Back in the seventies, several people close to me went through a new kind of group experience known as est. It was the brainchild of one Werner Erhard, and est stood for Erhard Seminars Training. The purpose of the training was to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change, or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself. In other words, to give people the opportunity to free themselves from the past, rather than living a life enmeshed in it.
In the wake of the counterculture sixties, it caught on like wildfire among a growing segment of people seeking personal enlightenment, and stories abounded regarding the rigorous and somewhat bizarre practices of the training, such as instructors yelling in your face that you were full of shit, participants not being allowed to leave the room for food or bathroom breaks, etc. My father, brother, and cousin all went through est and enthusiastically encouraged me to do so, my father even offering to pay the $200 it cost for a stranger to yell in my face for two consecutive weekends and starve me into self-realization. I thought they had all lost their minds.
And yet, these were three well-grounded and successful men, role models in my young life, who were all claiming tremendous benefit from the experience. Areas of their lives that had been sources of conflict or tension for them, either conscious or unconscious, were remarkably clarified, and a sense of personal satisfaction and power attained. I was in my twenties then and of the opinion that my life was charmed and my past had been perfect, thereby excusing me from any need for experiential transformation. Turning down the $200 offer from my father, I went on my merry way obliquely living my life, and in the process creating more unruly past to ultimately escape from. Ah, the transcendent and inexorable value of hindsight.
This past January, on a suggestion by Daughter, I went through the Landmark Forum, a revamped and itself transformed variant of est. The face-yelling and bathroom/food moratorium have disappeared, as well as the much talked about hysteria surrounding the experience formerly known as est. What does remain are the sideways glances Forum graduates receive from those who see this kind of group experience as a cult, or mass brainwashing. Having witnessed the value of the Forum firsthand, through Daughter and then myself, my response to those who ask me, “Isn’t that a cult where they brainwash you?” is “Do I strike you as someone who would join a cult and be brainwashed?” The answer I always receive is, “No, but. . . ” and then silence, because silence is an appropriate response to hearing the answer to a ridiculous question, even one I may have asked myself thirty-five years ago.
So now let me tell you what the Landmark Forum is about. To avoid personal interpretation, the following is excerpted from the Forum syllabus, followed exactly each time the course is given, and in a setting of about 150 people:
Already Always Listening™
In the Already Always Listening™ segment, we visit the notion that while we think of ourselves as open-minded and objective, in fact our approach to ourselves, our circumstances and others is often filtered and even obscured by pre-existing notions and ideas—by our upbringing, our values, our past experiences.
In this session, we see those filters for what they are—an all-pervasive influence that profoundly colors our relationships with people, circumstances and even ourselves. An awareness of these filters, and a recognition of the striking limits that they impose, allows for a refreshing freedom. People, situations and our approach to life alter dramatically.
The Vicious Circle™
In the Vicious Circle™ segment, we suggest that it is a human tendency to collapse what happened, with the story we tell about what happened. This collapsing happens so fast it becomes hard to separate the two, and we think of them as one and the same. Almost immediately, and certainly over time, the story we tell ourselves becomes the way it is—the reality we know. It limits what is possible in our lives, robbing us of much of our joy and effectiveness.
When we are able to separate what happened from our story or interpretation, we discover that much of what we considered already determined, given and fixed, may in fact not be that way. Situations that may have been challenging or difficult become fluid and open to change. We find ourselves no longer limited by a finite set of options, and able to achieve what we want with new ease and enjoyment.
Change vs. Transformation
We take for granted that things “are” a particular way. To effect change, we go to work on altering circumstances, the people around us, even ourselves. In this session, we explore the difference between change and transformation. Change is essentially a comparison to something that previously existed. By its very nature, change is past-based. Essentially, change yields more, better, or different from what came before. Transformation, on the other hand, is an act of bringing forth or inventing. It is something created, and is inherently expansive and infinite.
It is here in this section of The Landmark Forum that the shift, or transformation, occurs for people. This dramatic shift enables us to think and act outside existing views and limits, and to redefine ourselves and the reality we have known.
Back in the days of est, this transformation was known as “getting it.” Call it what you will, it is an experience you share with others in the room, but keep for yourself always, like discovering new muscles and learning how to exercise them. It’s hard not to be different after such intense and effective life coaching, and even harder to describe it to friends and family. Ironically, people often say to me after I’ve told them that the gift of the Forum is that I feel empowered in my life, work, and relationships, “Oh, I know someone who would really benefit from that,” and it’s always a wife, husband, friend, mother, etc., never the person themselves. I smile and think, “Yeah, why on earth would you want that for yourself?”
Daughter’s Fotos throw Random Art from near and far at our feet