The Pros & Cons of LGATs — Large Group Awareness Trainings
On the Landmark Forum and its earlier incarnation as The est Training and The Forum; the philosophy of Werner Erhard; and the dynamics of these LGAT / Large Group Awareness Trainings (including not just Landmark, but also implicating Lifespring, Humanus, Actualizations, Avatar, Access Consciousness, and any other groups that use these same dynamics for social control and financial exploitation.)
© Copyright 2008 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
NOTE: Part I is my overall assessment, both appreciatively positive and also “concerned”/critical about LGATs, specifically citing the paradigmatic example of est and the Landmark Forum and founder Werner Erhard.
Part II (scroll down about 40% of this page for Part II) is, for the sake of “informed consent” for potential consumers of these LGAT events, a compilation of revelations from several different reporters in their media articles about the Landmark Forum, est, and other LGAT psycho-trainings.
Finally, I have included an Appendix with different materials on controversial allegations concerning the behavior and character of Werner Erhard himself, the supposed "adept," indeed, the alleged Divine "Source," for this kind of training work.
As for the briefly aforementioned other dysfunctional LGAT cult groups, Lifespring (f. by John Hanley et al. in 1974), Actualizations (f. by Stewart Emery in 1970s), Avatar (f. by Harry Palmer in 1986), and many, many other exploitative large-group and small-group cults, a good place to start for revelatory critical exposure is Rick Ross' Cult Education Network at www.culteducation.com and also the Wikipedia pages on many of the groups. The critical site www.AccessSchism.com is an excellent site for exposing one of the more recent LGATs to gain some notoriety, Gary Douglas and Dain Heer's Access Consciousness. Many of the founders of the LGAT cults come out of a background including either Scientology founded in 1952 by L.Ron Hubbard (1911-86) or the later Mind Dynamics seminars run by Alexander Everett (1921-2005). In my view, Everett's work was innocuous and very helpful for many people. As for Scientology, judges in the legal systems of UK, USA, Germany and France from 1984 onward have ruled it to be psychologically and financially damaging, a criminal fraud, and, in the words of an early legal ruling, "immoral and socially obnoxious...it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous... based on lies and deceit... its real objective money and power" (Justice Latey, London, 1984). Based on massive evidence, Hubbard is assessed by justices, journalists and mental health professionals to have been a deeply disturbed, pathological individual showing paranoid schizophrenic and psychopathic tendencies. Extensive incriminating revelations have been written up by former high-up insider Scientologists--e.g., see Jon Atack, A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed, 1990; and Bent Corydon, L. Ron Hubbard, Messiah or Madman? 1987 and later editions. Both can be read for free online; see http://www.xenu.net/archive/books/apobs/ (Atack) and www.xenu.net/archive/books/mom/Messiah_or_Madman.txt (Corydon). Also see books by Russell Miller (1987), sociologist Roy Wallis (1977), crime reporter Richard Behar's revelations on Scientology for Time magazine (1991) (calling it "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner"), and the most scathing summary available by a religious studies scholar, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi's must-read 50-page investigation, "Scientology: Religion or Racket?" Marburg Journal of Religion, 8(1), Sep. 2003, pp. 1-56, online at www.uni-marburg.de/fb03/ivk/mjr/pdfs/2003/articles/breit2003.pdf?searchterm=Scientology (this is a fine antidote to the spineless or even apologetic coverage of Scientology by most scholars of NRMs or New Religious Movements). It is notable that the demented L.Ron Hubbard and his deceitful, dangerous Scientology are the "model" for many of the behaviors, mindset, financial exploitation and psychological abusiveness of the LGATs, starting with est and the Landmark Forum.
A major segment of the “human potential movement” are the LGAT or Large Group Awareness Training “psycho-cults.” The largest and most famous of these was est (Erhard Seminars Training), set up in 1971 by Werner Erhard (née Jack Rosenberg). In Jan. 1985, est was re-named The Forum, and then, when major legal and publicity problems arose in early 1991 in advance of a "60 Minutes" CBS tv episode alleging numerous instances of serious verbal and physical abuse by Erhard toward certain family members and staff members, the Forum was sold to his brother Harry Rosenberg and other est/Forum employees and renamed The Landmark Forum.
(Regarding the "60 Minutes" allegations, an Appendix near the end of this webpage gives much more info. Here, in brief, let it be said that Werner has denied all charges in an interview with Dan Wakefield for the Mar/April 1994 issue of Common Boundary. It should also be known that certain Scientologists for many years were relentless in trying to destroy Erhard's reputation with their evil "fair game" tactics and provided some false info to 60 Minutes, which later pulled the "Werner Erhard" episode and its transcript from their archives. Yet beyond all the flak Werner Erhard has unfairly received, sworn affidavits by several persons were actually given to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper for their April 1990 story on Erhard, testifying to his infamous authoritarian behavior and raging verbal abuse that was often directed toward family members and associates. As The Chronicle stated in "More Allegations Against est Founder," a follow-up story on March 5, 1991, "leading est staff members [...] accused Erhard of subjecting employees to death threats, physical beatings, emotional abuse and demanding that they obey him in a manner 'akin to God.'" The rebuttal made by Erhard's devoted followers is that these former est staff members had converted to Scientology and were part of the attempt to assassinate his public reputation. Much of the controversy has been extensively documented at Wikipedia and Wikademia and commented on at the Rick Ross anti-cult forum at www.culteducation.com/groups/landmark.html.)
Werner still gains substantial financial benefits from Landmark, and has all along been a primary consultant to Landmark, and is the source of all its major ideas and methods. The license for his ideas and methods reverts back to Werner in 2009 (—see Traci Hukill article for the San Jose Metro, quoted below in Part II). Werner, raised an Episcopalian, was chiefly influenced by Napoleon Hill, Maxwell Maltz’s psycho-cybernetics, hypnosis, Subud, existentialist philosophy, Gestalt psychotherapy, Alan Watts, Zen Buddhism, Mind Dynamics, Scientology, and hard-hitting encounter group trainings like William Penn Patrick's Leadership Dynamics (see Gene Church's book, The Pit).
Werner’s interesting life is filled with a contrasting mix of personality strengths and weaknesses, integrity and cunning, insights and strategems, triumphs and trouble, help and harm. May he and all beings be lavishly blessed and divinely liberated! (Note: A very fine if rather uncritical biography of Erhard, with a quite sophisticated discussion of his way of transformation, which has influenced so much of the LGAT scene since Werner, is William Warren Bartley III’s still useful book, Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est, NY: Clarkson Potter, 1978.)
Werner Erhard and his colleagues used to be quite open and informative about the nature and aims of their LGAT work. For instance, this is how they billed The est Training in a 1981 pamphlet, “Questions People Ask About The est Training” (emphasis added in boldface):
“The est Training is an educational experience which creates an opportunity for people to realize their potential to transform the quality of their lives. It is about an expansion of that area of life called aliveness—an expansion of the experience of happiness, love, health, and full expression…. The training operates on the principle that there is only one thing powerful enough to transform the quality of your life in just four days—you…. Our lives can be said to have two components or aspects: the content or facts and circumstances of our lives (including our positions, points of view, information, opinions, beliefs, concepts, rules, and assumptions) and our context—the way in which we hold these facts, circumstances and positions. The training doesn’t change the content of anyone’s life, nor does it change what anyone knows. It deals with the context or way in which we hold these facts, circumstances and positions…. While it might take forever to alter the facts or content of one’s life, it actually only takes an instant to transform the context in which those facts are held—and to realize fully that the ability to transform is actually available to us at any moment. During the 60 hours of the training, people have the opportunity to experience that instant. Transformation occurs as a recontextualization—from a context where you are at the effect of ‘things’ to a context where you are the source (‘at cause’) of ‘things.’… Knowing that you can choose, that you have the power to transform the quality of your life—at every moment, and in all circumstances—is what The est Training is about…. Life is a roller coaster. ‘Positive thinking’ tries to keep in place the ‘ups’ and to minimize, ignore or disguise the ‘downs.’ The training is about life being the way it is—down when it’s down and up when it’s up—and acknowledge the truth about it. The truth, fully recognized and acknowledged, is an enormously liberating and lightening experience. … [Q: If I ‘get it,’ will it last?] The answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ ‘Getting it’ is not simply a ‘peak experience.’ Ultimately, it is knowing from your own experience, that, whatever your circumstances, you have the power to transform the quality of your life at any moment of time. Thus, transformation or enlightenment is not merely a one-time event, but something which continues to unfold and be available to you as a part of everyday living. Every position or point of view we have can be said to have a ‘cost’ (reckoned in terms of aliveness) and a ‘payoff.’ ‘Getting it’ means being able to discover when you have been maintaining (or are stuck with) a position which costs you more in aliveness than it’s worth, realizing you are the source of that position, and being able to choose to give up that position or hold it in a way that expands the quality of your life. Living becomes a continuing and expanding discovery of positions or barriers to your and others’ aliveness, with the attendant opportunity to handle those positions and barriers…. The trainer spends part of each training day presenting data. The people in the training are encouraged to ask questions about the data, and much of each day is devoted to this communication between the trainer and the people in the training. The training is not like an encounter group and is not group therapy or psychotherapy.[Note from Timothy: there are legal reasons why this cannot be called psychotherapy because the American Psychological Association (APA) has a patent on this term.] … Another aspect of the training consists of ‘processes’ and exercises… usually directly related to the data presented the same day…. The training is about a dimension of life beyond success. It is about realizing your true potential for producing aliveness and satisfaction in your life…. Your willingness to be there and your commitment to transform the quality of your life is all you need…. Not everyone ‘enjoys’ every moment of the training and it is realistic to be willing to experience joy, laughter, boredom, anger—the whole range of emotions. Ultimately, enlightenment is about ‘lightening up.’ That result is enjoyable.”
Here are excerpts from printed material in 2008 from Landmark Education on The Landmark Forum, which, though Landmark personnel will deny it or rationalize it away, is effectively a continuation of est's major insights and methods: “The Landmark Forum is a global educational enterprise recognized for a unique educational technology that delivers unprecedented results in a very short amount of time.” Landmark operates in 25 countries around the world, with 41 major centers in more than 125 cities, and has seen “nearly one million people on five continents… participate in Landmark’s programs.” It is “an employee-owned company, with more than 650 professionally trained course leaders worldwide”—though likely not even 1/10th of that last number are actually fully paid trainers.
The LF pamphlet continues:
“The Landmark Forum, the heart of the Landmark Curriculum… provides participants with a transformation, a fundamental breakthrough in their ability to relate to life with new freedom and power…. Landmark Education’s curriculum and programs are specifically designed to bring about positive and permanent shifts in the quality of your life. These shifts are the direct cause for a new and unique kind of freedom and power. The freedom to be absolutely at ease no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what the circumstance—the power to be in action effectively in those areas of your life that are important to you…. The Landmark method is more like coaching than teaching, more like dialogue than lecture … more like acquiring skills than learning tips, rules and information…. The Landmark Forum is not a lecture, motivational techniques, or therapy, but a powerful, accelerated learning experience…. Graduates of Landmark’s programs report immediate, significant, and unexpected positive shifts in their lives. For many people, dramatic results like these in such a short period of time seem difficult to believe.”
Note that all of the above language from Landmark Education on its basic introductory pamphlet on The Landmark Forum is quite nonspecific, i.e., lacking specificity about what particular skills or shifts or transformations will occur. Such language is enticingly “hypnotically suggestive language,” in the style of Milton Erickson’s practice of hypnotherapy.
At the "Media Q&A" of their website, sublink "educational methodology," there is some info which was more extensively elaborated in the older Q&A pamphlet about The est Training. This is the more minimalist version of what one finds today with Landmark's description of its methods and aims: "While conventional education methods focus on content (adding facts, rules, or skills to our knowledge), the Landmark method deals with context - the framework(s) in which content can exist. Whenever we're limited in life, there is something - a context or framework - that we are blind to and that is holding that limitation in place. Landmark's technology allows you to create breakthroughs in a two-step process in which you: • Uncover and examine the blind spots or context holding you back in your life. • Find out where your current context originated and address it for what it really is. Having completed these two steps, a new realm of possibility is available to you. The constraints from the past disappear. Your view of life, your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions, change - and the change is immediate, dramatic, and without effort. It is a breakthrough."
Landmark also makes available a printed brochure and an identical webpage version of the "Syllabus" for its entry-level course, The Landmark Forum. This Syllabus does a good job to lay out an abstract description of what the three days of training and the follow-up 3-hour Tuesday evening will involve, though this Syllabus is predictably silent about the confrontational and emotionally "whipsawing" style of delivery, and the high-pressure tactics to conform and to participate in the corporate growth of Landmark, as actually experienced by Forum attendees.
[NOTE: I used to provide a link to the webpage for Landmark's 2,100-word airy and cheery text for its Syllabus--but in July 2012 I notice that the particular URL is defunct.]
Landmark, like its former incarnation as est, emphasizes in its printed literature and on its website that “dozens of psychiatrists, psychologists, clergy members, and other professionals ... have concluded that Landmark's programs are not psychological, cult-like, religious, or sociological in nature.”
But many of us disagree. Whether they call it “psychology” or not, Landmark and other LGATs are clearly working with the psyche, and with cognitive therapy insights and techniques in changing experiential contexts, attitudes, perceptions, reactions, and re-languaging people's experience. And, though Landmark and other LGATs are not presented in any kind of religious way, there is definitely a metaphysics and an “ultimate” spiritual viewpoint that is involved, an idealism-philosophy of awareness, self and world that is promoted (e.g., “you create your world”). And whereas a number of “dysfunctional cult” characteristics are indeed not deployed by Landmark (nor by many other LGATs), some other dysfunctional cult characteristics are obviously present to great degree. For instance, Dr. Arthur Deikman, a spiritually minded psychiatrist and cult-expert in northern California, has identified...
"four basic behaviors found in extreme form in [dysfunctional] cults: compliance with the group, dependence on a leader, devaluing the outsider, and avoiding dissent. These behaviors are not distinct and independent but interrelated. In my view, they arise in part from what I refer to as the dependency dream, the regressive wish for security that uses the family as a model, creating an authoritarian leadership structure (the parent) and a close-knit, exclusive group (the children)...." (Arthur Deikman, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Beacon, 1990/1994, p. 48.)
These four cult behaviors, especially #1, 2, and 4 at the entry-level course, and all four behaviors at higher levels of involvement, are, as we shall see, vividly present in LGATs including Landmark Education.
Beyond these dysfunctional cult characteristics—and many more could be identified, such as the use of coercive persuasion, deliberate creation of a psychological sense of incompleteness, insidious use of new language to form insider-outsider dynamics, etc., etc.— the term “cult” was originally defined and is still defined by a few persons today (including myself) quite neutrally as simply “any social group gathered around a charismatic authority figure.” With its (usually quite authoritarian) authority-figure in the person of the Landmark trainer(s), and the behind-the-scenes looming presence of Werner Erhard himself—father-founder figure and license-holder of all the "technology"— Landmark is obviously a cult in the original, neutral definition of the word cultus.
LGATs like Landmark tend, at their entry-course level (e.g., The Landmark Forum), to take the form of an introductory night (heavy on “sharing” of testimonials) followed by an intensive entry-level course structured as three 15-hour days (e.g., 9:00 a.m. to midnight) over a long weekend (Friday-Sunday), usually with a follow-up evening meeting for a few or several hours (usually Monday or Tuesday night). (The old est training was 60 hours over two weekends.)
LGATs promote a non-religious “ultimate” experience in the context of a doctrine or philosophy of authenticity and integrity, improved personal effectiveness and responsibility, total commitment, and greater self-awareness. The attendee of an LGAT is guided to live fully in the present moment by dropping the past. (Werner Erhard’s old saying was that everyone is literally “an imposter,” someone with a fictitious past, “fictitious” because “nothing has ever really happened.”) Basic cognitive therapy techniques are deployed to show people how their problematic interpretations of past/present experiences, their "stories," can be distinguished from the experiences themselves, and these interpretations or "stories" are confining them to certain repetitive patterns of emotion and behavior. One is invited or pressured to clear all such beliefs and stories. Our attitude toward whatever happens is emphasized as the crucial ingredient in our life-quality, beyond what actually happens in our life.
In short, as earlier specified by The est Training FAQs pamphlet and current Landmark material, how you contextualize the facts of your life is more important than the specific factual contents of your life. Moreover, as Werner explained to early est personnel (as related in W.W. Bartley’s book), The est Training’s purpose is to transform the trainee’s ability to experience, so that s/he can observe his own positionality, and the point is not to lack a position, but to not be “positional,” that is, not be attached to whatever position one does adopt at any particular moment.
Some of Werner’s sayings from his tiny book of aphorisms, If God Had Meant Man to Fly, He Would Have Given Him Wings--or: Up to Your Ass in Aphorisms (1973), obviously very influenced by his exposure to Alan Watts, Zen, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy, and L.Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, are provided here to give an idea of the ultimate spiritual philosophy behind the “experience” provided by est, Landmark Forum, and kindred LGATs:
“The truth doesn’t mean anything. It just is.” “If you experience it, it’s the truth. The same thing believed is a lie.” “In life, ‘understanding’ is the booby prize.” “Obviously the truth is what’s so. Not so obviously, it’s also so what.” “You don’t have to go looking for love when it is where you come from.” “Life is a ripoff when you expect to get what you want. Life works when you choose what you got.” “It’s much easier to ride the horse in the direction he’s going.” “Perfection is a state in which things are the way they are and are not the way they are not. As you can see, this universe is perfect. Don’t lie about it.” “You’re god in your universe. You caused it. You pretended not to cause it so that you could play in it, and you can remember you caused it any time you want to.” “If you could really accept that you weren’t ok, you could stop proving you were ok. If you could stop proving that you were ok, you could get that it was ok not to be ok. If you could get that it was ok not to be ok, you could get that you were ok the way you are. You’re ok, get it?” “If you’re not all right the way you are, it takes a lot of effort to get better. Realize you’re all right the way you are, and you’ll get better naturally.” “This is it. There are no hidden meanings. All that mystical stuff is just what’s so. A master is someone who found out.” “The end justifies the means, or it doesn’t.” “If God told you exactly what it was you were to do, you would be happy doing it no matter what it was. What you’re doing is what God wants you to do. Be happy.”
On April 23, 1981, there occurred an interesting interview with Werner Erhard and transpersonal psychology-oriented members of the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements, including psychotherapists John Welwood, Dick Anthony, Roger Walsh, et al. The interview was reprinted as “The est Training: An Interview with Werner Erhard,” in D. Anthony, B. Ecker, & K. Wilber, Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation, NY: Paragon House, 1987, pp. 109-31, with a post-interview analysis by the editors (pp. 131-37). Werner tussled with the interviewers over some basic notions of “enlightenment,” indicating that he comes from a “sudden enlightenment” view rather than holding to a “gradualist” position. It is also clear that his notion of “enlightenment” is more akin to the Zen idea of the initial enlightenment or kensho that the positional ego-self is not any solid reality. Werner seems to know only vaguely about the Zen ideal of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, the supreme, unexcelled (irreversible) enlightenment, which brings all virtues and attainments in its wake.
Some of the exchanges and revelations are worth quoting here, with occasional comments by myself in brackets:
Welwood: What I’m trying to get at is your view of whether or not what people get from the training is somehow equivalent to what in Zen, for instance, would be called enlightenment. [No distinction is made here by Welwood between temporary kensho and full anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, but he seems to be suggesting the latter.]
Erhard: Yes, it is. Yes.
Welwood: It’s equivalent. You could get that in two weekends? [Note: the old est training occurred over two sequential weekends.]
Erhard: Yes, it is equivalent, and no, you can’t get it in two weekends. If it takes two weekends, you didn’t get enlightened. Enlightenment does not take two weekends. Enlightenment takes no time. … I know that lots of people are infuriated by the suggestion that enlightenment is possible without long practice and great struggle. I consider the notion of the necessity of practice and struggle to be nothing more than a notion….
Welwood: Well, the Buddhists, for example, would say that your true nature is enlightened already, but nonetheless, you still have to practice because there’s a long path to realization. [Note: Welwood is no doubt referring to Buddhist tradition’s recognition of all the various attainments of the highest level bodhisattvas and the super-knowledges of a true Buddha, as well as progressive freedom from the subtlest fetters and forms of experiential bondage.] We can act as though we’re enlightened, but there’s still some kind of realization that has to happen, over a long period. You can even have enlightenment experiences, but they’re not particularly trusted.
Erhard: I agree with everything you’ve said, and I’m not simply being nice about it. What you said actually reflects my own experience and my own observations. At the same time, I know it’s possible to put the end of the process at the beginning, and then do the process. [Note: This is an old Zen idea: get enlightened—free of the notion of a separate, alienated self, the first fetter identified by the Buddha—and then work out liberation from all the other fetters and allow cultivation of all the virtues and bodhisattva attainments.] … The one thing people will not give up to get enlightened is the idea that they’re not enlightened. That’s the big hold-out, not anything else.
Welwood: In the traditions, there’s a lot of warning about thinking that you’re enlightened, that that’s one of the greatest dangers of all.
Erhard: Discussing enlightenment or thinking about enlightenment is not enlightenment. In fact, we don’t talk about enlightenment in the training very much at all. We do talk about it, but not much.
Anthony: I’d always heard that the training does seem to claim that it provides something that is the equivalent of enlightenment, and is just as serious an experience, just as serious or valuable a state as is provided by Zen or Hindu traditions, and I thought that that was implausible….
Erhard: Well, I have never said that, nor would I say it.
Anthony: But when I went through the training…
Erhard: Nor would I say the opposite was true. [Werner is being a bit slippery here, trying to avoid committing to a view, and trying to sound paradoxical like a Zen master.]
Anthony: When I went through the training, the trainer did in fact seem to be saying that…. And it was the understanding of the other people in the training whom I talked to, that that man [the trainer] was telling us that what was happening to us was enlightenment, and was just as genuine an enlightenment as happened in any Zen monastery or up in the Himalayas, and that there were no degrees of enlightenment; it was enlightenment. Now, that seems like an outrageous claim to me; much of what goes on in that training seems outrageous to me….
Erhard: … The point is this: I think that discussions about enlightenment are useless…. What’s all this conversation about?… The structure of your questions and our conversation doesn’t allow for enlightenment…. [Shunryu] Suzuki Roshi wrote a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He said if you are enlightened, then you’re out doing what enlightens people. Enlightenment is not a stage you reach, and your statements seem to come from the idea that enlightenment is a place you reach. There’s no such thing as enlightenment to get to.
Welwood: Where my question comes from is my perception of some people I’ve seen…
Erhard: The arrogance.
Welwood: Yes, and smugness, like: “We’ve done it. This is it, you don’t need to do any of that other stuff. This is the whole thing.”
