TRIBUTE TO EST
Est made history and the following is a history of est. It is a tribute to transformation and Werner Erhard. Follow the lineage of people places and things that enlightened a generation and made an impact on the world.
est – The New Life-Changing Philosophy that Makes You the Boss
By Marcia Seligson, Published in Cosmopolitan Magazine, June 1975
About three years ago I was at a dinner party in Beverly Hills, a small covey of movie-biz folk. In the vacuum between the gazpacho and the paella, the man to my left suddenly bellowed to the room at large: “Hey, I did this incredible thing last month that’s changed my whole life. It’s called E.S.T.” All heads swiveled in his direction, everybody on the make for something to change our lives. Anything. The faster the better.
The man went on to describe the most absurd shenanigan I’d ever heard—absurd even for California, where people toss the I Ching as regularly as they do their spinach salads, where the status party game of the week is called “my-psychic-is-better-than-your-psychic,” and where to admit that you’ve never been Rolfed is not unlike confessing you’ve never been laid.
I listened incredulously as he told of 225 people, each paying $250 to be herded into a hotel ballroom for two consecutive weekends, sitting on hard-backed chairs for sixteen hours a day, not being permitted to stand up, go to the john, drink water, eat, talk to their neighbors, while a man on the stage shrieked at them, calling them foul names, and telling them their lives weren’t working. When they emerged after the four days, according to this fellow, they all knew how to make their lives work.
He spoke, with what sounded like worship, about Werner Erhard, the guru of est—est is an acronym for Erhard Seminars Training—whom he characterized as the most brilliant, charismatic, dynamic, healthy, alive, loving human being he’d ever known. And an organization staffed primarily by volunteers who surrender huge hunks of their lives to spreading the gospel, that was the most effectively and ethically run operation he’d ever seen. Now, from my point of view, there are three ways I can respond to material like that—laugh, become outraged, or write an article. I chose to laugh.
But during the next two and a half years, it became an increasingly frequent happening to be awaiting the paella and hear somebody say, “Hey, I did this incredible thing …” Many of these cheerleaders were sober citizens, not from the breed of growth groupie who ritualistically embraces every salvation schtick on the midway, but people who have paid their dues to change through the arduous route of psychotherapy.
Then, during this same time, two friends of mine went through est, and I observed in both of them obvious, immediate alterations. As opposed to the fast-lived high that overtakes one after an encounter-group weekend or a week at a salon or a Zen retreat, these changes seemed to persist and expand as time went on. Henry, when I first met him, was your mild-mannered Clark Kent: low profile, not very sexy, sweet with the sort of sweetness that puts me off, because I sense the suppressed rage it’s masking. He took the “est training,” became a committed apostle for the organic organization and today is characterologically a different man—direct, commanding, high geared. He has left a sour, twenty-three-year marriage and a flat, secure job at a television studio and is producing films independently. He attributes it all to est.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about it was that nobody could, or would, tell me what went on in the training. “You can’t describe it,” they’d say. “You have to experience it.” As if I were asking them to describe an orgasm, for god’s sake. They would only tell me that life was noticeably different after est, that they were able to leave marriages or get married, quit jobs, write books, paint paintings, do—in fact—most anything they’d always wanted. The one universal statement from everyone I met who’d been involved was that they either never got sick again or, if they did, they knew how to get rid of whatever it was instantly. Oh, and one more thing. They all loved Werner Erhard.
So about a year ago I got interested. Totally skeptical, mind you, but curious, I, who had invested enough money in therapy in my life to purchase any small Balkan country, knew how much time, not to mention pain, it takes to give up one’s imbedded life-scripts, and that any device claiming to shortcut that process is clearly snake oil. I knew that, and still sensed that some minimal amount of attention could be paid to this new lunacy sweeping through California and a few other areas. When Erhard came to Los Angeles to speak, I went.
Over 1,200 bodies packed a hotel ballroom, all there through word of mouth—est has never spent one dime on advertising their wares except to announce that an event is sold out. The atmosphere was remarkably animated: dozens of assisting est “graduates,” mostly in their twenties, superpeppy, scurrying about with blissful Miss America smiles, making you a name tag, getting you to fill out a card (which, I was to discover early the next morning when the phone rang, is the beginning of a permanent relationship with est), each helper that I passed crooning “Hi Marcia,” as if we’d been long-lost prep-school roommates. The primary emotion in the air was elated anticipation: Werner Is Coming.
I loathed the whole event, particularly being forced to wear a name tag and being pummeled by all that relentless friendliness. Mostly, I loathed Werner. As he walked down the aisle to the platform, and received the most overwhelming ovation since Cleopatra’s opening night in Rome, my skin prickled. All my buttons were being pressed furiously: Hitler and the jugend (my god, that kraut name of his), mass hypnosis, the Messiah, mystical cultism, Elmer Gantry, Charles Manson and his army of idolizing murder machines. It didn’t seem just cuckoo, it seemed damn dangerous. If I expected an evangelist, what I got was even odder: a slick, slightly oily salesman-type, too good-looking and funny, a man who reminded me of the arrogant Jewish princes I went to high school with, who then went to N.Y.U. School of Business, married girls named Bernice, and took over their fathers’ clothing businesses. This was the person who was ostensibly transforming people’s lives right and left? Whose devotees think he’s God’? I wasn’t sure I would buy a cloth coat from him.
