The following story reflects my experience with the Landmark Forum. I offer it out of loyalty to the readers who requested a followup to last week's story, and (of course) to make sense of it myself; since, as a human being, I am hopelessly incapable of doing otherwise.
Know that if you choose to read it, on a level you will be sacrificing your freedom to make your own meaning of Landmark, without being influenced by the lens through which I view it/the world.
What follows is a description of the main takeaways of the 3-day seminar, followed by the things I struggled to wrap my head around during my experience.
Next week, I'll pull back the curtain on the real reason Landmark graduates can't seem to tell you what the Forum is about, and also share a twist in MY story that even I didn't see coming.
THE MEAT OF IT
I attended Landmark with an open mind, driven by intense curiosity and the promise that it would somehow relate to the work I do around story.
Sitting in the audience at 9am the first day, forced to leave my hot coffee on the table outside, I watched a blond woman dressed all in black take the stage at the front of the room and survey us with a calm smile, before issuing an eerily soft welcome that would belie the intense performance to come.
A week after completing the course, I will say that the main takeaway is extremely valuable, which is that:
All human beings live inside stories of our own creation; and these stories ultimately determine our experience of "reality" and of what's possible in our lives.
The basic premise is that these stories are often formed unconsciously out of painful experiences from our past.
If you can look at your past and objectively separate "what happened" from "the story you told yourself about what it meant," and THEN take responsibility for the role YOU played in creating the story -- then you can "complete" your past and heal inauthentic relationships, thereby opening up a whole new range of possibilities in your life.
At the end of three days, you are made to see that human beings are essentially meaning-making machines, who spend 99% of our time bouncing around inside of stories we unconsciously develop and perpetuate as coping mechanisms. From this place it become clear that "life is empty and meaningless" -- except for the meaning we give it.
And if we can accept this, it means that in every moment, we have the opportunity to consciously create the life we want.
Now for the things I struggled to wrap my head around during my Landmark Forum experience:
THE FIRST PASS
I generally find this philosophy to be a wildly liberating, empowering place to operate from. At its heart, this is the approach that I try to get others to see and apply in their own lives. The blank slate of the present moment is the only thing that's consistently real; everything else, the past and the future, is just a story we tell ourselves -- a choice that we make and reinforce again and again.
Sitting in the audience, I was humbled to witness breakthrough after breakthrough as people bravely stood and shared their hangups from the past, and were made to separate "what happened" from "the story I told myself about it." I was even more humbled to watch them come back from a break and report that they'd called up their Dad for the first time in 8 years, apologized for the story they'd invented around what happened between them, and enrolled him in the possibility of a new kind of relationship. People were absolutely taking that first step toward healing their past, and it was moving to behold.
At the same time, it also made me feel like an interloper, a spy, someone who didn't belong.
As someone who (fortunately!) has no profound trauma to speak of, a reasonable level of appreciation and gratitude for her life, and a respectable track record of reframing negative narratives (one of my "strong suits"), I couldn't help but feel somewhat misled that the conversation around "creating possibilities" had to be rooted in past trauma and inauthentic relationships.
As a result, in between feeling moved by other people's stories, I spent much of the first and second days feeling out of place, deeply annoyed, and impatient.
THE SECOND PASS
Then again, the whole point of the Forum is to get you to question everything you think you know, and to make space for the array of things "you DON'T KNOW you don't know," i.e. your blind spots.
This idea has always made inherent sense to me. So while I sat there on the first and second days feeling annoyed, I knew that was about me. When I felt impatient because I already knew the thing she was trying to blow our minds about, I knew that was about me. Whenever I thought "this doesn't apply to me," I knew that was about ME.
So, wanting to participate fully (and not be a know-it-all asshole), I tried long and hard to identify a relationship in my own life that needed healing, and kept coming up empty-handed.
Then, acting on an extremely subtle inkling, I made a call to a very special person in my life.
It felt like a very risky move at the time, because the relationship was already a good one. But the call succeeded in creating the space in which things could be said that needed to be said on both sides, and when I hung up the phone, I truly felt that we could both now take the relationship from "good" back to "great" again.
Returning to my seat on the second day, I felt like I'd eaten a slice of humble pie.
THE THIRD PASS
At some point, asking myself why it all felt so annoying, it occurred to me that the Forum environment is intentionally designed to break down your emotional and psychological barriers, in a way that felt manipulative and even emotionally abusive at times. One guided meditation in particular left me thinking: "I can't just invent a trauma or an emotional reaction for you just to validate what you're saying about how humans repress their emotions."
And as for those who did experience release, I couldn't help but wonder what would become of these "freshly liberated" people after the high from the Forum wore off and they were left with no emotional support in the aftermath.
... Oh wait! That's right! They CAN have additional support -- by enrolling in the Advanced Course, which was heavily promoted throughout the weekend and which is where you ACTUALLY start to look at creating the future you want!
Upon learning this, Cynical Jessica rolled her eyes and sighed: "Of course."
As a business-minded person, I couldn't help but see through all the transparent sales and marketing strategies, and how effectively the doctrines of "playing on the court" and "having integrity around your word" lead you to "enroll others" in the "possibility" of attending the Forum themselves.
As a consumer this evoked distrust; as a business owner it evoked a certain respect; and as a human, I could see how true conviction in the seminar's value would make inviting your friends a no-brainer.
But the part I found MOST annoying was what they did with the chairs.
Before every break, they would tell you to return promptly at a given time, say 12:35pm.
Then, during the break when you're off scarfing an orange, the staff would physically remove the entire back row of chairs.
Then, when you return at 12:36pm through the back door, a staff member would motion you over and make a show of looking around for an available seat; then signal another staff member across the room, who would then JUDICIOUSLY bring out a single seat, JUST for you.
Cynical Jessica put these pieces together on the second day, and had a little chuckle to herself.
THE FOURTH PASS
Then again, there is a reason people don't apply the empowering things they learn in books: it's because we all have deep-seated RESISTANCE to change, as well as natural psychological barriers that exist to protect our views and meaning-making mechanisms.
From this perspective, what could be labeled "emotional bullying" may in fact be necessary before people are motivated to go beyond "intellectual acceptance" and apply change in their lives.
This was thought-provoking for me, as I reflected on my own style of "inviting" my clients to try on different lenses -- which feels good for them in the moment, but perhaps doesn't create the lasting transformation we're all seeking. Perhaps I am doing my clients a disservice by not making them FEEL more of the consequence around how they are currently operating?
Ridiculously, even the chair-removal tactic can be understood as a way to get people to honor their word (which, it can be argued, is the first step toward realizing how powerful your word is as a creator of reality). If you SAY you're going to be somewhere at a given time, integrity means actually showing up at that time.
And people can GET that without DOING anything different -- unless they're made to FEEL the impact, by being the conspicuous one for which the extra chair is brought out.
THE GENIUS OF IT
There is a reason Landmark graduates can't tell you what it is, and it's not because they've been brainwashed or that it's too hard to describe (which it is; see excessive word count).
Next week, I'll share the real reason that "Land-Martians" seem strangely incapable of describing what the Landmark Forum actually IS.
The truth is that if you've made it this far, you have everything you need to figure it out. So noodle on it this week if you like, and feel free to write me with your best guess.
At this point, you may think you know how this story ends for me. But I invite you to stay tuned for a twist that even I didn't see coming.