Table of Contents
Google listing of all pages on this website
Toby Johnson's Facebook page
Toby Johnson's YouTube channel
Toby Johnson on Wikipedia
Toby Johnson Amazon Author Page
Secure site at
Also on this website:
As an Amazon Associate
I earn from qualifying purchases.
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
How to use the power of intentionality to produce a utopia for oneself--and maybe for the world--shows up in modern culture in Werner Erhard’s est. Like its numerous offshoots, est guarantees to assist participants in resolving issues that have been causing difficulty in their lives, from what color clothes to wear, what job to take, and how to get rich quick, to how to acknowledge homosexuality positively, how to attain one’s spiritual destiny, and how to end death by starvation m the world. It grew out of the sensibilities of the counterculture of the 1960s and the so-called narcissism of the 1970s. Its basic teachings, which pervade all of the offshoots, are founded on the experience of emptiness.
Most of the criticism of est tended to center chiefly on the issue of the cost of the “training.” That the two-weekend training costs about the price of a week’s lodging in a stylish hotel obscures real issues about the content of the training. The fact is that est accomplishes in less than two weeks a life transformation that psychotherapy, at many times the cost, can hardly do in months. The issue is not the money. The issue is the kind of transformation est produced.
In March of 1971, Werner Erhard experienced a conversion while driving into San Francisco from Corte Madera in Marin County, north of the city. In its simplest terms, his realization was that everything is empty and nothing really matters and that the everyday world is a construction of the mind.
Before this conversion, John Paul Rosenberg, who took the name Werner Erhard to change his identity when he moved to California, had been a huckster salesman. Of particular importance in his formation and preparation was his training in salesmanship and in Mind Dynamics. Especially in California, he was exposed to a broad range of the techniques and gimmicks of the “human potential movement” that had flowered out of the intense psychological sophistication of the sixties. Extremely energetic and ambitious, Erhard devoted great intensity to his life and later to his effort to break through to truth beyond the surface.
On Highway 101 Erhard achieved the breakthrough and a glimpse of transcendental truth. He talked about his experience with friends, who must have found his metaphors effective in conveying his insight and encouraged him. For soon the intensity he had devoted to pursuing a career he turned to broadcasting his “enlightenment.” Being familiar with the organizational structures of Mind Dynamics, Scientology, and the new psychologies, he began to organize training groups. His personal charisma and success in communicating the wisdom attracted to him many more followers, who offered time and energy to help him spread the gospel of est.
Followers seemed to believe that est sprang virtually full—born from Erhard’s mind, like Athena from the head of Zeus. And though Erhard does acknowledge a debt to Buddhist thought—he has hosted the Gyalwa Karmapa and the Dalai Lama in their trips to America—and to the mathematical theories of G. Spencer Brown, the zealous followers consistently denied that est’s presentation techniques had any precursors or used any kind of “brainwashing.” Supposedly there were no books that describe how est worked. In Jerome D. Frank’s Persuasion and Healing, however, there’s a fine description of the techniques and dynamics by which est and similar systems of persuasion operate.
Its success is the result, at least in part, of est’s use of the most modern, sophisticated techniques of image manufacturing and advertising—what Vance Packard called “hidden persuaders”—and the demise of the traditional religious and political belief systems. It managed to present a mythological system that sounds remarkably, if naively, cogent, even in relation to advanced discoveries and theories of modern physics. Indeed, est is surprisingly able to communicate, to relatively unsophisticated members of the American middle class, the esoteric wisdom that the world is an arbitrary creation of concepts of the mind and of language structures.
I was utterly amazed by est’s power. I had avoided the training for a long time. 1 had been put off by the jargon and the hard sell. But in 1978 I was thinking about leaving California and it seemed that before I did, I ought to take est, if only to complete the “California experience.” And so it was easy to say yes when my friend and former teacher Kim McKell invited me to attend a guest seminar with her at which Werner himself was appearing, and to sign up that night for the training.
A few weeks later I joined some two hundred and fifty other people in a meeting room in a Holiday Inn for what was promised to be an experience of enlightenment. I was skeptical, but open. I certainly did not want to begrudge myself a fruitful experience just to prove est wrong. And, in the end, I didn’t.
