Jeannie Marshall, Saturday Night, June, 1997

That old seventies personal-growth fad has been resurrected and retooled, and it's coming soon to a corporation near you

I am by habit a punctual person, and although I left the house giving myself forty-five minutes for what should at most have been a forty-minute journey, I ran. I flew at top speed for about three blocks before I stopped to ask myself what the hell I was doing. This was day two of the Landmark Education Corporation Forum.

On the first day of the Forum - 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.

For our first break that day, he gave us thirty minutes to stretch our legs and go to the washroom. Three people returned three minutes late. The army of unpaid volunteers, all Forum graduates who had taken time away from their jobs and their personal lives to police us, stood by the doors, looking disappointed. From the front of the room, Jinendra glared at us.

After the second break, when four people arrived two minutes late, 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.

I was running the next morning because I didn't want to be the one to let the group down. I didn't want Jinendra to glare at me. 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." So, although it might be said that my decision was influenced by my past inability to do what I'm told when I don't think the reasons are sound, I stopped running.

The Forum is aimed at the person who feels that his or her life does not work as well as it could (fairly inclusive criteria), but the 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. The Forum draws clients from the likes of Procter & Gamble Canada and Monsanto Canada Inc. Jinendra pointed out with pride that Landmark works with executives, union leaders, and workers at Tucson-based Magma Copper Company, now part of BHP Copper, to make it a more effective and profitable company.

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. Most people remember est as the archetypal 1970s personal-growth fad, with Werner Erhard as its charismatic leader. Erhard attracted a lot of publicity, running from laudatory, in the early days, when such stars as John Denver and Valerie Harper praised him and his programme, to critical, as the media got wind of rumours of sexual impropriety with one of his daughters, tyrannical behaviour, and problems with the IRS.

These days, every six weeks, Landmark finds 150 new recruits to fork over $375 each, plus GST, for the Forum - a gruelling programme that lasts fifteen hours per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and more than three hours the following Tuesday evening, to say nothing of the homework assignments. There are no comforts. Landmark provides only a chair to sit on and a glass of water.

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, 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. 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. 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 practises.

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.

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 Scientology. Based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, 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. "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.

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.

The Forum incorporates and even expands on most of the est jargon. The concept of "getting it," for instance, began with est. In her book, Bry records an exchange between an est participant and the leader:

"'I get it,' one man volunteered. 'Getting it is whatever you get.'

"'If that's what you got,' came the response."

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 leftovers 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 I identified myself as a journalist and tried to use the old Socratic method of question and answer at Landmark's head office, I received a more hostile response. Mark Kamin, Landmark's media representative, told me they would not cooperate unless I sent in an outline of the "controversial" issues I planned to discuss in the article. I explained that I could not do that since I did not know what would and would not end up in the article until my research, which included interviewing Landmark personnel, was finished.

Instead I sent in a list of questions about Werner Erhard, the sale of the company to its employees, and Landmark's work with businesses in Canada. 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.

"Landmark and its program The Landmark Forum," Schreiber wrote, "do not meet any of these 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." 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.

When it comes to marketing itself to business, the Landmark Education Corporation may well be its own best advertisement. It inspires phenomenal loyalty among those who have taken its workshops, which enabled it to generate $33-million in revenues in 1994 with only about 200 employees, and thousands of punctual volunteers. What corporation would not want even a fraction of that kind of commitment from its people? And indeed, if Werner Erhard's approach was right for the 1970s, 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?

Landmark argues that many of the difficulties corporations face begin with employees whose ineffective methods of handling their personal lives spill over into their work. Its brochure for corporations promises that it can help companies "bring about a future of extraordinary organizational performance and results." It touts Landmark's experience with "large multinational companies," although it is not specific as to which ones. Landmark boasts of working with the Mexican Police Academy, and of aiding the peace process in Israel (or at least it did before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated).

Many corporations, however, do not want to talk about their affiliation with Landmark. Monsanto Canada Inc. will pay for any employee who wishes to take the Landmark Forum, yet company spokes-people will not discuss it. Johanne Cardinal, executive assistant to the president, said that she heard about Landmark while working at Monsanto, and the company paid for her to attend the workshops. She felt that her life and her work benefited from the experience, and thought it would be good for the company if everyone enrolled. After talking with Cardinal, I received a call from the company's vice president of people (her actual title) who told me that Johanne Cardinal was not an official spokesperson for the company and that Monsanto did not wish to comment.

Similarly, the president of Markham Stouffville Hospital, Marilyn Bruner, refused to be interviewed about Landmark. (In a February, 1995, article in the Markham Economist & Sun, Bruner and the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Jim Maclean, gave Landmark credit for inspiring them to organize a conference on healthy communities.) After months of simply ignoring requests for an interview, Bruner wrote a brief note stating that Landmark was simply one of many agencies available to hospital staff for training and education. According to Lana Burchett, the former director of community relations for Markham Stouffville Hospital, the hospital paid for and encouraged staff members from all levels to attend the Landmark Forum when she worked there. Although there was no explicit pressure to go, an administrator kept a list of who attended the Forum, and who continued to take Landmark's other workshops. Employees who were Forum graduates held their own social events. "It became like you were either inside or outside the group," said Burchett.

At Procter & Gamble in Toronto, the Landmark Forum is just one of many training programmes. Jacqui d'Eon, a company spokesperson, seemed a little reluctant to attribute any positive effects to employees who have taken the Foram. "It's very polarizing for employees. Some people love it and some people don't like it," says d'Eon.

Indeed, employees are often more sceptical than their bosses. Max Konigsberg, the president and CEO of Shirmax Fashions Limited in Montreal (which owns Shirley K., Addition-Elle, and A/E Sport & Co.) took est in 1981 and found it enlightening. "I got to see a glimpse of what was possible in the way of running an organization," he says. But then he tried to share his enthusiasm for est with his employees: "I guess I was too forceful about it. People started to resent it and turned off on me and on the work," he says.

He decided not to push the programme with his employees, but rather to lead by example and hope for the best. "It exposed people, in doing that course, to a very personal look at themselves. I eventually came to see that I didn't have the right to do that and that's why I backed off," he says. Konigsberg later went through the Landmark Forum and has introduced his children to it as well. He will also recommend it to any of his employees who show an interest. In fact, he endorses the programme on the back of Landmark's brochure.

Konigsberg may have been wise not to pressure his employees. In 1989, eight employees of the DeKalb Farmers Market in Atlanta, Georgia, sued their employer for forcing them to attend seminars given by a consulting firm connected with Werner Erhard. In 1991, employees of Seagull Pewter and Silversmiths Ltd. in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, tried to organize a union to prevent their employers from pushing est-based seminars given by an Erhard affiliate.

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.

copyright 1997 Saturday Night Publishing (Canada)

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TOPIC INDEX: The Forum and Similar Trainings in the Workplace