I was now sure, however, that I wanted to write about est. I can’t recall what Werner talked about that night, except that he appeared to be doing an abominably hard sell for taking the training and executing very fancy footwork to avoid answering audience questions, such as “What is it?” “What goes on?” “Why does it cost $250?” As far as I was concerned, est was the biggest rip-off to ever zoom down the freeway. And I would expose it.
I’m sure you know by now where this plot is going. What the punch line is. So, having set up my credentials as a bona-fide cynic, I’ll simply tell you that after having taken the est training, and having spent the last months immersed personally and professionally in the subject. I think that est has been one of the truly powerful experiences of my life. And I love Werner Erhard.
He started est almost four years ago in San Francisco. The main offices are there, and trainings are conducted monthly in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. Boston. Washington, D.C.. Aspen, Denver, Honolulu and five other cities in California. To date. more than 41,000 individuals have gone through est and some 8,000 are on waiting lists. In the training that I took in L.A, there were a dozen or so who had journeyed from other parts of the country, and one man who flew in from London. Why est has not yet spread to even more cities in America when that would seem a logical and successful procedure, is that it takes Werner two years to train a trainer so that at the moment there are, besides him, only seven other trainers, a few others in evolving stages, and a woman who leads the children’s training. More than that, est is not a business in the usual sense, but rather a total, communal environment, an ever extending family of graduates, a life “game” that unfolds and expands organically, rather than by corporate design.
And one man is the undeniable source of it all—the energy, plans, special est language, content of the training. All that happens springs from Werner. The staff member who’s been with him the longest speculates: “If Werner disappeared tomorrow, we’d disappear the day after.” On the other hand, all concerned are confident that Werner will not check out tomorrow, so in charge is he of his universe.
Which brings me neatly to what est is all about. If forced to synthesize briefly the “message” of the training—aware of the essential inaccuracy of capsulizing thus—I’d say this: You are totally responsible for your life: you are the cause of all your experience. “Responsibility” in est terms, is defined as “the willingness to acknowledge that you are cause in the matter.”
Now, this is hardly an original thesis in the annals of enlightenment. Gestalt therapy. for instance, is rooted in the principle of personal responsibility. But what Erhard has done, so effectively, is to distill the best of Gestalt, Zen, general semantics, psychosynthesis, Taoism. mind dynamics. scientology, the Bible, Dale Carnegie, and several esoteric Oriental disciplines—and create an original and experiential presentation. The package, for one thing, makes Eastern philosophies palatable and relevant to Western minds. But the seminal effect lies in the fact that, according, to Werner. “est is the experience rather than the understanding of those disciplines. In the training you ‘get it’ by experiencing it.”
“Getting it” is the key expression in the est lexicon and means knowing on a gut level. When I walked out of the Biltmore Hotel in L.A. at 2 A.M. of the final Sunday night, I had “gotten,” with a depth and surety that I had never had before, the truth that I am 100 percent responsible for everything in my life. Not as a concept. belief, or understanding, but as a direct experience of the way it is. Early on, Randy McNamara, one of the two Herculean trainers who led our Sessions, said the following: “When you are responsible, you find out that you didn’t just happen to be lying there on the tracks when the 5:05 came through. You were the turkey who put yourself down in that place.” I didn’t really get it then. By the time the training was over, I got it.
The training was created out of a personal instance of getting it. “About eleven years ago.- says Erhard, “I had a spontaneous experience of the truth, of the way it is, and my life began to work totally, every situation I went into turned out perfectly. I felt I could literally affect the weather. It lasted three months and went away. Then I worked like you wouldn’t believe to get it back, because it was very clear that life wasn’t worth living unless I was living that way. So I spent a whole bunch of years fumbling around, didn’t get it, did all the things that I could do that wasn’t it, spent about 7000 hours all told in almost any discipline you could think of, including some things that I can’t even think of now. But est came about from one experience, driving in the car to work one morning four years ago, when I suddenly saw that my life wasn’t working at all, and I saw exactly why and knew that I was the total Source of it all, the creator of my experience.” So the est training is Werner Erhard’s revelations about the way life or, as he says, “the truth about stuff” (The Latin meaning of est, incidentally, is “it is.” Get it’?)
In recounting what happens in the training, I now understand the you-can’t-describe-it-you-have-to-experience-it claim, which once seemed like cultish nonsense. For one thing, much of the effectiveness is based on surprise, and I’m unwilling to damage that aspect of the training: for another, est is a completely subjective, private experience, thus I can only report my own trip and my observations to be accurate: for yet another, the material is put together on a subtly cumulative basis, so that to remove any part from the complex whole is a fundamental lie, not to mention incomprehensible; illustration: “I’ll tell you everything there is to know about life,” the trainer said on the final day. “What is is and what ain’t ain’t.” I know that doesn’t do much to you, out of context and removed from the experience. As a matter of fact, it’s the whole est story.
On a Tuesday night 225 people enter a hotel room for what is called pre-training. It’s the same choreography as my earlier est frolic: cherubic volunteers, zealous cordiality, name tags, perfect details in organization, big excitement. A young man named Tony Freedley leads the session; I realize immediately that his looks, voice, haircut, gestures, and dress are remarkably like Werner’s. The “trainees,” many of whom I will get to know better than I do most of my relatives, are such a cross section of humanity that I cannot categorize them, except that the majority appears to be under thirty-five. From the first moment, I hear the theme of personal responsibility: There is a set of ground rules, devised by Werner, we are told, because they work. If we adopt them as our own rules, rather than est’s, we’re also told, we’ll be ahead of the game.
