Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Landmark Forum: Day 3 (Part V)

(sorry for the delay in publishing this sucker. if you missed my earlier essays on my Landmark experience, you can find them here; read from the bottom.)

“life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.” this is the crux of the Landmark Forum, the conclusion we arrived at after three grueling days of instruction. everything had led up to this, the big transformative lecture, given sunday afternoon at around 4pm, the one that would make us “pop” into our new and improved selves whose futures were brighter than before.

life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.

we are all going to be dead one day. you can’t take anything with you. there is no inherent meaning in anything. there are only experiences, which we ruin with our interpretations of them. we project our views onto everything and everyone around us, views whose only function is to reinforce our belief that we are right.

we need our meanings to live, to make sense of the world, to make sense of ourselves, to put everything in a neatly labeled box. we put ourselves in that box, too — with fixed ideas about our strengths, weaknesses and limitations, ideas that are artificial and borne of trauma.

the weekend had been spent examining that trauma and the ideas it has created, ideas that have cemented themselves into the baggage we have carried from one life experience to the next, baggage that has made us self-righteous and self-conscious, that has stopped us from pursuing our dreams and becoming the person we were meant to be.

the time had come to let it go. because the simple truth about life is that things happen and then other things happen. none of it means anything, even when we force it to mean everything. life is just events. and a transformed life is taking those events at face value and not coloring them with our judgments and interpretations. a transformed life is joyful and limitless, positive and fearless, honest and authentic. on this side is nothing, on the other side is everything.

Angie delivered this speech while running around the room. she had clearly given it many times before and knew which words to emphasize and how much eye contact to make. as expected, the crowd drank the kool-aid with great enthusiasm, questioning nothing, with a few vocal dissenters resisting the idea that their lives held no meaning. some people had their head in their hands, crying uncontrollably, while others looked elated, as though all their burdens had been eradicated.

“do you get it? do you get it?” everyone was asking everyone else. a buzz weaved through the room. people were hugging, some were still crying; smiles were everywhere. after being lost at sea for two days, we had finally hit the shore and walked toward it as changed people.

life is meaningless and we are meaning-making machines.

Angie opened the floor up for questions and the hits kept coming, with several suddenly transformed participants gushing about their new personal philosophies and listing the myriad ways their lives would change. the unhappy campers stepped up to the mic as well, looking forlorn and arguing with Angie about purpose and god.

i looked uneasy, as usual — and felt bewildered. i didn’t feel particularly transformed and wasn’t sure whether that made me totally crazy or perfectly sane. why was i resisting so much, i wondered? why was i looking at all these seemingly happy people with such a judgmental eye? why did i refuse to walk toward the light of unfettered possibility, toward a life without the trappings of the past — the baggage of hurt and rejection, disapproval and disdain, ridicule and grief, heartache and disappointment?

why did i cling so fiercely to that baggage now that Landmark threatened to remove it? why did i not want to transform into a blank canvas on which i can create a future that’s more beautiful than the past? “go there,” i told myself. “just let it take over. look at all these happy people around you. don’t you want to be happy like them? what do you need your misery for?”

but i can’t do it. my ego refuses to vanish. it needs the pain. it wants the pain, with its hard-won hurts to linger and learn from. it needs to interpret the events in my life, because events inherently do have meaning. otherwise, it’s just birth, love, school, work, marriage, loss, death, and then the end?

how could i not ascribe meaning to any of it? how would i be able to keep stringing sentences together, sentences that are sometimes about pain and disappointment, about stories aching for interpretation? how could i create a life where meanings no longer existed? i would need to cancel this blog, abandon my Dish-Interested column, stop reading the newspaper and live in a cocoon.

i won’t do it. as corny as it sounds, i need to suffer for my art. i need to accept every ounce of pain that life is kind enough to bestow upon me, because that pain will keep me honest in my work. without it, i’ll have nothing to write about. without it, i’ll lose any heaviness that resides in my heart, the teen angst that still lingers in my soul and the Russianness that defines the very fiber of my being and transform into an over-inspired L.A. asshole who’s high on her own positivity and can only write about one topic: self-help.

