I received a message from an old friend inviting me to a Landmark "Friends and Family" night. In that message my friend said it was really important to attend and that she might quit her current job and work for Landmark. She wanted me to attend because she said that my thoughts and feelings are important to her. There have only been a few times in our more than twenty years of friendship that she has requested something so emphatically. Sensing how important Landmark had become in her life, and being genuinely interested in learning about the things that interest her, I cleared my schedule and went to the event.
It's no secret that I find experiential "New Agey" type groups to be suspicious. Still, I went with as positive an attitude as I could muster and was determined to keep an open mind.
My friend and I spoke briefly over the phone the night before the event and she said that it would start with a general meeting for graduates and their guests. Later, guests would be broken out into smaller groups and led through some of Landmark's education exercises. We would then have a chance to register for seminars. But there would be no pressure.
After I arrived I learned that the evening would not end until 11 PM. This seemed really late, considering I had to get up the next day at 5 AM. When I told the leader that I might have to leave early she appeared disappointed, and insisted not leaving until the break at around 10:15. I said that I would sit in the last row so that I could leave without disrupting anyone. But a few minutes later, once everyone was seated, she insisted that people sitting in the back rows move to the front and try to fill in empty seats. I stayed put, much to her irritation.
Even before we were moved to our separate little groups, it was uncomfortable. A leader made statements like, "Your life doesn't work." He slipped such statements in between little jokes and calls to register for seminars. It was also uncomfortable when six people who had completed the course got up and talked about very personal matters, such as abuse from parents and rejection by grandparents, in front of strangers. But these disclosures were met with exuberant applause.
I am currently studying for my doctoral degree in clinical psychology. What went on was counter to everything I have learned about helping people work through their painful past. It is important to be fully present for the person. But it can be extremely damaging to impose your own value system. Applauding is one way to reward, and rewarding is a way of imposing a value system. Those who volunteered to tell their stories were essentially being rewarded for acting in accordance with Landmark principles. They were also rewarded for attributing their newly acquired openness and happiness to Landmark.
When you act in any way not in accordance with Landmark's ways, their disapproval is just as easy to sense. This was apparent when I said that I needed to leave early and made it clear I was not likely to register for their seminar. Also, during the second part of the evening when we were placed into smaller groups, our leader asked those present to say something about why they came and I said my best friend had asked me to come. I also explained that I was studying to become a psychotherapist and wanted to learn more about Landmark, to see if it could be an option to offer a client. I made it clear that I was not there out of an interest in possibly registering and participating, but only to observe. The leader became visibly tense and did not say, "thanks for sharing," as she had to others who spoke.
At the beginning our leader said that at any point if we had questions, we could direct them to her. So, I asked, "When was Landmark started? Who originated it; and what were its theoretical and philosophical foundations"? She was very tentative in revealing that Landmark is basically the heir to "est," an organization and method with a very checkered history. I wanted to ask if there was any reading material available so that people could learn more about the philosophy and methodology of Landmark. But by this point I could see that their answer would likely be, "You have to go through it to know what 'it' is about."
They seemed to have some jargon to explain how almost any conventional intellect was too linear or stuck to be able to "get it." And, of course, those who have not gone through their training, would not be able to respond adequately. The uninitiated did not know what they were talking about, but the group leader did, and this was one way of giving her more authority and credibility.
It is troubling that people who participate in Landmark seminars are encouraged to think critically about everything except Landmark's ideology and methodology. Usually, at the core of any discipline or practice that purports to have such a profound effect upon people's lives and psyches, there is typically some mechanism for self-evaluation and criticism, but this appears to be totally lacking in Landmark.
When our break was finally announced at around 10 PM I gathered my things together and walked out. The leader tried hard to engage me in a conversation about anything personally relevant or valuable in the presentation. Her instructions from the very beginning were, "As I am going through this material, think about a personal matter of yours that you feel you want to work on." In all honesty, I hadn't been doing that, but what she was saying and outlining on the board was not new, nor was it groundbreaking. Freud talked about "what people don't know that they don't know" nearly 100 years ago. He called it the "unconscious." Also, keeping the facts surrounding life events and the stories that subsequently arise from them. This is what cognitive-behavioral psychology has as one of its most basic principles. But it seems at Landmark you are supposed to suspend critical thinking. During the introduction a speaker pointed his finger emphatically at the audience "Uncle Sam" style, and exhorted us to "just do it."
Now my friend wants to quit her job and become a Landmark leader. It is true that I have seen lots of seemingly positive changes in her within the past few months. She is much easier to talk to and be with. But our relationship has almost become too easy, lost is much of its complexity and challenge, which is not a good sign in intimate relationships. Is it right for me to tacitly reinforce her deepening involvement in an organization whose principles and methods I find questionable only because her involvement makes my life easier? Isn't doing that a cop-out? And isn't my silence a kind of reinforcement, which insures that my friend won't be pulling out of this seminar circuit anytime soon?
Landmark does not widen people's horizons, nor does it open new options. It offers a "bag of tricks," a fixed set of reductionism paradigms with which to think about all of life's processes [sic]. After attending their "Family and Friends" event, I realize that much of my old friend's discourse is actually Landmark jargon. It seems like she is conducting herself in our relationship within a particular paradigm, and that I am finding myself inevitably working within that paradigm. The possibility of other alternatives has seemingly become impossible. There is no room left for other paradigms. My fear is that, eventually, subsequent to deeper involvement in Landmark, it is going to become impossible for us to be close and intimate unless I adopt Landmark's ways.
Is it possible to have a relationship with someone involved within Landmark, which is not guided by their paradigms? Can you have intimate conversations about life and feelings without using Landmark's language of "clearings," "closings," "listening" and "committing"? Will my friend accept that I will never participate in Landmark?
I am concerned about my friend making Landmark the focus of her intellectual and professional life. She says that people at Landmark constantly compliment her and say what a great leader or coach she would be. My friend is a remarkable intelligent, creative, and hardworking individual who could probably succeed at almost anything. But her intelligence, creativity and diligence could be put to much more challenging and rewarding projects, which don't further some shady organization's goals.
As I now understand my night at Landmark, the leaders there had an ultimate goal. That goal, in fact apparently is to get people to give up their money, character and individuality.