Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Clearing Landmark

I am a huge admirer of the programs of Landmark Education. I’m currently finishing up a 10 part seminar series on the subject of Excellence, which has me re-enlivened in my work and recognizing some inauthenticities on my part which have blocked me in important areas. A few years ago, I took the renowned Landmark Forum, which was  intense and brilliant in its effect of “clearing out” emotional and perceptual blocks that lie in the way of me being focused and powerful in important areas of my life. And twenty-five years ago, before Landmark existed in its current form, I was involved for two and a half years with the Breakthrough Foundation, a non-profit offshoot of Landmark’s predecessor, Werner Erhard and Associates. That program was my introduction to the ‘technology’ that Werner Erhard put together, that lies at the heart of Landmark Education and its programs today. And that long ago youth program remains one of the very best youth programs I’ve worked with, encountered or even heard about, in my almost 30 years in youth services.

But while being such an enthusiastic advocate of Landmark, and having such respect for the brilliance of its founder, I’ve always had a degree of discomfort with its evangelical zealotry. During those years I was involved with Breakthrough, I steadfastly resisted participating in the Forum. On my part, there was both stubbornness and insecurity at work there. I wasn’t going to be pressured into doing anything. I admired the intense and confronting ideas and tactics I saw at work, but would only give into them so far. While the rumoured notions of brainwashing were clearing absurd, there was a degree to which practitioners of Erhard’s technology bought into a kind of group-think, with its own language and value system, and I didn’t want any part of that. But, my insecurities came into play in that I could see how powerful this language and these values were, and I saw how much these practitioners credited Erhard with ‘transforming’ them, and I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything for shaping my life.

Years later, having experienced psychiatry and 12-Step programs, having more deeply examined my religious upbringing, and beginning to derive the benefits of meditation, I no longer felt so vulnerable to powerful ideas and the changes they generated. I was both more trusting of my strengths and more accepting of my failings, and therefore had less need of total autonomy of thought and idea. And so, completely removed from the recruiting fervor of Erhard’s followers, and remembering the power of the methodology, I sought Landmark out, and enrolled in the Forum.

It was simply brilliant. It was everything those colleagues of mine from long ago had said it would be – a powerful inquiry into ways of being, that step by step invited participants to discover and remove ingrained ways of thinking and perceiving that limited ones Living. And yet, there was that zealotry again, that constant exhortation to bring your friends, bring your family, bring your workmates, and even the strangers that you meet, that they too might benefit.

To me, having been brought up in a Baptist Church community, this type of appeal was both familiar and off-putting. I’d spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood reconciling my appreciation of much of the ethos of Christianity with my rejection of the rest, and with my recognition that other spiritual practices had as much or more to offer in support of spiritual growth and love and life as the preachings I’d been raised on. Any message that came close to sounding like a call to “the one, true path” was immediately suspicious and distasteful to me. The desire to share ones learning and growth and even one’s enlightenment, so that others “can have what I have” is a generous a and noble intention. Except when it’s coupled with the certainty that there is no other legitimate path, that any other way is a wrong way, and that others must therefore be saved from their failure to know life precisely as “I know it”.

Is this the mindset that the promoters of Landmark speak from? I don’t think so. But it’s close, it’s related. And I’ve struggled to come up with the distinction to define it, to nail down what I find so unsettling about Landmark’s constant, ever-present self-promotion.

When I signed up for my current workshop – again, independent of any outside invitation or pressure – it wasn’t long before my old complaint re-surfaced. I thought I’d come to terms with the fact that, well, Landmark is a commercial, for-profit enterprise, after all. Of course it will use its success to generate new business. And who better to go out and get that business than those who’ve just enjoyed the rich benefit of an outstanding service, impeccably delivered? But I could not get beyond the sense that, on some level, integrity was missing.

To my great relief and surprise, it was Landmark itself that delivered the distinction that clarified for me the issue I’ve been having with Landmark’s promotional zeal. It came during session number 8 of my current seminar on Excellence. The distinction brought to light was Hidden Agendas. Boom! That’s it. The seminar leader led us through an exploration of the phenomenon: professing a commitment to one thing while secretly harbouring a different intent, a different purpose. We looked at how disempowering it is when motives are kept hidden, unrecognized, unacknowledged – how this keeps a person from having the clearing in which to act powerfully, in which to be that which will bring a commitment to fruition.

