Last Thursday, in support of a friend, I attended a self-help seminar in midtown New York City, in a building across the street from the only attractive building in the area, the post office on 8th Avenue and 33rd Street.
“Try to be early, because they have a thing about punctuality,” my friend told me. We were going to the sixth seminar of ten that she would be attending. The seminars were hosted by the Landmark Forum, a very popular self-help school of sorts that has branches in dozens of countries around the world. The seminars are three-hour bonus sessions offered after one attends Landmark’s three-day introductory course. (The introductory course costs $595.) The course participants are encouraged to bring a friend to each of the ten seminars. Obviously, this serves to promote the Landmark Forum courses to newbies, as well as to lend support to course participants.
My friend encouraging me not to be late was the first sign that this seminar would actually be beneficial to me. I am not frequently on time, unless it’s for something “important” (i.e. something that would cause me to not be given money I had anticipated receiving, or to miss a plane), and I am almost never early, unless I’m hanging out with my father, who is always early.
Being early doesn’t make me feel good about myself, as I know it should, in that it displays respect for the person or obligation I am meeting. Being early makes me feel panicked, as if the 15 minutes that I have to spend waiting for someone, or for something to start, are my last 15 minutes on Earth. How terrible that I should spend my last minutes on Earth pacing around aimlessly outside a building, swinging an umbrella, trying not to play with my phone. Yet: god forbid someone pluck me away from Just Jared when I am in the middle of “reading” about the fact that Jessica Alba recently went to a farmer’s market with her family. Those are not 15 wasted minutes.
So I was 25 minutes early, and in the process of being 25 minutes early, I felt ridiculously proud of myself. Nothing can stop me now, I thought, while standing on the subway platform at West 4th Street, waiting for a connecting train. I realized that even if the approaching A train stalled for 15 minutes in the middle of the tunnel, I would still be early. This had probably never happened to me in my entire life. We were off to a good start. By the end of the night I was definitely going to be drinking the kool-aid. I was already drinking the kool-aid.
Prior to the seminar, I had been forwarded this email by my friend, which explained what the evening’s session was going to be about:
Tonight is the night when we will all get to distinguish the elements that will enable you to take on the areas of your life where you thought the shift was previously unavailable or even unimaginable. We will go through the technology of inventing a possibility in a specific area of life step by step (each of you will work on the area of your choice). You and your guests will be able to see what was previously hidden from your view. And that will provide access into the new domain! Tonight is the night of making a difference in your life and in the lives of people around you.
I had spent the gray, drizzly day alternately writing and sobbing at my computer while listening to Sharon Van Etten, so, needless to say, I was excited to be provided access into the new domain and make a difference in my life and the lives of people around me.
Like any good workspace, the classroom of our seminar was stark, windowless, fluorescently lit and stuffy on this particularly humid summer night. No natural light, no air, lots of bodies in an enclosed space. Unfortunate, if you’re skeptical at all about the events that are about to transpire in such a place, which I was, but the better to focus with. After an enthusiastic but relatively information-less introduction by a woman named Victoria, the sender of the email, a woman named Karen swept in and onto the carpeted stage in front of us. Immediately I liked Karen. I loved Karen. I was going to do everything Karen told me to do. Karen was like that charismatic art teacher you had in middle school: tall, arms bedecked in jangly bracelets and ears in distracting gold earrings, wearing a loose white blouse and wide-legged black pants with sheer triangular panels down each side. You notice a lot about a person’s appearance while listening to them speak for three hours.
Karen, an Italian-American, grew up in a tiny town in upstate New York, a “nothing kind of place,” as she called it. She spoke loudly and persuasively. She was funny, encouraging, yet stern. When she fixed her dark brown eyes on each of us I think we each felt that we were meant to be here, that we’d been sleepwalking through life until tonight. Come on, she seemed to be saying, about our dead-end jobs and our inability to commit to lovers and our unwillingness to communicate with our spouses. Get it together! All with a glint in her eye. Karen had first come to the Landmark Forum at the age of 30. She was now in her 60s and had been working as a — what? motivational speaker? I still don’t really know how to describe what the Landmark Forum or its employees do — since shortly after that.
The focus of the evening was on an area of our lives that we weren’t happy with. This being New York, most people mentioned their jobs or careers. One person mentioned exercise. I don’t work out at all. I just look like this, the young woman said, gesturing to her formidable body. But I know I won’t look like this forever. Another young woman chose romantic relationships. She said she had a tendency to cycle through the same exes instead of taking the plunge and investing in someone new.
During a sort of testimonial session later on, this last woman spoke of how the Landmark course had finally allowed her to have a good relationship with her mother, who lived in Mexico. An ex-detective from the Bronx talked about how he had recently had a breakthrough with his wife. He had called her during the course and spilled his guts to her about how he felt, about how since retirement he had become a slob, and knew it, and knew also that he never listened to her advice. For instance, when he had bronchitis, she had told him to drink hot tea with honey. He hadn’t listened, but when his ex-detective buddies suggested the same thing a few days later, he immediately started drinking hot tea with honey. His wife, needless to say, was not happy about this. But when he called her, apologized, and told her how he felt about their relationship, his wife cried tears of joy.
