From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: est & Landmark Forum
31 Mar 2004
I have looked through your website and really enjoyed everything I've seen. My wife and I are planning on buying the book when we get a chance.
I wanted to give you a brief account of my wife's and my experience this past weekend with the Landmark Forum.... We were coaxed into going to this thing by our friends, who invited us over for an informational session at their house--kind of a Tupperware party for Landmark. That night was full of great stories about people who had turned their lives around and did incredible things. They didn't "change," they "transformed," all thanks to the Landmark Forum. And we had the opportunity to do this for ourselves--all for only $400 a piece. We ended up arguing with the "Team Leader" (let's call him "Bob") until midnight that night about how the Forum works and why we can come up with these ideas on our own and why they wouldn't give us any background information on this seminar (the answer was that it's like explaining what love is without experiencing it for yourself--I retorted that although the opportunity is there, I have never had to pay for love.) So Bob then uses the tactic--"I don't think the money is what's keeping you from registering--I think it's something else." Since he has known me for a couple of hours now, I was pretty sure that he didn't know what he was talking about, and we have always considered ourselves to be "open" to new things. So he challenges us--"If you were given an opportunity to go to the landmark forum without having to pay, would you take it?" Sure. So he puts down his credit card. Since we have now been called out, we have no choice but to accept. So we decided to go.
After that night, I did as much research as I could--I pulled information from the skeptic's dictionary website and others including articles on the landmark forum, est, Werner Erhard, Scientology, Silva Mind Control, Nietzsche, Subud, Hypnosis, etc. and got a pretty good understanding of what we were getting ourselves into. So we show up on Friday morning and are immediately taken aside--apparently I didn't fill out the main question on my registration form, "What do you want to get out of the Forum?" So I fill that answer in: "I want to see what all of this is all about." We were also informed that it is not the policy of Landmark to let team leaders pay for others to come, so Bob has been reimbursed his full $800 and we are there on a scholarship. No kidding.
We made it through the first full day and most of the second. We were not the only skeptics. We had lots of conversations with people who were just as careful as we were.
The "rules" were ever so gradually being more and more enforced, and my wife and I were actually approached by the "Forum Supervisor," a kid that until now had had no purpose except to tell us what time it was, and what time we were to be back from breaks. One of the rules they had slipped in on us was that we weren't supposed to sit next to the same people every time. That way we could get different points of view from everyone. My wife and I had sat next to each other the entire time, and had decided to continue that practice. During one of our "conversations," when we were supposed to turn to the person next to us and discuss, the supervisor approached my wife and said that he would talk to her. My wife had turned her chair so that she and I could talk to the person sitting next to me, and told him that it wasn't necessary for him to talk to us, as we would be fine with talking to this other person. He told us that this was not following the rules, as we were told to all talk to the person next to us, and the conversations were to be one on one. As we had just finished an exercise the previous day about the definition of the word "two," and how you can make "twos" out of anything (the point being that if there was one object in the entire universe and nothing else, you could make a "two" out of that by identifying the object and nothingness), I told him that we were really just representative of one person, and we were talking to another person next to us, so we were following the rules. He claimed that he had watched us sit together the entire time, which also broke the rules. I said that the rules of our marriage were to support each other and experience things together, and I had to make a choice on whether I wanted to follow the rules of the Forum, or the rules of my marriage. He explained that this was "his forum" and that if we didn't follow the rules, we would not get the "desired result." I corrected him by saying that this was "my forum," and the whole point of it was to get something out of it for me. He told me that it was his job to make sure we follow the rules. I questioned his right to assume that we weren't following the rules, and he asked if we had completed all the assignments. I said that we had done most of them, but not all. He went on about how ridiculous it was to pay to be there, and then only do it the way we wanted, instead of the way it was intended. I told him we didn't pay for it. I again asked, "how do you know we weren't following the rules?" His response: "I just asked you and you said you hadn't been." "I could have been lying," I said. "Did you follow all the rules and complete all the assignments?" he asked again. "Yes," I said. He then went on about how that was "crazy" and this whole conversation was ridiculous. "This is pointless, I'm not having this conversation anymore," he said. I responded, "That's fine with me." He continued, "You can't just say one thing and then..." I then said "I thought you just said we weren't having this conversation anymore." He stopped. I walked away.
