Why I Left in the Middle of the Landmark Forum Seminar



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. 


Comments

  1. There are a lot of words and hyperbolic claims here ("actually hostages"? Really? Have you informed the police?)

    You probably could have just said "I did (some of) the landmark forum and I didn't like it".

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  2. "Hostages" is not a hyperbole, it is the reality there. Ever heard the term "willing hostages"? From my observation, most of the Landmark participants are people who have/had been in abusive relationships with either themselves or others. By joining the Landmark Forum seminar they don't solve their problems, but rather replace one abusive relationship with another.

    I cannot simply say "I did the Landmark Forum and didn't like" simply because I did not do it. I was there for a few hours, enough time to get the picture.

    I can imagine that my post can hurt the cognitive consonance of the Forum devotees. Hopefully Landmark would be able to give those people some tools to deal with this.

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  3. You misspelled "loser" as "looser" in the third paragraph. Not normally a grammar nazi, but I just thought you might like to know.

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    1. Thank you. I fixed that. I appreciate the feedback.

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    2. Yup no problem.

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  4. You hit the nail on the head about Landmark. I've known people who left their jobs and spouses to"live the life they love" only to find that when then euphoria wears off, they're left without a job or family. Most of those people fill this void by signing up for more classes or becoming a "volunteer."

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  5. It's pretty difficult to find an impact when you are unwilling to participate. It's the same thing as someone judging someone else as they're trying.

    I am a very sane person. I've been in the legal field over a decade. I've been to a regular therapist, and she can attest to my character. I went to Landmark, and did find it resolved a LOT of things for me in life. Because I was willing. I trusted the process, and came out better for it.

    Perhaps if you had decided to let yourself trust the process, and become vulnerable, then you wouldn't have such a skeptical view. An overwhelming amount of people come out better.

    It's like showing up to a therapists office, refusing to participate, and wondering why it wasn't helping.

    It isn't brain washing. It's a perspective on life. One that has very tangible, positive results.

    If someone decided to ditch their friends and family, then blame that person - not the forum. That was a choice they decided to make for themselves. For many of us, it helps us repairs the things most important to us... our relationships with people we care about.

    Good luck in your life of skepticism. Let us know how that works out for you.

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    1. Dear Anonymous, thank you for your comment and for sharing your personal story.

      You have raised several issues that I would like to discuss:

      Skepticism – is not necessarily a negative trait; it can actually be a very positive one. Skepticism simply means a refusal to accept different claims without proof. It is thanks to skeptical people, who questioned theological, social, and scientific assumptions, that humanity has been advancing through history. For someone who is in the legal field you must be familiar with the term “Legal Skepticism”. People and organizations that are afraid of skepticism are those that cannot support their claims and beliefs.

      Vulnerability - has its time and place. SAFETY is the key here. Vulnerability is a wonderful personal quality when it is manifested in a SAFE environment, such as in a loving relationship or with a trust worthy professional. There are occasions where the manifestation of vulnerability is simply stupid and irresponsible, like entering a cage of lions.

      When it comes to my writing, I have no problem being vulnerable. I’m exposing my name, my experiences, and my opinions, and I stand behind my written words.

      Trust – is something that has to be earned.

      I’m really happy for you that you have found something to help you in your life. At the same time, I feel very sorry for you that, from all the wisdom in the world today, you found Landmark to be the most helpful.

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    2. Smh.....you never planned on finding out if the concepts work. You seem to have been very committed to proving it doesn't work! In an effort to do so, you got what you went for.....Nothing!

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  6. I want to thank you for your candidness in your article. I did the Forum this past May. There are some things that I took out of it that were helpful and some that were not. ie I am now able to recognize when I have a story but I don't necessarily feel that my life has been changed 100%. The problem I see with Landmark staff and volunteers is that if you question or disagree with any of the basic tenants of Landmark or them, you basically are labeled as not caring enough about your life and situation and don't want to have possibilities open to you. Furthermore, if you don't invite people during the session that you care about to participate, you are made to feel that you don't care about them enough to help them change their lives for the better. People want to belong to a group and believe in the good of the world. I just don't like extremists and if you are talking to a person that has gone to all 3 of the major courses (Forum, Advanced Course, and IEP), they have most definitely drunk the koolaid and consider themselves enlightened. I found it interesting that AFTER I paid some money into it that they say if you take medications and have a diagnosed mental disorder to NOT take it. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way but I pushed that aside and attended the Forum anyway. Aside from them covering their behinds in case someone offs themselves during the forum, maybe they don't want people like me to attend because since we have had therapy, we are able to be able to critically evaluate what we are being taught versus taking it as gospel.

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  7. I attended the forum last weekend. It was OK... they did bring up a lot of important concepts. I like the structured writing aspect of it, and trying to use language as a way to cut to the core of a problem and not letting an interpretation get in the way.