Erhard: … The arrogance that you perceive, I think, is there. The degree to which you think it’s there, I don’t think it’s there. That is to say, I don’t think it’s something to be overly concerned about…. It’s like [the old Zen story about] the stink of Zen. There’s the stink of est. The question is not whether the stink exists, but whether it’s pernicious and whether it is long-lasting. As far as I can tell, the answer is no to both questions. I keep watching, because there’s always the possibility for the answer to become yes. As to the discussion about the real nature of it, is it really enlightenment—yes, it’s really enlightenment. So is sitting in a room. Here. This is enlightenment. You think I’m just saying that. I actually mean it. You think that’s some philosophy. It isn’t. I think many enlightenment games are pointless because they’re all about getting enlightened. Getting enlightened is a cheat, because the more you do of that, the more the message is that you aren’t enlightened. Clearly, the practice is necessary. The practice of enlightenment is necessary, but it can be done from being enlightened, rather than getting enlightened. When you do the practice from being enlightened, then each one of the steps becomes a step in the expression of the enlightenment. [This is an old Soto Zen Buddhist idea introduced by Dogen Zenji in the 1230s in Japan, in contrast to the Rinzai Zen idea of practicing to become enlightened.]… I know it might not make sense to you, but it is possible that people who have been through the training are actually enlightened and then, from being enlightened, they may go through the steps of achieving enlightenment. [Note: does Werner here mean "full" enlightenment--anuttara-samyak-sambodhi?] I know you don’t believe that. I don’t want you to believe it. I do want you to allow that it’s possible. (Spiritual Choices, pp. 112-18)
Erhard: The training is sixty hours long, done in four days of roughly fifteen hours each…. I’ll briefly describe a few parts of the training: …The first day is designed to give people an opportunity to recognize that they have lots of pretense in their lives, and that they’re pretending they don’t…. In the first part of the second day, people see that there’s a distinction between concepts about living and the experience of living, and they discover that they have not been experiencing life; they’ve been conceptualizing life…. The last portion of the second day is called the “danger process.” About twenty-five trainees stand at the front of the room, facing the other 225, with the instruction to do nothing but just be there, just standing. While standing there, of course, they begin to notice all of the thoughts, fears, concerns, pretenses, and the like which they carry with them all the time…. The people who are standing up end up doing everything up there except nothing, and in the process they start to see that. The process is very, very useful for them. It becomes clear to them that they’ve got an act, a mechanism, a collection of behaviors and actions and feelings and thoughts that may not be who they really are after all…. They realize that what’s driving their behaviors is their fear of people…. The joke is that other people look frightening to you because they’re frightened…. (pp. 119-20)
Paul Reisman: During the est training, the trainer frequently calls the trainees “assholes.” [In the Landmark Forum, people are frequently called “disgusting” by the trainer.] Doesn’t calling people assholes tell them that they’re not enlightened, or don’t you intend it that way?
Erhard: … No, calling people anything doesn’t necessarily make any statement about their state of enlightenment. If I call you an asshole in the context of your being enlightened, it enlightens you. If I call you an asshole to get you enlightened because you aren’t enlightened, it endarkens you. … (pp. 116-17)
The training has acquired a reputation of harshness, and in some cases crudeness…. In all these accounts, one thing is always left out: the compassion in the training. I know—because I’m the guy who trained the people who are leading the training—that the training is done with absolute compassion, and that toughness, when and if it occurs, including calling people assholes, comes from a deep respect for people, from an intention to get straight with them, with absolutely no intention to demean them. As a matter of fact, in terms of results, people are not demeaned; they are enhanced. The training is done with what might be called ruthless compassion, but it’s done with compassion. And it’s done with a real sense of the dignity of the human beings… a really deep kind of respect, the kind of respect that lets you know you’d be willing to be in the trenches with the person alongside you. (p. 121)
[Finally, Erhard was asked about the vision or motivation behind est.]
Erhard: You assume that the long hours and high commitment of [est] staff members must be brought about by some great vision. I deny that that’s true. That isn’t why I work long hours. I’m very committed…. [But] I have absolutely no belief in what I’m doing. I already know how it’s going to turn out. I know it’s going to turn out exactly like it turns out. It’s been doing that for eons…. I’m not motivated. There isn’t any motive. There’s no damn vision motivating me. You know, if I stopped doing it tomorrow, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference, and if I keep doing it right to the end, it won’t make any difference. The only thing that’s going to happen is what happens…. So I don’t have a vision. I’m not selling some ideal. I don’t know where I’m going. I know where I’m coming from. And I think that the people on the staff know where they’re coming from. I think it’s a great excitement to them to discover where that takes them, day by day, week by week…. They work long hours because there’s work to be done, and doing the work is very satisfying. I didn’t say it was easy or pleasant; I said it was satisfying. (pp. 128-9)
From this 1981 interview, and from the little 1973 booklet of aphorisms by Erhard, and from his late 1970s discussions with his biographer W.W. Bartley III, I find Werner to be an interesting source for a western nouveau, quasi-Zen/Taoist spiritual philosophy of awareness, with a strong stance in New Age idealism (“you create/cause your universe”), though, as we shall see, there are problems in that the philosophy lacks certain crucial elements and thus seems to me be not quite fully balanced or whole. In any case, Werner’s attempts to create an en masse vehicle for the delivery of this more-or-less enlightening philosophy to large audiences in an intensely experiential context can generally be lauded with appreciation. Many hundreds of thousands of people have reported experiencing major “shifts” or “enlightenments” and a certain amount of “liberation” thereby.
However, as will presented below, there are insidious problems with the rude, authoritarian form of delivery of the philosophy or experience in the context of the entry-courses, even allowing for Erhard's remark to the interviewers in 1981 about the context of compassion in which such insults are delivered by est/Forum trainers. People very close to Erhard over the years have found the man himself extremely authoritarian and verbally abusive. There are much more serious problems with the “voracious vortex” nature to the est / Landmark organizational dynamic, which is essentially always really about maximizing further growth and corporate profit, and exploiting (in open violation of labor laws established by the U.S. Dept. of Labor) the free labor, time, energy and money of its participant-“volunteers” via high-pressure tactics and other social psychology dynamics including Cognitive Dissonance.
Psychologist C. DuMerton has described Large Group Awareness Trainings as “teaching simple, but often overlooked wisdom, which takes place over the period of a few days, in which individuals receive intense, emotionally-focused instruction.”
This and other analyses and evaluations of Large Group Awareness Trainings can be further researched at the Wikipedia article and sublinks at the website:
For a list of over two dozen LGATs past and present, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Large_Group_Awareness_Training_organizations
Specifically on The Landmark Forum, see cult-expert Rick Ross’s extensive collection of media, scholarly, and other materials archived at his website:
www.culteducation.com/groups/landmark.html (AND NOTE: in 2004, Ross was sued--unsuccessfully, as it turned out-- by Landmark, in typical corporate bullying behavior, for "product disparagement." See details toward end of this webpage.)
An especially useful scholarly analysis of the Landmark Forum is the excerpt from Charles Wayne Denison, "The Children of est: A study of the Experience and Perceived Effects of a Large Group Awareness Training (The Forum)" Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, 1994, posted by Rick Ross at
www.culteducation.com/reference/forum/Art106.html in 5 parts (including parts devoted to the structure, curriculum and pedagogy of the Landmark Forum).
At the outset of any LGAT course one hears something of its overall philosophy from the lead trainer, who serves as a “cult figure” (by neutral definition) of authority, charisma, persuasion and/or control.
As noted by Philip Cushman, Ph.D., in his analysis of a "well-known" LGAT, ostensibly Landmark (excerpts from Cushman's The Politics of Transformation: Recruitment-Indoctrination Processes In a Mass Marathon Psychology Organization, St. Martin's Press, 1993, are archived at Rick Ross' webpage of links about Landmark, www.culteducation.com/reference/brainwashing/brainwashing44.html):
"The trainer begins with a short introduction about life. ... [This includes] the ideas that personal growth is an ongoing process, that an individual's frame of reference and belief system limit personal growth, that experience transcends thinking, that most of an individual's problems come from resisting an experience, and that what one resists one is 'stuck with.' He encourages them to 'let go' of their belief system, and suspend judgement of the training until after it is completed. He tells them that 'the diamond within' is what the training is all about. He explains that the training is 'unreasonable' and that it's an emotional roller coaster. He cautions participants not to look for the one right way. He then proceeds to explain the right way: 'what you deny and avoid is what you are stuck with. Therefore, when you totally experience something, it disappears.' [Subjects] reported that this is a constant theme in the training, a central ideological tenet."
Much of the early part of LGAT courses like Landmark is then usually devoted to making agreements, commitments, learning the rules, etc. One signs waivers and releases of legal liability—contracts that, as some experts have clarified, would not stand up in a court of law as valid documents. As some experts have pointed out, this initial stage is crucial, not so much in terms of the rules themselves, but as the first step in "yes-saying" so that the attendee will feel fewer inhibitions about saying "yes" to further demands and requirements as the weekend unfolds.
Then the lead trainer begins to run the exercises—which are mainly about confession, bringing up and utterly letting go one’s painful past, etc. Then, in the one-on-one confrontational dialogues with different people who come to the microphone, the leader or trainer spends many, many minutes haranguing people with “tough love,” confronting them with what they’re “up to” in “their rackets” (Forum-speak), and then breaking them down through certain language games, insults, and oneupsmanship techniques to wield power over attendees. This is all for the sake of helping attendees examine and release current limitations.
The drill-sergeant approach is in some ways rather like Marine bootcamp training, an “ends justify the means” approach, all for the sake of breaking down a recruit to re-make them into the best possible soldier who can fearlessly face hardships and extreme situations, and work most smoothly and loyally with fellow soldiers and superior officers. LGATs, similarly, wish to break a person down so that they can be re-made into a better, more effectively functioning human being with less “blocks” and “baggage,” less conditioning. This can be a tremendously beneficial thing. Looking to another area where this approach has been deployed, from the 1950s onward psychological training groups have been used by corporate bosses and managers to help transform personnel in their sales departments into dedicated, diligent salesmen and women who can fearlessly and equanimously put up with all manner of rejections and humiliation.
(Many LGAT leaders like est-founder Werner Erhard were themselves former salesmen. Werner was both a used car salesman and a Britannica “Great Books” and Parents’ Magazine children’s book salesman, who then got involved in psycho-training for sales forces to create the most “empowered” sales personnel possible. It is well known that Werner, while being a trainer in A. Everett’s “Mind Dynamics,” studied Scientology for a time from 1968 on and the techniques of its terribly abusive founder, L.Ron Hubbard, but it is not nearly so well known that for a time in the late 1960s Werner was the very active assistant of the sadistically abusive cult leader Ben Gay, a primary trainer of William Penn Patrick’s Leadership Dynamics Institute [LDI], the first major Large Group Awareness Training, used by Patrick’s corrupt, defunct multi-level-marketing firm “Holiday Magic” to train many of its upward-moving personnel by breaking them down and re-making them. See the revelatory book, The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled, by Gene Church [who underwent LDI’s brutal “training” experiences] and Conrad Carnes, NY: Pocket Books, 1973 reprint of the 1972 book.)
In normal business relations between a proprietor or manager and the client, the maxim is “the customer is always right.” But in LGATs, because of the need to break down a person’s willful mediocrity and their rationalizations, justifications, denials, delusions and other defense mechanisms, and liberate people from conditioning, the customer is almost always wrong, and the LGAT is most certainly always right—the trainers and staff always holding the position of authority, righteousness, knowledge and wisdom.
Notice how the trainers will always appear completely “congruent,” with no vitiating self-doubts or vulnerable-looking humility. Such “know-it-all” smugness and even arrogance will look very impressive to the majority of people, who tend to suffer self-doubts, confusion, shyness, and not much psycho-spiritual savvy. And this ultra-confidence and/or chauvinist hubris of the trainer tends to promote great confidence in the attendees, a confidence that, if they follow the trainer, this great leader will deliver them to a better place, a place of refuge, of salvation, of fulfillment.
If you are more psychologically savvy or spiritually mature, and you express a valid complaint or question about any of the entrapping dynamics of Landmark (or whatever LGAT), or you wish to air a more sophisticated and nuanced view of spiritual awakening or Self-Realization than Landmark presents (as journalists like Roland Howard and others have done in daring to speak out and confront the trainer--see Part II below), you will be treated by the Landmark trainer and colleagues to “avoid-the-question” misdirection, dismissal, invitations to leave, invalidation and/or ridiculing put-down. These trainers have spent many hours doing prior trainings with people and/or modeling their own behavior on other more seasoned trainers going back to the founding of est and other training groups (a number of Landmark trainers today were, in fact, est trainers from the early years), and the trainers have all learned from this experience and modeling and their own extensive reading and memorization of printed training material all the verbiage for deflecting such questions. They know how to quickly insult, invalidate or simply ignore the intelligence of the attendees, and strongly manipulate the attendees’ thoughts, emotions, expectations and orientation.
Keen observers will notice a “closed hermeneutic loop” operating within Landmark and other LGATs: no other meanings about what is happening or evaluations of anyone’s experience are allowed to be given within the context of the LGAT training by anyone other than its trainer(s). What we have here is a “totalitarian” thought-environment. No one’s opinions or judgments really have any value whatsoever unless they are in agreement with the views of the trainer(s). Just like Marine bootcamp training.
If anyone has serious problems with what is occurring during the entry-level training, they will be asked to leave, and, as Cushman has noted, such persons will be referred to by the trainers as having been "kicked out" by the trainers; it will never be framed as the participant having rejected the training.
The trainers are well-trained to be adept at “working the crowd,” pushing their emotional buttons—building people up and breaking them down, praising them and insulting them, inflating them and deflating them, saddening them and gladdening them, scaring them and relieving them, agitating them and relaxing them. Many LGATs will explicitly mention near the outset that the weekend experience will be an emotional “roller-coaster” (and that life is like a roller-coaster). A lot of emotional whipsawing will in fact occur over the weekend—fear, laughter, giddy euphoria, exhaustion, hurt, hope, pessimism, optimism, anxiety, reassurance, shock, calming. A lot of this emotional triggering comes from the trainer-participant confrontations, eyes-closed inward visualizations and meditations, and “dyad” exercises with a partner (especially those exercises dealing with one's early parenting and one's vulnerability around "what one really wants," etc.).
Through it all, people will predictably bond with each other—just like inmates or hostages in a prison, Marine recruits at bootcamp, or any group of people put into a helpless position of stress. LGAT leaders know, on the basis of our ancient, primal-tribal “belonging needs,” that people need and want to bond with one another during times of uncertainty, stress and disorientation. The intense situation created in the long, insulated weekend insures a shared context for creating intimacy (or pseudo-intimacy) when people are either working in those dyad processes with a partner, or when sitting together as a large group of 70-200 persons being condescendingly talked down to and tutored by the authoritarian trainer. Such trainers know that, because of humanity’s hundreds of thousands of years living in tribal societies, people in confined seminars can very easily and quickly be turned into a pack of sheep with a “herd-like” mentality and emotional needs. Dynamics of inclusion or else marginalization and even ostracization are exploited to insure that most people will conform with the agenda and identify with the trainers and their aims. This is akin to the infamous “Stockholm syndrome”, wherein prisoners and hostages begin to identify with their controlling masters and captors for the sake of self-preservation.
One major element in all of this creating of groupthink is the deliberate use of new lingo or jargon, new terms to describe certain known psychological or spiritual phenomena. For instance, a hidden agenda and/or complaining about anything is re-named “running a racket.” A “winning formula” is the name for any charming or inauthentic behavior one enacts for security or personal advantage. Disidentifying from certain personality roles or viewpoints is re-named “getting off it,” “getting off your positionality.” A paradigm shift or major attitudinal change is a “breakthrough.” And so on.
The new language is designed to initially befuddle and mildly disorient people, and then quickly “initiate” people into new group membership, a special club of elite “understanding.” This is an old Dianetics / Scientology trick that L.Ron Hubbard used to induce a new group consciousness and also alienate people from their families, friends and colleagues, so that new members will now identify much more with fellow members and trainers rather than with their old social context.
(Again, it is notable here that Werner Erhard, founder of est and its next incarnation as The Forum, circa 1969-70 was for a time a member of L.Ron Hubbard's Scientology cult, achieving "grade II." Werner has on numerous occasions openly admitted that the “form or structure of est is Scientology,” while claiming that “the essence of est is Zen.” The techniques, language, etc., of est / The Forum and all its courses were, after Werner incurred major legal liability, bought and taken over by his younger brother and est/Forum executive, Harry Rosenberg, and other employees to become “Landmark Education” with its various courses, starting with The Landmark Forum. Harry Rosenberg is the CEO of Landmark Education.)
Continuing with the content of the typical LGAT entry-level seminar (e.g., the Landmark Forum), one will be encouraged to “complete” (get closure on) significant relationships by unconditionally forgiving everyone, taking responsibility (even blame) for everything and anything that ever went “wrong,” and then calling significant persons by phone (or writing letters) to express forgiveness, completion, and the basic message “I love you” while dropping all judgments, blame, withholds and grudges. This is actually a very beneficial result or achievement when it comes off well and when the person on the other end of the phone is at least minimally cooperative and responsive to the healing of the relationship. It will be rather shocking, though, for most attendees to hear from the LGAT trainer that, even if someone raped you or nearly killed you, or killed a family member(s), it is up to you to accept it, take responsibility for it, and stop blaming the other party for the crime. Recall Werner Erhard’s earlier-cited aphorisms to “choose what you got” and “You’re god in your universe. You caused it.”
Toward the end of the seminar’s first day and into the second day there will be more processes, exercises, etc., to produce certain euphoric experiences—a veritable “drugging” of the participants on their own euphoria-producing biochemistry (dopamine, etc.). The euphoria comes in part from learning how to be “completely okay with what is,” accepting the contents of one’s life from a new, open-empty context of pristine awareness, dropping the past and future for the sake of living fully in the present, and other liberating insights. This is all quite basic psycho-spiritual re-orientation that can be learned in an hour with a really good spiritual or psychological mentor or book. But for most attendees, the intense and dramatic emotional dynamics of the large-group training situation will likely make the learning and re-orientation even more powerful and even more of a “high” euphoria. Many observers have noticed that the euphoria often has a rather or very manic edge to it.
It is interesting here to note the big contradiction involved in many LGATs: they all say, in one way or another, that the purpose of their work is to get you “clear,” but along the way their insidious aim is also to manipulate you into feeling “high,” even manically high, in this drug-like euphoria, to better insure that you will fall more in line with the group identity and the group’s agenda and and that you keep coming back for more (i.e., more courses and trainings).
And as for this pressure to keep coming back for more courses, a phenomenon we explore at greater length below, it suffices here to notice how these LGATs all like to talk about your getting “complete” with your relationships and your experiences. Yet, in a COLOSSAL CONTRADICTION, these LGATs will in other insidious ways deliberately (by design) leave you feeling “incomplete” with each LGAT experience so that you will need to return again and again, for additional course after course, incurring $2,000 to $5,000 to $10,000 or more in total, just to “maintain” the awareness or “keep it alive.” You are not really allowed to stand on your own feet, complete, clear and self-sufficient. No, all sorts of social and psychological pressures are aimed at you to make you feel incomplete and keep you never-endingly hooked into the corporate culture of the LGAT for your sense of completion and fulfillment.
As mentioned, there is a totalitarian and/or authoritarian quality to the set-up in the training room over the three 15-hour days, and all sorts of factors insure that a person will be broken down, opened up, subtly hypnotized, re-made and re-programmed to identify with and conform with the group, with the group trainer(s), with the groupthink, and with the large-scale aims of the group—which aim is to spread itself, virus-like, and recruit new members for the sake of maximum profit. LGAT personnel will deny that any brainwashing is occurring, and they will trot out printed opinions from some favorite psychologists who’ve taken the training, given it glowing reviews, and denied that brainwashing ever happens, but many other psychologists will insist that, by clinical definition, brainwashing does indeed occur in these LGATs. (For more on this topic, see the relevant excerpts from Traci Hukill’s important article for the San Jose Metro, reproduced below, and the crucial France 3 television investigative report, cited below.)
Along this line, and to reiterate in new words what was said a moment ago, if Landmark and other LGATs were truly “coming from integrity” they would teach you how to be an effective teacher on your own, so that you could go out and freely help people to undergo their own “transformation” and “clearing.” But these LGATs instead want to insure that you and anyone else will only “get it” (the experience of transformation) within the confines of the organization itself. Indeed, some trainers have been heard by participants to openly state that one can only continue to "recreate the conversation" and "get it" by spending much more time within Landmark circles.
The secret logic of Landmark and other LGATs’ transformational philosophy of fearlessly “getting it,” and their justification for verbally haranguing and “abusing” trainees is that, because everything is a construct and an interpretation, whatever the trainers do is simply “what is,” and your reaction to that is just that: a reaction. The goal is to be lightened up in a context free of your reactions so that you can just be present, clear, empty (a “clearing space for possibilities”) and “response-able” for whatever arises and presents itself.
To this end the trainer of the LGAT is willing to be “unreasonable,” to show you just about any kind of rudeness, nastiness, callousness, even psychological cruelty so that you can learn to be reaction-free with equanimity or equipoise, what might be called Hindu “unattached witnessing,” Buddhist “mindfulness,” or the Zen mind of “nothing matters,” “non-fixating mind,” “non-dwelling mind,” “mind abiding nowhere / now-here.” Of course, if you confronted an LGAT trainer with the idea that they were being “rude,” “nasty,” “callous,” “cruel,” or “abusive,” you would quickly be told that these are just your “judgments” and “interpretations,” more of “your running of rackets.”
The bottom line: the LGAT trainers get to criticize you, but you don’t get to criticize them without, in turn, being further criticized. And they are masters of criticism. You are in an inferior position, and they hold strongly to the superior position. You are vulnerable and they are quite invulnerable. One day you may get to be in a position of equality with them, but only if you, too, become a high-level trainer or staff leader by going through all the hoops—that is, the additional courses and higher-level trainings for which you must pay handsomely with your money, time and energy. Whether you will ever, in fact, get to become a trainer or leader is an uncertain matter—and it is for this reason that some business experts have called such LGAT organizations “pyramid schemes.”
So a lot of the milieu in an LGAT like Landmark is deliberately about unnerving you, intimidating and even shocking and humiliating you when necessary, deconstructing your thoughts and perceptions and values, and taking away your meanings until you are fully “stripped” and feeling invincible, fearless, open and empty in your Voidness as simple, pristine Awareness.
The old Zen attitude, “Nothing matters” is brought home to you—though usually not explicitly worded in those terms. Yet Zen’s balancing perspective, “and everything matters” is usually not emphasized. (The big revelation on Day 3 of Landmark Forum is “Life is empty and meaningless, and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.”)
