This Is It – An Interview With Werner Erhard
“The truth is not found in a different set of circumstances. The truth is always and only found in the circumstances you’ve got. – Suffering is a function of the notion that ‘this is not it.’ ” – Werner Erhard
THIS IS IT- AN INTERVIEW WITH WERNER ERHARD, by Eliezer Sobel, New Sun Magazine, December 1978
Werner’s life and work is the subject of William Bartley’s recently released book, Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est, published by Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. The book is unusual in that it is not so much a story, but an experience. On the surface, it is the history of Werner Erhard; one step in, and it’s a biography of the Self, the story of each of our own inner unfoldment.
New Sun: I’d like to know what you feel is the single most important thing a human being can learn in life?
Werner Erhard: The problem with the answer to that question is that it depends on where the person is. I think that until you know that life does not work you’re unprepared to know anything else. And yet that’s not the most important thing to know. But it might be the first thing to know.
NS: That it’s not all right the way it is?
Werner Erhard: No. I didn’t say that. I said that life doesn’t work. What I mean by that is whatever it is that you think is going to make life work, it isn’t going to make life work. People think that when they get educated that that’s going to solve all their problems and handle things; or when they get married, or when they get divorced, and so on. People think there is something that is going to make things work, and nothing makes things work. The fact of the matter is that there isn’t anything that’s going to make anybody happy.
NS: Okay … and with that realization begins the search? Or ends the search? What comes next after that realization?
Werner Erhard: Well, it is the entree into getting back to the source of it. It’s the way you get into the system to get back to the source of it. Without that you are kept from getting into the system. You play with the system, but you’re not in the system. Or the system plays with you.
NS: Which system?
Werner Erhard: The system in which the answer to your question lies. The distinction between toying with the truth and seeking for the truth … a large part of what determines which of those two things you are doing is your willingness to confront that nothing will make you happy. That there isn’t anything that is going to make you happy. Or there isn’t anything that’s going to make you enlightened, if that’s what you’re seeking for. Until you know that life doesn’t work in the sense that nothing’s going to do it for you, and until you know that there isn’t any secret, then what you are doing is toying with that in which the truth is, rather than dealing with that in which the truth is. If you’re attempting to get the truth to relieve yourself of the domination of life, then the truth isn’t available to you inside that system.
NS: So you need to be looking for the truth from the point of view that it’s not necessarily going to solve anything. Is that what you’re saying.
Werner Erhard: That’s more like it, but what it really is, is that you have to see the truth in this, rather than looking for where the truth is.
NS: The truth in this, meaning now?
Werner Erhard: Yes, right now. And I don’t mean right now in the hip sense of that word. I mean right now in the simple sense of that word: given what you’ve got right now, if you can’t see the truth in that then you can’t see the truth. The truth is not found in a different set of circumstances. The truth is always and only found in the circumstances you’ve got. And a lot of us think the truth is found in a different set of circumstances, and the problem is that if that’s true, then you can’t find the truth. Because when you get to the next set of circumstances it won’t be that set, it will be a different set. The fact of the matter is that the truth, or the secrets of life, or those things which allow life to be whole and complete and which provide for you some determination of the quality of your own life and a way to contribute to the quality of all life—those things are found in this: whatever circumstances you describe will be sufficient.
NS: Including your current mental state, your current emotional state, including your ideas about life, including everything?
Werner Erhard: Yes. In other words, you don’t have to get someplace to get to the truth. You’re at where the truth is.
NS: Okay. So what is it in people that prevents them from knowing this?
Werner. Mostly the idea that something is going to make them happy or that some day life will work or something could make life world or somebody could make life work—the whole notion of trying to make life work. The whole notion of trying to beat the way it is, the whole notion of trying to get out of it, the whole notion of trying to get beyond it, the whole notion of transcending it. All of that stuff is what keeps people from seeing the truth in this. It could be said that it keeps them from seeing this. So in my experience the first thing one has to give up, … no, the last thing one has to give up is hope. It’s interesting that the physicians I talk to say that the biggest single problem in this country is depression. And hopelessness or depression or despair is really a function of hope. When you hope, then you must hopeless, or despair. It is the concomitant of hope. So when you give up hope, when you stop waiting or putting yourself out in the future—and hope is like that, it projects you into the future—then you can be with this.
NS: Is that giving up of hope an action that can be taken by a human being? Or is it something that occurs magically at some point?