No excuses for being late or leaving early. I’m responsible. No watches are permitted: no note taking or recording; no sitting next to a friend: breaks are infrequent and it’s either a bathroom break or a food break—there’s no eating on a bathroom break. (We all snicker: everybody’s heard about that insanity. I, for one, don’t quite believe it.) For the next ten days (the total training period), no drugs, sleeping pills, aspirin, alcohol, grass. fasting, meditation. No books, knitting, smoking in the training. Persons who have been hospitalized for emotional problems are advised not to participate; people in therapy should consult their therapists. On and on.
Some folks get very crazy from this “fascism” and stay stuck there, since it continues throughout the ten days. I make an early choice to suspend judgments, go with everything that happens, assuming it all has some bizarre function. Also, it makes me giggle.
On the following Saturday morning, the same 225 are there before 8:30 A.M. On time. Now the assisting esties are stern, silent, robotlike. The air is charged with a speck of fear. What are we in for? What if I have to pee? The training is not therapy, not about growth, they’ve stated. It’s about turning your life around. What the hell will happen?
The large room has no windows and the chairs are merciless. An assistant named Joe, who is out of central casting to play the son of Goebbels, reads the rules again, ad nauseam. People who have doctors’ permission to eat, go to the john, or take pills are put in a special row. After an hour or so (Who can tell? There’s no time in here), the trainer arrives in a dramatic entrance to out star Orson Welles. His name is Ted Long and he looks exactly like Werner—handsome, thin face, big nose, shirt with epaulets, same precise mannerisms. Spooky.
We begin. He lays out an essential est premise: Life doesn’t work—that is, we’re not getting enough satisfaction or aliveness—because we live mechanically by belief systems instead of experience. We construct our ideas of reality to corroborate our beliefs, rather than reflecting what’s really so. He says: “Put a rat in front of a series of tunnels, and always place cheese in the fourth tunnel. After a while of running around all of them, he becomes ‘smart’—goes down the fourth tunnel, right to the cheese each time. Move the cheese to another tunnel and the rat still runs down the fourth tunnel, looking. No cheese. Comes out. Runs down the fourth tunnel again. No cheese. Comes out. Down the fourth tunnel, no cheese, comes out. Eventually, the rat will stop going down the fourth tunnel and look elsewhere. The difference between rats and humans is that a human being will go down the fourth tunnel forever! See, rats don’t believe in anything, they only know from cheese. Humans believe in the fourth tunnel, so they’ll make it right to go down the fourth tunnel forever with no cheese.” In this room, Ted says, we’ll examine and destroy our life-denying beliefs, and get what really is so.
The training works in three ways: The trainer puts out information, people in the group are encouraged to stand up individually and talk about what’s going on with him or her or to ask questions, and there are “processes,” involving self-immersion into one’s own consciousness, directed by the trainer. (In other disciplines, these are labeled “guided fantasies.”)
“Reality is simple, clear, black and white,” screams Ted. “like a light bulb, It’s either on or off.” Typically, at a point such as this in the procedure, when a piece of startlingly simple material is offered, a physicist or mathematician or lightbulb expert will stand up to harangue Ted. “Aha, but there’s a microsecond after you pull the switch before the light goes on,” he’ll expound. “But it’s still off until it’s on, isn’t it?” says Ted, serenely. “Black or white. No gray.” This will persist until the guy gets it, often more than an hour.
Life works on a set of rules and you don’t have to believe them—another est motif. Just look at them. Get them. “Gravity doesn’t give a damn whether you believe in it or not,” Ted yelled at one point, an axiom that is now embedded in my head forever.
After several hours, physical symptoms overtake me. Fatigue, a sore bottom that cannot find relief anywhere on the tiny chair, hunger, a hammering headache, and—of course-the agonizing need to pee. The most pervasive torture, however, is none of those. It is the boredom—the maddening, numbing tedium from the endless feedback of the group, hour upon hour. There are individuals who, when they stand up and take the microphone, make me either sink into despair or soar into murderous rage. Feelings of contempt, the depth of which I never knew I was capable. well up in me. I think that if that attention-grabbing dancer gets up once more to do her phony number of I-hate-being-a-sex-symbol, I will be compelled to strangle her. The same for the Israeli who incessantly reveals us, with macho war sagas. People, seemingly just in order to make their presences known, ask the most imbecilic questions I could imagine. And several thousand I couldn’t possibly have imagined. My most overpowering urge that first day – a day on which we did not get to go to the john until five-thirty, did not eat until after midnight, and did not leave until 2:30 A.M.—was not to est, pee, or sleep. It was to escape.
Ted has told us that in the course of the training we will experience all our submerged feelings, that everything will come to be looked at. That night, lying in bed too exhausted to sleep and knowing I have to get up in three hours to go hack, I get it. Boredom is no accident, no tragic flaw in the trainings structure. I’m supposed to get bored and angry and contemptuous. Trapped there for those merciless hours, I can’t reach for a cigarette or the telephone when the fifty-minute hour is up; I also can’t avoid myself by being entertained by others. There is no escape in here from self-confrontation. Several weeks after the training, I understand an even deeper message about that: Being bored with people is my “act” (an est term) for evading contact with others and validating my own wonderfulness. Just as the dancer has her act of dominating the room to get validation, I have mine: to sit silently, feeling superior, judgmental, distant. A heavy bit of insight for me.