Much of LGAT “awareness” is actually only a quasi-Zen and quasi-Vedanta teaching, which unfortunately leaves out a significant amount of crucial spiritual insight and value. For instance, in August 1980, I and other students from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), a cutting edge graduate school in transpersonal psychology in San Francisco, were permitted to attend The est Communication Workshop for academic credit as an outside “tutorial” (one of CIIS’s consulting board members was Werner Erhard). The est Communication Workshop recapitulated the basic insights of the entry-level est Training, and went on to present more advanced insights and skills. Unlike most LGATs at the entry-level and certain higher courses, we were allowed to take notes and I made quite extensive notes on the fascinating dynamics I witnessed and experienced.
Afterwards I wrote an essay evaluating the Communication Workshop in terms of the Buddha’s sophisticated model of the “Seven Enlightenment Factors.” I clearly found that only about half of the enlightenment factors were being promoted by est, not all seven factors. (The seven factors are mindfulness, inquiry into truth, energy, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity. It seemed to me that est was primarily promoting a non-meditative form of rapture, along with a certain semblance of truth-inquiry, and equanimity about fear, though not equanimity about desire.) One could use similar schemas such as the Buddha’s model of the Ten Fetters (which identifies the subtlest forms of ego-centricity and attachment to heaven worlds) and also several other spiritual models of factors and stages constituting authentic liberation-awakening, a topic on which I later wrote my Ph.D. thesis -- and one could easily see that the Landmark Forum and similar LGATs are promoting only a partial enlightenment or awakening, NOT full, balanced Self-Realization, authentic liberation from all that selfishly binds and contracts.
For instance, these LGATs are very good at promoting euphoria, but not the purest, most sublime type of serene rapture or deepest levels of real peace. They are good at promoting their version of "truth-telling," but not deep empathy. They are good at promoting fearlessness in a social context, but they do not teach desirelessness, thus they can only help one diminish or annihilate some of the old samskaras or vasanas (karmically-binding ego-tendencies) of aversion. But these LGATs are not good at reducing or eliminating many attachments, such as the desire for more money, attractiveness, power and self-importance.
In fact, subtly insidious attachments are actually promoted by LGATs with wording like “getting the results you want,” “getting an extraordinary life,” “having anything you want for yourself or your life,” “achieving all your desires,” and so forth. People, in short, are still treated like donkeys by dangling a big carrot in front of them.
This is not real spiritual liberation or awakening to Zen Mind, Buddha-nature, Atman-Brahman, the Tao, Christ Consciousness, or Absolute Awareness.
I would interject here, though, that I personally (or “transpersonally”) found The est Communication Workshop to be a valuable opportunity for self-examination and self-transcendence, what I and est might call a “context for experiencing.” I cannot vouch for what might have happened had I first taken the entry-level est Training, but the truth is that by 1980 I had been intensely studying on my own and in various interpersonal contexts profound spiritual and psychological growth (I already had a double major from Univ. of Calif. in psychology and religious studies, and had finished the course-work for my M.A. in East-West Psychology), and I had read widely on these topics and enjoyed much direct experience of meditation, mindfulness/witnessing, self-inquiry, sensory awareness, auto-hypnosis (or de-hypnosis) and ASCs (alternate states of consciousness) of profound transcendence, nonduality, emptiness-fullness, aliveness, peace, bliss, love, empathy, and certain ESP experiences. There is little that any LGAT could have done either to bother me or entice me. Most other persons, because of their different life-experiences and aptitudes, simply did not have or do not have the educational and experiential resources I was lucky to have as background for an LGAT training.
Cult experts like Rick Ross, from all their research on how est / Landmark Forum has affected people of all walks of life, have an almost entirely negative view of LGATs such as Landmark Forum. Ross has openly stated: "I would not recommend it under any circumstances whatsoever." For the record, I would put it differently, and say that, if a person feels s/he has done adequate spiritual background work and has learned to adequately “stand free” in a “witnessing” and/or “sensory awareness” and/or “mindfulness” mode, and has a bit of psychological preparedness, and also has sufficient funds so that paying for an LGAT course or two will not preempt other responsible uses of money—especially donating to worthwhile charities and public-interest groups—then the LGAT experience may be useful—i.e., further educational and “transformational”—for such a person. Yet, there are certainly other spiritual and psychological involvements I would give much greater priority to in my recommendations, but I think one or perhaps two week-ends at an LGAT can be very useful for many persons.
A big caveat, however, that I would here issue is to BEWARE getting seduced into becoming a further paying-participating member of the LGAT organizational cult. Here one needs a tremendous inner resiliency, a strong “internal locus of control,” and an ability to stand in one’s own truth to withstand or transcend the multi-faceted forms of intense social pressure that are brought to bear upon a person by the LGAT psycho-cult with its voracious need to exploit human labor, time, and money.
Back to the subject of the Landmark technique of confrontation. Obviously, much of this can be explained in standard psychological terms as the desensitization technique, with a certain amount of “flooding” the subject with noxious stimuli until they give up resisting and simply “flow” equanimously with whatever is happening. With the fearlessness that results usually comes an amazing, if temporary, euphoria and sense of empowerment.
It must be noted, too, that this technique of desensitization via “noxious flooding” (throwing nastiness in a person’s face) would not work nearly as well unless you have the “captive audience” set-up with all the rules, agreements, commitments, and large-group pressure to render the person “hapless and helpless.” Otherwise, when the trainer begins to get a bit nasty, most people would simply walk out or run away. Even then, some people will occasionally get up and leave the hall, and then usually are confronted and challenged or else consoled by volunteers (a bit of “good cop / bad cop” dynamic is in play at LGATs). So the confining set-up is to insure that people stick around for all sorts of “psychological dismantling,” with faith in the power of their Real Self, Awareness, to weather the insults, humiliations and abuse, and rise above, stand free and transcend such abuse.
It’s a really interesting paradox: people are temporarily (for a long weekend) disempowered, captivated and made afraid so that, on the level of their real Being, they can be empowered, liberated and made fearless.
I would say that, by contrast to most LGATs, the best spiritual paths melt ego-resistance and ego-attachments through love, kindness and compassion in a non-confining, minimal pressure (or no pressure) situation. Such sterling spiritual groups come purely from the heart/Heart and don’t need to engage in all the “break and re-make you” techniques and stratagems. The best spiritual groups simply show you how your Real Nature is right HERE and right NOW nothing other than Pure Awareness, the open-empty-full Divine Void/Presence or God-Self, and that everything in life, your life, anyone’s life, is a dream, an apparent happening or play of phenomena, made of vibrations made of energy made of consciousness, which is the emanating power of Awareness/Self. Realizing this Supreme Spiritual Truth powerfully allows a real freedom from ego-tendencies and engenders the spontaneous urge in people to love and serve other beings in the dream with great compassion, empathy and solidarity, knowing that their true Self is your true Self—One God-Self, playing as all selves, One I Am That Am playing as every "i/me."
But Landmark and other LGATs can’t or won’t tell you all the insights pertaining to real Spiritual Truth and God-Realization, because, again, they want people confined to membership within this organization and its pressurized and entrapping cultic environment of specialized lingo, processes, and structure.
Beyond the logic of “whatever happens is perfect” and being “perfectly okay with what is,” one can argue with great merit that there is something deeply problematic in the way leadership behavior is modeled or exemplified in LGATs: you can’t be subjected to observing, for many minutes or even hours, that intimidating, invalidating, denigrating verbal behavior by the trainer toward individual attendees or toward the entire group of attendees and not begin to perceive on some conscious or subconscious level that this is an acceptable way of acting and treating other human beings. Yet it would seem to most mental health experts that we already have far too much rude, abusive and authoritarian behavior in our society. For instance, the rude, derisive, confrontational "drill sergeant" approach of the LGAT trainer could never work if a participant tried this behavioral style on his/her family members, co-workers, boss, and friends. There is a good reason why it is diplomats, not drill sergeants, who have been sent by the U.S. State Dept. to conduct high-level peace talks and promote conflict-resolution in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, North Korea, South Africa, and other hot spots over the years. Wherever human beings assemble as equals, a diplomatic approach, not an authoritarian drill sergeant approach, is needed. But such non-authoritarian diplomacy is NOT modeled by the LGAT trainers most of the time.
There is a ton of anecdotal material on how the supposedly “enlightened” graduates of LGATs, despite the “I love you” phone calls and letters to significant others that might have been written during or after the training weekend, still verbally treat others with a certain amount—even a greater amount—of selfishness, rudeness, smugness, and lack of empathy, loving-kindness and compassion. And the leadership of LGATs like est and Landmark are notorious for this. Werner himself was, by all accounts, extremely abusive, noxious, threatening and non-empathetic on too many occasions in the way he treated fellow human beings, as several people very close to him openly testified to legal and media personnel. (See Part II, below, for San Francisco Chronicle articles from 1990-1991 on Werner's abusiveness.)
The greatest spiritual masters (from Jesus and the Buddha down to Zen master Bankei and our era's Vedanta sage Ramana Maharshi), by contrast, do not need to engage in all this authoritarian shaming and blaming that LGAT trainers engage in with the attendees of these LGATs. Such bonafide spiritual master can empower people through the verbal and nonverbal behavior of love, compassion, kindness, caring, generosity, fearlessness, desirelessness, bliss, serenity, strength, power and holiness of being rooted in the God-Self and viewing each and every sentient being as the God-Self. These true adepts model and exemplify a shining love and goodness. As for the LGAT trainers, not only do we so often see (or hear reports of) them modeling rudeness and smugness in their “tough love” approach, we actually have no idea how they live their lives outside the context of the LGAT weekends. Do they really “walk the talk” and live what they preach?
One big point to raise here is this: est and Landmark and other LGATs all talk about "actualizing possibilities" and "creating a fresh reality" and so on, and they lure in a lot of people with these high-flown promises, but just look what kind of corporations their leader and top assistants have themselves actually created: top-down authoritarian structures where all the power and wealth is held at the top, and, in "a giant sucking sound," ever-more money and energy are always moving from new recruits and the hordes of insidiously persuaded and programmed "volunteers" to reward the elite bosses at the top. What kind of "reality" is this that the "transformed" LGAT leaders and "adepts" have created? A remarkably disparate system of haves and have-nots, controlling overlords and their hapless underlings. (See more, below, on labor violations by LGATs like Landmark.)
The est Training / The Forum / The Landmark Forum and other similar LGATs persistently denigrate humans as “meaning-making machines.” The Zen-influenced French Zen psychiatrist and author Hubert Benoit, writing some very respected books in the early 1950s, spoke of how the human mind is always “construing for meaning,” and he taught people simple techniques how to transcend this tendency when it becomes problematic. As part of its undoing of all “meaning-making,” the Landmark Forum’s final “big revelation” on Day 3 is that “LIFE IS EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS, AND IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS THAT IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS.”
This, again, has a quasi-Zen feel to it, although philosophically, as stated in its limited form this way, it is really a dismal form of postmodernist nihilism, a view shared and promoted by a number of atheist and agnostic academics in the humanities and social science and physical science departments of our heavily-postmodernist-influenced universities. What appears to “save” the Landmark Forum from nihilism is its corollary insistence that “life has whatever meaning you wish to create for it”—an homage to the French existentialists of the mid-20th-century like Sartre, Camus, et al.
But most people come from a non-mystical and not very theologically, metaphysically or philosophically profound religious background, and they live in a modern society that is, via its major media and institutions, often promoting a veritable “absurdist” life-view. Most persons, therefore, simply do not have the spiritual or psychological resources to “just like that” create a new context of meaning for their life after their big LGAT weekend which shatters their particular sense of life’s meaning, even if it is a meaning not well thought out and not very profound. It is known to an increasing number of psychologists that over time many graduates of these “meaning-busting” LGATs fall into depression, despair or malaise. The LGAT, be it Landmark or whatever, does not do the compassionate thing in providing ongoing spiritual or psychological support for graduates, other than to pressure these persons to take further courses and pay even more money. With LGATs, you see, it always comes down to having people take more courses and pay more money.
I daresay, therefore, that whereas the LGAT will chide and castigate people for being “meaning-making machines,” these LGATs are big “MONEY-MAKING MACHINES” run by robotically re-conditioned, self-congratulatory proponents of a flawed psycho-spiritual system of thought-control.
But, whereas LGATs are free to “bust” attendees for being “meaning makers” in the context of their long weekends, and will brook no dissenting opinions, anyone who dares to publicly criticize the LGAT runs the risk of brutal legal tactics in the form of costly, frivolous lawsuits from the LGAT’s attack-dog pack of lawyers for “product disparagement / defamation.” Rick Ross, Elle magazine, and others have run into this very ugly side of Landmark and other LGATs. Landmark trainers and their ilk in other LGATs can spend the whole weekend calling you “disgusting” and other vile adjectives, but as soon as one calls any of these LGATs a “dysfunctional cult” one is in serious legal trouble.
Quite obviously the top executives of these LGATs don’t believe in the value of free speech as espoused by democratic societies. Hence, despite all their talk of “integrity,” we must seriously question whether they “walk their talk.”
A number of us who have spent years learning the most elegant and effective forms of spiritual and psychological training, based on the lives and teachings of the world’s most eminent sages (see elsewhere at this author’s massive educational website www.Enlightened-Spirituality.org for a wealth of resources), would strongly recommend other systems of spiritual views and practices over the “totalitarian” LGATs currently trying to lure unsuspecting persons into their clinging clutches and exploit them for their money, time and energy.
You see, as the weekend in The Landmark Forum or other typical LGAT wears on, there will, unfortunately, be increasingly blatant pitches to take further courses and to “share this great experience with people you care for,” which will finally mean that you are pressured to pitch Landmark to just about everyone you meet. At a certain point you will actually be required as homework to engage in such “sharing” and, at last, to “pledge” to bring as many people as possible to the next Introduction night.
This is where Landmark and other LGATs insidiously conflate goals, and most attendees do not realize how they have been sucked in and manipulated to equate whatever valid benefits they have received with the need to take further courses and enroll others in the entry course and later courses. On the one hand, you have Landmark (or whatever LGAT) doing fairly effective or even very effective group psychology work with people, helping them achieve significant “breakthroughs” in letting go the past, living from clarity in the present, etc. But on the other hand, you have a truly “dysfunctional cult” dynamic of confusing or conflating people’s individual transformation with a hard-sell corporate pitch to ensure that these people will see their psychological transformation and the possibility of ongoing and deeper transformation only in the context of the Landmark Education corporate psycho-cult. You are made to believe that the drug-like euphoria of transformation is only available from the “street corner” of the Landmark seminars and courses. One becomes, as some psychologists have noted, a “junkie” dependent on the Landmark products. People are being played and made dependent on Landmark. This is, ultimately, a con-job. All the energies for individual transformation are insidiously re-directed to make sure the person is diligently working to further the corporate organization’s growth and profit, with their own ongoing positive personal transformation dependent on this growth and profit of the LGAT corporation. Thus, LGATs are promoting consumerism—the consumption of their corporate product. Though they may verbally express a rhetoric about promoting “world peace” etc., they are really in the business of making money, first and foremost. Their behavior proves it, and “actions speak louder than words.”
For the attendees, psychologist Leon Festinger’s idea of the Cognitive Dissonance phenomenon, now well-known to many psychologists and cult-leaders, but still not sufficiently known among the wider lay public, is certainly in play here, given the considerable amount of money, time and emotional/cognitive energy expended by people on LGATs. The empirically proven phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance reveals that most people lack psychological maturity and cannot handle the “dissonance” of two conflicting self-perceptions (or cognitive images of themselves).
In the specific context of group participation and product consumption—as in buying the LGAT course-product—the dissonance is experienced as follows: Perception #1: “I am intelligent and savvy —no one can ever take advantage of me or trick me.” Perception #2: “I just got tricked into investing lots of time, energy and money for something not really worth all this expense.”
Most people will be incapable of the maturity and critical self-assessment to realize that sometimes we do get scammed and so their mind works overtime (mostly on a subconscious level) to spin Perception #2 in an opposite direction, thereby to justify that the thing they spent so much time, energy and money upon really is very worthwhile. Interestingly, such people will thereafter be highly motivated to convince lots of other people to also come invest in it to prove to themselves that “getting” what the group is teaching/selling really is worth all this time, energy and money.
Spiritual cult-leaders and psycho-cult leaders/trainers of LGATs will, of course, justify that “people don’t really value anything unless they pay a substantial amount for it.” But that is a debatable justification, and what they won’t tell you is that Cognitive Dissonance is being used to drive a lot of the graduates’ frenzied “volunteerism” to spread the buzz and convince lots of other people to come “share in the experience.”
Given the cognitive dissonance phenomenon, people will predictably rate the LGAT experience very high on surveys that ask you how “satisfied” you are with the experience(s), how highly you would recommend it to others, etc. And, as we have just shown, many people—especially those of lesser psychological maturity—will be strongly motivated and driven by subconscious cognitive dissonance to bring in other people in their social circle to “share the experience.” We also know that roughly 7 out 10 people who've gone through the entry-level course go on to take the usually more expensive "advanced course(s)" offered by the LGAT, especially if these persons have any doubts whatsoever that they really “got it” (enlightened) over the weekend.
Polled immediately after or within days of taking The Landmark Forum, most attendees, evidently up to 90% or more of the attendees, will report that the experience was, indeed, “transformational” in a positive sense. What is completely missing here are any comparisons to programs like a weekend of Buddhist mindfulness or Christian contemplative training, cognitive therapy (in the style of Albert Ellis or Aaron Beck), or NLP (Grinder and Bandler’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming, made famous by Tony Robbins). Fortunately for people’s mental health, but unfortunately for comparative research purposes, most of these systems (except for certain NLP and Tony Robbins sessions and Rinzai-school Zen Buddhist sesshins) don’t usually create during their trainings the high-pressure milieu and giddy euphoria, and so may not get the kind of 80-90% positive ratings that LGATs claim to be getting.
And here the question comes up about longterm effects. It is apparent to many mental health professionals that so much of the “positively transformative” effect of the Landmark Forum and other LGATs can be attributed in large part to the psychological intensity of the situation, the high-pressure tactics, the insular environment, the emotional whipsawing that occurs, and that euphoria that is deliberately induced to give people the feeling of being “high.” It is questionable as to how well the skill-learning that occurs over the weekend, only minimally reinforced by the subsequent single-evening follow-up session, stands up over time, and how generalizable it is to other situations in the attendee’s life.
Yet leaders of certain businesses, government agencies and other groups have often required their subordinates to attend Landmark, or else face termination of their jobs or positions. And I daresay that the motivation of these business and organizational leaders is usually not about the deep well-being of their employees but about wanting to have more conformity in their organizations and less dissent. For instance, corporate bosses want everyone “on the same page,” and their own corporate “business cults” can be augmented by having everyone coming from the same “psycho cult” as well. (It is well-known in the business world that a corporate boss/manager would prefer the employee to have more loyalty to the firm than to their own family members. When all members of the firm are also initiated into the same psycho-cult, this doubly insures that employees will have less in common with their families.)
Landmark and other psycho-cults (like dysfunctional religious and spiritual cults) engage in big-time exploitation of volunteer labor from their course-graduates to empower their groups, everything from manning phones to scrubbing floors. All this free labor can make an organization very powerful for very low overhead costs.
On the subject of the extensive and indeed excessive volunteerism on the part of persons pressured by LGATs, a great public good would be more extensive investigation and regulatation of Landmark and other LGATs by the U.S. Department of Labor. Back in 1998, reporter Traci Hukill ironically pointed out for the San Jose Metro on her studies of Landmark Education, “I wonder what kind of racket [sic, irony intended] the Department of Labor was running when it investigated Landmark and determined its volunteers were employees subject to the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Who’s heard of volunteers for a for-profit [corporation]? In the end the Department of Labor dropped the issue, leaving Landmark trumpeting about its volunteers’ choice in the matter.”
As it has turned out, as archived at the aforementioned Rick Ross website on Landmark, one regional investigation of Landmark has recently been conducted (perhaps of other LGATs as well). In what is no doubt a typical pattern, this is what a Dallas, Texas, District Office for the U.S. Dept. of Labor reported on July 7, 2006, in part, about the Landmark Educ. office in Dallas, investigated from 2003 to 2005 (Case ID: 1371610) (full report posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark237.html):
The investigation was initiated by [deleted] who alleged that employees are not paid overtime correctly / volunteer employees are not paid at all for hours worked. The allegation was substantiated.... Minimum wage violation found. Volunteers (Assistants) are not paid any wages for hours worked while performing the major duties of the firm. The assistants set up rooms, call registrants, collect fees, keep stats of classroom data/participants, file, they also are answering phones, training and leading seminars. The assistant's hours are delegated by an employee of the firm, the work is directed and managed by the site manager, the duties performed are vital to the employer’s business. The assistants are not given credit for the hours worked which vary from 10 per week to 60 and up. The assistants are keeping records of attendees, stats on classroom attendance, assisting the instructor with the classes, and also [are] an integral part of the seminars. The employer could not conduct the seminars at the level it has been doing without the enormous amount of assistants (20-40) per seminar. The assistants perform primary functions of the employer such as finance conversations with potential attendees, purchasing, and facility management. A heavy emphasis is put on volunteering at the initial Landmark Forum attended by newcomers. Attendees are influenced to assist (volunteer) at the classes and told they can gain more knowledge without paying any money to attend seminars that they volunteer at.... By volunteering at these seminars and in the business office the assistants are convinced that they are acquiring skills and knowledge required to improve their social and mental skills that they can use in their full-time employment and personal lives. The assistants displace regular employees that would have to be hired. The employer could not operate with the 2-3 full-time employees per site.... Site Manager, paid a salary of $34,000 annually, does meet the duties test.... Seminar Manager, paid a salary of $29,000 annually, does not meet the duties test.... A recordkeeping violation resulted from the firm not keeping a record of hours for non-exempt salaried employees, and for assistants that are actually employees.... The firm denies that the assistants-volunteers are employees. Interviews reveal that the employees [i.e., the assistants-volunteers] are taking payments, registering clients, billing, training, recruiting, setting up locations, cleaning, and other duties that would have to be performed by staff if the assistants did not perform them.... [Dept. of Labor officer] Forte informed Mr. [Robert] Tollen [a lawyer for Landmark Educ.] via phone on June 26, 2006 that the assistants were considered employees and need to be paid MW/OT [minimum wage and overtime], that records needed to be kept of the employees/nonexempt salaried employees, and that CMP’s [penalties] would be assessed in any future investigations. The firm agreed to pay/comply with the non-exempt salaried employee, but did not agree on the assistants. Mr. Tollen stated he understood the findings. "
This Dept. of Labor report of labor violations by Landmark Educ. office in Dallas, TX, with its relatively large number of exploited volunteers and exploited (underpaid) staff person suggests that other, similar violations are widespread through the several dozen offices of Landmark (and other LGATs) worldwide. All of this indicates that Landmark and other for-profit LGAT groups clearly are not aligned with the worldwide religious and spiritual teachings on the dignity of work and the crucial importance of economic justice. Landmark's in-house policies here are a clear instance of "giving more and more to the rich [i.e., the owners of Landmark and the affluent senior trainers] and taking more and more from the poor."
