I Failed the Self-Help Seminar: The Landmark Forum (Part 2 of 5)
[Ed note: In case you missed it, Part 1 is here.]
So . . . what happens at the Landmark Forum?
It is only a small exaggeration to say it would take three days to tell the whole story, the first two of which would be spent chipping away at your personal identity before replacing it on the third day with everything Landmark. In short, the curriculum centers on self-reflection, with exercises that ask participants to examine their patterns of thinking and beliefs about the world.
On its own, this is not a bad thing, but Landmark’s methodology makes this process emotionally intense. Epiphanies and catharses abound at the Forum. Tears flow. There are meltdowns and breakthroughs. Nothing about the weekend was typical and I can honestly say that it will go down as one of the most memorable weekends of my life.
The morning of the first day (a Friday), the class of 75 met our Forum leader, who would be our guide — our “coach” — through our pending transformations. (What we were supposed to transform into was never really specified, but we were repeatedly promised transformation by the third day.)
Coach Angie had complete dominion over the class; there were no guest speakers. Angie’s demeanor alternated between tough, funny and encouraging. She was mostly tough, however, and sometimes even mean. Her instruction was peppered with well-rehearsed personal anecdotes of her life before Landmark and her life since, with her post-Landmark life being the clear winner.
On the whole, the class was diverse, comprising many races, ages and socioeconomic classes, and representing the same cross-section of Los Angeles that one might find in a room full of people summoned for jury duty. This surprised me given Landmark’s hefty price tag, but it soon became clear that many attendees were sponsored by other Landmark “graduates” — employers, friends and family who had their own transformative experiences at the Forum. Referrals are huge at Landmark, which contributes to its cultish reputation.
After taking a few questions from the class, coach Angie laid out the rules: In each of the three 13-hour days, there would be two half-hour breaks and one 90-minute meal break. There were assignments to complete at each break and homework every night. We were encouraged to spend our breaks with other participants and to speak up in class (three microphones were stationed in the room).
After each lesson, we would discuss the coursework with the person sitting next to us, which meant we had to sit somewhere new after each break so we could mingle and meet everyone in class. We would also have time to ask questions, to “share” at the microphone and be coached in front of the class. We were asked to be on time, to visit the restroom only during the breaks, to raise our hands before speaking, and to not drink or use drugs during the entire three days of the Forum.
With everyone on board, we began our first lesson: integrity. As defined by Landmark, personal integrity is based on the extent to which we keep our promises. It’s understood that there are many flaky people in the class, people who routinely make empty promises to their loved ones, their employers and even to themselves.
Landmark aims to change all that. We are asked to restore our integrity with a promise to adhere to the Forum rules, to participate in class, finish all assignments and commit to completing the three-day course. We were told to raise our hands to show our commitment to this promise, which we all did, and thus our new integrity-filled life began.
It’s the first lesson of the day and I was already uncomfortable. I considered my own definition of integrity, which I see as being accountable to my loved ones, keeping my promises to them, being reliable and trustworthy in their eyes. I consider my list of special people and wonder if they would say I am a person who keeps her promises. On the whole, I think they would.
I was unnerved about Landmark adding itself to my list of special people without my permission, especially because I paid to attend the class. I could understand these rules if they paid me to be there, if my attendance were a job I was contracted to do, or a class where assignments produced a final grade and had consequences in the real world, but none of that was true. It was my choice to be in class, a choice I had the power to reverse at any moment, a power I would not relinquish because Landmark told me to. This wasn’t an exercise in integrity; it was an exercise in obedience.
Admittedly, this red flag, so early in the course, left me incredibly guarded. At that moment, I refused to suspend my disbelief and decided instead to remain vigilant in my questioning of every lesson that followed. My usually open mind suddenly became very narrow, as I resisted everything told to me, uneasy about any ulterior motives.
Ultimately, this made me experience the Forum more as a curious observer than an active participant, which proved difficult to do considering that another of the first day’s lessons amounted to “get out of the stands and onto the court,” a lecture about how our transformation hinged on our participation, which meant sharing at the microphone, completing the assignments and re-evaluating our lives through the prism of the lessons we were being taught.
And the lessons? They had their hits and misses. The integrity lesson was followed by the authenticity lesson, which was basically a lesson about being an honest person. Then came a lesson on the “viscous circle,” which examined how we add interpretations to all the events in our lives, interpretations that turn into emotional baggage and hinder our future. So someone who was cheated on by a man might become mistrustful of men and assume that all men cheat when, in fact, only one man did the cheating. We were repeatedly told that “our pasts are in our present” — pasts we needed to release if we wanted a future of our making.
