Revisiting Werner Erhard and the Essence of est

Werner Erhard

Though often controversial and sometimes ridiculed, the Erhard Seminars Training (est) launched a body of ideas that still shapes conversations about human potential.

Ask people who came of age during the 1970s about est. They might repeat stories about Werner Erhard cramming crowds of people into hotel ballrooms for long seminars, calling people assholes, and refusing to allow bathroom breaks.

Some of us remember the movie Semi-Tough, which includes a parody of Werner. His counterpart in the movie is Friedrich Bismark, a character who heads an organization called B.E.A.T. There’s a scene where a woman wets herself during a B.E.A.T. seminar and then declares to the group: ”I peed in my pants and it felt good.”

During the 1980’s, est gave way to the Landmark Forum, which retains many of Werner’s ideas and delivers them in a less confrontational way. (I took the Landmark Forum in 2005 and got a lot from it.)

I’m thinking about est again because I discovered an academic paper by Werner Erhard and Victor Gioscia published in 1977 in Biosciences Communication.

This article about the big ideas behind est impressed me deeply. It offers fresh language for much of what I’ve learned from meditation and yoga practice and yields many insights that surprise me. I want to share my take-aways with you.

What est was not

est was not a conventional training. When I hear the word training, the first thing that comes to mind is the prospect of gaining new concepts and skills. I’m thinking definitions, examples, procedures, and problem-solving.

According to Werner, the est Training involved none of this. It did not seek to instill any new attitudes or behaviors.

Instead, est was about expanding awareness:

What I have discovered is that people know things that they do not know that they know, the knowing of which can nurture them and satisfy them and allow them to experience an expanded sense of aliveness in their lives. The training is an occasion for them to have that experience — to get in touch with what they actually already know but are not really aware of.

est was not an attempt to break people down. Many aspects of est unfolded strictly “by the book.” Chairs for participants were arranged in a prescribed pattern. The schedule was demanding — about 15 hours per day of lectures and activities (“processes”) with one extended break for lunch and shorter breaks on a fixed schedule.

Why such an unyielding format? Because Werner wanted to est participants to enter an environment where con games and rackets (see the definition here) do not work. No one — no matter how smart or dominant they were — could rewrite the schedule.

For Werner, the underlying insight is that there are “stable environments” in life where the rules do not bend: “In other words, if I fall down, gravity does not say ‘Well, we’re going to relax the rules a bit since you hurt yourself.’”

est was not a cult. To be sure, cults do exist. They usually center on a charismatic leader who prescribes certain beliefs and behaviors and does not tolerate dissent.

In contrast, nothing in the est training was meant to be believed or accepted uncritically. Participants were invited to “collect data” about their own internal experience — their private stream of thoughts and sensations — and see for themselves if the trainer’s comments squared with it.

est was not necessary. “The fact is, no one needs the training,” Werner and Gioscia wrote. They acknowledged that people can function perfectly well without it.

Moreover, nothing in est was a substitute for medical treatment or psychotherapy. And while some participants reported that their problems disappeared, this was a side effect of the training — not an intended result.

The difference between gratification and satisfaction

Above all, Werner and Gioscia note, est was designed to evoke and stabilize the experience of being complete:

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive — when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

Such experiences do not make anyone better — “smarter or sexier or more successful or richer or any more clever.” They are not “good” for us like exercise or dietary changes.

Rather, est pointed to self-validating moments of satisfaction that do not depend on external conditions. They differ in kind from the gratification that comes meeting a need or achieving a goal.

Gratification still leaves us wanting more — more money, more sex, more pleasure, no matter how much of them we get.

Satisfaction, however, is not about getting more of what we already have, or about getting something different or better. Satisfaction is an end in itself and not a means to gaining anything else.

In Biblical terms, satisfaction is “the peace that passeth all understanding.” Nirvana and enlightenment have been described in similar ways.

Werner wanted est participants to discover a “space” inside themselves where moments of completion originate. This space, he says, cannot be accessed through planning or action that changes our circumstances. But it can be recognized. Completeness is our natural state once we lift the veils that separate it from us.

