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The Strange World of Est - John Weldon

"I don’t care how much of this is crap. It’s changed my Life." - est graduate(1)

Erhard Seminars Training (est) founded by Werner Erhard, is an intensive sixty hour seminar of psychological indoctrination designed to restructure a person’s world view. Started in 1971, the est organization has had a substantial impact for such a short history. San Francisco magazine has stated that:

Est is making a serious bid to affect basic American institutions, and Werner Erhard’s increasing influence has many people concerned. They see an effective, growing organization that has a strong political base.(2)

Presently, there are well over 200,000 est graduates. Werner Erhard has initiated an instruction program which he hopes will yield an additional 90-100 trainers by l983.(3) Since nine trainers had taught 160,000 in the years 1971-1979, est seems to be preparing for a tremendous expansion.

There have been numerous federally funded est seminars at the elementary school level in the US for both children and teachers. Nearly ten per cent of the educators in the San Francisco Unified School District are est graduates. Erhard states, "The real thrust and goal of est is to put it in education."(4)

Est has been involved in giving seminars to prison inmates, and Erhard feels it’s very important to train the police force as well.(5) He pays special attention to members of the clergy: they receive a 50% discount. Since est is profoundly affecting the life of thousands of people, we need to examine the multimillion dollar est business and see just what it is that people are paying $350 for.

Werner Erhard was born as Jack Rosenberg in 1935. He changed his name after leaving his wife and four children in 1960 (he made amends eleven years later.) He also ran an automobile dealership under the name of Jack Frost, and has been involved in several businesses, one of which the State of California filed two lawsuits against, The State charged that the Grolier Society, Inc. used lies and trickery to persuade people to buy its encyclopedias, and won both cases. Erhard was a sales supervisor for the company.(6) During his stay with Grolier, he met several people in the San Francisco human potential movement, one of whom was Dr Leo Zeff, an LSD researcher and now on est’s advisory board, who led Erhard into Scientology. Erhard was also closely associated with Alex Everett, founder of Mind Dynamics, a self-hypnosis mind control enterprise. Mind Dynamics also was sued by the State of California for fraudulent claims, although both Erhard and Everett had left the organization by that time.(7)

About three years after leaving his family, Erhard had a radical life-transforming experience of enlightenment while driving his car down Highway 101 in California. This was to eventually culminate (via other transformations and research) into the seminars training. W.W. Bartley’s biography of Erhard indicates extensive psycho-spiritual dabbling on Erhard’s part prior to starting est.(8) He studied or became involved in numerous disciplines; besides the aforementioned Scientology and Mind Dynamics, there was Zen Buddhism, (Erhard has made trips to the East to study with Zen masters), hypnosis, Subud, yoga, Silva Mind Control, psychocybernetics, gestalt, encounter therapy and trans-personal psychology. Est is the fruit of his "conversion" experience and personal research into these and other disciplines.(9)

The Est Experience

Est is not concerned with giving people a temporary "high" that will wear off eventually. Erhard states, "We want nothing short of a total transformation - an alteration of substance, not a change in form"(10) and "All we want to do is change the notion of who you are."(11) Est wants it all - your mind, your life, your soul. And it is often successful. Why does est work? Why do so many people say that it radically changes their lives? The experience transforms people because it uses intensive, and at times fairly brutal and cruel physical and mental conditioning. The individual undergoes a conversion episode where the "old" way of viewing reality is supplanted by the est way. The seminar is designed to change a person’s epistemology (i.e. their way of viewing reality) radically and permanently. People are conditioned to the point of what we may call "epistemological vulnerability" and the est philosophy is then provided as the answer and the truth about life and how to live it. As one est trainer put it:

We’re gonna throw away your whole belief system...We’re gonna tear you down and put you back together.(12)

One graduate remarked, "Certainly we had been worn down to the point where we were ready to accept it."(13)