Another major question here is what are people ultimately getting for their money, time, energy and free labor as they proceed further with taking courses by Landmark or another LGAT? For one thing, they are evidently not liberated into their true Divine Identity as the all-pervasive Self or natural (sahaja) Being-Awareness-Bliss, but they are saddled with a new identification as a member of a big, powerful corporate group. The “elite understanding,” the new jargon, and the fearlessly confrontational “truth-telling” social style of interaction make the group seem very “hip” and sophisticated. Who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of being part of such a powerful organizational body? There are, additionally, various ways that the members reinforce for each other that giddy euphoria through comraderie (shared experiences, shared goals, mutually congratulatory backslapping, etc.) and in-house exercises and processes. There’s also a strong sense of identity in being part of a “global mission” to “save-heal-empower the world.” Individually, people will report that they feel more “emotionally authentic” and more energetically “present” and also more present-centered (not stuck in the past); they will report feeling “at cause” or “at Source” with their experiences; more responsible, more empowered, etc.
But, to reiterate, all of these individual benefits can be learned elsewhere without all the cultic identification and entrapment in a powerfully exploitative and controlling corporate group--a group that, after you “graduate” from the entry-level course, wants your free labor and your efforts to bring in new recruits so that the organization can grow ever more exponentially and rake in many millions more dollars. The organization is ultimately quite self-serving and voracious. So, rather than genuinely liberate you, LGATs want to “hook you” and confine you to operating within their organization and evangelically promoting it.
Experiences have shown that the LGAT will brook no dissent or rebellion if you begin to question 1) people’s identification with the LGAT itself or 2) the supreme value of its growth-work or 3) the LGAT’s ultimate integrity in trying to separate so many people from so much of their money for the enrichment of the LGAT’s paid beneficiaries.
And here the “64 million-dollar question” is: where is all the money going? Who benefits? For instance, with Landmark, the current leaders of the movement are the brother, sister and former colleagues of Werner Erhard. Huge profits are being made. To what end is all the money going? One person got an answer from a trainer at the Landmark Forum: “for expanding the program.” —Meaning primarily the income-revenues for the proprietary owners of Landmark (Werner Erhard, now known as Werner Spits, according to reporter Traci Hukill is still getting half of all profits) and also the likely handsome salaries of the trainers (who number only around 45-50 persons) and the in-house long-time VIPs, such as Landmark’s head legal counsel Art Schreiber.
Somewhere here I need to interject a major point: --I find it frankly ridiculous and a big violation of economic justice that LGATs, like most therapists and other providers of mental-emotional-bodily health, do not arrange for a sliding-scale fee-structure. This is complete blindness to the economic realities characterizing today’s world. In the USA, for instance, the current $495 entry-course fee for the Landmark Forum is, for the vast majority of hard-working Americans, anywhere from one-eighth to fully one-third or more of their monthly paycheck, and, because they already have such a tough time making ends meet, the fee will probably wind up being paid on a credit card, where it will likely sit over time as an unpaid balance and incur usurious interest-rate charges from the big banks, eventually amounting to double what the person initially paid for the LGAT course(s). By strong contrast, an elite percentile of Americans, the multi-millionaires, decamillionaires, centimillionaires and billionaires—the top 0.1 to 5 percent of society’s economic strata—are bringing in colossally more income than this every year. For all of these rich and super-rich folks, that $495 fee (or a $250 hour of psychotherapy or a $4,000 weekend retreat at some resort spa) is “chump change,” the equivalent of a mere dime or buck for the majority of Americans.
As part of their pre-screening of attendees, why don’t LGATs (along with psychotherapists, et al.) find out a person’s monthly income and charge a more equitable fee based on a sliding scale? A centimillionaire bringing in annual revenues of over $2 million could easily pay $5,000 for the course, a drop in the bucket, whereas a married father of two kids making only $50,000/year might need to only pay $50, and an infirm person living alone and somehow eking by on their $9,000 annual SSI disability income would be eligible to take the course for free or just $5. This would be a far more fair and realistic arrangement in today’s heavily disparate economy of “have-everythings,” “haves,” and “have-nots”—an economy where some 70% of Americans are the near-poor (a job-loss or medical situation may rapidly put them into poverty), the working poor (not being paid a living wage for their hard work), the officially “poor,” and the destitute (whose incomes are one half of the officially poor). If the LGATs are so supremely beneficial, why isn’t the experience being made available to all, not just to those who can afford it?
Now, back to the question of ongoing revenues for the LGAT: how much of this money is being spent on really helping or empowering any of the world’s poor and needy? Or promoting democratic institutions and justice-promoting movements locally or worldwide? (For instance, major campaign finance reform in the USA to promote real democracy with political representatives who represent the public good over the demands of elite special interests.) How is the world actually being made better by these LGATs other than turning a certain small fraction of its inhabitants into euphoric lackeys for a profiteering corporate agenda?
Along this line, I have one last critique of LGATs like Landmark: in its promotion of the essential idea “whatever happens is what is supposed to happen,” or “whatever happens is perfect,” or, ultimately, “nothing ever really happens,” it can easily lead to apathy about injustices—whether these be issues of political justice, criminal justice, environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, animal rights, etc. It would appear that Landmark and other kindred LGATs are stuck at “level 2” and “level 1” in my model of “the three simultaneously true levels of nondual Reality.” As I have written elsewhere (for instance, at The 3 Levels of Nondual Reality ):
Level 3 is the conventional, pragmatic level of mundane reality, entailing the “appropriate and inappropriate,” “helpful and harmful,” “right and wrong,” “justice and injustice”;
Level 2 is the level of Reality which yields the realization or epiphany that whatever happens is "perfect," whatever occurs is the “exquisite manifestation of ‘Life’ or ‘Divine Will’ for everyone”; and
Level 1 is the “Absolute level” of Reality, wherein it is realized that whatever happens is a dream, so nothing is really happening, only GOD or Pure Infinite Awareness is truly HERE, absolutely Real as the ONE Identity (prior to or beyond all persons/souls, events, experiences).
When people don't honor together all three of these "levels" or “domains” of Reality as being simultaneously true (level 1 is Absolutely true, levels 2 and 3, pertaining to multiplicity, are "relatively true"), they tend to fall into a very constricted viewpoint. So, for instance, if people ignore the conventional level (level 3 in this model), they think that being discerning or critical in pragmatic matters of justice-injustice —i.e., critiquing any form of thinking or behavior (in the field of politics, business corporations, spirituality, family or community life, etc.)—is “being reactive" or “negative” or “deluded” or “overly analytical” or “coming from the head.” Yet this is, itself, a negative, reactive judgment or a critique. It is a mind-fixated "position" that violates true freedom by constraining us to always only view whatever happens as "perfect" and beyond reproach, or as "nothing really happening." Again, to hold such a position is to constrain oneself to a uni-level, limited view of Reality.
According to my triple model outlined above, which accounts for the totality of our spiritual and daily experience, Landmark Education is mainly about non-religiously establishing you in a Level 2 or Level 1 parlance and philosophy: “whatever happens is meant to be happening, otherwise something else would be happening,” and “nothing is really happening.” This may sound mystical and groovy, but by ignoring Level 3, the moral or ethical level of helpful-harmful and justice-injustice within human society, LGATs like Landmark make a mockery of an old tradition of “engaged spirituality,” such as known to the ancient Jews (and early Christians) as tzedek, justice, known to the Hindus as dharma, righteousness, and known to the Buddhists as sila, wholesome morality. And I daresay we need both a profound, straightforward and truly sublime mystical spirituality of authentic Realization of the infinite-eternal, unmanifest God-Self, and we also need a morally-based engaged spirituality of finding, seeing, loving and serving this God-Self plainly manifest as the Heart of all sentient beings. “Love the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love thy neighbor as thy self/Self.”
Anything else is imbalanced and not complete.
Part II--REPORTS BY JOURNALISTS
In Part I of this webpage, I have provided excerpted selections of Werner Erhard's philosophy and relevant passages from the brochures put out by the old est Training and more recently by Landmark Education, along with links to Landmark's website about the Landmark Forum. For the sake of promoting “informed consent” and “buyer beware” insight, here follow extensive contents and analyses of The Landmark Forum, based on reports by various journalists who attended the entry-level course. All the journalists' reports can be found archived at Rick Ross' Cult Education Network website:
The reader is especially encouraged to read the transcript and view the downloadable streaming video of the France 3 television show Pieces a Conviction and its special investigative report on The Landmark Forum and behind-the-scenes candid revelations of Landmark’s operations, entitled "Voyage to the Land of the New Gurus: Incriminating Evidence" (Part One), May 24, 2004, directed by Karima Tabti. The airing of this program, viewed by 1.5 million people, led to the shutting down of operations by Landmark Education in France. The main weblink for that French television investigative program is:
1. Traci Hukill, “The est of Friends,” July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro (San Jose, CA). www.metroactive.com/landmark/landmark1-9827.html
ON A FRIDAY MORNING IN EARLY SUMMER, 110 Silicon Valley high-tech workers, salespeople and curiosity seekers drift into a conference room on the ground floor at Park Center Plaza in downtown San Jose.
The shiny brochures enrollees received after paying the $325 registration fee for the weekend-long seminar explained little. Steeped in vagaries, they introduced Landmark Education's language, praising The Forum's "technology" and promising "breakthroughs" that would make us happier….
The next three 14-hour days [will be] spent in this stuffy room with our Forum leader. We'll hardly have time to change our underwear. Each day we will be released exactly three times. We will be asked to have dinner with Forum "friends" and to spend our scant hours at home calling family members and pals and telling them about our "breakthroughs."…
Forum leader Brian Regnier strides down the aisle and takes his place on the dais, all smiles and wire-rimmed glasses. A small, neat man of indeterminate age, the charismatic Regnier moves easily around the stage as he tells us what we can expect from our marathon weekend. New life in our relationships. Love for our fellow Forum graduates. Possibilities flowering everywhere we look.
"You'll notice for the first time in your life, 'I'm happy,' " Regnier predicts, beaming like a benevolent uncle. "A miracle is going to take place here."
But we gotta want it. We have to be enrolled, he explains--open to what The Forum can do for us. If we're not, we can leave now and get our money back, even the nonrefundable deposit. No one moves.
Like any exclusive group of people who know something the rest of the world doesn't, Landmark has its own language. It happens to be the same vocabulary esties learned, and it serves to separate the ones who "get it" from those who don't.
A "breakthrough" is Landmark's term for arrival in new psychological terrain--a phenomenon also called a "paradigm shift." Old limitations wither away, replaced by a vital conviction that anything is possible.
"Rackets" are persistent complaints that we orchestrate in order to avoid some kind of responsibility-- complaints like "I have too much to do," which might excuse shoddy performance. Rackets obstruct breakthroughs, Regnier informs us, and we've spent our lives perfecting them in order to get what we want.
We also learn about our "winning formulas," tricks we learn to get along in society, like being charming and smart. Winning formulas, we're told, keep us smug and content, but they also keep us from breakthroughs--and real happiness.
Among our unreasonable, breakthrough-inducing assignments will be telling friends all about The Forum. Sound like a sales pitch? Well [says Brian], why not try to sell the people you love on something this great? Ah--but some of those folks will think we've been hoodwinked….
… One of 53 offices worldwide, including centers in India, Israel, Great Britain and Japan, the San Jose office enrolls about 100 people each month in The Forum. Enthusiastic grads can spend up to $4,000 [1998 prices] completing the Landmark curriculum of courses. For companies the cost ranges from $250,000 to $4 million.
On the last night 39 people sign up for the $700 advanced course--a $27,000 drop in the $48 million-a-year bucket of Landmark revenues [as Hukill reports in 1998; revenues are much greater today]. Last year Landmark Education Corporation spent $13 million on salaries and bonuses for its 451 employees, dedicated $4 million to travel and made $2.5 million in profit. [NOTE from Timothy: doing the math on the salary/bonus figures, those 451 employees would be making an average of $28,825 per person; but we know that top executives at the headquarters-office in San Francisco are paid much more than, say, the "seminar manager" at a local office in India, Canada, or Texas.]
BRIAN REGNIER SMILES A LOT, and with good reason. Performing for a room stuffed with $35,000 worth of hungry souls and a dozen Landmark volunteers drinking in his every gesture, Regnier is the only paid employee of Landmark Education in this room today….
A case study by Harvard Business School reports that nationwide, 7,500 volunteers lend their time and services to Landmark. [See the earlier-cited report in Part I by the U.S. Dept. of Labor on the exploitation of these Landmark Education volunteers, without which Landmark simply could not function.] The corporation only pays 451 people, and only a tenth of them are Forum leaders.
But here at the Forum, we are told, anything is possible. So devotees keep enrolling in courses, keep volunteering to prove their "commitment."
I wonder what kind of racket [sic, irony intended by Hukill] the Department of Labor was running when it investigated Landmark and determined its volunteers were employees subject to the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Who's heard of volunteers for a for-profit? In the end the Department of Labor dropped the issue, leaving Landmark trumpeting about its volunteers' choice in the matter.
… Werner Erhard and his cohorts coasted on est's enormous success until they reduced their last estie to tears in 1984. The next year Werner Erhard & Associates repackaged est as The Forum, a seminar aimed more at goal-oriented breakthroughs than reprogramming. By 1988 close to a million people had taken est, The Forum or some other Erhard training under auxiliary companies like the Hunger Project. When Erhard's reputation took a nosedive amid tax fraud and incest allegations in the early '90s, he fled the country. (Later the tax charges were dropped, and the accusation of incest was withdrawn.) In the meantime, his disciples conceived a way of continuing to produce The Forum free of the negative publicity attached to Erhard's name.
In 1991, a group of trusted Erhard aides [including his brother Harry Rosenberg and Brian Regnier] started Landmark Education, licensed Erhard's "technology" and incorporated in the state of California. Erhard owns no Landmark stock, but Regnier does. One of the founding members of Landmark, Regnier belongs to a select club of insiders--the same group, according to a Landmark case document, who presented est.
Landmark says that Erhard has nothing to do with The Forum. But the license Landmark obtained from Erhard enabling them to produce The Forum is in fact owned by Erhard, and is scheduled to revert to him in 2009. Erhard's 63 now [in 1998] and is assured 50 percent of Landmark's net pre-tax profit each quarter, not to exceed $15 million in the 18-year lifespan of the license. Furthermore, Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, is currently Landmark's CEO, and sister Joan Rosenberg is listed as a director.
Despite the obvious links [and similarity of content and philosophical perspective], Landmark executives take pains to separate the organization from Erhard and almost all things est, other than to acknowledge its roots. Reports of psychological damage resulting from est sullied Erhard's reputation.
Family members of est graduates complained that est jargon invaded every conversation and that esties--or estholes, as detractors called them--shunned people who didn't "get it."
Landmark has not entirely escaped est's fate. A 1993 lawsuit against Landmark by a Maryland woman claimed that The Forum precipitated her psychotic breakdown through negligent infliction of emotional distress. She lost the case, but her legacy lives on: prospective Forum participants must now give verbal attestation and sign two separate documents disclosing their histories of therapy, psychiatric hospitalization and psychoactive drug use. Boxes checked "yes" result in Landmark's recommendation not to participate.
Landmark's "technology" builds on the backs of a few key ideas, most of which make sense if applied with care. In addition to rackets and winning formulas, we learn about "stories." To show how stories work, Regnier draws a diagram of two overlapping circles on the board. One represents the facts of something that happened and the other our interpretation. We can change misery-inducing stories, he explains, by changing our interpretation of events.
"This really works for people," Regnier says, tapping the "interpretation" side of the diagram with a sage nod. "Even Auschwitz," he says cryptically, leaving us to wonder how that particular revision would go. Would it be, "The Nazis tortured my father and gassed my mother by mistake," or "The Nazis tortured my father and gassed my mother, and I'm OK with that"?
The lecture weaves in esoteric threads of ontology and philosophy in the form of puzzling statements like "the only change is no change" and "there is no meaning."
BACK IN 1982, WHEN EST WAS STILL going strong, three Stanford doctors conducted a study of est and a similar seminar called Lifespring [founded by John Hanley, who, like Werner, was a trainer with A. Everett's Mind Dynamics]. They determined that two kinds of harm might result from est training. In the first kind, people who were already on shaky psychological ground might decompensate--what most of us call "snap"--under the stress. In the second kind, people might abandon important psychological defenses necessary to stability.
For me, it's almost impossible to observe The Forum's methods without the word "brainwashing" flashing across my intellectual radar screen every 15 seconds or so.
Landmark refers inquiries in this department to a letter by Forum graduate Edward Lowell, a New Jersey psychiatrist who states in no uncertain terms that Landmark does not use brainwashing techniques.
So there we have it.
However, San Jose's own Brian Lippincott, associate professor of psychology at JFK University, calls grouping people close together for long periods a "time-honored method of indoctrination," used since the days of the Roman centurions. "And then you're tired on the second or third day," he says, "and you lose your independent thought process, and the things you're hearing become internally consistent. You kind of lose the ability to check out-- 'Are these assumptions really true?' If I get you to accept three or four premises, then all these things would follow from those assumptions.
"They never allow you to go back and check," he says. "Or if you do, one technique is, 'You're not following protocol.'"
'ERHARD GRADUATES WITH GRIPES," read an ad I placed in Metro in an effort to locate people irked with The Forum. Est and Forum grads called me with stories of how they or someone they knew had taken an introductory course, then an advanced course... and eventually started volunteering, spending as many as 20 hours a week in the service of est or Landmark. [NOTE: The U.S. Dept. of Labor in 2003-5 found volunteers in the Dallas, TX, Landmark office working without any pay from 20-60 hours a week.] Most said they thought The Forum itself was fine, even valuable, when kept in perspective. Without exception they asked not to be named.
Once word about my story got around, popping up in an online Landmark newsgroup, it somehow made its way into the office of Art Schreiber, general counsel of Landmark Education Corporation. Schreiber responded swiftly with a 10-page letter advising me of his "serious concern" that I might defame Landmark. What followed were six pages explaining why Landmark is not a cult, a page of why Landmark cannot be said to brainwash its enrollees, a page and a half of why I must not defame Werner Erhard or est, and a tedious summary explaining that should I "leave Landmark and its programs depicted in a false light ... Landmark is fully prepared to take the appropriate legal action."
He included 23 letters of recommendation from happy Forum grads; a letter like mine addressed to Self Magazine, whom Landmark sued in 1994 for calling The Forum a cult; a newspaper article describing a lawsuit by Erhard's daughter against a San Jose Mercury News reporter; and statements from Margaret Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, and Cynthia Kisser, former director of the Cult Awareness Network, that Landmark is not a cult. Landmark has sued them both.
In Kisser's case, she was co-defendant with the Cult Awareness Network in a $40 million suit brought on because CAN classified est and The Forum as cults that used mind-control techniques unbeknownst to program participants. CAN settled and retracted the statements. Kisser is still defending.
I had a nice chat with Mark Kamin, Landmark's public relations man. He told me, "It is my bias that you have a bias," and said, "There's no real story." Then he appealed to my sense of "integrity"--a word much bandied about in The Forum--to write what "the truth is about us."
Landmark advocates self-expression. Surely, I thought as I hung up the phone, I'm not being discouraged from expressing myself. CEO Harry Rosenberg recently noted that "in the United States, we have altered the public conversation about our work and our enterprise. For example, it is no longer possible for informed people or publications in the United States to pin pejorative labels on us."
"Altering the public conversation." The phrase sends a chill up the spine of anyone who thought it was OK to speak freely in this country without fear of being sued into silence….
SHORTLY AFTER THE FORUM I tried to explain to a friend a peculiar experience that repeated itself many times during the three days and evening I spent listening to Regnier.… I'm open-minded, even suggestible at times…. So when the idea of "rackets" started to make sense, and some of my "stories" emerged as patently ridiculous, I would get this light, spacious feeling in my head, and the possibility of a life released would glimmer beautifully on an expanding horizon. Didn't I owe myself a chance at bliss?
And then the volunteers would pass out registration cards for the next seminar, and the people who didn't fill them out would be called to the back of the room and asked to explain why, and I would be among them, facing a stern volunteer who donates his time to lead that seminar. Or Regnier would mention how important it was to tell our friends about The Forum and bring them to our graduation. And right away it would be as if someone had switched cameras on me, sharpened the focus, turned off the flattering back lighting.
Oh yeah, I'd think. The money.
As harmless, even helpful, as The Forum's ideas themselves are, something about the delivery system just doesn't feel right. The subtle controls, the obvious ones, the glitter of an eye, a 10-page letter [of legal threats]--all add up to something that shifts, vanishes, reappears--does anything but breathe, endure, stand still for inspection.
And still, for a day, I got the result. I got the euphoria the day after The Forum. And then it dissipated. That's what happens--that's why people keep signing up, to keep that feeling fresh.
It was easy to make fun of The Forum until I saw a 45-year-old man choking back tears as he read a letter to his stern Japanese father. He was not stupid or naive or a drama queen. He was in real pain, and The Forum seemed to help.
But it didn't make me think something was right with The Forum as much as it made me realize something is terribly wrong with the rest of the world. It's so sad, I thought, that the most intimate and intense experience these people have had is one they paid to have with a group of strangers. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems that too many people are cut adrift from the organic necessities of love, family and community. In an age when people leave their hometowns as a matter of course, the ties that bind are dissolving, and people are looking for pretty new ribbons to replace the old familiar cords.
Good luck, I say. But I doubt they'll find them here.
2. By Jeannie Marshall, “The est in the business.” That old seventies personal growth fad has been resurrected and retooled, and it's coming soon to a corporation near you. National Post, Canada/June 1997 Vol. 112, Issue 5. Archived at
On the first day of the Forum [in Toronto, Canada]--a workshop for personal growth which is gaining a foothold in the corporate world -- Jinendra Jain, our leader, took pains to explain to us how important it is to be punctual. He made all 150 participants promise to be on time when arriving in the morning, and when returning from breaks. "You must be your word," he told us.
[Partly into the 1st day, after a few people had been late after the second break:] Jinendra's face shifted through many shades of disapproval before settling into sternness. The room became completely quiet. "What is it about Torontonians that they can't keep their word?" he asked, sneering. We shifted uncomfortably, shame on all our faces.
Landmark promises to make you more effective in your personal and professional life by ridding you of the negative habits, formed in the past, that now limit what you see in your future. But what I observed in the Forum was not instruction on how to change your life for the better, but rather how to shut up and do what you're told. Rather than getting angry and upset because your boss wants you to do something you don't want to do, just give in and do it. "Stop running your racket," Jinendra told us. Rather than giving reasons for being late, just be on time and "be your word."…
Landmark Education Corporation is quick to explain how beneficial it is to companies who send their employees. And it seems to be finding a receptive audience. […] What could be more appealing in the 1990s than a multinational educational corporation (fifty-one offices worldwide, including ones in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver) that turns out graduates who follow rules without question and always show up on time?…
What's remarkable in all this is that the blue-chip Landmark Forum has deep roots in one of the flakier chapters of the human-potential movement – est… with Werner Erhard as its charismatic leader. Erhard attracted a lot of publicity, running from laudatory, in the early days,… to critical, as the media got wind of rumours of sexual impropriety with one of his daughters, tyrannical behaviour, and problems with the IRS.