If this sounds remedial, that’s because it is but Landmark manages to repackage kindergarten basics in a way that made them seem revolutionary. As each lesson ended, storytime followed, with participants racing to the microphone to discuss their lives with Angie, who would always make them squirm with “coaching” sessions that were more tough love than warm and fuzzy. At times, they were even cringe-inducing, borderline abusive, and almost always pointed to the participant as being the one at fault for the mess in his or her life.
Sometimes Angie was spot-on in her assessments, like when she called one particularly immature and gregarious 22 year old “a self-involved narcissist” when he talked about problems he had with his friends. Other times she missed the mark completely, like when she accused one man of “playing the victim” after he recounted a memory of seeing his father beat his mother when he was a child.
Witnessing the nonstop confessions at the microphone was bizarre. I found myself holding my breath every time someone new stepped up to the plate, my hands unconsciously traveling to my face, landing practically across my eyes in an effort to shield myself from the train wreck I was about to witness.
By the end of the first day, I heard stories of people sabotaging their marriages, cheating on their spouses, being addicted to drugs, grappling with self-loathing, hating their parents, and a man who was married four times by 40. It was like watching a 12-hour Lifetime movie. I didn’t know what to make of it. While I regarded the sharers as incredibly brave for being so honest, I couldn’t understand what compelled them to confess their darkest secrets to a room of 75 strangers. I knew I couldn’t do it, so I stayed seated and quiet.
When dinnertime rolled around, I was exhausted and considered ditching class in favor of going home to sleep. I ate dinner with Eduardo, whom I already knew via our mutual friend Juan, our shared link into Landmark. Eduardo became my buddy during the Forum, the one I spent most of the breaks with. We spent plenty of time discussing the coursework, with me playing the cynic while he encouraged me to be more open-minded.
I also became buddies with Sophie, who was similarly distrustful of the coursework and served as a valuable touch point for me during the weekend. She was the one with whom I could exchange across-the-room glances, our bewildered faces registering a look of “what the f-ck?” Together, Eduardo and Sophie became my angel-devil dichotomy, with each sitting on a shoulder, persuading me to come around to their way of thinking.
That first night, Eduardo won and convinced me to stay for the final lesson of the day, which, to my surprise, proved to be worth staying for. The lesson asked us to examine our bad habits and ways of thinking, renamed “rackets” by Landmark, which are defined as “unproductive ways of being or acting that include a complaint that something shouldn’t be the way it is.” We are racketeers, we were told, drama kings and queens who hang onto our bad habits to get the payoff of always being right.
This one resonated with me because, well, I have a lot of bad habits, chief among them procrastination. In fact, whenever I was asked by a fellow participant why I was taking the Forum, I always replied with, “I want to stop procrastinating.” It’s a boring complaint, I know, but too often I’ve found myself acting like a college student during finals week who’s playing video games instead of writing the term papers that were all due yesterday. This is why all my Dish-Interested columns are late and my garage still hasn’t been cleaned out after two years.
(Writing that last sentence has suddenly thrown into question my earlier assessment that I already live a life of integrity. Awesome! [Ed. note: Dish is worth the wait. Now where's my latest?])
In any case, the rackets lesson was useful in that it helped me examine my lousy life as a procrastinator. It made me think about the costs of procrastination and helped me realize that I need to just shut up and do what I need to do instead of waiting until never because — duh! — doing it will take it off my plate and remove all the stress the undone thing is causing in my life by virtue of its undoneness.
More sharing and final thoughts followed the lesson, as did a homework assignment that involved us examining three of our rackets in addition to writing a letter to someone about the new possibility we intended to create in our lives following the Forum. At this point, it was after 10pm. I was looking at a half-hour drive home and a second 13-hour day of class that would begin at 9am the following morning. I began to wonder whether sleep deprivation was the ulterior motive in these assignments.
On the drive home, all I could think about was how desperately I wanted a beer, but then remembered Landmark’s request that we not drink for the full three days of the Forum. I thought about the assignments due, the sum of the day’s lessons, the confessions from strangers. I thought about my integrity, my authenticity and my “rackets.” I could feel Landmark getting under my skin and hated the idea that I was losing control. I vowed to strengthen my resistance.
I came home, drank a beer, ignored the assignment and collapsed, exhausted, into bed, where I enjoyed a night of dreamless sleep before getting up the next morning and doing it all over again.
Stay tuned for part 3.