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Enlightenment in Two Weekends - The est Training

by Stephen Pressman

from the book Outrageous Betrayal published by St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 1993 Stephen Pressman

"In this training, you're going to find out you've been acting like assholes."
-est Trainer Stewart Emery


Two hundred fifty people sat in straight-backed chairs in the flock wallpapered ballroom at San Francisco's Jack Tar Hotel, waiting for the est training to begin. A few minutes earlier, on the mezzanine level of the hotel, a small army of cheerfully smiling est volunteers saw to it that everyone entering the ballroom had paid their $250 enrollment fee and had affixed a name tag with their first name spelled out in bold black print. Inside the ballroom, the seats were set up in three neatly arranged sections, each row of chairs facing toward the dais in ruler-straight lines. Another group of est volunteers patrolled the perimeter of the room, making sure everyone was silent and in his or her seat. A moment later a dour-faced man of medium build and short brown hair, wearing a sweater over an open-collar shirt and a name tag that said "Ron," walked to the front of the room and stepped onto the stage. Around the room, dozens of people exchanged nervous smiles and some throat-clearing coughs as they turned their attention to the man who seemed almost to be scowling at them. The est training was about to begin.

For the next two hours, Ron, using his best drill-sergeant voice, worked his way through a thirty-page recitation of the rules everyone had to agree to follow during the training. No one could move from his or her seat unless told to do so. There was to be no smoking, eating, or drinking at any time in the room. There would be one meal break during the course of the day, and the session, which began promptly at nine in the morning, might end anywhere between midnight and four o'clock the next morning. No one could leave to go to the bathroom except during short breaks announced by the trainer. Notetaking was strictly prohibited, and anyone wearing a watch had to remove it immediately and hand it over to one of the volunteer assistants stationed around the room. There was to be no talking except when the est trainer called on someone to talk, after which the person would wait until one of the assistants came over with a microphone. Ron spent several minutes showing everyone, in precise detail, how to hold the microphone, how to speak into it, and how to wait until one of the assistants retrieved it before sitting down again.

Someone in the room raised a hand and asked, after he was recognized by Ron and handed one of the microphones, what was the reason for all the rigid rules.

Training assistants were always prepared with a standard response to such questions. Anything used in the training was put there "because Werner found out that's what works," Ron and other assistants would say.

Most of Werner Erhard's customers had sat on the sidelines during the heady, mind-expanding years of the 1960s. They had not, for the most part, considered themselves part of the nation's counterculture during those tumultuous years, but rather had spent the time finishing school and beginning careers and raising families—and mainly becoming "responsible" adults. Attracting an overwhelmingly white and middle-class audience (made up of slightly more women than men), est provided hundreds of thousands of its participants with their first real adventurous taste of the exotic-sounding human potential movement. Of course, there were others who had come to est after dabbling in a variety of self-awareness programs, from Esalen and gestalt therapy to transcendental meditation and incense-tinged chanting. But they were the exceptions; the training sessions filled up mostly with newcomers to this business of transformation.

Some came to the hotel ballrooms because they wanted to find meaning in their lives. Most came because they were simply curious—because they had wives or husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends, bosses or employees, neighbors or relatives, who had already taken the training and couldn't stop gushing about this fantastic thing they had just experienced. They came because everywhere they turned, it seemed, all they kept hearing about was a handsome, smooth-talking, charismatic guy named Werner Erhard who had figured it all out and was willing to share his secrets. All it took was a credit card and the willingness to sit in a hotel ballroom chair for hours on end over the course of two weekends.

At the end of it, Werner Erhard held out the tantalizing promise of transformation, a word and a concept never precisely defined in the fuzzy syntax-twisted jargon of est. As a master salesman, he knew he didn't have to bother with simple explanations because his customers never demanded it. "I don't understand anything that's happened and I can't remember concepts at the [est] seminars or training," one est graduate remarked in the late 1970s. "But I'm able to do and handle and create so much now." Erhard never peddled logic and understanding, both of which were anathema to the est training itself. In concocting est out of a myriad of self-help, self-awareness, motivational, and psychological theories he had mastered over the years, he was interested only in convincing people they could "experience" transformation just by suspending logic and understanding, which he scornfully derided as the "booby prize" in life. Time and again he and other est trainers insulted and yelled and jeered at any est participant who insisted on "understanding" the methods and objectives of the est training.

