Landmark forum – cult, scam, or path to enlightenment?

by Jack on February 2011

Just over a year ago, I heard about a three-day weekend program called Landmark Forum, an educational experience presented by a “Forum Leader” to large groups of people (50-200) who sought to improve their life situations by going through this experience. Delivered by a company known as Landmark Education, the Forum is their flagship course and is presented to over 100 000 people worldwide every year.

Over the past year, I encountered many different opinions, both online and in person. These opinions ranged from extremely positive (“The most important three days of my life, bar none.”) to extremely negative (“They are a cult – all they want is your money, and they’ll never stop calling you once you’re on their list.”).

I figured that anything that elicited such polarized reactions from people had to have something interesting and potentially exciting at its core. I decided to keep learning more, and perhaps even to consider experiencing the Forum for myself.

I finally decided to try out the Forum for myself after two different conversations with a couple of intelligent and well-balanced friends. I respected – and respect – these men. They are both strong individuals who have experienced both triumph and tragedy in their lives. They described their own Forum experiences in simple language, and explained to me what the process was all about. And so, with some trepidation, I signed up. This is the review of my Landmark Forum experience.

The Experience

Landmark is extremely well-organized. A few weeks before the Forum, I got a postcard asking me to confirm my registration by phone. I called and a friendly man at the other end of the line indicated that my registration was confirmed. Having paid the full amount by credit card, I wasn’t sure why this step was necessary. (Apparently, I later learned, some people put down a deposit or pay in full, and then chicken out and decide not to show up.)

When you arrive, smiling volunteers give you a name tag and direct you to the conference room where the Forum takes place. The conference room is clean and organized with military precision. Chairs are ordered in neat, equally spaced rows and spaces between chairs are measured via the width of a Kleenex box. Everything is intentional, and nothing distracts participants from the business at hand. The focal point of the room is a low stage riser with chalkboards, a table, and a tall chair for the Forum leader. Microphones flank the stage, where the participants go to share their stories and receive live coaching from the Forum leader.

The rules are equally precise: the Forum starts at exactly 9:00 AM; no food or drinks are allowed in the Forum room, aside from water; time out consists of two 30 minute pauses for toilet, snacks and phone calls, and one 90 minute dinner period; note taking is discouraged during Forum time, not because of confidentiality of the course material, but because participants are encouraged to give full attention to the Forum leader and the participant “sharing” his or her story at the front of the room.

Online rumors that I had read about “not being allowed to go to the bathroom” were totally unfounded. The Forum leader explained that he couldn’t guarantee any results (“getting it”, in Forum lingo) to a participant if he wasn’t there for the full experience. That being said, anyone was permitted, though not encouraged, to walk out of the room at any time for whatever reason (e.g. cigarette, phone, bathroom, emotional overwhelm).

The process is described as experiential learning, as distinguished from informational learning. Informational learning is primarily based on moving things from the category “we know that we don’t know” into the category “we know that we know”. Examples include acquiring a new language or learning calculus – we can figure out in an instant whether we don’t know Hindi or calculus, and determine how to get from A to B.

On the other hand, the Forum is described as a means for getting access to the category “we don’t know that we don’t know” – those blind spots in interpersonal relations, habits, or behaviors that keep tripping us up because we don’t even know that they are there.

The Forum cycles between a few main activities. The leader presents concepts in a high-energy, theatrical fashion, sometimes acting out scenes of interpersonal conflict, parental mistreatment, and other human drama, and sometimes scribbling and sketching on the chalkboards to illustrate a concept or principle being taught. After a topic is presented, the leader often asks the participants to share in conversation with the person next to them what they’ve learned, and how it might apply in their own life.

The most intense parts of the Forum occur when people go to the front of the room to “share” with the whole group, and receive coaching from the leader. The intention of this is to help the participant observe blind spots and contradictions in their own thoughts and actions – primarily in their interpersonal relationships, thought other areas can also be examined. In turn, this is intended to help them to achieve a “breakthrough” that will interrupt their habitual reactions, help them imagine other options, and empower them with greater flexibility to choose their behavior in the future.

The “sharing / coaching” segments of the Forum often wind up with participant in tears, and / or the leader shouting at the participant. Well, not at the participant, exactly, but at the mental cage of bullshit and lies in which they are trapped. (“I’m not shouting at you, I’m shouting at your stuff. I’m on your side. Do you want to let this go or do you want to let the past run your life?”)