me writing articles on self-help? me becoming one of Those People who frames her life in daily affirmations, loads up her shelves with stupidly titled self-help books — “A User’s Manual for the Human Experience,” anyone? — and confuses enlightenment with a moralizing superiority complex that nauseates all her friends? me transform into THAT?

the thought disgusted me.

i looked around again. people were still smiling, seemingly overjoyed with their newfound non-identities — glowing, vibrant and beautiful. they looked alive and, suddenly, they all looked alike: a mass of empty vessels, colorless, humorless, detached, eyes glazed over with a semi-smile etched onto their faces. they had crossed over. i had lost them. i suddenly felt very alone.

“do you get it?” the guy sitting next to me asked. i turned to face him. he looked positively giddy. “life is meaningless,” he said, “so we should just enjoy it and quit worrying about what everything means. that’s so awesome!”

“yeah,” i said, “i got it — years ago. you’ve never heard anyone say that life was meaningless before? didn’t you read ‘The Stranger’ in high school? this is just rehashed existentialism. it’s not that awesome.”

the idea that i was being a bitch didn’t escape me, nor did it bother me much. the idea that i paid $420 and wasted three days on a clich├ęd motivational seminar that amounted to nothing more than “seize the day” bothered me A LOT.

the dinner break came and i congregated with my newly transformed friends, who were all sorts of happy. it was as though they were all part of a group orgy where everyone came at the same time, everyone except for me. i tried not to play Debbie Downer during dinner and instead ride on the coattails of their good vibrations, which was easy to do as their positivity was quite contagious. i found myself getting contact high.

i also found myself still getting criticized by the group, this time for rejecting the transformation, but i countered their arguments with accusations that they were making meanings out of my actions — meanings Landmark would not approve of.

after dinner, i would congregate with my fellow Landmarkians for one final time. there was a “graduation ceremony” the following Tuesday that i skipped, the one we were encouraged to bring our friends and family to (even if that meant flying them into town) so they could learn about the transformative possibilities of Landmark.

clearly, i didn’t believe in these possibilities for myself, at least not if they were administered by Landmark. while i could get behind some of the coursework — such as examining one’s past in order to make peace with it and living life to the fullest — the mildly abusive coaching sessions, the nonsensical lingo, the emphasis on obedience masked as integrity and the discouragement of independent thought make Landmark Education a company i could never give another dollar to.

because even though Landmark claims to give participants their lives back, it can also take their lives from them. Landmark understands better than anyone the human inclination toward creating meaning, and after chipping away at our identities for two days, Landmark fills the empty space that it created with its dogma. it made sure to do all the thinking for us, with homework every night and assignments at every break that deprived us of any time we could have spent thinking for ourselves.

Landmark filled the gaps, owning us, dominating us, brain-washing us by erasing our personalities and chasing away our quirks and idiosyncrasies — things from our pasts that may scar us, but that also define us as fully formed individuals. instead, we were left with a blank slate on which to create a future of our own making, a blank slate we are told we can do anything we want with.

but we can’t do what we want; we can only do what Landmark wants, because we are no longer in control. and Landmark wants us to take more classes, to hand over more money, to enroll our friends and family in our transformed lives, otherwise our great experiences might end. this is why Angie insisted we drink no alcohol or take drugs during the process. Landmark wanted to be our drug. and it became a drug akin to cocaine, whose addicts feel invincible.

why would we ever want it to end? Landmark has made us feel alive again by re-engaging our senses and awakening us to a world of possibilities that we knew existed yet somehow could never access. Landmark helps us access it now, because Landmark’s promise is power — a power it’s convinced us can only be found in its coursework, even though it’s resided in us all along.

i don’t doubt that plenty of individuals have benefited from Landmark’s coursework, and i admit that i felt invigorated in the weeks immediately following the Forum, as i would have after taking any motivational seminar (which is all the Landmark Forum is). but in time that vigor faded and life became average again.

