40th Anniversary of the "est" Training

A gathering of the original Human Potential Movement graduates.

Posted Oct 25, 2011

There are many people in the world, and you may be one of them, who have nothing good to say about est (Erhard Seminar Training), or its controversial founder, Werner Erhard. (est was one of the very first intensive consciousness seminars of the Human Potential Movement in the early 70s, the prototype for hundreds of spin-offs and workshops that continue to be offered today.) Over the years there have been negative stories, rumors, accusations of cultish behavior, disaffected employees and so on. The usual stuff we have come to expect.

But there are also far more people in the world, by a long shot, who are among the million or so participants that attended Erhard's training who were thrilled by the results they received. People had enormous and powerful changes occur for them in a very short time—it was a two-weekend course—and no naysayer could talk them out of the very real value they experienced in their lives as a result of participating in est, whether it was dramatic transformations in their relationships with their families, with their work and personal vision, or most important, with the recognition of who they truly were in the core of their beings.

This latter group is coming together on December 17th, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, 40 years after est's inception (see Transformation Reunion here) to acknowledge and celebrate what they experienced over the course of two weekends four decades ago, and to share what has happened since and how they have used what they experienced in the est training to "make a difference" in the world, which was always the point. "If you're not sharing it, you never got it," Werner used to say, and it was his stated intention—perhaps grandiose, but a worthy goal nonetheless—to "make the world work for everyone, with nobody left out."

Werner Erhard

If you think about it, how many specific weekends can you vividly remember from 40 years ago? Clearly, something occurred in that room that was not only indelibly memorable, but utterly transforming, such that many graduates of the training would forever after demarcate their lives as "before and after" est. What occurred can perhaps best be described as a fundamental shift in one's essential identity and point of reference, the place within consciousness where one stands in relationship to all of experience itself.

Prior to the est training, and prior to spiritual awakenings that arise in many other modalities, the seeker generally assumes that who they are is the voice in their head that continuously narrates the story of their lives, the voice that speaks within, calling itself "I." This seems perfectly obvious; who else could I be, if not the "I" that thinks and speaks, makes plans and decisions, expresses preferences and dislikes, and carves out one's life path based on all of the available data and experience from the past? To challenge such a deeply-held assumption can be enormously difficult, unsettling and confusing, and can often elicit anger and defensiveness, which is why former est trainer Stewart Emery once paraphrased Jesus, "The truth may set you free, but it will piss you off first."

The awakening to one's true identity beyond the conventional mind is the first step of the spiritual path in nearly every religious and mystical tradition. Meditators spend days, months and years sitting on a cushion, attempting to see into this state of affairs and to unseat what for many of us has become an inner tyrant, our ego running our lives and dragging us along for the ride. Some teachers have commented, "If you had a friend that constantly harangued you and talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you wouldn't keep that person in your life."

What was unique about Werner's approach is that he managed to effectively communicate and reveal this distinction in a compressed time period. Often people attacked him for this, saying, "Monks sit in Zen monasteries for 40 years and often still fail to achieve this insight, and here you are claiming to package enlightenment in a two-weekend, fast-food course for the masses. You are nothing but a conman playing on people's gullibility and spiritual hunger." Werner's response was to point out that in fact, people spend 40 years in Zen monasteries not getting enlightened. The actual moment of awakening occurs in an instant, in the "now," outside of the conventional time stream, and therefore can just as easily happen in this present "now" as it can after 40 years.

 (The spiritual counterculture shared this view, as evidenced by the immense popularity of books like Ram Dass's Be Here Now and later, Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, among countless others with similar themes.)

I would conjecture that a majority of the million or so est graduates would confirm that they indeed had a direct—if fleeting—experience in the training of their true identity. In what amounted to a rigorous four-day course in philosophy and epistemology, it somehow became clear to many of us that there is another force present in our own human consciousness, characterized by a sense of spacious awareness, above, beyond, and prior to the ego's "I," a space within which our conventional, daily "I" carries on, telling its endless story.  est called this other domain of experience "the Self," distinguishing it from "the mind,' the latter suddenly seen from a new vantage point, and observed as little more than a conditioned, near machine-like set of responses to stimuli, harboring the illusion of choice and free will, but actually operating on automatic pilot. Yet the power of this illusion is vast; our minds interpret events, draw conclusions about life and reality that we accept as true, and we then behave accordingly, looking for and finding evidence to validate our positions, no matter how unworkable or non-productive those views might be.