Very late Saturday night we get into the fascinating realm of physical illness. Everybody, by then, has some symptom, headaches the most prevalent. Ted demonstrates on several people how to “process out” a headache in moments by focusing intently on the exact location and sensations in what actually becomes a meditation. (I’ve subsequently used the same technique to dissolve early flu symptoms in an hour.) It becomes clear: Sickness is a decision we make, we do it to ourselves. He works with a man who is myopic, takes away his glasses, waits until he gets that given the fact that there is no physical damage to his eye machinery, nearsightedness has been a lifetime state he has created himself. Right there, the guy reports increasing vision, which increases further during the ten-day training period.
The phenomenon is exactly the opposite of faith healing, in which the ailing believe so fervently in the healer’s magic they are “cured” through surrendering their power to a savior; in est, one reclaims the power/responsibility for the illness to himself.
On Sunday morning a noticeable shift has occurred within the group. Defenses have visibly dissolved overnight —a partial result, I presume, of the marathon technique of the previous day—and people begin sharing the deepest intimacies, most primal pains, before 224 strangers. For many, who have never been in therapy, it is the first time in their lives they have unlocked the floodgates, and the revealed human dramas are profoundly moving. A tearful woman takes the microphone and admits she’s never had an orgasm; a paraplegic veteran weeps over the 150 people he killed in Vietnam, somebody cries about how she despises her husband and children; individuals recreate childhood traumas on the spot. Ted participates in each person’s outpourings, listens intently, encourages them to unleash everything—and is never sympathetic. One woman rises and faints; Ted stands over her calmly, doesn’t touch her, waits for her to choose to unfaint. Another woman stands, weeping: “I need help.” He responds: “You won’t get it from me. I’m just here to give you the space to go through what you have to go through.- When people vomit, which they do (I mean, it’s getting heavy in here), all they are given is a bag. No sympathy, no help, no criticism, just a bag. I get it. We’re all in charge.
Two weeks later. I have dinner with Ted and ask him why he didn’t pick up the woman who fainted. He explains: “She’s going to help herself, she doesn’t need me, and attempts to help just lock her into helpless-victim notions. Most people want to help her because that’s how they get off. I’m willing for her to handle her own stuff.”
For me on this long and emotion-filled day, boredom has left, and I suffer none of the physical hideousnesses of the previous day. Beyond asking a few questions. I don’t con¬tribute intimacies, as don’t a third of the group. However, as is typical in group processes, my identification with others is fierce. Listening, I recognize over and over the oceanic quantity of blaming of others that runs our lives, how automatically we view ourselves as victims and, that being so, how truly unfree, mechanical we are. And I see people taking the first steps to clean it up, take out the lies, take responsibility, start to perceive ourselves as being cause in¬stead of effect. When Ted says, “I know what love is to you jerks. I don’t call you on your bull— , and you don’t call me on mine,” my hands start to sweat and pictures of two important relationships zoom through my brain. Four members of the group have announced previously that they’re in the training because their mates took it, came home, and split, and they never comprehended why. Now, several state that they’re beginning to get it. The est system makes it very difficult to continue living with lies. Not because of ethics—Erhard is unconcerned with a belief system called right and wrong—but because lies don’t work. Period.
That night, we do the “danger process.” a formidable activity. Twenty-five individuals at a time stand in a line on the stage, looking at the audience for fifteen minutes. We are to be silent, no movement, no personality operating. As I await my turn, I become increasingly panicked. Standing before large groups has been the single most unresolved fear of my life, a fear that has really limited my choices. And here, in this setup, one is utterly naked, vulnerable. To me, it is nightmare material.
And evidently to others. A few people cry, some shake. Ted stands before a woman with a plastic Barbie-doll smile cemented across her face. He bellows: “Get off it, turn off that bull— smile, be who you really are.” He won’t let up and she simply cannot turn it off. His tactic seems brutal, Yet it is obvious how automatic and dead is her game. Ultimately, she gets through it, stops smiling, is able to just be without her personality act, and her realness emerges. The contrast is remarkable.
There’s a man in the group named Dick, who’s an attractive, cool, hip Hollywood dude. Pink-tinted shades, a beard, and tie-dyed denim suit. He saunters up on stage, very together. But then he stares, comatose, into space, cannot look at us nor make eve contact. Ted marches over, snapping his fingers; an assistant perches two inches from Dick’s face, in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Suddenly the face begins to twitch uncontrollably, and Dick sways and lurches backward. My god, I think, the walled-up terror that hip act is concealing. The masks and cons we invent so nobody can see that person we fear we really are. And it’s all such a frail, easily pierced armor when you come down to it, given the right implements. It is a fundamental therapeutic principle that that which remains hidden governs us, freedom begins with disclosure. Werner’s most awesome talent, I think, lies in having uncovered an intricately subtle series of implements for probing beneath that armor, to permit its shedding, to allow us to become more alive. One thing is very clear to me this night and, I surmise, to every¬one else. The space in this room is safe to deal with it all.
Dick begins to faint and Ted will not interfere. Instead, he stands before him and says to us: “You see how far he’ll go so he doesn’t have to be with you? He’ll kill himself rather than look at you!” He’s right on, of course, and by not getting sucked into what is evidently Dick’s life game, he renders him the highest service. Dick chooses not to faint. (I saw him recently at an est event and was struck by how altered he was. About 50 percent of his hip act was gone.)
