By Eliezer Sobel
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2006 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Sobel, Eliezer. "This is Still It: EST, Thirty Years Later." Quest 94.3 (MAY-JUNE 2006):103-107.
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 naeve seekers looking for a quick fix.
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 is "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 aspire.
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 do," he 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 not enlightened!
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 naÃ¯ve?) 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 spent.
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.
Eliezer Sobel is the author of the recent novel, Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the novel, as well as Wild Heart Dancing. See www.eliezersobel.com .