But what was "it"? people still wanted to know before they put their money down. From est's earliest days, Erhard had come up with a pithy description of his new self-awareness course that soon was adopted as est's official mantra. In true Erhard fashion, the mantra provided no answer at all, succeeding only in drawing ever-increasing numbers of curious souls into the ballroom chairs. "The purpose of the est training," Erhard and his followers chanted over and over again, "is to transform your ability to experience living so that the situations you have been trying to change or have been putting up with clear up just in the process of life itself."

In the ballroom of the Jack Tar Hotel (and in similar ballrooms in hotels across the country), the est trainer finally emerged from the back of the room after the boot-camp rules had been read and digested by everyone. Bounding onto the stage with a burst of energy, microphone in hand, he turned to the 250 men and women sitting silently in the ballroom and shouted at them with all the fervor of a profane Sunday morning preacher.

"IN THIS TRAINING, YOU'RE GOING TO FIND OUT YOU'VE BEEN ACTING LIKE ASSHOLES. ALL YOUR FUCKING CLEVERNESS AND SELF-DECEPTION HAVE GOTTEN YOU NOWHERE!"

During the first year or so of est, Erhard himself led all the est trainings, since he was the only one who had yet mastered the hours of materials he had stitched together from Scientology and Mind Dynamics and Dale Carnegie and Maxwell Maltz and a variety of other sources. After a while others bounded onto the stages to repeat the same lines and deliver the same material. Always they conducted the est training exactly the way Erhard had done, for they trained countless hours to do it the way he told them to.

For the first several hours of the training, Erhard and his other trainers kept up a nonstop barrage of verbal insults, taunting the participants in the straight-backed chairs, insisting they were all worthless human beings who clung to beliefs about themselves and their own lives that were rooted in ridiculous notions about reason, logic, and understanding.

"Don't give me your goddamn belief system, you dumb motherfucker!" one of Erhard's est trainers once thundered at a man who had raised his hand on the first day with a question about the need to believe in something, in anything. The trainer stormed off the dais and perched himself within inches of the man's face. "Get rid of all that shit!" screamed the trainer.

The man sat down in his seat, only to be greeted with a loud burst of applause from everyone else in the room. It was part of the rules, part of the "agreement" for being in the training. Anytime someone got up to "share" something during the training, everyone else was instructed to acknowledge him or her with applause. It never took very long for est training sessions to take on the surreal dimensions of confusing logic. A stream of abusive epithets hurled at a skeptical participant always ended in a cheerful smile from the trainer and an enthusiastic round of applause from everyone else.

By the late afternoon of the first day, the est trainers always launched into another several hours' worth of lectures revolving around one of est's fundamental tenets. Taking responsibility for your life, in the world according to Werner Erhard, required people to accept the idea that they were equally responsible for everything that happened in their lives. From illness and disease to auto accidents and street muggings, Erhard and his trainers drummed into the heads of est participants that they alone caused all the incidents and episodes in their lives to occur. The est philosophy included no room for victims or excuses. Only when his customers accepted that, only when they realized that all people "create their own reality," were they in a position to resolve problems plaguing their lives.

Nobody believed that more fervently than Werner Erhard himself. More than ten years before he created est, Jack Rosenberg had already created a new reality by shedding his past and pretending for years it had never even existed. Driven by an overpowering ambition for fame (and its accompanying riches), Erhard discovered in the myriad self-help, get-rich, human motivation textbooks and courses a formula that seemed to accommodate so conveniently his own personal psychodrama. It had worked for him. Surely it was something that could work for others.

Ultimately, the product that Erhard sold, at first to a few hundred people but later to tens and hundreds of thousands, was a confusing sense of innocence born of a hybrid philosophy in which the past mattered little, if at all. With his charismatic skills of a salesman showman, Erhard packaged his program of innocence lost in a way that no one had ever done before. He, quite literally, had claimed to invent, with the est training, a new "technology" offering nothing less than transformation. Happily for Erhard, a significant slice of the American population was ready for such a product in the early years of the 1970s, having emerged from a turbulent decade that tore at the fabric of social institutions, organized religion, and the nation's general spirit of community. The human potential movement, through upstart offshoots such as Esalen, promised—whether realistically or not—a degree of psychic and spiritual comfort in the wake of an increasingly alienated culture. Erhard, the salesman, wrapped up the promise of transformation in a nifty two-weekend package.

