Something extraordinary happened to me last weekend. Following three horrid nights of sleep, I spent 13 hours a day for the next three days in a room with 135 people – and emerged in much better condition than when I had started.
That I would not have predicted. In fact, I was so exhausted by my poor sleep that I would have bet that I would not last the first day.
How to explain that? I can’t, fully, but any explanation for me has to go back about forty years ago to a similar to a similar room in Los Angeles, Ca.
First, some background: I came down with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) about 40 years ago while a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Like so many others, I was abundantly healthy. I’d never had a serious illness. I’d never even had a semi-serious illness. I was an avid exerciser, doing very well in school and studying amidst the redwoods of the UCSC campus. I had also discovered my passion – I was going to be an environmental scientist. I was on my way.
Then, with no warning at all – including any semblance of a triggering factor – it all fell apart. I came down with ME/CFS. Fast forward a year or so later, and I returned home to Southern California – exhausted, emaciated, and in pain. Extensive testing was totally unrevealing.
The term chronic fatigue syndrome had not been invented yet and none of my doctors, not surprisingly, knew anything about myalgic encephalomyelitis. I had enough energy to painfully walk up and down the block and that was it. A complete mystery to myself, my family and the medical profession – my future looked bleak.
I’d never tried to lose weight but was very, very thin and was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
Lacking any other options, I agreed to enter a six-week program in a temporary mental facility to address the anorexia. The efforts to get me well including the talks with the therapist, the game-playing, and the attempt to integrate me into the community were declared successful after I had gained a couple of pounds, and so I was discharged.
That stay made no difference in my overall condition. I was still in pain, enormously fatigued and lacked any answers. The real difference was that I’d ticked off another possible treatment option. Now, I had no idea what to do.
January 1982 – The EST Training
“You’ve got to be with your self uninterruptedly for a long time. And that’s an experience which you and I don’t afford ourselves very often. You know, we stop for a cigarette, we stop to make conversation, we stop to divert our selves, to entertain ourselves. But, during this 60 hours [of the est Training], you really get to look deep down inside your self.”–Werner Erhard, 1976
Then my mother took a course called the EST training and convinced the instructors to let me (and my twin) take it. While I’ve briefly reported the effects the EST training had on my health and well-being on the web, I’ve never really addressed what happened.
The EST training lasted two weekends and a weekday night. The weekends lasted from 9 am in the morning until the goals for that day were met, which meant that for more difficult groups – such as mine – sometimes lasted early into the morning. It was an occasionally shocking, often intense, often hilarious, sometimes boring ride. While most media accounts emphasize the course’s aggressive, in-your-face nature, I remember more the humor and joy the course evoked.
What exactly it was, though, was very difficult to explain. EST had its roots in philosophy, Zen, poetry and a menagerie of self-help courses. Most importantly, the course came out of an experience in which Werner Erhard, its creator, experienced the emptiness and meaningless of life. He asserted that right on the other side of that seemingly dismal experience lay enormous freedom.
One goal was to uncover the interpretations that Erhard asserted we had all made – many of which occurred in childhood – which limited our experience of ourselves and others. Jonathan Moreno, philosopher, called the course “a form of ‘Socratic interrogation’ … relying on the power of the shared cathartic experience”.
Here’s one of the things that helps me lot – it’s all made up anyhow. It’s interpretation all the way down. So, I’ve got to own what’s there, as belonging to me, and then I don’t have to be at the effect of it, because it belongs to me, I’m the guy that made it up. I created that conversation for me to live, if I own it, make it my own, I can let it be. Now here’s the big secret; anything you can let be, lets you be. So if I can let my own stupidity, and ignorance and smallness – if I can let it be, it lets be me, and leaves me free to be and free to act. Werner Erhard – Creator of EST
Author Eliezer Sobel wrote:
I considered the training to be a brilliantly conceived Zen koan, effectively tricking the mind into seeing itself, and in thus seeing, to be simultaneously aware of who was doing the seeing, a transcendent level of consciousness, a place spacious and undefined, distinct from the tired old story that our minds continuously tell us about who we are, and with which we ordinarily identify.
Last year a philosophical examination called “Speaking Being: Werner Erhard, Martin Heidegger, and a New Possibility of Being Human” provides a transcript of Erhard leading the second iteration of the EST training – a kinder, gentler version of it called The Landmark Forum in 1989.
Back into Life
Whatever it was (and still is), I, like many others, came out of the second weekend like a rocket blasting off.
I quickly emerged back into life. Over the next ten years, I assisted with the group frequently, held down several jobs and got my college degree. I experienced some great things during those years.
