British journalist Miriam Akhtar recently participated in the Landmark Forum and wrote an article about it a Bristol weekly magazine called the Venue.
Blueprint For Change
Miriam Akhtar Gives Her Verdict on The Landmark Forum
About 100 people are sitting in a hotel conference room in corporate land, Bristol. There’s a palpable sense of nervousness at what is the start of the Landmark Forum, an intensely American ‘personal development’ seminar that offers the possibility of transformation in three rather buttock numbing 13-hour days.
The Forum is undertaken annually by some 80,000 people worldwide, and Bristol is currently the only mainland UK location besides London to play host. Someone puts their hand up. He’s heard a rumour that we’re not allowed toilet breaks and will have to be escorted from the room if nature puts in an urgent call.
“Untrue,” says the Forum leader, but this is typical of some of the myths that surround the Landmark Forum. Many participants have significant, life-changing experiences – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The organisers bill it as educational rather than therapeutic, and you’re asked to confirm that you’re not on anti-depressants and are mentally fit enough to attend.
The Forum is the first part in Landmark Education’s ‘Curriculum for Living’. A lot of the weekend is about ‘completing with the past’ so that you have a clean slate on which to create new possibilities for the future. To get the transformation, you have to follow the rules and be ‘coachable’. At breaks, you’re sent off to clear up messes with the people in your life. Out comes the mobile to ‘clean up’ with long-lost friends, ex-partners, former work colleagues and elderly parents. One participant gets in touch with the parent to whom they’ve not spoken in 20 years.
I nervously dial my mother’s number as I sit in Queen Square. My mother is the very personification of the British stiff upper lip – even though she’s French. She’s taken aback by the phone call but I get confirmation that she does care, which is something I’ve doubted at times. I feel lighter afterwards. And it seems that I’m not the only one there who’s moved by a conversation with a normally undemonstrative parent.
At the last Bristol event, Forum Leader was Scott Forgey, a former defence lawyer from Florida who trained for ten years to lead the Forum. Scott is a complete livewire, who’s able to hold the audience’s attention all day. He takes his “skinbag”, as he puts it, around the world, delivering seminars and sleeping for only an hour or two a night. “Sleep is just practice for being dead,” he says.
Scott’s pièce de résistance lies in demonstrating how minor events in our early years go on to shape our choice of career. Scott’s happened at the age of seven when his brother shot his hamster. Years after becoming an attorney, he suddenly realised that the real motivation behind his work was “to defend the hamsters of the world”. I’ve seen aspects of the Forum’s training on other courses, but the success of what they do seems to come via the concentrated nature of the seminar. The breakthrough conversation with my mother would never have happened but for the Forum. The lengthy hours and short breaks are reminiscent of other personal development bootcamps that break you down before building you up again.
Landmark have attracted controversy and been dogged by cultish rumours in the past. Personally, I saw nothing to back that up. If you define a cult as something that controls people’s minds and separates them from their families, what I saw was the opposite – setting people free from past restrictions and bringing families back together by healing rifts. It’s the marketing techniques that grate. One of the Landmark principles is that you need to enrol others to see you creating a new possibility for your life. One way to do that is by asking your friends and family to attend your ‘graduation’ on the last evening, when they get the hard sell to sign up – something that continues into the follow-up seminar series, which is included in the price of the course. Every week you’re asked to invite people along in a way that feels heavy-handed and doesn’t go down too well with a British audience.
So does it work? I have friends who swear by it, and I witnessed people having profound breakthroughs during the weekend. For me, the jury is still out – I had plenty of lightbulb moments but, like other things in life, it’s a case of practising everything you learn in order to bring on the metamorphosis.