People don’t generally know what is in store for them when they go to the seminar. Graduates are held to an agreement they make during the training not to divulge any of the techniques of the seminar. If they did talk about it -

the tensions, the harassment, the deliberately foul language, and the trauma that you might be subjected to - many others probably would not attend. As it is, the "secret" elements of the training can’t help but arouse curiosity. Est is successful despite its many negative aspects because of the impact of its program which destroys one way of looking at the world (the average way) and substitutes another view in such a manner that the people undergo a genuine conversion experience with new psychological insight about themselves. Through various techniques, defense mechanisms and role playing are broken down and confronted, often in a very cold manner. People’s reactions vary:

some weep, some get sick, some beg for help and get none. Some become psychotic.(14) The experience is as intense as it is dependency producing; that is, the person who goes through so much suffering or trauma wants to make the experience "worth it all" (they have also paid plenty of money) and is much more inclined to "take the message." Est doesn’t change everybody at the seminar, but it seems that the most susceptible are those who are sensitive, psychologically or spiritually insecure, or "searching.’

The seminar combines psychological insight and confrontation with a method of allowing emotional release and a sort of self-acceptance. Est combines the positive - common sense psychology - with negative aspects such as authoritarianism and manipulation. Psychiatrist Joel Kovel remarks:

In sum, est has discovered how to compress and intensify the basic psychotherapeutic maneuver of breaking down the defenses. From one side, haranguing and privation are battering resistance, while from the other the group experience leads a person to dissolve his or her individuality, and its stubborn arrogance, and to psychologically merge with the others in the room. The very size of the group, along with the technique of est, tends to keep those others in a rather undifferentiated state, hence promoting a sense of union with them. The result for the individual is a state of openness, receptivity - and weakened discrimination. Into the gap steps the est philosophy, embodied by the trainer, and behind him, Werner Erhard.(15)

The ultimate philosphical-religious system that undergirds est is very similar to the advaita school of Hinduism. The est conversion gives its subjects a conviction that they are, in an ultimate sense, in control of their lives and circumstances, no matter what those circumstances are, since they, as "God," created them. No matter how erroneous, the belief that you are the Creator, and in control of whatever happens to you, can be a security-producing factor. To become convinced that you are It, the Divine, can give one a false impression that one’s life has been stabilized, enhanced and improved. This narcissistic ego stimulation, is, in part, responsible for the est impact.

When Erhard speaks of responsibility, it is in the sense of acknowledgement of one’s authorship of all situations; that is, as the Creator, but not in any moral sense. Est supporter Marcia Seligson, who is a well-known spiritual journalist, elucidates how this idea of divine control (responsibility) affects her life:

I run my body, it doesn’t run me. I’m in charge here... Personal responsibility is a potent force indeed, the sensation that one is the cause of one’s life. For me, it is the focal wisdom of the training and becomes even more solidified as the weeks and months go by. To the extent that I embrace and own the principle, my life seems to be, in truth, clear and simple and in my grasp; to the degree that I still hang onto my victim beliefs (i.e. that things outside my life control me), things don’t work too well...(16)

During the Guest Seminar for Leaders Program (for graduates) "you get to experience moving beyond your limits, to the point that you realize that, in fact, you have no limits."(17)

What is ironic is that the world view implanted by est is even more meaningless than what most people began with. It is held onto because there is nothing to go back to. That has all been done away with via the training. Fortunately, many trainees see est for what it is, and do not allow themselves to be intimidated into a more meaningless philosophy of life. But many others do not, and this is of concern. Est has a great potential for misuse. As one est brochure puts it, "Graduates have reported that the results of the trainings do not wear off."(18) Before going into specifics, we first need to document the est philosophy.

The Est Philosophy

"I am here to explain what can’t be explained,"(19) says Erhard, revealing the following words of his "rule book":

Rules About Life(20)
   Werner Erhard

1. Life has no rules

Est seems to be a distillation of a number of eastern and mystical philosphies, particularily in its denial of evil in the world.

