''We're Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together"

Psychology Today/August 1975
By Mark Brewer

Thousands of educated citizens in New York, San Francisco and other cities buy $250 tickets for the latest pop-psych trip, Erhard Seminars Training, or est. A stubborn journalist reports his experience with est and with the supersalesman who invented it out of psycho-techniques, Eastern and Western. When you know you're a mechanical anus, you've ''got it.''

Loose and cool in a black silk shirt and doeskin jacket, Werner Erhard sauntered down the center aisle of San Francisco's Civic Auditorium to thunderous applause. His smooth, handsome, male-model features bore the confident smile of a man who had packed a large auditorium at three dollars a head without a lick of advertising, and the 7,000 bright and well-dressed people who received him exude the equally rare satisfaction of those who are about to be reminded they are perfect.

The fact is, however, that Werner could have told them almost anything, because the crowd that night was made up totally of est graduates - a fast-growing brand of person who has ''gotten it'' through an experience called Erhard Seminars Training, of which Erhard is founding genius and guiding light. What they had all gotten in the ''Training'' was a ''new dimension'' that has, according to thousands from New York to California, changed their lives.

Est is no ordinary California cult. It is a multimillion dollar corporation that has doubled in size each year and operates nationwide with the efficiency of a crack brigade. It boasts a President who taught at Harvard Business School and left the position of General Manager of Coca-Cola Bottling Company of California to join Werner; it has been endorsed and even joined by prominent lawyers, doctors and psychologists; it has trained California schoolchildren under s Federal grant; and its Advisory Board is chaired by a former chancellor of the University of California Medical School, San Francisco.

That night as Werner took the stage in his easy, practiced, TV-emcee style, I was probably the only doubter in the house. His intimate, slightly nasal voice commanded a rapt attention as he addressed a subject dear to his heart: What It Is.

''It,'' he intoned, with a variety of examples, is ''the awareness that you 'are';'' which gradually led to the equally simple revelation that ''the only way to be happy is to do what you're doing.''

''SO WUT'' Those words may be too facile for the uninitiated, but to the est people who sat spellbound by them, they were virtual gospel. The 90-minute performance concluded with a neat explanation of how everyone's life was turning out perfectly every instant, and then Werner thanked them humbly and disappeared through a rear exit to his waiting Mercedes 450 SEL and whooshed away into the night, his personalized plates demanding, ''SO WUT''. So he has a pretty nice little deal going, that's wut.

All this started back in 1971, but the origins of est are not a favored topic of discussion with the staff, and neither is the paltry matter of who owns est. Mild-mannered corporate President Don Cox gave the following rather stiff explanation:

''Technically, est is owned by a trust which operates est for the benefit of the public, to whom est ultimately belongs. I'm not at liberty to divulge the name of the trust.''

In a later conversation, however, when I brought up the subject again, it amused Cox to invoke the punch line of an old Hindu proverb, saying ''it's like 'on what the elephant is standing no one knows.' '' Est people are like that. On the same matter, Werner quipped, ''Don't wanna know and there won't be any mystery.''

Whoever owns the thing, est is a company whose primary business is the sale of a ''standard training'' which currently goes for $250 a head and lasts from 15 to 18 hours each Saturday and Sunday for two consecutive weekends. It is a training that ''doesn't teach anything,'' according to Werner; ''what it does is give people the space to learn from themselves.''

More accurately, est has sold this space to over 35,000 people, there are some 8,000 more waiting in line for it, and est has probably grossed over six million dollars by now. This has all been accomplished by a national staff of fewer than 100 people, but who are considerably augmented by a small army of unpaid volunteers; in 1974 more than 3,500 volunteers contributed anywhere from a few hours to more than 40 hours a week for further the cause, and it is the est volunteer even more than the paid staff who makes est what it is. Stuffers of envelopes, reconcilers of records, answerers of phones, the est volunteers (who are typically middle class and in their late 20s) keep the office lights burning literally at all hours. They are known to non-est people chiefly for their zombielike attention to duty, for their unfailing adulation of Werner and loyalty to the cause, and for a searching smile that one Berkeley psychologist, even after she took the ''Training,'' described as ghoulish. Recently, Don Cox has had to impose a curfew to keep est workers from hanging around the office toiling all the time.

