I Failed the Self-Help Seminar: The Landmark Forum (Part 3 of 5)

While the first day of the Forum felt long and uncomfortable and the third day felt dramatic and surreal, the second day fell somewhere in between. It also felt long, though not quite as draggy, and events began to move into surreal territory as the vacuum created by 75 isolated people being subjected to nonstop lectures began producing odd moments that could not be replicated in the outside world.

The day started with us going over the prior night’s letter-writing assignment, an assignment I had ignored in favor of sleep. People began reading their letters to the class and then to each other during the share sessions with a partner. Thankfully, I sat next to fellow skeptic Sophie that morning, who also disregarded the assignment. We talked instead about how weird yet mesmerizing the Forum was.

Instructor Angie, who was still doing her tough love coaching shtick, approached Sophie and me during a break to ask us if we were getting anything out of the class. The conversation couldn’t have been more awkward as we both tried to tell her nicely that the whole thing seemed like horseshit to us. I reassured Angie that I was enjoying my time at the Forum, which I certainly was, but that I hadn’t had any breakthroughs and wasn’t feeling particularly inspired by the material.

“That’s okay, things will come up in time. You will transform on the third day,” she told me.
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” I replied. “You can’t come to a conclusion about the third day when we are only in the second day.”
“Everyone transforms on the third day,” she smiled.

We were told this constantly throughout the Forum — that we would transform, be reborn anew into a life we never thought possible. Suggested outcomes seemed to preface new lessons frequently, no doubt to influence our experience of them. We were often told such things as, “This next discussion is considered by many to be the most powerful one of the weekend” and “people sometimes respond emotionally to the exercise we are about to do.” It was the power of suggestion leap-frogging itself into fact, so much so that every exercise became the most dramatic rose ceremony ever. It was crafty, tiresome, and usually very effective.

The lessons of the second day were less effective for me. The early lessons centered on Psych 101 teachings about how perception influences reality and how people are products of their environment. Odd lingo began entering the discussion as well, with “new realms of possibility” becoming a particular focus. We also began talking about “enrolling others in a new possibility we’ve created for ourselves,” which I took as yet another subversive suggestion to enroll them in a Landmark course, but we were told it meant notifying friends and family of the changes we planned to make in our lives following the Forum.

Our assignments during breaks involved calling and “enrolling” these people, especially if we had tense relationships with them. We were encouraged to “complete” with them, to take responsibility for our lousy behavior even if it was their behavior that was lousy. We were told that we were difficult to live with, that our lives didn’t work because of all our “rackets.” We had no integrity; we were frauds to the core, lying liars telling lies that made us look good even when they didn’t make us feel good. We had to “remove our pasts from our present” and unencumber ourselves from a lifetime of baggage that poisons our relationships and skews our perception of our place in the world.

“No wonder you’re tired all the time,” Angie said while dragging a chair behind her. “You keep carrying that heavy baggage everywhere you go.”

The pressure to submit to the material remained unyielding, with lessons often beginning with urgings to “get out of the stands and onto the court.” We needed to engage if we wanted to transform; we needed to step up and get coached. We were encouraged to “try on” the teachings like a jacket to see if they could fit into the framework of our belief system when, in fact, they were designed to replace our framework.

Resistance to the curriculum was always met with more curriculum, with any attempt to debunk the material only serving to strengthen it. Sometimes fellow students got into the mix by yelling out “rackets” or some other term coined in the coursework as a response to a skeptical student’s questions. After a while, people stopped protesting altogether and started conforming just so they wouldn’t feel excluded. Groupthink began to settle in.

As the tides turned, new people started coming to the microphone to share and be coached by Angie, who maintained total mastery over the class. The confessions kept coming, some anecdotal and others traumatic, with each one seeming to up the ante of what could be said. A tale of childhood molestation was followed by an admission from one participant that he kissed his little brother when they were both kids and has always feared that this kiss made his brother a bisexual adult.

People spoke of witnessing abuse as children, of spousal infidelity, with some admitting that they had done the cheating. There were tales of unfulfilling sex lives with spouses, of childhood ridicule that left lifelong scars. One man even admitted to never telling anyone he was a champion bagpipe player because he wore a kilt during competitions and worried about being perceived as unmanly.

Each confession was met with unconditional acceptance from the group. We were told we were in a safe environment where no judgment would be passed so we could say anything without fear. Some secrets had never been spoken before the Forum; others had never been realized until the Forum.

For me, the most poignant confession was made by a woman I sat next to during one of the many sharing sessions with a partner. I don’t recall the lesson we had been discussing, but I’ll never forget the look on her face when she turned to me, her eyes filling with tears, and said, “I just had a breakthrough. I realized that I resent my children because I can’t abandon them in the same way I’ve abandoned every other thing that gets hard in my life — like my marriage to my ex-husband.” She began to cry. I tried to comfort her, wondering to myself whether some breakthroughs were better left unrealized.

But there was no holding them back now. They were forcing their way through, releasing a torrent of emotions with them. People seemed to yearn for the catharsis. They wanted to share in an effort to rid themselves of the secrets they had been living with their entire lives, maybe even living for, secrets that constrained them, consumed them with guilt, controlled them with the fear that these secrets would be the very thing that defined their lives, for the rest of their lives.

The sharing seemed to evaporate the secrets into nonexistence, releasing the confessor from having to keep it any longer. Here began the transformation. People looked positively radiant after confessing to the group, their tear-stained faces now relaxed, their demeanors buoyant, their spirits finally free. It was beautiful.

