I spent $420 for the privilege of spending a holiday weekend — three 13-hour days — sitting in a conference room near LAX with 75 strangers. That was the price of admission to The Landmark Forum, a seminar that promises to transform the lives of its attendees in profound, permanent and meaningful ways.
Landmark Education has been around for a long time. Its history is sordid, with associations to a creepy self-help movement of the 1970s known as est and a founder (Werner Erhard) who, by most accounts, is a major douchebag. Prior to attending the Forum, I spent many hours reading about the experiences of other attendees, learning the lesson plans, and trying to understand the process.
I’m glad I did that research (thank you, journalism degree!), because it made me skeptical of the process; it made me pledge to think critically about all the material Landmark would put in front of me over the three days of instruction, to examine it thoroughly before deciding whether I agreed enough to incorporate its lessons into my life and way of thinking.
Admittedly, I didn’t go into the seminar fully open minded — and I know this sounds dramatic — but that probably saved my life.
Landmark has long been called a cult by many of its critics, an accusation that has some validity, primarily because Landmark’s many “graduates” are super enthusiastic about it, to the point of being annoying. Landmark engenders this kind of enthusiasm among its graduates because its methodology is very powerful.
Graduates are encouraged to recruit friends and family to take the Forum, to volunteer at its centers making phone calls (always unpaid), to commit to taking more classes (there are more than 60), and to subscribe to an ideology that is full of strange lingo and catch phrases such as “what you don’t know you don’t know” and “running rackets.” The language is not exactly boardroom buzz; rather, it’s very ritualized, teaching you to say things a certain way, and the ideology is nothing short of a religious dogma that must be adopted without question. There is no room for interpretation, examination or disagreement.
Landmark’s way is to tell you how to think, and they do it so effectively that, before long, you forget that you ever knew how to think for yourself. Having said this, I want to go on record and say that I do not think of Landmark as a cult. It doesn’t encourage participants to become isolated and break off ties with friends and family the way traditional cults do. Instead, it encourages everyone to join. It’s not really shrouded in mystery either. Anyone can sign up and take courses (though the Forum is always the first course).
I had heard rumors about minders following participants into the bathroom, taking their car keys and locking the doors during the Forum, but I did not see any of this. We were free to come and go as we pleased. I never felt trapped, nor was I tied to a chair with an interrogation light shining in my face.
But I did feel tremendous pressure to conform to the coursework, to accept everything I was told without reservation, to transform and submit and obey, and to toss aside my longstanding ways of thinking and replace them with Landmark’s dogma. This is brainwashing, and Landmark does it well.
Despite how that sounds, some of Landmark’s techniques are extremely helpful. I did learn a lot about myself and examined both my good and bad habits — and the events that likely shaped them. I learned how to think about situations differently and emerged from my three days of instruction feeling incredibly motivated. To that end, it was definitely money well spent. I took away several valuable lessons about life and possibility from my Landmark experience, but the majority of the coursework I left behind. Because while I don’t think Landmark is a cult, I do think it is very, very cultish. It is also very powerful.
So what happens at the Landmark Forum? Stay tuned for the blow by blow in part II.