It becomes clear at these points why we signed a waiver stating that we are emotionally healthy – these confrontations can be intense and are likely to unpack difficult memories for both the person standing at the microphone, and those sitting in the audience. My own life coaches never got in my face this way, or this aggressively, that’s for sure.

By observing the process of a person confronting a difficult situation in his life, in real time, and then beginning (and sometimes even completing) the process of forgiving others and forgiving himself, the members of the audience find themselves able to imagine themselves going through that same process. And it’s a good thing, too, because now it’s time for the phone calls!

In the Forum, all of us participants are encouraged to do our own work of “completing the past”, by calling those people with whom we have conflicts and apologizing for our own contribution to that conflict. To my mind, this has a two-fold purpose. First, it allows the participant to get a lot more value from his participation in the forum, by taking tangible action instead of just thinking about it. Second, it is a brilliant viral marketing strategy that gets participants to communicate to loved ones (or former loved ones), in their own language, how the Forum is helping them interrupt some of their destructive behavior patterns of the past.

I know that if I received a tearful and apologetic phone call from a person with whom I had a conflict, I’d be curious about how they arrived at the decision to take that action. (“Well, I appreciate your apology. You say you’re at some sort of ‘forum’ this weekend, huh? What’s that all about?”) In the Tuesday follow-up session after the weekend, graduates are encouraged to bring friends and family and persuade them to sign up for the course. Since Landmark doesn’t advertise, word of mouth is the main way that people hear of them.

After a 13 hour day of emotional roller-coaster rides, it’s time for some homework. We’re encouraged to draft letters to other people in our lives, taking responsibility for areas in which we have been inauthentic or untruthful. We’re urged to examine our “rackets” – the situations where we execute habitual, disempowering behavior patterns by complaining that something or someone should be different from how it actually is. And in place of all this bad stuff, we’re asked to draft new ways of behaving and being through the phrase “the possibility I am creating for myself and my life is the possibility of being…”.

The Basics

The specific knowledge I acquired was relatively simple and straightforward. It didn’t seem to be the main point of the experience. Landmark itself makes the syllabus available on their web site so there’s no big mystery about the specific learnings that one will acquire at the Forum.

Some of the key messages that I received are:

  • We are all concerned with looking good to others and fitting in with others. The reality is that most people are too afraid of other people – i.e. of being judged and criticized – to do any judging themselves. And if they do judge us, so what? Everyone winds up in the same place eventually – dead.
  • We are all inauthentic assholes who lie and cheat our way through life, take the easy way out, and blame other people for our own problems.
  • There’s no meaning intrinsic to events that happened in our lives. Humans act like “meaning making machines” and construct the meaning of everything in our lives. (Yes, everything.)
  • There’s “what happened” and there’s “my story about what happened”. Assuming these two things to be the same is the source of much pain and conflict.
  • If we don’t “complete” the past, we bring the injuries and complaints of the past – i.e. the meanings that we have created – into the present and the future. In that case, we are literally “living into a future” that is polluted with the complaints and baggage of the past.
  • Completing the past consists of: forgiving ourselves for what happened (even if it wasn’t our fault), and forgiving others whom we have been blaming and “making wrong” for their roles in past events; and consciously choosing to let go of stories and meanings that we have previously attributed to those events.
  • Our use of language constructs our experience of reality. When we use change-based language, we take what’s pre-existing (and, presumably, “wrong”) and attempt to change it. When we use possibility-based / transformation-based language, and complete the past, we create a new future into which we can live with excitement, optimism, and passion.

The Forum in popular culture

My experience was also filtered through my past experience of movies and books that were known to have been influenced or inspired by the Forum.

It’s well known, for example, that Chuck Palahniuk attended a Forum before writing Fight Club, the novel that was turned into the greatest and most inspirational movie ever. This inspiration is clear in a lot of the language that I encountered in the Forum – “thank you for sharing yourself with us”, “let’s acknowledge so-and-so”, and so on. Many of these phrases – word for word – turned up repeatedly in the support groups attended by the main character of that movie.

Within the movie, the structure of the fight club itself also owes a debt to the Forum. The rules-based, tough-love framework, guided and led by a theatrical and charismatic leader, is reminiscent of the Forum experience. Of course, in contrast to Rules 1 and 2 – “do not talk about Fight Club” – we were strongly encouraged to talk about the Forum to anyone and everyone who would listen (as well as those who wouldn’t).

