On March 23, 2012, I attended the Landmark Forum in Toronto. A few of my friends at the time had suggested that I go because they had both enjoyed and grown from the experience. It was something that I also found useful and it has had an impact on a lot of my life. In August 31, 2012, I posted Some Information About Landmark Education that covered my feelings about the process, at least as they existed at that moment in time. I suppose my feelings have evolved over the last seven years, so I have decided to write a follow-up post.
A few things before I begin:
I was only a participant, I have never worked or volunteered for them, and I have no reason to believe that I ever will. There is a near zero percent chance that I will ever take another one of their courses. This isn’t because I think they are useless, the people I know who took a few of them got a lot out of their experiences, so anecdotally they are valuable. I don’t think I’ll take any more of them because I don’t want to. Since I began my meditation practice, the source of most of my demons has become crystal clear and most of them have disappeared.
Education alone does not set people free, consistent action over time probably can. It is hard work, thankless and void of any immediate gratification, so most people never really change in a fundamental way. We throw a new coat of paint on our life and go back to doing what we have always been doing. Knowing that we are full of crap and getting very clear on how exactly we are filled with it makes us enlighten-to-our-bull-shitting, it does not make us honest brokers of truth. I suppose that’s fine, I’m still hopeful that one day I will grow-up and become the person I was destined to become. But maybe I already have….
There was nothing unique or revolutionary about the information they provided EXCEPT for the way it was packaged. This isn’t a fault or even a problem. It’s actually more of a universal truth about facts and wisdom. These things exist even when they have not been discovered, and even when they have been uncovered, not everyone who listens will hear them. The exact reason why a message will find its way into our brain and then into our consciousness is not always clear, so Landmarks repackaging of the information is helpful and I dare to say needed because it is good information, it is true, and it allows for a solid de-cluttering of the mind of anyone the ideas happen to infect INDEPENDENT of the source.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, some things are just crap. They are no worse when the outcome is awful, and they are no better when the outcome is a transformation into the realm of greatness. As happy as I am with my experience at the forum, the information that I acquired and how it all continues to echo on in my life, I remain convinced that the seminar afterwards was not nearly as benign. This, I say, knowing full well that there is a very good chance that I would not have met my wife Heather had I not attended it. The ends however do not justify the means. When compared to the Forum, the seminar is an entirely different animal.
The Forum is introductory and transactional, the seminar is a long haul experience aimed at capturing people for at least the next seminar but hopefully for a long time to come. Everything about the Forum was single serving – short concise impeccably scripted lessons, a short one on one interaction between you and the person who was sitting beside you, and then a quick pivot onto the next lesson. It was highly choreographed to the point that I am nearly certain that each time the leader reached for and ate a mint, that it was part of the script. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it very easily could have been, meaning that I paid for and got a world class performance.
The seminar was not so good, and for this I cannot fault the leader. I don’t think I liked her very much, but I’m not sure. She had a job to do and she did it well. My main beef was the amount of time consumed with the attempts to sell the next seminar; which I don’t think is necessary for something that is very high quality. That makes me laugh because maybe it wasn’t high quality and they knew. Maybe it was only my experience with it that was high quality and the results were the outcome of my subsequent actions to generate a different future. Again, the information that was presented weekly was useful. It was neither new nor revolutionary, but it was packaged and presented in a Landmarky way, building upon the lessons from the Forum, and using the Forum languaging to help consolidate the experience. This makes for easy predatory listening and a click-whirr type of interaction that have people fire off fixed responses when the speaker says one of the trigger words.
I suppose I should be as honest as I possibly can be here because I am kind of reviewing a service that a business offers and who I am will have a big impact on what I think and feel about the service. In fairness, I can be a real dick from time to time. It happens less frequently now than before, but it can be very easy for someone to form a piss poor first impression of me that only reflects who I am about 5 to 10 percent of the time. This 5 to 10 percent just happened to coincide with the seminar group meetings. They were awful and I didn’t do a single thing to make the experience any better for most of the group members.
At the first seminar, we formed groups of six people who we would have phone meetings with once a week to talk about the material, our experiences trying the material on, and to talk about any of the challenges we had. As a rule, I don’t like this type of thing because it is the phone and it is strangers. My group members were fine. They were just people who, like me, imagined that there was an easier or better life available and were willing to try things out to see what could be done to make it happen. I wasn’t the same type of person as most of the members. I straight-up know that I can be an obnoxious asshole and I exercise my right to choose to be that asshole whenever I feel like it. My life was crap or great because of my actions and NOT because other people didn’t do what I wanted them to do. Superficially that contributed but when I get right down to it, other people’s action have nothing to do with my response and assuming that I use my personal power to think, feel and do what I need to, screw everyone else. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s freeing actually. I make the life I want to have and I leave other people alone to do the same. But this live and let live approach was a little out of place with most of my group.