Free Vitamins but Few Bucks. The busy three-story office building that est leases on Union Street in San Francisco (and has already outgrown) is indeed an unusual place. It hums with an efficiency that is rather astounding, inspired by the guiding precept ''to serve Werner and make est work.'' To this end, they work like ants for low pay or none at all and, as Cox happily attests, never get sick. They do get free medical examinations and insurance, free vitamins, free chiropractic maintenance, and as an occasional bonus for exemplary services, they can get Rolfed, a process of twisting and pummeling the body that is reputed to be therapeutic. ... ''The result,'' Cox concluded, ''is that this organization produces miracles.''

Cox represents a miracle of sorts himself. Formerly Vice President and Director of Planning with Coca-Cola USA and then General Manager of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of California, Cox took a hefty cut in salary to become est's chief executive.

''What you're seeing,'' Werner snapped one afternoon, ''is people who know how to make the world work. People who know how to make life work!''

The ''Training'' is the common bond that holds it all together, and to talk to an est graduate about what it all means without having ''gotten it'' yourself is a lot like talking about LSD when you've never tripped. Moreover, it is a crucial and well respected tenet of est that graduates will not discuss the content of the training with the uninitiated.

This rule stems from the est maxim that the training cannot be explained or understood, but only experiences. It is a convenient line of the sales pitch, but there is also a good deal of truth to it. What the training is more than anything else - and far more than any wide-eyed description that est graduates or staff give - is a brave new application of classic techniques in indoctrination and mental conditioning worthy of Pavlov himself. Nevertheless, it is difficult to condemn offhand anything that produces as high a degree of satisfaction and as strong a sense of new personal worth as est usually does.

No Advertising. The fact is, though, that almost none of the trainees know what they're getting in for when they arrive for the first long day of training. Ever since a small hand-picked group took Werner's initial est training in a borrowed apartment, the organization has eschewed advertising in favor of strong personal endorsements by new graduates. The glowing but suitably vague testimonials of a friend or relative bring potential recruits to guest seminars held in swanky hotel banquet rooms and led by est volunteers who have been rigorously drilled through a series of special ''postgraduate'' trainings on the tactics of getting people signed up for the trip.

''The purpose of the training,'' says Werner officially, ''is to transform your ability to experience living so that the situations you have been trying to change or have been putting up with clear up just in the process of life itself.'' And the guest seminar leaders cleverly come no closer than that to telling their audience what it is they're being urged to buy. They are inevitably asked, if it is encounter, Zen, meditation, positive thinking. It is all those things and none of them, they smile. It is also Transactional Analysis, the Bible, Gestalt and Taoism - and a good seminar leader can name several more. It is the latest model with all the options, a sort of short course in all those things you've heard about but never had time to get into. And there always seem to be only a few spaces left in the next training, but if you sign up that night you can make it.

My own training began at San Francisco's plush old St. Francis Hotel, where the new customers were processed on the mezzanine by est-folk who checked application forms, cheerfully verified or forthwith collected everyone's payment, then fitted each one with a tag that blared their first name and led them down to the spacious California Room.

No Talking. The recruits were told to take one of the 250 straight-backed chairs arranged in three neat groups before a low dais. Such a sense of rigid order, such a condescending mental-ward tone to the brisk instructions of the enigmatic est assistants prevailed that only the vague promise of a new life seemed to keep most of the newcomers present. Then when a tall, bespeckled automaton named Ron suddenly took the stage to bark like a drill sergeant that there would be NO TALKING, only the prepaid 200 bucks kept them.

As people began to look around carefully out of the corners of their eyes, Ron droned on: During the training, no one would move, talk, smoke, eat, or take notes, and no one would leave the room at any time for any reason unless a formal break (of which there would be a maximum of two each 16-hour day) was announced. Nor, during the nine-day period of the training, would anyone partake of alcohol, narcotics, or prescription drugs, although medicine required under doctor's orders could qualify for exemption. These, Ron impressed again and again, were ''agreements'' - not rules - and the trainees were instructed to register their accord by sitting still. Ron added finally that no general comments from the group would be ''appropriate,'' but that if anyone cared to ''share'' something he was personally experiencing, he could simply raise a hand and, if recognized by the trainer, one of the young volunteers would speedily provide a microphone. Ron spent the next five minutes showing us precisely how to hold the mike, and the tone of the training was effectively set.

