Sep 21, 2016

Landmark Forum: Mysterious training course coming to your office

SEPTEMBER 20, 2016

Emma Reynolds

IT’S a personal development course that promises “positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life — in just three days”.

The intensive training is delivered in more than 125 cities globally by California-based Landmark Worldwide, which has a revenue of almost $120 million.

Companies including activewear retailer Lululemon pay for staff to attend the self-help seminars — although the activewear giant last year suggested it was putting less pressure on employees to take part.

But while many credit the introductory Landmark Forum Program with transforming their lives, others have slammed it as “Scientology lite” and exploitative of vulnerable people, all of which the organisation strongly denies.

Landmark told there was “absolutely no similarity” between the organisation and Scientology, that participants sign a legal document stating they are taking the course of their own volition and that a refund was offered to anyone who was pressured into attending by their employer.

Kevin*, from Sydney, had never heard of Landmark, but was unperturbed to hear he was expected to attend a training course when he started a new job. He did find it slightly jarring that his new office expected him to pay the $725 for the three-day program in Pyrmont, but he needed work.

It was only when he arrived that he started to think his situation was really strange.



Kevin realised he was at an immersive self-help program, which would run from 9am to 10pm from Friday to Sunday, with a return visit on a Tuesday evening, to which participants were encouraged to bring friends.

The others in the room seemed to have more of an understanding of the content of the course, which combines Eastern philosophy with Western psychotherapy practices.

One woman told him she was recommended the program by the real estate agent who helped her sell her recently deceased mother’s home.

Participants are warned to stay away from alcohol, drugs and over-the-counter medicine during this time. Attendees are encouraged to take the floor and talk about their problems and how they could relate to trauma from their past, while the instructor helps to guide them with tough-love techniques. Tears are a regular occurrence.

“Everyone looked sort of religious and intense,” Kevin told “The course was about addressing issues from your past, like large group therapy. Nothing to do with work.

“Breaks were scant and even toilet visits were highly controlled.

“For a $700 course, the materials and presentation were extremely low budget. One hundred and fifty of us were sitting in front of a single instructor. A very basic PowerPoint was used along with some very simple banners that displayed various ideas written in bizarrely convoluted language.

“When I turned around I saw a row of slightly oddball looking people all just sitting and watching the room. It was later mentioned that these people were volunteers.

“The instructor spent about one-and-a-half hours telling stories about amazing ‘breakthroughs’ people had achieved in the first 20 minutes of the course.

“The course essentially revolved around people standing up on the mic to share whatever personal trauma they happened to be dealing with.

“The instructor would then coax them into fitting their story into a premade set of phrases. For instance: ‘I’ve been pretending that ...’ ‘When the truth is ...’ The final statement in this sequence was quite bizarre: ‘Standing there, the possibility I am creating for myself is ...’”

The program has been lauded as immensely valuable by successful individuals, including Harvard professor emeritus Michael Jensen, Reebok chairman Paul Fireman, UN senior adviser Charlie McNeil and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

Panda Express, a popular Chinese restaurant chain with more than 1500 restaurants in the US, offers scholarships to managers who attend the Landmark Forum.

Consulting firm Vanto Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Landmark, has worked with organisations including Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Heinz Northern Europe, JPMorgan Chase, BHP Billiton, Petrobras, Telemar Brazil, Lockheed Martin and Mercedes-Benz USA.

But on day two, after watching a woman break down crying while revealing that she had been raped by her brother, Kevin decided he couldn’t take any more.

“Cheers and whistles and enthusiastic applause started to creep in. I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable as I realised that eventually I might be expected to share and even be put on the spot and made to call a friend or relative I had been ‘inauthentic’ with.

“I felt that I could no longer be there if everyone else was going crazy with applause. Rhetoric from the instructor was aimed at alienating any sceptics.

“With the blinds closed, the way we were talked at, the traumatic experiences coming out, it was intense. I was physically overwhelmed, shaking. Even though there was nothing they could do to stop me I felt under their control. It was an insane experience.

“At the next break I left. I was scared to leave. I didn’t care if I lost my newly awarded job, I had to get out of there.”



Bridget*, an administrative worker from Sydney, told she attended a Landmark course after her boss recommended it.

“They don’t dictate that you have to share but they create an environment where you don’t feel you have a choice. It’s almost like peer pressure. There are about 200 of you and the day goes from 9am until 11pm.

“You’re meant to identify all your bad points and you create the possibility you have to move into. You might say, ‘I’m a nasty, conniving b***h and I want the possibility to be love and light.’ It’s interesting how quickly everyone picks up the language.