Life is always perfect just the way it is. When you realize that, no matter how strongly it may appear to be otherwise, you know that whatever is happening right now will turn out all right. Knowing this, you are in a position to begin mastering life.(21)



As you can see, this universe is perfect. Don’t lie about it. You’re god in your universe. You caused it. You pretended not to cause it so you could play in it.(22)


What you’re doing is what God wants you to do. If you keep saying it the way it really is, eventually, your word is law in the universe.(23)

Another key concept of est is the idea of the illusion (or maya) of the world. The goal of most yoga in Hinduism is to get the person to realize that he or she is not a body. The body, the self (ego) is unreal. The real person is Self, Brahman, the Absolute. The sport or game of the impersonal Brahman (its lila) is to make us think we’re something that we aren’t; that is, a separate body and personality. Erhard explains the est effect:

So the de-identification happens at all levels. The person de-identifies with his mind, de-identifies with his body, he de-identifies with his problems, he de-identifies with his maya, he begins to see that he is not the Play.(24)

Marcia Seligson recounts the final hours of the seminar:

The final point, arrived at after six hours of dissertation and questions, is that there is no objective reality, only reality by agreement, which is illusion, and that the sole reality is the experience that I create.(25)

According to Erhard, my Self equals your Self equals the same Self. All is One. "Self is all there is. I mean, that’s it. To pay attention to personality is to pay attention to an illusion."(26)

The Est Effect and Its Potential for Misuse

Although we have briefly discussed est’s effects and their potential for misuse in our last section, there are further important est effects that need to be noted. First, in many cases, the est experience seems to result in a distortion of common sense. Marcia Seligson notes that initially she was skeptical - after talking with est graduates and hearing Erhard, she had thoughts about Hitler, mass hypnosis, cultism, Charles Manson, and the like. She said, "It didn’t seem just cuckoo, it seemed damn dangerous,’ and "As far as I was concerned, est was the biggest ripoff...and I would expose it." After the est training, we find that her initial impressions have undergone a transformation: "I think that est has been one of the truly powerful experiences of my life. And I love Werner Erhard."(27) She is now a member of est's advisory board.

Est is a subjective experience and people can "get" different things from it. "Getting it" is the term used by estians to describe what they learn from the seminar. Prison inmates are made to "get" that they enjoy being in prison; rape victims "get" that this is their way of inducing sympathy.(28) Since each of us created our own circumstances, we must have wanted this or that to happen to us. As "God," we create our own life-conditions. To recognize this means to take "responsibility" for them.

There seem to be some things in common that people get from the seminar. The following statements by est graduates show the impact that it can have. By and large, these elements recur in the literature: selfishness, fatalism, nihilism, hedonism, apathy and moral relativism.

Marcia Seligson says, "The differences I can measure in myself are mostly attitudinal, Nothing overwhelms me as before: nothing seems tragic or permanent."(29) A businessman coldly states, "I take responsibility for the people that let me step on them, and I don’t feel guilty."(30)

Adeline Bry, author of Est: Sixty Hours that Transform Your Life, reports on another est graduate -

During the training, she got that she was frigid. She subsequently left her high status and well paying job to work full time producing pornography films.(31)

About a dozen books have been written about est and they sometimes contain personal accounts by its graduates. Following are some good samples.

Jane: "It certainly isn’t nearly so important for me to be right anymore as it used to be...What is important to me is what is happening to me right now. And I don’t give a f--- about tomorrow."(32)

Hans: "I am so lazy these days...I don’t care that much if people don’t buy my work...that is their problem...For the first time I am running into a problem about paying the rent. And it doesn’t really bother me. A lot of people (est grads) are seeing their marriages break up, and they consider that as making their lives work."

Jesse: "Recently my father criticized me for not responding after my uncle died. He thought I should have telephoned my aunt or sent a card. ‘You don’t even care,’ he said. ‘I don’t care,’ I told him."

