What is the Landmark Forum Really Like?

By Amy Dresner 03/26/15

I sat down, arms crossed, ready to be blasted with what’s known to nonbelievers as “diet Scientology.” It wasn't quite what I expected.

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Of course it would take somebody I’m having great sex with to get me to a Landmark Forum event, but being the slave to the cock that I am, off to a “graduation” I went. I wandered around the large building in Culver City with big eyes that darted suspiciously at the overly friendly Forum people trying to get me to sign up.

 I love AA, don’t get me wrong, but I’m frustrated with how slowly I’m changing. Admittedly, I’ve been sitting on my latest 4th step for months.

My “friend” had told me ahead of time that I could use a fake name and phone number but when the time came, I caved and gave them all my real info like the truth junkie I am. By mistake, I stumbled into the “Integrity Seminar,” smiling tightly in the corner, sporting my little nametag, until I finally realized I was in the wrong room. Eventually, I landed in the “Communications Graduation,” a large fluorescent-lit room with bright blue carpet, stuffed with a good 200 people. I sat down, arms crossed, ready to be blasted with what’s known to nonbelievers as “diet Scientology.” Suddenly, I spotted somebody I knew casually from a 12-step program.

“I know you,” I squinted.

“SLAA,” he smiled. The irony was not lost on me.  

“Jeff,” he offered.

“Amy. Your first time here?” I asked.

“Oh no. I worked for Landmark for eight years. Been doing seminars for 15.”

“Wow.”

“It’s very different from 12 step, but it completely supports your work in those programs. I’ve heard you share,” he said knowingly. I grimaced. “You’ll dig it.”

The main crux of Landmark Forum seems to be basic Buddhist principles with a heavy dose of CBT. It’s all about taking complete responsibility. Blaming anybody for anything keeps you the victim. If you get upset at any time, you were “triggered” and it’s about you. It’s all you. Sounds a little like a 10th or 4th step, no?

The Communications leader, a zaftig ex-model, talked in generalities about the Forum and why she is a moderator now. Then various people from the audience came up to “witness,” just like they do in AA—the classic “this is the fuck up I was before the course/program and this is the tremendous shift I had,” in money, career, relationships, whatever.

I sat with furrowed brow, taking it all in, trying to be open-minded but also rationally skeptical. At the break, I went up to Jeff to pick his brain some more about the overlap between 12 step and the Forum. He explained that many 12 steppers do the Forum and that although they have different purposes, they definitely go hand-in-hand.

“AA and SLAA saves people’s lives in regards to being out-of-control, to help you stop drinking or jerking off to porn or whatever. The Forum is where you go after your life is saved. Doing the Forum is pointless if you have an active addiction going on.”

A big tenet of Landmark seems to be taking the past and putting it back in the past. The idea is that we get these notions about who we are from early childhood or traumatic life experiences and then we take them on as our identity and unconsciously continue to manifest them over and over.  

Jeff explained it this way, “Like if your mother hit you when you were five. You interpret that to mean you’re a loser. In general, what we get upset about is not reality. It’s our interpretation of that reality. There’s what happened and then there’s what you made it mean.”

For some reason, that hit me like a punch to the solar plexus and I felt tears welling up. I love AA, don’t get me wrong, but I’m frustrated with how slowly I’m changing. Admittedly, I’ve been sitting on my latest 4th step for months. I have certain ideas about myself that I have not been able to break free from—not just character defects, but specifically negative views of myself and how I function (or moreover don’t) in the world and relationships. I can’t seem to “drop the fucking story” in certain areas. I get that it’s important to admit you’re an addict, but I also feel that clinging to certain labels has given me license to continue relapsing in those behaviors: “What do you expect? I’m a sex addict/drug addict/crazy.” There has to be a point of redemption. Suddenly, I understood why people identified in meetings as “a recovering or recovered addict/alcoholic.”  

I asked Jeff his thoughts on this. “Any time you identify as anything, it’s not reality. Of course, it’s beneficial because it’s telling the truth about a behavioral thing that’s going on inside you. But, it’s not the truth. People can get stuck in ‘this is who I am.’ But, yes, it helps in the beginning to even admit you’re an addict.”

