The Zen of Werner Erhard

I find Werner Erhard to be a continuing source of inspiration (and occasional irritation). I’ve posted about his est workshops and the core distinctions of the Landmark Forum, est’s successor. 

Recently I’ve had some aha! moments about how Werner’s ideas overlap with Buddhism. Following are points of convergence. 

Releasing monkey mind

Anyone who tries to meditate has a direct experience of “monkey mind” — the restless inner voice that comments on every experience, filling our mind with negative chatter. 

This internal chaos opens the door to a liberating insight, however: We do not have thoughts. Rather, thoughts have us

In meditation we see that the thoughts claimed as “ours” actually well up from an unconscious source that we do not control. 

Werner says it well in Speaking Being: Werner Erhard, Martin Heidegger, and a New Possibility of Being Human: It thinks, “and you are having the thoughts it thinks.”

Here is a portal to anatta, or no-self — one of the Buddha’s core teachings. Seeing the impersonal nature of thought allows us to step back from the inner voice, observe it dispassionately, and free ourselves from its tyranny.  

Releasing story — and suffering

I’ve described enlightenment as sinking into sensation — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and feeling without an overlay of interpretation and judgment. Werner refers to that overlay as story and urges us to distinguish it from the bare facts of our experience. 

Remembering this distinction has reduced my suffering during some fairly unpleasant experiences. One was a recent prostate biopsy, which involved two distinct streams of experience. 

First was what the Buddha called mental proliferation — an avalanche of thoughts about how invasive the procedure was, how unfortunate I was to undergo it, and the absolute necessity of ending it immediately. 

Near the end of the biopsy it suddenly occurred to me: I could drop the whole self-centered story taking place in my mind and simply open up to the experience. And then, while laying half-naked on a table with a needle inserted into my rectum, I entered the second stream of experience — relief. 

This is not to say that I was free of physical discomfort. But I did drop a thick layer of resistance to what was happening, and this reduced my suffering. 

Entering the ‘clearing’ 

One day, while driving to work across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Werner had a spontaneous and radical experience of nothingness. He described it to his biographer as releasing personal identity — seeing, in fact, any identity as false. 

This opened up a mental space that Werner describes as the clearing, in which experiences arise and pass away. No experience defines us, he realized. We are simply the context in which experiences occur. 

“Self is the projector,” said Werner, “and everything else is the movie.” 

In Buddhism this is described as insight into emptiness, a sacred spaciousness that is pregnant with possibility. 

When we see that identity is constructed and arbitrary, we are released from the stories that have defined us. We are free to speak and act in ways that are not constrained by the past.

Transforming  here and now 

Raised as an evangelical Lutheran, I believed that my salvation was sourced in the past (Christ’s crucifixion). And, my redemption was deferred to the future (after death, in heaven). 

Werner’s work and Buddhist practices lifts us out of linear time and plant us in the present moment. Transformation takes place here and now, in this mind and body. 

Two things are involved here. 

One is the experience of nothingness — for Werner, the clearing; in Buddhism, nonduality

Second is compassion — translating insight into behaviors that help rather than harm. The Buddha gave us the Eightfold Path for this purpose. Werner offers seven distinctions of being an unreasonable and extraordinary human being

Embracing the unseen and unspoken 

Teachings from the Buddha and from Werner are soaked in paradox. Though enlightenment is timeless, for example, we are called to sustained practice over time — and a healthy dose of confusion along the way. 

In Zen they say that the path is “something round and rolling, slippery and slick” — that nirvana cannot be seen, heard, or captured in words. 

Werner asks us to dwell in distinctions (such as the difference between story and fact) without trying to remember, apply, or even explain them. For a long time, we don’t “get” it. And then — suddenly — we get it all at once. 

Sounds like enlightenment. 

Note: The concept of the clearing as described by Werner — i.e., the observer who stands separate from experiences and stories about them — has no precise analogue in Buddhism. 

According to nondual teachings, there is no permanent observer. Rather, there is only observing, which waxes and wanes, arising and passing like all other experiences. 

How interesting that Werner and the Buddha differ so profoundly on this key point.