Course: The Forum
Institution: Landmark Education
Instructor: David Cunningham
Location: San Francisco
A Harvard MBA grad introduced me to Landmark in 2007. She wasn’t trying to recruit me but mentioned the name Landmark offhandedly during a conversation at dinner. At the time, I didn’t ask her what it was or what it meant. But I was curious enough that when I went home I googled the term “Landmark San Francisco” and discovered its program, The Forum. I also discovered that it is a fairly controversial one.
In essence, The Forum is an updated version of Werner Erhard’s Est – the group awareness program from the high flying 70s. Est borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and many of its principles are said to have been picked up by the founders of Landmark. The Forum itself is basically an intense weekend in a basement full of about 50 strangers.
There are many stories about how Landmark is a cult, how they push marketing too much, they verbally abuse participants, etc. You can read one take here (btw - what's with everyone needing snacks everywhere they go? That's for another post, I suppose). I wasn’t worried about being brainwashed so much as I was concerned about missing my daily runs, but given I’m open to learning (as you all well know) I signed myself up.
The first day was a Friday and because I had returned from traveling to the east coast for work the night before, I found the main struggle of the day was just to stay awake. Not to mention how difficult it was to sit for such long periods of time. There are scheduled breaks and yes, contrary to reports, you can go to the bathroom, but it’s still more sitting than I was used to.
I thought going into it, after reading all the terrible reviews, that I would not be receptive or at least, highly combatant. Surprisingly, I was not. Because what I heard were a lot of concepts and philosophies that frankly, I had heard before.
The class is about adopting a new language with which to structure your life. The Landmark Forum premise is that the language we use, affects what we think and hence how we behave.
This is not new. There is a whole research movement dedicated to how linguistics affects cognition, perception and memory. “Linguistic relativity” or “explanatory style” are different names for the same thesis: your thoughts create your reality.
The funny thing is that while you’re learning how language can trip you up, Landmark is teaching you a new vocabulary. Like “rackets.” This is the innocent front you put on to hide criminality in the back or said another way, the lies we tell ourselves. Rackets are defined as persistent complaints plus a fixed way of being. Rackets, like other persistent behavior, have a payoff - that's why we keep them up.
The day was mainly spent learning Landmark speak and illustrating the central idea: there is what happens and then there is the “story” we attach to what happened. We humans do it so much and so quickly it’s hard to recognize when we’re doing it. When you judge people, you are creating stories on the fly. Even when you see say a wrinkled forehead, you are assigning a meaning or creating a story behind that wrinkle. The story might be negative (usually) or it might be positive (still limiting), the thing to notice is that it’s a story. If you know when you’re creating stories and learn to give them up you can, in the Landmark parlance, “create a new possibility for yourself.” How? That was for day two.
At the end of day one, I was proud that I didn't storm out or argue with the teacher. I did, however, nod off a few times.
Day two was more of a roller-coaster. The morning started with a bit of the hard sell. The program leader reiterated the importance of getting our friends and family to sign up for Landmark. It definitely turned me off. It was also hard not to notice all the subtle things that were done to make the program "work." Like the heavy use of the Socratic method. Most people aren't used to it and it can be very intimidating. It was used in law school and I hated it. This technique, however, can make it easier to guide someone to your point. I wondered sometimes what the class "conversations" would be like without it.
This day was full of sharing by participants. One gal in class got up and shared how her ex-boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and they broke up and she was very upset. The teacher asked her several questions which led to the fact that she willingly entered a relationship she didn't respect. The leader asked how could she be disappointed with the outcome given how she went into it? I have to say that one was an eye-opener. The teacher and program were pretty ruthless in terms of getting folks to assume some personal responsibility. It also illustrated the point that you can cause a relationship that you want to be in. But only if you take responsibility for the ones you have been in; you are honest with yourself about why you’ve chosen someone. Playing the innocent victim, as the class gal was doing, it seems, is just another racket.
We also talked about the "Genesis of Identity." How because of certain events in our lives at certain ages we created core strengths (like being independent or a people-pleaser) to combat three thoughts: I'm not enough/something's wrong with me; I don't belong; and I'm on my own. The traits we developed in response to these thoughts are called our “strong-suits.”
While I struggled with this at first I came to realize my whole identity is based on not feeling good enough/thinking something is wrong with me. Is it any wonder that I’m such an over-achiever?
Day three was about reinforcing the entire message. “Transformation,” as they call it, happens when you understand the role you play in your life.
We took another look at our strong suits and reevaluated them. The point of understanding these is to understand that you are not limited to your strong suits, your emotions, your decisions or your attitudes. That anything is possible for you when you take responsibility for your stories (which these strong suits are based on). When anything is possible, the only question is who do I choose to be?
In the end, who I choose to be is only truly up to me when I’ve set the stories aside and taken responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned I have the power to do that. Well, at least now, the vocabulary.
Big Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you should attend any of Landmark’s programs or that you shouldn’t. While I’m open to learning about myself I do have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter which is to say I like to think I wouldn’t have drank the Jonestown kool-aid. Ultimately though, you have to do what feels right to you.
I should add that Landmark is one way to hear a message that many other organizations, authors espouse, like Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, etc. Below is a diagram from MotherJones.com, that while snarky, illustrates my point.