Better yet, he offered his customers some pretty easy answers that explained the sordid state of the world around them. "When I look at what we're doing in the world, it makes me feel helpless," an est participant said in the 1970s. "There's nothing I can do about it, except accept it. Est has shown me that's okay. At least after taking the training, I felt a big burden of guilt removed toward people who were having problems, whatever they were, because I got that they were responsible in a way." What Erhard left out of the training was any sense of human compassion and emotion. He and his est trainers angrily rejected such trivialities in the training sessions. Compassion, after all, was something reserved for life's "victims." In the world of est, as in the world of Werner Erhard, there were no victims.

During est's early years, Erhard sometimes went so far as to assert that 6 million Jews had been "responsible" for their own deaths during the Holocaust of World War II. One woman participating in the

training had herself been imprisoned in one of the Nazi death camps, where other members of her family perished. At first, she was outraged at Erhard's audacity in arguing that Jews were responsible for their own horrific fate.

Eventually Erhard insisted the woman had seen his point of view and had then been able to find real value in the message of the est training. As a result of the training, the woman was able to finally free herself from the concentration camp, Erhard later recounted. "She took responsibility for putting herself in. It's that goddamn simple."

Someone asked Erhard how the woman could have avoided being in the camp in the first place.

Erhard deflected the question with a mystifying and brusque response. "How could the light be off when it's turned on? The question is completely stupid."

Toward the end of the first long day of the est training, Erhard plugged in the first of what he described as "processes," a series of directed meditation exercises conducted by the trainer and used, according to Erhard, to enable people to "create their own experience. " Ordered to shut their eyes, everyone in the ballroom followed their monotone repetitions aimed at inducing a state of collective relaxation around the room.

Beginning with the left foot and continuing upward throughout the body, the trainer gently directed everyone to "create a space" in each part of their anatomy. With each direction repeated three times, the effect of the long trance-inducing exercise, coupled with the trainer's soothing homilies about the heightening powers of est, resulted in a roomful of dazed and fatigued trainees. At the end of it, they wandered off into the post-midnight darkness after finishing est's first fifteen-hour day, some of them certainly wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Day two of the est training reflected even heavier doses of Erhard's training in Scientology and Mind Dynamics. Much of the day was spent carrying out another mental exercise known as the Truth Process, which more than anything else during the est training often resembled a mass psychotherapy session. After the neatly arranged rows of ballroom chairs had been pushed to the side of the room, participants were instructed to lie down on the floor, after which the trainer ordered them to shut their eyes again and choose a significant "item" or problem in their lives that they wanted to solve.

Over the next several hours, the est trainer—after leading everyone through another round of directed meditation—coached the lying bodies on how to search through their memories for all of the emotions, reactions, and consequences of the problem each person was trying to resolve. For many lying on the ballroom floors, the intensely introspective nature of the est Truth Process wreaked havoc on their emotional systems. People writhed and thrashed about with their bodies, the sounds of crying and screaming and groaning echoing around the ballroom. Erhard and his trainers were ready for every reaction, even stocking a supply of silver-colored "barf bags" for the poor retching souls who sometimes lost the contents of their stomachs during the process of resolving their long-festering problem. The goal of the Truth Process was to discover the ultimate cause of each person's selfchosen affliction, after which the problem itself was supposed to disappear.

Erhard, of course, had discovered no new miracle cure. Similar versions of the Truth Process already had surfaced in other self-awareness methods, including gestalt therapy, primal scream therapy, and the auditing practice in Scientology. Even earlier, a British psychiatrist named William Sargant had studied various techniques involved in indoctrination and thought control, only to discover a longstanding strain of the very same method used in Erhard's est training. In his 1957 book, Battle for the Mind, Sargant described the technique as a "time-worn physiological trick which has been used, for better or worse, by generations of preachers and demagogues to soften up their listeners' minds and help them take on desired patterns of belief and behavior."

The long second day of the est training ended with yet another process that was remarkably similar to Scientology exercises known as "bullbaiting" and "confronting." In the Scientology version, used in the introductory communications course that Erhard and his book-sales staff had once taken with his Scientologist friend Peter Monk, people paired off and took turns trying to goad the other into a response. In est, Erhard adapted the strange exercise for a large group and called it the "danger process." Row by row, est participants were directed to the stage and ordered to stand ramrod straight, leaving others in the room to stare back at them. On cue, a special team of est volunteers serving as "confronters" marched to the stage where they stood toe to toe and nose to nose in front of the trainees, not saying anything but only staring with blazing eyes at the nervous person standing only inches away. At the same time, the est trainer paced back and forth, playing the role of the "bullbaiter," shouting insults and epithets at those standing on the stage. Usually at least a few people broke down into sobbing fits or had their legs give way beneath them, traumatized by the fear of standing in front of a large crowd or being stared at by the menacing-looking est volunteer. A separate team of volunteers served as "body catchers," trained in the est-art of catching people who often fell to the ground during the process.