This fundamental distinction is the very root of the spiritual process, whether discovered through est, on a meditation retreat, in a religious setting, on an LSD trip, or randomly, through sheer Grace. But once seen, the practitioner's spiritual work is to regularly practice relaxing into the non-judgmental witness position of this Self, while the false "I" of the mind continues on its merry way, believing itself to be real and autonomous, separate and independent, tiny and alone in a vast universe. The Self, by way of contrast, is experienced to be identical with that vastness itself, indistinguishable from the underlying unified field of all conscious experience.

Once this distinction is seen, even if for a moment, it changes everything, and one can never fully go back, never fully believe one's own mind and its distorted version of reality. The problem that arises, however, is that the ego would much rather be "right" about its belief system and world view, even if it causes suffering to self and others, rather than be "wrong," and discover the more peaceful life that comes from recognizing and aligning with how things actually are.

"What is, is, and what isn't, isn't" was one of the Zen-like aphorisms of the est training. To cultivate the ability to simply "be with" what is and what isn't, and to grant people the room to be exactly the way they are and exactly the way they aren't, provides a great freedom. It releases us from the impossible struggle to change everything and everyone in order to conform to our preference for how all of life should be, were we in charge.

Hence, the famous dictum of the Third Chinese Patriarch, often quoted at meditation retreats: "The Great Way is not difficult for he [or she] who has no preferences." Imagine, if you will, the immense frustration you would undergo daily if you were absolutely committed to your preference that the sky be green instead of blue; that your mother be some other way rather than the way she actually is; that you yourself were some idealized version of you rather than who and how you really are. Imagine being upset that a river won't run upstream. As Werner put it, it's a whole lot easier to "ride the horse in the direction it's going."


The event in Los Angeles will be presided over by three former est trainers—Landon Carter, Stewart Emery and Ted Long—all of whom, interestingly, broke their original working contracts with Werner at some point fairly early on in the game, and left the est organization to do their own thing. So the reunion in Los Angeles is independent, generated not by an organization, or a person—Werner Erhard himself will not be part of it—but simply by the grass roots energy of real people with a shared gratitude and enthusiasm for an experience that changed their lives. Their friends and guests are also welcome—those who never experienced est—as well as graduates of Actualizations, Lifespring, and all the other similar workshops of that time, along with participants from the Landmark Forum, the program that essentially took over est in the late 80s.

Although the form of the work in the Landmark Forum has changed considerably from est over time, the underlying spirit of it remains consistent with Werner's original vision.  But the Landmark Forum's umbrella organization, Landmark Education—as controversial and either revered or despised just as much as est ever was—is likewise not affiliated with this event. This will be a party for the people by the people, a gathering for participants of the multiple courses that were popular in the Human Potential Movement, and their friends. The intention is to join in solidarity in order to rekindle the spirit of service to others and to the planet that fanned the flame of so many of us during those years, and is so desperately needed again now. 


Personally, as The 99th Monkey, the ultimate champion of resistance, I am not planning to attend the gathering, mostly because I am certain that everyone in the room will 1) be happier than me, and 2) will have made a much bigger and more important difference in the world than I have. Of course, that point of view is the very voice of the false "I" that the training itself exposed and undermined. Clearly, though, it can still raise its ugly head and convince me of some very unpleasant versions of reality and my life. To the extent that I believe and act according to those inner reports, my work is far from over.

Thank God for friends, though. My dear old friend and fellow est graduate Eddie Greenberg reminded me recently that, when all was said and done, the value of the est training and the various other workshops was NOT in fact measured by anything you did, but by who you are. And he insists that who I am has made a difference in the world, at least to him. So instead of showing up at the Biltmore in L.A. on December 17th, I'm going over to hang out at Eddie's house.

Eddie Greenberg

About the Author

Eliezer Sobel is an author, musician, and retreat leader.

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