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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