Napoleon in a Sport Coat. So in swept Tony Freedley, one of Erhard's original est disciples and the senior trainer, who would harangue and cajole the recruits through the first half of their training. A dapper, diminutive fellow - who like all est men dresses exactly like Werner in sport coat, open collar, slacks and sleek shoes - he strode to the fore like Napoleon preparing to exhort indolent troops on the eve of a hopeless battle. Military training was apparent in his carriage and in the slightly pigeon-toed gait, and in fact, after receiving a degree in English literature from Harvard, Tony did three tours in Vietnam as a SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) commando for the Navy, running over 80 missions behind enemy lines. He has a round, almost soft face, but there is something tough and smart about it and he is one of the sharpest and most perceptive men you might ever meet.

He goes for the throat. They were present, he roared in command voice, because their lives did not work. Their lives were shit. Hopeless. They did not know what they were doing, did not know how to experience life, were struggling, desperate, confused. They were ASSHOLES! Tony savored the word a moment, used it again, and thenceforth, as is a matter of course in the training, the recruits were always referred to as assholes...until they ''got it.''

He began to describe all the pain and stress and discomfort and anxiety they were going to feel in the long hours ahead. Like an interrogator assuring a captive that he will inevitably crack, Tony took pleasure in predicting the sheer desperation with which each trainee, hours and hours hence, would desire merely to talk, stand up, leave the room, smoke a cigarette, go home, take a shit, anything. How they would feel hatred, boredom, ripped off...''until finally you begin to get'' he shouted ''that you will do anything to keep from experiencing what is actually happening to you.''

Werner's Razor. That line is essentially Werner's razor: your mind is so confused with beliefs and reasons about what is or could or should be wrong with you, or the world or everyone else, that you are incapable of even experiencing life, much less enjoying it. Therefore, yelled Tony, ''We're gonna throw away your whole belief system. ... We're gonna tear you down and put you back together.''

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

So on a Saturday morning in the St. Francis Hotel, Tony Freedley and his est assistants were starting off on another edition of the timeless endeavor to make the new man. By distorting the fundamental stimulus-response mechanisms of eating, moving, sleeping, smoking a cigarette or going to the john, while Tony bombarded them hour after hour about how their lives and their thinking were all fucked up, the training would shake, confuse and finally, in a great majority of cases, dislodge the old ideas and behavior patterns. And then in would go the desired est perceptions, and ultimately the notion that you are perfect the way you are.

When I asked Werner the difference between est and mass mind control, he brushed my query aside as not being ''a representational question.'' At a subsequent interview, however, he offered a rather characteristic reply. ''It's exactly the opposite of that,'' he explained. ''When you do the opposite of something though, there will be several people who'll say that you're really doing whatever that something is.''

Even some members of the est Advisory Board, whose duty it is to evaluate the techniques and results of the est training, are not much clearer about what's going on. The chairman of the Board is Philip Lee, M.D., Chancellor of the University of California Medical School from 1969 to 1972 and now a professor of social medicine and health policy there. It was the training, along with ''getting to know Werner,'' that led Lee (who also sits on the boards of the Carnegie Corporation and Mayo Foundation) to join the Advisory Board, which he views as a sort of public service activity, adding that ''as a faculty member, it's one of the things we're expected to do.''

''We want to find out what it [the training] does, and second, then why,'' said Lee, explaining one of the roles of the Advisory Board. ''We don't know either one yet.''

Commonsense Psychology. It takes nearly 70 hours to get most or all of the trainees converted, and that time is filled with a variety of techniques and processes designed to alternately confuse and enlighten the subjects, to develop the authority of the trainer and build his suggestive power over the hapless ''assholes.'' There is also, to be sure, a good double dose of commonsense psychology from which almost anyone could profit. And no matter what Erhard and his disciples teach or how they teach it, the training is a masterful amalgam of consciousness-altering techniques. And its effects upon the innocent is a rare thing to witness.

After several hours on the initial premise that the trainees are worthless, Tony produced on the blackboard, like Mephistopheles revealing the sign of the microcosm, the est chart of thought. It was a table of mental processes delineating all conceivable mental functions, divided into realms of experience and non-experience. Belief, reason, logic and understanding were shown to be nonexperiential, and these secondhand mental exercises had to be abandoned to get at the meat of life.

