is Still It: est, 30 Years Later
published in Quest magazine,
Werner Erhard was the infamous and controversial
founder of the est training, the original, two-weekend crash
course in consciousness, popular during the 1970s, that became
the prototype and inspiration for many human potential workshops
that continue to this day. Depending on who you speak to,
you might hear that Erhard was either a brilliant and beneficent
humanitarian who could do no wrong — I was more or less in
this camp — or a power-hungry megalomaniac who demanded fierce
personal loyalty from his staff while raking in oodles of
cash at the expense of naïve seekers looking for a quick
Numerous books and articles over the years have presented
convincing evidence on both sides of the argument and resolving
it is beyond the scope of this piece. I will, however, examine
some of the dynamics of Erhard's leadership that impacted
me personally, and ruminate on several ideas that continue
to reverberate within me some three decades later. For a
general overview of the est training, please see my article "This
is It: est, Twenty Years Later" (Quest, Summer 1998).
Being At Cause
At the end of the first weekend of the est training, we were
sent home with an inquiry to ponder until the following weekend:
Who would be wrong if your life got better? The answer, for
me, was plain: I would. I would be wrong about everyone and
everything I had ever blamed for my unhappiness. This was
perhaps the most fundamental principle I learned at est.
I am not the victim of my circumstances in life, and that
which I seek will not be found by manipulating those circumstances.
A more satisfying life is not dependent upon my finding
a different relationship, a better job, a new location, or
more money, physical healing, or anything in the domain of
what Werner called, "more, better and different".
Instead he preached that at any time and in any situation,
no matter what the circumstances, you have the ability to
transform the quality of your life.
I received this particular teaching from the horse's mouth,
while interviewing Werner in 1978. He stated it quite unequivocally
and forcefully: "Listen, until you get that nothing
is going to do it for you, that there isn't anything that's
going to come along and make you happy, you are unprepared
to get at where the truth iis… The truth is always and
only found now, in the circumstances you've got." The
existential fact, now and always, is that this is it. The
concomitant is also true: "All suffering" Werner
said, "is a function of this isn't it."
The life we want is not waiting for us "out there" in
a different set of circumstances, because if and when we
arrive there, we will only find another set of circumstances
seductively beckoning, always keeping the life we want just
out of reach, with the whole cycle fueled by our obstinate
insistence that this isn't it. Instead, est revealed that
rather than persisting in futile attempts to wring satisfaction
out of life, it is possible to bring a sense of satisfaction,
completion, and wholeness into life, exactly as it is, no
matter what the circumstances. As one of est's maxims put
it: You don't have to go looking for love, when love is where
you come from.
The fruition of one's quest for authenticity, wholeness,
and enlightenment, est insisted, did not require lightning
flashes, bells and whistles, or the sudden appearance of
a choir of angels. It simply required a slight shift in position, "getting
off of" whatever point of view one was grimly attached
to, and usually "being right" about. So, if I felt
any person or situation was the cause of my unhappiness,
it was possible for me to relinquish that point of view,
even if I was right; even if someone did do whatever it was
I believed they did to me. Regardless of the circumstances,
I could let go of being right about my position and point
of view. Instead, I could choose to be "at cause" in
the matter, rather than "at the effect of," and
thus be fully responsible, moment to moment, for the quality
of my experience of living.
This idea was often stretched by est graduates into the
overused pop-psychology phrase, "I create my own reality." This,
in turn, rapidly devolved into a realm of magical thinking
in which one could be stricken with what former est-trainer
Stewart Emery once called the Super Source Syndrome. Emery
summarized it as this, "est participants used to come
up to me after the training, shouting 'I am God, I am God!'
and I would say, 'Wonderful, here's a loaf of bread and a
fish, now go feed the hungry masses.'"
As empowering as the est philosophy could be, I also discovered
over time that it instilled in me the potentially damaging
notion that if I was not saving the world and being a Gandhi
or a Martin Luther King-or a Werner Erhard — I was
not truly living. With the bar placed so high, who among
us would not constantly fall short? The trainers' repeated,
impassioned exhortation that "who you are, matters and
what you do makes a difference" could inspire greatness
or paralysis, and I experienced both extremes over the years.
There tended to be a built-in shame response when one's life
was not working, for after all, as "cause in the matter," one
was personally and completely responsible. One started to
feel ashamed that life anywhere was not working, that one
was personally responsible for the whole world not working,
for not having ended war, poverty, and starvation on the
planet. It was a bit much to take on, but Werner did, or
tried to, and we had internalized his vision.