Of the two weekends, the first was by far the more moving. It focused on emotional catharsis. The second focused on the “doctrine.” It proved to be familiar, though I had been quite surprised when early on the first day I realized where all the talk was going. I had thought est was going to be about “winning friends and influencing people.” It turned out to be about emptiness. I was delighted.
The high point of my entire experience came at the close of that first weekend. We had been warned that the last process was going to be a mindblower, but had not been given any clue to what it would be except its name: the Danger Process. Then, after a grueling day of lecture, “sharing,” processes, and introspection, always grappling with a vision of reality that kept slipping—or being pulled —out of grasp, we were sent to dinner with the admonition that something big would be in store for us when we got back.
I returned, eager to continue my “transformation,” to find the room rearranged and a new group of assistants standing waiting for the Danger Process to begin. The trainer convened the session, the process started, and something strange happened in the room. Within minutes, and for no reason at all, I was in hysterics. Even now I cannot quite understand how they managed to do what they did.
My body was trembling. Cries of pain and of laughter were coming out of my mouth, while my mind—my ego —watched detachedly, wondering what was happening to me. There was nothing to be afraid of, and yet I was behaving as though I were scared to death. I wondered if I was acting, if I was shaking and screaming like that because the others were doing it and I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t sure. But the suggestion made me wonder if, indeed, all my life I’d been acting, doing what I knew was expected. Perhaps, I thought, all my intelligence has been just a sham. Perhaps I haven’t understood anything at all, but have just been parroting back what was wanted by teachers and friends. Perhaps my whole life has been a ploy to impress people, so they wouldn’t see how really empty I am inside.
The world around me, the other two hundred and fifty people, most of whom were also screaming or crying or laughing hysterically, all of a sudden appeared but the surface of my consciousness. Inside me there seemed nothing but empty space. In looking out, I realized, I was seeing the illusion of myself, just as years before I’d realized that in looking out I was seeing the face of God.
Then one of the new assistants came to stand in front of me, his face only a couple of inches from mine. And though he looked nothing like me, I saw that he was me and that I was nobody.
Satori. My ego was gone. It had been just a sham. There was really nobody here. All my life had been only a cover to protect me from my fears. The world wasn’t real. Nobody else was real. We were all merely playing like persons, pretending we were not really deathly afraid of the emptiness that is life.
The screaming and crying continued. But now I was no longer surprised. The me that had been watching, wondering how they’d done this, was gone. There was just the crying and it felt good: as someone must feel who has endured incredible danger totally in control, but breaks down in tears of relief when once the danger passes. Only this danger had been going on for a lifetime.
How we all had the stamina to carry on like that I don’t know. It lasted for hours. After a while, the room was rearranged again and we curled up into balls on the floor and were guided toward the realization that if all our lives we’d been afraid of the others and pretended not to be, then it followed that all the others were afraid of us and were likewise pretending a show of bravery. In fact, just as our show was affected to protect us, so the very show that scared us was affected by the others to protect them. But there was nothing really to be afraid of. Years of fear somehow cried and screamed themselves out. Finally, at almost three in the morning, the hysteria subsided and a wonderful peace and security filled the room. We could go home.
I do not know what the others experienced. I suspect each understood it his or her own way. For some, the process probably affirmed their self-worth. For some, I’m sure, it affirmed their business ambitions. For me it affirmed the experience of emptiness. Once again, I’d been God and God had been nothing, nothing at all. Not one square inch on which to stand.
Whatever the others got from those hours of screaming I am sure had something to do with facing the emptiness and finding therein the salvation we were all looking for. That wisdom was, at least for a while, profoundly transforming —somehow a little too bound up in the est jargon and presentation, but profound nonetheless.
This wisdom is presented by est in a way that mobilizes the participants’ ability to deal with what is one of the primary issues for any system of psychological or spiritual development. That is, how to change patterns of behavior. For human behavior becomes habitual. Each time a person repeats a particular pattern of responses to a life situation, that pattern is reinforced; the next time such a situation arises, the person will tend to repeat the same behavior, even when it is self-defeating. If it is going to alter the life, a conversion experience has to break this cycle of reinforced learning. Therefore, any effective conversion must teach techniques that keep the conversion active and thereby reinforce the new patterns of behavior.