Dan: "I know that things are going to be the way they are. The est training tells you that what you have to do about things is nothing. The only thing there is right now. I experienced no sadness when I was told that my father had died. That was okay. That is one of the things that makes life easier, things aren’t significant. Nothing is. I got that my father’s death really wasn’t significant. Things have lost their significance, so I probably don’t notice a lot of things. I just notice my life is working a lot."(35)

What Dan is really saying is that the burden of normal social responsibilities and customs is now lifted from him. He is a lot happier being unconcerned about life’s problems because he now believes that they really don’t matter. As he says, nothing is significant. Another graduate, Dale, reports his personal belief about est as simply "dangerous." He tells of a friend who had suffered difficulties in school after taking est:

He had a "so what" attitude and flunked out of school after his second quarter. Est teaches you that if you have problems, you’ve chosen to have them. My friend must have thought that he had chosen to have problems at U.C. ... but he never had any trouble before he took est.(36)

The following dialogue by an est trainer during a session illuminates the est world view. It is reported by graduate Robert Hargrove.

"So when you experience the truth, you know it’s nothing but an illusion"

"Then how did all this stuff (the universe) get here?" someone asked.

"It never did," the trainer said. "In the illusion that we call reality, there’s no cause. It’s effect!, Effect! Effect!"

"Well, who created the universe?" Charlie asked.

"In your universe, you’re God," the trainer said. "You cause it and pretended not to cause it so you could play In it. And there are at least as many universes as there are people on this planet. It all comes out of your point of view."(37)

In other words, it’s all an illusion, but by agreement, one plays the game or takes responsibility. Then, as "God," one can do whatever one wants without thinking that there are any real consequences for his or her actions. A person can "play the game" (live in the world) with immunity; therefore it wouldn’t really be wrong to break laws, only improper, since they are social agreements. In est, nothing is really immoral in an absolute sense.

The concept of keeping agreements is used to persuade people to stay at the seminar for the entire four days. Since about 80% of the effect is "gotten" on the fourth day, people have to be kept there somehow. So est paradoxically appeals to the moral notion of holding to an agreement. This seems to be rather dishonest manipulation and the people make the agreement before they are told what will happen to them. One elderly woman who was shocked at the brutality of the trainer’s language, said that "if the doors hadn’t been locked and if she hadn’t made an agreement," she would have left.(38) This woman should have left. The next morning she was back singing a dirty song through the microphone while the audience gave her a standing ovation. Her integrity was compromised. The woman’s mistake was to keep such an agreement in the first place. In est, the trainers manipulate the trainees through guilt and human weakness. Once you know something is wrong, you shouldn’t stay around to watch it infiltrate your life - you should get up and walk away. Unfortunately, the level of control that est trainers exert over the audience is so great the hardly anyone leaves, despite the offer of a refund which is made several times (If they will leave at that point.)

Est, along with Transcendental Meditation and all the other groups with a Vedantic base, has serious social implications, as we have observed. People care less about things once meaningful to them. They may use the philosophy to justify immoral behavior: If everyone agrees that Hitler was OK, then he was OK...and still is. Help the sick, the poor, the downtrodden? This is not fruitful, because as "Gods," the poor and sick have chosen those conditions to experience and play with. Who are we to interfere with their choice? This is not too different from the rationale behind the caste system in India, which sometimes justifies the deprived conditions of millions on the basis of karma and not interfering with dharma, or the will of the Divine.


Est cannot be classified with the same type of brainwashing used by the North Koreans during the Korean War. That in part utilizes torture and extreme and continued physical-sensory deprivation. However, the 1960 college edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defines brainwashing as if it were defining est’s methodology: "To indoctrinate so intensively and thoroughly as to effect a radical transformation of beliefs and mental attitudes."

