The Indescribable Experience

October 1978, Vol. 7, No.10 – by Eleanor Links Hoover: From Human Behavior

One reason why the public seldom sees much deep, penetrating reporting and/or commentary about any contemporary psychological movement is that it is distinctly unfashionable for journalists to write anything that may be interpreted as favorable about such phenomena. Never mind whether it’s true or not. The silent rule is, “If you can’t be critical, don’t write it.”

Well, this is to serve notice to any potential head-lopper that I choose not to be intimidated. Sorry. I just can’t join the cynical press bandwagon. est is – and remains – one of the most fascinating movements, events, phenomena (take your pick, it still defies analysis) I have ever observed and reported on. The fact that it isn’t what it seems to be (what is?) and that it is as elusive as quicksilver to describe only enhances the fascination as far as I’m concerned. For me, it is, among other things, an excursion into High Philosophy – a miniseries of sorts into issues raised by Plato, Sartre, Wittgenstein. Bill Bartley, philosophy professor at California State University at Hayward once told me, “What est is doing is making available for the first time on a wide, popular basis, the key ideas and problems of philosophy.”

It does lots more, of course. In trying to pin down est, part of the trouble is that it really isn’t like anything else. Remember, in the beginning, how people were always saying, “Oh yes, but it’s really only a pastiche of group therapy, gestalt, encounter, positive thinking, hypnosis, mind control, behavior modification and a half-dozen other things craftily scotch-taped together by Werner Erhard.” Well, I think it’s become clearer by now that such pat reductionism doesn’t apply.

This point is made by New York psychiatrist Joel Kovel, in a fairly recent book, A Complete Guide to Therapy. He writes, “est may be the first major innovation in therapy to owe nothing to tradition.” This, he concludes, “makes est hard to classify . . . for all its mystique, it is perhaps the most highly organized and disciplined of therapies.” est of course, does not regard itself as a therapy nor is it interested in change, as such, but rather transformation.

I guess what tickles me most is seeing that est not only has survived a devastating media attack but shows signs of becoming a permanent part of our cultural fabric. Also, it now is the subject of a steady stream of scholarly studies and articles in professional journals. So much for the plucky upstart who took on the professional pundits. Werner has also survived – beautifully. Nowhere was that more evident than at a recent inaugural by Werner in Los Angeles of a new est event known as “Celebrating Your Relationships” – the newest, fourth and last in a series of all-day workshops titled “Making Relationships Work.” He showed new mellowness and depth as he read “love” poems by e.e.Cummings and St. John of the Cross to an assembly of almost 10,000 people, all of whom, as usual were in their seats promptly at nine o’clock Sunday morning – which shows that est training about the importance of keeping agreements really sticks.

So do many other parts of the complex training, although don’t expect anyone who has been through it to be able to describe it. How would we describe our life or, say, a butterfly? Where would we start? The goal of est, as far as I can see, is Enlightenment; and as Werner points out, the gates of the Far Eastern temples are often guarded by two scowling figurines, keepers of the riches within. One figurine is paradox and the other is confusion. Westerners avoid both like the plague, but est takes people right into the eye of each and out the other side. What est seems to be providing is an extraordinary, virtuoso microcosm of life.

It starts with suffering. To most of us, suffering is an aberration, a mistake, proof we did something wrong – a punishment. In est, as people start out sharing their life stories, one sees that suffering is the very warp and woof of everyone’s life, including one’s own, despite our fun-filled and candy-coated efforts to disguise it. Yet, as the drone of the endless litany of misery-filled life scenarios wears on, it is possible to see that we are not our “stories”; that each, no matter how grim, has a payoff (even, and especially, misery); that we cling to them like security blankets and refuse to give them up. Finally, we may see that it is possible to transcend all that – if we dare.

All the so-called awful stuff that has been so played up in the media stories – the not being able to go to the bathroom when someone wants to or eat three square meals a day or being “insulted” or shouted at – somehow fits in and makes sense when it happens. Admittedly, it isn’t “nice,” but then neither is life. At least in est it all takes place in a safe, protected space and with a purpose – growth. Remember paradox – things are not what they seem. I’ll never forget the astonishment so many people expressed when they learned they could miss a meal without starving or even be bored to tears hours on end and yet stay with it because they wanted something from the experience. That’s all part of it. But don’t expect it to make sense – our usual kind of super rational, logical sense – because it doesn’t. “Understanding is the booby prize,” says Werner. The gold ring is Being – real alive being – which is the capacity to really experience our experience and not just another dead, sterile replay of our “story.”

Does est succeed in all this? We know there is no real, final way of assessing that for all our vaunted professional techniques. At the end of an article titled “A Description of the Erhard Seminar Training (est) in Terms of Behavior Analysis” in the spring 1978 issue of the journal Behaviorism by Drs. Donald Baer and Stephanie Stolz, the authors write with marvelous restraint, “…est is primarily about what the self is and how to be most perfectly in touch with it – to be it. That is not a goal, a process or a lesson amenable to verbal explanation. We offer no explanation of this aspect of est here, because we do not understand it. It is tempting to dismiss est out of hand for just this reason. Not doing so results from the fact that whatever est may be about, it contains within it as impressive a collection of self-control techniques as we have seen, and it seems to be unusually effective in making them available to some of its trainers.”

They conclude, “Whether it often is effective in fact, we are not certain; that it sometimes can be, we are. That can be said of almost any psychotherapy, respectable or otherwise. est training is brief, the principles by which it operates can in part be analyzed in terms of the principles of behavioral science, and as an intervention, it is possibly unusually effective. That accounts for our interest in it. What else it is, is its business.”

A final word about the so-called not-niceness. Of this, Los Angeles psychologist Dr. Thomas Greening says, “People seem to sense that any epithets are directed at the defensive egos and programmed pseudo selves we present to the world. The person beneath that self is greatly respected in est as the source of all meaning and being.”

Eleanor Links Hoover has been a columnist for HUMAN BEHAVIOR since 1973. For more articles on The est Training (est) visit www.erhardseminarstraining.com

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