This is a problem with self-help groups, religions, cults, and any collection of people who identify around a particular thing, a problem that only shows up when resources are scarce and competition for them is high, or in times of turmoil, stress, or uncertainty. Basically, it is the combination of the cognitive biases of the fundamental attribution error (the tendency for us to view our own actions in situational terms while viewing the actions of others as indicators of intent or character), the self-serving bias (the tendency to view ourselves in more favorable and self-esteem enhancing ways) and the in-group–out-group bias (the tendency for us to show more favorable views towards members of the group to which we are affiliated while viewing more harshly those who do not belong to the group). These things come together to render much of our thinking about other people as subjective and a reflection of inaccurate heuristics. Available cognitive capacity and then the willingness to use it is the antidote to this problem, but when it came to the seminar group discussions there wasn’t much of either to go around.
It works something like this: each one of us has an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much or any conscious thought or analysis.
Being a participant in the Landmark Forum can surface this identity and the information can influence it. Those who resist the lessons or are unwilling to see themselves in the story of another participant are displaying their identity in so far as they are claiming, “I am NOT like that.” That is neither here nor there because it is a self-improvement workshop, so your role as participant is to try on EVERYTHING to see what comes out of it. And it also doesn’t really matter much with the Forum weekend because it is over and done with very quickly. This means that none of the other participants will ever have the opportunity to notice you assimilating the new information into your identity and observe some of the messiness associated with this process. To automate anything, it requires consistent mindful practice over time, which is energy consuming and can be very destabilizing as a once held value disintegrates to make room for the integration of an updated one.
Being a participant in the seminar, you remain connected with people over a 10 to 12 week period, so you begin to see the efforts people are taking to move into a different future as they get better and better at working with the information they are being exposed to. This is particularly obvious during the weekly group calls, at least with some of the members. But it is messy and since no one is starting at the same point or at the same time, the progress is frustratingly random. This was something that I was used to, given the amount of time I had spent as a personal trainer. Some people get things instantly, others improve at a consistent slow pace, while others will get worse only to suddenly improve dramatically. It’s an individual journey in the gym, just as it is an individual journey everywhere else in life. The problem is the “group-think” that the three cognitive biases mentioned above triggers. Well, the problem is when you are NOT a part of the group that has been infected with the “group-think,” which was me, unsurprisingly, given my tendency towards assholism.
In my defense for how I act, I try hard to not automatically assume that my feelings are correct. I have been suspicious of my brain and my emotional system for a long time, well before I knew when it cannot be trusted and why that happens. Feelings are not thoughts, and while both tend to influence each other in a way that makes them seem inseparable, they are not the same and they can be pulled apart if you are willing to put the work into it. It’s hard though, and like any skill, it’s nearly impossible at the beginning, messy in the middle and effortless at the end. While I had not yet gotten very good at doing this back in 2012, I had been working on it for a while and had made some headway. This is why I was like poison to the majority of my group.
Having no desire to be a leader, and no interest in blindly following what the instructor was saying, I was seeking evidence or the truth. A good idea is a good idea, and the better an idea is, the larger the evidence pool will be for its truth. This meant that I asked a lot of “why” questions and was guilty of asking “what reasons do you have for saying or believing that?” which is really annoying for people who are in the process of trying to recreate their identity. They are fine questions, the answers are important, but having to put the work into finding out and then explaining the answers to someone like me seems more like a disruption than an exercise in good intellectual hygiene. It became very clear to everyone that I was not automatically on-board with what the instructor was saying. If I had drank the Kool-Aid, my liver had metabolized the poison very quickly allowing me to be curious about everything that was going on.
This is the problem with in-group-out-group biases. Because my behavior was not the same as the behavior of everyone else, I was clearly in the out-group. Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t matter, people have the available mental energy to consider two different points of view. But personal development courses are NOT normal circumstances. Most of the people are in flux, moving from one identity to the next, which casts a massive cognitive shadow on the available resources. The lack of available mental energy, when coupled with my lack of conformity to the group norm, cast me as an out-group member which triggered all of the associated nonsense and erroneous thinking that are associated with cognitive biases. Things degraded very quickly and it was not all that pleasant.
