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!

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