The issue is that Landmark participants are constantly being encouraged to bring others to Landmark, ostensibly so that they can benefit from Landmark’s teachings. But what goes unacknowledged is that this is part of a business plan, that there are attendance and income targets being considered. It’s not that the aim to help others isn’t real. Landmark, which is owned by its staffers, has a great product, of which it can and should be proud. But when its self-interest in conflated with its message of open expression, of “speaking from possibility”, of honest communication without intending a specific result, integrity is lost.

In my reflection over the years about my dis-ease with Landmark’s approach, what often comes to mind is my very different experience with the Ontario Vipassana Centre, the non-profit organization that teaches and promotes Buddhist meditation. These two ventures are related in a very significant way in that, through very different approaches, they generate remarkably similar teachings, about the power and freedom of being fully present to life, in the moment and free of the anxieties related to obsession with past and future. But the Vipassana Centre hardly sells itself at all. When you go to your first 10-day training, you can’t pay for the service even if you want to. Nothing will be accepted from you until you’ve completed the course. And even then, there’s no pressure to give, only the message that any gift will assist the organization in speading its teaching to others. And in the many years I’ve been on the Vipassana Centre’s email list, I’ve never been asked or encouraged to recruit others – I’ve only been invited, in the mildest terms possible – to bring others to guest events or introductions. It’s an organization that sustains itself by donation alone. (Info about The Ontarion Vipassana Centre, which is located outside of Barrie, Ontario can be found at Interestingly enough, if you go to you will find info about Vipassana courses offered by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. The latter charges about $100. per day. Hmmm?)

Naturally, a for-profit and a non-profit entity are different creatures.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in deriving income and making a living from a product that is essentially spiritual. But the spiritual, transformative, growth-generating principles at the core of the product must be honoured in the presentation of the product, if integrity is to be preserved.

I intend to present this reflection to my seminar leader and to others connected to Landmark. I’m hoping that it will be well received, because I believe that what Landmark offers is invaluable. I can’t but believe that in eliminating this inauthenticity, it will become a more vibrant, a more meaningful and a more effective company. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for its Hidden Agenda will create a huge clearing for Landmark. And inside of that clearing...? Oh, what Possibilities!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Man, on a Pier, in the Dark

A friend of mine is drowning. He is angry, obsessed with the circumstances of his undoing, and with the ocean of indifference that washes over him, wave by wave, day in and day out. Maybe it's his anger that has kept him from drowning. Because he's determined to have justice. He did not place himself in this sea of troubles. He should not be here, but on firm land somewhere. Or in a boat at least, with a steady hand on the tiller, the power of the winds held comfortably in the fold of his sails.

My friend won't swim to shore, because drowning is his evidence, his proof of how he's been wronged. Difficult enough to get anyone to pay attention as it is, treading the deep dark waves, with only the occasional piece of floating detritus to lend a bit of buoyancy, while he lifts his voice in a roar, demanding his vengeance, his day of retribution. How much less chance of being heard once he is safe and dry again.

His story is that he was walking alone on a pier, in the dark. He was doing nothing more than passing his time, attending to nothing but to the stuff of his everyday, making it more real by remembering it after, or by looking ahead to what it would be. He could hear the surf, but could not see it. He felt the spray of the ocean across his face, a heavy, stinging blast occasionally slapping him out of inattention, to notice the chill in the air, the dampness gathering in the fabric of his thin jacket.

The truth is, he was aware of nothing more than a shape that brushed up against him. He will say that the shape was a man, and that the brush was a shove. He will say that he felt the malevolence, and further imagine that he was being stalked all the while he walked there, his aggressor waiting for the moment of his ripest vulnerability.