In other words, as Werner methodically instructed me one morning while we sat before the marble fireplace that warms his Victorian office, ''Anything you're stuck in, you're the effect of. Man can't reason, he can only have reason. Most people can't feel, they can only have feelings that get pulled out by certain stimuli. That's the way man reasons - on a stimulus-response basis. When you transcend reason, then you are able to reason. Like, for instance, Einstein transcended reason when he developed the theory of relativity. So he was able to reason.''

For hours on end, however, out of boredom or real doubt, the trainees poured their resistance to this unthink into the microphones, and each time Tony was on them like a SEAL commando.

''But don't you have to believe in something to....''

''Don't give me your goddamn belief system, you dumb motherfucker!'' he roared at one guy, charging off the dais. ''That doesn't work! That's why your whole life doesn't work. Get rid of all that shit!''

The afternoon dragged past and Tony's assault on belief continued. Endlessly he seemed to recognize hands, dull-faced assistants hustled down the aisles with mikes, and one trainee after another shared disbelief, skepticism, pain or antagonism. Tony cursed or kidded each into seeing that it was all just another belief. And after each ''sharing'' Tony thanked the offerer and the other 249 ''assholes'' applauded briskly, as previously instructed, and the sharer generally sat down in confusion. Which was all right, Tony assured them all, because confusion was the first step toward ''natural knowing,'' the very pinnacle of est-think.

It's Your Own Fault. Gradually, Tony moved on to another mainstay in the est body of knowledge, the idea of ''taking responsibility for your life.'' It is basically the perception that your problems aren't caused by sickness or fate or other people, they are caused by you, and until you accept that, you'll never solve any of them. Not surprisingly, almost everyone in the room had an example of some exception in his own case, but Tony would have none of it. He wouldn't have cared if you'd been gang-raped or born with a brain defect, it was no goddamn excuse. Hours passed. Tony pounded away.

In our culture, however, six hours of deprivation is like seven years of locusts, and when aching backs, filling bladders, and desperately wandering minds finally neared the point of open rebellion, Tony showed them est's curative process. Concentrate on the pain, he taught them, until you can see its shape, its color, its texture, its very volume, and then it will disappear. And lo, one after another testified that indeed - no really! - it was gone; Tony smiled down serenely and sipped from a stainless steel beaker of tea.

The remainder of that first session, which lasted until about midnight, presented the preliminary forms of the est ''process.'' The processes are crucial to the est experience, and are officially referred to as ''directed meditation;'' used according to Werner ''to help people learn to create their own experience,'' but there are other names and explanations.

It began with Tony telling the trainees that they were going to enter a meditational state and transport themselves to an idyllic beach. As a respite from hours of harangue, the prospect was received like water on the desert, and with all bodies properly positioned in the chairs and all eyes shut, Tony began to direct their minds in the droning repetitive monotone of a language record, he bid them, ''... Create a space in your left foot. ...Good: ... Create a space in your left foot. ...Thank you. ...Create a space in your left foot. ...Good.''

''The Poem.'' Always repeating the directions three times, he moved them from one foot to the other step by step up each leg and through each area of the body, relaxing the group with incantations reminiscent of some theatrical mass hypnotist. Then, when the state of reverie was apparently reached, but before they were led to the promised beach, Tony read them a long creed that est refers to as ''the poem.'' No copies of it may be had, even by est graduates. About as poetic as the Pledge of Allegiance, the lines are a long repetitive series of first-person affirmations about expanding awareness and heightening powers.

Tony led the group through three long processes that night, beginning each one with the same hypnotic direction (''...Create a space in your head....'') and then the rambling creed, impressing their minds with positive attitudes and reinforcing his suggestive power. After each one, the trainees emerged blinking and slack-jawed, as if from a trance, and finally, near midnight, Tony sent them home rather tired and confused. But before they left, he promised them the big Truth Process the next day.

The Truth Process was indeed the high point of the second day, and it was approached over eight arduous hours like the peak of some mountain. What the trainees finally experienced, however, lying all over the floor of a banquet room in the Jack Tar Hotel, and prefaced of course by ''directed meditation,'' was very similar to the Freudian process of abreaction.

We were told to choose one big problem that we wanted to solve and were then coached for hours on how, under the trancelike ''directed meditation,'' to dredge up from memory all the actions and emotions associated with the things until we ultimately reached the cause of it whereupon, like the pains of the day before, the afflictions would miraculously disappear.

