The est Standard Training program consisted of two weekend-long workshops with evening sessions on the intervening weekdays. Workshops generally involved about 200 participants and were initially led by Erhard and later by people trained by him. Ronald Heifetz, Founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, called est "an important experience in which two hundred people go through a powerful curriculum over two weekends and have a learning experience that seemed to change many of their lives." Trainers confronted participants one-on-one and challenged them to be themselves rather than to play a role that had been imposed on them by the past. Jonathan D. Moreno observed that "participants might have been surprised how both physically and emotionally challenging and how philosophical the training was." He writes that the critical part of the training was freeing oneself from the past, which was accomplished by "experiencing" one's recurrent patterns and problems rather than repeating them. The word experience was used to mean a process of fully experiencing the pointless repetition of old, burdensome behaviors so as to not be run by them. The seminar aimed to enable participants to shift their contextual state of mind around which their life was organized from the attempt to get satisfaction or to survive, to an experience of actually being satisfied and experiencing oneself as whole and complete in the present moment. The est training offered people the opportunity to free themselves from the past, rather than living a life enmeshed by their past.
Participants agreed to follow the ground rules which included not wearing watches, not talking until called upon, not talking to one's neighbors, not eating at or leaving their seats to go to the bathroom except during breaks separated by many hours. Participants who were on medication were exempt from these rules, and had to sit in the back row, so that they would not interfere with the other participants These classroom agreements provided a rigorous setting whereby people's ordinary ways to escape confronting their experience of themselves were eliminated. Moreno describes the est training as a form of "Socratic interrogation...relying on the power of the shared cathartic experience that Aristotle observed." Erhard challenged participants to be themselves instead of playing a role that had been imposed on them and aimed to press people beyond their point of view, into a perspective from which they could observe their own positionality. As Robert Kiyosaki writes, "During the training, it became glaringly clear that most of our personal problems begin with our not keeping our agreements, not being true to our words, saying one thing and doing another. That first full day on the simple class agreements was painfully enlightening. It became obvious that much of human misery is a function of broken agreements – not keeping your word, or someone else not keeping theirs."
Sessions lasted from 9:00 a.m. to midnight or the early hours of the morning, with one meal break. Participants had to hand over wristwatches and were not allowed to take notes, or to speak unless called upon, in which case they waited for a microphone to be brought to them. The second day of the workshop featured the "danger process". As a way of observing and confronting their own perspective and point of view, groups of participants were brought onto the stage and confronted. They were asked to "imagine that they were afraid of everyone else and then that everyone else was afraid of them" and to re-examine their reflex patterns of living that kept their lives from working. This was followed by interactions on the third and fourth days, covering topics such as reality and the nature of the mind, looking at the possibility that "what is, is and what ain't, ain't," and that "true enlightenment is knowing you are a machine" and culminating in a realization that people do not need to be stuck with their automatic ways of being but can instead be free to choose their ways of being in how they live their lives. Participants were told they were perfect the way they were and were asked to indicate by a show of hands if they "had gotten it".
Eliezer Sobel said in his article, "This is It: est, 20 Years Later,"
"I considered the training to be a brilliantly conceived Zen koan, effectively tricking the mind into seeing itself, and in thus seeing, to be simultaneously aware of who was doing the seeing, a transcendent level of consciousness, a place spacious and undefined, distinct from the tired old story that our minds continuously tell us about who we are, and with which we ordinarily identify."
Many participants experienced powerful results through their participation in the est training, including dramatic transformations in their relationships with families, their work and personal vision as well as recognizing who they were in the core of their beings. One study of a large sample of est alumni who had completed the training revealed that "the large majority felt the experience had been positive (88%), and considered themselves better off for having taken the training (80%).
In her book, I, Rhoda, Valerie Harper reported, "Est was a wonderfully empowering experience for me. It took a lot of struggle and conflict out of my day-to-day decision-making and helped me imbue my life with more focus and intention. … I was happier, more alive, and everything seemed lighter."
Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad wrote, "In March of 1974, I walked into the est training, and two weeks later, as [my sister] had promised, my life changed. And my 'changed life' went well beyond the two weekends I spent in the est seminar. I realized I had the power to create the best destiny for my life, or the worst. It was my choice."
John Curry, Olympic gold medal winning ice skater said that he found “a central core of strength” from doing the est Training. He said, "Quite honestly, I can say that from the day I signed up for est and from the first time I did it, my skating just changed. I suddenly realized that it was me who is doing the skating. I was the one in control. I was doing it, and it wasn't other things that could make me fall over, or make things go wrong."
Comedian Harvey Korman credited the training as a turning point for him. "Before est, I had a lot of analysis and a lot of therapy and got nowhere...All through the years that you say I was a success I looked at myself as a victim. I wasn't getting enough of anything. 'They' had it. Whoever 'they' are! One of the liberating things about est for me is that I realized I was doing precisely what I wanted to do. I wasn't a victim. I chose my career, created it, and wanted it... It's very liberating to take responsibility for what you're doing and what you've done."
Dr. Bernard Roth, director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, wrote, "In the 1970s I participated in a two-weekend workshop known as Erhard Seminar Training (usually abbreviated in lowercase as est). On the second day the group was led through an exercise called the Truth Process. I found, to my surprise, that the exercise completely eliminated an annoying habit of speech that I had picked up years earlier. I was naturally impressed, and I incorporated the exercise into my teaching. The results have been very favorable. It is a good tool for getting rid of aspects of your self-image that stand in the way of developing your achievement habit."