Later, the enforcement of the "rules" got much more intense, and the culmination of it was an exercise for us to examine our "integrity." This consisted of the Forum Leader yelling at us all about how none of us have any integrity (mostly because a few people were a few minutes late for that session). As he went through his tirade, several people seemed uncomfortable. My wife talked to the person sitting next to us (we had now decided to give sitting apart a try), who seemed just as skeptical as we were. Her partner made a cynical comment about not drinking the Kool-Aid, to which my wife replied, "This is where they break you down, and later they will be building us back up. After the next exercise, the "fear" exercise (where they convince you to experience your fear all the way through and imaging that you are deathly afraid of everyone else in the room, only to realize that this means everyone in the room is afraid of you) her partner said that she was imagining the whole time after we closed our eyes that gas was seeping in the room so the Forum people could really take control of us. We were then given a dinner break and told that in the next session, we were going to go through "a powerful exercise that is going to cause a lot of breakthroughs." A similar comment was made before every previous exercise as well. We were told that over dinner we should consider the positive aspects of our personalities and we would explore them in the next session--here comes the building back up.
So we go to dinner and have a great dinner with a new friend who was not enthralled with the Forum so far either. As we went back for the next session, I noticed that my nametag was nowhere to be found (they put them on a table out front). As my integrity needed to be upheld, and as two of the main rules were 1) don't be late, and 2) wear your nametag while in session, I was facing a problem. I asked the man behind the desk, and he explained that he thought the Forum Supervisor (the same one I had the conversation with earlier) had my wife's and my nametag. The supervisor was talking to someone else, but we only had 1 minute before the Forum started again. I wondered if it was a test--if I am supposed to be maintaining my integrity, but someone else is not letting me do that, what was I supposed to do? I interrupted--"I need my nametag in order to maintain my integrity." He brushed me off and continued his conversation. I thought, "I could go in without the nametag, but I'd get yelled at for not wearing it, or I could wait to get the nametag, but then I'll be yelled at for not being on time." Finally the supervisor finishes and takes me aside (my wife was in the bathroom). He tells me that the leader has decided to withdraw me and my wife from the Forum. My wife walks in, and I tell her, "They're kicking us out." He explains that they're not kicking us out, they're withdrawing us. The Forum Leader walks up and repeats, "I've decided to withdraw you from the Forum. We will refund all your money and you can come back on any other weekend." I explained that we didn't pay for the weekend. We asked why this decision was made. "Two different people approached me who had conversations with you and felt that you were creating an un-safe environment." He had to get back in the Forum, as it was about to start. He told us that we could talk to the supervisor about it, and he left.
The supervisor asked if we were "complete" with that, or if there was anything else we wanted to say. We couldn't think of anything at the moment, so we said no. As we left, another employee followed us out. We got in our car and talked for a minute or two, all the while this new employee was standing outside the doors watching us. As we pulled our car out of the parking lot, the man appeared to say something into a walkie-talkie (I'm not sure if that's what it was or not), and went back inside.
As far as I know, we are the first people to actually get kicked out. We talked to our friends who started us on this in the first place. They have now taken several classes, and are training to be Team Leaders. They had never heard of such a thing happening, and were very upset by the situation. They have mentioned the "possibility" of stopping their training. I think that may be the smartest idea they've had in quite a while.
Sorry this wasn't so brief--thought it might be interesting for other people. Let me know if you'd like any more details. Love your website.
reply: I don't know why I would want any more details. You didn't really want to attend Landmark and you disrupted the proceedings somewhat. Your experience does indicate that the folks at Landmark have a good deal of patience.