Was all well? Not at all. I was like this supercharged version of about 40% of myself. In some ways, I was just roaring away, experiencing things and states of freedom I’d never experienced before. In other ways, things sucked. I was unable to exercise without experiencing payback. I still experienced a great deal of pain and fatigue. In many ways, I felt like I was a fraction of what I had been. One place this showed up was in the less demanding food service and cashier jobs I took on for years – jobs that were far, far below my expectations when I’d been healthy.
EST, though, had given me a tremendous boost back into life. Somehow, after all the doctors, supplements and diets, it’s still easily the most effective thing I’ve ever done for ME/CFS. Nothing comes close to having the effect it had. Actually, it’s worse than that. Forty years later, nothing has really moved the needle on my health at all.
Looking back, I shudder to think what would have happened had I not taken that course. Although I didn’t know it at the time, as skinny as I was, the path I was on was probably going to end very poorly.
Five rules for a You and Me World (Werner Erhard)
Respect the other person’s point of view, whether or not you agree with it. Recognize that if you had their history, their circumstances, and the forces that play on them, you would likely have their point of view.
Consider life a privilege – all of it, even the parts that are difficult or seem a waste of time.
Give up the islands that reinforce mediocrity, the safe places where we gossip and complain to one another, where we are petty.
Take a chance. Be willing to put your reputation on the line; have something at stake.
Work for satisfaction rather than for credit.
Keep your word. There will be times when the circumstances of life will make you forget who you are and what you’re about. That is when you need to be committed to keeping your word, making what you say count.
Remarkably, that mysterious boost from EST training stuck. I never returned to that debilitated state and my health (until last year) has been largely stable since then.
My experience during EST also deeply informed my approach to ME/CFS and how I communicate and interact on this website. For one, my unlooked for response to the Training made it critical that I create Health Rising (and Phoenix Rising before that) as places where anyone who improves has a safe place to tell how.
February 2020: Landmark Education
“You and I possess within ourselves, at every moment of our lives and under all circumstances, the power to transform the quality of our lives.” — Werner Erhard
About ten years after taking “the training” as it was called, I moved from Southern California to the Bay area, got my Master’s Degree in Environmental Sciences and stopped participating in the program. I didn’t participate in EST, or Landmark as it became known, for the next twenty-five years and until last year, my health remained largely stable.
Landmark seems to have thrived. Over 3 million people have taken its courses over the past 50 years and it’s now given across the world. It has a corporate consulting division called Vanto, and Forum participants have created over 100,000 community projects.
About seven years ago, I started participating in 3-hour evening seminars that take place a couple of times a month. Off I would troop to a seminar – usually quite reluctantly, feeling fatigued and in pain – only to get out of them at 10 PM energized again.
It wasn’t until last month, though, that I attended a long weekend course. A couple of days before the course, my cold symptoms worsened considerably. The night before the course, the deep muscle aches and the swollen glands were back in full force. I woke up at 4 AM resigned to the fact that I was not going to make it through the course.
Off I went and – to my utter astonishment – emerged, after two 13-hour course days, with no cold symptoms and stronger than before I’d entered.
- Our already/always listening – the filters that limit our interactions
- The context of our lives – the long forgotten decisions we’ve made which determine where and how we interact with others
- The distinction between what happened and the interpretations we made of what happened
- Rackets – unproductive ways of being that keep us stuck
- How our relationship to the fear and anxiety we experience keeps those emotions around
- Freeing ourselves from our past.
Three days before the course, my sleep collapsed and became so fragmented that my Fitbit couldn’t even score it. By the morning of the course, I was so exhausted my muscles were trembling. There was no way, I thought, I was going to make it through the course this time.
- While a student at the University of Santa Cruz in California around 1980, I came down with ME/CFS.
- Emaciated, I returned home and was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Extensive testing failed to find anything wrong.
- Lacking any medical answers for my illness, I agreed to spend six weeks in a temporary mental health facility to address the anorexia. I gained a few pounds, was deemed successfully released, and returned in essentially the same condition, to a bleak future at home.
- After my mother did a program called the EST training, I and my twin brother enrolled in it and completed it.
- The EST training was a two weekend, approximately 60-hour course, created by Werner Erhard after an experience he had driving across the Golden Gate bridge in which he directly experienced “the emptiness and meaningless” of it all – and was immediately freed up.
- The course was an inquiry into what Erhard called the “being for human beings”. For me it was alternately intense, exasperating, joyous, illuminating, etc. experience.