Perhaps implicit in this statement is the idea of involuntary confinement, something not true of est. People do choose to go to the est seminars, however inadequately informed they may be. Many people do, however, see it as brainwashing. Mark Brewer, writing in Psychology Today, comments on the techniques:

Such efforts, of course, are commonly known as brainwashing, which is precisely what the est experience is, and the result is usually a classic conversion.(39)

In the same article, San Francisco State professor Richard P. Marsh presents the case for est. He says est is not brainwashing, but he defines brainwashing as the attempt "to confuse by sudden reversals of logic, to frighten and humiliate a captive subject in order to break his will and insinuate forcibly into his mind the belief system of his captor." From what we have observed, he is for the most part describing est. Other writers also say est is brainwashing and that the est techniques are similar to those described in William Sargent’s book Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing.(40)

William Greene, author of Est: Four Days to Make your Life Work, remarks:

Everyone goes through a tremendous emotional upheaval. During that upheaval, the belief systems of the trainees are very often cast aside.(41)

Heck and Thompson state, "A major step in the est training is negating any pre-existing belief system.(42)

The question of brainwashing seems to depend on the degree of force and coercion used to effect this change in belief system. The evidence seems to indicate that est should be labeled a mild form of brainwashinq, or at least intensive indoctrination. Even pro-est writers have acknowledged the controversy. For example, Luke Rhinehart notes that, in his mind, the most substantial argument against est so far is "that the training is a form of brainwashing," although he feels that this is not the case.(43) Even Erhard says that the est techniques are "mind blowing’: "You give it (the mind) something that it’s incapable of handling."(44)

Intellect alone cannot easily withstand the onslaught of the training. Intellectual attackers often become yielded converts. Dr Kovel remarks:

The most sophisticated judgment is no match for such seminar conditions - which indeed make their effect felt, not on the intellect, but on the soft space that yearning occupies behind the mask of reason. Numerous people who have undergone est tell how they attempted to dispute the trainer, only to become confounded and yield. What such reports leave out is that the most powerful intellect necessarily becomes puerile under the conditions of the training. It is like playing tennis with your side of the court under water.

Let this writer say that he has no quarrel with any positive and pychologically healthful aspects that might be found in est, nor with the obvious sincerity and good will of many est graduates. But one must ask that they look where the philosophy leads. The main concern is the overall world view which est imparts.

Est and Religion

Erhard claims that est doesn’t interfere with anyone’s religious beliefs, but says that "Had I been in any religious order, or any church or monastery, I definitely could not have done any of this. It would have been heresy."(46) On another occasion Erhard solidified his position:

For instance, I believe that "belief" in God is the greatest barrier to God in the universe - the single greatest barrier. I would prefer someone who is ignorant to someone who believes in God. Because the belief in God is a total barrier, almost a total barrier to God.(47)


To pay attention to personality is to pay attention to illusion or effects. That’s all there is, there isn’t anything but spirituality, which is just another word for God, because God is everything.(48)

Although a Christian believer would be told that est would not interfere with his religious beliefs, this is not true. The est belief system is designed to destroy the validity of the Christian world view. Est is supposedly non-religious, but since its purpose is to alter one’s epistemology and instill a monistic or pantheistic belief in impersonal divinity, est qualifies as religious. In the est philosophy, Christianity is detrimental and harmful to growth and enlightenment. William Greene states: "In est training you are God...Therefore you cannot look to any supreme being for special treatment, goodness, or award.(49)

Erhard himself states,

We’ve been conditioned to look for answers outside ourselves. But that’s not what people get from us. What they get is an experience of enlightenment, which is different from the belief system called salvation. If I get the idea that God is going to save me, therefore I’m alright, that’s salvation; if I get the idea that nothing’s going to save me, therefore I’m alright, that’s enlightenment.(50)

Hence, est and Christianity function on two entirely opposite principles. Est is a system of "self-salvation" that appeals to the human ego and imagined personal divinity. Christianity recognizes only an agent outside of humanity, Jesus Christ, as its sole instrument of salvation. Erhard teaches self glorification; Jesus teaches self sacrifice.

So What?

The est graduation booklet states, "Obviously the truth is what’s so. Not so obviously, it’s also ‘so what.’"