16 Feb 2004
Someone asked me where can they read about LEC Forum, and Google found your page. I just want to thank you for a very balanced and thoughtful piece. Well done.
Maybe I would only add the price for Forum training at the end, when you discuss few more expensive advanced programs of theirs. Someone could mistakenly take your mention of $700 as a price for Forum itself (as far as I know it's $300-350 range).
I took the Forum 10 years ago, never returned. My wife did Forum and advanced course same year. We both consider it as one of the most important experiences we ever had. If I knew in advance how profoundly good Landmark's influence on her would be, I would have paid 10x more in a heart-bit. No kidding.
Thank you again,
Boris Varshavsky Dover, NH
17 May 2002
I'll mention a few memories, but I agree with Paulette Caswell's comments. First, people signing up for the course are required to fill out a detailed questionnaire, which you can't leave blank; you must tell them your reasons for taking the training (friend/problem/stress/etc.), and your medical history including psychiatric, if you are or have been in therapy, etc. (Paulette is slightly incorrect - only if you are currently in therapy must you provide a note from your shrink saying that he/she will be available for you, not everyone who's ever had therapy.) It is stressful and they do an appropriate screening before letting someone take it.
I took the "training" in D.C. in 1977. What I want to detail is the rationale behind some of the "harsh" treatment. The whole thing might be described as forcibly raising your consciousness, so you see the dumb things you do to screw your life up (the trainer does not attempt to tell 250 people what their dumb mistakes are; through interactions [a person wanting to speak raises their hand and is handed a microphone], he argues for the person to see his point for themselves, in their own minds, to their own satisfaction, of whether or not the point is true). To that end, at the beginning we were told we were "assholes"; but only the first day; once he had everyone's willing attention and willingness to participate (as he said, "if you're an 'observer,' we don't want you here), then that "abuse" was dropped. Most of the time is spent in 2-way dialogue, and "processes"; and each person is free to disagree. They tell you not to "believe" in est; hence the use of the word "get". If you "get" something then you see what they're talking about; if you don't understand something, then just "sit with it". I remember as I write this the comment that being in "mystery" about something (e.g., if you begin to wonder, "why do I spend my whole paycheck at the bar every Friday?") it's a actually a high state of consciousness, and to just "sit with it."
Making one sit in a room for 3-4 hours between breaks, with no books, watches, food or snacks, deprives one of distractions, and this is what you learn: very often when some little (or big) unpleasantness happens, we reach for a crutch - food, cigarettes, drink, drugs, etc. They state emphatically that all these things are "suppressants", that food/drink/smoke/whatever is what our mind automatically uses to smooth over discomfort, to avoid dealing with something, to avoid it. So is going to the bathroom. When you're sweating under the collar, nervous before a meeting with the boss, etc., you think you need to go to the bathroom, yet when things are fine you don't. The training informed us we act like, but are not, "tubes" (as in food goes in one end, out the other). Participants begin to see their own destructive behaviors, be it chain-smoking, compulsive shopping, overeating, or senseless base to phobias, etc.
The "processes" are hour-or-longer guided concentration exercises, sitting upright in chairs with eyes closed, are obviously similar to yoga, though there is no mention whatsoever of anything tied to religion. ("God" was only mentioned a couple times, and then only in passing; the time I remember well is when the trainer told us he could only tell us one thing about God: "She's black". No offense intended; for a WASP like me, the description of God as "the Black Lady" was an interesting thought, something of course I never heard in my several years at seminary.)