Werner Erhard: No, I think that one can recognize that one has been fooling oneself about what’s going to come along to make it all work. You know it’s so deeply ingrained into our models of the universe, or our models of life, that it’s very difficult, but I think you can kind of systematically begin to reduce your fantasies about what’s going to come along to make life work for you. It’s like people who think that if they do the est training it will solve their problems, or this fantasy people have that if you meditate long enough, that will solve your problems. All those fantasies, all those “if only” fantasies, or “when” fantasies…
NS: Is the condition of no suffering available to human beings?
Werner. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about accepting the condition of suffering. I’m talking about confronting the condition of suffering and allowing it and accepting it. In allowing it and accepting it and embracing it, one transcends it, but you can’t do that in order to transcend it. You have to deal with it honestly and as it is—you accept that this is the way life is. It’s interesting because the source of suffering is the notion that this is not the way life is. Suffering is a function of the notion that “this is not it.” And when you accept that life cannot work out of the notion that this is not it, you begin to create the space for yourself that this is it, and when you realize that this is it, there is no suffering. Not that there is no suffering, it’s that suffering has been transformed. It’s no longer operating you. The suffering is a function of the notion that this isn’t it. Suffering is transformed, or transmuted, out of the realization that this is it.
NS: And it seems as if the general daily condition for many people is the notion that this isn’t it and the motivation for continuing is to find out.
Werner Erhard: Yes. That’s very good. Exactly.
NS: So what becomes the motivation for daily living once one accepts that this is it?
Werner: There isn’t any motivation for notion that one needs for daily living. The notion that needs a motivation for daily living is only a notion.
It is possible to live – to simply live. You don’t need to be motivated, in fact, motivation is added to life anyhow.
NS: In other words, living is happening anyway.
Werner Erhard: Yes. Living does happen, and when you live out of the fact that it’s happening—that sounds redundant, but it’s also the Tao, or “this is it” or whatever you like—when you live out of the fact that you are living, and you live life out of the fact that “life is,” that of necessity says that you will be entirely consistent with what is. Now, the problem is that when you try to understand that in the time stream, it brings in all kinds of difficulties and mischief, so you have to understand that the experience of “this is it” is not in the time stream. It’s not, “this is it and that wasn’t it,” or “this is it and that won’t be it.” “This is it” is an experience beyond the time stream.
NS: This is it and always was it and always will be it.
Werner Erhard: Precisely. There’s an aspect about this that’s pretty important. A lot of people think that “now” is the moment between the past and the future. That is a lie. It is not. “Now” is that moment out of time, out of which the past, present and future occur. The past, present and future are an illusion, or a formulation, or a structuralization, of the truth of “now,” which is not the moment between the past and the future, but the context for all time. No matter where you are, it is now. You have never been any place but now. In your own experience you’ve only had now; therefore, for you the past and the future is a concept. And they are conceptual. And so is the present. The present is the moment between the past and the future. Where the present is now, not related to the past and future, then that is where you’ve always been.
NS: The truth then is not consistent with our mind’s normal way of viewing things or living life. I seem to live in past, present and future, even if at some level I have intuited that’s not actually what’s going on.
Werner: Nothing could be more important than acknowledging that, because only by acknowledging that could you possibly transcend it. Now all you need to do is surrender to that. See, if you’re trying to beat the game…
NS: Well, what I’ve never been clear about is whether that point of view in life’ ever goes away, or do you just stop paying attention to it?
Werner Erhard: Oh, yeah. The past, present, and future doesn’t go away. It gets allowed to be, and when you allow it to be, it allows you to be. While you’re screwing around with it–or to put it in the Catholic term – while you are entertaining it – while you are resisting it, or trying to transcend it, or submitting to it or stuck in it then you are not letting it be and its not letting you be. So it could be said that transcendence or transformation is the ability to allow things to be. And that’s distinct from submitting to it or resisting it. When I say “allow it to be” I do not in any way mean to submit to it.
NS: That is my next question, because the standard response to that is “well what about all the problems with what is, what about all the terrible things that are going on? How does transformation become applicable to social reform?” Or is that irrelevant in the context of this conversation?