In contrast to the maudlin, sappy support groups, the aggressive and confrontational nature of the underground fight club helps the men who participate in it connect to something exciting, inspiring, primal, and truly empowering. In a very similar way, the bracing (metaphorical) slap in the face of the Forum converts “poor me” stories of self-pity and victimhood, into strength of will and determination to live into an unknown future of bold power and possibility.

The uncomfortable and “unreasonable” homework assignments are another common theme between the Forum and the movie. They take what would otherwise be an inspiring but artificial exercise (whether it be a conversation in a conference room, or a bare-knuckle boxing match in a dive bar’s basement), and redirect that newly liberated energy into transforming participants lives and the environments around them.

The movie Revolver is another one that kept coming to mind during my Forum experience. Less well known than Fight Club, Revolver is about a gangster recently released from prison who finds himself in the middle of an intricate con game run by two mysterious strangers.

At one point, during a high-tension moment in a sharing session in my Forum, the leader shouted at the participant:

You don’t see that I’m on your side. I’m not shouting at you because I want to kill you. I’m trying to kill it.

(“it” being the disempowering story that the participant was telling that kept her trapped, more or less).

Upon hearing these words, I recalled a line from Revolver:

The greatest con that he ever pulled, was making you believe that he is you.

At this, I felt something in my mind strain and then give way, with a little click. Tears followed. In the movie, “he” is the ego, the story that you make up and then tell in order to make things make sense, make yourself right and others wrong, and make yourself look good.

Another line from Revolver is relevant:

One thing I’ve learned in the last seven years: in every game and con there’s always an opponent, and there’s always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter, so you can become the former.

In our lives, we’re all the victim of a con (in Forum-speak, a “racket”), that is set up and run by our ego. Until we realize this, we’re at his mercy, but once we do, we can turn the tables on the opponent and liberate ourselves. We recognize that we only have an ego – our egos are not us.

Most people, however, don’t realize this, since they are knee deep in the games of creating conflict, impressing others, and being right. And of course, in the words of Caesar (echoed by the movie):

The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look.

You can probably guess where that is.

Reflections and conclusions

The experience itself was epic and fun, even as it was emotionally draining. Jerry Baden, the leader of the Forum I attended, was an exuberant and entertaining guy. He had a faint physical resemblance to the actor Gilbert Gottfried, but with a much nicer voice (something for which I was very grateful, given that he was speaking to us the whole time). His performance was rich with humor and personal anecdotes. As he put it:

You’ll go back to your families on Sunday night and they’ll ask you what happened, and you’ll say “I spent the whole weekend getting yelled at by some Jew with no eyes and all teeth”.

Jerry’s energy level was immense – being the hub of the forum experience for well over 100 people, he was always either listening, speaking, writing on the chalkboards, or running around the stage (and once in a while, around the entire conference room). For 13 hours a day. At age 60.

It wasn’t just entertaining, of course. This kind of stuff has a Very Important Purpose, dammit. And I did acquire and practice a number of useful thought patterns such as:

  • Asking myself if I was blaming other people or situations (“making them wrong”) rather than taking responsibility for my own thoughts and feelings.
  • Being more playful and irreverent about things (as though I needed help with that!), and taking all situations in life far less seriously.
  • Knowing that any hesitation and anxiety in social or interpersonal situations is pointless – life is short, after all – and reminding myself that others are at least as scared of me as I am of them. Probably even more so, since I’m so powerful and intimidating. ;)
  • Feeling more courageous about setting audacious and exciting life goals, and bringing others on board to help me achieve them.

Because of the experiential learning model, instead of writing these things down in a notebook, I managed to install and experience them as the seeds of new habits. With ongoing practice, they are likely to strengthen and take hold over time, but I definitely feel as though being able to experience these states directly during the learning process was worthwhile. A lot of this stuff, I already agreed with or “knew”, but the Forum experience helped me solidify it in a more visceral way.

So what does this all mean? Should you do the Forum yourself? Well, of course, I can’t answer that question for anyone else.

Think about it this way, though. As with so many experiences, a person’s expectations will guide what results he receives. (Put another way, in the words of Robert A. Wilson, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”.) If a person expects to encounter a bunch of scam artists and salesmen looking for his money, that’s what he will see. If a person expects to encounter some unusual and interesting experiences that can help with goals, communication, and interpersonal relationships, that’s what he will get.

Speaking for myself, I went in cautiously optimistic, and I found it valuable, entertaining, and worth my $485. And I expect to put the experiences and learnings into practice in my life in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

And you? If you choose to go to the Forum, you’ll receive whatever meaning you create out of it.

