|Waking Up: Est and Lifespring|
Just when I needed his help, Larry O'Rourke, a successful patent lawyer and a neighbor, invited me to an EST (Erhard Seminar Training, now known as The Forum) guest event. I was happy to join Larry and his wife, Joy. Larry promised me an interesting, free evening, and said that EST had made a dramatic difference in his life.
The evening deeply engaged my interest and won my qualified support for EST. I was impressed by the audience of 300, including guests and EST graduates. The speaker was clear, confident and likeable and everyone was enthusiastic. I was persuaded: (1) that the EST course could help to transform my life, and (2) that I am responsible for the "results" in my life. I was sure that EST was a fabulous course but also, somehow, convinced that I already knew everything in the course and certainly did not need to spend $450 for it.
It took a whole year before I would budge from that know-it-all position. At the end of that year, Larry invited me to another guest event, this time a small gathering of lawyers in a Virginia home. I was pleased to go, and I loved the evening, agreeing with everything that the woman speaker said. I became such a vocal ally of hers that I felt compelled to enroll, even though the cost was still $450 and I had learned more about how intense it was -- spanning 60 hours on two consecutive weekends.
After I enrolled in EST, I unexpectedly injured my back while squatting in the rain to change a flat tire. I strained all my muscles to rotate the tire iron but the rusted bolt would not budge. The result was a badly injured upper back. It was not painful during the first day, but then began giving me serious pain in my upper back and right arm. I stayed home from work in great pain, even with medication and even though I sat on my bedroom floor with a traction device hooked over the door. When I went to the office after several days, I was still in pain, so I rigged a traction pulley on the ceiling above my desk and I constantly used a neck brace, the traction and medication.
The first day of the EST course, which was held in a large motel ballroom, I was still in great pain, so I gained an exception from the "groundrules" so I could lie on the floor in an aisle near my seat. Then the real fun began. We had about 200 people in the course, which began with a lengthy discussion of groundrules. There were many rules, including: staying in the room during all course sessions, lasting over two weekends; being on time for every session; not wearing a watch in the room; not eating or drinking in the room; not talking unless instructed to do so by the course facilitator.
There was enormous resistance to these rules, which were discussed for almost four hours. The facilitator was a stone wall. Exceptions to rules were available only for health reasons. He insisted that none of us was a "special case" requiring our own special rules.
This gave me a long time to think about how I treated rules in my life. I discovered that I in fact constantly made myself a special case. I would argue against even the most trivial rules. And with my skill as a lawyer, I often won exceptions from rules, after causing constant conflict around me. I had plenty of time to wonder why I spent so much effort in fighting the rules.
But the groundrules exercise grew on me. Gradually I became aware that life itself has groundrules, including the groundrule that bothered me when I was only five -- that we all must die. I realized that I had no power to vary the groundrules of life and that my indignation was arrogant and wasted. It was pointless to be angry over the way things were. By maintaining that anger, I senselessly used up precious energy, without doing anything to make the world better. Ultimately, as I reflected on groundrules, I learned the importance of accepting life so that I could live within the groundrules and work for practical changes.
EST also taught me about my own mind. Ever since Junior High School, I had made a choice to live life as a scientist. I treated my experiences as data to decide what was Right. I had filled my mind with beliefs that I considered to be precious philosophical hypotheses and theorems. I used them to judge everything I saw or heard.
This "scientific" approach closed my mind to almost anything new, which was sure to be inconsistent with my elaborate structure. I found it emotionally trying to attend college or law school lectures. I became very ansious because the professors spoke too fast for me to judge their thoughts. Lectures were such an agony that I soon stopped going to classes altogether. I preferred to read the texts thoroughly, even reading additional outside material to make up for missed lectures, rather than to expose myself to a stream of thoughts in a lecture.
Suddenly, at the age of 45, the EST course forced a wedge of light into my mind, giving me a fresh perspective on how tightly ordered and resistant I had become. I began evaluating what this mental process was doing to me. I realized my mind was separating me from my wife, who I often could not hear, and from my son, whom I constantly "taught" and rarely had the patience to hear and respect. My precious mind was keeping me from being truly alive to the freshness of life, which threatened my "precious" ideas.
But how could this be? Before EST, I believed that I was my thoughts, which were constantly filling my head and which was the only part of me I really noticed. I accepted or rejected people based on how their beliefs compared with mine. I invariably accepted my own thoughts as "true," regardless of what someone else said. I was arrogantly convinced that I knew and the world did not.
EST forced me to sit for hours reflecting on who I am and how I work. I became the observer of myself. This gave me a new function: quality control manager over my mind and my behavior. I stopped automatically defending everything I had done and really questioned it. I became an active self-critic.
