I have previously written about Landmark Education, first in an article in which I describe my initial reaction to being introduced to the Landmark Forum, and then shortly afterwards I wrote a piece in which I enthusiastically described what an amazing experience I found the Landmark Forum to be.
I still stand by what I wrote in those articles.
However, nearly two years have gone by since I first partook in the Landmark Forum, and since that time I have had a lot more experience with the Landmark Education organization that I now feel compelled to write about.
Immediately after taking the Landmark Forum I was on an incredible high. The experience for me was so profound that, as with any powerful drug, I immediately found myself wanting more. Luckily for me, Landmark has “more” in abundant supply as the Landmark Forum is but the first part in a three course series known as the Landmark Curriculum for Living. A lofty name that does little to temper one’s expectations.
The details are a little fuzzy, but if I didn’t sign up for the Advanced Course during the Forum itself, I certainly did shortly after as within a few weeks I found myself back inside the Landmark classroom, this time as part of the so-called Advanced Course. Unlike when I first stepped into the room for the Landmark Forum, I had no sense of trepidation this time around. One the contrary, I was excited. I was looking forward to the breakthroughs that were surely on the horizon for me. The Landmark Forum had truly changed my life, and opened me up to doing and experiencing things I never imagined I was capable of. If the Forum had been powerful, surely this would advance that power to a whole new level.
I was about to be profoundly disappointed.
The Landmark Forum that I attended had been led by a warm and kind lady with whom I instantly liked and respected. She was funny, and conveyed the material through personal anecdotes and joked. Never once did she yell, or even raise her voice substantially. This was significant to me as I had heard many stories prior to my participation of Landmark Leaders shouting at participant or belittling them into submission.
My experience in the Advanced Course was decidedly different. My course was led by a lady well into her seventies who wore a permanent look of scorn on her face. She was hard as nails, and often spat them. I took an intense dislike to her. At one point, I believe on the second day, I was seven seconds late returning from a meal break. I know it was seven seconds because upon returning to the room out of breath (I knew I was going to be late, so I had been running in hopes of sneaking in on time) I was ordered to stop at the back of room. The leader then announced to me that I was indeed seven seconds late and proceeded to lecture the room for at least a half hour on our lack of integrity, and our failure to honour our “agreement” for the course, which was to be on time. I ended up paying a visit to the centre manager to share my distaste and anger over the way this woman was treating the participants. This was a fruitless exercise as Landmark staff is well prepared for these sorts of issues and knew all the right things to say to smooth it over and leave me feeling like I was the one with the problem after all. Nevertheless, after that incident I essentially resolved to stay for no reason other than to ensure that I got what I paid for.
The trouble is I wasn’t really sure what that was. I had expected something that built upon The Landmark Forum, but all I was experiencing was repetition. It didn’t seem advanced so much as a re-mix.
Additionally I noticed something about the participants. While the group in my Landmark Forum represented a wide cross-section of society, the Advanced Course seemed to have a much larger contingent of the “I need therapy, please fix me” types of people. They constantly took up time at the front of the room whining about petty problems that made me wonder how they managed to make it through the Landmark Forum and not learn a damn thing. These people were profoundly annoying and seriously dampened my enjoyment of the course.
Despite all that I did eventually have something that at the time seemed like a major breakthrough on the third day (in Landmark, if you cry, it’s a breakthrough). And our dear leader revealed that she had been putting on a bit of a show, she wasn’t the cruel bitch she had been pretending to be, but actually a very kind and caring person (she even gave me a hug). With this new dose of feel-good, I happily signed up for the final component of the Curriculum for Living, The Self Expression and Leadership Program.
And this is where Landmark lost me.
I signed up for the SELP, as it is generally known, on the final day of my Advanced Course, which was some time in 2010. I did not end up taking the course until September of 2011.
As it happened the session I had signed up for was due to start on the same day that one of my best friends was getting married. I contacted the leader to let him know I would need to change to a different start date and his reaction floored me. Rather than being an understanding human being, he accused me of trying to avoid my commitments and asked me to look at where I was being inauthentic about this issue. He made attempts to guilt me into staying with the session I had signed up for, and even went as far to suggest I should attend the course anyway and then leave early to go to the wedding. As the location of the wedding was at least a two-hour drive from downtown Vancouver where the Landmark centre is located, this was a laughable proposition. He ultimately relented, but left me with a sour taste in my mouth and little desire to complete the SELP, and certainly not with him leading the course.
Month went by and I went on with my life and I did do much thinking about Landmark. I met the amazing woman who is now my fiancée (and yes, I do credit the Landmark Forum to some degree in making that meeting possible), and we started living a life together.
As time when on, and as life settle into a routine, I began to wonder if it was time that I completed what I had started, that being the Landmark Curriculum for Living. After all, the course was already paid for; I might as well tackle that SELP. I called up the centre and scheduled myself into the next available session that was not being led by the gentlemen who had, frankly, been such an asshole to me regarding my need and desire to attend my friend’s wedding.
Absence makes the heart grow more objective.
So here I was. Over a year had passed and once again I was sitting within the familiar four walls of the Landmark Education classroom, this time for the first workday of the Self Expression and Leadership Program. I had no idea what to expect from this course, and so my mind was wide open to the possibilities. Unlike the precious two courses, the SELP does not take place over an intensive three-day weekend, but rather is spaced over a period of about four months and consists of three full day workdays held on Saturdays every month or so, and Tuesday evening classroom sessions. The only difference between the classrooms and the workdays is that the workdays are much longer and have a three-hour recruiting session for the Landmark Forum tacked on at the beginning of the day.
The first day of the SELP can only be described as excruciatingly boring. I kept waiting patiently for it to get to the good part, expecting that at any moment the leader was going to offer up something profound.