Let Erhard and his est graduates say "so what" to all the evil, greed, hate and suffering in the world. Let him play his game as God, telling us of our divinity while millions starve to death. Let him preach a belief that robs people of their values, morals and dignity in the name of enlightenment. How valid are the words of Isaiah:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight!(51)

Perhaps the attitude that est can instill in a person is best displayed by an est graduate who wrote to Psychology Today in response to a critical but perceptive article: "In response to Mark Brewer’s article on est - so what?"(52) Since non-estians aren’t enlightened, they cannot possibly speak with authority on est. Erhard displays the same attitude as his convert:

So est is evil, what’s the point?
Yea, I got that, now what?
So what? (53)

Erhard goes on to say to his graduates:

Another thing. You do not have to accept any of the responsibility for any of the evil in this organization, nor do you have to make anyone else responsible. Everybody is absolved of having to be responsible for any of the evil. I have already taken 100% of the responsibility, so no one else needs to take any. I have already acknowledged being 100% causer and creator of every speck of evil in this organization - as matter of fact, in institutionality and organization. I am telling you that I am 100% responsible. That’s not manipulation, that’s my experience. I am willing to have created all the evil in the est organization. I am willing to and experience that I have.(54)

Finally, Erhard states paradoxically,

It’s not my experience that people come out of est with this kind of, you know, "everything is alright, it’ll all turn out alright." It is alright and it will turn out alright, and in the meantime, there are things that are outrageous, and about these things, it’s appropriate to be outraged.(55)

Outraged? Indeed.


1. Time, 7 June 1976

2. R.C.D. Heck and J.L. Thompson, "Est, salvation or Swindle?" San Francisco, Jan., 1976 p.22

3. Est Graduate Review, Aug., 1978, p. 10

4. East-West Journal, Sept., 1974

S. New Age Journal, no. 8, p.47

6. Heck and Thompson, p. 70. According to an est statement, Erhard was not involved in any wrongdoing.

7. Ibid.

8. W.W. Bartley, Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of Est (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1978) p. 145

9. New Age Journal no. 7, pp 18-20

10. what’s So, Jan., 1975

11. Adam Smith, "Powers of the Mind, Part II: The Est Experience," New York, 29 Sept., 1975, p.35

12. Psychology Today, Aug., 1975, p. 39

13. New York Daily News, 12 Aug., 1975

14. New Age Journal, no. 7, p. 25

15. Joel Hovel, A complete Guide to Therapy from Psychoanalysis to Behavior Modification (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976) p. 172

16. New Times, 10 Oct., 1975

17. what’s So, Jan., 1975

18. Werner Erhard, What is the Purpose of est Training (1976)

19. Newsweek, 17 Feb., 1975

20. Whet’s So, Oct., 1974

21. What’s So, Jan., 1975

22. Werner Erhard, If God Had Meant Man to Fly, He Would Have Given Him Wings (1974) p. 1l

23. Ibid., last page and p. 2

24. East-West Journal, Sept., 1974

25. New Times, 18 Oct., 1974

26. East-West Journal, Sept., 1974

27. New Times, 18 Oct., 1974

28. Heck and Thompson, p. 20; c.f. San Francisco chronicle, 3 Dec., 1974

29. New Times, 18 Oct., 1974

30. Heck and Thompson, p. 22

31. Book Digest, July, 1976, p. 144

32. Donald Porter and Diane Taxon, The Est Experience, (Award, 1976) p. 57

33. Ibid., p. 62

34. Ibid., p. 51

35. Ibid., pp. 88-93

36. Heck and Thompson, p. 23

37. Robert Hargrove, Est: Making Life Work, Well, 1976) pp. 90, 92

38. Smith, p. 36

39. Psychology Today, August 1975, p. 39

40. Heck and Thompson, p. 22

41. Greene, p. 171, cf. p. 132

42. Heck and Thompson, p. 71

43. Luke Rhinehart, The Book of Est, (Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1976) pp 259-60

44. New Age Journal, no. 7, p. 28

45. Kovel, p. 172

46. East-West Journal, Sept, 1974

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Greene, p. 131

50. New Times, 18 Oct., 1974

51. Isaiah 5:20-21

52. Psychology Today, Dec., 1975, p. 8

53. Graduate Review, Nov., 1976, p. 10

54. Ibid.

55. New Age Journal, no. 7, p. 24