11 September 2008

Inside a Landmark Forum weekend

The Landmark Forum is a penetrating, challenging inquiry into issues that determine our personal effectiveness, says the brochure. Health24 went through the intensive three days.

Most people are striving towards something, believing that when they achieve one thing, happiness, or at least contentment, will naturally follow - "when I get that job… ", "if I could lose 10kg…", "when I earn that much…", "if only my kids would listen…"

Say you do reach it. Are you happy then? Or do you always move the goalposts?
But this is what makes us human, you may argue, our ability to improve ourselves and our situations.

Or could it be that our constant struggle to be happier, is stopping us from being happy right now?

Questions such as these, and such as The Meaning Of Life, are dealt with at the Landmark Forum.

What is the Landmark Forum?
The Landmark Forum is, well, a forum or discussion, where the Landmark philosophy of "achieving an extraordinary life" is shared. The company presenting this forum is called Landmark Education - an international training and development company that has been around for almost 18 years. Since its establishment, more than a million people in 25 countries have participated in the Landmark Forum.

The course takes place over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, starting at 9:00 and ending at 22:00/22:30. Yes you read that right, from 9am to 10pm. That's thirteen hours a day… for three days! It's a very long weekend.

The course is concluded with another three-hour session on the following Tuesday evening.

What on earth can they talk about for 42 hours?
Well, actually if you subtract all the breaks it adds up to about 35 hours. "Still, what on earth can they talk about for 35 hours?" you may ask.

As I started to explain before, it is a discussion rather than a classroom-setup where one person talks and the rest merely listen. Here's an example of a typical session:

The facilitator (in my case an American called Larry) explains a concept, for example: what would you be able to achieve if you let go of past fears?

Throughout participants are encouraged to comment and discuss their take on issues. This creates interaction and conversation with the facilitator. Once the issue is exhausted, you turn to the person next to you and briefly explain what it is you would be able to achieve if you let go of past fears – or whatever topic is under discussion. And they do the same with you.

I realise this sounds terribly personal, but you only share what you are comfortable with sharing, and the funny thing is, as the weekend progresses, you find yourself comfortable with sharing more and more.

The C-word
Round about now the C-word is probably going through your mind. And the answer, from someone who’s just been there, is no, Landmark is nothing like a cult. The company is aware of previous accusations and rumour, and dismisses them emphatically.

They would, of course. But what is compelling, is commentary from, among others, Dr Raymond Fowler, former CEO of the American Psychological Association, who said that in his personal opinion: “The Landmark Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult, and I do not see how any reasonable, responsible person could say that it is.”

Certainly, to my mind, there was nothing sinister about anything I experienced, or was invited to participate in.

"As I’m sure you yourself witnessed during the course," comments Deborah Beroset, director of corporate communications for Landmark Education, "Landmark Education’s programmes are known for having a positive impact on individuals and their relationship with their families. In fact, many people report stronger relationships with people in their lives as one of the major results of their participation in Landmark Education’s programmes."

What do they teach?
The Landmark Forum challenges common ways of thinking and behaviour. Without us realising it, these thought patterns and behaviours inhibit our experiences, relationships, and other aspects of our life.

The better part of days one and two are dedicated to pointing out where the common man falters in their thinking.

Let me try and explain a concept I took from the Landmark Forum by using a story (not based on any story told at the Forum):

Let's say a young woman, Maggie, finds out her boyfriend, David, cheated on her with a skinny young girl. Maggie is devastated by David's infidelity. She tries to make sense of the situation and concludes that David must have thought she's fat – therefore cheating on her with a skinny girl. Maggie is left feeling insufficient and insecure about her body, and she has developed a fierce hatred towards skinny girls.

Now try and apply this formula to the above story:
what happened + meaning/interpretation = an issue/fear/way of thinking/baggage, or whatever you want to call it
(loosely translated this equates to: David cheats + Maggie decides David did that because he thinks she’s fat = Maggie feels insecure about her body, this influences future relationships, and she hates skinny girls)

Therefore issues you develop from previous experiences create expectations for future experiences. In many cases limiting or inhibiting future experiences.
So: issues = expectations = limitations

Any of this making sense so far?

