Monday, October 26, 2009

A reader recounts a Landmark moment in his life.

First off, since the publication of my Journal piece, I think it's fair to say there's been an outpouring of tips, observations and personal-experience vignettes regarding assorted self-help programs, scam artists, and low-level James Arthur Ray wannabes at work in our midst. (The general tenor of remarks in the last category is, "How much do you know about such-and-such? Because last year, my sister....") I want to thank all of you for sending these. Keep 'em coming.

Today we have a guest column from one such reader* regarding his experience some years ago with an outfit that is certainly no low-level wannabe: Landmark Forum. I think it's well-written, well-reported, and of course timely. My edits are minimal and for clarity only. To be clear: I do not present this as a fully vetted work of journalism; the writer's characterizations of the notoriously litigious Landmark are his own, though I think in the overall they would withstand any challenge for accuracy. And so:

Thank you for that interesting piece in the WSJ. I found it particularly interesting as a I am one of those business executives (PhD in Engineering btw) who was pushed by well-meaning friends into attending the Landmark Forum.

I attended it with an open mind and the spirit of "well maybe I can learn an idea or two here." Instead what I got was exactly what you described. A concentration camp-type environment with sessions starting at 8am and going until midnight. Aggressive instructors who mixed natural charisma and impressive life stories ("I was a successful MD before I gave it up to spread the Forum") with physically intimidating techniques (e.g. yell at those who dared to stand up and question something by getting within a foot or less of their faces until they backed down).

What was even more disgusting was, mixed with all the mumbo-jumbo of self- actualization (by taking on your past, by confronting everyone you know/love/work with) was the
constant set of exercises to sign-up more people to attend an informational session. Every time there was a break, the emphasis seemed to be to sign up as many people as you could. Then there was, by show of hands, public condemnation of those who failed to sign the assigned number of people. The alleged purpose of this was that you cannot change the world without changing those around you so you had to involve them in the 'work' of Landmark Forum. Of course there was relentless plugging of the various levels of instruction, with cautionary tales about how you haven't even begun to progress until you attend these further courses. All these were set as challenges/demonstrations of progress, i.e. if you didn't sign up for the next course you were showing how little you had progressed and had to stand up and defend your choice while being publicly berated. As you mentioned, people who dared get up to use the restroom were immediately put on the spot by the instructor pointedly stopping the lecture to question their need to go, saying they would miss key knowledge that would hamper their development.

Clearly within these groups were a large number of people down on their luck and self-confidence who were highly susceptible to suggestion. It surprised me during some of the "guided visualization" exercises how easily people allowed themselves to be talked into laughing hysterically or sobbing in tears.

Finally, as you probably know, Landmark has a relentless follow-up campaign that is, interestingly, staffed by volunteers. During the courses, they constantly repeat how volunteering to spread the word (mostly by calling on others to sign up for courses) is key to your self-growth. It took some effort to finally get me off that list.

I should say that I did go hoping to get one idea or two worth remembering, and I did. That was simply the concept that it is powerful to think of yourself as being indistinguishable from your word: If you say something, you mean it to be true in the most powerful sense. If you say you will do something then you do everything in your power to make that true. It makes you more careful of what you will commit to and at the same time, it is a powerful self-motivating tool, i.e. if I say it, then I do it. For a while I applied that frame of mind to myself and it was empowering. But as with all such ideas, it soon faded away.

I did this course many years ago and my precise recollection is fading, but the gist of it is well in line with your reporting.

Again, I invite others with personal stories to share to get in touch. Maybe we can do a compilation or use them for a follow-up.

* with his permission, of course. Regulars know that I never assume that emails sent to me off-blog are to be considered "for publication" unless I obtain the author's written say-so.


Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you, Steve, and thank your reader, for sharing this experience. I had a similar one with a Landmark-like LGAT years ago (like most LGATs, the one I went to was originally inspired by est), but I'm saving that for my blog. I will say this, though: it involved brutally long hours, manipulative and confrontational trainers, and the customary exercises that included screaming, crying, fainting, vomiting, etc. (No one died, though.) After it was all over, I took away roughly the same lesson your guest blogger did about the importance of keeping one's commitments. But hell, I could have gotten that from a book.