In short, est was about moving from a deficiency orientation to a sufficiency orientation:

It is a transformation — a contextual shift from a state in which the content in your life is organized around the attempt to get satisfied or to survive — to attain satisfaction — or to protect or hold on to what you have got — to an experience of being satisfied, right now, and organizing the content of your life as an expression, manifestation and sharing of the experience of being satisfied, of being whole and complete, now.

Many practices — including yoga and meditation — exist to help us remove our greed, hatred, ignorance, and other blinders to satisfaction. It can be as simple as one good session of yoga nidra (deep relaxation) in savasana pose.

Dean Ornish, M.D., describes this in his program for reversing heart disease, which includes yoga and meditation:

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember.

The threefold nature of the self

Werner took est participants deep into an inquiry that animates much of philosophy, both Western and Eastern: What is the nature of the self? Or, more simply — Who am I?

Eastern teachings such as advaita (non-duality) describe our sense of self as an illusion — a concept that we impose on the chaotic and ever-changing stream of thoughts and sensations. (This viewpoint is gaining confirmation from modern neuroscience.)

Yoga philosophy offers a similar answer: Your sense of self as something that is separate from everything else — limited to your body and destined to die — is an illusion. In reality, you are Self (with a capital S), which has no limitations in time or space. Spiritual practices such as asanas (yoga postures) and meditation bring your stream of thoughts to a still point and give you a direct experience of your true nature.

Werner turned to this perennial question and offered his own answer. The est Training, he said, allows you to access your self in three layers:

  • The self as facade. Each of us constructs a public self — a front, a facade. This includes all the things we say and do in order to appear competent and successful. In fact, we spend so much time pretending to be someone who will gain social approval that we forget we are pretending in the first place.
  • The self as hidden. Underneath this facade is a cluster of thoughts and emotions that we hide from public view. Here lies layers of hatred, fear, sadness, lust, and aspects of ourselves that we condemn and repress.
  • The self as self. Neither our facade our hidden qualities define who we really are, however. When we bring this layer of clandestine inner experience to the surface, we start to know directly who we really are.

More specifically:

The extent to which we can allow ourselves to confront — to experience and be responsible for — the pretense and trying, the avoidance and fear, is the extent to which we can be who we really are. The experience of being yourself is innately satisfying. If who you really are does not give you the experience of health, happiness, love and full self-expression — or ‘aliveness’ — then that is not who you really are. When you experience yourself as yourself, that experience is innately satisfying. The experience of the self as the self is the experience of satisfaction. Nothing more, nothing less.” [boldface added]

Reaching down into that fundamental layer — self as self — calls for two more insights: digging beneath our concepts into direct experience and understanding the power of contexts.

The difference between concepts and direct experience

The self as facade includes a vast accumulation of opinions, unexamined assumptions, and requirements for how other people and ourselves are “supposed” to act.

To maintain this facade, we expend untold effort and energy in justifying, defending, and explaining our behavior. The result is endless conflict, alienation from our true nature, and a sense that we are trying to be happy rather than truly living.

The est Training was an invitation to relax all that effort — to put all requirements, defenses, and explanations on hold.

This, in fact, was one purpose of the est processes. During these parts of the training, participants were coached to stand up in front of the group and “share” — that is, to report what they were actually feeling and thinking without the need for explanation or fear of judgement:

For example, there is a process in which people are asked to select a problem from among those they have in life and to see specifically which experiences are associated with that problem — which body sensations in which specific locations in the body, which emotions or feelings, which attitudes, states of mind, mental states or points of view, which postures, ways of holding themselves, gestures, ways of moving, habitual actions and countenances, which thoughts, evaluations, judgments, things they have been told or read, conclusions, reasons, explanations and decisions, and which scenes from the past are associated with that problem.

According to Werner and Gioscia, processes have profound effects.

One is the ability to “get off it” — that is, to release defenses, assumptions, and opinions that have no grounding in direct experience. Participants could then “get unstuck” by embracing new ideas, adopting new behaviors, and resolving long-lasting conflicts in relationships.

Moreover, the willingness to sink into direct experience yields a sense of completeness and full engagement with life.