EST also encouraged self-observation through the "closed-eye exercise" -- my first experience with meditation. During "closed-eye," the facilitator induced relaxation through slowly coaxing us to place "our consciousness and awareneness" in each part of our body. He painted verbal images for us to experience or he prompted us to remember significant prior experiences. He told us that however we experienced the exercise would be "perfect," encouraging us to suspend all judgments about ourself. This state of relaxed observation cut off my usual ego defenses and freed me to reflect privately and in safety on my automatic responses, permitting me to make new choices about my life.
Part of what happened in EST was the power of being exposed to people sharing honestly, from their hearts, about important experiences in their life. This was new for me. It helped me to focus less on what made me different and "special," and more on common experience. I found that whoever shared from their heart spoke directly to my heart and my situation. I experienced more intimacy and more appreciation for others than ever before.
The whole process was so engaging that I rarely found time to use my special approval to lie on the floor. I noticed my pain but, for the most part, tolerated it. There was one time the pain become a little less: late the first Saturday night we did a "healing" exercise in which we were directed to use our mind to notice intensely what was bothering us. By placing my mind in the painful area, I did not cure my back, but I got temporary relief, demonstrating to myself the power of my mind to heal my body.
It is no wonder that on Monday morning, after a good night's sleep, I woke up from the first weekend of the course with a soft, relaxed body. I was overjoyed at the sensual feeling of water pelting my body in the shower, an experience that on previous mornings had become routine and automatic. Then I went to the kitchen, where I prepared my breakfast, but this time without my usual resentment that my wife's chronic illness kept her from preparing my food and sitting with me at breakfast. Without the resentment, I was fully aware of what I was doing. As I cracked an egg into the pan, I saw the yolk drop slowly, and I cried aloud in amazement at how yellow and round and beautiful it was. I was born anew.
By the end of the second weekend, I was ready for the closing exercise of the EST course. The facilitator gave a lengthy lecture about how the mind worked. The key points that I remember included his statement that as we grow up we are hurt many times. But we tend to exagerrate the hurts and to mold our behavior to avoid future hurts. For example, when some children fall off a bicycle when they are learning to ride, they get back on and avoid losing their balance again. Others, however, will never get back on the bicycle, overgeneralizing from their hurt. In this way, we can gradually stop taking risks and shut down many fresh possibilities in life.
The facilitator also demonstrated with two chairs, standing with one before him and one in back. He said the rear chair represented the past, and the front chair represented the future. Most of us, he said, go around with all our attention on the past and future and we forget about now, which is the only time there is. He demonstrated now with a loud clap of his hands, saying that that clap was now, and it is so fleeting that it is gone even before we name it "now."
Then the facilitator began what seemed to me a very elaborate act. He told us that we were all cockaroaches, responding to stimuli in insect-like fashion. We would never be free. We were automotons. He then walked stiffly around the stage, mimicing a mechanical robot.
In that moment, a light flashed inside. I rose to my feet and asked for a microphone. I declared that I would not be like that. All the time, I shook with tension and I was aware of the pain in my left arm. But I was determined to take on the facilitator before the whole group at this crucial time. I was determined to declare myself free. To put an end to years of automatic behavior, much as he had described.
He asked me questions and kept me talking for ten minutes. I remember wondering if I was really right about what I was saying, but when I sat down I felt an enormous release. My body was softer and lighter. I felt like a new way of being had come over me.
That was the key experience, but there was one more startling result. Before we left, there was a two-person exercise, called a diad, in which the partner I chose was black. This forced me to confront my belief that black people would not want to communicate with me. This belief had the consequence of putting distance between me and all black people. It meant that I expected rejection from all black people.
But in talking to this man, I found he was just like me and that we were both humans, needing communication with others. I do not remember his name, but I am grateful he was in the course and gave me a chance to talk to him. He helped me to bury the behaviors that made me an unaware bigot.
There was a drawback to graduating EST. My being "born again" induced the illusion that I had discovered the one true way. Since my whole attitude toward life had shifted, I believed that everything I had learned was true and that everyone -- including my wife and son -- should accept my beliefs about how to think and how to act. This new arrogance became just as impossible to them as my prior conduct had been. Although it seemed an improvement to me, it did not always seem so to them. In fact, my son soon began emphatically telling me to stop talking about EST.
Fortunately for me, I did not take any more courses from EST. The one course seemed enough. However, Mary Anna noticed a flyer at our church that advertised a course called, "Inward Bound," by Alexander Everett. The flyer attracted her and gave her the notion that there was a course that we could take together and that might deprogram me and restore some normality to our relationship.