After the break, more people come up to witness—how they made more money, were able to find love, navigate an amicable divorce. Amicable divorce? I didn’t know that was even possible. At this point, I start bawling and I’m mortified because I barely know the guy who invited me and now he gets to see what a blubbery mess I am. (Yeah, you can have great sex with somebody you barely know. Don’t judge me.) “Well, he’s never fucking me again,” I think. “Nice work, asshole.” I try to pull it together as I’m also wearing a lot of heavy black eyeliner.

A big difference between 12 step and the Forum is spirituality. A huge part of the program is finding a connection with a higher power, developing a spiritual connection so that you don’t fill that void with your addiction. Landmark is not spiritual…like at all.  

Another divergence seems to be timeframe. “The Forum is intensive. It’s a fast shift. It happens over a weekend,” Jeff told me. “People have issues that are 20, 30, 40, 50 years old that disappear in a weekend, never to return. AA is more of a slow burn.”

“Slow burn.” Ugh. Well put. We’ve all heard it called “slowbriety.” 

I’m soon escorted off to a small room to have a “whiff of the apple pie that is the Forum.” We are given pamphlets to fill out about what’s working, what’s not working, probable almost certain future, what’s missing and inventing a new possibility. On the blackboard, people are throwing up topics that they’d like to improve or address: “procrastination,” “work,” “money,” “organization." I offer up, “addiction, sex, mental illness.” A roomful of heads turns to look at me: “What? These are real problems for people…or so I hear. Not for me, of course.” I smile guiltily. The room laughs.  

“Landmark is about inventing possibilities, creating them from a future, and not from a past. How do you do that? How do you create a future free of the constraints  of the past?” the moderator asks. I have no idea and it turns out it’s $500 bucks to find out. Sure, that’s expensive compared to a buck in the basket of AA, but it’s still cheaper than a few weeks of high-priced therapy. You can say Landmark Forum is a a pyramid scheme, but you can believe in the philosophy without buying into the business model. My “friend” does the courses, but adamantly refuses to actively or aggressively enroll people. He’s more of AA’s “attraction, not promotion” mentality.

I do a little more research when I get home. Landmark Forum is based on Werner Erhard and his self-improvement courses. You might remember its old, earlier incarnation, EST (Erhard Seminars Training). Erhard drew from cybernetics, the book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and, yes, certain Scientology courses as well as the writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard. Um…creepy. 

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk was a graduate of the Forum and it heavily influenced his work. Roger Ebert basically said that the character Tyler Durden was Werner Erhard with a dash of leather and violence. The Wachowskis, the writers/creators of the Matrix trilogy were also creatively inspired by their experience in Landmark. I remember one of my early AA sponsors telling me to watch The Matrix and being stunned by the parallels with the 12-step principles, which I know now are also Forum principles.  

The 1978 film The Wiz was also influenced by Landmark. I loved that movie as a kid. Come on, Michael Jackson as scarecrow?! Diana Ross and writer Joel Schumacher were very taken with Erhard and his teachings at the time. And if you’re in the know, The Wiz is a veritable museum of EST buzzwords. Schumacher said he was very grateful to learn that he was responsible for his life, but he also admitted that many people stayed exactly the same as before they did the seminars except now they were spouting all this empowering bullshit. Gotta admit I know some 12 steppers like that. 

Many Landmarkers feel that Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements is the core of “Forum technology” boiled down except it has the addition of a heavy dose of God/spirituality:  

1) Be Impeccable With Your Word. (in Landmark speak: don’t be out of integrity and communicate.)

2) Don’t Take Anything Personally.  (same)

3) Don’t Make Assumptions. (Seeing something through your "old story.”)

4) Always Do Your Best.  (same)

And I don’t know about you, but I hear the Four Agreements thrown around the rooms all the time. 

I must admit, I left that night quite intrigued. And yeah, the guy called me again and even had sex with me again. Guys love when you cry; shows you’re vulnerable and stuff. I’m all about people living an examined life, through whatever lens they want to examine it. I’m no fundamentalist. I think being fundamentally anything is dangerous and off-putting. I’m a firm believer in the freedom to explore and be eclectic in choosing what works for you, be it meditation or kundalini or wizardry. Who cares how you do the work, only that you do it. You can say Landmark Forum is a cult but there are people who say the same about AA. So yeah, maybe once I don’t have a voracious vintage t-shirt and vape addiction to feed, I’ll dip my long Jewy toe into the Forum waters and attempt to put my past back into the past.

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix. She last wrote about The Experience, Strength and Hope Awards and No New Years Resolutions.

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