When it is my turn. I am terrified, expect that I will probably be sick. In fact, after a few moments of wrenching anxiety, I feel truly fine, aware of my okayness and able to connect with several faces in the audience. I can’t quite believe it, but it’s undeniable. (One month later, I accept the first speaking engagement of my life, before 1,200 women, and experience the same confidence.)
I leave that night, quite high, and during the week clean up three murky relationships—with an old lover, tennis teacher, and a close friend who has owed me money forever. I work like a demon, require little sleep, have joyous love¬making, lose three pounds, and wonder how long this will last. I also drink some wine, take an antihistamine, and am surprisingly disgusted with myself for breaking an agreement.
The more I think about the physical ordeal, the more I get it. I run my body, it doesn’t run me. I’m in charge here (This will come in handy in the following weeks as I trot around the state with Werner and Company, since they rarely eat and seem never to sleep.) Personal responsibility is a potent force indeed, the sensation that one is the cause of one’s life. For me, it is the focal wisdom of the training and becomes even more solidified as the weeks and months go by. To the extent that I embrace and own the principle, my life seems to be, in truth, clear and simple and in my grasp, to the degree that I still hang on to my victim beliefs, things don’t work too well .
The second weekend opens at an excited pitch. We have a new trainer, and my disappointment at Ted’s disappearance soon evaporates. Randy McNamara seems the most unfalteringly vigorous man I’ve ever seen, with uncanny perceptiveness and encyclopedic knowledge of physics and philosophy. Much to my relief, he doesn’t “do” Werner.
A few early hours are passed in revival-meeting testimony. One obese woman, who had previously had her teeth wired together so as not to eat, reports that during this week she’d clipped the wires, certain she’d never have to diet again. Indeed, that chilling miracle/magic aspect exists for some. Some others testify they’re depressed, aren’t get¬ting it. But the overall statements are favorable: confrontations all over the place with wives, bosses, lovers; keeping agreements and telling the truth; explosion of insights. The most general claim was from dozens of folks who announced a dramatic increase in energy, a feeling of being significantly more alive.
A leitmotif of the training is the refutation of a key belief by which most people function—trying. According to Werner, it doesn’t work. When a guy rises, dejectedly saying he’s been trying all week to fix his marriage, Randy summons him to the stage for a demonstration. Placing a book on the floor, he says, “O.K., try to pick it up.” The man lifts it. Randy puts it back, saying, “Now, try to pick it up.” Same action repeated four times. Finally, the man gets it. He is either picking the book tip or he’s not; “trying” is a belief, a concept that does not exist in experience and is employed only for self-defeat.
This day is the most interesting to me, revolving around discussions of the nature of reality. The final point, arrived at after six hours of dissertation and questions, is that there is no objective reality, only reality by agreement, which is illusion, and that the sole reality is the experience that I create. I have my turn at being cheerfully called a turkey as I insist to Randy that cancer does not exist under those terms; he spends probably an hour working with me until the complexity becomes utterly clear to me. Now, this notion of what’s reality is not new, just as so much of the est material is not new: Read Ram Dass, you get read Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Castaneda, Fritz Peels, Alan Watts, R. D. Laing, How to Stop worrying and Start Living. It’s all est. But I seem to be encountering the material on a different plane than ever before, a level that serves continually to reinforce the I-am-the-cause-of-my-experience theme.
That’s all I’m going to reveal of the training. Eighty percent of what happens happens on the last day, and the power of it is totally dependent on surprise. Instead, I’ll tell you about a friend of mine who went through est in Aspen last year and leaped up, at the end of the third day, snarling: “This is the biggest rip-off I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m getting out of here.” The trainer asked him to just hang out in the room for the last day. He did. He now works for est.
Many in the group have traveled through remarkable interior spaces during these ten days, opened new doors of awareness, chipped away at lifelong barricades, communicated, and thus begun to dissolve “stuff” that was running them by its very secrecy. In them, the changes are evident, even to a stranger. My own immediate response, when it’s all finished. is one of calm. I don’t possess, at this point in my life, a Pandora’s box of suppressed junk, and I’ve already put in plenty of couch time shrieking MOMMY I HATE-YOU. Cathartic zaps are not just lying in wait to be uncorked in my psyche. What I do feel, on that Sunday night, is electrified with new perceptions, keen clarity about some once cloudy situations and relationships, and—most prevalently—a sense of being the cause of my life.
The very next day, back in my reporter role, I fly up to San Francisco to meet Werner Erhard. Like my est fellow travelers, I’ve moved from the position of believing he’s a charlatan to believing he’s set himself up to be a Godhead. I didn’t know then that I was following the usual route, and that the next step is to thinking he’s really God, then Robert Redford, then Daddy. Several weeks later I realized he was no longer any of those things to me and I was free to really dig him. Because, in fact, he is the most intriguing human being I’ve ever known, and when somebody in est said to me, “You’ll talk about him forever,” she was probably right.
Jack Rafferty is one of a dozen or so individuals whose functions at est are to assist Werner in the running of his frenetic daily life. Chauffeuring, setting up appointments, traveling with him—activities that would he easy to classify, in any other sphere, as menial. Jack, a former night-club owner, tells a tale that one hears over and over in some variation. He met Werner four years ago in a restaurant and knew—in some unspecific way—that this was a very special man, “somebody from another planet,” a man in whose presence he wanted to he. He went to work for him. Locke McCorkle, once a successful building contractor, abandoned it to be the chief house manager of Franklin House, a spectacular mansion that serves as the executive offices of est. His main life goal, he says, “is to create more space for Werner.” Ted Long relinquished a hugely lucrative law and political career to become a trainer for about 10 percent of the income and a fraction of the glory. Earlier in his career, singer John Denver wanted to give up everything to be a trainer, but Werner wouldn’t allow the sacrifice.