Landmark claims that the Forum does not teach you anything or offer any tips, but that you will leave it free, confident, and powerful. Jinendra told us that you can expect results even if you do not understand the language. All that is required is your presence in the room, and a very open mind, for the lights of self-knowledge to be switched on. At the Forum, such illumination is followed by the phrase "I got it." Once you "get it," there are two things to do with it: one is to sign up for the Advanced Course, which costs $750 [mid-1990s prices], and then on to the Self-Expression and Leadership Programme; the other is to recruit as many of your friends, family, and co-workers as possible.
You want to continue taking Landmark courses, Jinendra told my group, because you have to stay in the "Landmark conversation" for it to keep working for you [NOTE: this is entrapment]. And you want to recruit other people, he told us, because you now think and speak differently from before, making it difficult to communicate with the unenlightened folk in your life [NOTE: this is cultic use of language to create insider-outsider dynamics and exclusivity]. He said that we might care to introduce Landmark in our workplaces too.
"Leave the past in the past," says Jinendra to a woman at the Forum. She has just described an upsetting incident from her childhood that has left her weeping. Jinendra shrugs and smiles at her for a long time. "Get off it," he tells her. "Leave the past in the past." It was a refrain I heard often from Jinendra, and from the other participants, as they began to pick up the lingo. The Forum tries to make you a better person in part by having you face your past, and then letting it go. And leaving the past behind is something Landmark not only preaches but practices. [Irony intended here by Jeannie Marshall.]
At an information meeting for possible new recruits, a guest asked Toni Kendall, a visiting Forum leader, to explain where the programme came from. Toni (everyone at Landmark is on a first-names basis) said that a man named Werner Erhard had a transformational breakthrough one morning in 1971, while driving towards the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Out of this experience came the Forum. Toni may have just been simplifying matters for the sake of brevity. The fact is, it was not the Forum that Erhard created in 1971, but est.
[This admission by Kendall proves that Landmark has a lot more to do with est than their usual statements that “Landmark is different from est.”]
Erhard started out as Jack Rosenberg, but in 1960, he abandoned his wife, his four children, his job as a car salesman in Philadelphia, and even his name to run off with another woman. On the plane, he read a magazine article about prominent Germans. He chose the name Werner from Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, and Erhard from Ludwig Erhard, Germany's economics minister.
Making his way towards California, Erhard found jobs selling used cars, correspondence courses on heavy-equipment operation, and encyclopedias door to door. He read motivational books that were popular among salespeople, such as Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. He studied Zen and took Dale Carnegie courses.
Erhard also found [L.Ron Hubbard’s] Scientology…. Scientology holds that everyone has a "reactive mind," a kind of "sub-mind," which does not remember things so much as it records them. These recordings are called "engrams," and they impose themselves on the conscious mind so that, whenever a person finds himself in a new situation that is similar to something recorded, he reacts automatically without thinking. Scientology seeks to free people from the grip of their engrams by taking them back in the past on a "time track" so they can re-experience their pain, store it as a memory rather than an engram, and stop reacting automatically.
Erhard introduced Scientology to his encyclopedia sales staff and found that it made them feel empowered, a feeling they were able to channel into higher sales.
But by 1970 he was ready to move on. He discovered Mind Dynamics, a collection of "mind-expansion" techniques like ESP, hypnosis, and psychic healing, and decided to become a Mind Dynamics trainer. Then, in February, 1971, Erhard had his road-to-San Francisco transformation. "What happened had no form," he told his biographer, W.W. Bartley III. "It was timeless, unbounded, ineffable, beyond language."
What happened was that Erhard took what he learned at Mind Dynamics, as well as a list of their clients, to start est (Erhard Seminars Training).
Est became well known for its Zen-inspired weekend retreats that involved long hours spent on uncomfortable chairs, infrequent bathroom breaks, and confrontation. It was customary to begin est training by being informed that you were an asshole. In her 1976 book, est: 60 Hours that Transform Your Life, devotee Adelaide Bry described her first day: "[The leader] glowered at us and announced that we were all assholes. . . . `You people are here today because all of your strategies, your smart-ass theories, and all the rest of your shit hasn't worked for you. In this training you're going to find out you've been acting like assholes. All your fucking cleverness and self-deception have gotten you nowhere.'" It was the boot-camp Buddhist segment of the human-potential movement.
It lasted until the early 1980s, when the public began to tire of its profanity and abuse. Erhard retired est in 1984 and developed a new, less aggressive version called the Forum. In 1991, he sold the company to his employees and left the country.
He was by then taking a beating in the media. "60 Minutes" was about to air a story in which one of Erhard's daughters claimed he had molested her and raped her sister. (Erhard denied the allegations, and the daughter later said that a journalist induced her to make them with the promise of a million-dollar book deal.) The IRS was taking an interest in an elaborate system of companies that Erhard's lawyer Harry Margolis had set up for him. (One of Erhard's lawyers says that Erhard and the IRS have resolved their differences.) The implication in the media was that Erhard simply fled to avoid these troubles.
But Erhard has a different explanation. In December of 1993 he appeared, via satellite from Moscow, on "Larry King Live." Asked why he had left and not come back, Erhard said, "Well, Larry, I've chosen not to come to the United States at this time because being in the U.S., I'm just too easy a target for the campaign of harassment being waged against me by the Church of Scientology." He claimed that L. Ron Hubbard believed he had stolen techniques from Scientology to use in est. He said he was in Moscow holding management-training seminars.
In the meantime, the employees who bought his company had renamed it Landmark Education Corporation.
Although its programme is still called the Forum, Landmark likes to portray it as something completely new -- a sort of intellectual brew made from original theories and a blend of history's finest philosophies. Landmark quotes Plato in its literature, compares its methods to those of Socrates, and cites such great minds as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Sartre as the basis of its work. Napoleon Hill, Mind Dynamics, and Scientology are not bandied around as formative influences.
Certainly, then, Landmark doesn't see the Forum as a successor to est [though many of us would see it as having great continuity with est--Timothy]. "Est's purpose was to transform individual ability, like a Zen philosophy. The Landmark Forum is a different model," Martin Leaf, a New York lawyer who does work for Landmark, told me over the phone. "Understanding the nature of language allows us to understand human nature. It's more like an inquiry. For an individual, it brings forth a new possibility for being -- we are limited by what we already know. It's a Socratic inquiry. People see things they didn't see before. The fundamental difference is language rather than experience."
There are differences in language. Now, rather than telling you that you are an asshole, the Forum leader simply tells you that your life doesn't work, and that it is your fault. The Forum is also less confrontational than est, it's a shorter programme, and you are allowed to go to the bathroom a little more often. But there are also certain similarities [many similarities--Timothy].
For one thing, many of the Forum's people are holdovers from earlier days. Martin Leaf, for instance, has worked for Werner Erhard in the past. Jinendra Jain said he had been doing this work for seventeen years, which places him firmly back in the est days. Likewise Toni Kendall, who said she had been involved for over twenty years. And the chief executive officer of Landmark is Harry Rosenberg -- Werner Erhard's younger brother. [Art Schreiber and Brian Regnier are also longtime est guys from the beginning.]
The Forum incorporates and even expands on most of the est jargon. The concept of "getting it," for instance, began with est. …
If anything, the language of the Forum is more twisted. Forum participants are now asked to "stop already always listening and be in the conversation," which means, I think, drop your preconceived ideas and listen to what I'm saying.
The confrontational nature of est was meant to create situations where people would be tempted to react automatically, and thus repeat past (and questionable) behaviour. It was the est leader's job to force them to react differently or, more accurately, not to react at all. The theory still appears to be in practice at the Forum. For three long days Jinendra paced up and down the aisles tirelessly, asking questions like some latter-day Socrates, and urging us to examine our lives to see how we always make the wrong decisions. You were supposed to face your past, examine your reactions, and finally let it go -- to "stop running your racket."
This turns the whole Forum into a disorienting exercise in self-absorption, where participants spend every waking moment talking about their own problems or listening to someone else's, without respite. Participants are supposed to approach each other and ask, "What's your story?" which is the cue to talk about yourself for as long as you possibly can. The leader asks participants to form small groups and "share your stories" during breaks) they assign homework, which consists of writing letters and phoning people (in the middle of the night) to "share your stories."
In one exercise Jinendra told us we didn't have to be at the mercy of mere feelings, that we could make a cool, rational choice to be, for instance, in love. Jinendra said that our feelings are "inconsequential left-overs from when we were monkeys." (He didn't bother to explain why monkeys need feelings and we do not.) One person stood up to disagree. Rather than explain it further, he simply said the same thing again. When his questioner persisted he told her to stop running her racket….
[When journalist Jeannie Marshall began to do some post-workshop research and investigation into Landmark, she quickly faced resistance to her calls and then a letter of legal threat:] I received a letter from Landmark's general counsel, Art Schreiber, informing me that they considered my questions to be biased and that if the article was published, "Landmark will take appropriate legal action."
When they realized that I was continuing my research, Landmark's counsel sent another letter to the editor of Saturday Night in which he clarified the issue that most worried them. "One of our major concerns is the inclusion of the defamatory statement alleging Landmark and its primary program The Landmark Forum as being a cult," wrote Schreiber. He noted that "while there is no definitive definition of what constitutes a cult," there are four characteristics generally considered common to them: first, that they demand their members turn over their assets to them; that their members are separated from family and friends; that they have a theology or doctrine their members are required to believe, or even worship; and that their members are restricted from activities outside the cult.
[Note from Timothy: these are very restricted and misleading criteria for a “cult”; see, for instance, cult expert Arthur Deikman’s earlier-cited fourfold criteria in Part I here, which are significantly different. And see my web-essay with a much more extensive list of “warning signs of dysfunctional cults,” wherein, among other things I make the important distinction between functional, healthy cults and dysfunctional, unhealthy cults, and clarify that the word “cult” originally and neutrally simply means “any group of people around a perceived ‘charismatic’ authority figure.”]
"Landmark and its program The Landmark Forum," Schreiber wrote, "do not meet any of these [self-defined ‘cult’] characteristics." And further, "The Landmark Forum does not involve any action that controls a person's mind. [It] does not tell participants what to think -- it empowers them to think for themselves."
[Note from Timothy: this, too, is a very debatable point! Many mental health experts think otherwise.]
Schreiber included copies of retractions published in Self, Redbook, and Guidepost magazines. He also informed us that Landmark had filed a lawsuit against the Cult Awareness Network in Chicago because they had implied that Landmark and the Forum are a cult….
At the Forum I attended, all those hours of collective soul searching seemed to create a mood of euphoria and camaraderie in the group. By Sunday night, people who were strangers just three days before embraced, often weeping with joy in each other's arms.
Almost everyone brought at least one other person to the graduation. They brought family members, friends, and people from work. Jinendra told us to bring as many people as possible, because the only way to really "get it" was to "share" it.
By the end of the evening, Jinendra announced that almost eighty per cent of the people in the Forum had signed up for the Advanced Course. Seminars devoted to the idea of making commitments, and lasting four hours a night, once a week for two months, were to commence the next week to keep us from losing what we had learned -- to keep us "in the conversation" until the Advanced Course was to start.
By then, people were freely telling their stories using the jargon Landmark had created for them. They recognized their "already always listenings." They felt they could spot a "racket" in a second.
[NOTE: Jeannie Marshall abruptly ends her article here. There is probable irony implied in this last sentence: namely, these Forum graduates can spot a “racket” in everyone except Landmark’s own leading personnel, who are deploying methods of mass control and persuasion for the sake of profiteering.]
3. James O’Brien, “Defending Your Life,” GQ Magazine / May, 2005, posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/
The Landmark Forum is the streamlined, slightly gentler offspring of that pinnacle of the 70’s encounter movement, EST. In EST’s heyday, large groups of groovy seekers were reportedly locked in rooms for as long as twenty hours a day over two consecutive weekends and subjected to fascistic group pressure, verbal abuse and brutal honesty, all in the name of self-empowerment, personal transformation, and the ego of EST’s creator, a onetime car salesman turned publisher named Jack Rosenberg a.k.a. Werner Erhard. In 1991, with lawsuits pending and a potentially damning 60 Minutes exposé about to create loads of bad publicity, Erhard sold the technology of transformation to a group of his former employees and split the country.
[O’Brien takes The Landmark Forum 3-day course in Oakland, CA, led by Richard Condon.]
… The conduit to our dreams of a powerful life—our Landmark Forum leader—is 56-year-old Richard Condon. Small, dapper, and strident, with a sparse goatee and an oxford shirt, Condon is a combination arrogant professor, soulful father confessor, hysterical drill instructor, and Boys in the Band bitch. (Not the gay part, just the occasional downright withering nastiness.) He takes the stage late in the morning on day one, like a headlining rock star, after his mild-mannered cohort, Barry, has warmed us up with various warnings of how emotional and mentally rigorous this long weekend will be.
… Concerns come from the group the first morning, Condon swats them away like gnats on a summer night. Yes, back in the ‘90’s, Werner Erhard sold his business to a group of employees, but this is not est. No we are not a cult: we are not a religion. We are not asking you to follow us, and if you do we’ll call the cops. When someone asks who Werner Erhard is, Condon is dismissive. Don’t worry about Werner Erhard. Worry about yourselves.
"You are living lives of sham and illusion," Condon assures us from his director’s chair. "Everything you do in life is meant to make you look good or to avoid looking bad. Everything. You are inauthentic. You have no integrity. Your word is worthless."
[Toward one woman who speaks of how she is helping to change the world through her work:] Condon is unimpressed and smacks her delusions back into her upheld chin, splat, like a ripe tomato. "Listen," he says, "I don’t know what your bag is, but you’ve never changed anything." But Condon’s not finished. You harbor persistent complaints and resentments in life, in relationships, he tells her, tells all of us. These complaints, along with fear, rule how you behave, how you interact, even with people you say you love. They make you inauthentic; they make your life a lie. And then he uses a brilliant Landmarkian term: These are your "rackets," he says, and henceforth rackets will refer not to some dubious business practices but to our stubborn need to be right, to gain the upper hand in every relationship.
You think this gives you power, Condon implies, but it drains power—and every time you argue with me, every time you insist on being right, you’re running a racket. If you want power back, Condon says, then during the upcoming break I want you to call someone you’ve been running a racket on, and tell them you are "inventing a new possibility for yourself and your life and ask them to join you in that possibility." Join you? Are we already recruiting?
This is an emblematic Landmark moment, when we fire up our cell phones and call those sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and friends we’ve been running rackets on and tell them that we’re going to stop blaming them for our pathetic lives.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it seems to me that this is a pretty loaded announcement to make to someone who might only just be learning of your debilitating grievances.
[At the break, as urged by Condon, everyone starts calling up significant others, but not author James O’Brien. Later in the break he does call his sister.] I’m troubled by something…: the effect the group has had on me. I hadn’t even known there was a group until, cell phone still in pocket, I realized I wasn’t part of it. I begin to sense the group congealing, becoming monolithic. Suddenly there is a magnetic core, and all those not yet attached to it are being sucked in. Then it gets worse. [O’Brien is describing here the insider-outsider dynamic of exclusivity that LGATs and other psycho-cults and religious-cults try to create for their own benefit.]
[To a woman whose father ignored her during key moments in her childhood, Condon responds:] "That never happened." Never happened? How does he know? He grabs some chalk and draws two circles on the board. One represents the day her father failed to show; the other represents her interpretation of it. "They have nothing to do with each other," he says. His [the father’s] failing to show did not hurt you, he tells her. How you perceived it hurt you. You go around blaming your father for your problems when really it’s your view that has created a barrier. You need to stop running this racket. You need to go call him again and "get complete" with him.
It’s a new story now, apparently more appealing, because enlightened nodding spreads across the room like contagion. I cannot fathom the great eagerness with which everyone has received the leader’s perverse psychology lesson…. All I can think is that although this woman seems like a perfectly nice person, her father really didn’t love her very much and she’s right to be sad.
Mine is a singularly dissenting opinion. I feel painfully self-conscious. It’s cold outside the core. By the end of day one, the Landmark Forum has become not so much a test of how much bad news I can take but how much loneliness. The Landmark method is working.
[The next day, Condon begins to denigrate the group:] “You behave in this room just like you run your lives. You cheat; you don’t keep your word. You eat in your chairs. You leave the room during sessions. You come back late from breaks. You speak out of turn. And the rest of you let this happen.” The message is clear: Who will police the group if not its members?
… The leader’s pale face has gone paler. His voice is taut with urgency. I think I see spit flying. He is a master of dispersed eye contact, and it is as if he is speaking to everyone and no one. Throughout this harangue, he repeatedly insists that none of us, not a single one of us, has even a shred of integrity. Our word is worthless. We are dishonest. His voice rising, he says, again, "You have no integrity!"
I sit in anxious silence with a hundred other hopeful souls as the leader berates us for an impressive two hours straight…. I’m thrilled with this chastisement—no doubt meant to urge me, to urge all of us, toward some kind of life breakthrough. It is indeed a crazy new world inside this brightly-lit ballroom….
To transform, to live your life powerfully, you must move into a realm without fear and so we talk a lot about what frightens us. Near the end of an endless day, Barry [Condon’s assistant trainer] leads us in a visualization exercise about fear that goes something like this: We are told to close our eyes as he reads to us from what sounds like a bizarro relaxation script. "Imagine that you are afraid of the person next to you," he says. "Very afraid." He’s quiet a minute, lets the anxiety he’s inspired percolate. I start to hear uneasy emotion-suppressing sighs. "Now… imagine that you are afraid of everyone in the room. Imagine that you are afraid of every single person in the city of Oakland, hundreds of thousands of people." I’m sitting near the front of the room, and behind me, off to the left, I hear whimpering. "Imagine you are afraid of every person in the United States." The whimpering intensifies. "Imagine you are afraid of every single person, all 6 billion people in the world." The whimpering becomes sobbing: further behind me someone might be hyperventilating. "Don’t go unconscious!" he yells. "That’s just your way of checking out!" The sobbing becomes wailing. And then, from right behind me, some lets rip a wild, primal, angst-ridden, high-decibel growl, like I once heard from my dog when she having a wild dream.
Then Barry says, "Just wait! There’s a surprise on the other side of this. Something absurd!" Sobbing, growling, and whimpering fill the air. "Now, are you ready for the surprise? Imagine the person next to you is—guess what?—afraid of you." Barry breaks into a giggle just the side of maniacal. "Now imagine everyone in the room, in Oakland, in America, in the world, is afraid of you!"
The sobbing begins to turn to laughter. We open our eyes onto a world in which we are powerful because we don’t feel fear, we instill it. I guess. I’m not particularly moved by the exercise. But Barry’s performance has provoked in the group a hasty swing of the emotional pendulum that reveals an ever-growing willingness to be led. I know everyone is tired, but their mutability disgusts me. I’d thought we were supposed to become more powerful here.
Apparently, Condon is aware of the chronic bleeding of the group’s self-will. Shortly, he begins to drill into our heads the essential nature of spreading the Landmark word, or "enrolling," which in Forumspeak refers to our urgent obligation to share our transformation with everyone whom we meet so they are "touched, moved, and inspired," but which I take to mean our obligation to market the curriculum relentlessly for the rest of our lives….
A guy called his father the night before to "get complete" with him, and overall it has gone well. Unfortunately, he neglected to ask him to come to our graduation night, when we are supposed to bring new recruits. Condon is furious. Not only are you not getting it, he tells us, but now you are really running short on time. It’s the fourth quarter and are down 50-0, he says, and I’m thinking about refusing to coach you. Looking naked and defenseless at the microphone, the guy who failed to invite his father to graduation tries to explain why, but Condon won’t hear it. Excuses are rackets.
The seemingly impromptu speech… seems to go on for hours. For long periods, Condon is silent. Fear of failure hangs in the air. This man who has tried to free us from fear is scaring us straight.
The tension becomes unbearable, and core participants begin to stand and ask Condon not to give up on us, to please coach us, to believe that we will "get it." Many have fallen enthusiastically into Landmark Forumspeak, and they say things like, "Richard, I’ve been out of my integrity, but now I am creating for myself and my life the possibility of being transformed and enrolling others in my transformation."
After nearly forty desperate hours, scant sleep, ragged emotions, aching heads and bodies hungry for Advil, after all this magnetic sucking in, I think most of us, even those careening happily toward a breakthrough, would accept anything the leader tells us, if this thing would just end. Thus, we are ready. As evening falls outside the ballroom, the imparting of the final, the essential, the transforming message of the Landmark Forum is upon us. Condon writes it on a chalkboard.
“Life is empty and meaningless, and that life is empty and meaningless is empty and meaningless.”
As you might imagine, with this quasi-existentialist pronouncement the room erupts in jubilation. The group is infused with energy and is acting as if the crappy past as we knew it won’t hurt us anymore, because, we’ve been told, it never really happened. Before the Forum, we were "meaning-making machines," like all the other untransformed humans. Now we are free of that affliction.
People are laughing again. Everyone is nodding like bobbleheads Condon has just flicked. There are bright beaming smiles all around me.
I’ve rarely felt more alone, but I hide my bitterness behind a wildly inauthentic smile. I actually applaud along with the group as people go to the microphone to say that they are finally free.
… These breakthroughs I’m witnessing here seem too sudden, too arbitrary, too much in line with somebody else’s idea of who or how we ought to be. They seem far too dependent on our weaknesses and our currently weakened state.
Most of those I meet at the Landmark Forum tell me they came at the unrelenting appeals of their recruiters. Nevertheless, I’d say a good 75 percent from my group sign up for the next seminar of their own free will….
4. Roland Howard, “Mindbreakers,” Daily Mail, London, July 23, 2001, posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark62.html [Roland describes David Sherman, leading the Landmark Forum training in London.]
[The Forum seminar is] three days from 9am until about midnight. We have short breaks every three hours and a 90-minute meal break at about 6pm. We are given homework tasks for the breaks and the end of the day. At night I got five hours sleep. Everything is oppressively featureless and bland. Nothing is allowed to distract from what the leader is saying…. It is impossible not to be affected by it. … We are discouraged from going to the toilet during the three-hour sessions in case we lose the 'narrative'. We are not allowed to take notes, eat or talk (unless instructed to). The doors are closed on the minute at the end of 40-minute breaks and to re-enter the room we have to apologise for breaking our word.
David pre-empts any doubts we have and assures us that this is fine, natural even, but if we want to achieve the benefits of the Forum we must banish these doubts. 'Otherwise you're wasting your £235,' he says. He describes himself as coach and us as athletes.