The upside is that I did learn a lot about what it makes sense to stand-up for and what it makes sense to just leave alone. My own personal development and that of my clients is worth taking a stand for, but I’m less convinced that I should attempt to play a role in the journey of others simply because it isn’t helpful for them and I have better things to do with my time. It probably makes things worse. As soon as their brain flips the switch and transports me into the out-group, the lens of preconception has been dawned and my actions will obviously indicate my true intention.
But more interesting is the fact that struggling to explain why something is the way it is or why a feeling you are having is an indication of truth are symptoms of something problematic. What the actual problem is can be any number of things; at the simplest would be an unwillingness to say out loud what ones intentions or wants actually are, but on the other side would be an over reliance on gut feelings, a lack of self-awareness, a need to belong to group or the desire to experience the rewards associated with social validation.
The way I see it, if you do not know why you feel the way you feel, you cannot actually claim to be feeling anything at all. You are having an emotional response, which may manifest as anger, sadness, concern, etc… but it is not anything more than that. I’m of the school of thought that in order for it to be anything other than an emotional response, it needs some weight behind it and in this case, that force is supplied by thoughts, thinking, logic and rationality. Without any of these, it is just something that is being triggered by some number of unconscious thought processes which are valid but since we do not know what they are, we have no idea what the feeling is all about. This is not to suggest that the emotional response is not real, it is a thing that can be measured so it is therefore real. But it is a subjective experience that has no transferable meaning to anyone else. The narrative reason for a feeling CAN be shared and transferred to others, so it can also be interrogated for accuracy, validity, and appropriateness.
An example here would be for the Landmark Advanced course – this is the second course in their curriculum and it is assumed that everyone who takes the Forum and who enrolls in the seminar afterwards WILL take the Advanced course. My friends who suggest the Forum to me did recommend that I take it, but they were also not so set on me doing it right away. Their advice was to take it at some point, but ONLY if I put into action any of the lessons that were taught in the Forum. If I wasn’t willing, able, or open to doing that, there wasn’t any value in attending anything else. As it would happen, the next Advanced course was scheduled to run on the weekend of the third or fourth week of the seminar, so on weeks two and three, there was a big sales push to encourage people to sign-up. I was unsure about going, so I made the call to wait and see what value I was able to extract from what I had already done. On the last group call before the course, 3 of the 5 had signed-up and they were encouraging the other 2 to join them.
The next call was unreal in its strangeness. The only other non-attendee was not on the call, so there was a full court press to get me to sign-up for the next Advanced course offering. Now I will not lie, I was slightly more interested at that point in time given how they were all gushing about how transformational and life changing it was. Whatever they had experienced had made an impression upon them, at least in terms of what a weekend experience has to offer. But, me being me, I asked them why I should go? What they each got out of it? How they believe their futures will be different and better because of it? The usual types of questions I ask when someone recommends an outlier experience to me. A $1300 weekend course is very different from a $12 movie or a $50 dinner, so I was seeking the specifics. The thing was that no one had any. They had had an experience and since it seemed powerful, they took that to mean that it was significant and therefore a worthwhile thing. A bar fight or a hangover is a significant experience, but that does not make either one worthwhile. I was hoping to find out why the Advanced course was like a hangover in terms of significance but unlike a hangover in terms of the worthwhileness.
Looking back on it now, I realize that it was a kind of dickish thing to do because it was based off of a less than genuine set of assumptions. I KNEW that they had no idea about the answers to those questions because the experience had not landed yet given that it had just wrapped-up a couple of days before. I also knew with near certainty that 2 of the 3 people would not be capable of answering the question accurately based on the limited information they did have access to. My memory does not serve me well here, but I have a sense that the remaining person was less vocal about the recommendation and was passively going along with the other two. When I started with the questions, she was able to answer with something along the lines of “it got me into a different head space and allowed me to consider things from a different perspective that I would not have done on my own or without going to the course.” That is an answer that I can believe and that doesn’t really apply to me. I have no trouble considering things from a different head space and my life is simple enough that I just take the time when I feel like doing it. She needed a commitment device and a sequestering and had no trouble justifying the spend to get these. She didn’t ever bring it up with me or the group again and for that I was grateful.