Sobbing on the Floor. To varying degrees, the same technique is used in Gestalt therapies, Primal therapy and the ''auditing'' of Scientology, but in the est training it was done by almost 250 of us, lying on the floor, writhing and gesticulating amid a din of whimpers, sobs, retching and orgasmic groaning. At the end of it, the majority of the ''assholes'' were convinced that they had undergone a mysterious and deeply cleansing ordeal.

William Sargant, a British psychiatrist who made a study of very similar techniques of indoctrination and conversion in Battle for the Mind (1957), has described abreaction as ''a time-work physiological trick which has been used, for better or worse, by generations of preachers and demagogues to soften up their listeners' minds and help them take on desired patterns of belief and behavior.'' Werner staunchly maintains that the training is not intended to be psychotherapeutic. But his truth, it seems, shall make you free of symptoms.

One est graduate who relates having a ''fairly dramatic'' experience during the Truth Process is Philip Lee of the Advisory Board, and yet even he is a bit doubtful. Lee recalls ''having had backaches on and off for, oh, 18 years, symptoms that would be fairly typical of a disc,'' and he ''was having pain at the time of the training.

''I traced that back, went back to where it began, and during this process I realized that that pain wasn't a disc, but it was related to my relationship with my father. It wasn't clear to me what the factor was that was causing the pain, but after that I didn't have the pain. ... Well, that was enough to convince me that there was something to this.''

Yet when I asked Lee how he thought the process worked, he seemed less sure of its value: ''Well, I don't know. You know, I had that experience. But I'm a very uhh ... you know, I think it's easy to be conned. I think we're very gullible. I'm skeptical constantly about whether it had all these profound effects.''

After dinner that second night, the trainees were put through what seemed like a bizarre induction to the est corps. The seats had been rearranged into long rows, the assistants seemed even stricter and more vigilant than usual, and a squad of fire-eyed est volunteers sat in a separate phalanx of chairs at the rear.

Row by row, we were commanded to line up on the stage, standing straight with our toes flush against a long white line, to be searchingly examined by our peers in the training, and it would be difficult for you to imagine the tension and fear that Tony and his assistants were able to whip up over this objectively ridiculous exercise.

Quiet and Afraid. While the assistants sternly patrolled the ranks of seated ''assholes'' to make sure they were quiet and attentive and suitably fearful of their own turn on the line, Tony strutted back and forth shouting in his best voice that this was it - none of that ''bullshit'' they always used to get along in life could help them now, they were going to be sees as they really were.

''Wipe that smile off, '' Tony snarled at one young man. ''We don't think you're funny we think you're pathetic.'' To another: ''Stop trying to look so cool. They can see right through that. And there's NOTHING behind it!''

After each row had been on the line for a few minutes, the cadre of inspectors at the rear rose together, split into two groups and marched up either side of the room like stormtroopers. Reaching the front, they moved down the line, stopping suddenly before some unlucky trainee to stare feverishly into his eyes, nose to nose, for several minutes before returning to their seats as suddenly as they had come.

The tension and harassment, along with the trauma many of them suffered at standing openly before a large crowd, produced a number of breakdowns. In each row of 30 or 40 persons who took the stage, there were usually four or five who sobbed piteously or even swooned, completely overcome. Tony usually snapped, ''That's just another act.'' One man hung his head and bawled like a soul in hell. Another vomited.

''The Sunday Night Massacre.'' In the larger context of the est experience this ordeal is a key step in the process of conversion. ''The Sunday night massacre,'' as one timid little man termed it, epitomized the aim of the first weekend. As in any serious training, the overriding effort is to hound and confuse the subjects until they crack under the pressure, and, in the helplessness of that moment, embrace the system.

Finally the trainees were ordered to stack their chairs and hit the deck again, whereupon Tony led them through another noisy and emotional process. At the end of it, he told them, by God, go out there and give 'em hell all week, and at about 1:00 a.m. the ''assholes'' poured onto abandoned streets, halfway through their training as cocky as marines on the first leave after boot camp.

The intervening week, however, according to the trainees' testimonials at a mid-training seminar, was full of strange effects. There were those of course who expressed dismay at feeling no different from before. ''Just stick with it,'' they were encouraged, ''you'll get it.'' Several proclaimed a sort of early conversion, relating exciting states of happiness, increased energy and a great sense of well-being, while others, typical of people who have had their mental constructs juggled, reported strong and erratic emotions, such as crying for no apparent reason or breaking up in laughter at something no one else thought funny. Several others simply said that they felt pretty weird, at which the seminar leader would grin fiendishly as he led the group in a round of applause.