Roman Christianity, for instance, mythologizes the effect of sin that influences a person to repeat the sin and to suffer the consequences of the action as “temporal punishment due to sin,” which must be made up either in this life or in purgatory in the afterlife. The punishment can be eradicated, however, by performing good works and religious practices that earn “indulgences.” For a devout Catholic, then, included in the performance of religious acts—especially the reception of the sacraments—is the faith that these acts bring release from the past, so that one can feel confident that one’s life is changing and will be changed in the future.
Hinduism, in its varied forms, teaches that the commission of “sin” incurs karma, which is the tendency to suffer the same injustice one has caused another and to continue repeating such acts and to become the kind of person who commits sin. Religious practices, especially darshan (being in the presence and under the influence of a saving person or a relic of a saving person), tend to clear away these karmic accretions. Meditative practice—in one of its modern forms, Transcendental Meditation, for instance—allows the karmic accretions to rise up into consciousness as memories of the karma-incurring acts or of consequent attitudes, which are then swept away by the cleansing repetition of the meditative mantra.
Psychoanalysis utilizes the practice of free association to bring up the past in the presence of an analyst who—through either calm, passive acceptance or intelligent interpretation— assists the analysand to de-cathect psychic energy from its past objects so that previous neurotic patterns arc broken.
The est explanation is that patterns are reinforced by resistance to experience, but “disappeared” by experiencing them fully. When one does not resist one’s experience, the quality of life improves and one keeps developing and growing into the future. Assumed as axiomatic is the principle that what one resists persists, while what one consciously experiences disappears. Acceding to this axiom is one of the few real leaps of faith that est demanded; the system was sophisticated enough to convince the trainees, however, that the axiom is not only correct, but obvious to anyone who looks. Because of the “operational principle” —that the mind seeks its own survival—events associated with survival threatening issues are resisted and pushed out of consciousness. And since all experiences are so associated, if only because of memories from infancy when survival was the only thought, all experience is resisted. Thus, in fact, people don’t experience life at all. And they continue to repeat patterns that are self-defeating, limit their ‘‘aliveness,” curtail their growth, and prevent them from experiencing “who they are,” which is the Self that creates the world out of emptiness.
Responding to an event is likened to plugging a tape cartridge into a cybernetic system. Each time an event happens, it is said, a person pulls out the old tape for that event, plugs it in, and repeats the previous response—which, since it is fraught with survival fears, is one of resisting life. And the pattern is reinforced. But when an event occurs and one pulls out the old tape, plugs it in, and consciously and deliberately chooses the event to happen just the way it does, one becomes conscious of the response and, without resistance, experiences it fully. Then, in fact, the tape is erased.
Choosing every event that happens to you, recognizing the consequences as integral to the event, allows you to experience it and so “disappear” it. Then nonexperiencing changes to experiencing, and the cycles of karmic repetition are broken. This developmental method was one of the key notions of est. To mythologize and thereby strengthen this process of choosing, est proposed that we all have absolute power over our lives; that, indeed, as “who we really are,” we have already chosen everything in our lives. This proposition, which parallels the Tibetan Buddhist notion that each of us from the bardo state before conception chooses exactly the situation in which to reincarnate, results in est’s solipsism. This solipsism is, in fact, a mythologization of the developmental method.
In the same way that the Mahayanist is urged to identify with the bodhisattva who has chosen to take upon himself, and therefore affirm, all experience, so the est trainee is urged to see himself or herself as the source or creator of the entire universe, responsible for everything in it, having already chosen it. By affirming that choice and accepting the responsibility, the karma of the past is “disappeared,” barriers drop away, and “space” is created. When there is more space, the past survival fears cease to dominate our lives and the quality improves, “miracles” begin to happen, we are buoyed up by life and pushed ahead with feelings of vibrancy and aliveness. The quality of life is thus transformed, and what have been difficulties clear up on their own. As we choose the content, we transform the “context.” The developmental method that allows the trainees to choose their experience and so recognize their identity with the self is reinforced by a teaching of radical solipsism. The solipsism, in turn, is fit into the developmental method by the introduction of the notion of intentionality.
