human potential: why I am a proponent of the Landmark Forum

I have been wanting to write my thoughts on the Landmark Forum for a long time. I think I wanted to write it because I have strong feelings about what doing that course did for my life, and also because there are very strong opinions all over the Internet about what others think about it.

I did the course four years ago. There is an important piece of context that I need to add to this piece before telling the rest of the story. My father committed suicide seven years ago. This is important because the Landmark Forum deals with the impact of “stories” on our lives. A story is simply defined (my definition, not Landmark Education) as the meaning that we add to events. This seems pretty simple. For me, the meaning I added to the real event of my father’s suicide was that I would never date anyone because that would always come out at some point to destroy the relationship. That I would have to deal with mental illness. That I needed to avoid anyone with any signs of mental illness (it was terrifying to me to think that I could have to deal with that again). All of these things were valid “concerns” but the thing that was hidden from me was that there was not necessarily any truth to them. Of course, any of them could happen in the future. But, what was indistinguishable to me was that all of these ideas were created in my head, and not related to any fixed reality in the world. It would have been just as possible for me to invent a “story” that having my father pass away meant I was free to live my life without all the challenges and stress I had within our relationship, and let that be the focus of my life moving forward. Or, that life was helpless and I might as well start drinking as he did (in fact I basically stopped drinking, a wise choice for me). Given whatever context of thought I was in, any of these could have been valid, and I felt like my life was spent trying to decipher what was true in a set of competing thoughts. It was brilliant to get that I invented whatever thought came into my head, and to see what I could choose to invent whatever I wanted with a positive bent if I chose to, which was just as valid as the negative thoughts I was inventing.

This manifested for me in ridding myself of that shame. And, I now have control over those thoughts of shame which come over me when I talk about my dad and the subject of his death comes up. To be clear, this feeling of shame has never disappeared, they are almost automatic at this point. I just notice them and have awareness that they are simply thoughts and not reality. Interestingly, what has arisen in the space where that used to occupy is that I now see I can create something new as a consequence of his death, that me being open about something shameful actually opens to the door for someone else to find peace with something tragic.

One example of this: I have volunteered for eight years as a reading tutor at a program called SMART here in Portland and when I started a few years ago I got placed with this little boy who I’ll call D here. When I first got there the instructor explained that D was troubled and a handful, so I should be prepared. He came into the room and I saw a slender young boy, with pretty brown eyes. I always like to have the kids leave feeling the experience of fun when reading (this is far more effective than “teaching” them to read) because fun stimulates them to enjoy it and shift the perspective of stress or feeling stupid. So, I always ask fun questions the first few times I meet them, to open them up and figure out what their interests are to guide our discussions around what they care about. It was amazing to me that he opened up immediately to me and told me that his step-father had been gunned down, and that he knew that he had “anger-management” issues. It was astounding to me to see an eight year old kid familiar with that word. I told him in a quiet voice that my father died a violent death too. I remember him looking at me and I think at that moment he stopped feeling alone in where he was. Our connection and that year with him were amazing; he was almost a different person after we completed our work together, at ease and happy. I’ll never forget him, and loved that I could turn something that held so much pain for me into something that made a difference for him, in a place that might have seemed impossible to reach. Sadness is the worst when you feel alone.

And, this is why I think the Landmark Forum is so powerful. I had read many a book before that explained the concepts. Clearing the mind. Forgiveness. One book in particular Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” was extremely illuminating, and I remember thinking that this would change my life forever to “know” these concepts that he explained. And yet, I remember six months later feeling as depressed and unmotivated as I had before reading the book, and back in the same space. It was almost on a lark that I did the Forum. I knew nothing about it, and signed up in the midst of a business failure, where I was looking for anything to shift my struggles with the business. My business coach said it would make a difference in our coaching. What made it so powerful and work better than any book I had read was that I often read a book that really moved me, but then always fell into the pattern of thinking that “this is amazing, but no one else thinks this way, and I have no way to communicate this to others.” When you sit in a room of a hundred people and they all get “it,” and the same patterns in life keeping showing up in not just your conversations but the others around you, and you then see the entire room transcend those patterns and feelings, then you gain hope for the world. I really saw an access to peace on the planet for the first time in a long while, past all my cynicism. I saw that my deep flaws were not unique to me but were a part of the normal human condition. I felt free from the feeling of being broken, and I also got that everyone else lives with that, and we are all good at hiding it.

I felt compelled to write this because of the many articles written about the Landmark Forum. Many have labeled it a cult. I find this so frustrating because my experience is that it is the exact opposite of what I would assume a cult to be: people are encouraged to restore relationships with their friends and families. People are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and thoughts, rather than blaming another person, group or segement of the population. There are articles where people document their experiences with Landmark, such as the article on the Huffington Post. I don’t deny that person’s experience in doing the course; it is worth noting that as a reporter her job (and identity as a a reporter) is designed for finding controversy. So, she did. How different is that than Rush Limbaugh finding controversy on his show? His worldview requires it. If you have ever violently disagreed with the conclusions that someone came to and wondered how they came to that finality from the facts before them, then you’ve seen what exists in every person’s head, the ability to generate their own meaning from any given set of facts. Some have said the course is a pyramid scheme; Landmark Education is a business and people pay for the courses, but I have never invited anyone to do the course for a kickback. Pyramid schemes require that, right? Where does that leave that opinion and did that person investigate thoroughly before posting their opinion?

It is frustrating, but actually relevant to note that this is the way the world works. A person in Palestine has experienced one set of experiences, and came to the conclusion that Israel must be destroyed. A person in Israel has experienced the exact same set, and come to another conclusion. Which one is true? Which one is false? The only answer is that there is no truth. There is only interpretation. Some are more clever, or burgeoned with more facts. Some decidely invalidate one fact and attempt to invalidate that derived truth. Does it change or soften the opinions? Often times it paradoxically makes an opinion stronger to see a fact die in front of you. This is the way our minds work. And, this was completely hidden from me, as was the major impact this had on my relationships and life.

In the end, it really does not matter to me what a random person writing on the Internet thinks. I really only care what the people that love me think. And, it is tragic to me that my own mother freezes up whenever I talk about my experiences in the course or other courses I have taken through Landmark Education. It is deeply saddening to me that she believes the stories from some random stranger on the Internet more than the experiences her own son has conveyed to her. This is why I write about the Landmark Forum, to set the record straight, or at least share my experiences alongside the others.