Werner: No, It’s not irrelevant. It is totally relevant. I would say that nothing is irrelevant in the context of this conversation…. If the chair you are sitting in breaks and you begin to fix it as if it was your tape recorder, it won’t work. You have to surrender to the chair in order to fix it. That is to say, you’ve got to get that that chair is that chair, that it is no other chair, that it isn’t the way you want it to be, it isn’t the way you’d like it to be, it isn’t the way it should be, it isn’t the way that everybody knows that it is. It is the way it is and it is only that way, and to the degree that you interact with the chair as it is, to that degree you can be effective and work with the chair. The intervention of anything between you and that chair that keeps you from knowing the chair as it is – including your desire to change it, including your resistance to it, your repulsion to it – anything that intervenes between you and the chair makes you ineffective with the chair. So the true resolution of anything has to begin with a surrender to the thing that you are going to resolve. That is to say, you have to take it for exactly what it is without the addition of anything, or the subtraction of anything. At that point you can produce what are for most people miracles because the thing is very complex to them. It is not itself. Its mediated by their desires and repulsions and what they want and don’t want and all that stuff.
So this thing about getting that “this is it” has a great deal to do with correcting what is unworkable. If you’re coming to the chair as it is, you’re going to be very effective in repairing the chair. But if you come to the chair from your desire to change it, if you come to the chair from your repulsion, from your evaluation that it’s bad, then that’s between you and the chair. So the secret in any kind of transformation, whether it be individual, social or universal, is to come from it as it is, which is what surrender is, as distinct from submission. You can submit to the broken chair: the chair’s broken and that has primacy and you’re less than that, and so you just have to put up with it. Putting up with it is totally different than surrendering to it. I don’t like the word surrender a lot just because it’s a problem in our culture. I’d rather say “as it is,” or this, or thus, or whatever you like.
NS: I want to change tracks … Is it possible to celebrate life in the midst of suffering and not feel guilty about it?
Werner Erhard: First off, guilt is a compensation for ineffectiveness. That about which I can do nothing, I can at least feel guilty; or that about which I am unwilling to be responsible, I can at least be guilty. When you are responsible there is no such thing as guilt. Guilt simply isn’t a function. To be useful with, to be effective with, to be able to complete with—that is an expression of the experience of responsibility. Whereas guilt makes you ineffective. It demeans you. If you’ve made a mistake and are guilty about it, then you are smaller than your mistake. Besides which, what bad boy is going to be able to correct things? If you’ve made a mistake and you are responsible for it, you’re bigger than the mistake. You have the power to correct the mistake. Now let’s get on to the other thing about celebration. You have to watch with a word like celebration because it’s a word like God, in that people have a lot of pictures about it. I mean “whoopee” is the normal notion of celebration. That may not be the only way to celebrate.
NS: I guess I’m thinking of celebration as some alternative to “life stinks.”
Werner Erhard: Yes, I know you arc. And it’s important to recognize that people who are really hard at work at something which they experience makes a difference in the world, are absolutely celebrating. You can look at them and see it. It’s on that basis that I would say that unless we’re allowed to celebrate we’re going to remain ineffective. To not see the opportunity that cleaning up the mess is, and therefore not seeing that cleaning up the mess is really a celebration, makes you ineffective at cleaning up the mess.
You see, if you take a look at the problems in the world, I promise you that most of them will have been former solutions, Most of the problems in the world started out as solutions, and the kind of solutions that turn out as problems are the solutions that don’t come from celebration.
Celebration is a quality of effectiveness, it’s a quality of workability, it’s a quality which is consistent with being complete. You see, it’s kind of like this: let’s assume you’re going to graduate and you think that graduating is going to make you happy. That’s entirely ineffective. But if you are now happy and you are going to bring the happiness which you now are to your graduation, that’s effective. The same thing is true about handling problems. If you’re coming out of the “problem as solved”—which is different than trying to solve it–if you’re coming out of the problem as solved, I mean what is more appropriate to the problem solved than celebration? So if you’re coming out of the “problem as solved” then you’re bringing solution to the problem. If you’re coming out of the “problem needs to be solved” then you’re bringing problem to the problem.
NS: You brought up the word God… what does that word mean to you these days?