Before the second day ended, the trainer led the latest group of est inductees through one more process. Lying on the floor again, with closed eyes, participants were told to imagine they were deathly afraid of the person lying next to them. A few moments later the trainer asked them to experience the fear of everyone else in the room. From there he expanded the boundaries of fear so that eventually he had every person in the room convinced they were afraid of everyone else in the world. Again, the room often broke down into a cacophony of noise, with sobbing and screaming reverberating off the walls as people conjured up the emotion of absolute fear. Then the trainer reversed the process, asking participants to imagine that others now were afraid of them. By the end of the long night, a giddy sense of levity had managed to replace the wrenching emotions that had permeated the room earlier in the evening. Out into the dark and quiet streets spilled 250 exhausted souls, halfway home to becoming newly minted est graduates.

A week later the ballroom filled up again, and once more the est trainer bounded to the front of the room, this time to launch into a mind-numbing lecture lasting several hours, confusing participants about the differences between what was "real" and what was "unreal. " As with other parts of the est training, the result of the lecture was to confuse trainees sitting obediently in the ruler-lined rows of chairs, to "blow their minds," as Erhard often explained.

The fourth and final day led up to the climactic moment of est. It began with another mind-numbing lecture, one that sometimes took the trainer at least ten hours to deliver. Erhard called the rambling discourse the "anatomy of the mind," and stuffed it with pseudoscientific analysis of how the brain always was functioning as a selfperpetuating machine, programmed to repeat over and over again the same mechanistic responses to similar situations facing people in their daily lives. Finally, after hours of droning on, the est trainer would stop the lecture and look out across the room, filled now with anxious faces. What was coming next? they wondered as they sat in silence in their seats. Was this what they had paid their money for?

"I'll tell you everything there is to know about life," the trainer gleefully announced. "What is, is, and what ain't, ain't." And that's about all there was. True enlightenment, the trainer concluded, "is knowing you are a machine." Finally, the magical revelation of est had been visited upon yet another group of curious transformation seekers. They were told that they were nothing but a collection of individual brain-powered machines. "Whether you accept this or

not," the trainer instructed them, "it's so."

Around the room there were a few more nervous coughs and plenty of quizzical expressions. So they were machines, supposedly without emotions, without feelings, without the ability to understand. And for this they had paid a few hundred dollars while sitting in uncomfortable hotel chairs for dozens of hours. Just then, only moments after the trainer had plunged everyone into the depths of a depressing gray funk, he offered them a final redeeming ray of hope.

In a rising voice that signaled the training's climactic moment, the trainer exhorted everyone to accept the true nature of their own minds. Assume responsibility for creating everything in their lives, for being precisely who they were. And in doing so, the trainer summed up, each new est graduate now became what he or she always wanted to be. In a word, they were perfect. They were perfect just the way they were.

There were still plenty of puzzled expressions spread across the

faces of those sitting in the uncomfortable hotel seats. But there was also a smattering of applause, of shrieks of laughter, even of gasps, as if four days of psychobabble had suddenly jelled into a glorious moment of epiphany. This, the trainer exultantly announced, was the miracle of est. You are what you are, and you are responsible for everything you do.

At the end of every training, the trainer always led the participants through an exercise that underscored, above all else, the ultimate logic-defying magic of Werner Erhard's sales technique. Going around the room, the trainer asked for a show of hands from everyone who had "gotten it," referring to the bottom-line message of the training. As dozens of hands were raised, the rest of the room burst into a round of applause. Next the trainer turned his attention to everyone else, whose hands had remained at their sides. One final dose of est's self-fulfilling logic was all that was needed to take care of them.

"I don't get it," one trainee once told trainer Stewart Emery during a New York est session.

"Good," Emery replied. "There's nothing to get so you got it."

"I get it," the trainee said, as a broad grin slid across her face "So getting it is whatever you get."

"If that's what you got."

Got it?

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