During his hours and days in the life-draining waters he has put various faces to the shadow. His past is peopled with enemies, declared and not, and with the envious, and with those secret agents of reasonless hate. And though he has no solid clues, my friend knows that, as there is logic and reason and justice in the world, when his day comes, he will point out his prosecutor and name him. He will no longer be shadow, but flesh, like his flesh, bone like his bone, with thoughts and dreams of his own, however twisted by spite. This tormentor will be named, and then will know how things come around, that there is a right order, and how courage prevails over slinking meanness. And on that day, in that future, my friend will be dry and content. Fulfilled.

But I say to my friend: swim instead. I ask him to raise his arm and to beat his anger usefully against the waves, then to do it again, until he is moving. I ask him to choose a direction in the blinding mist and foam, and to believe in that, instead of all the rest. Save yourself, I say to him, because there is no one else. All the rest are phantoms. I ask him...but you see, I'm not there, but only a whisper in the wind myself, which is nothing against the roar of nature he's battling, and the tumult of his own anger. That he will hear me is my own whispered wish, and only if dreams speak to one another is there a hope.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

And the Poor get Poorer

     They are shockingly obscene statistics, particularly for the self-proclaimed "Greatest Country on Earth". In the USA, the top 20 percent of the population owns 84 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent owns less than 1/3 of 1 percent! These facts are presented and discussed in a PBS piece I've linked to this post. One of it's commentators points out that this distribution of wealth is comparable to that of China, where half of the people are still peasants, and to some of the poorest despotic regimes in Africa.

     One of the more depressing aspects of this imbalance is that most Americans have no clue of this reality. They/We actually imagine that we're living in a far more egalitarian society. As reporters do an informal street survey, asking people to guess how the US stands in terms of economic equality, one guy even suggests that the US is an egalitarian society, that the bottom 20 percent owns a portion of wealth roughly equal to that owned by the top 20 percent!

     The other day, Warren Buffet, one of the world's wealthiest men, wrote a piece in which he calls or substantially higher taxes to the ultra-wealthy. He modestly asserts that while his own skill (which he calls the ability to judge value) carries far less social usefulness than that of a nurse, the structure of our economy rewards him vastly more than it does that nurse. And he calls for a re-balancing. But while he does so, a substantial number of citizen voters (and a disproportionately larger segment of the rich politicians who claim to represent them) demand that the rich keep their historically low tax rates. They demand this on principle, and as moral rightness. And they call for the slashing of the 'entitlement programs' that keep the shrinking middle class barely afloat, and the working classes mired in poverty.

     The notion that taxing is the stealing of peoples' money ignores the reality that it's only the 'community' that people create (and the markets, laws, infrastructure, shared language, customs and values) that makes "wealth" possible. And when the quirks of a market system lead to a reality where people can become billionaires by virtue of paying someone to shuffle papers (money & stock certificates), or by guessing right about the ups and downs of markets, while others labor with their bodies and minds yet can't escape poverty, something is drastically out of whack.

     I can't but feel that my generation - the Boomer Generation - has failed miserably to sustain the vision of fairness, equality and justice that was glowing ever brighter as we came of age. We exited the 1960's full of fire about social justice and ending the various forms of oppression. But along the way, we became addicted to our toys, complacent in our comforts, distracted by the accelerating amusements of technology and the explosion of individual choice. We've been enflamed by the battles for rights assigned by gender and race, by religion and sexual orientation. But it seems we lost sight of the battle for basic resources, for housing, for education, for the simple opportunity to live and raise families free of crushing economic pressures. We've created an economic system built on the imperatives of competition and the need for relentless growth, and it's led to a country that now boasts the largest percent of its population behind bars, a growing number of its children growing up in poverty. Basic health and education are increasingly out of reach. And our streets, airports and borders look more and more like those of a police state.

