I went to a friend’s ‘graduation ceremony’ from the Landmark Forum this week. He’d done their entry level course, which runs from 9am to 10pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then the participants come back on Tuesday evening and bring guests to watch them graduate.
The Landmark is a self-help / self-transformation organization, which aims to strip away individuals of all their baggage via intensive three-day ‘encounter sessions’, where people are encouraged to share their hang-ups via confessional monologues in front of the group; to be brutally honest with themselves and others (including calling up people in their lives to apologise for being unfaithful or admit they’re gay or whatever); and to remove any obstacles standing in the way of them being ‘extraordinary’.
‘Do you feel your life isn’t all it could be? Do you want to get more from your relationships? Do you have the job you dreamed of having when you were a child?’ asked the Landmark leader, an Australian with a deep voice, who paced the hall, making eye-contact with us all as he spoke. Hey, I thought to myself, you know what? No, my life isn’t perfect. Maybe I should sign up…
In some ways, the Landmark offers spirituality without God. You have the trappings of a religious ritual – the preacher calling the flock to righteousness, the confession (to the group, not to God), you have the idea of discovering the ‘real you’, you have the emphasis on epiphanies (they call it ‘popping’ – the group leader says something, and suddenly you ‘pop’ and realise where you have been going wrong all this time), and you very much have the emphasis on the possibility of being born again, on suddenly, after a mere three days, being able to neatly sidestep all the problems of the past, and to march forward towards your goals with new, righteous purpose.
The goals, in the Landmark, may well be materialistic – getting promotion, winning the girl of your dreams, setting up your own business. We heard from one guy at the graduation ceremony who stood up and told the group he’d been transformed by the course and had set up a new business with a friend. Wow, he’d only finished the course on Sunday, must have been a busy Monday.
The Landmark, like much self-help, takes its ideas from many different philosophical and religious traditions – there’s some Stoicism in there (the idea that things depend on the perspective from which you see them), some existentialism (the heavy emphasis on being authentic and having integrity), some Buddhism, some Dale Carnegie. Perhaps the movement it’s closest to is the Erhard Seminars Training (est) fad of the 1970s, which flourished for around a decade, particularly in California. And it puts it all together into a non-denominational, non-metaphysical package which anyone can buy. Smart.
I came away from the session hugely impressed with the Landmark as a commercial organisation. Whether it really changes people – I don’t know. But it provides an amazing product, and it markets that product amazingly hard.
Landmark has obviously formulated a very powerful format: the three day, super-intense encounter session. People want that sort of intensity. They want to feel they leave the outside world for a brief period, become cocooned in a place of intense and perhaps anguished self-scrutiny, and then emerge, battered but re-born, after epiphanies.
Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant description of the attraction of such sessions, in his essay, The Me Generation, which describes the joy of standing up in front of a large group, and talking about yourself:
The appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: ‘Let’s talk about Me.’ No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through the encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me. Not only that, you also put Me up on stage before a live audience. The popular ‘est’ movement has managed to do that with great refiniement…just imagine…my life becoming a drama with universal significance…analyzed, like Hamlet’s, for what it signifies for the rest of mankind…
Wolfe says the encounter sessions are distinguished by a common assumption:
I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess babbage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me.
Landmark calls it being ‘totally authentic’. The idea of somehow becoming authentic is, according to the philosopher Charles Taylor, the defining trope of our age, even the replacement of traditional religion. The idea of discovering God, or obeying the rules of God, has been replaced with discovering the Real Me, even if God has nothing to do with it – though the idea of discovering one’s ‘true nature’ of course has deep religious roots.
The second reason for Landmark’s popularity is that the encounter session, I think, encourages a sort of group hysteria. The phrase ‘popping’ ( like popcorn), which the Landmark uses to describe epiphanies, is revealing. The graduates who spoke all said they were waiting for their ‘pop’ moment: ‘I didn’t pop until the third day. I was wondering if I was going to. And then, suddenly, I popped.’ I think there’s a group dynamic going on: people are popping all around you. Do you want to be the one corn that hasn’t popped?
Another reason for its success: the charisma of the leader. One of the secrets of charisma in spiritual settings appears to be this: be horrible to the participants. Ridicule them. Abuse them. Point out all their flaws. They will love you for it. That seemed to be the case at the Landmark. One guy said ‘This guy here [pointing at the Leader, smiling benevolently on stage] gave us a lot of shit. He shouted at us for three days. But you know, on the last day, he had tears in his eyes. Because he really believes in what he does and he really wants to help us. I want to thank you, man.’
And perhaps the biggest reason for the success of Landmark: its marketing. I thought the graduation ceremony was about celebrating my friend having done the course. But from the moment I entered the Holiday Inn in Great Portland Street, I realized it was all about getting the guests of the graduates recruited.
I went up to a desk, where eight Landmark people were sitting in a row, smiling, handing out cards to the guests to fill in. I took one and began to walk away. ‘Sir, could you fill it in here, please’, said the smiling man. It asked for my name, number, email, and then said ‘We would like to contact you to ask you about your experience of the evening. Would you prefer we contact you before or after 6pm?’ And there were two boxes – one for before, one for after. And, of course, no box saying ‘I don’t want to be contacted.’ Not an option!
The graduation ceremony was absolutely designed to bring in new recruits. Various members of the group stood up and said how incredible, how amazing, how transformative their experience had been. Let’s not sniff at this – it did sound like many of the group members had had an amazing experience, which they felt was life-changing. It was genuinely intriguing. You thought ‘wow, what would it be like for me? would I ‘pop’? how would I change?’
But at the same time, they’d only just finished the course. They were all pumped up after three days of group confessional, for which they’d paid £350. They were all pumped to be transformed. They were all pumped up to share their incredible experience. But should they be put on stage, as marketing material, so soon after their experience? How can we know if their lives have been genuinely transformed, one day after the course finished? And who would dare stand up to say ‘actually, you know what, the course didn’t really do it for me’?
The evening ran from 7.30pm to 10.30pm (I left at 8.30), with the graduates eventually going off to one room and the guests going off to another, to hear more about the Landmark. And the graduates were encouraged, at one point, to turn round to tell their guests why they thought they, in particular, would benefit from the Landmark.
Talk about the hard sell! Imagine if you went to a friend’s wedding, and each guest had to fill in a card so the Church could contact you, and then during the wedding, the members of the Church turned round to tell you exactly what the Church could do for you, yes, you.
It’s actually the most ruthless marketing campaign I’ve ever come across, religious or commercial. As one friend put it, ‘it’s a cross between self-help and a pyramid scheme’.
Still, not one but two of my friends now appear to be into it, both of whom I respect for their intelligence. And it does seem to have a very positive message – know what you want, and go out and get it. Does it work? Possibly. Is it a cult? Probably not, though it does use cult-like methods of social psychology. Is it a ruthlessly efficient, pushy commercial enterprise? Definitely.
Check out this vid to hear a guy’s perspective after the 3-day initial course: