In the years since the 1970s, when it was widely popular, Erhard Seminar Training (EST) has often been cited as a hallmark example of the “human potential” movement fostered by the “me” generation that inspired Tom Wolfe’s article, mentioned earlier.
During a ten-year span, over one million people participated in EST training, including such celebrities as Diana Ross, Valerie Harper, and John Denver. I am aware that EST has been defined as nothing more than a self-indulgent, cult-like movement. I totally understand that perspective, because there were indeed many annoying aspects of the program: the four-day seminars (two weekends) did use a lot of extreme measures such as keeping participants in back-to-back sessions for hours without allowing the use of the bathroom. Such measures were used to break down a person’s ego-defenses, though, and to open us to self examination. I know that our marriage would not have lasted had it not been for how I was affected by those weekends. My exposure to the intense self-searching eventually led to what I refer to as my first conscious moment. A defining moment, indeed!
“You are all assholes and don’t even know that you are assholes. Your lives do not work and you don’t even know that your lives are not working!” shouted the trainer standing on the stage in front of the two hundred-fifty participants the first day. The trainer’s shocking method of delivery had me practically frozen to my seat in fear. I could see no reason for this woman to be what I perceived as downright mean, rude, and abusive. After just the first hour of the first day of the training, I had already sunk so low in my chair that I couldn’t see over the top of the heads of those seated in front of me. Already, my only goal was simply to steel myself against the epithets she was using and get through the day as unnoticed as possible. Surely I could do that; after all, I was the consummate “get througher.” I may be the only person who ever managed to survive a year of EST programs without ever having spoken a word.
Mike, in stark contrast to my defensiveness toward what I perceived to be an assault by the trainer, sat through the sessions unruffled and merely curious about where the training was headed. While I took every word personally, Mike did exactly the opposite. After all, the trainer wasn’t saying anything Mike believed about himself. Mike didn’t believe himself an asshole; not like I did, at least. While I wanted to run, Mike wanted to discern the purpose and intention of the course. Unbeknownst to either one of us at that moment, it was Mike’s quiet composure that single-handedly steadied me. He helped me sit still long enough to be awakened to how much I needed to discover and resolve in myself.
The facilitator continued to bark at us, but she also began to explain that one reason most human beings deserve to be called “assholes” is that most of us will go to any length to be right. In the process of being right you are making another person wrong, you are attacking the other person’s integrity, and damaging their aliveness, and you are paradoxically doing the same to your own.
Dumbfounded, I sat there, slumped down in my seat, no longer just going along but trying to survive. All of a sudden I was hearing what was being presented. What a humbling concept, I thought. That way of getting through life was exactly my way! My entire way of interacting with Mike was exactly what the trainer had said. I always had to be right, or at least not wrong. I had to win every argument, even if it meant “out-arguing” Mike and driving him to the point of sheer exhaustion so that he would give in. Of course, this in turn gave me the false sense of satisfaction that I had won something of value. Until attending that weekend, I had never given any thought to the fact that my need to be right, no matter what the cost, was creating a growing deficit in our “communication bank account.”
Photo of Werner Erhard, founder of EST Trainings.
www.AMAZON.com The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: The First Twenty Years by: Walter Truett Anderson