     Is this the America we want?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Making Wine

I imagined that making wine was hard
That it required some esoteric knowledge
or a paranormal sensitivity at least
Same as being happy
As meeting and keeping your right love

But the only hard thing is the truce with time
Believing in the possibility of wine, with only grape juice on hand
Other than wait, there is so little to do
Only choosing the grapes...for flavour and sweetness
Then letting time do it’s work
Time, and maybe biology... or physics
Or whatever science it might be

I pour the juice into the green glass carboy
Shaped beautifully like a rolling tear
And fermentation begins, filling the house with sweet odors
And the burbling chatter of the airlock

There’s the invitation to go on with life
keep my appointments
generate all the plans and accidents of my every day
Nothing to do here
The magic is propelled by its own incantation
a murmuring conspiracy of grape and germ and air
I’ve done my part
The rest happens when I’m not looking
Not being the hero, the mover, the cause

And so the world takes on a different hue and tone and weight
From not exactly waiting, nor being passive
Merely riding out that truce with time
The gist of which is: pick grapes when they are ready
Siphon off the first fermentation, when it is done
Wait some more – but not treading time, rather in forgetful being and doing in the world
The wine will come

Then the bottling and corking...
And I know – I’ve known all along
About all the promises made, kept and broken,
The sunrises, sunsets and moonshines
The passings and meetings and lingering
Greetings and goodbyes
That have passed in the making of a bottle

And I’m faced with a truth
That there is no making of wine
Because wine makes itself

Monday, August 8, 2011

Who, What and Why

      I received a phone call from a landlord the other day. I was surprised to hear from him because the last clients of mine that he'd rented to had become a nightmare for him. They were a group of friends who'd seemed to operate well as a unit. But when the young woman left, the two guys proved incapable of maintaining any standards. They'd invited friends and acquaintences to camp out on their floors, and the place had been trashed. They let food containers, empty cans and bottles and dog feces accumulate on the balcony, and they got into arguments with other tenants, some of whom had threatened to move out. One of the visitors had bombarded a middle-aged woman with obscenities when she refused to admit her to the building. It turned out that the woman was a relative of the building's owner. And random street kids had begun to stop by at all hours and even to scale the balcony when there was no quick response to their shouts for admission.

    So while this landlord had previously housed two other pairs of my clients, who'd done well and had never drawn negative attention to themselves, the last situation had soured things, and it went without saying that he wasn't likely to take in clients of mine again. Though the relationship had ended respectfully, and with sincere good wishes and empathy of both sides, I hadn't expected to ever hear from him.

    Except that now, several months later, a problem had arisen relating to one of those other rentals, that had seemingly gone so well. My clients had left the building some months before. The couple had broken up, after one of them suddenly spiraled into mental illness and returned to the streets. The remaining individual, had quickly fallen behind with the rent, and in order to make up the shortfall, invited a cousin to stay with her, with the landlord's reluctant consent. When my client found the situation unworkable, she too left, leaving the apartment in the hands of the cousin. He too fell behind in the rent, but took no successful action to do anything about it, eventually abandonning the apartment and all its furnishings, which the original young couple had received free from a local furniture bank.

     The reason for the landlord's call wasn't any of this. He didn't hold me accountable for the actions of the cousin, nor for his arrears. And though he'd lost some income on non-payment of rent, and would pay out more to have the belongings cleared and the apartment returned to rentable condition, this scenario wasn't too far off the routine run of things in the low-end rental market. The reason for his call was something a bit less usual.

     The tenants, when abandonning the apartment, had left four cats behind. When the property manager entered the premises, after posting notice, he found two malnourished adult cats and two kittens. It was a wonder the animals weren't dead. They were found during a period of stifling heat, and what water and food might have been left out for them was clearly long gone. The landlord was calling for my help.

     Technically, the cats were now the landlord's responsibiliy. According to the Landlord Tenant Act, the animals were to be treated like any other property. If the landlord wanted to 'dispose' of 'the property', he had to post notice, then 'maintain the property' for 30 days. Not surprisingly, this landlord wasn't willing to do that. Even if he did keep the pets for the month, there would still be fees he'd have to pay to turn them over to Animal Control or the Humane Society. The landlord confided to me that, if he couldn't come up with any better solution, he'd simply have the cats put out to the street, to fend for themselves.

     And so, I took the matter on. To make a long story short, I was able to reach an agreement with the landlord, and with a helpful supervisor at Animal Control, that 'for the well-being of the animals' I would pick them up from the apartment and deliver them to animal control as 'strays'. This was done, and the personnel at Animal Control took them in without question, though with an eyebrow raised at the notion that I'd 'happened upon' four stray cats. But they, like I, recognized that, in finding a way around the technicalities of the law, we were saving four cats from certain misery or death, and giving them a shot at adoption.