Alexander Everett taught a very different course. He was the father of the whole "New Age" training movement, including EST, Lifespring, Actualizations Training and Insight. His company, Mind Dynamics, had employed Werner Erhard (EST) and John Hanley (Lifespring) and others, and he had developed many ideas about how to Westernize Eastern religion through giving training courses.
Alexander avoided direct interaction with his audience, and there was almost no sharing of experience. He lectured about many spiritual topics, giving me plenty of opportunity to reflect on my life. He also taught "centering," a "closed-eye" technique using both guided meditation and unstructured meditation.
Another new experience Alexander taught was chanting, which included several short chants printed on a business card for our convenience. One chant I particularly remember, because I learned it later in another context, was Sri Ram-Jay Ram. The chanting was peaceful and harmonious and it took us out of our controlled, Western ways.
Alexander used a "rainbow meditation" that used colors to help us to successively relax our body, mind, and emotions. It seemed to strip away layers of defense and lead us toward a safe, peaceful center. My meditation with Alexander reached a new plateau. I saw beautiful white lights and experienced deep calm. He also spoke often about the value of regular meditation, introducing me to the idea of spiritual practice; but I subsequently used my sore back as an excuse for not becoming committed to the recommended regular meditation, which Alexander promised would help to simplify my life and to give me peace and calm.
During the completion of "Inward Bound," we had an unexpected bonus. Nick Sussillo and his friends, all members of the "Jim Snider Fellowship," had sponsored the seminar, and they spoke about Legacy International, an international summer camp to which they were donating their share of the proceeds from the weekend. We developed a warm bond with the fellowship, which we were destined to join about a year later. The immediate effect of this bond was, however, that Mary Anna decided to take the Lifespring Training, which all the Jim Snider members had taken and recommended. Her commitment to this was so strong that she began the Lifespring Basic Course the next Wednesday.
Mary Anna loved the Lifespring Basic and invited me to the guest event held one week after the completion of that course. I loved the guest event but, once again, I thought that I knew it all and might take the advanced course, eventually, but that I did not need the Basic Course.
This time I only held off taking the Basic Course a couple of months, during which Mary Anna also completed the Advanced Course. This seemed to me a minor miracle because it meant that Mary Anna had taken and enjoyed a 70 hour course given over five days. With her chronic anemia, just finishing the course was incredible. But she was so excited about Lifespring that she immediately enrolled in the Leadership Program, a demanding three-month program of service to Lifespring.
The Lifespring Basic Course hit me as another in a series of revelations. There were many interactive exercises, in which I mingled among other people, made eye contact with a single "dyad" partner in a two-person exercise, or played a large group "game" that let us display our usual style in life so that we could examine that style carefully. There were extensive lectures, with sharing before the large group of 210 people. Of course, there were also closed-eye exercises.
I was very grateful that I had taken EST before Lifespring, as it was now possible for me to be open to the facilitator's message. The inner-voice that had judged everything happening in my life was far quieter. My back was improved, but I was on a prescription dose of Motrin (ibuprofen) to control my pain.
There were two crucial events for me in the Training, both of which depended on the entire group process. One memorable event was when I chose to share before the entire group of 200 after the game we had played. I stood in line for the microphone, and when it was my turn, I invited people to join me at a meeting at the White House that I had arranged. The meeting was a very important one in which Unitarian-Universalists would mdet with a White House counsellor about the arms-control bargaining with the Soviet Union. I very much wanted us to adopt a Win/Win strategy that would permit us to find advantages for both sides.
What happened when I invited my classmates was a real shock. The facilitator said, "I hear the words, but not the music." As he said that, I noticed the flat sound of my own voice, and I also noticed my body being stiff. I was scared and grew silent. Then the facilitator said, "Are you taking a real, personal risk?" At that moment, I chose to tell my whole truth: I told him that I was shaking and my right arm was throbbing. In that simple but courageous act, I shared my feelings with others; and I simultaneously realized how shut-down my feelings had been. These realizations instantly became more important to me than how many people would come to the White House. (The event was well attended, but only three of my Lifespring classmates joined us.)
Saturday night, three-quarters of the way through the course, was the most striking experience I had. The facilitator had a volunteer come to the front to demonstrate how the next process worked. We would stand in lines, with one person opposite us. The first direction in the process was to stop in front of them. The next direction was to look into their eyes.
Next, we were to choose, by putting one hand behind our back. We showed one finger if we refused contact with that person; the one finger meant that we would look away from the person and ignore them. Two fingers indicated a willingness to have eye contact only. Three fingers meant eye contact and limited physical contact, such as holding hands. Four fingers meant we wanted to hug, which we were urged to do simply by putting our arms around the other person and holding them close, without evasive or distancing manuvers. .
