From the book, Impromptu Man,  by Jonathan D. Moreno

“Erhard Seminars Training, known as est, epitomized the Great Crossover. In the 1970’s, as hundreds of troubled hospitalized patients were daily being released for their involuntary commitment in vast institutions, hundreds of “normal people” were voluntarily entering hotel ballrooms in the hope of transforming themselves. The attraction was a handsome and charismatic young man named Werner Erhard, who had undergone his own “transformation.” The word has a nearly technical significance for Erhard, who uses it to refer to his realization that what stood between him and his completeness as a human being was within his control. A critical part of “the training,” as practitioners refer to it, is freeing oneself from the past, accomplished by “experiencing” recurrent patterns and problems rather than repeating them, where “experience” again has a technical significance. To fully experience the pointless repetition of old, burdensome behaviors is to “experience them out.” An early biography of Erhard explains that:

“The Training provides a format in which siege is mounted on the Mind. It is intended to identify and bring under examination presuppositions and entrenched positionality. It aims to press one beyond one’s point of view, at least momentarily, into a perspective from which one observes one’s own positionality… The setting for the training is arduous and intrusive, …In the training ordinary ways to escape confronting one’s experience are- with the agreement of the participants-sealed off in advance. On the concrete level this means limited access to food, water toilets, bed. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden. There is limited movement, there are no clocks or watches by which to tell the time; one may not talk to others; nor may one sit beside friends. Internal crutches and barriers to experience – such as one’s own belief systems – are also challenged by means of philosophical lectures and exercises in imagination.”

Participants might have been surprised how both physically and emotionally challenging and how philosophical the training was…Erhard struck a chord among many, partly because it was simultaneously original and familiar. Erhard brought a uniquely American voice to the themes of the fading human potential movement, and est training was in the American tradition of Great Awakenings and motivational programs. He had a way with pithy, often spontaneous observations about life and living. Evan as the spirit of the 1960s lost steam, there was a powerful lingering desire among many for personal exploration and for more authentic connections to others. In many ways the training was the most important cultural event after the human potential movement itself seemed exhausted, with elements of theater, therapy, and social networking.

Somewhere along the line the clunky term “large group awareness training” had been coined in reference to experiences like est that were on a bigger scale than Lewin’s T-groups, but still aiming at Maslow’s peak experiences. Crucially, est workshops took place on a stage before dozens or even hundreds of people. That was a departure from the usual encounter group size of a dozen or so participants, and further still from the analyst’s couch. Erhard also confronted participants one-on-one, challenging them to be themselves rather than playing some role that had been imposed on them, a form of Socratic interrogation reminiscent of J.L.’s story about mounting the stage to confront the actor in the “legitimate” Vienna theater. Erhard was sensitive to the aspect of theater in the training; his biographer even calls it “a new form of participatory theater,… Like most drams, it has catharsis as one of its aims. Unlike most drama, it also aims to bring the participant to an experience of him or herself which is tantamount to transformation.” In the early years of est Erhard cited psychodrama as one way of “rehabilitating the imagination in the attempt to bring people to their potential.” And he plainly had enormous charisma and self-confidence, qualities that J.L. also didn’t lack. Erhard sold his company in 1991; it survives as Landmark Worldwide and its basic program is called the Landmark Forum. Erhard now travels and lectures on leadership education and integrity. Referring to a book he is completing with a friend, Erhard says that “I’d like to live long enough to get the ideas down.”

From Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network, by Jonathan D. Moreno

Jonathan D. Moreno is an American philosopher and historian who specializes in the intersection of bioethics, culture, science, and national security, and has published seminal works on the history, sociology and politics of biology and medicine.

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