This is the difference, for example, between knowing about riding a bicycle and actually riding a bicycle.

It is the difference between having ideas about love to actually loving someone.

The latter, Werner and Gioscia note, “leaves one absolutely high, vivacious, and alive” — a far cry from “the pretense or concept of loving someone, or the ‘act’ or drama of loving someone.”

Choosing contexts rather than identifying with content

Werner and Gioscia are clear that “fundamentally, est was a context in which to hold one’s experience.”

Speaking in more philosophical terms, est was a shift in epistemology — how we know and define ourselves.

According to Werner and Gioscia, we have two broad options in this regard.

One is to define ourselves by the content of our lives.

This is our default response. When someone says Tell me about yourself or asks Who are you?, you give your name and birth date. You might describe your job, your home, and your relationships. You might also list your roles: single person, husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, professional, volunteer, retired.

In addition, you might list your beliefs, opinions, and other descriptors: I am Christian, Buddhist, or agnostic. I am liberal, conservative, libertarian, or apolitical. I am successful or struggling. I am fat or thin, old or young, happy or depressed, healthy or sick.

If pressed to provide more detail, you might even reveal the struggles that lie buried in your hidden self — the conflicts in your relationships, the problems you’re trying to solve, the habits that you want to stop, and things you don’t want anyone else to know.

est raised a question: Who are you beyond all that? Do any of those answers offer the final word on who you really are?

Werner stated that all the ways that you typically complete the sentence I am… are simply ways to describe the content of your life. Instead, you can experience yourself as a “space,” “clearing,” or context in which all those contents occur.

A common and still useful analogy can be used to make this point. Consider the experience of watching a movie in a theater. You can identify with one of the characters in the movie (content). Or, you choose to be aware of the screen as a whole — the space in which all the characters appear and the events in their lives unfold (context).

The point is that you are someone beyond your roles, your circumstances, your opinions, your problems, and all the other details about the content of your life.

To see this is liberating.

If your marriage ends in a divorce, for example, you can interpret that as being a failure in love. Or you can introduce a new interpretation (context) by saying: Yes, my marriage ended in divorce. But I learned a lot about relationships as a result — lessons that I will carry on into my next loving relationship.

If you do not identify with your opinions, then you can hold one opinion now and change it later.

You can experience depression without having to label yourself as depressed.

In other words, no circumstance in our lives comes with a built-in interpretation (context). This might sound trivial until you understand the real point: Nothing inherently means anything.

We can take any event and interpret it in many ways.

We can take any circumstance and adopt any attitude toward it that we choose.

We are free to choose the context of our lives, no matter what the content.

Moreover, we do not have to be limited by the past contexts we chose — or by any context at all.

As Werner and Gioscia note, “you are no longer a content — another thing in the context of things — but the context in which contexts of things occur.”

When we see this directly, we go deep into Source — what others might call God, the Tao, Dharma, or the Ground of Being. We stop seeing ourselves as “positional” — a unique point in space and time, a separate person who accumulates experiences and viewpoints. Beyond having experiences and explaining them, we generate them in the first place.

According to Werner and Gioscia, seeing that we are the source of our own experience is “absolutely inseparable from the experience of satisfaction”:

In the training, the experience of being at the effect of life — of having been put here, and having to suffer the circumstances of life, of being the bearer or victim of life, or at best, of succeeding or winning out over the burdens of life — shifts to an experience of originating life the way it is — creating your experience as you live it — in a space uniquely your own. In that space, the problems of life take on an entirely different significance. They literally pale, that is, become lighter — or enlightened.

Taking refuge and returning

Alas, we have proceeded too far into abstraction. Like many teachers, Werner has a penchant for cryptic language and Zen-koan-like pronouncements.

After reading something like Werner and Gioscia’s paper, I often take a break to step on the yoga mat or sit for a short meditation. Better to remain silent for a while than to keep agitating the mind with concepts.

And yet I will eventually return to concepts such as those offered by Werner and Gioscia. Ideas are no substitute for spiritual practices. But they do place those practices in context and remind me to take refuge there.

Photo of Werner Erhard by AkashOM

Leave a Comment