November under my Sole (with Harry Sobel)
(Published in Quest magazine, Summer 1998 )
Channel-surfing at one in the morning recently, I landed on "Semi-Tough," a 70s Burt Reynolds film that contained a parody of Werner Erhard and the est training, (the original, two-weekend crash course of the Human Potential Movement.) "Freidrich Bismarck," the film's Erhard look-alike, tosses off remarks like "There are no answers, because there are no questions," and graduates of the "BEAT" training are quick to assure their friends that they are "perfect just the way they are." When Burt "gets it," he reassures Jill Clayburgh, who isn't at all sure if she got it, that that is certain evidence that she did. Get it.
I got it in 1975, in a Hilton ballroom in Boston. What was "it"? And do I still have it? If not, when did I lose it, and can I get it back? These questions may sound tongue-in-cheek, but actually point to something quite profound - namely, "it."
(Note: this is not an investigative whatever-happened-to-Werner Erhard story; my most recent information is several years old, when he appeared on the Larry King Show, live from Moscow, claiming he couldn't safely return to the states because Scientology essentially had a contract out on his head. This is long after est had evolved into "The Forum," a course which continues to be offered all over the world (now The Landmark Forum); and several years after Erhard had sold the organization and left the country following a damaging expose of his personal life on "60 Minutes." But that's another story.)
Perhaps the most eloquent and concise description of "it" that I have ever come across is from an Alan Watts essay, "This Is It":
"To the individual thus enlightened it appears as a vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, as a whole and in every one of its parts, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is....the mind is so wonder-struck at the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they are, including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst, that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection and beauty of the experience...The central core of the experience seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate now, whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all living."
That, in a nutshell, is "it," and as Watts indicates, it occurs now. And I do believe, some two decades later, that that is what I got at the est training. Of course, that was then. (Although when I got it, it was now.)
Known for developing its own, somewhat cultish language, perhaps the most essential catch-phrase of the est training was, "What is, is; and what isn't isn't." When that statement is considered thoughtfully rather than dismissed as sheer psychobabble, the world itself stops for a moment, and the mind becomes silent. There isn't anything to fix or change. In this moment of now, all is exactly as it is, and as it isn't, and it can be no other way. This is one definition of "perfect."
For example: feeling sad?
"Rocks are hard, water is wet, and you're feeling sad," an est trainer might have responded, matter of factly. You don't try to "get rid of" the sadness any more than you would attempt to change the nature of rocks. It is simply part of the "what is-ness" of the current moment of your experience. Your reaction to it, trying to push it away, effectively roots it more firmly in place.
"When you allow something to be," Erhard used to say--and he meant anything, even cancer--"it will allow you to be." And the flip side: "What you resist, persists." (Some of these early est'isms have been mainstreamed into the therapeutic community, their source long forgotten.)
The purpose of the est training was to "transform your ability to experience living [my emphasis] so that the problems or situations in life that you are trying to solve or are putting up with will clear up just in the process of life itself." What would shift, they promised, was how we experienced things, not the things themselves. Life, the trainers said, would be exactly the same after the two-weekend course as before. The same bills would need to be paid, we'd be dealing with the same issues and problems. But we would experience them differently, "be with" them in such a way that they would essentially solve themselves, or at the very least be seen as "opportunities."
And what is this other way of experiencing? To engage life exactly as it is, unfiltered by our likes and dislikes, our preferences and aversions, our strongly-held beliefs and opinions about how things should be or could be. It is to unconditionally accept the "way things are." (And Watts was quick to point out, lest one think that this point of view in some way equals happiness, that it doesn't; for one's own unhappiness is merely another set of phenomena to witness impassively.) No experience, high or low, can be left out of the equation. "Be unhappy, when you're unhappy," a trainer might have said, a variation of the Zen notion, "eat when hungry, sleep when tired.") What is, is; and what isn't, isn't. (Applied to sexuality later in the training, this became "when you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not.")
One of the main arguments that opponents voiced against Werner's work was that "you can't package and sell enlightenment in a few days, because people spend years and years doing austere spiritual practices, and often still fail to 'get it.'" Erhards response to this was, "No, people spend years and years not getting enlightened--when they finally get it, it happens in a flash, it takes no time at all, it happens outside of time." In other words, enlightenment could just as well occur in this moment of now, after some forty hours of sitting in a hotel ballroom, as in the moment of now that occurs after forty years of sitting in a Zen monastery. (Now is now, even when it's later.)