He explains that for the duration of the Forum he will be taking us on a roller-coaster ride and that he is committed to improving the quality of our relationships, our communication and our effectiveness in all areas of our life.
He is personable, powerful and articulate and has a no-nonsense manner: 'I'm committed to you having breakthroughs - to do that I'm willing to be unreasonable. 'Why? I'm committed to being unreasonable because I'm committed to extraordinary relationships. I think it's worth it. I'm committed to everyone doing the Forum, I believe in it.'
The philosophy of Landmark is then outlined to us in a kind of Forumspeak which touches on personal responsibility for our lives, deep self-honesty and a need to sort out unresolved issues with others. What we would normally call a 'hidden agenda' is described as 'running a racket'. We are told to see our everyday complaints as 'rackets.'
David then invites people to the microphone to describe their complaints and explains how these are just mental devices for blaming others. The payoff, he explains, is our feeling of self-righteousness. Several people go up to the microphone and talk about their 'rackets'. Some are petty gripes between couples. Others are more substantial. [In all cases, David basically tells them, “You are a disgusting racketeer” or similar insult.]
David goes on to tell us how our past experiences affect our lives. The interpretations we put on them are merely our 'story' and this can influence our view of reality.
[To a woman who complained of feeling “abandoned”:] David tells her that abandonment is her 'story'. 'Don't blame your mother, she loved you totally. In her society, she was doing what she had to do. So did your adoptive parents when they kicked you out. “I'm abandoned” is your story, your invention. You weren't abandoned,' he explains. She sits down to uproarious applause.
A young man [tearfully told how] he had been raped by his brother for most of his childhood. He had taken David's advice the day before and phoned his brother to create a breakthrough. 'I was willing to give up the pain for a good relationship,' he says. His brother had put down the phone. David urges him to phone again. 'Rape is interpretation. Brutality is interpretation,' he says. He had to forgive him. 'Get off your guilt and grow up,' he snaps.
Others were told that they were 'disgusting,' that they had hidden agendas in the most innocent of transactions and that they had clearings for abuse (Forumspeak for an openness to things, which somehow means they will happen). In Forum psychobabble, women were deserted by their husbands because they had a clearing, even a desire, for this.
Challenging David was difficult since we had to speak in Forum jargon and he was more adept at using it. But the main reason, I suspect, was that what David was saying was true in part: personal responsibility is good, and we do have hidden agendas. David billed himself (or Landmark Education) as our saviour. 'I'm more on your side than you are,' he said.
Before we left that night, David took us on an eyes-closed visualisation where we faced and became comfortable with our fears of others. We were to imagine that everyone in the room, then the country, then the world, hated us. I'm sure I've got some fears but this seemed too silly to take seriously and, by that stage, I was resisting the idea of giving my mind to the Forum. Others had no such misgivings. Within ten minutes the room was full of strangled whimpers and cries which soon became piercing banshee wails, screams and full-throated sobbing [see James O’Brien’s 2005 article for GQ magazine, quoted above, reporting the same exercise in greater detail]. Then David led people to what he said was on the other side of the fear [namely, as O’Brien reveals, that the persons on either side are afraid of you.] Some started laughing hysterically.
… David asks for any breakthrough letters. I raise my hand and am picked. 'Dear Dave,' I start, 'I'm on this course called the Forum. I'm enrolled in the possibility of self-expression and honesty,' I continue in faultless Forum-speak, 'and I believe you are disrupting our thought patterns.' I say [to him] that it is deliberately manipulative. 'The Forum has been one long attempt to undermine identity, which creates dependence. Forum junkies.' [!!!]
By the end, 200 jaws were on the ground. David's wasn't. Cool as a cucumber he said: 'Are you open to coaching?' I was, I said, so long as it didn't mean I had to agree with him. He told me that everything I had written was 'interpretation.'
I suggested that this was just as true of him, except that I wasn't in a position to earn rather a lot of money out of it. He started shouting at me but, feeling rather cross, I stood my ground. He continued shouting, glaring down at me from the dais, trying to drown me out.
I asked what he was afraid of. I pointed out that he had spoken for 40 hours, so why was he unwilling for me to speak for five minutes?
Next he invited me to leave the course. I declined and sat down. People's reactions at the next break were interesting. Several who had misgivings of their own thanked me for my contribution. Those who felt that they had benefited from the course were extremely hostile.
Later that day, most people signed up for the Advanced Forum. … I realised that well over 100 people had experienced a transformation in three days. The sense of euphoria that such an experience of accelerated community brings was remarkable. Perhaps this is why such groups thrive in cities where intelligent, rational people are lonely and socially isolated. Somehow a shared confessional experience such as Forum brings a sense of community....
5. Vanessa Grigoriadis, "Pay Money, Be Happy,"
July 9, 2001 issue of New York Magazine
"Living life powerfully and living a life you love" is the promise of the Forum. … The Forum is only the beginning: Seven out of ten people who take the Forum go on to a higher level of Landmark's "Curriculum for Living," which includes the ten-session "Forum in Action" seminar series, the four-day advanced course ($700), and the five-day "Self-Expression and Leadership" seminar ($200) -- about 250 hours in total. In addition, Landmark offers seminars on "Sex & Intimacy" and "Being Extraordinary" and a $1,900 "Wisdom Program." (Landmark also offers courses for children and teens.) Any of the 60-odd courses can be repeated, or, in Landmark terms, "reviewed."
Some Landmark graduates also volunteer for the company, which has approximately 500 employees and a reported 7,500 unpaid "assistants" (though Landmark puts this number much lower) who answer phones, sign up recruits, and cater to the Forum leaders…. For some, it's almost a second career….
There are the slogans written on the chalkboard by Forum leaders: change causes persistence; you must create a new way of being, but you are perfect just as you are. Even while Landmark teaches its truth, leaders repeatedly assert that "none of this is true"; participants need to "get it," but there's "nothing to get." [NOTE: for those with no background in Zen or Advaita or other mystical traditions that use self-deconstructive language, this kind of verbiage, put out without any real explanation, will be disorienting, which is what Landmark and other LGATs aim to induce in attendees.]
Landmark says Erhard has no role in its business, although their courses are based on his "technology" -- the structure, style, and system of beliefs he used in est and later in the Forum, which he created in 1985 when est enrollment started to dip. Landmark's Forum is shorter than est and has fewer rules….
Consider the way one Forum leader compares the program with est: "The est training was based on experiencing your experience. The idea was that if you really, truly experienced your feelings, emotions, anxieties, all of those problems in your life would miraculously clear up. But that doesn't quite get to where the bad feeling came from. What's unique and powerful about the Forum is that it gives you the tools to get to the source." The source, of course, is you.
[NOTE from Timothy: the Landmark Forum, according to many observers, is in fact quite similar to The est Training of the latter 1970s and early 1980s, involving the same core insights and goals, the very same philosophy of idealism, and even many of the same trainers, like Brian Regnier in the Northern California Bay Area, who has been with Werner Erhard since 1971.]
[The trainer for this New York-situated Landmark Forum is] Jeff Willmore, a 41-year-old former entrepreneur… Over the next three days, Willmore lectures about the principles of the Forum, introduces the vocabulary behind them, and calls up dozens of people to standing microphones to "share."
Once all the agreements are made -- and we've all agreed again that we made them -- Willmore introduces the idea of separating "what happened" from "the story about what happened." In each case, Willmore exhorts people to let go of their anger toward those who have hurt them. This is "getting complete," which involves calling up those who wronged you and asking them for forgiveness (a bank of phones are provided for this purpose). "Don't say, 'I forgive you even though you were a bastard to me,' " says Willmore. "Getting complete is the kind of forgiving where you say, 'Hey, I just wanted you to know I'm okay with you.' "
After you get complete, explains Willmore, it's time to have an "enrollment conversation," as in "I'm calling because I want to enroll you in the possibility of me having an extraordinary life." That's followed by the "invitation conversation," in which you ask those close to you to attend your Forum "graduation" on Tuesday night ("because it would mean a lot to me"), and the "registration conversation," in which you ask them to take the Forum themselves ("because I think it would be good for you"). "There's also a bonus assignment," says Willmore. "Who thinks they can bring three or more people to their introductory Forum?"
By the last night, people are pledging to invite everyone they know. At the end, Willmore scrawls on the board the phrase LIFE IS EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS, AND IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS THAT IT'S EMPTY AND MEANINGLESS, and the room goes nuts.
[This is the same line that Erhard shared with a CIIS group in 1983—as recorded later that same night in my red spiral spiritual notebook. This proves, contrary to what Landmark trainers say, that basic core ideas and philosophy of est are indeed identical to what is being taught in The Landmark Forum.]
Much of what the Forum teaches comes down to the Nike slogan --"Just Do It."
… Paul Martin, director of the country's only recovery center for such groups, Ohio's Wellspring Retreat. "For some people, life becomes living for the next seminar. It becomes, in a sense, a person's religion." Put a different way, "people become Landmark junkies," says exit counselor Rick Ross, who says he gets more calls about Landmark than about any other group [and who was sued, in vain, in a lawsuit by Landmark for “defaming” Landmark at his anti-cult website]. "They start to take courses, and they just don't stop."
[A woman] had a miscarriage. “I missed a seminar because I was grieving for my baby. When I showed up the next week, the leader said, 'The good news is the loss of your baby doesn't mean shit. What does mean shit is that you have gone outside your integrity because you missed your seminar.'" [???]
For many disillusioned dropouts, what seems to replace an obsession with Landmark is ... an obsession with Landmark. There are dozens of anti-Landmark sites on the Internet….
In the month since she took the Advanced Forum, Tootsie [a new friend of the reporter] has started to have doubts about Landmark. "I really believe in the work," she says, "but I think there are some things that aren't so great -- what's up with all this volunteering?"
6. Amelia Hill (in an article with a more positive conclusion): “I thought I'd be brainwashed. But how wrong could I be...” The Observer [UK], Dec. 14, 2003, posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark80.html [Hill describes her training with The Landmark Forum in London, led by Jerry.]
There are rules. Timekeeping is essential, toilet breaks are discouraged: missing even a minute will jeopardise our chance of achieving transformation. We will work for three to four hours at a time. During short breaks, we will have homework. Jerry is bombarding us with grand claims: . He slips in a reference to Arafat and Rabin shaking hands in the rose garden; it was a Landmark moment, he claims. Really? Our eyebrows have barely time to arch in cynical disbelief but he has swept on. World peace aside, this course will transform our lives, he promises. Transformation will come to all, but individual moments will vary: like corn, we are told, we will pop at different times…. To pop, we must make ourselves coachable. We must not, he emphasises, choosing the one word guaranteed to strike fear into my soul, be observers.
Are we being lulled into dangerous credulity? We discuss it anxiously during our first break. Are these mind games? Is this how brainwashing begins? We glance over our shoulders as we whisper together to see if we are being watched. Comforted, I think, by the discovery that we all share the same anxieties, we begin to relax. We start to take active responsibility for each other and a community is formed.
Over the next three days, we are educated in a mix of philosophies, psychology and religious theories, illustrated by readings from books, plays and one detailed description of the entire plot of Citizen Kane. Including the ending. The theories expounded cherry pick ideas from existential philosophy and motivational psychology. They take in aspects of Maxwell Maltz's psycho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud. Shadows of Abraham Maslow, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and P.T. Barnum flit over the proceedings.
We're encouraged to share and, schooled by Oprah in what to do with a platform and a neurosis, people rush to the microphone to have Jerry lay waste to their tales of parental neglect, social deprivation and emotional hardship. It's useful but not rocket science and I remained stolidly unpopped.
Jerry begins shouting: We're ugly people. Disgusting. Our behaviour is entirely governed by a need to look good which makes us liars, fakes and frauds.
[NOTE how shouting at and castigating of audience members stills occur, although Landmark is always billed as “much softer” than the old est Training.]
'You're disgusting,' he shouts. 'You just don't realise quite how disgusting you are yet.' He pauses. 'But you're just about to find out.' His timing is impeccable; we've hardly woken up and we're already hanging on his every word.
This morning, he says, he is going to force our resistant minds to recognise how fetid and mean our personalities are. He shouts, he mocks, he refuses to let us ask questions. He tells us we're liars and ridicules the stories we tell about our own lives.
I can hardly bear it. I resent the way he struts across the stage and the way he takes stock of us all, smoothing the pleats in his trousers and patting his hair. I find his confidence intolerable and am maddened by his belief that he knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet, I am gradually forced to admit that he might be right.
One after another, Jerry lambasts those who take the microphone to complain about how hard, harsh and unfair their lives have been. He pushes them through stages of anger, tears and denial until they stand face to face with their own delusions, deceits and contrivances.
Jerry knows he's won. Now that we're putty in his hands, he launches his bombshell. For every relationship that has failed, it is up to us to make it right. And now. In the next break. It's time for that phone call. He asks for a show of hands: who will make the call. A smattering of hands go up. Too few for Jerry, who tells us to begin the conversation with the words: 'I've been making you wrong for...', 'I've been resenting...' or 'I regret that...'.
There are more hands in the air now and Jerry ploughs on. However we choose to begin the call, he says, we're to end it with the unambiguous, unilateral statement: 'I love you.' A few people take their hands back down….
Landmark has faced accusations of being a cult, but I saw nothing of that. [NOTE: Amelia Hill is obviously only aware of a few criteria for dysfunctional cult behavior.] Far from working to separate us from our families and friends, we were told there was no relationship too dead to be revived, no love too cold to be warmed. [This is great, but there are many, many other factors involved in cults beyond splitting up and alienating family members—Timothy.]
People are straining at the leash to take their new-found confidence out into the real world. Everywhere, plans are being made; careers are reinvigorated and lives overhauled.
I wish I could be part of it but, apart from recognising a couple of useful lifestyle tools, I remain out in the cold. Eventually, I realise I'm breaking the promise I made to be coachable. I decide to stop analysing, and simply give Jerry my trust.
I ask Jerry to show me how to mend a once-strong relationship that hit a barrier. 'We make others wrong so we can be right and you just love to be right, don't you?' he says. His words mean nothing to me. I don't understand. Jerry speaks as though to a child. Chastened, I accept his condescension; I realise his words will change my view on not just this relationship but on others. I struggle and dimly begin to see his point. If my friend didn't regard what she did as wrong then there are at least two versions of her intention. If there are two interpretations of anyone's meaning, there might be dozens. If, therefore, there is no absolute truth, then whatever I believe about someone else's intentions says more about me than about them.
I realise I have, finally, popped. Now I have to make that call. 'Just tell her you love her,' Jerry concludes… It's easy, surprisingly so. In a single phone call I get a friendship back. She tells me she loves me too. I cry and am happy.
Two days later, after a tentative excursion into the real world, we return to compare notes. I cannot find a single person who believes their life hasn't improved.
The Landmark Forum is not magic. It is not scary or insidious. It is, in fact, simple common sense delivered in an environment of startling intensity. It is this intensity that makes the difference. While any one of us might well have already been told the same home truths by friends and family, we were too distracted by life and too wrapped up in our own defence mechanisms to listen.
Landmark takes you away from life. The three days create a bubble of possibility in which we were able to try on new opinions and experiment with fresh behaviours.
The Landmark Forum's 'SEVEN COMMANDMENTS' for being an extraordinary person:
1) Be Racket-Free: give up being right - even when you know you were.
2) Be Powerful: be straight in your communication and take what you get.
3) Be Courageous: acknowledge your fear (not necessarily get rid of it) and then act.
4) Be Peaceful: give up the interpretation that there's something wrong.
5) Be Charismatic: give up trying to get somewhere. Be entirely fulfilled in the present moment.
6) Be Enrolling: share your new possibilities in such a way that others are touched, moved and inspired.
7) Be Unreasonable: in expectations of yourself and others beyond what you would think they are capable of.
7. Peta Woodhouse & Marita Vandenberg, “Landmark Training ‘Cost Me My Job'” Contact (New Zealand) --Feb. 17, 2000, posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark52.html
Alvin Ralph says Landmark Education put his partner under so much pressure she came close to a breakdown. He says that pressure also caused the breakup of their relationship. Mr Ralph participated in a number of courses and his partner became a trainer. He thought the Forum was so good he paid for his three sons to go on it. But as he carried on with the courses he disliked the pressure being put on people and the mix of “praise and put down.” He said his partner was taking time off work just to memorise “pages and pages.”
Mr Ralph said the courses were “quite good” and there was some mending of family relationships. “Most people who do the courses believe it to be good value.” But he said getting involved in training others was “a different story.”
Yvonne Collin went on a course two years ago and says she came away with “real concerns about the pressure and emotional manipulation…. What you learn in the end is that the only meaning in life is the meaning that you give to it,” she said. She says her concern was not so much the message Landmark offered, but the pressure put on people. “It's the business side of it that disturbs me.” Ms Collins said she was still getting calls six months after doing the course.
8. "Soul Strip Tease," Stern Magazine, Germany/April 2, 1998
[English translation of a German article about various “Psycho-trainings” and “Psycho-cults,” including Landmark Forum et al.]
Some seminar providers make tempting promises: they talk of breakthroughs to success, of more energy and joy of life, and of overcoming individual obstacles. All that in just a few days: psycho-training as a miracle weapon….
Before one agrees to psychological training, a few points need to be checked out. Does the trainer consider each person individually, or are all participants sold the same recipe? In a seminar, each person must be able to decide for himself whether he wants to participate, or if he would rather leave. What education does the person who is giving the seminar have? (Basic therapist training lasts several years.) If these questions are cut short or answered only unwillingly, one should look around for a different provider.
Martin Lell [a physics student] took a three-day seminar from Landmark Education. Afterwards he was enthused: "I felt limitlessly free, all restrictions were gone. The world belonged to me, and everything was possible." Then came his psychological collapse. "I suddenly noticed how absurd it all was." "Brainwashing is an insidious process of destabilization and modification by manipulating social and psychological factors of influence," wrote acknowledged sect expert and psychology professor Margaret Singer. Nobody can defend themselves against the application of subtle methods of manipulation.
"It was a type of hypnosis from which you could not escape," verified Martin Lell.
The tricks of the process are known. They include strict rules, long work hours, food and sleep deprivation, bans on communication, physical exercise, cumbersome emotional exercises and a clever application of group pressure. It is the combination of these individual factors which makes even the strong give in. Only those who submit will advance personally, promise the providers. The choreography of the seminar has been worked out perfectly. The euphoria at the end is a hard and fast component of psycho-training.
The accomplishment, however, is not usually an individually tailored, voluntary modification, but a coerced tractability. In many psycho-courses, this subordination is part of the system. "The participants are supposed to learn to accept indisputableness in order to be able to live with it," stated Hans-Christian Doering, business manager of Block Training [in Germany], a rigid psycho-drill which is supposed to have already taken in several thousand participants. That does not differentiate Block from other controversial providers.
They consistently promise total control to the same people whom are then subjected to total control. A good example to read up on in regards to this is Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
American journalist Paul Keegan stated how people are affected by behavioral psychology after a visit to the U.S. psycho-cult, Lifespring: "We gave up control of our lives and we felt liberated. We said that we felt fantastic because that was how we were conditioned to feel."
9. Jana Martin, “The Con-Forumists,” Swing Generation / Nov. 1998,
posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark10.html
[A Landmark Forum for 150 people in Edison, NJ, led by Brian, perhaps Brian Regnier:]
"You're all here," he says, "because something isn't right in your life, right?" He scans the room as we nod. "And unlike so many other people [NOTE: notice the elitism here], you have taken the first step because you know you can be different." "In so many ways we mess up our lives," he continues. "But we can be 'extraordinary, powerfully self-expressed--Like Gandhi, Galileo. They may have lived before The Forum was invented. But they embody what it is about” [NOTE how Brian dubiously invokes the authority of famous persons and links them by suggestion to Landmark, increasing its status in the minds of attendees].
[Jana recalls:] When I bought my first car, the salesman let me in on a secret. There were five "selling boxes" he needed to move me through in order to clinch the deal. Box one: Get them into the showroom. Box two: Pique their interest. Box three: Make them think they're making the choice. Box four: Clinch the deal. Box five: Be sure to sell them the maintenance plan.
It's worth noting here that Werner Erhard began his career as a car salesman. And when I asked Forum graduates to describe the course, I got the inevitable answer: Come see for yourself.
We sit patiently in our rigid chairs, watching Brian move around the platform in his blue sweater vest, part Charlie Chaplin, part Mister Rogers. "I promise you," he says. "This'll be a roller coaster. You're going to feel awful. Then, great! You'll go down," he says, trucking his hand low. "You'll go up." As his hand soars he bends backward, the fluorescent lights dancing in his wire-rimmed glasses. "And what happens when you're on a moving roller coaster and you try to get off?" He mimes falling from a great height, arms and legs flailing, then flops still. "Don't forget," he says from his rag-doll squat. "You paid for it. So promise you won’t get off until it stops."
Brian tells us that once we accept our past as our past, and nothing more, then we can live in our future. We can be our future! … He shakes his arms and shoulders as if tossing off a great weight. "The past is so heavy."
"Committed." "Powerful." We hear those words a lot over the course of the weekend, along with "share," "support," "authentic." The Forum relies heavily on lingo [see Rick Ross webpage on "Loaded Language"]. Brian jumps back on the platform. "You can stay where you are and be the function of your past and your 'story,'" he says. "Or you can draw a line in the sand and step into a whole new life."
He tells us that we analyze too much, and that "it kills the growth process." We should stop trying to find reasons for everything.
If we stay on the ride, Brian promises (as if he senses my doubts), we'll experience a "breakthrough"-an unpredictable, amazing moment in which we're projected right into a future of fulfillment and power. "Your life, he says, "will never be the same."
Brian is diagramming two ovals on the green chalkboard.…then writes a few words. Over the first oval: "WHAT HAPPENED." The second: "INTERPRETATION." So this is the lesson on stories. "This is important," he cautions. "You need to find out where what happened became your interpretation, which took over to become your story of what happened."… We spin single events into epic stories that we cling to, he continues, "because being damaged is a great excuse." He acts it out, dangling one arm. "See?" he says. "I'm damaged. Ten years ago I broke my arm. It was so traumatic! I still can't do anything with it. If I can't blame anyone else for my broken arm," he adds, "then I'll blame my broken arm for the rest of my life!"
He invites people to step up to the microphone to share their experiences…. [A large man about 40 years old speaks out into the mike:] "Years ago, my family was murdered." Gasps. "I was the one who found them, " he continues, breathing in sharply. "I came home. They were all dead." The room is completely silent. "I could've been there to stop it," he says, his voice cracking with grief. "But I wasn't. I didn't stop it. Now they're dead." If television cameras swept the room, they'd find a mother lode of emotion, 150 people shaking their heads, bursting into tears. Even the most resistant of us crumble, all hammered, I imagine, by the same thought: What right do we have to complain about our lives in the face of such tragedy? So this is it. The breakthrough. The Moment. One man's testimony has plunged everyone into turmoil and grief. And our objections, our nagging private opinions, disappear.