After we were finished choosing, we were instructed to vote, and there were brief instructions to renegotiate if the votes differed. After voting, we were to do it. So the instructions were: stop, look, choose, vote, and do it. Music began: Pachabel's Canon, a melody so divine that it is hard to feel any anger or distrust. The lights were dimmed slightly.
At first, I was nervous; but I was open to the experience. I was not by any means a hugger, and I was anxious about what would happen. Each person was a different experience. Each time I felt like hugging, so I voted to do so and waited to see if they would vote the same way. Every time, the other person also voted to hug. At first, this was a surprise. But not every hug was the same: there were attractive women, one woman who hugged at a distance, young men and old, heavy people, and people of all races. Each time, I voted to hug them and I did hug them. And then I looked around the room and I saw that almost everyone was hugging.
I began sobbing with joy and then I had a striking new experience. Shivers ran up and down my spine, and I felt like all the tension I had stored up over the years was draining out of my right arm -- the arm that was in pain from my back injury. Amazingly, the pain kept draining away, even after I was sure that all the tension in my body must already have drained out. And the music kept playing and fresh eyes and faces kept coming before me, many familiar from earlier in the course. I kept hugging and experiencing the miracle that I was no longer separate because the deeper truth, represented by all this hugging, is that in the core of their being, people love other people and want to be loved by them.
This dramatic, spiritual revelation changed my whole way of being one more time. Two days after the course was over, I stopped taking Motrin and when the Motrin in my system wore off, I discovered that the pain was gone! Let me repeat that: the chronic pain in my back and arm had been completely healed by the Lifespring Basic Course.
More than that. I had discovered that life was not dog-eat-dog. I had received the grace of beginning to see life as a rich, loving experience; and that grace has remained with me. The realization that I had received grace revolutionized my life, for I had not even believed in God. However, I came to believe that God actively intervened in my life. I felt his presence. I sensed his Holy Spirit in the room. I learned the meaning of the scriptural assurance that whenver two or more are gathered in His name that God is present. I am sure that God's presence in that room caused the transformation that occurred.
I am deeply grateful to the Lifespring Corporation, for the Basic Course was only a start. I have taken and recommend to others the Advanced Course, the Leadership Program, the Master's Course, the Family Course, and the Teen Training (an advanced course for the family). I also have been a volunteer Staff member on many occasions, so that others could benefit from these courses.
The Advanced Course was a necessary continuation for me. In it, I continued to dance, something I had done for the first time in the Basic Course. My dancing was eccentric and stiff, but I kept it up, so that I now enjoy it whenever I get a chance. But dancing was not the chief lesson in a course that often was painful and difficult for me. In the Advanced Course, I continued to be needy and sought eye contact when others did not want it. I also was so shut-down emotionally that I generally could not communicate warmth. The first time I showed any emotion was in a "broken image" exercise in which I had come dressed in women's clothes, including some of my wife's jewelry., This unexpectedly helped me to empathize with her and to feel some sadness.
My emotional difficulties also showed up when I was asked to perform before the group by singing "Celebration!," an upbeat song by Kool and the Gang. I studied the lyrics to the song for several hours, much longer than would have been necessary for me to give a 45 minute speech; but I blanked out on the words altogether. That would not have been so bad, because this was not a test of memory. What happened is that I was completely unmasked for being unable to celebrate at all. I could not smile or feel light or have fun. Even when my entire class of 42 was cheering me on, I still could not celebrate. Finally, I blew a few kisses to my group and the facilitator "passed" me on this exercise. But I whispered to her privately, "I really have not done it." And it became my purposeful agenda to learn to celebrate.
It was through the Leadership Program that intense work over three months brought me close enough to a group that I actually began to celebrate. I even reached the stage where I could staff the Advanced Course and model celebration for the people taking that course. I also found communication about Lifespring, which was an important part of the Leadership Program, to be a great learning experience. To communicate about such a hard-to-describe experience, was very difficult. I learned to listen very closely, so that I could relate the Lifespring courses to each listener. Lifespring calls it "focusing out." It could also be called learning to be sensitive.
Despite all my gratitude to Lifespring, I do not want to leave the impression that I never saw anything to criticize about it. At times, I can be very critical, particularly about the intense prosyletizing that occurs and that I was a part of. On the other hand, that prosyletizing helps people like me to choose to be in the course; and I can not be overly critical of intense efforts to help people to begin to experience the grace of God. I think very highly of Lifespring, which I know is viewed very critically in some circles, particularly among some of my Christian friends.
If you have been intrigued by this account, I urge you to take the courses. Seek the closest Lifespring office to you. Lifespring is currently operating in about 12 different cities throughout the United States, and it is even sometimes made available abroad. To explore your interest further you may also visit an unauthorized home page.