Now try this formula: what happened – meaning/interpretation = just what happened

In English this means: if you have an experience (good or bad), without attaching all the meaning the drama-loving human race applies to things, you are left with just the experience. Then the experience leaves you with no issues, no fear, no expectations for the future. And theoretically without limitations. Sounds wonderful doesn't it?

Applying this theory to Maggie's situation the outcome should look something like this:
David cheats – Maggie’s interpretation that she’s fat and insufficient = simply the fact that David cheated on her (without all the extra meaning added)

So what? You may ask. Well, by not attaching all that meaning to this one act, Maggie feels better about herself, she enters new relationships feeling secure about her body and may even become best friends with a skinny girl.

So what the Landmark Forum does, in my opinion, is break down certain aspects of life, like the one I just explained. Removing all the bells and whistles, clearing the clutter, and you are left with something as simple as: x + y = z

An over-simplified way of approaching life? For sure. But it sure makes it easier to digest.

Follow this link for more information on the syllabus and for a brief video on what The Landmark Forum is about, watch this introductory video.

Method to the madness
Their methods of teaching really interest me. Their discussion-method makes concepts easier to grasp and having to share your own story really brings it home.

But the long hours, the language (they use words like "inauthentic" and "enrolment" in a context in which you're not used to hearing those words), the rules (like standing up every time you want to speak), had me thinking that there was more to Landmark’s methods than met the eye.

Here's what Landmark has to say in response: "In contrast with standard educational methods that typically require one to remember concepts, hoping to apply them, with Landmark's education methods you apply what you learn naturally.

"…Like learning the tips, rules and information about riding a bicycle doesn't leave you being able to ride a bicycle. However, when you develop your natural ability to ride a bicycle, it never leaves you. Similarly, with Landmark's education and training method, the abilities you learn never leave you and are yours forever."

One more thing on this topic though: if a person was to "unlearn" what he/she thought they knew about life and adopt a new way of thinking in a mere 42 hours – I think it might require a little more than just conversation.

When I put this to Beroset she said the point was not that one should or could “unlearn” things, but rather that Landmark Education “is really about people being informed by the past, but not being constrained by the past (or, more specifically, what they “made up” about the past). We simply provide people with tools they can use to challenge their own habitual perspectives and decision-making patterns – as a result, they can act beyond existing limits and enjoy a whole new level of effectiveness and fulfilment in life.”

My experience
I took a lot of valuable lessons from the Landmark Forum. I honestly feel that I have more insight into my life – I now understand how and why about a lot more. Before I kind of felt like a victim of destiny – I was dealt a bad hand and there was just nothing I could do about it. Ag shame… But with my new-found knowledge, when looking back at my life I can see that it wasn't just a sequence of random events, but determined much more by myself than I ever could have imagined.

Here's an example:
Coming from a very Calvinistic background, where being polite and proper are considered way more important than something like self-expression, I've found that throughout my life I often didn't get what I want.

And this I can apply to most things in life – relationships, business contracts, friendships, and whatnot.

I really didn't understand why I was always being nice, proper and considerate, but time and again things backfired on me and I'd end up feeling cheated, used and sometimes even abused.

So applying some of the things I learnt in the Landmark Forum I came to realise that Calvinism was a filter through which I viewed life. By forever trying to be nice, I hardly ever expressed what I really wanted.

Let me put this into real life: the other day I went to the canteen to order a toasted tuna and mayo sandwich for lunch. Being the Calvinist, my primary aim was to be nice to the lady behind the counter. So I mumbled out my order and then quickly followed up with questions about how the family was doing, smiling and nodding attentively all the while. So I get my sandwich, thank her kindly and go back to the office.

Once there, and all chuffed about our friendly transaction I realise she made a chicken mayo sandwich instead. What now? Could I go back and complain after our friendly exchange? Never. So, very unhappy, and feeling cheated I eat the sandwich…

Multiply this by a hundred thousand and what you'll get is the story of my life.

And there I was always feeling the victim, when in fact I was setting myself up for disaster time and time again.

Merely identifying this problematic behaviour brought about an immediate relief by realising that the world really wasn't out to take me for a ride. Secondly, by being aware of it, I now have the power to change this behavioural pattern and in effect, change my experience of life.

For more information on the Landmark Forum, contact Landmark Education at 021 404 1200 or visit the website at

- (Wilma Stassen, Health24, September 2008)


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