Thus it is said that, since each person is God in his or her own universe, each person can determine what happens. On the one hand, the teaching asserts very clearly that one’s intention can only be to choose things the way they are: The way always to be right and always to get what you want is always to choose things to be exactly the way they are.
The way they are is, after all, the way you chose them to be. The est trainers dramatized this teaching in a delightfully instructive way by remarking throughout the training that various things that occur, for instance where people happened to sit, do so because of choice. They joked that during the breaks they had drawn up a seating plan for the upcoming session, and were pleased to see that it has worked. On the other hand, the teaching suggests that by “getting your intention clear” you can achieve control over your life and begin to make space so that you can get what you want.
An elaborate recruitment program had been developed in the est organization. Because est calls for everyone in the world to choose his or her own life, to take responsibility for the world, to tell the truth, and to be open to negotiating with others for what goods and satisfactions are available to be shared, of which, it said, there is no scarcity) so that the world will “work,” est necessarily needed to “train” everyone. Trainees come to realize that in order for their lives to work, everyone’s life must work. And since they were persuaded to attribute the working of their lives to est, they saw that everyone must be recruited for est. Indeed, as part of the persuasion, they were told that the “miracles” would cease if they were not actively participating in communicating the est wisdom.
Obviously, the fact that people experience “miracles” which means that they feel satisfied with their lives, since they are actively choosing everything to happen just the way it does and therefore always getting what they choose —seemed to verify that “est works.” That was Erhard’s claim to authority. All too often the “miracles” were simply things like finding a parking space when one needed one, having the bus come just as one arrived at the stop, getting a raise in salary. These are trivial, and it seemed to trivialize the whole wisdom to verify it by such inconsequential alterations in a life. But the events were sometimes amazing and they impressed new “graduates”—as initiates are called—with the power of the system.
The “miracles” are est’s major selling point. What happens, however, was that the recruitment concern created a subtle change in the doctrine itself . In the interests of advertising, the graduates began to sing the praises of est. Subtly, insidiously, they ceased to say that they are wanting what they get and begin to say that they are getting what they want. That change is subtle, but it distorts the doctrine significantly.
What began as a teaching that life is lived well when you don’t resist experience, and disinterestedly but vitally take things as they come, has shifted to a promise that life can be manipulated and destiny changed. What was originally a call to awareness of the power of intentionality, by which all sentient beings collectively create the world of consensual reality and by which, through cooperation, that reality can be improved, has become a justification for an individual with a “clear intention” to be forceful, pushy, and opportunistic.
The shift happened for two reasons, both stemming from imperatives of organizational maintenance. The first was the need for recruitment. In spite of the fact that it is common wisdom in all cultures that the way through suffering is acceptance of it, it remains difficult to recruit new members to a group that will teach them to accept their suffering and dissatisfaction. The second was est’s ambition to appeal to the middle class.
Erhard rightly recognized that if his enlightenment was really going to change the world, it had to appeal to the great mass of Americans who, though powerless themselves, are the channels of power in American society. They are the middle-level managers, bureaucrats, functionaries, property owners, family builders, the “silent majority,” who constitute the work force of the American system. Their inertia keeps the system going. If they could be touched, Erhard must have realized, the entire system could be in influenced and transformed. Emptiness could be announced to the masses, and once their love and cooperation were mobilized, they would rise up and create utopia.
The problem is that to reach them one must assume some of the values and the trappings that they understand and respect. One must promise that success will somehow look like the upward mobility that the middle class prizes as its peculiar privilege. And this determined est’s public image: trainings were generally held in fancy hotels; est’s literature was professional and slick; and its appeal promised a life replete with the comforts and affluence valued by mainstream American culture.
