“Life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.” This is the crux of the Landmark Forum, the conclusion we arrived at after three grueling days of instruction. Everything had led up to this, the big transformative lecture, given Sunday afternoon at around 4 p.m., the one that would make us “pop” into our new and improved selves whose futures were brighter than before.
Life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.
We are all going to be dead one day. We can’t take anything with us. There is no inherent meaning in anything. Life is just a series of experiences that we ruin with our interpretations. We project our views onto everything and everyone around us, views whose only function is to reinforce our belief that we are right.
We need our meanings to live, to make sense of the world, to make sense of ourselves, to put everything in a neatly labeled box. We put ourselves in a box, too — with fixed ideas about our strengths, weaknesses and limitations, ideas that are artificial and borne of trauma.
The weekend had been spent examining that trauma and the ideas it has created, ideas that have cemented themselves into the baggage we have carried from one life experience to the next, baggage that has made us self-righteous and self-conscious, that has stopped us from pursuing our dreams and becoming the person we were meant to be.
The time had come to let it go. Because the simple truth about life is that things happen and then other things happen. None of it means anything, even when we force it to mean everything. Life is just events. And a transformed life is taking those events at face value and not coloring them with our judgments. A transformed life is joyful and limitless, positive and fearless, honest and authentic. On this side is nothing, on the other side is everything.
Angie delivered this speech while running around the room. She had clearly given it many times before and knew which words to emphasize and how much eye contact to make. As expected, the crowd drank the Kool-Aid with great enthusiasm, questioning nothing, with a few vocal dissenters resisting the idea that their lives held no meaning. Some people had hunched forward, their head in their hands, crying uncontrollably, while others looked elated, as though all their burdens had been lifted.
“Do you get it? Do you get it?” Everyone was asking everyone else. A buzz weaved through the room. People were hugging, crying; smiles were everywhere. After being lost at sea for two days, we had finally hit the shore and walked toward it as changed people.
Life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.
Angie opened the floor up for questions and the hits kept coming, with several suddenly transformed participants gushing about their new personal philosophies and listing the myriad ways their lives would change. The unhappy campers stepped up to the mike as well, looking forlorn and arguing with Angie about purpose and God.
I felt uneasy, as usual. I definitely didn’t feel transformed, oscillating somewhere between totally crazy and perfectly sane. I couldn’t deny that the lecture had an impact on me. Mostly, I felt bewildered and light-headed, but still certain that the whole spectacle was madness. Why was I resisting so much, I wondered? Why was I looking at all these seemingly happy people with such a judgmental eye? Why did I refuse to walk toward the light of unfettered possibility, toward a life without the trappings of the past — the baggage of hurt and rejection, disapproval and disdain, ridicule and grief, heartache and disappointment?
Why did I cling so fiercely to that baggage now that Landmark threatened to take it from me? Why did I not want to transform into a blank canvas on which I can create a future that’s more beautiful than the past? “Go there,” I told myself. “Just let it take over. Look at all these happy people around you. Don’t you want to be happy like them? What do you need your misery for?”
But I can’t do it. I won’t do it. My ego refuses to vanish. It needs the pain. It wants the pain, with its hard-won hurts to linger and learn from. It needs to interpret the events in my life, because events inherently do have meaning. Otherwise, it’s just birth, love, school, work, marriage, loss, death, and then the end?
How could I not ascribe meaning to any of it? How would I be able to keep stringing sentences together, sentences that are sometimes about pain and disappointment, about stories aching for interpretation? How could I create a life where meanings no longer existed? I would need to cancel my blog, abandon my Dish-Interested column, stop reading the newspaper and live in a cocoon.
I won’t do it. As corny as it sounds, I need to suffer for my art. I need to accept every ounce of pain that life is kind enough to bestow upon me, because that pain will keep me honest in my work. Without it, I’ll have nothing to write about. Without it, I’ll lose any heaviness that resides in my heart, the teen angst that still lingers in my soul and the Russianness that defines my very being and transform into an over-inspired L.A. asshole who’s high on her own positivity and can only write about one topic: self-help.
Me writing articles on self-help? Me becoming one of those people who frames her life in daily affirmations, loads up her shelves with stupidly titled books — “A User’s Manual for the Human Experience,” anyone? — and confuses enlightenment with a moralizing superiority complex that nauseates all her friends? Me transform into that?
The thought disgusted me.