People who never did the training generally assumed that it was simply a random, watered-down amalgamation of many "growth" exercises, thrown together into a slick package for the masses, who would have to sit for long hours and not be allowed to pee. But in fact, Erhard had a much more sophisticated vision. I considered the training to be a brilliantly conceived Zen koan, effectively tricking the mind into seeing itself, and in thus seeing, to be simultaneously aware of who was doing the seeing, a transcendent level of consciousness, a place spacious and undefined, distinct from the tired old story that our minds continuously tell us about who we are, and with which we ordinarily identify. It was the first real awakening of my spiritual journey.
But a glimpse of the Promised Land is not a permanent residence. I've been mulling all this over for twenty years: clearly the experience opened a door of possibility in consciousness, revealing a grand and ecstatic vista, but to live in that place requires spiritual practices, discipline, commitment, perseverance and grace. And perhaps more than forty years.
The paradox of the path to enlightenment is that the only place to go is here, and the only time to go is now, and yet to truly be fully present in the here and now may require years of striving to seemingly get somewhere. The two play off each other and keep the game going. The est training, in a sense, was saying, "it's more fun to try to become enlightened if you're already enlightened; otherwise you may have to wait forever."
Not too long ago I was exiting the main terminal at Dulles Airport when I spotted a familiar face:
"Randy MacNamara?" I exclaimed. He had been one of my original est trainers. "November '75, Boston," I told him, by way of identifying myself. After a few remarks back and forth, I said, "Well, it was a great weekend, twenty years ago." And in true trainer form, he instantly got to the point:
"Does it still impact your life?"
"Well...sure, yes," I replied. And then he hit me with what I thought to be an amazing question:
"Daily?" he asked.
I was a bit tongue-tied. Daily? How many different workshops, therapies, psychedelic journeys, rolfing sessions, meditation retreats and Prozacs had I done over the years, all geared toward, if not getting it again, or getting more of it, then certainly maintaining and reinforcing it? How could I be sure what had created which results in my life? I tried to explain this, and added, "But in terms of the training marking a departure point and altering the direction of my life from that moment on, it certainly impacts me daily." I'm not sure that that was good enough for him, but we reached the walkway and parted company.
His question reminded me that from Werner's point of view, the training was not intended to merely, as I've implied, generate some "first experience" for people, like a spiritual sneak preview. For Werner, this was to be the defining turning point in people's lives, from which they would never go back; an epiphany in consciousness that would still be impacting them twenty years later, as they strolled through Dulles Airport.
I remember well Randy MacNamara's dramatic explanation of what we were to expect when we left the est training: the possibility of believing we'd lost it and that things were worse than ever and everything was falling apart and the training hadn't worked. Then, after allowing us to contemplate that in silence for a moment, his deep, booming voice filled the room:
"YOU FORGOT TO CHOOSE!"
"What you got! Choose what you got, choose what you got, choose what you got," he explained, and eventually you'd be out of the water. Or not even eventually, which implies that time is required for transformation: the est training was in the spirit of "sudden Zen," for the possibility of "choosing what you got" exists now and always. And in the very moment you really make that choice, you come unstuck, for you had merely been resisting the isness of the moment you were given.
was directly opposite to the prevailing self-help party line of those
me-decade times: rather than coaching people to "get what you want,
for you can have it all," est turned it around, pointing out that
if you instead "want what you get," then you'll realize that
you do have it all, and can stop searching for it and start the real work
of giving it away, contributing your vision to the world. "If you're
not sharing it," Erhard would declare, "then you never got it."
(One unfortunate side effect of this maxim was to turn graduates of the
training into what became known as "estholes," obnoxiously hell-bent
on getting everyone and their grandmothers into the program.)
so yes, I did get it at the est training twenty years ago,
and what I got is that it always already is (and isn't), so therefore
I still have it today (and don't), and it includes at times having the
absolute certainty that I in fact never truly got it (or lost it) and
nor do I still have it (although I do.) Get it?