The model of the successful est graduate, the person who “got it,” as est called its enlightenment experience, was of course Werner Erhard himself. In some respects he appeared a warm and likeable man. With clear, deep eyes and a penetrating but friendly gaze, a strong nose and jaw, tanned and (to add a touch of verisimilitude) just faintly pockmarked skin, a stylish collegiate haircut, a winning smile, broad shoulders, and an athletic build almost always clothed in soft cashmere sweaters or tailored suits, usually with the shirt collar casually unbuttoned, he seemed a fine example of the best qualities of the successful, white middle-class, heterosexual male. (Though est made successful outreaches to incarcerated members of the lower class, it had been fairly unsuccessful in recruiting large numbers of poor or Third World trainees.) Erhard had certainly achieved all that he promised the est attitude could give. And that, of course, was precisely where the criticism of est must be directed.
The problem with est was not the money it cost. It was only indirectly the “narcissism” it encouraged. Since it proposed a monism in which all the separate solipsists are, in fact, manifestations of the one Self and so none can be “saved” until all are saved, the wisdom urged active, moral, and political participation in creating a utopian world—which could hardly be called a narcissistic ideal. The problem with est was that it failed to question the value system of those to whom it appeals.
Erhard rightly denied the accusation that est was “pop psychology.” It was very sophisticated. It was, however, pop mysticism. And like most attempts (perhaps including this present book) to popularize mystical teaching, it failed to be radical enough. Despite the (ex opere operato) sacramental-sounding guarantee that even if they slept through the training, so long as they stayed in the room and followed instructions they would “get the results,” graduates didn’t always “get” it. They didn’t continue to take seriously and radically the fundamental teachings that everything is perfect just the way it is, and that wanting things to be different only makes the undesired state persist.
A prototypical example of this failure to really “get” the basic message was the pressure by the leaders of the follow-up seminars to make seminarians bring guests to recruitment functions. Week after week, the leaders scolded the seminarians for not being serious enough in their commitment to participate in the training by “sharing their experience of est,” which meant proselytizing. Yet the basic tenet of the system held that resisting the fact that guest quotas were not met would only cause that situation to persist. And, of course, it did persist. So the leader scolded more and fewer guests were invited and more scoldings followed.
It does not take a sophisticated mystical doctrine to explain why that approach alienates people. But it also, of course, “winnows the wheat from the chaff” and guaranteed that those who continued to take follow-up seminars and volunteer to work for est would be those who were most easily persuaded and who became dependent on the organization. Organizational concerns were, therefore, reinforced and est teaching appeared to encourage being obsessive-compulsively efficient, following instructions unquestioningly, and pressuring all comers to sign up to be trained.
The wisdom of est was profound. Though completion of a two-weekend session of powerful, emotionally cathartic processes probably shouldn’t be called “enlightenment”—that only dilutes the meaning of the word—it certainly appeared that Werner Erhard had seen deep into the epistemological malaise of modern society and discovered a path through it to the divinity and wonder that lie on the other side.
What we can learn from est, by taking a critical stance on it, is that emptiness is a hard teaching. Its questioning of values and its demand that one follow one’s own path, a path that no one has taken before, must necessarily be conveyed through metaphors and symbols. By choosing for organizational purposes the metaphors, jargon, and style of modern, high-powered big business, instead of the subtle, ancient, fluid metaphors of myth, est allowed to distort its teaching of emptiness many of the values and priorities of the culture that was responsible for the malaise that Erhard was working to alleviate.
As the experience of the mendicants showed, institutionalizing the wisdom of emptiness—despite the virtual necessity to do so in order to communicate it and to align the intentions of the multiple solipsists who are creating the world—inevitably distorts and confuses the wisdom. It is true that est was a powerful aid in confronting the emptiness. The training could be recommended wholeheartedly. Yet it, too, must be subjected to its own analysis and be stripped of its pretensions. You failed to “get it” if you completed the training and still thought that est is “it.”
The wisdom that est taught about how to deal with life and self in the context of the experience of emptiness is found in many places. It has, in some respects, always pervaded the esoteric and mystical teachings of groups like the Masonic Orders, the Rosicrucians, and the Theosophists, though it was often expressed in forms that today seem highly mythologized. Today we seek to avoid the most obvious mythological expressions (though, of course, even in creating metaphors that seem less dramatic and sentimental and more scientific and psychological, we are still creating myths).
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth
of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the
real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual
qualities of gay male consciousness.
back to top