Further Reflections on the Landmark Forum

In 2005 I took the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop. It was one of the most powerful educational experiences of my life. And like many Forum grads, I’m moved to dust off my memories of the event and document what still resonates with me.

First, however, some context.

The Landmark Forum is an extension of est and The Forum, which were created by Werner Erhard. As controversial as est was, it offered insights that are worth preserving. The Landmark Forum revisits some of these and adds more.

When people ask you about the Landmark Forum, I was told: Don’t summarize the content. Just explain what you got out of it.

What I got was three things:

  • Seeing myself objectively, including some painful insights into my pretenses and lack of integrity
  • Getting to nothing — seeing that my personal identity was based largely on arbitrary interpretations of past events
  • Creating from nothing by speaking about new possibilities and then aligning my moment-to-moment behavior with my speaking

Oddly enough, I also overcame my fear of public speaking enough to stand in front of the group several times and share some embarrassing personal experiences. 

This probably resulted from Forum-inspired insight into a) my near-constant fear of what other people think about me and b) how limiting that is.

During the Forum I somehow became willing to let all that go and risk full self-expression.

This alone was liberating and worth the enrollment fee.

Starting from absurdity

To distill the essence of any teaching, start with the diagnosis: How does it describe our fundamental issues?

For example, the Buddha started with dukkha — often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. Christians often start with original sin and separation from God.

The Forum starts from the premise that our lives are absurd.

To understand this, first consider that we are simply machines. Few of our behaviors are consciously chosen. In reality, they are driven by complex chains of stimulus-response conditioning. These lie well below our threshold of awareness.

What’s more, our whole existence is inauthentic.

We routinely suppress our emotions and hide what we truly think and feel.

We live in constant fear of looking bad in front of other people and then pretend that we aren’t afraid. 

And since we so seldom tell the truth about our experience — even to our intimate partners — our lives are fundamentally based on pretense.

Beyond this is what happens when we encounter people who disagree with us: Our first impulse is to dominate them and “win” the debate.

We work hard to make other people wrong and make ourselves right. This comes at the the cost of learning something new and seeing the world through fresh eyes.

What my Forum workshop leader said about this still rings true: “We’d rather be right than be in relationship.”

In addition, we live with an absence of integrity. We make agreements and consistently fail to keep them. We settle for coming up with reasons, rationalizations, and excuses for our failures rather than producing results.

Fortunately, the Forum doesn’t stop there. Even with a dire diagnosis, there comes a treatment.

Getting to nothing

One purpose of the Landmark Forum is to erase your identity and reduce you to nothing.

Seriously.

Consider that the core elements of our identity are rackets and strong suits.

A racket is a circumstance that you complain about — even though you receive a payoff from it.

Example: Suppose that my mother sends me money every week, even though I’m 48 years old. Every chance I get, I gripe that she’s overprotective. But if she ever stopped sending the money, I’d sure miss it.

Strong suits are decisions we make at certain crucial points in our development. These decisions might be random, hasty, and irrational. Yet they can shape our lives for decades to come.

According to the Forum, there are three pivotal decisions:

  • During childhood, you experienced a time when you weren’t good enough, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • During adolescence, you experienced a time when you didn’t belong, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • As a young adult, you experienced a time when you realized you were on your own, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)

During my own adolescence, for example, I didn’t belong to a group of peers that I admired. So I decided to become a straight-A student and master the guitar. These became coping mechanisms and ways to win social approval — my strong suits.

One entire day of the Forum was devoted to investigating rackets and strong suits. We learned to see them as arbitrary interpretations of past events — in Forum terminology, as stories

This, in turn, led to another purpose of the Forum — to systematically separate our stories from the facts about what actually happened to us.

I found that even a momentary glimpse into the emptiness and meaninglessness of my stories was enough to shift my perspective on just about everything.

This, in brief, is what happened to me at 5 pm on the second day of the Forum: I suddenly felt reduced to nothingness

This must be, I thought, what Buddhists call anatta, or “no-self.”

It was terrifying.

It was beautiful.

And it was holy.

As our Forum leader said: Life is empty and meaningless. And this insight in turn is also empty and meaningless.

Creating from nothing

Stated so baldly, “getting to nothing” might sound strange or even cruel.

Actually, it’s liberating.

From a state of nothingness, anything is possible.

Once you’re reduced to a psychological blank slate, you are free to reinvent yourself.

You can declare new possibilities — new aspirations, new outcomes — and align your moment-to-moment behaviors with them. (This alignment is the essence of integrity.)

Think of it all as a psychological re-boot. A large part of the Forum is about ways to do this.