“He has the most phenomenal ability to inspire people,” says Randy McNamara. “The contribution that man’s genius will leave on this planet is comparable to that of Galileo or Newton or Freud,” says Ted Long. What these devotees feel for Werner—and you’ll just have to believe me on this—is not idolization or awe. Since there is plenty of that among recent graduates, who lurk about just to get a glimpse of him, and since I felt some of that myself at first, I quickly learned to discern the difference. What the staff feel for Werner, and he for them, is love. Love, not in the Western sense of romantic, fantastical, sexual, worshipful attachment, but in the Eastern sense. The est definition of love is “to be able to accept people the way they are and the way they’re not, which means they have the space to move from where they’re at and they don’t have to.”
He is thirty-nine and looks twenty-five, with an angular, sharp-featured face and a strong, husky body. My first sense of his physicalness is his eyes, green, exceptionally clear and riveting. When they connect with you, it is almost impossible to look away. His energy immediately overwhelms you, while, strangely, his sexuality is almost entirely laid back, contained—purposely, one senses. He hugs me and kisses me on the mouth when we meet in his office, a rather disconcerting introductory gesture. I soon observe that everybody at est kisses and hugs everybody. It’s the club handshake.
We’re served an elegant, non cholesterol dinner in his office (the townhouse is a collector’s dream of shells, folk art, and plants), and he gives me a brief bio, none of which, interestingly, bears much logical connection to his current station. He grew up in Lower Marion, Pennsylvania, as Jack Rosenberg, son of a Jewish father in the hotel and restaurant business, and an Episcopalian mother. He had an ordinary growing up, and was not remarkably studious, athletic, or popular, got married right out of high school, and had four kids. In his early twenties he fled the East, changed his name en route (after reading an Esquire magazine piece on the plane about Germany, in which was mentioned Wernher vein Braun and Ludwig Erhard), settled in San Francisco. He married his current wife, Ellen, with whom he has three children, and became vice president of Parents’ Magazine Cultural Institute. (When he “got it,” he went back to clean up his past life. Now, everybody in his family has been involved with est.)
“He was always a legend, no matter what he was doing,” recalls Gonneke Spits, the employee who’s been with him the Ion est—eight years. “He was quite driven and not satisfied then, but he represented for me the certainty that it was possible, that if anybody could get it, he could. That’s why I hung around.” His talents were in executive-personnel development, and he spent over 36,000 hours motivating others. I met a young woman who sold the Book of Knowledge door-to-door when he was a division manager of Grolier. “It was the creepiest job you can imagine,” she says. “The only reason I stayed past one day was because Werner had this thing about him and you just dug being near him.” Admittedly, it sounds Svengali-ish but I knew that evening, eating raspberries across the table from him, what she meant. I now understand the nature of his power much better, but I felt it even then.
We talk that night about what est is and isn’t. His verbal style is a funny amalgam of cosmic consciousness and Philadelphia sidewalk. “What’s the matter with belief systems?” I ask, aware that they are the est villains, the killers of aliveness. He answers: “Belief is a disease; a belief system is myth, created by knowledge or data without experience. If you experience something, it is real for you, and if you communicate it to somebody, it’s real for them. If they now tell it to somebody else, it’s a lie, belief without the component of experience. Now belief is very powerful; you can cure with it or kill with it. I earned my living for years training people to believe in themselves. The problem is that beliefs are a state of hypnosis, automatic, and totally non-nurturing. Like, the degree which I have have beliefs about women, I can’t see you; not only that, but I can prove to you, from my beliefs, that what I see is true.”
M.S.: DO you believe in anything?
W.E:I intend not to, and I figure things out very little. I observe and experience a lot. The biggest freedom for me was getting beyond belief. By the way, it’s a failure of est that there are people out there believing in us, in me.
M.S.: Don’t people go through the training with the expectation of instant salvation, of -getting better?
W.E.: Everybody goes everyplace to get better. We’ve been conditioned to look for answers outside of ourselves. But that’s not what people get from us. What they get is an experience of enlightenment, which is different from the be¬lief system called salvation. If I get the idea that God is going to save me, therefore I’m all right, that’s salvation. if I get the idea that nothing’s going to save me, therefore I’m all right, that’s enlightenment. Enlightenment happens in a second. out of time, instantaneously. There’s no way to become enlightened except as spontaneous experience, which is why the training can he done in four days. As a matter of fact, it could be done totally on the last day since all the first three do is open people’s consciousness up so they can get it.
M.S.: Are you on an ego trip?
W.E.: My biggest concern in the beginning was that I might be on an ego trip and I worked on that for a long time. Then I discovered that I am. As long as you’re playing in the game, you’ve got an ego, and the notion that you don’t is the biggest ego trip of all. The real secret is whether your ego runs your life or you do. And the only way you can transcend your ego is to accept responsibility for it.
At this point, a few words about Werner Erhard. I’ve thought a lot about why he affects people as profoundly as he does—myself included. Charisma—you should excuse the expression—is problematic to analyze and almost impossible, I discover, to communicate. Much about the Pied Piper phenomenon is indeed mystical, and some powerful things—a migraine. an LSD trip. Beethoven’s Ninth—simply have to be experienced. So it is, essentially, true of Werner.