The "responsibility" thing is heavy. If you're a drunk on skid row ... if your spouse just divorced you ... if you just lost a fortune on the stock market, who's responsible? The liquor companies (maybe I should sue them)? The guy she ran off with (maybe I should put a contract on him)? Those wall-street high-fliers that used us like tools? No, dear, you are. Wherever you are today, you're there because you put yourself there. You did it. And you're now just as free, and able, to do something right, something constructive. The answer to a lot of the arguments we use to convince ourselves that we can't change something in our lives, is: Bullshit. In est lingo, the point is that instead of being "at cause" you can be "at effect." This is an example of the rumored "brutality," just dialoguing with people who want to argue for hours that they weren't responsible for whatever has happened to them. [I am aware that this idea and style has ties to Buddhism; however as I said, it is wrong to imaging that est purports to be a religion, it has no religious content.]
If all this sounds like a bunch of elementary first-aid for idiots (or, well, assholes), then I'd have to say ... that's the idea. The concept behind the est training was [and now as the Landmark Forum it is] exactly that. The people who take it of course vary from more to less credible, and more to less sane.
28 Apr 2002
I really enjoyed your spot-on comments in response to the General Counsel of Landmark Education Corporation (LEC). I had the misfortune of attending a LEC guest event, and I've never seen such smug, self-absorbed and self-congratulatory people. Much like the general counselor above, many LEC types bristle at equating EST to Landmark. Yet I've heard more than one LEC trainer and life-long forum junkie declare--between emotional gasps(!)--that that they've been involved with landmark "for over 20 years!" Clearly if, one does the math about when EST supposedly ended and LEC began, it certainly makes for a very revealing Freudian slip!
I also totally agree with your observation that LEC's true motive is to stifle all comments that it perceives as negative towards LEC. You clearly do listen and edit your webpage when appropriate, yet even this is not enough for the cult-like forum fanatics. The disproportionate hostility really does remind me of the insidious political correctness that is infesting our schools and universities. They are so concerned with teaching our students "what" to think that they've neglected teaching "how" to think. But we should be able to do so on our own, for when one cannot say what is truly on their mind without fear of reprisal from forums freaks or PC Nazis we're no longer a democracy. Thankfully we have people like you.
And as far as disproportionate hostility is concerned: I should know, for I lost a best and beloved friend of over ten years to LEC. In less than 3 days they transformed her into a jargon-babbling forum freak, who, when I presented her with your excellent site and also that of Mr. Rick Ross, she summarily dismissed all negative empirical research, magazine articles and personal anecdotes culled from over the past 30 years as merely rare psychological meltdowns or a conspiracy. She said that I "wasn't ready to 'get it.'" It's funny how all of LEC's personal responsibility mantras turn into finger pointing when they feel everyone isn't being "positive" enough. Sadly, only as long as my friend thought there was a chance that I'd do the forum, she was still in communication. But as soon as I showed her the evidence that I based my nonattendance on and told her to stop talking in the annoying forum jargon, she got cold and uncommunicative. She then told me that people at her forum who'd voiced similar criticism were yelled at, and she said that "everybody hated them." And that last statement was from one of the most loving people I'd ever known, and I'd NEVER EVER heard her use the word "hate" before.
So as you can see from your own experience, LEC seems to engender a very hostile reaction towards any criticism (and sometimes critics) in its converts similar to its own. It's been nearly a year now and I haven't even gotten so much as an e-mail from my old friend. We used to e-mail daily, call weekly and meet at least twice a month. After my experience and reading Rick Ross's site, no one will ever be able to convince me that LEC isn't a cult or at least cult-like, for I agree that it should be avoided--exactly as the cult expert Dr. Margaret Singer in her book Cult's in Our Midst stated in no uncertain terms. It's expert opinions like hers and Mr. Ross's that carry far more credibility than any dubious forum apologist who may contribute the occasional--between emotional gasps(!)-- pro LEC comments here from time to time. Nevertheless--unlike LEC and Politically Correct Nazis, I defend their right to express their opinions, but I totally condemn their hypocritical efforts to silence those whose views offend their overly sensitive sensibilities.
Proud to sign my name:
(The author requested that his/her name be removed four years later because of fear of being harassed.)