i suppose i could have returned to the Center and gotten my next fix by enrolling in another course that would have made me feel invincible, only to come down again and then re-enroll and re-enroll until my savings were depleted. but cheesecake is much cheaper. hell, even cocaine is cheaper.

so even though i never suspended my disbelief and reached Landmark’s nirvana of transformation, i am glad i took the Forum. if nothing else, it reminded me of a few basic truths about life and reawakened a few dreams i intend to accomplish in this one. it also helped me appreciate my past as something meaningful that should be cherished instead of discarded, even the miserable parts.

and, despite all its attempts not to, Landmark actually strengthened my personal belief system, making me even more secure in who i am and how i think, so much so that i could fail a self-help seminar and feel just fine about it.


Gitella said...

Reminds me of Kundera's arguments between lightness and weight.

Milla said...

that makes it sound so scholarly! thanks.

Judy Graff said...

As usual, I'm educated by what you write. I'll spare you the snarky real estate/Landmark analogy.

Milla said...

but i'd love to hear it, judy!

trav said...

I enjoyed reading about your experience. The temporary high you refer to reminds me of winter retreats with my church youth group when I was young. In some ways, the Landmark Forum seems like a stripped down but much more intense version of one of these retreats. We were encouraged to let God take control instead of arrogantly assuming that we knew what was best for our lives. God gives life meaning; stop worrying and let Him take on your problems. There was an idealized view of how simple and fulfilling life could be if we were strong enough to let go and let God. But what does it mean to let Him take control when He is nowhere to be found? It is an idea that can only temporarily hold reality at bay, and the people who preach the idea are given an undue amount of respect.

Cassie said...

That was awesome!

Anonymous said...

Hi Iam Prabhu from chennai,joined today in this forum... :)

Anonymous said...

I suck coz I only appear to be able to think of one joke and one joke alone...

Why did the plane crash into the house????


Anonymous said...

I suck coz I only appear to be able to think of one joke and one joke alone...

Why did the plane crash into the house????


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I love your style, keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Seriously? My jc writing teacher says criticism is light work for the big brain... Could this be what he's talking about?

I took the forum several years ago and found it insightful and, yes, transformative in a way. You're not smarter than the forum honey...

You don't have to wear the forum around like regalia but to discredit it is just as foolish. Sure there are some people who let it go to there head and there is a manic air in the room from inflated egos, but you are just as foolish to publish this article in response. You're clearly feeling left out of something which, as you point out is ridiculous. The problem is that in your jealousy, you missed the point. You really just didn't get it because you were too busy trying to think of witty insults. It's possible that you really are just a miserably cynical person that is otherwise uninteresting. Or it might be possible that you're telling yourself stories...

Anonymous said...

Fantastic description of the forum! Couldn't have written about these 'rackets' better than you did. Excellent read, Milla. Thanks so much for sharing :)

Ashley said...

i have also taken the landmark forum


There are moments in ones life which harm us very intensely. In order to protect one from the pain of that moment, one declares, "Im never going to let this happen to me again" resulting in one limiting their vitality in life.

They stress how one listens to show us that our thoughts talk to us so much in our minds, that we unable to focus on the beauty of the present moment.

I read from your post, "life is meaning less" true. I also notice, you made that mean "i need to suffer for my art....because that pain will keep me honest in my work. without it, i’ll have nothing to write about"

wooooah how limiting. U could have so much to write about without suffering. Im a writer and write ALL THE TIME. AND I WRITE ABOUT EVERYTHING. AND IM HONEST. AND IM HAPPY. WIN WIN FOR ME.

How un-powerful. Sulking, in order to be an artist? nah, I'll pass.

Anonymous said...

I just attended this forum...and your words are exactly what I was feeling! Well said :)

Anonymous said...

You think you got it,
but you didn't.

Anonymous said...