But it didn’t really make any difference because the other two were relentless about how I MUST go. And yet, they never were able to give me a reason why or any indication that they had figured out why they felt so strongly about it. Which brings us back to the legitimacy of feelings if there are no thoughts to back them up. They were having an emotional response to something but they did not have access to the reasons why they were having it. That isn’t anything that I will spend much time considering because when you get right down to it, thinking up a reason why an experience is transformative shouldn’t even be necessary if the experience was in fact transformative, you would just know why. They have a great weekend, they were taken on a roller coaster ride and when things wrapped-up on Sunday evening their memory buffer was filled with the peak parts of the experience and how they felt on Sunday when it ended. This is how experiential memory works so it wasn’t a shock that they thought that everyone should take it. That is fine, but it isn’t thinking and it isn’t a logical rationale for spending time doing something. Factor in the ease at which people are capable of thinking up justifications for anything and their lack of insight or even an answer becomes even more revealing.
Their experience was so transformational that not only can they not give a specific example of something that will be different, but they are not even able to come-up with a justification on an ad hoc basis. This did not sit well with me. For example, I can be a dick and call someone out publically for some nonsense perspective they have. When asked later I am able to say why I did it – in terms of my reason at the time – and I’m then able to think up a variety of other possible reason that were not part of the decision making matrix at the time. That’s what a brain does when it is trained to do it. The third person had trained their brain to do it and answered accordingly. The first and second people had never asked their brain to perform this function so when I made the ask, their brain threw an error and they just said “you gotta do it, it’s transformational and it will move you towards your future possibilities.”
“I don’t, it might be, and the jury is out on whether or not that happened for you so I’m going to table my decision for a while so I can collect some more evidence.” The fact of the matter is simple, what you get out of life is linked to what you put into it. A weekend course is just a weekend course if, upon its completion, you close the work book and never think about it again. But a weekend course, or a ten second conversation with someone for that matter, can be transformational if, upon completion, you never close the book or never allow the conversation to go silent. The initial experience is just the introduction so your actions afterwards are what will determine if it was a beginning or if it was the beginning, the middle and the end, all wrapped-up nicely in a tight 48 hour period.
The first and second did more to shape my decision than I ever let on. Frankly, I wasn’t going to tell them that they didn’t have any useful insight or that they had turn me off by recommending something to me that they couldn’t actually recommend or which was recommended simple to bolster their view that it was fantastic because there was another checkmark in terms of social validation. My opinion isn’t worth that much and how I choose to spend my weekends should have no impact on the lived experience of strangers or my cohorts in a personal development class.
That was then and it was a while ago. I am very comfortable with my having taken seven years to reach this point and will say that the Forum remains a highlight in my journey through life. It wasn’t the best thing that I ever did but it has a positive emotional valiance. There are some crappy things about the weekend, the seminar and the company – primarily the push for continued enrollment and the slightly dogmatic way a few of the people end-up acting. Both of these reveal a lot more about me than anything else.
Why do I hate being sold to? Why do I care if someone else has been sold to so effectively that they instantly change their identity into someone who LIVES Landmark? These questions are neither difficult to answer nor are the answers interesting. I hate being sold to when I am not expecting it because it obliterates my flow in terms of thinking. The solid stream of information about the subject matter hits my brain and makes it do dynamic and fantastically rewarding things. I LOVE thinking and the reward systems of my brain respond to the spontaneous generation thoughts that are triggered by the material. A quick sales plug lands like punishment when I’m floating along on a dopamine bliss. As for why I care when other people drink the Kool-Aid and get after their new passion like it is their first crush, well the answer is kind of boring, this is no longer something that I do. I have given-up hoping that I can know or control the content of other people’s minds and have found the experience of letting go to be exceptionally liberating. Some people like cars, some people like the sports, others like furniture, while others are passionate about being outraged. And none of it impacts me. I’ll talk about cars, the sports, listen to people talk about furniture, and really connect about things that trigger outrage, but it’s all transient and pointless for the most part.
This final fact is really what the Landmark Forum is all about. Almost everything is completely pointless and there are a tiny number of the actions that we take that actually matter. Maybe there is more on the line for those who have children, but I’m not qualified to answer and I do not know. And even then, if there isn’t and people act like there is, or there is and people act like there isn’t, it still won’t matter all that much. The world is a big place, and it is statistically nothing when compared to the mass of the universe. I’m just a bag of molecules, seven dollars worth of carbon, and if the earth is nothing in comparison to the universe, and I am nothing in comparison to the earth, what am I in comparison to the universe? I’m going to give that question exactly the amount of consideration it deserves.