Still, regardless of their reactions to the course, virtually all of the ''assholes'' remained true to the instruction not to try to figure out what was happening to them. Indeed, they seemed content to be told it was all done ''because Werner found that it works.''

When I tried to discover the paths through which Werner had acquired this wisdom, it was not easy. Est is a closed and defensive organization apparently believing with some justification that anyone, especially a journalist, who has not completed the training is an unknown entity and potentially a detractor. It was difficult to get much information out of them. But I persevered in wondering where Erhard came from, and the est office finally gave me a brisk two-page item headed ''Werner Erhard: Professional Activities.''

Aside from mentioning that he was born in Pennsylvania in 1935 and was graduated from high school in 1952, which was the extent of his formal education, it says only that ''From 1963 to 1971 he was associated with Parents Magazine's Cultural Institute and from 1967 to 1971 he served as its vice president.'' Now Parents Cultural Institute ceased to exist in 1969, so they must have made a mistake on the dates, but perhaps that's just as well, because from 1969 to 1971 Werner had other associations that might easily be misinterpreted.

A Change of Name. Long before, however, he was born near Philadelphia as Jack Rosenberg, son of a small restaurant operator. After finishing high school he worked at several jobs, eventually becoming a sort of supervisor for a construction outfit. A few years later, about 1960, ''to avoid the responsibilities I had,'' he took off for parts unknown. Those responsibilities amounted to a wife and four kids, and he avoided them all the way to St. Louis in the company of a woman named Ellen who is now his second wife. At about the same time, he changed his name to Werner Hans Erhard.

In St. Louis, Erhard worked as a representative for a school that taught operation of construction equipment and sold used cars. After a while he headed further west and began working for a correspondence school. He called on people who had indicated interest in the courses and, like good est volunteers today, talked them into buying some. Later he did a stint up in Spokane selling the Great Books and undergoing and studying hypnosis.

In 1963 Erhard joined the Parents Cultural Institute, a subsidiary of Parents Magazine. The institute's sole business was publication of a set of encyclopedias to sell door to door. Werner excelled and did indeed become a vice president. He likes to recall that his duties were to ''develop personnel, train executives,'' and run ''a sort of development course,'' but the personnel department at Parents recalls that ''his actual duties were as sales manager'' and that he hired, trained and supervised door-to-door salesmen.

When PCI folded in 1969 Werner moved onto the fast track of the door-to-door circuit, Grolier Society, Inc. That corporation, which is presently inactive, was one of numerous Grolier Inc. subsidiaries, and its business was selling encyclopedias door to door. Here again, Werner recalls his job with Grolier as that of executive for development, but an old hand at Grolier remembers that he was a division manager who trained and supervised a stable of salespeople.

Werner stayed with Grolier until 1971, or roughly until est started, but this tenure somehow does not find its way into the resume. The Grolier Society was at that time the target of several legal actions for fraudulent and deceptive sales techniques. The State of California filed two suits against Grolier Society, Inc. in 1970, charging that along with outright lies, the Grolier pitch used a variety of deceptive routines to trick people into buying encyclopedias. The State sought permanent injunctions against these practices and was successful in both cases.

On to Scientology. While with Grolier, Werner took up Scientology and distinguished himself by having been ''expelled from the church,'' according to one spokesman. In fact, Scientologists get a sort of glint in their eyes when werner is mentioned, and a public information officer maintains ''we feel he took a lot of data from us and called it his.''

After Scientology, Werner took the Mind Dynamics trip, which was a highly successful course that taught people how to control their minds and make them more efficient, largely through self-hypnosis. Werner thought it was great stuff and soon became an enthusiastic MD instructor. But Werner does not include Mind Dynamics among his professional activities either. MD, which has gone out of business, is being sued by the State of California for fraudulent claims and practicing medicine without a license. Publicity about Werner's MD days would also dull his claim that he is solely responsible for the techniques used in est, for much of est is patterned after Mind Dynamics. Some of the processes are almost perfect copies.

