My Landmark experience begins the day a trusted friend recounts his weekend Landmark getaway. Quietly, I think to myself, "Poor kid. He has up and joined a cult."
I have heard the rumors - the strict bathroom policy, the no eating/ no drinking rule, the endless hours of class, the forced enrollment of your peers and family. Landmark Education has been kicked out of France. It also has the vague ring of Scientology, and all that California self-help mind control a la Tom Cruise in Magnolia or the pick-up artist from The Game. But my curiosity was piqued so I invited myself along to his evening class and joined on the spot. (Purely journalistic, of course.)
Day One: I Am A Jerk
On one sunny summer weekend in New York, I resign myself to a freezing basement on 33rd street and 8th avenue, surrounded by a hundred motley strangers. (Where do these people come from?) The Landmark coach steps on stage, a brassy French woman. Immediately I take to her; I can see there will be no forced hugging under her roof. So what exactly are we supposed to do the next forty-five odd hours of class?
The gist of it: participants stand before a microphone and share their stories with the room. A typical story: My rotten father left when I was eight, he ruined our lives and now I cannot trust men. I am middle-aged and single. (Good God, who are these people?) After a bit of fact-checking, our coach tears apart their logic in a trenchant French accent. "He left because your mother was unfaithful. Since you are an ungrateful brat, you never returned his calls. Too bad you are single, it is your fault."
Honing my college psych skills, I become an excellent sideline observer and help analyze these basket cases (OCD, Bipolar, totally schizophrenic...) But by the end of the day, I have heard enough stories to begin sensing uncomfortable similarities. Then a lady with crazy hair (she must have 15 cats) begins her sad tale and - damn - it hits me, I have used the same line before! Unnerved, I peer around the room and notice a communal look of worry on everyone's faces.
I start feeling a warped sense of solidarity as person after person goes up to the microphone's chopping block. "Your entire lives are spend trying to look good or avoid looking bad." The Frenchie raises an eyebrow, "And that little voice in your head? The one always criticizing and analyzing?" (What little voice?) "Yes, that one... That little goading voice always judging everyone and everything. You are a jerk. You have run 'rackets' on all your loved ones. (A 'racket' is a Landmark term signifying the stream of excuses we use to condone our stupid actions.) You are inauthentic. But even worse, you are inauthentic about being inauthentic."
We are left with a sense of desperation. Clearly, we are bigger jerks than we surmised. So now our assignment is to go tell it to the mountain. I return home, call my mother and apologize for being such a terrible teenager. She is surprised, thinks my apology is sweet, but didn't we get over that a long time ago?
Day Two: I Am Still A Jerk
So I arrive with a warm fuzzy feeling about my midnight call to Mom. (Aren't I a good person?) Actually, no. Truth is: I am still a jerk. This is further enforced after the break, as the group is reprimanded for straggling in late. We all have fractured integrity, breaking promises left and right, then cloaking them in reasons and excuses. Finally, we are sent home with an annoying assignment: I am supposed to invite three people to the Tuesday night open session. I ask my brother whose immediate response is, "Are you recruiting?" (Well, maybe.) I go to bed with a deep sense of resignation.
Day Three: I Am An Even Bigger Jerk
Sunday morning, I arrive irritated that I have spent my weekend in a basement, irritated that I have not yet achieved the mythic Landmark 'breakthrough.' Then a spunky blond heads to the mic and recounts her previous evening. She called three practical strangers to tell them about Landmark. Why? First, because she thought they may benefit. Secondly, because, well, why not? Her speech triggers something: I have been playing the Landmark game too safely.
On break, I practically sprint to the street, cell phone in hand. I can see the elephants in the rooms of my relationships, the things left unsaid, the hurts and betrayals never addressed. I get it. My breakthrough! I begin calling... and calling... flooding my acquaintances, friends, ex-boyfriends with apologies. I take full responsibility of the mediocre to bad things I have done in my life. Most importantly, I try not to judge them. And even though I do not ask for it, I get it back: forgiveness, gratitude, even admiration. A weight lifts off my shoulders.
The final drive of the weekend is heavily steeped in Zen. All we have is the now. We are only responsible for ourselves. Life is meaningless. I notice my little voice has quieted significantly, even if it has taken on a piquant French timbre (You are still a big jerk). For all the negative criticisms of Landmark, I admit I had an overwhelmingly positive experience.
An acquaintance complains, "If they are really offering a life-changing experience, why isn't it free?" I think quietly of the collection plate at church, reserve my judgment in true Landmark fashion, and gently add, "Perhaps you can come on Tuesday night?"