit me
with what I thought to be an amazing question:
"Daily?" he asked.
I was a bit tongue-tied. Daily? How many different workshops,
therapies, psychedelic journeys, rolfing sessions, meditation
retreats and Prozacs had I done over the years, all geared
toward, if not getting it again, or getting more of it, then
certainly maintaining and reinforcing it? How could I be
sure what had created which results in my life? I tried to
explain this, and added, "But in terms of the training
marking a departure point and altering the direction of my
life from that moment on, it certainly impacts me daily." I'm
not sure that that was good enough for him, but we reached
the walkway and parted company.
His question reminded me that from Werner's point of view,
the training was not intended to merely, as I've implied,
generate some "first experience" for people, like
a spiritual sneak preview. For Werner, this was to be the
defining turning point in people's lives, from which they
would never go back; an epiphany in consciousness that would
still be impacting them twenty years later, as they strolled
through Dulles Airport.
I remember well Randy MacNamara's dramatic explanation of
what we were to expect when we left the est training: the
possibility of believing we'd lost it and that things were
worse than ever and everything was falling apart and the
training hadn't worked. Then, after allowing us to contemplate
that in silence for a moment, his deep, booming voice filled
"YOU FORGOT TO CHOOSE!"
"What you got! Choose what you got, choose what you got,
choose what you got," he explained, and eventually you'd
be out of the water. Or not even eventually, which implies
that time is required for transformation: the est training
was in the spirit of "sudden Zen," for the possibility
of "choosing what you got" exists now and always.
And in the very moment you really make that choice, you come
unstuck, for you had merely been resisting the isness of the
moment you were given.
This was directly opposite to the prevailing self-help party
line of those me-decade times: rather than coaching people
to "get what you want, for you can have it all," est
turned it around, pointing out that if you instead "want
what you get," then you'll realize that you do have
it all, and can stop searching for it and start the real
work of giving it away, contributing your vision to the world. "If
you're not sharing it," Erhard would declare, "then
you never got it." (One unfortunate side effect of this
maxim was to turn graduates of the training into what became
known as "estholes," obnoxiously hell-bent on getting
everyone and their grandmothers into the program.)
"At all times, and in all places, and in any situation," Werner
used to repeat again and again, "you have the power to
transform the quality of your life; stop waiting for it to
'turn out,' because this is how it turned out." This is
it, and it is all as it is, and as it isn't, and as only it
can be. Therefore, it is perfect.
And so yes, I did “get it “ at the est training
twenty years ago, and what I got is that it always already
is (and isn't), so therefore I still have it today (and don't),
and it includes at times having the absolute certainty that
I in fact never truly got it (or lost it) and nor do I still
have it (although I do.) Get it?