The key point is that this kind of speaking is pure creation. We call new possibilities into being solely through the power of our word.

And, these possibilities can transcend rackets and strong suits, which are part of the past that no longer binds you.

This leads to my 9-word summary of the Forum: Get to nothing. Create from nothing. Act with integrity.

Seven key distinctions

Every system for self-transformation posits some kind of ideal state — a vision, as Carl Rogers described it, of a “fully functioning human being.”

According to the Forum, we can ultimately become unreasonable in the best sense of that word. This does not mean being irrational. Instead, our possibility is to go beyond our reasons — that is, our excuses — for failing to create new results in life.

As we systematically practice creating from nothing, we demonstrate seven new ways of being:

  • Integrity — honoring your word; making and keeping promises that make a difference in the quality of your life; cleaning up the messes that result from breaking promises and then making new promises.
  • Being racket-free — noticing the early warning signs of a racket, such as losing your sense of humor; giving up being right all the time — even when you are right.
  • Being powerful — instead of using force, pressure, begging, or conning, producing new results through straight communication and taking what you get.
  • Being courageous — feeling fear, acknowledging it, and doing whatever it takes to keep your promises anyway.
  • Being peaceful — staying centered in the midst of chaos; dealing with what is rather than what “should” be; giving up the interpretation that anything is wrong; greeting criticism and personal attacks with non-resistance.
  • Being charismatic — entering the present moment and fully listening to people with no agenda to get something from them.
  • Enrolling — sharing possibilities that touch, move, and inspire people.

In the Forum, this list has an iconic status and is often called the seven distinctions of being an unreasonable and extraordinary human being.

Reflecting on what remains

It’s been a long time since my Landmark Forum experience. So what does it all add up to after so many years?

Remember that approaches to human transformation — even the best — come with inherent dangers.

For one, we can fall prey to “workshop syndrome.” This means basking in the warm afterglow of a powerful training — only to silently sink back into our behavioral status quo after our memories the event fade.

This is connected to the danger of abstraction — getting lost in theory and forgetting about practice.

It’s one thing to acquire some new terminology, as I did in the Landmark Forum. It’s quite another to to integrate those ideas so thoroughly that they change what I actually do on a daily basis.

Even so, the Landmark Forum still resonates with me. Four of its teachings in particular became working parts of my personal operating system.

First is noticing my desire to “be right rather than be in relationship.” After observing this tendency, I can remind myself to let it go. 

I can relax, take it easy, and open up to what other people have to say — no matter what that is. And I can free myself from the need to dispute it and force people to agree with me. 

A second lasting legacy of the Landmark Forum is compassion. I see now that we run rackets not because we’re evil but because we’re all thrown into this empty universe without a clue to its meaning. 

We’ve all felt existential fear. And we all did whatever seemed necessary to survive at the moment — even if it compromised our self-expression, our relationships, and our basic aliveness.

I remember those people who, like me, stood up in front of the room during the Landmark Forum and shared their stories. They were all like me, really — just running different rackets and developing different strong suits.

The content of those rackets and strong suits doesn’t matter. It’s the process that owns us. In that context, we are one. Remembering this helps to temper my anger and practice a little more patience.

Third is the matter of integrity. My practice is to give my word consciously then and keep it rigorously. 

Another way of saying this: I seek to be as dependable as gravity. Gravity never stops working. It just is. As long as you live on planet Earth, you can count on gravity. Absolutely.

The world works when people keep their word. When people don’t keep their agreements (and don’t separate their stories from the facts), then all hell breaks loose.

This practices hinges on recognizing when you are making an agreement. I’ve seen few people who do this. They make statements such as these with zero intention of following through:

  • We should get together soon.
  • Let’s do this again.
  • I’ll get back to next week.

You are hereby warned: If I ever say that I’ll give you a call next week, then you can count on the fact that your phone will eventually ring with me on the other end.

Finally, my intention is to operate without beliefs

Several people have told that I have to believe in something. Actually, I find that life works much better when I don’t believe in anything. 

This makes sense when you remember that belief is an attachment to an idea. And when you are attached to an idea, you are no longer willing to think about it and discuss any alternatives. 

Do you want to index all all the places in your life where you’ve stopped learning? Just make a list of your beliefs.

In a nutshell…

So now I can offer you a two-sentence summary of the Landmark Forum. It is a quotation from a collection of aphorisms that was sometimes given to graduates of the est Training:

One creates from nothing. If you try to create from something you’re just changing something.

So in order to create something you first have to be able to create nothing.

Those sentences are now alive for me.

Note: I also published a “distinctionary” of key Landmark Forum terms.