Brian quietly gets off his chair. Unlike the rest of us, he isn't weepy and it's a relief. He walks down to the giant man, who is frozen at the mike. He brings him a box of tissues. He does not reach to clap a fakely reassuring hand on his back. Instead he begins to cast his tale in The Forum's perspective. "Can you accept this happened?" he gently asks. The man stares down at the green carpet. "It happened. No one would argue with that, or forgive who did it." "Yes," says the man. "But you didn't make it happen." The man rolls his head. "You did lose your family," says Brian. The man keeps his eyes on the carpet. Brian perseveres. "Can you accept that it happened? If you can, you can leave it behind." Between the two of them, there is a cord. Neither one moves, not wanting to break it. Brian repeats the question. Around the room, I can almost hear our heavy hearts beating. The man shifts. He bites his lip and frowns. Perhaps he is turning over the idea of acceptance in his mind, or considering his life so far. Then he squares himself. Stands up straight. "Well," he says. He looks up, unfocused. We hold our breaths. "Stay where you are, full of grief, " says Brian. "Or get on with your life." The man shifts. "I can," he says finally, and there's light in his face. The room breaks into low cheers, laughter, clapping.
[The assignment that night:] Write a letter to someone you haven't been straight with, come clean. [Jana wants to write:] "Dear Forum Leader, I haven't been straight with you because I don't believe you," the letter would start. But how would it end?
BOX THREE: Make Them Think They're Making the Choice
Sunday. I've hit the wall of Forum logic one too many times. From Brian's purposefully vague answers when he doesn't like a question to the room's cheerful, unblinking embrace of them, I am raging.
During Brian's segment on how we are "meaning-making machines"-- the world has no intrinsic meaning, we just impose our own--I lose it. I think of all I hold dear: memories, dreams, stories, and the rich fabrics we weave around our lives. What would The Forum's world be like? Poets silencing themselves for drawing too much from the past? Painters set down their brushes because they keep painting their first love?
After I tussle with Brian over the subject of brain injury ("What if your problem is you have a brain injury that chemically makes you nuts," I asked, thinking of a close friend. "You are letting yourself be injured," he answered), he won't call on me. [Jana leaves the room in tears.] From the periphery comes a blur of pink floral. A volunteer. I turn to her in my despair. "Are you O.K.?" she asks sweetly. "No," I say. "I am really pissed off and afraid for the world." "Then you need to go back in," she says. I ask why. "Because Brian will be covering what you need to know" [see Rick Ross webpage on "Demand for Purity"]. I challenge her. "How do you know what I need to know? I need to talk. I thought you were here for us." "You really need to go inside [see "Milieu Control"]," she says softly. "Brian will be covering this. That's the best way I can support you." "I need to go back in because I need to go back in?"
"By being outside you disturb everyone else's Forum," she says. I feel like a 2-year-old in the grip of temper tantrum. But you can only fight for so long. During the next break, right after I throw up my hands at Brian's sales pitch: "Be unreasonable," he says. "Tell your family to come Tuesday night and bring their checkbook!" I get into a scrap with course assistant Anne over my Personal Information form. They want to know where we are so they can "remind" us of upcoming courses. But I don't want to fill it out. Then the silver-haired woman says to me kindly, "Such a fighter. Why don't you calm down?" "I can't," I say. "So much doesn't make sense. … "That's nothing," she says. "Brian said it wouldn't all make sense." Her soothing ribbon of a voice waves in front of me, promising peace if I would just stop trying to analyze.
That night, when the former graduates come to congratulate us, I cheer too. When a woman dripping in African beads proclaims, "God Bless Werner Erhard," and Brian claps his hands, I beam. Sure, Monday, our day off, is uncomfortable back among the ordinary people. But then I'm at Tuesday night's celebration and everything is great again. There are so many volunteers, all smiling, silver and blue and green nametags decorating us like ornaments on a tree. So many guests who came to see what we did all weekend. So much joy! So much enrolling in courses! When Brian asks, "How many of us had a breakthrough?" I don't hesitate. I raise my hand with everyone else. Suddenly, I realize I'm in box four: Clinch the deal.
Life After The Forum
Why do so many people hook into The Forum every year and not let go? It could be, in part, that there are a lot of people with broken lives out there looking for any kind of glue. The Forum provides it--in a streamlined package that depends on only a handful of words. It's an easy formula, so long as you don't analyze too much.
Maybe another angle of The Forum's appeal is that Erhard, long ago, knew that whatever excuses we give for our troubles, deep down, we blame ourselves. Damage? My fault. Loss? My fault. "If only I," the anguished, family-less man had started. And The Forum doesn't try to deny it. It just shifts the meaning into the future, not the past. To be responsible is not to be regretful, it's to be optimistic: You are the architect of your own destiny; you can change your own life.
What a relief! How great it feels to have someone tell you that if you'd get back into the driver's seat and stop checking in the rearview mirror, you would actually get where you want to go. The only problem is, we're not cars. Brian described The Forum as a "technology," a mechanism for transformation [see "Sacred Science"].
But we're not machines. What do we do once we've consciously decided the past just happened and means nothing, when our unconscious won't accept that? "Like most therapies," says a New York psychotherapist who wished not to be named, "The Forum tries to get you to tell everything [see "Cult of Confession"], which you have to do before you can start working on what's inside." But, she warns, it doesn't give you the support to deal with the resulting shock to your system. "Without support," she adds, "depression and anxiety can set in."
"It's like being shot out of a cannon, " says another New York psychologist (who also asked to remain anonymous), who has worked with patients who've been through The Forum. "It's a tremendous high that can last as long as a month or two. But you have no way to stay up: They don't provide the foundation to do so."
Which brings me to box five: The maintenance plan.… I had no idea what to do with the few tools I remembered. Instead of helping me envision my future, Forum-ated life, I was told to take another $700 course. "You should really try it," course volunteer Anne said. "Why?" I countered. "Aren't you committed? [See "Loaded Language"]" she challenged me. I suppose not. Had I been willing to be converted, then I would have been willing to take another course; I would have been able to keep growing within the Landmark context [see "Demand for Purity"]. I suppose that's a form of maintenance, but I wonder.
Mary [a friend who took the Forum] was willing, but she wasn't willing to keep shelling out tuition money and getting a hard sell in return. Now she's back out in the world, like me. Unlike me, she feels like it worked. But she knew she would from the beginning. "I'll take what I can use," she had said that Friday morning. To that extent, she was converted before she even walked in. And that, as my salesman friend would say, is the easiest kind of person to sell a car to.
10. Dirk Mathison, "White collar cults, they want your mind ... and your money, and six of your friends. A look at the new, white-collar world of cults--where 'personal growth' means brainwashing." Self Magazine, February, 1993.
Posted at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark23.html.
[Mathison weaves the personal tale of Karen Thorsons, a 21-year-old nursing student into his narrative, while also telling some of the modern history of LGATs like est/Landmark and Lifespring]
In July of 1987, Karen walked into a hotel conference room and signed up…. Karen was about to be brainwashed. In her eagerness to comply with the seminar's rules for success, she would be an unwitting accessory in her own psychological disintegration, through trance-induction, guided imagery and other hypnotic exercises. And all in the name of personal growth….
Karen's experience began with a word, change, a buzzword this year, and every year, in America. She felt that her life could be better, to her credit, she set about trying to improve it. For the millions of people like her who hold change synonymous with hope, an entire industry, known variously as the "personal growth" or "human potential" movement, has grown up over the past 30 years.
The movement is huge, an array of self-help mentors and groups united by an underlying belief that problems cannot be solved on a piecemeal basis, but only by making fundamental changes in a person's psyche or belief system. It's promoted by earnest talk show hosts, laid on thick in half-hour infomercials. It comes at us from friends and relations, the church and the office -- particularly the latter, where seminars, workshops, and refresher courses are ubiquitous. Millions of people, at some time or another, attend some sort of self-help training session, which for the price of a 27-inch Zenith often promises nothing less than a total life make-over—improved relationships, greater productivity and bolstered self-esteem. An array of human potential practitioners believe that through specific exercises people can release their boundless capacities and reach "self-actualization." …
Karen's bad luck was to choose a program that had at its core a desire to manipulate and control its members for the profit of the few. These destructive elements can be found, more and more, in the groups that mask themselves as scientific, success-oriented, professional. They model their style and language on America's managerial class. They cater to corporate America with the lure of bullish sales. And, experts say, women are flocking to what are, according to Cynthia Kisser, Executive Director of the Cult Awareness Network, "upscale cults for the more affluent."
What makes a cult? "For our purposes," says Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program, "we define it as a group that, one, uses coercive pressure and deception to get people to join in and, two, uses mind-manipulation techniques without the consent or knowledge of the participant."
Slicker than the hard-core religious sects (such as the Unification Church and the Boston Church of Christ), the new cults keep a sophisticated, media-wise profile. Nevertheless, says Kisser, "they mirror techniques used by less sophisticated religious cults. The tactics are the same." And the results can be just as devastating….
Anthropologists have found evidence of groups like these throughout history and in every society. They are referred to as "cults of the afflicted," in which members, once "cured" of whatever ails them, go forth seeking new converts. It's a pyramid marketing scheme that dates back to the pyramids themselves.
Group therapy sessions in the Fifties started the modern trend. By the 1960s, those early experiments had evolved into intense encounters where members became openly confrontational toward one another.
One offspring of the medically supervised encounter sessions, called Mind Dynamics, introduced a business angle into the mix. The resulting cross between Dale Carnegie and encounter groups expanded the potential market, since to be unsuccessful, or even insecure, was to be "afflicted." Group therapy now was mass therapy (and "therapy" was soon supplanted by the more business-friendly term "training").
The mass training business took off in the Seventies; dozens of outfits with names like PSI World, Insight and Lifespring flourished. Werner Erhard and John Hanley were two early Mind Dynamics trainees. Erhard went on to found est, the mass training movement that talked about "getting it" --and most famously, wouldn't let enrollees go to the bathroom for hours. Hanley, armed with a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin, founded Lifespring in 1973.
By the early Eighties, despite frequent and heavy criticism from the psychological community, there were dozens of such groups, often started by graduates of est and Lifespring. (To date, some 400,000 souls have taken Lifespring workshops alone.) They've survived scandal and scorn, even legal action.
By first highlighting and augmenting feelings of insecurity, superficiality and alienation, and then offering to cure them, mass therapy groups tap into an inexhaustible supply of potential customers…. And, make no mistake, the modern therapy groups use a compendium of state-of-the-art sales tactics.
"These groups are very aware that just about everyone is vulnerable." observes Kisser. "We all have areas we're guilty about, areas we'd like to improve. The customers are people who wouldn't consider being involved with the Moonies or another religious cult. But they still have questions about careers and relationships."…
The mass therapy groups … rely upon deception and aggressive marketing techniques to keep warm bodies running through the training pipeline. "It's simply a form of pyramid selling." says Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading expert on the groups. "People are cajoled into promising to bring at least six guests to the guest nights. They use guilt to get their friends and colleagues to come. They say, 'Come on, I did this for you. You should do this for me.'"
Zealots offer to put the cost of a recruit's workshop on their own credit cards, with a promise that if the workshop isn't beneficial, the recruit won't have to pay for it. Guilt, of course, does the rest. The profit motive in the groups is carefully disguised. Membership becomes the goal. Those who bring in new members, says Dr. Singer, receive from the group only much-needed emotional strokes, which are withheld unless their quota is met. No cash. At the advanced stages, the loftier goals promised earlier are mentioned less and less. "At first, [recruits are] convinced they can transform themselves, even change the world," says Singer. "Then they become more and more aware that the whole point is simply to get people to sign up. They become depressed, and realize they weren't helping a soul, including themselves."
By this time, members have cut their ties to the outside world, abdicated their decision-making abilities and surrendered their psyches as well as, in many cases, any assets they might have. The cult is all the convert has left, which is why so many stay on….
[Lifespring’s John] Hanley [has]… fended off more than 30 lawsuits, some settled for as much as $800,000…. Clean-cut and collegiate in appearance, … Hanley is warm and sincere - particularly when compared with Werner Erhard, whose bluster can be felt even in a phone call. Unlike most of his peers, Hanley welcomes media attention. A consummate salesman, he has overcome many a harsh article, as well as six early mail fraud convictions - a testimony to his charm and the promise of transformation….
It was during the Korean War that, for the first time, American POWs defected or denounced their country in large numbers. The brainwashing process would begin when the Chinese Communists persuaded POWs to write down a mild criticism of their country, such as "America is not perfect."
This, say the experts on cults, is exactly how many of today's human potential groups begin their programs - with the strict observance of seemingly petty rules, such as needing permission to go to the bathroom…. Once you say yes to something small, it is that much easier to say yes to something big - even if that means revealing your innermost traumas to a hundred strangers.
Even the way that today's trainers often smile after barking orders is a legacy of the Korean War. "The Chinese knew that it was much more effective to smile at their prisoners than to torture them," says Singer.
The techniques can seem innocuous, at first. Some of them - guided imagery, for instance - may actually be familiar from a relaxation class…. In the wrong hands, however, these techniques can do an astonishing amount of harm. "Trance-induction," Singer explains, is brought about by "a high central focus of attention or concentration, which leads to diminished peripheral awareness. It can be achieved through various methods, and it's a means by which one person gets the complete attention of another." Closed-eye exercises, a form of guided imagery, can be one of the most powerful trance-induction tools used in workshops. With the sense of sight deadened, customers are more attuned to the voice of the seminar leader….
"The trainers usually get you to think of all your most powerful memories, under the guise of somehow conquering your past." After several days of being "dragged down into the pits," says Singer, "the final day of exercises is usually designed to pump you up. By this time, customers usually just sort of drool and follow the leader. A false sense of community and camaraderie has developed. By now, they do everything they can to give you the 'warm fuzzies,' so that you'll sign up for the next course."
Hanley says such talk of hypnosis and trance is absurd…. A long list of human-potential-movement casualties says otherwise…. Hundreds of… lawsuits have been filed against the groups.
Singer estimates that she has counseled more than 50 workshop graduates - some because of suicide attempts - in the aftermath of programs. "A trained professional knows when someone should not be put under stress," she says. "And these people have absolutely no training outside the group."
The price of "transformation" can be steep in other ways. Relationships end when one partner gets involved in training while the other shuns it. Family members come under bitter, unrelenting attack for "abuses," such as a lack of love or concern, that the convert has discovered during his or her training. Jobs are lost, either as a result of supervisors who insist subordinates take their workshop, or when an employee earns the wrath of his colleagues by proselytizing at work. Academic careers are either terminated or put on hold. Friendships suffer….
Now in the third workshop, Karen was awakened before seven every morning with a call from someone in the group. She had a list of goals to achieve, and number one on the list was: Who was she going to sign up that day? It seemed as if she just didn't have the time for the other goals about improving relationships and all. The group talked about "commitment," which meant getting more people enlisted. And "accomplishment," which also meant getting more people enlisted. She was exhausted and in short order lost 25 pounds she could ill afford to lose. She had no time for old friends. She was laid off from her medical records job after being told her recruitment for the group had cut her productivity. She decided it was too time-consuming to go back to nursing school. If she could not get enough people to the guest events, she was told, she must not care enough about her friends to convince them to come. Or, conversely, that those who refused to enroll were "trash." Increasingly, she found that how she felt depended on what they thought of her. And if she got a new member in, if she had made the "commitment," then the stroking was bliss. If not, then their disapproval was painful. Still, on the third weekend, the group picked her up and cradled her in their arms, rocking her slowly…. She decided to become a full-time volunteer…. She soon found that behind the cradling and the sense of camaraderie, the action was ugly. Trainees who dared to dissent were called "worthless." And then something clicked: She was not going to be allowed to comfort someone who was hurting. And she was going along with it? That was enough. At the urging of a friend, she went to the library and read about what she had just been through. I feel duped, she thought. Betrayed. And she got out….
11. Ben Winters, “Head Shrinker,” NewCity Chicago / 1999, archived at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark51.html.
[Ben describes Marlene, a trainer for the Chicago-based Humanus Institute, with its Landmark Forum-copycat Discovery Course (which, admirably, has its graduates signing up for lots of community service work, in contrast to Landmark).]
[Humanus trainer] Marlene tears in, telling us one by one and over and over that our failings are our responsibility, that it's time to stop blaming the world, stop blaming friends and family, stop blaming circumstances. If someone says their father is distant or uncaring, Marlene will say, "That's your opinion." If someone says they're shy, she says that shyness is nothing but a "racket" we use to stifle ourselves….
"The good news is, we've found the problem," Marlene announces to us more than once. "The bad news is, the problem is you."
We need to learn to live in the moment, give up all that baggage, stop letting ourselves be weighed down by a lifetime of "stories," all the meanings we've decided to assign to the things that have happened around us. This is the lesson Marlene is determined to make us see, and every time we don't we're interrupted, told to stop being resistant, told to drop the B.S. and just "get off it."
I take the microphone after one exercise - in which staff members holler in our faces like New Age drill sergeants, demanding we tell them honestly what we want from life - and complained about being badgered. "No," Marlene explains. "They were talking, and you were listening. The rest you made up."
She is never wrong. She does not brook discussion: Her insights are truth. If people challenge one of her observations about their personalities - which, remember, she's only known for a day - they are told they're being resistant, not allowing themselves to change.
The program protocol is brutal, painful and awkward, but it is also transfixing: Marlene's bluntness is fascinating, even intoxicating. By stepping on our emotional toes, she proves herself confident and charismatic, a woman unafraid to step outside the bounds of the acceptable, showing us how honest a life can really be. It's almost as if we come to love her. Those hugs I'd been anticipating materialize with fervor on the end of day two. Sometime on day three, one course member stands to praise Marlene: "I think you're incredible. I'm ready to pack my bags and follow you around like Jesus." "You're right," says Marlene. "I am great."
It was a combination of influences, a perfect mixture of charismatic leader, waves of intense peer pressure and what amounted to three-day isolation from the world outside the group. Marlene told us that there are miracles every day, and this was hers: a magic act, alchemy, transformation. I disappeared, I folded, I became as susceptible as I've ever been, and Marlene and Humanus were there, for 35 hours they were there, ready to fill in the newly-created gaping holes in my understanding of self and world with their vision, their ideology.
Reading other accounts of weekends like this, led by other "transformational training" companies - including Landmark Forum - I begin to find startling similarities. All the drill sergeanting, the unceasing intensity (during our one meal break each day, we were divided into small groups, with a "team leader" assigned to make sure we talked about the course), the "homework" we were given after each day's twelve-hour class to keep our minds on the task at hand. One description of a Landmark Forum course paralleled my experience down to the clothes the trainer was wearing and the small bowl of flowers placed on the front table.
There's a damning 1986 report from the American Psychiatric Association, and a snippet from The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, asserting that the claims of huge success made by transformational programs can be correlated not to the effectiveness of the programs, but to the type of people who would choose to go into them in the first place. I encounter the concept of "loaded language" - like Humanus' phrases "speak yourself" and "get off it" - common sense ideas that, simply rephrased and obsessively repeated, take on an irresistible, shamanistic quality.
Underlying it all - est, the Forum, and now Humanus, Chicago's homegrown offshoot of the transformational training movement - is a basic philosophical notion, which dates back not to Werner Erhard but to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. Reality is not reality, the line goes, but a construct. Absolute freedom is available, but only if you assume total freedom over your life, admit that all meaning is meaning that you invent and then choose to make happy meanings. It is a seductive idea, and one that is made tremendously easy to accept by the whole atmosphere of the Discovery Course. Lifted out of context, separated from any discussion of its philosophical evolution and influences, presented not scientifically but religiously, as a revealed truth, and in that intensely charged emotional atmosphere - it is, after all, much easier to have a "breakthrough" when you're surrounded by other people who are very openly and obviously having "breakthroughs" - this very specific, historically-evolved bit of ideology takes on the appearance of absolute truth: Not a, but the, way to achieve your potential. "This is not The Truth, not The Way," Marlene tells us, trying to hammer in the idea that we need - like Nietzsche - to get beyond right and wrong, but the implication of the whole thing is clear. If you know what's good for you, you'll take this advice to heart. You'll "get off it."
Dr. Robert Lipgar, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago who specializes in group therapy, characterizes transformational training as "an exploitative caricature of depth psychology, a bringing together of some of the techniques that have been used responsibly elsewhere." Lipgar won't say that transformational training doesn't work, only that people should think carefully, and get as much information as they can, before entering.
"I'm deeply concerned that it does amount to a kind of pyramid scheme that exploits vulnerability," Lipgar says. It's buyer beware because, like psychology or any other form of "coursework" involving one's inner life, transformational training can bring up some painful stuff: In fact, it's supposed to. But unlike psychology - or psychiatry, or dentistry for that matter - training courses are entirely unregulated by any system of licensing or peer review. Lipgar says that for forty years transformational groups have been resistant to doing any sort of empirical studies of their graduates.
On Monday night, after twenty-four hours back in the real world, the Discovery Course participants are reassembled at the hotel for our Advanced Living Interviews. Sitting one on one with Humanus volunteers, we discuss the commitments to authentic living we've made over the last few days and we share with our interlocutor how our first day as a new person went down. Last, but certainly not least, we are firmly encouraged to sign up for the next level of the Humanus Curriculum, the five-day Advanced Living Seminar [$995] that begins in ten days. We've been warned that if we don't continue with the program, all might be for naught.
Bottom line, Humanus wanted me to get out of my head, but I like my head: It's where I keep all my stuff. Sure, it's cluttered with received ideas and emotional wiring, the dictates of society and my own fears, but also my ideas, my opinions, my judgments and wariness. You can say that a guy who was emotionally abused or abandoned by his parents, and suffers as a result, is simply "making up a story," being a "meaning-making machine," but what happened is still true. Just as it's true that my parents, thank the Lord, are upstanding, moral people who taught me to think, to develop my opinions and stick by them, and, yes, even to be skeptical, skeptical of easy answers and quick fixes - and anyone that asks you for money when you're crying.
12. A letter to Robert Todd Carroll’s website blog at
28 Apr 2002
I really enjoyed your spot-on comments in response to the General Counsel [Art Schreiber] of Landmark Education Corporation (LEC). I had the misfortune of attending a LEC guest event, and I've never seen such smug, self-absorbed and self-congratulatory people. Much like the general counselor above, many LEC types bristle at equating EST to Landmark. Yet I've heard more than one LEC trainer and life-long Forum junkie declare--between emotional gasps(!)--that they've been involved with Landmark "for over 20 years!" [i.e., since the 1970s or early 1980s]. Clearly if, one does the math about when EST supposedly ended and LEC began, it certainly makes for a very revealing Freudian slip!