What Is, Is
Apart from being an acronym for "Erhard Seminar Training," the
word "est" is also Latin for "it is," and
if the training was ultimately about one thing, it was about
what is. It was about cultivating the Zen-like ability to
be with and align oneself with the way things are. It was
about allowing life to be exactly as it is — and as it isn't
— and likewise allowing oneself and other people to be exactly
who they are — and aren't. As noted author Byron Katie has
put in her book Loving What Is, by adopting such an attitude
we stop having an argument with reality.
One profound benefit of allowing others to be as they are — to
grant them to be — is to realize that underneath all
the emotional baggage we carry, beneath all our hurts and
resentments, there lives a fundamental quality of unconditional
love. It became crystal clear to me during the est training
that at the core, people love each other when given half
a chance. Love is what is waiting to emerge when we release
everything that is in the way of love. (I remember one woman
protested, "But my father never told me he loved me," and
Werner responded, "Your father loved you, and the way
he expressed it was by never telling you.")
For me, the most astounding personal example of such ubiquitous
love came at the end of the training, as I stood in front
of my 250 fellow-participants — complete strangers
only one weekend before — announcing that I needed
a place to live and would be happy to live with anyone in
the room! This coming from someone who, until that time,
could count on one hand the number of people on the planet
with whom I would choose to cohabit. Although I was experiencing
a temporary euphoria of love and connection that would fade
soon enough, it nevertheless revealed to me a space of possibility;
a way of being in the world, to which I would forever after
The Voice in My Head
Perhaps the most important teaching from the est training
that has stayed with me these thirty years concerns my
very identity. Simply put, that chattering voice living
inside my head, calling itself "I" and "me," constantly
narrating the story of my life, is not who I really am.
Rather, the training revealed it as nothing more than an
automatic and mechanistic thinking machine that sometimes
has great ideas, but more often simply perpetuates a grim,
problem-riddled interpretation of life, and is thoroughly
ill-qualified to be in charge of me and my decisions.
One est trainer, Ron Bynum, told the story of his first
wedding. While standing at the altar, about to say "I
heard himself thinking, "You're making a huge mistake." The
words haunted him and the marriage didn't last. Several years
later, following his own transformation — the transformation
of his relationship with his own mind — he remarried,
and as he stood at the altar, he again heard the voice say, "You're
making a big mistake." This time, he simply replied
internally, "Thank you for sharing" and moved confidently
forward into a happy marriage.
The voice had not changed or gone away, but his relationship
to it had fundamentally altered. The trainers likened this
to trying to drive a car by holding onto the rear-view mirror
instead of the steering wheel, resulting in our continuously
crashing into things. Shifting dominion over our lives from
the predictable, machine-like chattering mind, back to an
authentic spacious self is to get our hands back on the steering
wheel. We begin to have an intimation of this self as the
context in which the content of our previous identities and
ongoing life-stories appeared. We begin to see this "I" as
an object within our consciousness, rather than as the sole
ruling subject. It is this singular shift that launches us
onto the spiritual path (as the est training actually did
for thousands of people), calling into question and illuminating
the fundamental nature of the very "I" which has
been posing as us.
Alas, ninety-nine percent of spiritual aspirants who experience
such an awakening will inevitably fall back asleep and seemingly
lose, or somehow forget, what had seemed suddenly obvious,
true, and liberating. Akin to spiritual amnesia, it is like
finally getting the cosmic punch line, but later being unable
to remember the joke. Erhard used to say it was as if a person
was already in Baltimore but didn't know it, and was trying
to get to Baltimore. Any move in any direction would only
take the person further away from Baltimore.
I felt desperate to get back to Baltimore. For the next
three decades I would try everything to get "it" back,
for having once tasted the freedom of such a realization,
even for a moment, one can never again get a truly good night's
sleep. It is as if an irresistible urge or perpetual restlessness
of the soul has been set in motion to retrieve what has been
lost, through any means possible.
Thus began the endless cycle I have been caught in since,
of retreats, workshops, meditation techniques, and other
consciousness-altering methods, including psychedelic drugs,
all manner of bodywork, New Age psychics, healers and shamans,
immersion in religious traditions, and so on. Werner once
said that people will do anything and give up anything to
get enlightened, except the one thing required, which almost
no one will give up: People will not give up that they are
This was certainly true in my case. Somehow, I found continuing
the great search far more entertaining and less demanding
than living the already-enlightened life of contribution.
For in fact, est did provide many of us a visit to the inner
temple of the true self, yet most of us later felt tossed
back out on our butts, with the unspoken admonition to clean
up our acts before we could come back.
The Path of Service
What is the best way to regain admission to that inner chamber?