- I emerged from the course like a rocket blasting off. Over the next ten years, I assisted regularly at EST, worked at various jobs and got my degree.
- I was also unable to vigorously exercise, experienced a great deal of pain and fatigue, and didn’t feel like I was half the person I was before. I was, however, back in life.
- I stopped doing EST for the next twenty-five years and my health remained stable.
- About 7 years ago, I started participating in Landmark’s (the next iteration of EST) evening seminars. Invariably I would reluctantly trudge off to the 7pm seminars in some pain and come out of them energized.
- This month, for the first time in almost 40 years, I participated in two of Landmark’s weekend long 13-hour courses.
- Prior to participating in them, my symptoms swelled to such an extent I was sure that I wouldn’t make it through them.
- Instead, despite the long hours, I made it through both of them handily, and felt substantially better after completing them than I did upon starting them.
- My guess is that the unique approach Landmark takes which, among other things, includes identifying and removing buried interpretations which limit us – reduces pressure on the two major stress response systems.
- None of the many medical treatments I’ve done since I became ill has had the slightest of effects. While it only went part of the way, EST remains the singular experience which made a difference for me. Given my emaciated state, I can only guess what would have happened if I wasn’t lucky enough to do it.
- These two programs have greatly informed the way I communicate and participate on Health Rising. They are also why I am determined to have Health Rising be an open place for people to communicate how they have improved.
The night after I finished the weekend course, my heart rate was below my normal resting heart rate during sleep an astounding 90% of the time. I had never approached that figure before. (It’s typically below my normal resting heart rate only 15-50% of the time.)
I didn’t experience the remarkable boost in vitality I did in the EST training some forty years ago (darn!), and time will tell how this all plays out for me. My ME/CFS is lessened a bit but is still abundantly here.
I can say, though, that I’m calmer, more vital, more focused, bolder, more settled in my skin, and less reactive than before. I have begun – and this time fully expect for the first time – to resolve the feelings of anxiousness that have plagued me.
- Check out a review of the course from Psychology Today.
I think the idea is that we recognize that we apply meaning to things. And if you happen to like a certain meaning, then keep it. It’s yours. Who cares if it doesn’t have meaning? If it makes you happier and gives you a reason to live, then by all means, hold onto it!
Rather, the message is that we don’t ever have to be hindered or trapped in our lives. We don’t have to beat ourselves up every time we make a mistake. And most importantly, we don’t have to stay down. Jen Kim – Valley Girl with a Brain
That suggests if we could think of ME/CFS/FM as something which “simply just happened”, that might be a good thing. (I’m working on it.) If we dissolve whatever interpretations we gave to coming down with a chronic illness about ourselves (failure, not good enough, damaged, etc.) that would probably be a good thing as well. (Working on that, too.)
I also recognize that I’ve been holding myself back in some ways, which has resulted in more pain and fatigue – not less. I’m not talking about running marathons or even going on hikes. (Overdoing it physically is something I have no trouble doing!) I mean moving forward on things that don’t require much energy but do sometimes require some real courage. I was reminded, again, that along with the energetic cost of doing too much, there is also energetic cost to not moving forward sometimes. That’s where much of the juice in life lies.
The Stress Response, Landmark and ME/CFS
My experiences with EST forty years ago and Landmark recently are a reminder for me how significant a role the stress response plays in my ME/CFS/FM. Both stress response axes – the HPA axis and the autonomic nervous system, are, after all, affected in these diseases. Anything that can calm them down can conceivably help.
While there’s clearly much more to ME/CFS than resolving stressors from the past that keep us from being fully alive, there’s no reason to think that doing so wouldn’t be helpful if you were entirely healthy, had diabetes, ME/CFS/FM or whatever. Being more fully alive is a bonus no matter what condition you are in.
Removing hidden interpretations that keep us anxious, driven, hyped-up and stressed can, as Donna Jackson Nakazawa showed with her mindfulness work and her autoimmune disease, have considerable payoffs for our biology.
While I’m sure that therapy can help reduce stress, note how little impact traditional therapy had for me. Landmark is not therapy, and it is certainly not psychology: it comes from a different context entirely. My experience is that it is far more powerful.
My experience also reminds me that the most effective approach to ME/CFS/FM for me probably lies in trying many different approaches in the hopes that they all synergize together. As I continue to explore different treatment regimens, I’m going to keep things like Landmark, the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) and body scans (relaxing meditations) around as well.
Should someone with ME/CFS/FM do Landmark? That’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves. I can only say that I’m profoundly grateful that I did.
Neither I nor Health Rising are affiliated in any way with Landmark Education.