EST has been advertised as ‘a powerful and practical inquiry into the issues that determine our personal effectiveness’. The late singer John Denver was reputed to have said of his EST encounters, ‘It is the single most important experience of my life’.
EST is a ‘therapy cult’ and these are more difficult to identify than religious cults as they tend to be aimed at personal self-improvement and potential realization. They do not gather for worship, do not have a ‘theology’ and do not own local buildings for services.
They often claim not to have any members. This may be true in a formal sense but they do acquire a following and often radical personal and emotional changes take place in the people who get involved with them.
Such therapy cults would include the following: PSI Mind Development Institute, Scientology, School of Economic Science, Mind Awareness, Lifespring, Lifestream, Exegesis and EST.
Here we are considering the last in the list: EST. The letters stand for Erhard Seminar Training, though it has also been pointed out that the letters spell the Latin word for ‘it is’. Today the name has been changed to ‘The Centres Network’ which organizes ‘The Forum’ (essentially a series of courses and seminars). They are advertised as non-religious, self-help training sessions that are designed to bring participants to fulfilment. They teach that you are your own God and that everything you experience is a product of your own divine creative will. EST claims that the only reality exists in the individual’s mind.
The founder, born in 1935, is Werner Erhard, but he started life with the name of John Paul Rosenberg. He came from Philadelphia and was apparently preoccupied with concerns about guilt, predestination and God as the result of a near-drowning and fractured skull suffered in childhood. He married at the age of 18, but finally abandoned his wife and four children in the early 1960’s.
He ran away to California with another woman, and in an attempt to hide his identity he changed his name to Erhard. For thirteen years he worked as a car salesman, a seller of correspondence courses and trainer of encyclopaedia sellers. He also explored Zen Buddhism, Scientology, Silva Mind Control and Hypnosis, all of which became the basis for his teaching in EST.
In March 1971 he claimed that he had ‘got it’ while driving down a Californian highway. ‘I became Self’, he said. In autumn 1971 he held his first Erhard Seminar Training at a San Francisco hotel with 1,000 participants. Since then over half a million ‘graduates’ have gone through the training.
His second wife, Ellen Erhard, has divorced him after 22 years of marriage. She apparently said that ‘Werner’s ego and public image are the most important things in the world to him’. Ellen Erhard’s claim to half the property of EST may have been a significant factor in bringing about the major shake up in the organization that included its new name. There was also a need to revamp and significantly alter the image for a new generation, as there had been a decline in enrolment.
THE EXTENT OF EST
Courses are expensive and usually take place over two consecutive weekends. Thus four days are involved (two Saturdays and two Sundays). Each lasts from 9.00 a.m. to 11.30 p.m., there is also a 3-hour evening session. The goal of EST is ‘getting it’. Erhard says, ‘We want nothing short of a total transformation – an alteration of substance, not a change of form’.
Across the world, an estimated 6,000 people per month do the training and many go back for refresher courses. The course is run three or four times a year in Britain with as many as 200 attending each one. Most stick to the full course, especially as they have made an enormous commitment of time and money and are not prepared to admit, even to themselves, that the whole thing was a waste of time.
THE PEOPLE WHO TAKE IT
Research in America has suggested that candidates who attend EST courses are, over-whelmingly, white, middle class and well educated. However, they tend to have a lower than average income, with two thirds being single: unmarried, divorced or separated. It may be that these tend to be ‘sixties dropouts who are trying to reconcile the idealism of youth with the changed circumstances of middle age whereby they have had to drop back into society. It may also reflect deep dissatisfaction by people who have failed to become high achievers and failed to have longstanding relationships.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF EST
The method of approach is a disorientation technique. Sessions take place in rooms with no natural light, no clocks and with few breaks for toilet or food and the trainees are broken down with verbal brutality. It is an authoritarian, confrontational style of approach that can produce psychological damage to a group of people who may already be stressed. However, as a result of adverse publicity, Centres Network has now suggested that those who want to undergo their therapy should get their own therapist’s permission before going on a course.
The techniques have been refined over the years and are now less aggressive, but still the aim is to make the trainee dependent upon the trainer. After these courses most people are emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, while some are permanently traumatized. The American Journal of Psychiatry (1977) presented seven cases of psychiatric disturbance as the result of EST, only one of which had a previous history of psychiatric trouble.
