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

August 18, 2010
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Landmark Forum: I Failed the Self Help Seminar

(This will make no sense unless you’ve read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 first.)

“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.

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

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

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Milla Goldenberg, OsmosisOnline Mag. OsmosisOnline Mag said: End of the "I Failed The Self Help Seminar/Landmark Forum" Series. 5 of 5. http://bit.ly/ceoGsL […]

  2. di_da_diaph on February 3, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

    Two questions for Osmosis: 1) Did you pay a clueless blogger to write about their sad FAIL of a life? 2) Was that blogger paid to make it seem even less interesting than it sounded?

  3. Cort on April 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

    “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.”

    Angie, may I say that ‘dogma’ and cliches simply do not produce the kind of results that you, to your credit, accurately protrayed in your blog.

    At the end you interpretated the freedom that many people experienced as nothing more than a ‘drug’, an ecstacy-like drug. I can get that because in the face of the remarkable results that at least some, and it sounds like a good portion of the people in the room got, I can understand the need to explain in that way rather than look to see why you weren’t able to get thoe results.

    It’s much easier to decide that those who got were kind of defective in some way rather than the fact that you something to do with that…that perhaps you decided beforehand that you were not going to really participate…that you were going to be a chronicler of the Forum (which is, of course, what you do in your work – you chronicle things rather than actively engage in them) and that really doesn’t work well in that environment.

  4. Peter Thomson on May 21, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Funnily enough, if you “felt fine” about “failing” then you didn’t fail. You actually did get it.

    If you now make a free choice to embrace your pain because it helps you write, then that’s wonderful. The point of the Forum is only that you make that choice deliberately, because you want to, instead of as an automatic reaction to something else.

    Well done. You didn’t fail at all. You did wonderfully.

  5. Hayley on February 22, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Milla – I took the forum as a successful, self-knowledgable, intelligent, skeptical person. I decided at the beginning of the forum that I knew myself enough that I would remain skeptical as to not “drink the koolaid”, but that I would do the work (it’s why I was there); I would stay open to the possibility that they could help me reach something I had not been able to reach on my own. And I found that it was in doing the assignments (not including the ones solely aimed at getting new customers) that I was able to slowly, through the process, find those blind spots in myself and recognize where I was giving my power away to others – in the desire to be right, the concern about how I was viewed, the aversion of conflict in order not to hurt or be hurt or disappointed – and found that by recognizing it (not just intellectually knowing it was there, but confronting it head-on), I could step away from it. I am still the same person. I am simply the same person with the power not to let my fears and disappointments define what I can accomplish and how I interact with people. I didn’t “pop” until Monday after the Forum, and it wasn’t a pop but more of a slow realization that I was able to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations without difficulty or discomfort. It was, and is, the most amazing feeling to be a person without fear, to be OK to be just as I am, to recognize in others where they are reacting out of fear (this comes in many forms), and diffuse the situation so that we are having conversations and not conflicts. Just riding the subway becomes a simple joy in being able to make eye contact where everyone else avoids it. To feel free starting a discussion with someone and not reacting negatively in your head if they reject the conversation or look at you funny. To bob or lip sync to the music on your iphone because you feel like it, and not doing it while trying to prove you don’t care what people think. To ask a guy out and not worry how he’s perceiving you (seriously, that alone is worth the $600 bucks).

    One does not become an automaton out of the Forum. One simply becomes a purer version of themselves without the limits they had imposed on themselves through the simple process of surviving as a human being.

    To anyone else who is interested in the Forum, I would say: Go in skeptical but open. Do the work. Don’t expect them to save you – just be open to another possibility of being. If you try to prove them wrong by resisting, you might, because you won’t have allowed them to teach you. Everyone gets something different out of it – people with bigger issues maybe have bigger “Aha!’s”, but I went in having a great life, great relationships, successful career, and I still found that it altered me – and I am thankful for that. Don’t let the marketing strategy push you away – think of it as a Tupperware party where they try to get you to invite your friends – except in this one they are more convincing and you don’t get any free Tupperware. The Tupperware is good, it works, you don’t hate your Tupperware because of how it was sold to you. This is way better than Tupperware. :)

  6. Jay on March 3, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Raised by a native of Kiev mother, new to the US, recently knocked up and wed to an American. An EST devotee. She attended the seminars, though due to her medical condition (ie ME) was expempt for the hardcore no eating/bathroom stuff. Also, her limited English also got in the way of really understanding “their language”, I mean, English was her priority language.

    First 5 years of life my mom didn’t speak the best English. My dad, the best EST/Landmark you could hear. In fact, I had NO IDEA that how he used those words was not how … others did until I showed up for Landmark Day 1.