In late 1971 Werner branched off and started his own training so that he could ''do what I think everybody wants to do, which is to serve people.'' And as usual, serving people has proved to be good work if you can get it. As founder and Chairman of the Board, Werner claims to receive only $30,000 a year from est (which incidentally showed a small loss in 1973 and is said to be designed only to break even), but in addition to his $14,000 Mercedes, he lives in a home worth at least $100,000, high in the hills of Marin County, worked in a magnificently furnished Victorian mansion on Pacific Heights in San Francisco that serves as his office and pied-a-terre, has a personal staff including valet, a leased plane, literally thousands of people who work for Erhard Seminars Training, Inc., without pay, and thousands more who would walk to Bogota is he suggested it.

It is interesting to note that Werner wrote a brief article entitled ''Service'' for the Mind Dynamics house organ a few years back. To enhance their appreciation of MD, he wrote, the graduates should ''serve'' others by getting them to take the course. ''Choose five people that you are going to be responsible for having in Mind Dynamics. Be especially alive and in tune with these people ... discover and carry out whatever service is necessary so that these people are able to overcome their obstacles and actually be in the course.'' Naturally, he did not mention that he would be pocketing a substantial portion of each $200 that these new recruits would fork over when they signed up for his class.

So perhaps it's best that not many of the trainees checked up on Werner. They might have gotten the idea that Werner has almost always been in the business of training people and psyching them up to sell something for him.

''You don't know anything yet,'' Ted Long hollered at us the next Saturday morning. ''You've got a long way to go.''

Long is a thirtyish-looking man with rather thin, severe features and prematurely gray hair, who was an attorney and vice-mayor of a small town near San Francisco before he saw the light and became an est trainer. Like virtually all est-men, Ted Long dresses, talks and acts like Werner.

The first session that Saturday lasted eight hours without a break, and the subject matter - after another dose of you're an asshole, your life is miserable, the training cannot not work - was a harangue on the nature of reality. The point came in a sudden switch, where nonreality (defined as that which is based solely on personal experience) suddenly became reality, and that which had been referred to for several hours as reality (the objective physical world) became unreal.

You're a Machine. Sunday's instruction tacked no less a subject than the human mind and how it works. In a sealed ballroom of the Sheraton Palace, the trainees sat in their chairs for an exhausting 10 straight hours, while Ted broke the mind into five nifty functions, which he rammed down their throats as much by virtue of his own tenacity and the hopelessness of arguing as by the relative plausibility of it all, or the already well-conditioned receptiveness of the audience. In the end he had a beautifully interlocking model of the mind as a stimulus-response machine. It showed that, since your mind has no choice about the stimuli it records or the responses it produces, you have absolutely no choice about what you are or what you do. ''That's it, folks,'' Ted crowed triumphantly. ''You're a machine. A machine! Nothing but a goddamn machine! That's it,'' he repeated in a cruel, mocking tone. ''You can't be anything but what you are. And that's a machine.''

All those hours of training, all those processes and indoctrinations, had solidly established the authority of the trainer, and many at that moment must have felt as if the age-old questions of free will and determinism had been settled for all time. And since the vast majority of the trainees had been long ago persuaded that they were leading worthless lives, the effect of this thumping conclusion was shattering. The power that the training had achieved over their minds was never more impressive than at this point. It plunged the crowd into profound depression. To pay 200 bucks, be convinced you're an ''asshole,'' then be told there was nothing you could do about it was too much. In the dead, dull silence it was as if the veil of hope were rent and a helpless damnation revealed. It blew their minds.

The Miracle. Than came the miracle. If you accept the nature of your mind, Ted explained with a rising optimism in his voice, and take responsibility for having created all the stimulus-response mechanisms it comprises, then in effect you have freely chosen to do everything you have ever done and to be precisely what you are. In that instant, you become exactly what you always wanted to be!

The validity of this explanation faded in and out of mental focus like a line of poetry not quite remembered, but in that dramatic moment of the training, the tired yet painstakingly conditioned trainees gripped it almost desperately, and it was implanted in their minds.

They were - no! - they had been ''assholes'' only because they did not realize that whatever they were, warts and all, it was exactly what they wanted to be.

The light dawned slowly, with Ted chirping, ''See? See?,'' and then one and another acknowledged eagerly that, yes, they got it, and gradually a swell of exultant revelation swept the place. It was amazing to behold. They were perfect exactly the way they were.

