Recently I was introduced to the Landmark Education organization by a girlfriend, she was effusive about the many lessons she learned and the "breakthroughs" she had while taking their "forum" and other self help and improvement seminar programs. I was immediately credulous, as a student of science I often find myself playing the advocate of reason when discussion emerges over any particular topic. Often the subjects that provide the most fuel for application of this reason based approach to information analysis are seemingly difficult to quantify without descending into machine gun fire ejaculation of "ideas" with little but anecdotal support behind them. The books of experience that people in various areas serve as the guide for their views a priori of new evidence, this bias against the future by correlation with the past often serves to hold people back from changing their views to suit
new observations...the difficulty in doing that act is why so few people seek training in science.
I mention this because it is related to one of the lessons that is taught in the Landmark Forum, the first seminar of the several seminar series that are provided by the organization. However before I get to how I feel about that lesson I'll describe some aspects of the Forum experience that were familiar in a very creepy way.
My first experience with Landmark Education came in October, I was invited to attend an event where people who were enrolled in the courses are prompted to bring others in their lives in order that they might attend the first level in the Landmark "education" that is called the "Forum". At the event (which chilling to my bones was held in a church) several hundred people milled about in the basement gym space made available by the church, always one to get to the business of making myself comfortable I began introducing myself and soon had met several interesting
people. I asked the few of them that had attended previously what I'd get from attending the forum and usually the answer was something completely unsatisfying like another question "What if you could have anything you want in your life?" This was scary to me, because when I heard it my Spider Sense (which already was raging) was ringing out of control that there could be a religious element to the programs. However, I was convinced by my girlfriend that this was not the case...so the scientist in me (I admit I was curious) continued to meet people. After a few moments, we all settled down for seats and a person introduced as a coach began speaking...she told the people who had brought guests to feel free to get up and grab a microphone and explain who they brought along and why. It was moving watching people get up and introduce their friends and loved ones. I noticed straight away the open and vocal nature of pretty much every one there that was a previous attendee and wondered if that was a result of the "education".
After a few hours of these testimonials we adjourned for lunch. At lunch I had a conversation with a group of Landmark former graduates and tried to get at exactly what the program was about but disappointingly only got the same vague responses. There seemed to be no detailed recollection of what was so valuable. After lunch we went back to the auditorium and the testimonials resumed, soon after the first few my girlfriend asked for the microphone and when she received it began to explain who I was and why she felt I was important in her life, I was embarrassed and moved. The experience of this public praise endeared in me pride and happiness and curiosity again as to why these people seemed so nice.
I gave a lower probability that religion played any role in the program and was intrigued to find out more. Days later my girlfriend asked if I wanted to attend another event where another "coach" would be attending and I would have the chance to find out exactly what the program was about, I was still very credulous of a religious angle but decided to attend. At this event I started noticing correlations between the protocol of the Landmark Forum and the protocol of attending Church.
Upon entering the offices (on 8th Ave. and 35St.) I noticed people standing at nearly every exit with their hands piously clasped together in front of them...this triggered memories of a similar approach in evangelical churches, which I stopped attending over 12 years ago and did not bode well for the organization. As we were led by the various proctors to the meeting hall I wondered what waited for me, a room full of prostate people praying to another imaginary God? The reality was pleasant, people were seated and listening to the "coach" who was talking about the program and what we'd get for attending it. The coach sat alone in a chair placed in the center of a short stage in the front of the room. To his left and right just off the stage were placed microphones for people to come up to and give their testimonials. A few people came up and relayed their conundrums and the coach walked through what the area of blockage in their relationships were, he was very good at it but none of his techniques were novel. He was simply getting people to admit their inner failing or source of shame and determine why they feel the way they do. At the end of the event we were prompted to start the sign up process for the forum and I was sufficiently curious to sign up out of curiosity and a desire to please my girlfriend. The total cost for a 4 day seminar would cost $550 dollars. This took me aback but I signed up any way...the curiosity of the scientist won out. ;)
My Forum was scheduled to start on Friday, January 7th and run through the weekend and then conclude on Tuesday, January 11th. I was immediately annoyed by the fact that I was forced to take a day off work to attend the Forum on Friday. This takes me to another aspect of the experience that was off putting, soon after signing up I had a falling out with my girlfriend and we broke up, I was disappointed and in thinking of the value I'd derive from attending the forum vassilated on whether or not I should attend, after all part of my desire to do so was to please her as foolish as that sounds. I decided I would think about it for a few days, before I could take action though I was contacted by a representative from the organization. I immediately at the time just wanted to get a refund of my money but the representative was amazingly patient and listened to my reasons but strongly suggested I stay in the program. It got to a point where here insistence was annoying to a degree that we debated why they would not simply grant my initial request no questions asked and give the refund. Her answer was that she believed I would gain a positive benefit from the experience and that I should at least give it a chance. I was worn down by her insistence in the face of my abrasive manner and again thought maybe there was something to it, I agreed to stay in the program for the forum starting on the 7th of January....
I have a theory as to why the forums 4 days contain a weekday, by forcing the participants to take off work if they have it to attend that day they show indirectly how willing they are to accept the rules of the program. In a way
this tests their "faith" in potentially having a life changing experience by attending a "breakthrough" as are termed in the Landmark speak. I found it simply annoying and selfish from their stand point, people have work on weekdays and there is no reason why the 4 days could simply be done over two consecutive weekends such that all people that work during the week would not have to take a day off work. For some one without the knowledge of similar tactics in religious groups I guess this isn't a big deal but for me it simply added another x to the strike column for the experience. Another issue is the amount of time the forum takes out of ones day, it is an all day event on the first 3 days and an evening 4 hour event on the final graduation day. The all day element seems simply
to cement enough time for the group to become more familiar with one another and comfortable enough to have a
"breakthrough" and publicly relay that to the group over the 4 day period. In fact during the event the coach indicated that people would "pop off" like pop corn over the next few days as they became emboldened to speak about their life issues and the epiphanies they have made regarding achieving the things they want to achieve. I don't see this as surprising at all, fostering a sense of family through association is a very good way to get people to relax and think about the blocking elements to their lives. Though it may be an awesome freedom to discuss these issues in an open forum of people sharing your experience that doesn't necessarily improve ones chances of actually taking *action* to rectify the issues illuminated. I think in some cases it may but in many others it does not even if the experience of a joyful "breakthrough" is made during the event. So the event was scheduled for 8 am and did not get under way until just after 9 am. When I came into the building and was directed to the meeting room, I noticed that the coat room had an attendant immediately outside the door though he was not assisting with the coats (you just went in and put your belongings on a chair or on a rack)...I think having the agent there served two purposes. The implied purpose was to safe guard the guests coats but a more subtle purpose I felt was to catch people should they decide part way through the event to leave. I smiled as I realized this possible alternative purpose and proceeded on to the meeting room. The coach this time was an older gentleman about in his 60's and sat in his centrally place seat as a King. He was supremely confident and spoke with a level of certainty that I am sure was comforting to many there. After a few moments he began to explain how the forum would proceed. He told us that the entirely of the program was listed on two large placards over head and behind him on the stage. The placards basically listed rules on how to separate ones past experiences from ones present needs and goals so as not to be restricted by the past in present or future actions. This advise is actually obvious and is often taught by motivational speakers and life coaches, it is also easier said than done to achieve. The second placard indicated methods to analyze the areas where people experience a loss of power, hopelessness, anger or fear in order to confront the reasons behind them and deal with them. Again, these bits of advise are much easier to indicate than to apply.
After summarizing the contents of the two placards and repeating that they were the subject matter of the entire 4 day forum, the coach then told us we now would be given the opportunity to gain a refund to the program at that moment if we wished. He indicated that an attendant at the back of the room would take care of the refund process and that if we wished for it we should get up and go have her proceed. However, he was quite literal...he meant at the moment. I found this very interesting as the room was filled with over 200 people, by challenging (indirectly) people to get up to go request a refund, he again tests the "faith" of those there by using their potential fears (of not appearing non conformist in a crowd) against them. I giggled in my seat as I turned to two gentleman sitting next to me and told them that the coach was using "implied social constraint" to shame people into NOT getting up for a refund...even if they probably felt they would get nothing from the experience. As it was only one woman got up to ask if the entire forum was just what was written on the placards...the coach repeated that it was and she went to get her things. As she approached the agent in the back of the room, other people actually tried to question her for leaving...claiming she should give it a try...the coach though cautioned them to leave her alone. In any event, to conduct the cancellation publicly is a tactic that is incredibly unfair and indirectly controlling. It turns out only that one woman got up to leave, after she did the coach with a smug look and smirk on his face stated "now we have all your money." it was really weird and I felt again put off.