Werner Erhard: First I have to tell you what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean all the things you know it doesn’t mean, like it’s not a white guy with white hair and white robes sitting on a white throne. Nor is it any thing but it’s not not any thing. By that I mean that you can’t say that God is not the chair. You can’t say God is there and the chair’s over here. But you can’t say that God is the chair, because that would imply that God’s here and not over there. So what I would say about God is first of all that anything I say about God has got to be inaccurate because you’ve asked me to say something about the infinite and all sayings, are finite. But I think it’s possible for me to talk, about it in a way that a person is left with an apprehension of God for him or herself, not from what I’ve said, but perhaps standing on what I’ve said. So, God is the context of contexts; that would mean that God is contextuality. You have a content. You have a process which devolves to the content. You have a context in which the process devolving to the content occurs. And then there are many contexts and the context for contexts is contextuality. Just as you’re an individual, and I’m an individual, but you wouldn’t be an individual and I wouldn’t be an individual without the context of individuality. There wouldn’t be any word individual without individuality; there wouldn’t be any such thing as an individual without the context of individuality.
When you show a primitive tribesman a photograph he sees black and white splotches because he has no context of picture. Once he gets the notion that he can be represented on a flat plane, he instantly sees his picture. You and I have had experiences like that, where you don’t know what you’re looking for and you can’t see it, and somebody tells you what you’re looking for and suddenly you see it. And now you can’t not see it. So, you and I would not notice that we were individuals if it were not for the context of individuality. You would have no individual expressions if it were not for the context of individuality. Individuality is the context, you are the process, the content is you as an individual. Then there is a context of contexts. It’s like a set and elements. What is the set of all sets? God could be said to be the set of all sets. The problem with that is that it gets into an infinite regression for most people.
NS: Because then you need the set of the set of all sets.
Werner Erhard: Yes. Precisely. Except that the resolution to that is not an infinite regression…
NS: The context contains the infinite regression?
Werner: Yeah, that’s good, but it’s not complete if you say it that way. I can give you another way of looking at it. All of these things are approximations because we’re trying to say everything, so anything you say has to be an approximation. So this is just another approximation and that is that the second dimension is contained within the third dimension and if you’ve got three dimensions you’ve got to have four dimensions because the three dimensions have got to be contained in something. So that’s the fourth dimension Which means there has to be a fifth dimension, and so on, except that it isn’t necessary to have an infinite regression. What you can have is a shift from dimension to dimensionality, and that which can contain any number of dimensions is dimensionality, and it would not require an infinite regression.
So the way I would talk about God that I thought was useful—that is to say, something on which people could stand and see for themselves—was a conversation that would involve the things we’ve just talked about. I would talk about God as wholeness, or completeness. I would talk about God as everything/ nothing. I would talk about God as the context of all contexts. I would talk about God as contextuality itself. But that would certainly not exclude anything, but, also not be anything to the exclusion of anything else.
If what I just told you isn’t mind-boggling, it isn’t accurate, because anything you say about God that will fit into your mental system you can be sure is illusionary. That’s a nice word for bullshit. And we all want something that will fit in our mind when in fact what is useful to us is something which will not fit in our mind. The description of God that won’t fit in our mind isn’t mindboggling just for the sake of being mindboggling–that would be gibberish or jargon—it’s mindboggling because it is that way in nature. The mind is not big enough to contain God, because the mind deals in symbols and God, when represented, is no longer God. It isn’t even accurately represented; any representation of everything is a thing and everything and a thing are two different orders of thing. Therefore, God doesn’t fit into our system of things because God is not a thing. In the Hebrew tradition they don’t let people use the word God, which is not a bad idea actually, because then you don’t bullshit yourself about it. I mean you’re stuck with your apprehension of it rather than your symbols of it.
NS: In the Hindu tradition there seems to be a personal devotional relationship to God. I understand that to simply be a vehicle for the mind to relate with that which is bigger than it…
Werner Erhard: Almost all religions have attempted to bring God into the scope of “the people.” I have a sense that that’s, a little demeaning to people. I have a sense that it is possible to relate to people in such a way that they will expand to be able to know God. I’ve got to be a little poetic here, but for me it is clear that the Self is the only vessel which can hold God. That’s a little too poetic for me, so maybe I want to say that the Self is that which has the ability to know God, because it is God. My personal preference, and that which I see as workable, is rather than to reduce the thing to something palatable, I’d rather ask people to increase their capacity, and I find that people are better served by that. But I think that comparisons are bullshit, and I don’t want to get into a comparison about the way Hinduism approaches the notion of God. Hinduism is perfect for Hindus and all those people who are Hindus should practice Hinduism as long as they do. That is to say, while they’re Hindus they should practice Hinduism.
NS: Thank you.
Werner Erhard: Yes, thank you. Thank you for your interest.
Filed under: Interviews
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