I tried to be curious. I am a very curious person usually. So on Friday, July 18th this year, I attended the first day of the Landmark Forum in Seattle; a three-day weekend seminar from 9am to 10pm. The leader, a charismatic ex-actress, started the day by promising the 200 attendees that by the end of the seminar they will be able live an authentic, happy, and successful life. Three days of enlightenment. A quick fix for life.
“There is what you know, there is what you know that you don’t know, and there is what you don’t know that you don’t know,” the leader stated at the opening of the day. The Landmark Forum is where people learn to be aware of the latter. Apparently knowing what you don’t know that you don’t know is the key to an authentic life. I tried to be curious.
The first part of the day was interesting. We learned do be aware to what people tell us and what our personal interpretation makes out of it. If someone tells you for example “You need to try harder” some people with a low self-image may hear in their own head “you are a loser, disappointment, nothing good will come out of you….” This self-imposed understanding can lead to different sad, sometimes tragic, outcomes, such as a disconnect between family members, not holding on to jobs, quitting school etc. The Landmark Forum works to train people to listen to the spoken words instead of the demons in their heads. Point taken.
That was interesting and I could see how many of us fall into this trap – creating meanings in our heads that have nothing to do with reality. I was hoping to learn more new things. In the room there were three microphones: one at each end of the stage and one in the center, in front of the stage. People were encouraged to step up to the microphones and tell about a hurtful experience. Then the leader would pose to each person some guiding questions to help people be aware of the gap between what other people had told them and what other meanings their own mind created out of the spoken words. It was interesting to see that whatever trauma stemmed from the discussed event– it was created in the subjective mind of the receiver. Apparently we tell ourselves many stories that separate our subjective reality from the objective one (if there is such a thing as an objective reality).
The personal confessions started with one “courageous” person who volunteered to speak first and as a reward received a lengthy public psychological treatment. After this icebreaker pep talk, more people started to line up behind the microphones. There were some horrible stories – of violence and abuse. With each person’s story the leader tried to create a disconnect between what had happened and the emotional implication caused by the event – or in Landmark terms; caused by the stories we tell ourselves. At this stage I started feeling uncomfortable with the way the seminar was developing.
Around noon we had a break of 30 minutes. Outside I saw some people making phone calls to apologize for their misunderstandings, I heard people talking to each other about their desire to be “authentic”. Coming back from the break, people were encouraged to change seats and meet new people. There were several times when the leader encouraged people to discuss personal issues with the person sitting next to them. I chose to drag my chair behind the crowd, since I had no intension to take part in this. Whenever there was a “talk to your neighbor” exercise, one of the volunteers approached me, trying to encourage me to “open up”. I used the opportunity to find out about them so I could create a profile of the Landmark Followers. I did find a common characteristic (details below). It was fascinating.
As the day advanced I started to suffer. My hopes to learn something new were diminishing by the minute as the seminar turned into a marathon of public confessions conducted by our magnetic leader. It was like watching a reality show version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
By 5 pm I could no longer take it. I was intellectually bored and emotionally appalled by the emotional manipulation I was witnessing. At 8 pm the Seattle office manager called me at home to find out why I had left, and asked if I intended to return. I was surprised that someone had noticed me leaving. I did intend to return the next morning, I was still curious to find out why people are so excited by this program.
The next day the emotional bonding between people was very obvious. Apparently on the previous night they were encouraged to go in groups to their 90-minute dinner break so they could discuss their “authenticity”. When I entered the seminar room I approached the volunteer table to grab a chair so I could sit outside of the group. The office manager hurried to point at an empty chair in the last audience row: “I have a full house of volunteers today and I need all the chairs here,” she said. I smiled politely, went to the appointed chair and dragged it outside the line of chairs so I could sit away from people. Later I looked back to check how packed the volunteers table was. It seemed like most of them called in sick that day, or else it was her authentic passive aggressive way to say: “I don’t want you to sit aside”.
The second day was a repeat of the first day but on steroids. People continued sharing their stories and newly acquired understanding a la the Landmark philosophy. By now most of the participants had called their family, friends, and/or co-workers to tell them that they appreciate them/love them/ask for their forgiveness etc. The seminar became one big group therapy session where participants encouraged each other and gave each other advice for a better understanding of life. It was a bit too much for me.
The first break of the day was like a fresh breath of air (I apologies for the worn-out metaphor). Sanity. When the 30 minutes ended and it was time to go back to the class – I could not. It was too disturbing for me to see what was going on. I chose to sit on a bench outside, watch the Freemont Canal so I could calm down. I don’t know how long I stayed there, an hour or two. During this time, I later found out, the manager left a message on my home number telling me that if I don’t come back in the next hour I will not be able to continue with the seminar. Trying to give it one more chance – I went back to the class. Entering in the middle of a session I was detached from the emotional euphoria that captured the entire active participants. It was the same routine – people talk, share, analyze, and advise. After 10 more minutes there I had had enough.
During the time I was in the Landmark Forum seminar I witnessed an impressive method of emotional manipulation in action. Here are two elements that were used:
The Stockholm syndrome – hostages bind with their captures. Isolating people from the world for three days, performing unprofessional psychological open-heart surgery can leave people more damaged than the state they were in before. It takes a very experienced professional to “dig” in to someone’s emotional wounds, a person who will know how to deliver gently the right treatment and be able to back up and let the healed person advance in life. This is not a task anyone would want to entrust in the hands of a performer no matter how charismatic he/she is. During the three-day seminar the participants are actually hostages of the Landmark Forum. There is a natural (though sick) bonding between the people and the Forum that hurts them (without them being aware of it) for three full and long days. After such an experience, those people are hooked by this organization.
The Chosen People syndrome – feeling unique and special belonging to a certain group. People who are confused, don’t feel comfortable with themselves, and suffer from a personal lack of worthiness tend to join religious or ideological groups that provide them with meaning of life, purpose, and self-worth. An organization with a well-established set of values provides the seeking person an immediate positive emotional gratification. In return the person is required to obey certain rules, follow a specific lifestyle, make donations, and/or volunteer. Landmark does exactly that. After completing the three-day seminar people are elated, they feel happy, they feel like they have found the “truth”. Landmark tells them that they are “authentic”, enlightened, and ahead of other people who did not go through the program. In return the Landmark participants are asked to register for continuing classes, to refer friends and family and pay for them if necessary, and volunteer their time.
Why people go there? We all want to be happy and successful, feel special and unique, but only few of us are willing to work hard for it and give it all the time it takes. The Landmark Forum offers people a short cut – three days to a new life, and most people fall for quick fixes, no matter how obscure they are.