I also totally agree with your observation that LEC's true motive is to stifle all comments that it perceives as negative towards LEC. You clearly do listen and edit your webpage when appropriate, yet even this is not enough for the cult-like Forum fanatics.
And as far as disproportionate hostility is concerned: I should know, for I lost a best and beloved friend of over ten years to LEC. In less than 3 days they transformed her into a jargon-babbling Forum freak, who, when I presented her with your excellent site and also that of Mr. Rick Ross, she summarily dismissed all negative empirical research, magazine articles and personal anecdotes culled from over the past 30 years as merely rare psychological meltdowns or a conspiracy. She said that I "wasn't ready to 'get it.'" It's funny how all of LEC's personal responsibility mantras turn into finger pointing when they feel everyone isn't being "positive" enough. Sadly, only as long as my friend thought there was a chance that I'd do the Forum, she was still in communication. But as soon as I showed her the evidence that I based my nonattendance on and told her to stop talking in the annoying Forum jargon, she got cold and uncommunicative. She then told me that people at her Forum who'd voiced similar criticism were yelled at, and she said that "everybody hated them." And that last statement was from one of the most loving people I'd ever known, and I'd NEVER EVER heard her use the word "hate" before.
So as you can see from your own experience, LEC seems to engender in its converts a very hostile reaction towards any criticism (and sometimes critics) similar to its own. It's been nearly a year now and I haven't even gotten so much as an e-mail from my old friend. We used to e-mail daily, call weekly and meet at least twice a month. After my experience and reading Rick Ross's site, no one will ever be able to convince me that LEC isn't a cult or at least cult-like…exactly as the cult expert Dr. Margaret Singer in her book Cults in Our Midst stated in no uncertain terms. It's expert opinions like hers and Mr. Ross's that carry far more credibility than any dubious Forum apologist… Unlike LEC … I defend their right to express their opinions, but I totally condemn their hypocritical efforts to silence those whose views offend their overly sensitive sensibilities.
Proud to sign my name: ----
(The author requested that his/her name be removed four years later because of fear of being harassed.)
13. Excerpt from David DeKok, “Tuition expenses probed,” Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA) / Dec 18, 2005 [the first part of the story concerns the investigation of the Hershey Medical Center’s chief operating officer for 18 months, David Hefner, and his use of $6,000 in Hershey's operating funds to pay for the Landmark Forum training of seven medical-center employees, while Hefner was also serving as a part-time contract employee of Landmark from October 1992 until June 2004]
… Landmark's critics say its training methods are intensive, disorienting and even humiliating. "I would not recommend it under any circumstances whatsoever," said Rick Ross, head of the Rick Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups, and Movements. Ross, who is involved in a lawsuit with Landmark, said his organization receives frequent complaints related to Landmark, including workers upset that their employers forced them to attend seminars that tout belief systems they do not agree with.
[Landmark Education Corporation's general counsel Art Schreiber] declined comment, saying it concerns a subject of pending litigation…. According to a statement e-mailed by Schreiber, Landmark "is an international training and development company that offers a unique educational program that creates breakthrough results for people and organizations." It "offers programs that allow people to produce concrete results in their effectiveness, impacting those areas that are most important to them, including career, relationships, and productivity."
He provided a copy of a Harvard Business School report from 1998 that gave Landmark passing grades. [Harvard has previously gone on record to state that it does not recommend Landmark Education to the public.]
In 2004, a postal worker in Oklahoma was shot at random by a man who reportedly had just taken a Landmark seminar. A lawsuit was filed by the family of the deceased postal worker, but Schreiber said the family withdrew the lawsuit. Gaylon C. Hayes, a lawyer in Oklahoma City who represented the postal worker's family, says he withdrew the lawsuit as a strategic move. He said that, under Oklahoma law, a lawsuit can be withdrawn and then refiled no more than a year later. He said he plans to refile. Landmark was forcing him to depose witnesses from around the world, he added.
Landmark has sued Ross for product disparagement. Ross' pro bono lawyer is Peter Skolnick, a renowned intellectual property and First Amendment lawyer. His clients include David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," and the estate of Vladimir Nabokov, author of "Lolita."
Skolnick said Landmark is now trying to withdraw the lawsuit -- but he's fighting on behalf of Ross to keep it alive. Skolnick wants to pursue discovery he believes will confirm that Landmark threatens lawsuits against individuals and news organizations that are critical of Landmark. These are typically settled, Skolnick said, in return for a statement by the defendant backing off from criticisms.
"We asked the court to give us discovery to show that the case [against Ross] was not brought in good faith," he said.
Schreiber said in response that Skolnick "knows or should know" that it is not the practice of Landmark to bring bad-faith lawsuits to harass critics or unfriendly journalists. He declined comment on whether Landmark was trying to withdraw the lawsuit against Ross, saying that it is matter of pending litigation.
The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge John C. Lifland in Newark, N.J. Skolnick said he hopes the court will place conditions on any withdrawal of the lawsuit against Ross by Landmark that will make it difficult for it to bring these types of lawsuits in the future. [See below for ruling in case.]
14. Landmark Education suffers humiliating legal defeat in New Jersey Federal Court -- Dec. 22, 2005-- Posted by Rick Ross. www.cultnews.com/archives/000830.html
[Go to this website to access live links on different important topics and cases mentioned herein.]
Landmark Education suffered perhaps its most humiliating legal defeat to date this week. A federal judge in New Jersey granted the controversial seminar-selling company’s motion to dismiss its own lawsuit filed in 2004 against one of its most visible critics, the Ross Institute of New Jersey (RI) sponsor of CultNews.
On December 21, 2005 Landmark Education announced its defeat publicly, though news about its legal meltdown was already being reported in the press.
The private for-profit company tried to spin its defeat into a strategic retreat. Landmark stated in a press release that the motion to dismiss its own lawsuit was somehow due to a recent ruling by a New Jersey state court, claiming that this ruling "impacted Landmark Education's claims against” RI making it "no longer feasible" to continue.
Landmark’s General Counsel Art Schreiber, as is his practice, once again was hiding the truth. The ruling that Schreiber referred to actually "impacted" only a very small part of Landmark's lawsuit regarding the RI message board.
An interesting twist in Landmark's lawsuit was to assert the preposterous theory that the anonymous posts at the message board were actually all written by me [Rick Ross] through various contrived identities. Through that ploy, Landmark hoped to discover the identities of those posting anonymously at the message board about its programs.
Lowenstein Sandler, a large and prestigious law firm representing RI pro bono, opposed that attempt vigorously and successfully.
It doesn't take much imagination to guess what Landmark intended if it succeeded in obtaining the names of anonymous message board participants, despite its press release that proclaims the lawsuit supposedly "was not about stifling freedom of speech; we stand for people's self-expression." It appears that "self-expression" to Landmark doesn't include expressing criticism about its practices.
Landmark's recent press release contained many distortions of the truth. In the near future, CultNews will have more to report about Landmark's lawsuit and will offer a detailed review of why they really dropped it, which will include supporting documents, soon to be archived within the RI database.
Lowenstein Sandler's attorneys led by Peter Skolnik uncovered a great deal of information about Landmark through its successful defense and CultNews will make that information available to the public. The real reason Landmark dropped its lawsuit apparently was to avoid facing further discovery.
Landmark was thwarted in its effort to keep information revealed through discovery "confidential." This meant that whatever information and material was disclosed or found through the lawsuit would be open to public scrutiny.
In its press release Landmark once again made a "straw man" argument about critics calling it a “cult.”
CultNews and RI have never called Landmark a “cult,” nor did the now deceased acclaimed cult expert and clinical psychologist Margaret Singer.
Landmark attempted to defile the dead doctor by resurrecting her as its unlikely defender, selectively quoting a statement she once made as a part of a legal settlement after they harassed her through a lawsuit. While Singer never called Landmark a "cult," she did call its owners and operatives "SOBs" and stated, "I do not endorse them -- never have."
The elderly psychologist and emeritus professor of UC Berkeley opted for a "settlement" rather than go forward with the seemingly endless and expensive litigation Landmark had launched against her.
But the statement she made represented no change in Singer's position about the company or its seminars, which the psychologist dubbed "large group awareness training" (LGAT).
LGATs like Landmark have a deeply troubled history of complaints, bad press, personal injury claims and even links to murders and suicide.
Two Landmark participants have been linked to murders that some have speculated were caused in part by their seminar involvement, one in Minnesota and another in Oklahoma. And Landmark paid a substantial settlement rather than go to court with a woman raped and beaten by one of its staff in Dallas. News reports that contain such critical information remain archived within the RI database and Landmark understandably doesn't want this information so easily accessed through the Internet.
Also archived are press reports about the controversial -- some would say notorious -- Werner Erhard, a former used car salesman who supposedly invented Landmark's "technology." Erhard, whose given name is Jack Rosenberg, is the founder of Landmark's forerunner EST (Erhard Seminars Training). Erhard reportedly sold EST after scandal erupted about him in the press and on national television. His brother Harry Rosenberg now runs the company, which was renamed Landmark Education. They like changing names in that family.
Landmark doesn't like being linked to EST even though it largely lionizes Erhard with rather "cult-like" devotion.
... Landmark hoped through its lawsuit to coerce concessions from RI. However, Landmark received no concessions whatsoever, regarding the material archived at the RI database, adding additional material suggested by Landmark or somehow changing the format or entries at the message board. And all settlement offers made by Landmark to RI were rejected. Therefore, Landmark had no choice but to go forward and face further unsealed discovery or give up their lawsuit. Landmark chose to give up and packed it in through a motion to dismiss its lawsuit with prejudice, which means it cannot be filed again.
And so as T.S. Eliot once remarked "it ends not with bang, but a whimper."
And in memory of Landmark's past critics who endured its threats to sue and/or frivolous litigation this may provide some long overdue and meaningful closure. Margaret Singer, who spent most of her professional life dedicated to helping cult victims [and] endured Landmark's harassment, deserves that.
15. Response to Quest magazine article:
Richard C. Mehl, "Eliezer Sobel's paean to est," June 7, 1998, archived at www.culteducation.com/reference/landmark/landmark34.html
Had I opened a gourmet magazine to find an article extolling the gustatory delights of Velveeta on Wonder Bread, I would not be more shocked than opening The Quest to find Eliezer Sobel's paean to est.
I was saddened to find Mr. Sobel still trapped in the tangle of sophistries woven by Werner Erhard and his minions. I urge Mr. Sobel and your readers to turn to the literature on cognitive dissonance and coercive persuasion to make sense of the est phenomenon and to discover how vulnerable we all are to clever charlatans who prey on human weakness.
Erhard the huckster sold his toxic confusion by playing on the hidden fears, guilt, and shame of his victims. An est trainer yelling in your face "Your life isn't working, asshole!" might seem at first blush a tad disrespectful, even hostile. How much easier to let Erhard's specious double-talk convince you of his transcendent purpose than to face the ugly fact that the trainer is humiliating you in front of a large crowd. It's true that the trainer, after this intimidating outburst, would flash a big smile. Confusing? Of course, and designed to be so, but suddenly comprehensible if you realize what is the essence of a confidence game: that you are confronted by an enemy who is pretending to be your friend.
Mr. Sobel confirms the power of such trickery to persist. After twenty years the thought crosses his mind that maybe "the training hadn't worked" -- a sobering, uncomfortable thought. But immediately the trainer's deceptive suggestion, implanted so many years before, seduces him back to the comfort zone: "Just choose to believe that it did."
I had the misfortune to be snared two years ago by one of the "sons of est" -- they go by names like Landmark Forum, Lifespring, and Insight. After a struggle to emerge from this organization's noxious manipulation, these are the words I use to describe my experience: Outrageous betrayal of trust. Spiritual abuse. Emotional rape.
APPENDIX--Concerning certain controversies around Werner Erhard's behavior
Excerpts from two San Francisco Chronicle articles about Werner Erhard's abusive behavior.
"Ex-Employees Describe Abuse In Suit Against est's Erhard"
San Francisco Chronicle / April 3, 1990
By Don Lattin
Former employees of EST founder Werner Erhard say they were forced to obey the pop psychology guru in a manner “akin to God” and to submit themselves to “numerous instances of verbally and physically abusive behavior.”
In sworn statements, the ex-employees also charge that they were required to worship Erhard as “the Source” and were controlled with exhausting work schedules, loyalty oaths, threats and emotional abuse.
The allegations -- by five former staff members of est, of the Forum and of Werner Erhard and Associates -- were filed last week in San Francisco Superior Court in support of a wrongful termination lawsuit against Erhard by Charlene Afremow, a longtime associate of the human potential movement czar.
Vincent Drucker of San Anselmo, the former chief financial officer of est, said in one of the affidavits that a program begun in the late 1970s “put great pressure on the executives, including myself, to surrender to 'Source.'”
Erhard often compared the relationship between himself and his trainers “to the bond between a samurai lord and the samurai vas-sals,” Drucker said. “Mr. Erhard threatened me with death on two occasions,” he said, by citing “certain people in the Mafia.”
Allegations Denied -- In a statement released yesterday, Erhard denied all the allegations, calling them “ridiculous fabrications from a few disgruntled former employees.”
“Responding publicly to these unsupportable accusations point by point would only further the malicious intent of the individuals in question,” he said.
... Nearly half a million people took the est training, and 500,000 have participated in the Forum, an Erhard spokesman said. Werner Erhard and Associates, which runs the Forum and several other consulting businesses, last year took in $45 million in U.S. revenues, the spokesman said.
Range Of Opinions -- Opinions vary as to whether Erhard is a leading-edge thinker or slick purveyor of meaningless psychobabble, but the accusations in the court documents paint one of the darkest pictures yet of his San Francisco-based organization.
Former est trainer Irving Bernstein of Mill Valley, who quit in 1985, said in one affidavit that “the Source” was understood “to mean that Erhard was akin to God.”
“Leaving WEA (Werner Erhard and Associates) was looked upon as an act of heresy,” stated Bernstein, who said employees “essentially committed their souls forever to do the Work and do what Erhard asked.”
Michael Breard of Corte Madera said in his court declaration that his “interview process” for becoming a personal aide to Erhard involved spending two days “cleaning the bilge of the boat on which Mr. Erhard was living with a toothbrush and Q-tip.' Breard, who said he was hired on Erhard's staff in 1984, stated that he was told by Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, that he would be harmed if confidential information about Erhard's posh lifestyle were ever revealed. Breard said he was told that “Mr. Erhard had a friend in the Mafia” who would “take care” of anyone who leaked information.
Wake-Up Massage --He said one of his duties was to wake Erhard up every morning by “kneeling at the foot of the bed, putting my hands under the covers and massaging his feet and calves in a particular manner.” Breard also was supposed to make sure that Erhard's toiletries were lined up in an exact row each morning. “Mr. Erhard was an incredible perfectionist and was extremely verbally abusive if tasks were not performed according to his exact specifications,” he said.
Breard said that he was physically struck on one occasion but that Erhard's usual way to “berate me would be to scream obscenities at me in a voice which is louder than I can describe.”
At the request of Erhard's attorneys, the affidavits were put under court seal last week by Superior Court Judge Ira Brown. For a short time, however, they were open for public viewing and photocopying. The suit is set for trial April 16.
In previously filed court documents, Erhard's attorneys have denied Afremow's allegations of age discrimination, sex discrimination, defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
"More Allegations Against est Founder"
San Francisco Chronicle / March 5, 1991
In the latest in a series of damaging allegations, the 31-year-old daughter of EST founder Werner Erhard has accused the pop psychology guru of molesting her and raping her sister.
Deborah Pimental, a Stanford University graduate who is married and living in Honolulu, told “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley that Erhard molested her when she was 16 years old [c.1976]. In an interview broadcast Sunday, Pimental also said Erhard raped her sister 11 years ago [c.1980] while they were on a trip together, when the sister was in her early 20s.
“They had come back after dinner, and he had a very large suite, and they were reading a (pornographic) magazine together, and, you know, I'd rather not go specifically into, you know, the details,” Pimental said. “But he forcibly had sexual intercourse with her.”
Pimental said she and other family members later confronted Erhard with the rape allegation. “He admitted there was sexual intercourse and that it was a nurturing experience,” Pimental said. “He said he did not rape her.”
“It was not a nurturing experience for her, and she's had to have a lot of therapy about it,” said Pimental, one of four children from Erhard's first marriage.
Dawn Damas, the Erhard family governess, told Bradley that Erhard beat his son, St. John, for getting bad grades when he was 12 years old. After slapping St. John and throwing him to the ground, Damas said, Erhard told him, “If you ever get grades like this again, I'll break both of your legs with a baseball bat.” St. John, now 23, did not speak on camera, but Bradley said he confirmed that the beating took place.
Erhard, 57, did not reply to the allegations on camera and could not be reached for comment yesterday. He issued a statement to “60 Minutes” saying “to respond to the accusations at this time would only further publicly exploit my family.”
The “60 Minutes” broadcast also repeats allegations first reported in The Chronicle last April by leading est staff members who accused Erhard of subjecting employees to death threats, physical beatings, emotional abuse and demanding that they obey him in a manner “akin to God.”
Last month, Erhard announced that he was selling the assets of his company, San Francisco-based Werner Erhard and Associates, to a group of employees, who have renamed it Transnational Education Corp. [soon re-named Landmark Education] and who are marketing a variation of the original est workshop as “The Forum.” Ann Overton, spokeswoman for Transnational [Landmark], said yesterday: “I am sure you already know Werner is not a part of the new company.”
[Recall that all "technology" of the Landmark Forum is scheduled to revert to Werner in 2009.]
Lengthy "fair use" excerpts from the "60 Minutes" episode on Werner Erhard were posted by Rick Ross on Aug. 26, 2009 at
Not pretty reading! As cited by The Chronicle article above, it contains the detailed testimony from three of his daughters, several former est leaders, and a housekeeper-governess. We hear the accusations of Erhard of being a tyrannical cult leader who openly declared himself to be God at staff meetings; repeatedly kicking his 12-year-old son after hitting him and throwing him to the floor over the boy's poor grades (the son at age 23 confirms to CBS that the beating took place); ordering his ex-wife Ellen nearly strangled to death by a staff member during a two-day beating Werner administered; and the incestuous sexual molestation with one daughter and intercourse with another daughter. The "60 Minutes" episode also tells us that "Ellen Erhard divorced her husband and reportedly as part of the divorce settlement she cannot talk publicly about their marriage. [Her daughter] Adair Erhard told CBS that her mother was grateful though that she chose to speak out about her father's behavior and wished she could do the same."
For the sake of "fairness and balance in reporting," I present from the Dan Wakefield article on Werner Erhard for the March/April 1994 issue of Common Boundary this excerpt concerning some of the allegations on the CBS "60 Minutes" tv program about Werner Erhard. Readers are free to make up their own mind about the veracity of these allegations and denials.
Erhard's Life After Est
[...] Erhard’s enemies must have thought they’d heard the last of him after the 60 Minutes expose. On that program, three of Erhard’s seven children appeared. One daughter, Deborah, alleged that she had once been molested by her father and that he had sexually abused one of her sisters. The latter did not appear on the program and has never publicly made the allegation herself. The story about her abuse was repudiated by Maxine Forbes, a former assistant to Erhard who has had no contact with him for many years. Forbes was on the trip during which the alleged incident occurred, and she swore in a 1992 affidavit that there surely would have been some change in the relationship between daughter and father if such an event had taken place, but “there was no change.”
Erhard did not respond to the charges because “at the time of the broadcast, I thought anything I would say would only exacerbate the situation, and any denial would only further damage my family. I would have had to publicly call some of my children liars, and I was and am unwilling to do that. There’s been some significant improvement since then – though certainly in no way complete – in making the family whole again, so there’s a little more room for me to say things which set the record straight.”
He was referring in part to his reconciliation with his daughter, Celeste, who has since denied the allegations made on 60 Minutes, saying they had all been pressured by her mother [Ellen], Erhard’s second wife, to turn against their father, and that she [Celeste] also had been lured by promises of sharing royalties from a book expose [by John Hubner of the San Jose Mercury News].
“With regard to the serious accusations made on 60 Minutes by a small group of my family and former associates, they are all untrue,” Erhard told me. “Even most of the minor accusations are false.”
What about the charges of sexual abuse of his daughters? “They’re simply untrue. They’re not almost true or partially true or somewhat true; there isn’t something there that got twisted into what was said. There’s simply nothing. Those accusations are completely groundless.” Erhard also denies accusations that he struck his son St. John in anger over poor grades.
I asked him, “In reconciling with your first wife and children, whom you left, you asked for their forgiveness. Have you done that now?”
“If someone makes up something about you which isn’t true, you can be sure that, at least in their own mind, they feel they have a justification. In the case of my children who were involved in the attack on me, while I have some speculations, I just don’t know what they felt warranted the attack, but I asked them to forgive me for whatever it was. Maybe they felt I hadn’t been enough of a father, and too much of a teacher. While I always saw that there was time in my schedule for my family, I didn’t spend the amount of time with my children rather than using a softer psychological approach. I think I was a different sort of parent than what they saw in the parents of their friends. Maybe they thought life in the other families was more like the storybooks and they resented that ours wasn’t. Maybe with all this they felt I didn’t love them.”
“One of the misrepresentations of me is my relationship with my family. It’s true that I’m estranged from a few members of my family, but it’s also true that I have an extraordinary relationship with almost all my family. We get together-–in fact, we were recently together in Mexico: my mother, three of my [seven] children, my brothers, my sister, and a lot of extended family. We had a wonderful time being together.”
An excerpt from the Wikademia article, "Werner Erhard vs. Columbia Broadcasting System" [Footnotes deleted]
Erhard's daughters later retracted the allegations they had made against their father. In a case filed in San Francisco Superior Court related to assertions by journalist John Hubner of the San Jose Mercury News, similar to those made in the 60 Minutes broadcast, Celeste Erhard sued Hubner and the newspaper seeking US$2 million. Celeste Erhard accused the newspaper of having "defrauded her and invaded her privacy", in relation to interviews which led to two separate news articles in November 1990 in the Sunday magazine edition of the paper, West magazine. She asserted she had exaggerated information she gave to the reporter, and that she had been promised a book deal to be coauthored with Hubner for revenue of $2 million. Celeste Erhard did not dispute the accuracy of the quotes [from herself as presented by Hubner] in the newspaper. [!!] San Francisco Superior Court Judge William Cahill dismissed the case on summary judgment. Judge Cahill ruled in August 1993 that the statute of limitation had expired, and also ruled Celeste Erhard "had suffered no monetary damages or physical harm and that she failed to present legal evidence that Hubner had deliberately misled her." In January 1994, Celeste Erhard signed an agreement that she would not appeal the ruling of Judge Cahill.
[Finally, it is worth noting that, not only did Celeste Erhard "not dispute the accuracy of the quotes in the newspaper," the governess and other persons close to Werner who were quoted in the media never retracted their statements about Werner's abusive behavior.]