Werner Erhard’s est [Erhard Seminar Training and Latin for “it is”] was one of the more successful entrants in the human potential movement. est is an example of what psychologists call a large group awareness training program.
The first est seminar was held in October, 1971, at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco with nearly 1,000 in attendance. Erhard and est were known for training people to get “It”, a concept taken from author, teacher and expert communicator Alan Watts. At the time Erhard arrived in the Bay Area, Watts was teaching his version of Zen to small groups on his houseboat in Sausalito. Erhard, like Watts, would teach people to “Get It.” Watts, however, did most of his teaching through books. His seminars were small. Erhard and his trainers would not teach through books, but in large hotel ballrooms and auditoriums to hundreds at a time.
(Writing about a program that no longer exists and that was taken by hundreds of thousands of people is risky, to say the least. Clearly, the experiences of those who took the program varied greatly. Whatever I say that resonates with one group of participants will seem false to another group. What follows is an attempt to reflect the background and the experience of est, but the reader should realize that whatever I say will be inadequate, perhaps even false, for some participants.)
est adopted, in part, the Zen master approach, which was often abusive, profane, demeaning, and authoritarian. (One of my favorite Zen stories is of the master who asks his disciple a series of questions. No matter what the disciple answers, the master hits him with a stick. Even contradictory answers are met with the stick. The result is not resentment but enlightenment. If you stick around long enough, life will teach you this lesson for free: no matter what you do, it hits you with its stick!) While many participants did not perceive the training as particularly abusive, some were not used to the discipline requested of them. Some have claimed that one typically abusive approach was the requirement of extraordinary bladder control in est training. Participants were advised not to leave the room, even to go to the toilet, during training. According to one est participant, however, “bathroom breaks were scheduled at regular and reasonable intervals….Two or three rows at the back of the room were reserved for those who required more frequent bathroom breaks (and I think either some sort of documentation or personal insistence were required to qualify). No one was ever physically required to stay in the room at any time” (personal correspondence). (This aspect of est training was humorously ridiculed in the movie “Semi-Tough” (1978) with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristoferson.) In any case, one should expect some sort of discipline and required order for this kind of training. Having people come and go as they please is distracting and not conducive to the concentration necessary for such a program.
Erhard and Scientology
In the late 1960s, Erhard studied Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard became a significant influence. Scientologists to this day accuse Erhard of having stolen his main ideas for est from Hubbard. We do know that when Erhard set up est he considered making it a non-profit, as Hubbard had done with dianetics and the Church of Scientology. But Erhard decided to incorporate as an educational firm for profit in a broad market.
Erhard and his supporters accuse Scientology of being behind various attempts to discredit Erhard, including hounding by the IRS and accusations of incest by his children. Erhard won a lawsuit against the IRS and the incest accusations were recanted. Erhard has claimed he has good evidence that Scientologists made a strong and concerted effort to destroy him.
est is not dianetics
est bears little resemblance to Dianetics or Scientology, however. est is a hodgepodge of philosophical bits and pieces seemingly culled from the carcasses of existential philosophy, motivational psychology, Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud, Abraham Maslow, L. Ron Hubbard, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, P. T. Barnum, and apparently anything else that Erhard’s intuition told him would work in the burgeoning human potential market. (I’m not saying that such eclecticism is a bad thing or that Erhard consciously constructed est out of just these sources. I employ bits and pieces from many of the same sources in my teaching. In fact, after a Socratic performance on the first day of an Introduction to Philosophy course, a student once blurted out: “This is just like est!”)
What did Erhard promise those who would shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for his programs? He promised he would “blow their minds”* and “empower” them “to produce effective action.” He would enable them “to produce new ways of working.” He would transform the basis of their communication. They would be able “to cause life instead of just living it.” “Werner Erhard held out the tantalizing promise of transformation, a word and a concept never precisely defined in the fuzzy syntax-twisted jargon of est” (Pressman 1993).
Where did Erhard get his training? Mostly, he is self-taught. His study was undirected and accidental. In 1960 he was John Rosenberg, a 25-year-old married with children. Apparently dissatisfied with his life but with no Large Group Awareness Training available to him, he did what many unhappy men have done: he abandoned his family. He left Philadelphia and went to St. Louis, changed his name and sold cars. Some might find it interesting that a man with a Jewish father whose parents had him baptized in the Episcopal church would come to identify himself with a German name. Of more interest to his transformation, however, are the books he read and was influenced by. William Warren Bartley III (Werner Erhard: the Transformation of a Man) tells us that Erhard was “profoundly dissatisfied with the competitive and meaningless status quo” and was deeply affected by Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
Hill’s three basic principles are: every achievement begins with an idea; plans call for their implementation and; what you think is what you do. Think positive, you will do positive deeds.
Hill also advised visualizing objectives and selecting similar-minded friends. Hill gives good advice, but it is very vague and is not very systematic. It doesn’t offer much to people who haven’t got a clue what their objectives are or should be. Some of his ideas can be harmful, if not properly applied. For example, some people are taught that they should always talk positive, even if this means lying. Even if you haven’t made a sale in two years, you must put on a positive front and tell everyone that business couldn’t be better. Even if you know nothing about the product you are selling, you must praise it beyond belief. Even if you are experiencing one failure after another, you must lie to yourself and tell yourself that you are doing great. You must never blame the product for not selling. You must try harder, have more faith, be more positive. The est training was not, however, a prelude to, say, The Secret, where the message is an extension of Hill’s think it and it will become so philosophy. est was not just more Norman Vincent Peale.
Another significant influence on Erhard was Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-cybernetics. As a young man, Erhard apparently had a lot of negatives in his self-image and was deeply affected by Maltz who emphasized, among other things, self-hypnosis.
Erhard put his new ideas and new self to work as a traveling salesman for a correspondence school. The basic idea he came to espouse is that we’ve developed debilitating habits and beliefs. The point is to get rid of them and replace them. As one participant said, his est trainer told them that
the brain always was functioning as a self-perpetuating machine, programmed to repeat over and over again the same mechanistic responses to similar situations facing people in their daily lives.
“I’ll tell you everything there is to know about life,” the trainer gleefully announced. “What is, is, and what ain’t, ain’t.” (Pressman 1993)
Another participant describes what he got out his est training this way:
Perhaps the most eloquent and concise description of “it” that I have ever come across is from an Alan Watts essay, “This Is It”:
“To the individual thus enlightened it appears as a vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, as a whole and in every one of its parts, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is….the mind is so wonder-struck at the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they are, including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst, that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection and beauty of the experience…The central core of the experience seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate now, whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all living.”
That, in a nutshell, is “it,” and as Watts indicates, it occurs now. And I do believe, some two decades later, that that is what I got at the est training. Of course, that was then. (Although when I got it, it was now.) (Sobel 1998)
For Sobel, the training was something like one might expect in a Zen Buddhist retreat:
And so yes, I did “get it” at the est training twenty years ago, and what I got is that it always already is (and isn’t), so therefore I still have it today (and don’t), and it includes at times having the absolute certainty that I in fact never truly got it (or lost it) and nor do I still have it (although I do.) Get it?
This is the sound of one hand clapping for itself, I guess.
By the time Erhard arrived in San Francisco, he’d had jobs selling and managing salespersons for Great Books and Parent’s magazine. He became part of the self-help movement after hiring Robert Hardgrove, who introduced Erhard to the work of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow and Rogers were unique in psychology at the time, for they emphasized not the disturbed or ill person, but the healthy, happy, satisfied, accomplishing person. The human potential movement was just getting started and Erhard would be in on the ground floor.