There were those who didn't catch on, or who didn't think much of the revelation, or who were even hopping mad about being sold a bill of goods. But as usual about 200 people, roughly four fifths of the crowd, proclaimed their conversion, and the mood changed as if lepers had been cleansed. At this juncture they were allowed to go to the bathroom.

The initial rushes of the est conversion are, of course, hard for non-est people to swallow, since they appear absurdly simple or idiotic or both, and a lot of friendships and marriages have busted up soon after the training. Later on, though, when things have settled, some graduates simply have a feeling of okayness and self-confidence, while others, consumed by the notion that their mind is not only a machine but a perfect machine, act like robots. They are trained human beings, and they love it.

Est Ecstasy. Afloat on the new surge of confidence and lightheartedness, the majority of trainees returned from dinner that night eager for the next and final stage of instruction. They were greeted by a bubbly little number who was nearly ecstatic as she told them how clearly she knew that the main thin on their minds right then was wondering how to tell their family and friends about the amazing est experience. And boy, oh, boy, she giggled, nothing would enhance their experience like telling someone else about it. But, she warned, they had to be careful, they certainly didn't want to go trying to describe everything and ruin their friends' chances to have their own experience, now did they? Of course not. The thing to do, she instructed them, was to bring their friends to one of the guest seminars so that people who have been specially trained in these matters can handle them. And guess what? Their first chance to turn someone else on would be at their own post-training seminar the very next Wednesday night. Then she coached them for a few minutes more on how not to say too much, but just enough to indicate that this is something really far out.

The next Wednesday night, about a third of the new grads brought someone with them, and the new faces were quickly separated for special ''guest seminar'' treatment, while the grads themselves received another dose of est salesmanship.

Sitting again in the familiar chair formations with a trainer before them on the dais, they were introduced to the graduate seminar series, without which, it was clearly suggested, their experience would be incomplete. These seminars are conducted by various est trainees on subjects like ''Be Here Now,'' or ''What's So'' or ''About Sex,'' and they are held for several hours one night each week for about 200 graduates over 10 or 12 weeks, usually at the bargain price of $25 a head.

Below each of their chairs, the new graduates were conveniently provided a pencil and a sign-up card for the seminars, and when the trainer instructed them to go ahead and fill out the cards - even if they didn't think they wanted to take one of the seminars - the group complied automatically.

The Big Pitch. ''I didn't like the way they pushed those seminars on us,'' said one of the graduates who manages a door-to-door sales organization and is familiar with the tactics of coaxing a purchase. ''He was taking advantage of the control he had over everyone, and I could see exactly what he was doing, but he was giving them the pitch so beautifully I couldn't say anything. Like this chick next to me said she wasn't going to take one, but then sure enough, when she started filling out the card she signed up.''

The pitch, a steady barrage of mailings, and occasional telephone blitzes, has put about 80 percent of est graduates in the seminar program. But as Werner and Don Cox are quick to point out, they charge such a low price for the seminars that they actually lose money on all of them.

So why do they push them? To serve the graduates, of course, and as Werner says, ''to the degree I'm serving people, I am being served.'' In other words, besides keeping the body of faithful intact, the seminar series provides a constant corps of proselytizers who are receiving a weekly re-infusion of the word, along with subtle and not so subtle encouragements to spread the light by selling the training to their friends, neighbors and family. This may be what they really mean when they say that est ''makes your life work.''

Many est graduates eschew the evangelical role and resent the insidious salesmanship. But they are a minority, and the much larger result is a sort of legally clean pyramid sales routine that has, in each year est has operated, doubled the number of graduates.

So est makes people happy, and efficient, and perhaps such training is the wave of the future. In fact, it is Werner's hope that est will find its way into our social institutions. The recent, Federally funded est training of school children is a step in that direction.

Any citizen is free to spend money experiencing himself as a mechanical anus, and therefore discovering himself to be perfect. To each his own. However, I personally distrust any organization that transforms and uplifts thousands through the nihilism of a belief system that denies all other beliefs as bullshit. The use of brainwashing techniques, ostensibly to enhance peoples' lives, becomes bizarre when the outcome is to create unpaid salesmen. Smiling, they march out each week to share their brainwashed joys with friends, neighbors and co-workers, and they know that many will want to be sold. A friend of mine, an enthusiastic est graduate who considered becoming a guest seminar leader until it all began to seem insidious, wistfully recalled the power of the training. ''They could've told me anything.''

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