Near the end of our second est weekend, our trainer quoted
a passage from the Ramayana, in which Hanuman (the embodiment
of selfless service to God) says to Ram (God): "When
I don't know who I am, I serve You; when I know who I am,
I am You." The verse is a reminder that one age-old
method of moving from there to here — from sleeping
to waking, from the ego-mind to self — is through
selfless service; a path that tends to take one's attention
off the relentless pursuits of the personal ego.
The est teachings took this idea a step further, pointing
out that the highest form of service was to serve one who
serves. While presumably this might refer to any number of
possible servers, it was obvious to us that Werner himself
was such a one, and opportunities for volunteering our time
to serve his cause were abundantly available. To nail this
point at the conclusion of the sixty-hour seminar, trainer
Randy MacNamara's last words to us were, "There are
now at least three people alive on the planet who know who
you are, you know who you are, I know who you are, and Werner
knows who you are."
Sitting in an expanded state of newly awakened consciousness,
one tends to be vulnerable to suggestion, much as ducklings
can be imprinted at a critical point in their development.
In that moment, my heightened experience of self was inextricably
linked to Werner, and I had the uncanny (perhaps naïve?)
sense that Werner himself really was the source of my spiritual
awakening, and I felt a deep kinship and gratitude toward
this man I had never met.
But this idea of Werner as a source, coupled with the notion
that one must serve one who serves, set in motion a potentially
cultish commitment among us to serve Werner, believing it
to be both our best shot at personally progressing towards
the grand spiritual prize, as well as being a truly benign
way to forward the noble cause of transforming the entire
planet, one est graduate at a time, until we had a world
that works for everyone, with nobody and nothing left out.
It was a very heady adventure.
In the arena of master-disciple relationships, and our relationship
to Werner was no exception, there is a long tradition of
the disciple's decision to give up all personal rights
and to serve the master and to do what one is told, no
matter how unreasonable. In fact, it is precisely the unreasonable
demands that most quickly elicit our protestations and
resistance, and thus present us with opportunities to "get
off it" and be released from the stranglehold of our
own addiction to being right and doing it our way.
I once assisted at an advanced est course called the Six
Day, that involved volunteering twenty hours a day for nine
consecutive days. If there was a marine boot camp of the
human potential movement, this was it. The conclusion of
the Six-Day included the dismantling of an outdoor ropes
course by the assistants, who had to haul the heavy equipment
down a fairly steep mountain trail. One roundtrip took an
hour and the task required three roundtrips apiece. Collapsing
sleep-deprived and exhausted at the foot of the mountain
following my third trip, I was informed that there was one
more load that needed to be brought down.
That was the moment I truly grasped what working for Werner
Erhard was about: just when you've reached utter and total
exhaustion and believe you've reached your absolute limit
and can do no more, you're literally asked to run up a mountain.
(Which is a good experience to have once!)
Yet from the outside, this can look like madness and manipulation.
A classic example of surrender from the Tibetan tradition
describes Marpa ordering his student Milarepa to build a
house, stone by back-breaking stone, and upon completing
it, commanding him to tear it down and rebuild it in another
location. This cycle repeats itself until Milarepa is completely
Imagine the headlines if this scenario were played out in
today's world: "Innocent Youth Enslaved to Power-Crazed
Tibetan Cult Leader!"
I joined countless others, thrilled with the benefits we
received from Werner's training, understanding the personal
advantage to be gained through engaging in the practice of
service. We joyfully volunteered millions of collective hours
of free labor in support of Werner's mission, which was to
spread the possibility of transformation far and wide, through
sharing the training with others.
Was this an elaborate, abusive scheme to feed more money
and power back to the source, or a legitimate avenue of spiritual
development? Or was it both? How was one to judge? Could
one gain the enlightening benefits of selfless service through
serving a person or system revealed in the end to be possibly
corrupt? Recalling the old teaching adage that, "it
is the purity of the disciple that determines the outcome," I
would say yes.
In the end for me, it was not about the teacher, but the
teaching, and the teaching was sound: The passionate, full
life we yearn for is not waiting for us somewhere, someday,
in the future. In the very moment we truly relinquish waiting — for
anything — we awaken to the extraordinary beauty and
mystery of this: our life as it always already is.
Seen through eyes unclouded by our insistence that "this
isn't it," we can stop arguing with reality. Through
one judo-like step to the side, we can cease being "at
the effect of" life by acknowledging we are "cause
in the matter," completely responsible for how we experience
living, based on the choices we make and our ability and
willingness to "get off it," and get on with it.
Thirty years later, this is still it.