The Forum begins...
After the cancellation process, the coach then began to cover the placcard points on the first placard, of isolating past experiences from present needs. It was useful but to me nothing new, I'd been operating in that mind of thought for most of my life simply because it is an efficient way to operate. As he conducted his lesson he had people come up to talk about their experiences and present issues they were confronting. As more stories were told and people became more comfortable we could experiencing the tigheting of bonds between the people
(inevitable)...but this is no different from what also happens in churce services as "testimonials" are also given in those venues. Later the coach began to tell us about our obligation to have integrity during the forum. He made us promise several things:
1) That we would be on time every day.
2) That we would not reveal the details of stories recounted in the room.
3) That we would cease "self medicating" (alcohol,cigarrettes..and other drugs)
4) That we would stop taking notes of the event proceedings.
5) That we would promise not to miss any part of the event.
6) That we would promise to share the opportunity for making a breakthrough with others.
Of this list of promises, I found 3) interesting as it seemed completely out of place for the focus of the forum. I am thinking that such drugs are often used to escape from ones issues rather than deal with them, by promising to give them up for a short time the mind would be clear to actually deal with the issues instead of chemically running away from them. I also found 4) Interesting as it could indirectly serve as a way to keep the details of the forum out of a printable format that can be easily passed on to others who had not taken the forum. It also would make it more difficult for those that did take it from being able to recount what they'd experienced. As the entire process involved random strangers talking about their lives, often for 30 minutes or more at a time it was easy for each day to be filled with "breakthroughs" being made by people in the room. The time spent to cover the placard contents by the coach was about 15 to 30 minutes each, every other minute was spent listening to others talk and the coach ask them hard questions about what they were confronting...which any one could do. Finally, 6) was most reminiscent of any cult or religious group, the need to continue the process and spread the gospel as it were to others...in fact the coach stated that the Sunday would be reserved for a day where we could bring others to potentially join the forum at a later date. At $550 per person per 4 day session one could quickly see how lucrative this could be for the organization. During the day they only provided a room to sit in, a coat room and rest rooms. Breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks are provided but Landmark doesn't provide any food, we were let out to go get food and were expected back at an (unusually short I felt, less than an hour) specific time. In fact after we came back from the lunch break, the coach sat, apparently livid on stage and excoriated the group for being "late". He questioned our "integrity" and stated that he'd expect us to be on time in the future...it was rather a bizarre moment. As the afternoon roled into the evening and 6pm approached I realized that I'd seen enough, though it was interesting to see how people were bonding over being able to share their darkest secret stories with strangers I realized it would not help me gain what I was looking for. During the dinner break we were assigned in groups of 3-4 and told to discuss secret fears of ours. I explained my purpose joining the forum was to become a more sure public speaker and one of the group told me about Toastmasters, I decided it would be the more appropriate venue for my needs...when I left them at dinner I was resigned not to go back to attend the course and that is precisely what I did. ;)
So is it worth it??
I felt the level of coercion involved in the program made it very uncomfortable, it was designed to weed out people who are very much at their wits end and willing to try anything. Often these are the people who go looking for religion when their own actions in life are simply not working. The lack of religious focus but appearance of religious artifice is not a mistake, I think it is the perfect structure to lasso people in the vulnerable state and get them to participate. It also enables them to be bold advocates of the program...even if all they can vaguely describe what they learned in the process. I don't think it is worth $550 dollars to learn what really is common sense to people who are honest with themselves and the fact that the events continue to gain users is a testament to the power of selling people a dream of what they would like to archive out of life...at least it isn't selling an imaginary thing (like a God). Finally, another worrisome element of the entire program is that the "forum" is only the beginning in a series of similarly vague achievement programs (all I am sure also at great expense to attend) that are weaved together with similar "opportunities" to invite others...induced proselytizing and recruitment by a corporation, it would be funny if it weren't so evil!! The additional programs are listed on other placards that were on the wall behind the coach. I guess that is how they keep their milk flow running, I say if you want to communicate and commiserate with people and get to know new people it works for that purpose...but then so does a bar or a meetup event regarding related interests that you can sign up for free to attend. The hollow nature of the program and the common sense relayed are simply not worth the price in my opinion and the religion like tactics are unnecessary, controlling and an insult to ones intelligence, for me the answer is no it was not worth it.