Years later, a friend talked me into going to one of those free presentations by The Forum, which was later bought out by Landmark and became The Landmark Forum. The presenters were shiny, happy, and aggressively enthusiastic, and yet were very cagey about The Forum's est origins when I asked about the organization's history (I knew its history, but I just wanted to see how honest they would be). After the presentation I was cornered by one of the reps, who said he could tell I was "special" because I liked to ask tough questions, or was a skeptic, or something like that. He said, "We NEED people like you in The Forum." I said no thanks. I'd had my share of the group performance stuff years before. I like to do my puking in private.

Elizabeth said...

PhD in engineering you say... Sigh.

Well, yeah, I too had my brief encounters with a couple of gurus -- they didn't take, due to my guru allergy.

One was a dude who pushed the "rebirthing" method via hyperventilation and promised all that we'll live forever if we followed him and his method. That was during my university years. Psych students are open to this kind of stuff -- experimenting with oneself, etc., in the name of personal growth. The guy was charming and sincere, and obviously believed in his own delusion (and why not?) Yes, he took money -- not a lot, mind you, just enough to cover his traveling expenses. He was British, taking his method all over Europe, and scooping up the more vulnerable and doe-eyed women as his, um, assistants. I remember a couple of my acquaintances eagerly volunteering for this position. Sigh.

My other "guru" was a man who called himself Kundalini (really) and had delusions of taking Christ's place on Earth, spreading peace and love freely. Especially the latter, if I recall correctly. I attended his "workshop" prompted by a friend, and, upon seeing the large group of mesmerized young people, many of whom I knew to be highly intelligent and critical in their daily lives, I couldn't help but make loud snarky remarks. The group would have stoned me to death if they could, but Kundalini-The-Master sensed a godly project for himself and focused his "loving" attention on me, trying to convert me into The Truth. So much so, that he followed me after the meeting to the bus stop and offered to accompany me home, all the time prattling on about his gospel. That really freaked me out -- the guy was clearly unstable and (I thought then, and even today) potentially dangerous. I managed to lose him, but had several accidental encounters with him later on, each time trying to duck and hide, or pretend I didn't know him to avoid any conversation.

But these guys were small potatoes compared to the larger-than-life Masters of The Universe like Ray and his ilk. This is a different league, one flowing with millions of bucks and thousands of sheeple, and seemingly reputable businesses signing up with them for "personal and business growth" services.

However, no matter how the package may change, the shtick is always the same: a narcissistic, deluded personality ruthlessly scheming others out of their money, dignity and time. The motives remain the same: power, greed, sex, and self-aggrandizement, not always in the same order.

LizaJane said...

Steve, Hi. What I wonder is why some of these commentators (and the author of the piece you published) need a seminar or book to get them to keep their word? It's like they're saying, "Oh, yeah, I should be responsible and do what I say I'm going to do. Wow! Great idea! You're a genius for thinking that one up, and you should market that concept. And then, if I PAY for your wisdom, maybe I'll follow through and be a better person." Seems you'd have to be somewhat of a cretin to need that advice in the first place, and somewhat infantile to need to have spent money being told to be trustworthy in order to do so. Didn't your parents already teach you that nugget?

Elizabeth said...

LOL, LizaJane! Yes, our parents have taught most of us that simple truth, but it was FREE, so it didn't count for anything.

You have to pay thousands of $$ for the "true" enlightenment (i.e., old pablum repackaged in a new shiny wrapping). Only then, after you spend lots of money on it, it begins to make sense. Kinda.


Eh, not at all. But then I'm such an unenlightened cynic.

BTW, Connie, funny how you too had a similar experience after questioning the guru(s). "Special" indeed (LMAO).

Cosmic Connie said...

LizaJane makes some good points. However, as one of those "infantile cretins" who did participate in an LGAT, let me clarify that LGATs don't advertise that they will teach you the simple values your parents taught you (or should have). That wouldn't attract many people, and that's not how they suck people in. They suck people in with great sweeping promises of miracles and amazing life changes and total fulfillment and such.

In my case, a friend whose opinion I respected told me he'd been to this particular LGAT and it did wonders for him. He said it was a great way to work on your "issues" in a safe environment. And since I had a few "issues" (e.g., alcoholism and a rocky relationship) to work on, and didn't want to spend money for therapy, I thought I'd give it a try.

Another point: Back in those days, the LGAT I went to was structured to be very inexpensive for the initial weekend sessions. How did they make money? Well, they spent a lot of time manipulating and persuading participants to "donate" as much money as they possibly could, in order to pay for future participant's "training." It was a "pass it on" or "pay it forward" sort of deal. Later they restructured their business model and charged more upfront for the sessions, but there was still the usual manipulating and aggressive upselling.