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{ 1137 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Adams March 27, 2015 at 08:17

I attended a forum last week because a friend has pressured me to attend since attending a few months ago. I finally gave in and attended. After listen to the leader talk about the program, I found some positive things about the program and some negative things about the program.
The biggest thing was that my friend did not tell me is how they will attack you to register after listening to the leader for 1.5 hours. I felt they were pressuring me and finding every reason to negate my reasons why I could not or did not want to register. I felt this was not being honest nor truthful. This friend did not experience this introduction because they registered on-line.
I personally felt like they do their best to break you down and then go in for the prey on the weak and attack. I had 5 people trying to convince me to register – each time telling them no, I wanted to think about it. I did not go there with the intention of registering, I wanted to listen to their concept. I even had one of their assistant leaders offer to pay my $150 deposit so I could register. I felt violated and used! WTH was that all that about! Really. They did get me to break down however, I held true to myself and DID NOT register.
What my friend did not tell me nor does Landmark that there is a 100% money back guarantee if the program does not work for you. WHY is this not mentioned in the program. It should be told to you when the vultures are doing their best to get you to register. All I heard is you have 3 days to cancel and you would receive your $150 deposit back. They preach integrity…this was not integrity, this was pure dishonesty!!!!!!!
Due to their practices of trying to get you to register, I will not be attending one of these forums and pay the $585. I have decided to sit down with the person who talks to me about this all the time, that I will NOT be attending and I wish them the best in this new venture.
Thank you,
NOT GIVING IN

Reply

Victor Gagnon March 28, 2015 at 10:38

I will give you the benefit of the doubt but your story does not add up.

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Gerri March 29, 2015 at 13:38

Really, you were not there. I would like you to explain to me why my story does not add up. Just so you know as I do not owe you an explanation however, The person who offered to pay the $150 deposit called and texted me to apologize because that is what they needed to do for their integrity. Please do not patronize and tell me this does not add up as this a true story. The more research I do about Landmsrk the more I can confirm my decision not to register. Now after being firm with all that I am not, will not be a part of this, they still do not understand the meaning of No! All of these recruiters need to understand and respect the word No!!! So I will await for explaination as to why you believe my story does not add up, Victor.
NOT GIVING IN

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diane March 30, 2015 at 15:06

Gheez, what a blog. I find it funny that the people who took the Forum are so filled with anger whenever someone has a different opinion about it. I think that people who believe the forum is the reason for their life change are just weak, and I am sorry to say that to you; however, some people have dealt with their issues in life, and everyone in this world has issues to deal with, everyone has problems, and everyone has goals and dreams. For many people who do not believe in the Forum, it just appears sad that a group and a three day course is what you attribute your goals to and what you give credit to for everything good and for any changes you may have accomplished. Maybe right now you do not see where other people are coming from; and maybe you need to take more courses with the Forum to figure out what is evident to others. If it works for you, then that is wonderful and you should keep doing it; but I guarantee you that one day you will wake up and realize that your mind is what caused everything…not the Forum. Many of the people who feel they “need” the Forum, I found to be lost in life, not knowing where to turn, easily manipulated souls who needed something, anything, that would stimulate certain emaotions and beliefs that they probably have not felt from loved ones…people who desire to be a part of something and who jump at the chance at preaching to others. If you took the Forum, then be nice to people who perhaps don’t believe in it and see it in a totally different way. The Forum should teach you not to be so aggressive and agry when others aren’t interested in it, or when others are scared of being near it or even when others call it an occult. The people who are part of it seem robotic and all the same; it’s scary honestly. But we are all entitled to our opinions; so instead of getting so angry with people who oppose it, try to understand that G-d gives us free of charge what you pay a lot of money for…and most people who oppose it, are believers in G-D; and have a relationship with G-d. G-d gave us a mind… you really need to learn how to use it; and use it with peace…I feel very bad for the people who believe the Forum is who should be credited for the good changes in their life; because it is sad to know that such a course can take so much credit away from G-d, and from your mind, which is where He is. I am not religious, but I do know that you will realize this one day. Again, you should consider being a bit nicer to people on this blog who have different opionions; especially if you want us to see something good in the Forum; instead of something so calculated. G-d bless you all… and remember you will wake up one day and realize. I promise. Just stop pounding people down with it, telling them they are wrong, and speaking to them as if you were G-d. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and if you experienced a wonderful enlightenment, then yelling at people or telling them that they are wrong and you are right (because of a three day course), is not in your hands. Leave that up to G-d, and instead of trying to encourage taking the course, why don’t you instead teach us some of this wonderful enlightenment or even write a book so that the rest of us can try to see or understand it, and why not spread the word freely instead of hammering normal people who don’t want or feel they need it. It’s just a suggestion…G-d Bless again.

