Lifespring was a for-profit private company, founded in 1974. The company promoted itself through books and word of mouth advertising. By 1989, officials stated that over 300,000 people had enrolled in the company's seminars. Lifespring has been classified as a New Age/human potential training company.
The company was the subject of investigative reports by the media, and was criticized by former staff and participants. After a series of lawsuits in the 1980s which alleged that Lifespring was responsible for mental damages to the plaintiffs , the company paid out damages as a result of settlements and one lost jury decision .
The former Director for Corporate Affairs of Lifespring, Charles "Raz" Ingrasci, also worked with Werner Erhard, promoting an est mission to the USSR and the Hunger Project. Ingrasci is now President of the Hoffman Institute which offers programs such as the Hoffman Quadrinity Process which some regard as similar to Lifespring.
Though John Hanley denied that Lifespring was a duplicate of Erhard Seminars Training, Melton and Lewis described the similarities between the two as "striking", in their 1992 work, Perspectives on the New Age. Melton and Lewis point out that both Werner Erhard and John Hanley had previously worked at Mind Dynamics. They then went on to cite specific examples of techniques utilized by both Lifespring and EST, stating that both used "authoritarian trainers who enforce numerous rules", both groups require applause after a member's "share" in front of the group, both deemphasized ratiocination, in favor of "feeling and action". The authors also pointed out that graduates of both Lifespring and EST were "fiercely loyal", and recruited heavily for their respective groups, reducing marketing expenses to virtually zero.
Studies commissioned by Lifespring done in the 80s by researchers at Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF, including Lee Ross, Morton Lieberman, and Irvin Yalom, found that an overwhelming majority of participants in these trainings called them either "extremely valuable" or "valuable" (around 90%). Many participants of these trainings found them to be among the most profound experiences of their lives and claimed they were able to produce substantial results in their lives as a result of their participation.
Less than 2% found them to be "of no value". Students were often eager to share their experiences in these trainings with family, friends, and co-workers, although they did not receive any compensation for "enrolling" others into the workshops. However, another, independent study found that, "The merging, grandiosity, and identity confusion that has been encouraged and then exploited in the training order to control participants is now used to tie them to Vitality (Lifespring) in the future by enrolling them in new trainings and enlisting them as recruiters". More than 400,000 people worldwide participated in these workshops.
The training was composed of successive sessions on Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday day and night, Sunday day and night, a Tuesday night post-training session ten days after graduation, and a post-training interview. Evening sessions began at 6:30 pm and last until 11:30 or 12. Saturday started at 10 am and lasted until approximately midnight. Sunday started at 9 am and lasted until approximately midnight. Initial Trainings were usually held in the convention facilities of large, expensive hotels. A training was usually composed of 250-300 participants, many volunteers, several official staff, an assistant trainer, and a head trainer.
The training itself consisted of a series of lectures and processes designed to show the participants how they were holding themselves back in their lives. Many complained that they felt harangued, embarrassed, or humiliated by the trainer during the trainings. Additionally, the trainer used many English words in a manner that was different than their usual meaning. "Commitment," for instance, was defined as "the willingness to do whatever it takes." "Conclusion" was defined as a belief. Also, words like "responsibility," "space," "surrender," "experience," "trust," "consideration," "unreasonable," "righteous" "totally participate," "from your head," "openness," "letting go" were redefined or used so as to assign them a new meaning.
By the conclusion of the training, the trainer and volunteers attempted to recruit participants for subsequent, advanced trainings, as well as encouraging them to bring guests to their post training. Participants have quoted them as saying, "Share what you have found with your friends. I want each person here to bring friends to a guest event and to the post-training. Don't keep this to yourselves. Allow them to do the training by sharing with them." Many felt pressured by this.
At the post training several days later, guests of participants were brought to another room, and encouraged to join. The participants themselves were encouraged once again to participate in future trainings. Participants were instructed to hold hands in a circle, and then instructed to go back to the guest event to "support your friends" (eg: encourage their friends to enroll in the training).
Lifespring has been characterized as a form of "Large Group Awareness Training" in several sources.
In 1993, Pittsburgh lawyer Peter N. Georgiades won a $750,000 settlement for a Lifespring trainee who was institutionalized for two years following Leadership training.
In 1982, the family of David Priddle accepted an undisclosed sum when they sued Lifespring after he jumped off a building; Artie Barnett's family also reached an out of court settlement, when Barnett, who couldn't swim, drowned during a Lifespring training. Gail Renick's family received $450,000 after she died from an asthma attack during a training session. She had been led to believe her medication was unnecessary.
The Skeptic a newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics, reported in 1989 on criticism from a participant that was a staff volunteer until becoming disillusioned with the organization. This former staff volunteer said that workshops were too stressful and disruptive, and that the program was "an urban cult" .
One prominent critic of Lifespring is Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Mrs. Thomas asserted in an interview with The Washington Post that she had to seek counseling after her decision to break away from Lifespring. She ultimately had to hide in another part of the country in order to avoid a constant barrage of phone calls from Lifespring members, urging her to remain in the organization. Thomas has spoken on panels and organized anti-cult workshops for congressional staffers in 1986 and 1988.
Cult awareness groups claimed that there was high pressure placed on participants to "enroll" family, friends, etc., in the workshops and to spend large sums of money on additional training. Many participants however, asserted that they found significant value in their participation and want to share the program with people around them.
In 1993, Rev. Dr. Richard L. Dowhower, conducted a survey of clergy attitudes toward and experience of cults. The 53 respondents were from the Washington, DC area and included 43 Lutheran clergy and seminarians, one Roman Catholic and one Jewish clergyman, and an Evangelical minister. The response chart indicates twenty eight (28) responses to "The cults I am most concerned about are:", with the answer "Scientology, est/Forum, Lifespring". . Dr. Dowhower was an advisor of the American Family Foundation, which published the Cult Observer.
Margo Majdi purchased rights to Lifespring materials in 1998, forming a new company called Mastery In Transformational Training (MITT).