A young man from Brooklyn told of all the opportunities he felt he’d missed in life because had always been afraid to approach people. After doing the course, he had gone up to a table of strangers at a bar about a dance party that it turned out they were all going to. He now counted this table of people among his closest friends.
In other words, everyone in the room that night was in some way — or in several ways — stuck. Fear motivated us. We were convinced that the things we wanted for ourselves were not possible — were no longer possible, or had never been possible. But, annoyingly, they were possible. Karen somehow convinced us that this was an urgent matter. It must be, because we were there.
The past, no matter how it actually transpired, is a truthy story that we tell ourselves, Karen argued, and it justifies our future actions. But the future needs to inform the present, not the past. She asked us to think of the future as empty, a blank slate, nothingness. This was close to impossible for me, like thinking of the boundlessness of the universe. I couldn’t help but immediately put bits of the past into the nothingness. Otherwise it would be too lonely. Lonely was scary. The future was like floating through outer space, and the past was gravity. The past, as varied, disappointing and predictive of future behavior as it was, felt safe. But as we all knew — we just apparently needed Karen to remind us — safe was bad. Safe was for immortals. Apparently we are not immortal.
The lingo of the Landmark Forum can be strange. They have a few mouthful trademarked phrases, such as Already Always Listening™, which is a wordy way of saying that our inner narrative, culled from the past, tends to color every event we experience and every interaction we have. Wordy, maybe, but comprehensible. They also talk about four pillars that enable a person to “win” at the various “games” that make up life. Being a sporty person, I actually appreciate the game metaphor, as overused as it is. The four pillars are also strange-sounding, but quite enlightening. From the handout I received as I left the room the other night, those pillars are:
Integrity and relationships: reasonable enough. People are the resources of your life, reads the Relationships section. People may be the coaches for your game.
But I got stuck on Existence, by which they mean keeping possibilities in existence. If you stop talking or thinking about a possibility, or so goes the Landmark theory, it will go away, because, in the words of Victoria, “humans are inherently lazy.” I’m not going to argue with that. “Keeping possibilities in existence” requires sharing those possibilities with others. Possibility lives in conversation, reads the paper. Then:
Keeping a possibility in existence requires having structure – for example milestones, a visual display, a tracking form, etc. You need to have something to keep the game alive in distance, time and form. Something to keep the game alive in reality.
To which the most successful people in my life would likely respond: Duh. But they weren’t in the room that night.
As for Enrollment, another sort of tough one: Enrollment is causing new possibilities to be present for another such that they are touched, moved, and inspired by that possibility, reads the sheet of paper. The only thing I could think of when we went over this section was, say, a millionaire with a cool app idea getting his friend, another millionaire, to invest a few million in his idea. It was hard for me to think of normal, everyday, me-type examples of this, to which Karen would probably respond, “Well, enroll in the course and you’ll find out.” Chances are I probably would. But I don’t have $595 to spare. Then again, neither did Karen when she enrolled in Landmark decades ago, at exactly my age. “What are you doing? You owe your sister money,” her mother had said.
A couple of Karen’s underlings that night did the hard sell with me. I wanted to tell these people that refusing to throw down $595 that I didn’t have to attend the introductory course was actually a good thing for me to do, because I’m usually quick to do whatever people ask of me. I held my ground, telling these salespeople that I had no money, which was the truth. They should have clapped or something, but they did not.
Karen, pro that she was, didn’t do the hard sell. At the end of the night, she simply asked, “Is there anything you need from me, Liz?” to which I responded, “No, but thank you. This has helped me so much.” Then I started to think that there was something I needed from Karen. I needed Karen! I loved Karen. I wanted to be like Karen. I want to be able to speak publicly with the bravado and exuberance of Karen. I want to be able to have a positive relationship with all the people in my life who annoy the shit out of me, the way Karen is able to with her ex-husband, a professional classical musician whom she met, incidentally, at a Landmark seminar. I want to appreciate the fact that there are many other people in the world as nice and special as my old friends. I want to “keep possibilities alive in conversation.” I want to “touch, move and inspire” others with my “possibilities.”
The problem with things like this seminar is that they eventually end, and then we’re left once again with ourselves and our pasts, inching ever closer to us like some weirdo on the subway. I like my past, I say stubbornly, but the reality is that Karen’s message about our full, messy past vs. our calm, empty, potential-laden future resonated pretty strongly. As with so many self-help philosophies, they only work if you’re willing to drink the kool-aid, or at least take a few sips, enough to suddenly see the same, tired, frustrating thing in a slightly new way — or radically new way, I think, in the case of some Landmark participants, particularly the ex-detective, who was the type of guy you’d least expect to see at a self-help seminar. For me, it was a reminder of an idea that I have long believed but prefer to shove into the dustiest corner of my mind until people like Karen make me retrieve it: fearsome things are difficult, but they are the things most worth doing.