     What sticks with me about this episode is trying to imagine the frame of mind that led someone to abandon the apartment with four live cats locked inside. And, it led initially to some thoughts about my own clients, supposing them somehow culpable, though, so far as I know, they had nothing at all to do with this.

     But this situation made me angry. I wanted to assign blame. I found myself judging, and I determined that anyone capable of such callous indifference to innocent life was undeserving of support in their own struggle toward fulfillment. I wanted the suffering of those cats to be a lesson - a lesson underscored by a like suffering - to those I judged indifferent to any suffering but their own.

     But I cannot go forward from that place. It's too narrow, too locked in, by the rigidity of judging, by the harshness of a zero-sum mentality, by the brittleness of my own certainty as to the state of the mind and soul of another. How to judge? How to assign blame? How to assess sin? And, if there is some kind of blindness operating here, is it a condition of the eyes alone, or a disease of the soul?

     Is this a convoluted, intellectual path to negotiate over a few abandonned cats?... Maybe. And maybe it's not far enough. I haven't come out where I imagined when  I began writing this piece. It was originally intended to suggest an uncomplicated moral lesson. But now that seems more difficult to arrive at. And not quite honest. I have only to remember my own obsessions, my own locked-in preoccupation with complaints, mistreatment, with real and imagined pains, to also remember how such things can swallow up the very sun. I can imagine (because I can remember) that the person who left those cats did so convinced that it was the most generous, humane and hopeful act possible. The intention to give moral instruction seems pretty arrogant, and beyond the point. Anyone can be judged guilty. But does that in itself change anything?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Transient Village

    They spring up every weekend between late May and early September - temporary encampments, of people who have travelled from the cities and suburbs and the small towns, to enjoy a couple or three days close to nature. The campgrounds begin to swell with new-comers on Friday afternoon, and by Saturday the congregation reaches its peak. The village is formed.

    Cars and pick-up trucks park on the individual campsites, and tents of various kinds spring up between them. Others bring trailers of various types, and yet others come in small or full-sized recreational vehicles that are like small mobile homes.

     Most campers are couples, families with their children, or small pockets of friends. But often there are gatherings of large groups. They might be sprawling, extended families, associations of friends or neighbors, or groups gathering to celebrate some occassion or anniversary.

    These temporary communities spill over with children, splashing in the lakes, running in packs along the paths, rediscovering and inventing ancient and new games. Adults make their own fun, going on excursions to hike in woods, to kayak or powerboat on the waterways, driving into the nearby towns or exploring the countryside. There is occassional music to compete with the sounds of the birds and insects, made with instruments and voices, or blaring from car radios. The beer and wine begin to flow by mid afternoon, and they animate the camp fires that spring up at dusk and burn until the early morning.

    On a Saturday evening, these appear as entrenched little villages. Hammocks swing between the trees, cook stations sit on picnic tables, and camp chairs form circles around the fire pits. Clothes hang to dry and tarps are strung up as protection against the rain that is never so predictable.

    On Sunday - or Monday, if it's a long weekend - the camps begin to be broken down. There are always the few who begin packing up right after breakfast, perhaps because they've come furthest, or are simply anxious for the highway or for home. By mid-afternoon, the village no longer exists. There remain only a few occupied campsites, and they are scattered. Some of these are merely lingering, waiting for the rush of campers homeward to diminish, or just stretching the getaway for as long as possible. There are the privileged few who are here for another day or two, maybe a week. Occassionally, a family that is hopping cross country, park by park, camp by camp.

    It feels like part of an ancient process, this springing up and subsequent dismantling of villages. Neighbors for a day or two go their separate ways. A home is erected or inflated out of a trailer or the back of a car, only to be collapsed back into it later, leaving no trace that it ever was. The transient community that forms under the stars might be a modern counterpart of a nomadic tribe, except that the bonds between us are more abstract and far flung. We'll never come together in just this combination again.