    Personally, I enjoyed the sharing aspect of it. Writing practice letters and sharing them kind of forced you to deal with buried issues. But of course if they are serious issues you kind of need a professional to guide you through that whole process.

    I think I'd like them more if they cut back on the high pressure marketing aspect of it, and focused more on practicing.

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    1. Dear bex, thank you for sharing your experience with Landmark. Writing is a very powerful tool to process your emotions, to organize your thoughts, and even to get in touch with your subconscious - I know it as a writer and as creative writing teacher. If you enjoyed the writing at the workshop maybe you should consider developing your writing skills and see what would come out of it. Best of luck with the rest of your life.

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  8. Sorry just saw your postings. i had some interesting run ins with landmark people and I only went to an intro.....


    I found it funny when i talked to the (2nd) manager in Toronto office about issues I had thati got the same run around as the lower manager - here is the exchage (and this is after a phone call talk)



    Email 1

    Hi its D here....just following up on our conversation from the other day.  Hoping we can chat live again and/or at least email back and forth.  A couple of clarifications I need to ask - when we arranged the call you mentioned we would have about an hour to talk - that fell short,  I was wondering if that was just me mishearing?  Also I was wondering if it was a bad connection or were we on speaker phone - Just heard lots of noise and people in the background.


    First off thank you for listening and apologizing for some of the negative things that I was witness to and experienced - that means a lot. Sorry this maybe a long process for me because i did have a very negative exposure to Landmark - not once but twice and as I said on the phone I teach acting, public speaking, conduct and teach seminars and a lot of what i was exposed to was stuff I either had done, saw the common sense of it or was aware of the circle speech patterns and public speaking routines that were done. So when i saw and heard  things that contridicted each other I began to think.  But i am here because i want answer the questions I have, make sure it is a safe place for people - especially kids and teens and just see whats going on.




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  9. So part 1:


    To further our conversation:  I was told by my girlfriend that I was coming to a graduation and found out when we got there  it was not. When I asked my girlfriend about it - she chalked it up to her not being direct, that she is used to how landmark works and assumed it would not be an issue.  Then a few weeks later  I meet two other people who were told the same thing when they were invited to the intro night- (since our call I have heard of a few others that had this too).  You told me that this is a common thing that you hear from people.  That people are not being told the full reason why they are being invited.  So I am wondering why is that the case?  If it is a thing you are aware of and is happening then why is the leader not clarifying things.....or when the group is split - the second leader doesn't clarify why people are here?  If the people who were taking the course are told over and over again to be direct and what to say their guests; but there are enough not doing it to make it a "heard of issue";  then I ask why is that happening?  And why doesn't the leader express this at the start.  


         

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  10. After a welcome and talk we were put into separate groups.  Why?  It did not feel good to be pulled away from my date but I did go cause I still thought it was part of a graduation ceremony. IF this is a separate night for the others why not keep the intro stuff to its own night? Later I reflected – this is a very common and proven negative marketing/discipline/control technique- used in psychology, business, by police, schools etc.  there is no positive reason to separate people in situations like this..  If the idea is to sell the course or the idea of it then keep us with the ones we trust.  Separation creates a sense of feeling off, being kept off balance or uncomfortable and can leave you open emotionally and mentally but not in a good way; but is this the marketing technique that you are looking for?  Staying in the room with friends means more nodding heads and more positive reception.


           Seven times we were asked to sign up for the Forum but nothing was really told to us.  Went over the course outline but not really told about the course just that we would have to experience it- that's fine to say that but examples that are not scripted are ok to share. When questions were asked in the smaller group the leader deflected them in a positive way but then went on and ignored the core question.   a few times she did not really answer  the question but threw “Landmark” words into an answer (without really explaining them) and said taking the forum would answer these questions for us.  Why is this done?  I know they have a script to follow but this really left me with a sense of "Our way or no way"  What would happen if the leader took time to listen to the question?  I know one of the ideas in landmark is to get people to see that  (paraphrasing)" we like to look good in front of others" and to start shedding that idea as a reason to behave a certain way- but that is a part of why we are polite society - so many people when they are presented with a unanswered question or a answer that doesn't make much sense won't speak up in a group settling.  They want to be polite, want to look smart, don't want to offend others etc.  I saw that in the small group - there were puzzled looks on some people's faces and when one person started to ask for clarification she was told to take the course and she would find the answer to the question.  But it was clarifying the landmark language use she was after.  again why the marketing this way?  Why the deflection of questions?


    T

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  11. hank you again for listen to me about the young man who was approached by two people and almost trapped in the room.   He had been in and out several times and was not comfortable there - when talking to Ellen and having it go from "That never happens" to "That's not supposed to happen" to "that I perceived it wrong" was very disappointing.  Landmark has no complaint or feedback department, not registered with the BBB (something I am wondering about too) and if I was a complete outsider I would have had no way to answer my concerns.  When you are 10 paces away from people- you can hear them and see them very well and there was no misplaced idea of what was going on. To have it just thrown out and made to appear to be just in my head was not cool.  So thank you for acknowledging it and apologizing.  I know there is nothing to be done about it now but maybe it will get talked about in the future at training.