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Ross March 30, 2015 at 22:57

I have taken the basic forum and did not feel the desire to carry on with Landmark even though I definitely benefited from it. I agree – I alway have felt attraction, rather than promotion is the way people should come to any self-help group. Yes, a for-profit group like Landmark can take advantage of people who have poor self esteem and milk them, but most people I found taking the forum were normal people sincerely interested in bettering their lives. I will share my experience of Landmark if someone’s interested, but I will not promote them outright. Like I have said, if taking a three day seminar challenges the ruts you’re stuck in, encourages you to make amends with people you’ve built walls with, encourages you to be take chances and live to your full potential, it’s kool aid that I’ll drink! God bless you Diane

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Susan March 30, 2015 at 20:41

Thank you Diane. I appreciate your comment. I believe everything you said above. I even had this friend tell me over the weekend that they may not be able to have relationships with people who do not attend the forum. This speaks volumes to me and realize that they were never really a friend. I am okay with all of this and agree with you that hopefully these people will wake up and realize what they have been doing and it really did not work. I also have noticed they all speak the same language. Use of the same words.
Again Diane -it was nice and refreshing that someone agreed as I did.

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peter h March 30, 2015 at 21:14

@Diane – just some comments
1) your quote “people who believe believe the forum is the reason for their life change are just weak” – doesn’t that sound a bit condescending
2) “your mind is what caused everything…not the Forum.” Well it is “your mind” that creates prejudice, intolerance and the conversation within the Foum allows one the opportunity to see their “intolerance” e.g. for what it is.
3) ” because it is sad to know that such a course can take so much credit away from G-d, and from your mind” – Landmark is TOTALLY non-demoninational – what one hears has NOTHING to do with religion and has no “anti-religious” stance in any way.
4) You say you are not religious, yet you mention G-d on more than one occasion.

@Susan
1) Indeed, some people realise that some of their relationships have been unworkable (although they appeared no so before completing the Forum) e.g. a woman/man who comes out of the Forum unprepared to go on with an abusive relationship.
2) There are MANY ways of “improving” oneself, and each person has a different experience. Clearly, from responses in this blog, Landmark doesn’t work for some people, yet for those people, it appears they have a tendency to label Landmark as a scam/cult. Equally, clearly, it has had a life-altering transformational experience for many people – so just get that that is what is so.
3) Yup – Landmark “people” speak the same language – in certain instances they do – just as certain words have a specific definition in a certain field and different in another, so Landmark has (re)defined certain words just to facilitate communication.

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Irony March 30, 2015 at 21:26

@Diane, do you think it is hypocritical to claim that “people who believe the forum is the reason for their life change are just weak” while instructing those same people to “be nice”?

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G March 30, 2015 at 23:11

Can landmark publish statistics on number of people that achieved breakthroughs? How much better are those number compared to same sample size of people that didn’t attend the forum?
I have attended forum – people get emotional and attached to forum then. Many try to dig down and find faults with themselves.
Even though forum leaders patronize them, they fall in love with the forum. Look up “stockholm syndrome” please.

Don’t get me wrong, forum has good things in it but out of 3 days combined, the essence of forum can be covered in one day or less. Ofcourse you also get to listen to experiences of many people who have had real problems in life.

For me, all the good things from forum evaporated every time they pushed to enroll others. I personally was told by forum leader to call 20 people at my workplace and tell how enlightened I was.
Also they call it forum but it’s only one way communication. Forum leaders are trained to discourage any analysis from participants. I guess for them, analysis stops you from doing the right thing (enrolling others).

On the other note, the friend that introduced me to forum initially apologized for something she did and said she is doing this course and hence calling. To be honest, I didn’t think anything of that apology because for me, it came from forum (indirectly) and not heart felt.

About forum people being nice pr not – they use language like “look at you, you are leading pathetic life” and “I’ll let you suffer” if you refuse their advances course.

People, grow a spine and don’t make yourself small, you take good things from forum if it worked, don’t pretend or force others to pretend that forum worked. If forum worked for you, let it show, people will come and ask what you did – tell them then.

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