I, like others, view him as unlike anybody else who in¬habits my planet. On the very simplest level, he is a supremely gifted teacher, showman. communicator. Beyond that, he is intriguingly dualistic: For much of what you can say about him, the precise opposite is also accurate. He is, for example, completely open and utterly impenetrable, driven and serene, keenly sexy and totally neuter, a little boy and wise old man, salesman and mystic, sharpie and saint, piercingly bright and unable to spell, exquisitely sensitive to others and not vulnerable himself. More: he moves through spaces like a Thor missile—focuses on you intently, as if nothing else exists, but when he’s finished doing it, he’s finished and it’s as if you’re invisible. I have experienced a modicum of his anger and become terrified, but by the time the terror has traveled my whole nervous system, he’s through with the rage. I mean, it’s gone.
He is the only nonjudgmental human I’ve ever conic across. As far as I have observed and felt, he sees and accepts people completely as they are, the effect of that acceptance being that a safe space is created for me to be exactly who I am without fear or pretense. That’s a simple-sounding but, in fact, is profound, and carries with it titanic, irresistible power. I’ve noticed in myself, from these months of being in the Erhard orbit, a constant series of “aha” awarenesses, mushrooming “getting its.” Much of that is as ephemeral as a contact high from his overflowing storehouse of energy. But not all.
It is precisely 9pm when the sergeants arrive to hustle me out and the next appointment in. Werner, like everybody for whom est is the life mission, works eighteen hours a day, seven days a week (“As much as possible,” says Rafferty), for little money—Werner takes $30,000 a year in salary and travels incessantly. For the monthly trainings are only the beginning of est activities. Every few months Werner speaks before a large throng in each of the cities in which est operates. These events are always sold out weeks in advance, with no advertising. Eighty percent of the graduates continue on in a series of seminar programs. Then, est runs special trainings for children, teen-agers, and educators. communication workshops, recently two three-weekend trainings for inmates at Lompoc Prison in California, and a feminist seminar for 1,200 est graduate women in San Francisco.
The public assumption is, of course, that est is raking in the money in its mass-enlightenment circus. As it happens, that’s false. The only activities that bring in profits are the monthly trainings—$250. 225 people, thirteen cities. Everything else operates at break-even, and the corporation is organized so that any excess cash is used to expand services. For instance. I asked Don Cox, the president of est (former V.P. of Coca-Cola), what the financial situation on the Lompoc Prison training was, and he explained: “There’s no way to estimate what it cost est. We were paid nothing: the direct expenses were approximately $3,000 to $5,000, between $15,000 and $20,000 in terms of staff time, and something considerably more in terms of income that might have been earned had that type of training been offered in the normal, profit-making way.”
Projects such as a workshop at a school in Watts, a training in Harlem, the graduate seminars ($32 a head for a ten-session course), and a four-day training review for graduates ($35 a person) all function at a financial loss. The Foundation, nonprofit, was recently set up to sponsor research activities into human consciousness and is currently supporting a lengthy psychiatric study of the training’s outcome by Dr. Robert Ornstein of Langley-Porter Institute in San Francisco. The est advisory board, consisting primarily of prominent physicians, educators, and psychologists, counsels est’s programs and expansion.
Nobody at est is hanging around to make money. That’s not the game. The salary range for staff is from $7,200 to $30,000 a year, and, anyway, only 160 people actually get paid, whereas the voluminous work is accomplished by over 1,000 volunteers. Everything from the massive mailings to graduates, to phone solicitations, to assisting at events, to washing office windows. A young est assistant drove me to the airport once and recounted a typical story: He works in Sacramento as a systems analyst. Three nights a week he drives the hour and a half back to San Francisco to work at the est office, doing whatever there is to do, and spends all his weekends there. Why? “I can’t think of anything that’s more fun,” he beams, “more nourishing.” I know what you’re thinking—aha, a haven for losers, lonely folk banding together, not facing the real world. As it happens, it’s far more interesting than that. The scene at the est office resembles a fictional convention of the most-likely-to-succeed award winners of America. Club members who are fresh-faced, together, ebullient, nonsmoking winners.
There are no corporate politics here, no manipulating for power, wheeling and dealing, climbing over bodies or into bed in order to rise on the ladder. No stealing of pencils or calling in sick. Even Werner, who produced it, doesn’t fully understand it. “I’ve never seen an organization that functioned with such integrity,” he says, “that totally supported whatever it was supporting. The staff looks upon the world as a place to play the game ‘clean up the mess.’ ”
It is, in fact, a totally contagious atmosphere. And very funny. A bouncy voice answers the office phone with “est – this is so-and-so. How may I assist you?” If somebody tells me he will phone me at three o’clock with say, some information I need, I know he will phone. If he calls instead at three twenty, we will have an estian conversation “acknowledging” that “he broke an agreement,” “getting clear about it,” “cleaning it up.” and “taking responsibility” for it. On the other hand, est teammates rarely screw up.