    So end of part 1........




    Thanks,



    D






    Her reply

    Thanks, D.J.
     
    First, we are out to have you experience an extraordinary experience in doing business with Landmark and I acknowledge that did not happen, and I apologize for that.
     
    Here are a couple of things in response to what you have addressed so far.
     
    1.    “you mentioned we would have about an hour to talk”.

    What I meant to convey and offer is that we could speak between the hours of 3:00 and 4:00, not for the hour from3:00 to 4:00. It didn’t occur to me that it could take an hour; of course, I didn’t realize at that time all of what you are dealing with.

    2.    “I was wondering if it was a bad connection or were we on speaker phone”.

    Definitely we were on speaker phone; it’s actually an agreement I have with my chiropractor. If I realized you had any difficulty hearing me, I would have used my headset (which I will definitely do in the future).

    3.    Everything else you say in “part 1” I have already addressed and in our conversation on 7 Jan.

    Please send whatever remains in “part 2” at your convenience.
     
    I look forward to connecting again after I receive your email
     
    All the best to you,
     
    Faith




    My Response


    Faith,


    I took some time to think before writing.....I was swamped at work so have not been free to write and also just processing what to write.  I'm guess I am a little disappointed again.   We did cover some of the topics on the phone but I had expanded thoughts and questions in the email, plus some new ones that were not covered and I just felt like my questions and concerns were let drop once more.  I am not sure how to proceed with this or how to gain answers to my questions at this point.




    So they avoid answering the tough questions......

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  12. So I just completed the Landmark forum, and while I have some points of disagreement in terms of conduct, I am largely happy with my experience. I don't have immediate intention of doing any of the follow up courses. I did invite family/friends and that has been a learning experience in and of itself. Ultimately, I felt the leader was very skill and ultimately respectful and continually stated that when people shared traumatic experiences that "these things shouldn't happen to people". There was some (performed) anger and there were serious demands, but I was very willing to except this in the context of the "mad tantrika" who does whatever help you get the teaching. Obviously, I am not adverse to religion (which Landmark doesn't quite fit) and certainly to ontology and phenomenology (the claimed and actual core of Landmark; the entire course is centered around an ontology/phenomenological position that is shared on the third day). If you don't like ontology, then you probably won't like Landmark (though humans are fundamentally run by our ontology, often unknowingly). That doesn't mean its wrong, nor does that mean its right. I think many people will get stuck in the euphoria of taking action and forget that the Forum DID NOT nor CLAIMED IT WOULD fix them (they repeat this ad nauseum) but gives you tools to recognize the ways your have learned to be the in the world and interrupt them. I come away with the clear understanding that it is my responsibility to create possibilities for myself and the people around me (always have been, always will be). Some people will move on to pointing out the stories of others, and become blind to their own (probably happened with some Landmark staff as well). They are human too and this is what humans do. Ultimately, I feel it is worth it if you share, are open to trying on the frameworks, and if you stay til the end. Inviting others, may or may not be required, but I know many people who could greatly benefit from the training. The cult aspect might just be an interpretation of their business model, which by itself isn't a problem. I could have invited no one, and been fine BECAUSE I chose not to care what Landmark or anyone thought (which would be inline with what Landmark teaches), but since I found it meaningful, I'm going to share it with others.

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  13. Also, I have history of mild psychosis (de-realization), panic attacks, and depression. I registered inspire the warning because I thought I would be fine (that it's in the past). I had a panic attack in the Forum about having done something I wouldn't have done before, selling my friend on the program, and how that action made me feel. I felt I was being brainwashed, and if I (me, master of critical thinking and career cynic) could be so easily brainwashed, then my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. must be flimsy, unstable and meaningless. Enter the panic attack. However, with the frameworks the Forum gave me I was able to see that instead of taking responsibility for insisting to sell my friend on Landmark to get the "happy-happy" result rather simply sharing my experience (what actually happened and what I actually felt bad about), I instead jump to blaming Landmark and triggered a panic attack. Instead of simply accepting that she "would think about it," I had to make sure she know I wasn't in a cult so she could be okay to come (and therefore I win because I got the result I think Landmark wanted from). I realized how much of my cynicism and therefore my politics are about personal image rather than the things I care about. I also understand why they encourage people with serious depression and/or psychosis to not attend. Still glad I did, but largely because my panic attack/psychosis deals with the ontological assertions at the center the Forum and this was a way of confronting them and contextualizing my fear about them (something your standard therapist would not/cannot do because they are not trained (deeply) in philosophy/ontology/epistemology).

    Landmark may be a cult, but so is the United States of America. If so many people can buy into evil, why not buy into some good?

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