I did LF. I had the 'transformation experience'. And yes, you got it too - even without the transformation. It's a pity that those who do think 'they get it' have to transform into preachy, defensive and self righteous who can't take any criticism. I felt the LF helped me enormously and I can read your blog and see that it has merit without feeling that it in any way denigrates my experience of LF.

Give Australia said...

My step-daughter has recently done this course and she has been totally unbearable ever since.Her boyfriend introduced her to it and now she believes she has been the root of all their troubles-this has been a doomed relationship for a while-Alarm bells for us.We finally decided to go along as a guest with her one night as she had asked for us to come and see what she was involved in.I was flabbergasted at the manipulative manner that the speaker used.In fact, I said to my husband if you threw Jesus' name in a few times it would be a pentecostal revival.The night was basically a sales pitch to recruit new members.I did take offence at one comment where the speaker expressed her expectation that everyone new there would sign up and if not, well you just don't get it. A very passive aggressive statement if I ever heard one.
One of the many minions they have came to talk to us during the sign on break, after revealing more about her life than I wanted to hear, she inadvertently revealed to us that this course targets young people as they have no life experience as yet. I was taken aback and explained to her that life teaches us those lessons better than you can be told, she did not know how to handle that comment.
I have no problem with people wanting to better themselves, what I object to is a 'forum' claiming they have the tools when in fact you have all the power within yourself.These forums churn out a one size fits all mentality. The people there really do sound like they are in a cult, for want of a better word.
What became aware to me is that during the presentation there was nothing new or profound revealed. All the aha moments and revelations everyone clapped for were basic life lessons. They somehow try to wrap these up in some kind of secret to life and declare that they know how to fully harness these for yourself. How you can now have an incredible life thanks to Landmark.

I know there will be some people who gain some knowledge from this forum frenzy, as it does talk about everything that you need in life. but people , this is not profound, you don't need to find the money they charge to gain this knowledge ( the money should also not be a problem, the speaker denigrated a young man who expressed he couldn't afford it)
Landmark unfortunately uses basic tried and true sales ploys to make their concept work. create an allusion of having something and divulge it bit by bit to garner intrigue. Let it be known that you could be let in on the secret if you want, work people into a frenzy and strike while the iron is hot!
This method is an old tried and true sales ploy and highly effective.
The other thing that I found quite contradictory is that everyone preaches they are better people for doing the forum, able to communicate and have authentic relationships with the people they care about, but in fact they become quite self-righteous, opinionated, defensive and smug.
We were very polite and happy to chat with people there as we were guest of my step daughter and wanted to support her. Each and every time(and there were about 15 people) someone from landmark approached us and after extensive deep and meaningful discussion, learned we did not want to sign up, we were dropped like hot potatoes and ignored. One lady even did a half eye roll to my step daughter. Pat her on the arm and made some fluffy, evangelical comment about how much her parents love her by coming along to support her and that she can only live as example and maybe one day we will benefit from landmark when we are ready for it.
we just smiled and knew that our suspicions about Landmark were indeed correct.As for my step daughter, we just have to let her grow up and find her way.We know our beautiful daughter will exhaust all these external avenues and mature when she is ready. She is one of five children so we have watched young people explore who they are. I am afraid that landmark are very clever people making a fortune off human vulnerability.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking day three tomorrow and it looks like not much has changed in the curriculum after several years! Your blog was very helpful! Thanks!!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this blog for it's artistic value as well as the pictures it paints using words. Even though I disagree with 97.2% of Mila's opinions regarding HER experience during the Landmark Forum. Mila, what you resist will always persist. Landmark, the Landmark Forum, and all of it's teachings give life to anyone who is open to listening and what's possible. It's not about money, controlling people, or anything else we make up. It's about creating whatever type of life you want. Not what they, Landmark, what you to create.
On a side note. It seems like you feel suffering helps U to create art. Kind of like the placebo effect and how a sugar pill can cure cancer or make a bald man grow hair. The only thing suffering creates is more suffering.

Thanks for the read....