“Perfection is a state in which things are the way they are,
and are not the way they are not.
As you can see, this universe is perfect.”
~ Werner Erhard, est
Before the divorce, I had attempted to find answers to my new questions by reading articles and books about parapsychology and psychic phenomena, but not about religious mysticism or spirituality, of which I was still ignorant. But upon living alone as a single person with a new life style, I gradually expanded my quest to weekend seminars and lectures where for the first time I began being exposed to Eastern spiritual ideas. The first seminars, “est” and “Silva Mind Control”, incorporated perennial Eastern ideas into a Western self-help context, and were of significant help for me.
When I became single again, est was well known and flourishing in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was then aggressively being promoted as a self-help “training” offering participants exceptional opportunity to radically transform their lives. It had begun in San Francisco five years earlier with a seminar conducted by its charismatic and controversial founder Werner Erhard attended by several hundred people.
Werner had creatively crafted the est training by incorporating self-help ideas he eclectically gathered from various sources and by expressing them epigrammatically and dramatically in his own original est jargon. Est attracted participants by hyperbolically promising to disclose and to experientially teach them esoteric principles of living a happy life, thereby providing them “space” for “getting IT”, an allegedly transformative epiphany which Werner claimed to have experienced while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in March 1971.
So I was quite curious about est when I became single again. But still an uptight lawyer, I was reluctant to take the est training because of negative reports I’d heard about it and about Werner Erhard. Then Allen Chase, a childhood friend who – like me – was recently divorced, persuasively urged me to take the training by claiming to have been immensely helped by est. So I changed my mind and enrolled.
Thus, with lingering skepticism I attended a 1976 est training in Marin County, in a large hotel where I was joined by hundreds of others eager to “get IT” – the secret of a happy life. At the outset I had negative reactions and considerable resistance to what was happening.
The training was conducted in an hierarchical cult-like atmosphere by a man who talked like Werner, dressed like Werner, and appeared to be somewhat of a Werner clone. To present his ideas he often used a ‘Zen master stick approach’, which was sometimes harsh, profane, and authoritarian. All of this ‘turned me off’. Yet I remained interested and curious.
The trainer told us that the brain mostly functioned automatically as a self-perpetuating “tape” machine, pre-programmed to repeat over and over again the same mechanistic responses to similar situations facing people in their daily lives; that accordingly we’ve developed debilitating habits and beliefs, and have misidentified with the “voice in our head”. He promised us an opportunity to “be at cause, not effect” ; a chance to transcend these debilitating habits by “getting IT”, the alleged central truth of human existence.
Most of us had been lured to enroll by est promotions claiming that when you “got IT”, you got the secret of happiness. And on enrollment we had all signed confidentiality pledges against disclosing “IT”. So we all anxiously awaited our chance for a “getting IT” epiphany. Not until the final moments of the two weekend workshop did the trainer finally disclose “IT”.
AHAA! In est aphoristic jargon, “getting IT” meant realizing that: “What is, is, and what ain’t, ain’t.” ; that “the Truth is what’s so.”
Thus, getting “IT”, was the realization that one must accept “what is” in the present moment of your life; viz. to live happily accept yourself and everything and everyone in your life just as they are, without reflexively resisting or reacting to them, and “take responsibility” for all your responses, choices and actions.
Perhaps in gathering and formulating these ideas Werner was influenced by philosopher Alan Watts who then (unknown to me) was teaching them to small groups on his Sausalito houseboat. For example, in a 1960 essay entitled “This is It”, Watt’s described the ‘enlightenment’ experience for which est later lured participants:
“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.”
Werner was less erudite in his presentations, but often more dramatically impactful, than was Dr. Watts. And his enigmatic illogical aphorisms motivated participants to reflect on important ideas about spiritual wisdom transcending “common wisdom”.
Retrospectively, I now see that Werner was astute in creating an extraordinary environment for the est trainings, because in that unusual environment participants were moved out of their habitual ways of thinking and experiencing the world – their left brain patterns – and thereby they were opened to seemingly illogical ‘right brain’ insights and experiences. That’s what happened to me.
After completing est, I remained annoyed and ‘turned off’ by est’s harsh, cult-like ambience and and hyperbolic promotions, but I felt that I had gotten considerable value for my large tuition payment. In fact, I was so glad that I had taken est that I soon urged my friends Dave Weiner and John Rubel to enroll.
The est training planted significant seeds for my spiritual evolution by presenting some important and intriguing ideas from perennial wisdom teachings – like disidentifying with the “voice in my head” and “acceptance of the present moment” – which were then new to me and which remain important after more than thirty years of experience, study and reflection.
Paradoxically, as I now “seek relief from belief” and gradually have winnowed and discarded as no longer useful many ideas and beliefs acquired and embraced since est, I realize that “IT” – acceptance of “what is” in the present moment – remains for me a core principle for living a happy life. And perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by Werner’s other wise teachings and aphorisms, which I didn’t then understand, or appreciate, like “Don’t change beliefs. Transform the believer.”