I looked around again. People were still smiling, seemingly overjoyed with their newfound non-identities — glowing, vibrant and beautiful. They looked alive and, suddenly, they all looked alike: a mass of empty vessels, colorless, humorless, detached, eyes glazed over with a semi-smile etched onto their faces. They had crossed over. I had lost them. I suddenly felt very alone.
“Do you get it?” The guy sitting next to me asked. I turned to face him. He looked positively giddy. “Life is meaningless,” he said, “so we should just enjoy it and quit worrying about what everything means. That’s so awesome!”
“Yeah,” I said, “I got it — years ago. You’ve never heard anyone say that life was meaningless before? Didn’t you read ‘The Stranger’ in high school? This is just rehashed existentialism. It’s not that awesome.”
The idea that I was being a bitch didn’t escape me, nor did it bother me. The idea that I paid $420 and wasted three days on a clichéd motivational seminar that amounted to nothing more than “seize the day” bothered me a lot.
The dinner break came and I congregated with my newly transformed friends, who were all sorts of happy. It was as though they were all part of a group orgy where everyone came at the same time, everyone except for me. I tried not to play Debbie Downer during dinner and instead rode on the coattails of their good vibrations, which was easy to do as their positivity was downright contagious. I found myself getting contact high.
I also found myself still getting criticized by the group, this time for rejecting the transformation, but I countered their arguments with accusations that they were making meanings out of my actions — meanings Landmark would not approve of.
After dinner, I would congregate with my fellow Landmarkians for one final time. There was a “graduation ceremony” the following Tuesday that I skipped, the one we were encouraged to bring our friends and family to (even if that meant flying them into town) so they could learn about the transformative possibilities of Landmark.
Clearly, I didn’t believe in these possibilities for myself, at least not if they were administered by Landmark. While I could get behind some of the coursework — such as examining one’s past in order to make peace with it and living life to the fullest — the mildly abusive coaching sessions, the nonsensical lingo, the emphasis on obedience masked as integrity and the discouragement of independent thought make Landmark Education a company I could never give another dollar to.
Because even though Landmark claims to give participants their lives back, it can also take their lives from them. Landmark understands better than anyone the human inclination toward creating meaning, and after chipping away at our identities for two days, encouraging us to abandon everything we know to be true, Landmark fills the void with its dogma. It made sure to do all the thinking for us, with homework every night and assignments at every break that deprived us of any time we could have spent thinking for ourselves.
Landmark filled the gaps, owning us, dominating us, brain-washing us by erasing our personalities and chasing away our quirks and idiosyncrasies — things from our pasts that may scar us, but that also define us as fully formed individuals. Instead, we were left with a blank slate on which to create a future of our own making, a blank slate we are told we can do anything we want with.
But we can’t do what we want; we can only do what Landmark wants, because we are no longer in control. And Landmark wants us to take more classes, to hand over more money, to enroll our friends and family in our transformed lives, otherwise our great experiences might end. This is why Angie insisted we drink no alcohol or take drugs during the three-day process. Landmark wanted to be our drug. And it became a drug akin to cocaine, whose addicts feel invincible.
Why would we want it to end? Landmark has made us feel alive again by re-engaging our senses and awakening us to a world of possibilities that we knew existed yet somehow could never access. Landmark helps us access this world now, because Landmark’s promise is power — a power it’s convinced us can only be found in its coursework, even though it’s resided in us all along.
I don’t doubt that plenty of individuals have benefited from Landmark’s coursework, and I admit that I felt invigorated in the weeks immediately following the Forum, as I would have after taking any motivational seminar, which is really all that the Landmark Forum is. But in time that vigor faded and life became average again.
I suppose I could have returned to the center and gotten my next fix by enrolling in another course that would have made me feel invincible, only to come down again and then re-enroll and re-enroll until my savings were depleted. But cheesecake is much cheaper. Hell, even cocaine is cheaper.
So even though I never suspended my disbelief and reached Landmark’s nirvana of transformation, I am glad I took the Forum. If nothing else, it reminded me of a few basic truths about life and reawakened a few dreams I intend to accomplish in this one. It also helped me appreciate my past as something meaningful that should be cherished instead of discarded, even the miserable parts.
And, despite all its attempts not to, Landmark actually strengthened my personal belief system, making me even more secure in who I am and how I think.
So much so that I could fail a self-help seminar and feel just fine about it.