The aim seems to be to shred and destroy a person’s belief system and replace it with the teaching of EST.
Trainees are taught that they are three persons:
i. The person they pretend to be;
ii. The person they fear they really are;
iii. The real self.
The aim is to discard the former two and get ‘it’ (i.e. the last).
Erhard’s worldview of life is a sort of perfection with no difference between right and wrong, as he indicated when he wrote, ‘Wrong is actually a version of right. If you are always wrong you are right.’ So he admits to no absolutes, no objective truth, except the absolute that: ‘whatever is, is right’. Thus it could be argued that anyone has the right to do whatever he wishes, including indiscriminate killing.
Erhard’s view is that God is man and man is God, and that each individual must come to understand he is his own God. ‘I can do anything. One of these days, I’ll be so complete I won’t be human, I’ll be God’. This, of course, means that we can do as we please, since as God we are answerable to no one. Also, the need to look to a Supreme Being for salvation is gone and the God of the Bible is unnecessary. Indeed, Erhard sees belief in God as the greatest barrier to the experience of God! EST denies the basic beliefs of the historic Christian faith, yet claims compatibility with Jesus Christ and Christianity! They say that Christ said the same sort of things as Erhard, so there is no need to give Jesus any special adoration. ‘The church totally misinterpreted what Jesus said. He kept telling over and over that everybody was like He was, perfect. He was experiencing life, like Werner. He knew He was the total source, living moment by moment, and was spontaneous. Jesus is just another guru who happens to be popular here in Western Civilization. I can’t go into a church and praise Jesus. But I really got where he is coming from. He wants to let everybody know, “I'm you”. So my whole point of view about religion has totally altered’. (EST publication quoted in ‘Understanding the Cults’ )
‘The entire EST system centres around the self-centred individual rather than the biblical God. In EST, God is nonexistent. The experience EST offers is a pseudo-answer to man’s deepest need’, McDowell and Stewart.
There have been court cases against EST by people who claim that EST caused them emotional distress and mental breakdown. The Inland Revenue has also investigated their tax situation. Erhard claimed that his work has been woven into the fabric of American culture. ‘You see the language from our work in business and advertising’. Indeed many business organizations have sent their people to the seminar programmes to improve on their communication, relationship and productivity skills.
Many graduates claim to have experienced a revolution in their lives by attending EST seminars. However, concern has been expressed over the pressure and intensity of the programmes.
Erhard, together with John Denver, set up in 1977 an organization called ‘The Hunger Project’. This is a charity that aims to eliminate world hunger. Though supposedly not connected with EST, a large proportion of the staff is EST-trained and those on EST training weekends are encouraged to support the project. It also has a young people’s wing known as ‘Youth Ending Hunger’. This project has had a high profile. It attracted for a while the backing of ex-prime minister Edward Heath. It was nearly accepted on an official basis by Birmingham as part of its education to schools programme. Had it been accepted and promoted in the 500 schools of Birmingham it would have received great credibility and other education authorities would have been under pressure to accept it.
The problem with the Hunger Project is that it does not actually feed the hungry. Nor does it claim to. Only one half of one per cent of its British income and just over two percent of its international income is spent on food for the hungry. The project is founded on the EST belief that what the world needs to do to eliminate hunger is to wake up to the fact that there is a hunger problem, then if we all talk about it enough, we’ll create a climate in which hunger can no longer exist!
i. No one is forced to go on EST courses and many leave before they complete the courses;
ii. Many are grateful for what they have experienced on EST courses;
iii. EST tends to encourage focus on ‘self’. It is inward looking with more concern for ‘me’ than for others;
iv. It can lead to dependency upon EST as the need for refresher courses indicate;
v. The experience of ‘getting it’ is a pseudo experience and not a lasting, eternal transformation;
vi. The teaching of EST is non- Christian, even anti-Christian;
vii. EST is incompatible with genuine Christianity;
viii. EST now forms part of the new age network;
ix. EST has produced profound emotional, physical, psychological and certainly spiritual problems in many that attend their training courses.
We need to pray that we, by the grace of God, will reach these people before therapy cults get a grip upon them and the barrier becomes greater towards the gospel of Jesus Christ.