Through all this, I maintained my journalistic distance, never once stepping up to the microphone to make my own confessions. I felt obligated to, mostly to honor the other participants, who awed me with their bravery, but something about the whole spectacle felt obscene and almost exploitative to me. After all, we were still strangers to each other.

This point was driven home during that night’s dinner break, when a random assortment of us decided to walk to the hotel restaurant across the street. As I looked around the table after we were seated, I realized I didn’t know anyone’s last name or occupation, but I did know that one woman was on the verge of divorce, one man had a DUI and another man felt unworthy of love. Recognizing the imbalance, they asked me why I hadn’t yet shared with the group (and eyed me disapprovingly as I drank a glass of wine with dinner).

“I just don’t feel comfortable,” is the only thing I could say.

It was true. I didn’t feel comfortable spilling my darkest secrets to a room full of strangers, but I did begin to feel attached to the people who did. I even began referring to them lovingly as my “fellow prisoners of war.” We were all in this together, developing something like a trauma bond — its energy palpable and infectious. And I liked this group of people. I wanted to belong among them, to experience the breakthroughs and get swept into the energy of the new realm of possibilities I kept hearing about, but every instinct in my body held me back.

All the while, the pressure to conform never let up, now administered by the other students who told me I was “close-minded,” that I was “ruining other people’s experiences of the Forum” with my bad attitude, that I was allowing my “rackets” to hold me back. After enough of these admonitions, I became skeptical of my own skepticism. Why couldn’t I stand up and share with the group? Was I really seeing things as clearly as I thought? Maybe I was the crazy one and they were the sane ones?

I couldn’t be sure. And because of my uncertainty, I decided not to decide anything. I would ride it out, wait it out, not succumb to it and not be self-righteous about it either. I would float in the uncertainty while abiding by one of my life’s guiding maxims: Doubt means don’t.

After dinner, the last exercise of the day was upon us, an exercise Angie told us “could produce some dramatic results, including strong physical reactions.” I didn’t like it already. We were told to close our eyes, take deep breaths, relax our bodies, shut out the world and focus only on Angie’s voice. If this sounds like hypnosis, that’s because it is.

Then we were told to draw up our fear by imagining we were afraid of the person sitting next to us. Then we imagined being afraid of everyone in the room, then everyone in Los Angeles, in California, the country and, ultimately, the seven billion other people in the world.

We were asked to feel our fear, to bring it up through our stomachs, allow it to permeate our bodies, engage it, experience it, let it wrap itself around us before guiding it to the surface of our skin, all the way up to the top of our skull where it could be released into the air. We had to abandon the limitations our fear imposed on us and let go of the long-held beliefs we carried from our past, beliefs that would muddy our future and dash our hopes of living a transformed life.

We needed to get over ourselves, to rid ourselves of the need to always look good in every situation. Our self-consciousness doomed us. It drove us to lead inauthentic lives without integrity. Our fears obscured our purpose, hid it from us, layered it with circumstances, consequences and excuses. We had to let go of it now if we wanted to live a fulfilled life, and we needed to recognize the cosmic joke in all of this — that while we were busy fearing everyone around us, they were just as busy fearing us.

The exercise must have lasted close to an hour. I had read about it during my research of the Forum and already knew the script, but I couldn’t deny its impact. People were sobbing uncontrollably, some practically lying on the floor, others with their head in their hands. The energy in the room was indescribable. It wasn’t exactly sad or happy, just overwhelming. My own body felt tingly, my head light. I didn’t feel particularly emotional, just slightly disoriented. I checked my neck and wrists to make sure I hadn’t been micro-chipped.

Afterwards, people raced to the microphone to share. There were still tears, but plenty more smiles now. One man came forward to say he planned to write a letter to the CEO of his company. Another said he planned to blow the whistle on the unethical practices he had witnessed at his work. One woman admitted to having been ashamed of her autistic child, vowing to never be again. Their faces glowed.

I came home that night with more homework, which I disregarded again in favor of drinking two beers. My head was a scramble of thoughts, all bouncing around at light speed and never landing on anything concrete. I almost felt as though I forgot how to think, having spent two 13-hour days letting someone else do the thinking for me. I must have spent a good hour awake in bed, staring at the ceiling while wondering what the hell I got myself into. I slept poorly that night, kept up by anxiety about the next day, the third and final one of the Forum — Transformation Day, when we would arrive at the promised land.

Milla Goldenberg is an L.A.-based writer and editor. Visit her blog @ MillaTimes.com and follow her on Twitter.

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7 comments for “I Failed the Self-Help Seminar: The Landmark Forum (Part 3 of 5)

  1. Jennifer
    July 29, 2010 at 2:09 am

    I have not participated in Landmark, only heard about it.
    If the writer feels she failed somehow it is definitely because as she writes she has not done the work. You cannot have success on a diet, work- out, meditation, or workshop if you go there just to watch others do it and you do not eat the food, do the work out, or try the meditation.
    Did she fear that if she tried she could not be objective?
    too bad she missed to go for it and gives us a real piece of her experience.
    …A photojournalist went into the field and did not take any pictures!
    :(

  2. July 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Sense of humor is not required, but sometimes helps in understanding things like “headlines.”

  3. Amy
    August 5, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I think this is great. It’s been years since someone wrote stuff like this about Forum/Est. I remember old articles about Est, Moonies retreats, all the 70s self-actualization groupthink stuff. Amway for the soul.

  4. Cort
    April 30, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Mila you’re being quite honest about your experience. What I’m getting so far is that people who really participated really got alot of out day 2, that many have resolved longstanding issues that probably never would have and that it was a pretty incredible experience for them – but not yet for you. You seem more committed to maintaining a kind of journalistic distance – which probably does not work in this kind of interactive environment.

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