It never happened.
The intensity and focus that made the Landmark Forum and the Advanced Course so powerful was entirely absent from the SELP. The name Landmark gives to the sessions that make up the SELP could not be more appropriate, you really do feel as though you are a student in a lecture hall. It is a struggle to pay attention; in fact it’s a struggle to stay awake. I dozed off more times than I can count over the course of the program. It was not the fault of the leader, a truly wonderful lady who commuted from Vancouver Island on a weekly basis to lead the course, all out of the goodness of her heart and a belief in what she was doing as, unlike Forum and Advanced Course leaders, SELP leaders are unpaid volunteers. No, it was definitely the fault of the material.
The many problems with the SELP
The material of the SELP is, well, there really is no material. Aside from a few new twists on some old concepts everything in the SELP is recycled. The difference is that instead of cramming it into one fun-filled weekend, it’s doled out slowly over several months. It seems to me that Landmark blows it’s proverbial load (and please, if my crassness offends you, skip this paragraph) with the Forum, summons up a valiant effort for another go around with the Advanced Course, and then struggles along desperately trying to extend the experience with the SELP when it should really have quit after round two and just enjoyed the afterglow (and let its participants do the same).
The first major problem with the SELP is that it is woefully misnamed. The name would certainly give the impression that self-expression is a major component of the course. I didn’t find this to be the case at all, unless you accept the Landmark definition of being self-expressed which I honestly don’t remember but I am pretty sure it was inane and silly.
In reality the framework for the course is very rigid and leaves little room for real self-expression. Each participant is expected to complete a “community project” the details of which I will omit for brevity and because they really aren’t important. Each project must be vetted and approved by a panel of coaches (more on them later). Then, during the course of the program each participant is required to complete weekly action plans, which among other things include spaces for the participant to list people they plan to speak to about the Landmark Forum.
This is a recurring theme in the SELP, getting people signed up for the Landmark Forum. The official line is that it really isn’t about the Forum, but that it’s just practice for having “registration conversations” with people for other areas of your life. I might accept that logic is it weren’t for those pesky three-hour Landmark Forum introductions that happen on every Saturday session, and that SELP participants are strongly pressured to bring their friends and family too, or the family night (they call it map night, in reference to the “map” of one’s social groups that each participant creates on a manila card at the beginning of the course) in which much the same thing happens. Near the end of my course, one participants had become so disillusioned by the constant pressure to bring other people into the Landmark fold that they had a tearful breakdown at the front of the room in which she lamented that she had gotten so much out of The Forum, and she so dearly wanted to be able to share it with her loved ones, but that she couldn’t do it now because her experience in the SELP had shown her that they wouldn’t be “safe” and that they would be bombarded with pressure to become salespeople for Landmark. I empathised with her.
When the focus is not on signing up new people for the Landmark Forum you can safely bet that a huge chunk of each classroom will be spent by having various Landmark representatives spend more than a few minutes plugging some other “must do” Landmark Education course, the benefits of which they can never fully articulate but only promise that it’s “like nothing else” and “on a whole new level” and other completely unverifiable statements.
But let’s get back to the coaches. I have some issues with the fact that the coaches are totally unqualified individuals, some of whom have not even completed their own SELP course at the time they begin coaching others. Most of them are truly exceptional and well-meaning individuals, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for them to be doing what they do. I learned to dread the calls of my coach (each participant is expected to have a weekly “coaching call”) because I didn’t want to have to explain what I was or wasn’t doing on a project I never wanted to do in the first place. The guilt trips were inevitable and I believe based on training that the coaches are given by Landmark. Many of the coaches were missing in action by the end of course, which is just as well as so were half of the participants.
I particularly took issue with the “head coach” for the course, a very obese woman, who had difficulty walking. I harbour no ill will to people with weight issues, in fact I feel for them greatly. But the idea that someone who is eating themselves to death is qualified to be a life coach of any kind is ludicrous in my mind, and it seriously hurt the credibility of the course for me from the very beginning.
I could go one, but suffice it to say I didn’t get much out of the SELP, and despite being offered the chance for a free do over, I don’t imagine I will ever revisit this one.
The phone calls
Landmark loves to call you. They like to check in, and make sure you’re doing okay. What that really means is that they want to check in and see if you’re ready to sign up for another course, or at least come back and volunteer your time so you can stay in the game.
Frankly, this ticks me off to no end. I have a hard time saying no when I am caught off guard on the telephone, and when you do say no to Landmark, they ALWAYS have a response. They also like to call from private numbers just in case you are screening your calls to avoid having deal with them.
I admit I am doing this right now because I got roped into volunteering during a surprise phone call I answered when my guard was down. I do not have the time to volunteer with Landmark, nor do I wish to do so anyway. I have had Landmark overload.
I suppose it’s more than a little inauthentic of me, but in this case I don’t really care.
So where do I really stand on Landmark Education?
It’s a tough question. Really it is.
I would still recommend the Landmark Forum to anyone who is looking for some insight into themselves, and into life in general. It truly is a powerful experience for most people, and for those that it isn’t I can’t see how it hurts. There are still people in my life who I would love to see take the Landmark Forum as I believe it would benefit them greatly.
The Advanced Course is good too, though it’s completely optional, IMO.
That’s where I’d end it though.
As for the million dollar question: Is Landmark Education a cult?
Nope. Its marketing techniques however make it very much like the Amway of personal development. Except unlike your average multi-level marketing company, Landmark Education expects you to harass, and potentially alienate, your friends and family for free, not just peanuts. And, like many MLMs, the product is excellent. It’s just unfortunate their method of marketing it is so obnoxious.