    How did I end up there – WITH ANGIE AS MY LEADER? Well… I moved to san Francisco 9 mos prior for a job opportunity I had recently been sacked from

    I had been seeing a guy. The first DAY we met I asked if he was into EST. I had no idea why, I just felt something, he talked like my dad. He was too young for EST? That’s when he told me about the Forum and insisted I take it. He would continue to do so for the next 7 mos

    So, I signed up. I was in a place of … malleability. I had a chance to move in a direction of my own choice and was looking forward to seeing if I could find out what that was.

    Angie expelled me from the course DAY 2, Hour 6.

    Reasons not made clear to me until I badgered their global staff into remarking something to the effect of.. a misconcommuniction led to the actions that took place that day. friggin circular talking!

    I was refunded on the spot. ask to leave immediately.

    You say we were told we were told to open ourselves up, that this was a place of trust. I gave in (odd since I rarely do … in life). and after they had broken me down but before they built me up they stranded me. WTF. That what you call… integrity.

    All im sayin.. I did what they said. They didn’t.

    Yet what is it about not being allowed something makes u want it oh so much more??

    Expert angie? trying not knowing any other meaning for the word “story” that what you defined it as to a group of 20-60 year olds hearing it for the first time. I don’t claim to know the techniques of training, but, I think … I have a grasp on the general concepts.

    Now. We cant ask them shit. engage in any dialogue with them. they refuse me in the course. so?? just.. continue to be frustrated???

    You didn’t fail. I failed.

  7. Paul on April 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I think this is one of those situations where you get out what you put in. The more you invest the more you get.

    It is more about ‘getting’ the experience rather than gaining information to use. The usefulness of information serves to enhance our ego, which can actually contribute to the problem. I think the goal is to achieve the experience rather than taking something from it. I also don’t think this means it takes something from you ( Aside from taking advantage of your allegiance to further recruit new participants and sign up for more courses. That aspect is the business model that is unfortunately attached to it. )

    It isn’t going to harm anyone or completely strip you of anything. It actually leaves you with the ability to know what you want to keep and what you want to lose. It does give you permanent knowledge and the ability to make important and insightful distinctions about yourself and your life. You can gain back your ego anytime you want actually. However you probably won’t want to. Not exactly as it was anyway.

    Immediately after people go through this transformation, they are going to act a little strangely and maybe be a little annoying to those around them. I must have been, although annoying people isn’t in my nature. Even a hypnotized person won’t completely abandon their core values, so I didn’t choose to spend too much time recruiting or ‘enrolling’ others. I just told them about my own experience and what I knew myself ( I wasn’t hypnotized but I was enthusiastically stupified ).

    After 10 or more years of looking back at my experience and what it has done for me, I feel it was an enormously rewarding experience in my life. I felt as if I’d received 5-10 lifetimes of wisdom and experience in a few days. It correlated with a lot of the eastern mysticism and Buddhism I was studying at the time and made all of it more accessible to me as well.

    I was not an atheist before I took the course nor am I one now. I was an agnostic before and still am. All possibilities were there and are there. It doesn’t necessarily make a person Godless or atheist. Like you said existentialism isn’t something new. A person doesn’t need to choose that afterwards either. That is a temporary space created to allow anything to exist as choice.

    Milla, it seems to me that you ‘got’ some of the stuff that was given and missed some of the stuff which ended in an incomplete sort of take on it. I can’t fault anyone for not ‘getting it’. Everyone is different and I wish everyone was a little more open to things and not quite so guarded. It’s a very idealistic idea but in the right setting it can be beneficial. I know at some of these courses that the environment( because of some of the people running it ) can be a hit or miss situation and that is very unfortunate. Being a very guarded and analytical person myself, If I’d been at a different one with different people I might not have ‘got it’ either. It’s not always 100% but I think the vast majority of people will be still able to have a great experience from it.

    I do not continue with the group and feel no desire to. I actually think there should be more focus on making the education free and offered to anyone without the sales pressure added to it. It’s an unnecessary and ugly side to what is otherwise such a great and truly beneficial experience for so many.

  8. Elaine Flanders on January 30, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Dear Milla: Thank you so much for writing about the Landmark Forum in such interesting detail from your experience. In the late 1970s I enrolled in the est Training then decided to request a refund and did not attend. Just recently, I have been looking at information about Landmark Education and ran across your post and read every part of the 5 part series. I have also read some of the responses. My take-away from your article was that you did get some gains as a result of the workshop, yet it might have been just as valuable without all the drama and yelling, long hours and restrictions. Maybe not, yet it was what I felt. Reading your viewpoint helped me to understand that this Forum presentation has probably helped a lot of people and I am sure will help many more, yet I am no longer sure it is something that would transform my life. Thank you again for your detailed, honest experience. You are a good writer and a joy to read. Much appreciation for your efforts.

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