This article relies extensively on quotations that were previously collated by an advocacy or lobbying group.(March 2018)
|Privately held corporation (defunct)|
|Headquarters||San Francisco, California, United States|
|Werner Erhard, founder|
Erhard Seminars Training (marketed as est, though often encountered as EST or Est), an organization founded by Werner Erhard in 1971, offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as "The est Standard Training". This seminar aimed "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". An est site claims that it "brought to the forefront the ideas of transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility".
Est seminars took place from late 1971 to late 1984, and spawned a number of books from 1976 to 2011. Est has featured in a number of films and television shows, including the critically acclaimed spy-series The Americans in 2013. Est is an outgrowth of the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s through to the 1970s.
As est grew, so did criticism. In 1977, the film Semi-Tough which ridiculed est was released. Semi-Tough was reproduced up to "you are assholes everyone" which was Erhard's familiar phrase. est was accused of mind control and labeled a cult. David G. Bromley places "Erhard Seminar Training" with Lifespring and Amway in a grouping of "quasi-religious therapies and corporations".
The last est training took place in December 1984 in San Francisco. The seminars gave way to a gentler course called The Forum, which began in January 1985.
The est Standard Training program consisted of two weekend-long workshops with evening sessions on the intervening weekdays. Workshops generally involved about 200 participants and were initially led by Erhard and later by people trained by him. Ronald Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, called est "an important experience in which two hundred people go through a powerful curriculum over two weekends and have a learning experience that seemed to change many of their lives." Trainers confronted participants one-on-one and challenged them to be themselves rather than to play a role that had been imposed on them by the past.Jonathan D. Moreno observed that "participants might have been surprised how both physically and emotionally challenging and how philosophical the training was." He writes that the critical part of the training was freeing oneself from the past, which was accomplished by "experiencing" one's recurrent patterns and problems rather than repeating them. The word experience was used to mean a process of fully experiencing the pointless repetition of old, burdensome behaviors so as to not be run by them. The seminar aimed to enable participants to shift their contextual state of mind around which their life was organized from the attempt to get satisfaction or to survive, to an experience of actually being satisfied and experiencing oneself as whole and complete in the present moment. The est training offered people the opportunity to free themselves from the past, rather than living a life enmeshed by their past.
Participants agreed to follow the ground rules which included not wearing watches, not talking until called upon, not talking to one's neighbors, not eating at or leaving their seats to go to the bathroom except during breaks separated by many hours. Participants who were on medication were exempt from these rules, and had to sit in the back row, so that they would not interfere with the other participants. These classroom agreements provided a rigorous setting whereby people's ordinary ways to escape confronting their experience of themselves were eliminated. Moreno describes the est training as a form of "Socratic interrogation...relying on the power of the shared cathartic experience that Aristotle observed." Erhard challenged participants to be themselves instead of playing a role that had been imposed on them and aimed to press people beyond their point of view, into a perspective from which they could observe their own positionality. As Robert Kiyosaki writes, "During the training, it became glaringly clear that most of our personal problems begin with our not keeping our agreements, not being true to our words, saying one thing and doing another. That first full day on the simple class agreements was painfully enlightening. It became obvious that much of human misery is a function of broken agreements - not keeping your word, or someone else not keeping theirs."
Sessions lasted from 9:00 a.m. to midnight or the early hours of the morning, with one meal break. Participants had to hand over wristwatches and were not allowed to take notes, or to speak unless called upon, in which case they waited for a microphone to be brought to them. The second day of the workshop featured the "danger process".:384 As a way of observing and confronting their own perspective and point of view, groups of participants were brought onto the stage and confronted. They were asked to "imagine that they were afraid of everyone else and then that everyone else was afraid of them":384 and to re-examine their reflex patterns of living that kept their lives from working. This was followed by interactions on the third and fourth days, covering topics such as reality and the nature of the mind, looking at the possibility that "what is, is and what ain't, ain't," and that "true enlightenment is knowing you are a machine":384 and culminating in a realization that people do not need to be stuck with their automatic ways of being but can instead be free to choose their ways of being in how they live their lives. Participants were told they were perfect the way they were and were asked to indicate by a show of hands if they "had gotten it".
Eliezer Sobel said in his article, "This is It: est, 20 Years Later":
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.
Many participants experienced powerful results through their participation in the est training, including dramatic transformations in their relationships with families, their work and personal vision as well as recognizing who they were in the core of their beings. One study of a large sample of est alumni who had completed the training at least 3 months before revealed that "the large majority felt the experience had been positive (88%), and considered themselves better off for having taken the training (80%).
Werner Erhard reported having a personal transformation, and created the est training to allow others to have the same experience. The first est course was held at a Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, California, in October 1971. Within a year, trainings were being held in New York City and other major cities in the United States followed soon after. They were carried out by Werner Erhard, who had recently resigned from Mind Dynamics.
Beginning in July 1974 the est training was delivered at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, California, with the approval of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Initial est training in Lompoc involved participation of 12-15 federal prisoners and outside community members within the walls of the maximum security prison and was personally conducted by Werner Erhard.
By 1979, est had expanded to Europe and other parts of the world. In 1980 the first est training in Israel was offered in Tel Aviv. In 1983 in the United States, a participant collapsed during a portion of the seminar known as "the danger process" and died at the hospital to which he had been transported. A court subsequently found that the est training was not the cause of death
The est training presented several concepts, most notably the concept of spiritual transformation and taking responsibility for one's life. The actual teaching, called "the technology of transformation", emphasizes the value of integrity. As est grew, so did criticism. It was accused of mind control and labeled a cult by some critics who said that it exploited its followers by recruiting and offering numerous "graduate seminars". The last est training was held in December 1984 in San Francisco.
It was replaced by a gentler course called "The Forum", which began in January 1985. "est, Inc." evolved into "est, an Educational Corporation", and eventually into Werner Erhard and Associates. In 1991 the business was sold to the employees who formed a new company called Landmark Education with Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, becoming the CEO. Landmark Education was structured as a for-profit, employee-owned company; it operates as Landmark Worldwide with a consulting division called Vanto Group.
In W. W. Bartley III's biography of Werner Erhard, Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est (1978), Erhard describes his explorations of Zen Buddhism. Bartley quotes Erhard as acknowledging Zen as the essential contribution that "created the space [for est]".
Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned, Zen was the essential one. It was not so much an influence on me, rather it created space. It allowed those things that were there to be there. It gave some form to my experience. And it built up in me the critical mass from which was kindled the experience that produced est.
'The purpose of the EST training,' we were told when I took it as a college student in the early '80s, 'is to transform your ability to experience living so that the situations you have been trying to change or have been putting up with clear up just in the process of life itself.'
Reed's show-slash-seminar takes its inspiration from the human-potential movement that spanned a couple of decades. Erhard Seminars Training (est), which began running weekend workshops in the 1970s and later evolved into Landmark Education -- "Create a future of your own design," Landmark's website reads -- may be the best-known. Today's est site claims: "Werner Erhard and the est Training brought to the forefront the ideas of transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility ... and over a million people 'Got it.'" [..] Reed gets it with his farcical take on those inhabiting that world, and with his rendition of those seminars' goals, lingo, leaders and aftereffects.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades during which there was a proliferation of social movements and new religions of various kinds. There were New Age movements [...], quasi-religious therapies and corporations (Erhard Seminar Training, Lifespring, Amway), a diverse array of intentional communities and a host of political movements.