Frequent Beyond Growth commenter Jack of the 32,000 Days blog recently wrote a blog entry entitled “Landmark forum – cult, scam, or path to enlightenment” based on his experiences of the popular personal growth workshop. His review was mostly favorable but also accurate, telling of the aggressive techniques used and the reasoning behind the workshop, but also noting some important points counter to critics of The Forum like that nobody was forced to stay in the room (unlike the original est training). I am still highly critical of The Forum and Landmark Education in general and do not recommend this workshop, but it was interesting to hear about Jack’s experience nonetheless.
I posted a long comment in response that I thought Beyond Growth readers might enjoy. My comment includes some ideas I’ve been working on around the philosophy of personal growth which is also critical of some of the presuppositions of The Forum. For context, you may want to read Jack’s post first.
Interesting review, Jack.
I’ve come to believe lately that the notion “There’s no meaning intrinsic to events that happened in our lives” is false, even though “Humans act like ‘meaning making machines’ and construct the meaning of everything in our lives,” is true. There are a likely number of possible meanings to any event which is not infinite and has contours based on individual history, cultural context, etc. Of these limited meanings, unlimited minor variations can occur, but they occur in the same way that one could take “unlimited” positions within a single room, bounded by the same 4 walls regardless. I think this view on meaning is consistent with the latest research into categories in Cognitive Linguistics (see Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff).
The major difference between my view and the view “There’s no meaning intrinsic to events that happened in our lives” is that the latter is aggressively nihilistic and the former constructivist but not requiring constant maintenance to avoid falling into a meaningless void. We can see this same aggressive nihilism in the movie Fight Club, where the ultimate solution from Tyler Durden is to form a violent, anarchist cult that seeks to destroy the structures of modernity.
If we believe things are ultimately meaningless, then we must constantly, consciously, and willfully be constructing this meaning. This leads naturally to the highly aggressive happy seeker who must at all times be in control of what things mean, bringing more people into their worldview or else it will all fall apart. While we do in fact construct meanings in our lives, there are not infinite possible storylines but likely clusters, common themes, etc. that bind us together as human beings. These aren’t exactly “objective” but more clusters of subjective possibility that we can select from and edit appropriately to fit the specific details of actual events in our lives.
Thus the events of our lives do have a sort of pre-given possibility for meaningfulness, meaningful specifically to the human subjects that participate in them. There is no need to fear any meaningless “objective” universe for such a thing is an abstraction—not an ultimate, observable reality—and instead we find that by surrendering into an unknowing void of meaning, we discover a peace of Being that is beyond aggressively grasping for meaningfulness or imposing our chosen meanings onto others.
I also have challenges to other basic principles of Landmark education, for instance the idea “We are all inauthentic assholes who lie and cheat our way through life, take the easy way out, and blame other people for our own problems.” I know plenty “authentic assholes” too, in fact most people who talk a lot about authenticity qualify as such, content to spew their insides out at all times, neglecting the importance of tact, of civility, and of social graces (including the authenticity of representing yourself differently in different contexts).
The shallow notion of authenticity as “just being yourself, the exact same in all contexts” is faulty for many reasons, not least of which is that who I fundamentally am changes depending on the context because I am a semi-permeable system in relation with other systems, not an autonomous impermeable entity. In fact, I feel that the biggest lie of them all is that one can act the exact same in all contexts, or that this would be somehow preferable. Should I wear a ratty tee shirt to a funeral? How about a tuxedo to a dance club? This kind of contradiction runs deep in Fight Club as well, for instance how Durden says “you are not your fucking kakhis” yet the entire movie is dressed in extremely stylish clothes. Or how millionaire actor Brad Pitt playing Durden says, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t.” The critique of culture is nullified due to participating in creating what is being critiqued while making the statement.
These kinds of errors in philosophy multiply when you combine them all together in one seminar. While I do think there are benefits to catharsis and the various exercises performed in such workshops, I think the errors in philosophy and aggressiveness of psychological methods ultimately make it something I cannot support or recommend to others for sustainable, long-term personal change.
For those seeking other critical views of Landmark Education and The Forum, here are some good resources:
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