Werner Erhard reported having a personal transformation, and created the est training to allow others to have the same experience. The first est course was held at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, California, in October 1971. Within a year, trainings were being held in New York City and other major cities in the United States followed soon after. They were carried out by Werner Erhard, who had recently resigned from Mind Dynamics.
Beginning in July 1974 the est training was delivered at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, California, with the approval of Federal Bureau of Prisons. Initial est training in Lompoc involved participation of 12–15 federal prisoners and outside community members within the walls of the maximum security prison and was personally conducted by Werner Erhard.
By 1979 est had expanded to Europe and other parts of the world. In 1980 the first est training in Israel was offered in Tel Aviv. In 1983 in the United States, a participant collapsed during a portion of the seminar known as "the danger process" and died at the hospital to which he had been transported. A court subsequently found that the est training was not the cause of death
The last est training was held in December 1984 in San Francisco; in its place came a newly developed course called "The Forum", which began in January 1985. The est training presented several concepts, most notably the concept of transformation and taking responsibility for one's life. The actual teaching, called "the technology of transformation", emphasizes the value of integrity.
"est, Inc." evolved into "est, an Educational Corporation", and eventually into "Werner Erhard & Associates". In 1991 the business was sold to the employees who formed a new company called Landmark Education with Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, becoming the CEO. Landmark Education was structured as a for-profit, employee-owned company; it operates with a consulting division called Vanto Group.
In William Bartley's biography of Werner Erhard, Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est (1978), Erhard describes his explorations of Zen Buddhism. Bartley quotes Erhard as acknowledging Zen as the essential contribution that "created the space [for est]".
Bartley details Erhard's connections with Zen beginning with his extensive studies with Alan Watts in the mid 1960s. Bartley quotes Erhard as acknowledging:
Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned, Zen was the essential one. It was not so much an influence on me, rather it created space. It allowed those things that were there to be there. It gave some form to my experience. And it built up in me the critical mass from which was kindled the experience that produced est.
Other influences included Dale Carnegie, Subud, Scientology and Mind Dynamics.1971 – Erhard Seminars Training Inc, first est Training held in San Francisco, California
1973 – The Foundation for the Realization of Man – incorporated as a non-profit foundation in California (subsequently the name of the foundation was changed to the est Foundation in 1976, and in 1981 to the Werner Erhard Foundation)
1975 – est, an educational corporation.
1977 – The first est training outside of the United States, in London.
1977 – The Hunger Project was established
1979 – The first est training in India
1980 – The first est training in Israel
1980 – The Breakthrough Foundation was established (Youth at Risk)
1981 – First of ten annual physicist conferences sponsored by the est Foundation
1981 – est became Werner Erhard and Associates
1983 – The fatal accident of a participant occurred
1984 – The last training was held under the name of est
Ted Ashley (Chairman of the Board of Warner Bros.)
George Barnes (musician)
Warren Bennis (leadership expert)
Rivka Bertisch Meir (psychologist)
Phil Blevins (actor)
Jeff Bridges (actor)
John Curry (Olympic Gold Medal skater)
Billy Davis Jr., member of The 5th Dimension
John Denver (singer, songwriter) His song "Looking for Space" was dedicated to Erhard, and had become the theme song for EST.
Douglas Engelbart (Scientist, Inventor of the computer mouse)
David Geffen (American business magnate)
Peter Guber (executive, entrepreneur, author, Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment)
Valerie Harper (actress)
Arianna Stassinapolus Huffington (political commentator, editor – Huffington Post)
Raúl Juliá (actor)
Walter Kaufmann (philosopher)
Robert Kiyosaki (author of Rich Dad Poor Dad series)
Harvey Korman (actor)
Cloris Leachman (actress)
Judith Light (actress)
Harry Mathews (author)
Marilyn McCoo, (singer – The 5th Dimension)
Anne Meara (actress, comedian)
Joe Namath (football star, Hall of Fame quarterback)
Mike Oldfield (singer, songwriter)
Yoko Ono (artist, peace activist)
Chuck Palahniuk (author)
Lance Reddick (actor, musician)
Ida Rolf (creator of Rolfing)
Diana Ross (singer – The Supremes)
Jerry Rubin (social, political activist)
Joel Schumacher (filmmaker)
Jerry Stiller (actor, comedian)
Patrick Swayze (actor, dancer)
Pat Woodell (actress, singer)
Joanne Woodward (actress)
Bartley, III, William Warren: Werner Erhard The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of est, New York, New York, USA: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc (1978) ISBN 0-517-53502-5.
Bry, Adelaide: est: 60 Hours That Transform Your life, Harper Collins (1976) ISBN 978-0-06-010562-4
Fenwick, Sheridan: Getting It: The psychology of est, J. B. Lippincott Company. (1976) ISBN 0-397-01170-9
Hargrove, Robert: est: Making Life Work, Delacorte (1976) ISBN 978-0-440-19556-6
Kettle, James: The est Experience, Zebra Books (1976) ISBN 978-0-89083-168-7
Marks, Pat R.: est: The Movement and the Man, Playboy Press (1976) ASIN B004BI5A3E
Moreno, M.D., Ph.D., Jonathan D."Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network." Bellevue Literary Press (2014) ISBN 1-934137-84-7
Rhinehart, Luke: The Book of est, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1976) ISBN 978-0-557-30615-2
The Hunger Project
Werner Erhard and Associates