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 de>