As the est way of life requires an all-consuming dedication, getting on the staff is no picnic but an ordeal of service and sacrifice not unlike the path toward priesthood or becoming a Zen master. I ask Werner how he trains trainers, the most crucial of his satellites. “Everybody comes out of the training wanting to be a trainer,” he explains. “What I do is to set up an obstacle course and whoever gets through it is a trainer. The course is made up of anything they’re unwilling to give up, anything they’re attached to, anything they need in order to survive. It’s a huge sacrifice. What they have to give up is their ego.” Only seven have made it so far. Of those, Randy McNamara was a public-relations executive with his own firm, Phyllis Allen an entertainer, and Landon Carter a teacher in India. None of the trainers was a therapy/growth/discipline freak before taking the training; now est is their lives.
Randy used to travel with Werner and fix his tea during trainings. “After a while,” he recalls, “I could see that carrying tea was the same as doing the training. It’s a job to be done, it’s service. When I became clear that I could carry tea forever and dig it, I became a trainer” (reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s aphorism “If you can make a perfect cup of tea, you can do anything”).
Nobody at est cares what job they’re doing, and, in fact, Werner purposely doesn’t permit attachment to any one task, shifts everybody around constantly The motor is propelled by the spirit of service: The stall serves Werner while Werner serves the universe.
Two psychologists with whom I spoke, however, criticized the organization for such self-effacement. Will Schutz, author of Joy and a heavyweight in the encounter world, says: “I don’t like the fact that everybody is a little Werner, with the same ‘dry look’ and the collar outside the jacket. The best gurus have no followers.” Bill Zielonka, a Los Angeles therapist, says: “I don’t like the in-group thing of est. The structure gives a powerful message—’Stay with us and we’ll give you freedom. But not from us.’ Their language is indicative of identifying with the group rather than a positive way of communicating. My main concern is that Werner’s producing an army of people marching in goose-step, shouting how free they are.”
Werner himself appears concerned as est mushrooms daily. “If we become a movement,” he says, “we’re finished.” So he holds back on Colonel Sanders-type expansion and has ruled that volunteers assist only for a specified time period and then leave est.
Clearly, the relevant issue about est is, does it work? Does it affect people’s lives in a way that is long-lasting and meaningful? In the last two months, I’ve questioned over thirty est graduates, specifically those who did it over a year ago.
And I cannot find anybody who hasn’t found it valuable. And, in truth, by my informal survey, about 85 percent claim graphic, dramatic alterations in their existences. Here’s a sampling: “I’d been on five Valiums a day for a bad back. In the training I got to look at why I’d chosen to give myself that condition, in a concentrated way that I’d never done before, even in five years of analysis. Now I never take the pills and my back seldom pains me.” That from an executive at Columbia Pictures.
A guidance counselor in New York says: “I got to see all the lies I lived by, like my nonsense about how I love people. The truth was that I was scared to death and didn’t trust anybody. That’s changed a lot now.”
“The first thing was that I got cleaned up about keeping basic agreements, like being on time and telling the truth. When you become a person people can depend on, that’s huge. And it’s really the simplest level of the training.” This woman, who subsequently completed her Ph.D. in child development, has established with her husband a bimonthly family council in which they and the four kids (they’ve all taken est) air everything that’s on their minds about each other.
Rene DeKnight, the musical director of the Fifth Dimension (four of whom are estniks), recently abandoned it all to go to work for est. “It’s the only game I see that’s worthwhile,” he says. “Show business doesn’t make people happy, it just gives them some escape.” A personal manager to actors in Los Angeles writes into his contracts that clients must take est if things aren’t working for them. “I’m not interested in handling anybody who doesn’t have his thing together, who won’t take responsibility for his life,” he states.
The testimonials go on and on, and if they sound like miracle working, well—that’s practically all that I’ve heard. The specifics of personal transformation are but variations on the identical theme—we thought of ourselves as powerless, now we take the responsibility for our lives. And, in fact, my own subjective experience is that life looks quite different when viewed from that position.
A study was done by Behaviordyne, Inc., a psychological-testing corporation, on personality changes in people three months after taking the est training. Results indicated that measurable changes occurred, specifically in improved self-image, coping capabilities, and willingness to take responsibility. Women showed a greater range of change than men, the apparent explanation being that, above all else, est allows one to connect with his/her power, the area in which women have been retarded.
The differences I can measure in myself are mostly attitudinal. Nothing overwhelms me as before; nothing seems tragic or permanent; my energy—always high—seems limit¬less these days. I am more direct with people, and have a stronger sense of living in the moment. Two more: (1) I have had a lifelong phobia of flying in small planes, sometimes so bad that I’ve fainted midair. In the course of this adventure, I’ve had to fly several times in little aircraft piloted by either Werner or Randy. They’ve both worked with me, via est processes, on my dread, and, as of one month ago, it appears to be gone. (2) I went to Squaw Valley in the Sierras for three days to observe Werner leading part of a ten-day est training for sixty-five teenagers. While I was perched in the back of the room, awed by the visible changes in these kids over the few days and moved by Werner’s abilities to affect them, I had a dizzying thought: I would give up writing and go to work for est. I have never considered that with any of life’s options before. The thought hung on for a week or so, then faded. For the moment, at any rate.
Clearly, est is not a panacea, a penicillin, nor a replacement for any of the other functioning implements in the salvation tool chest. “Consciousness is all there is, there isn’t anything else,” Werner said dramatically one afternoon in Squaw Valley, and I was struck by the cosmic hilarity of how, hot on the heels of the technological perfection of the American Dream, consciousness is the real idea, whose time has come—perhaps the only trip that will ultimately work. est isn’t The Answer—even Werner would agree to that—but, for sure, it’s one of the better games in town.