“I didn’t want to but I had the helpers offer to take me through it and then the leader. The leader then said, ‘I give up on you.’ I thought I must be a really hopeless case so I ‘saw the light’. You want to contribute. It’s really evangelical.”

Those who are indulging negative voices are said to be “in a racket”, which is almost like lying to yourself. In the end, Bridget says, she “got right into it”, attending three of the courses.

“It’s not until I got away from it that I could see how dangerous it could be. It makes you dig deep in your head.

“You’ve got to get in touch with things you think are really bad about yourself. I had manipulative and cowardly. You’ve got to create an antithesis of this. I developed a possibility I could be brave. They’re meant to then teach you the tools to live into the possibility.”

In 2003, French Channel Three’s secretly filmed report on the Landmark Education Forum in Paris led to the organisation being shut down in France, although it remains operational in more than 20 countries.

Huffington Post writer Karin Badt, who knew many professionals in the US who “revered” the organisation, wondered if the French channel had manipulated the report and presented “scenes of abuse and brainwashing, out of context”.

In 2008, Badt attended a London Landmark Forum, writing that she found it “innocuous. No cult, no radical religion: an inspiring, entertaining introduction of good solid techniques of self-reflection, with an appropriate emphasis on action and transformation (not change).”

What she did object to was a “lack of critical thinking” from participants and “how quickly they adopted the vocabulary”, as well as an exercise in which attendees were asked to close their eyes and imagine being afraid of everyone in the world, which “turned into mass hysteria of crying, sobbing, calling out ‘mummy mummy!’ in regressed childhood voices.”

In 2012, Sarah Fazeli wrote on website XO Jane about her “destructive” brush with the organisation, just after separating from her husband.

“I’d bared my soul, and talked about everything from being raped to my husband never wanting to have sex with me,” she said. “The upshot was essentially, ‘Guess what, b***h? It’s all your fault!’”

Journalist Amelia Hill from the UK’s Observer found her cynicism about the course overcome by an epiphany at the microphone as the instructor told her she “always needed to be right”, after which she got a friendship back.

“The Landmark Forum is not magic,” she wrote. “It is not scary or insidious. It is, in fact, simple common sense delivered in an environment of startling intensity.”



Landmark evolved from an organisation called EST (Erhard Seminar Training), founded in the 1970s by salesman Werner Erhard, a millionaire who left United States after controversy over his tax records.

“The real point to the EST training was to go down through layer after layer after layer after layer till you got to the last layer and peeled it off where the recognition was that it’s really all meaningless and empty,” he said.

Mr Erhard’s confrontational, at times brutal, techniques — he called students “assholes” — were divisive, proving wildly popular with some and triggeringcomplaints from others who said they had suffered psychological breakdowns after the course.

In 1991, he sold his intellectual property to former EST employees, who founded the more mainstream Landmark Education, toning down the aggression and ensuring participants sign a waiver asserting they are emotionally stable before the course.

Now Landmark Worldwide, the organisation claims to offer a “practical methodology for producing breakthroughs in the areas of life that matter most to you: the quality of your relationships, the confidence with which you live your life, your personal productivity, your experience of the difference you make, your enjoyment of life.”

It’s undeniable that many people have found the soul-baring course immensely beneficial. Landmark has offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and legions of prominent Australian fans, including five-time beach volleyball Olympian and gold medallist Natalie Cook; former Chief of Navy Vice Admiral David Shackleton; and Charles Watson, former chief health officer of Western Australia and Professor of Health Sciences at Curtin University.

Alex Hayter, whose boss at an Adelaide law firm enrolled staff in a Landmark Education program, told the ABC’s 7.30 in 2011 that she found the seminars oppressive.

“In five days you can have anything that you want, and, you know, we will change you, we will transform you, you will no longer be incomplete, you won’t be unhappy anymore, you won’t have problems in your relationships,” she said.

“They would keep saying, ‘Well, you know, the first day of the Landmark forum’s really hard and it makes everyone really upset, but you just need to stick through it and then at the end you’ll be — you know, everything will be fine’.

And I kind of brought up that I thought it was quite worrying and rebutted quite a few of their arguments and in the end they said, “Well, you’re obviously quite intelligent, perhaps this isn’t for you’.”

Scientists are divided. Australian neuroscientist Dr Watson is a fan of the program, saying that delving into his past with Landmark helped him realise his relationship with his father was still determining the way he did things.

“Speaking from my expertise and experience as a medical doctor and former chief health officer, my view is that there is absolutely nothing harmful in Landmark’s programs,” he said. 
“This conclusion is fully aligned with those of numerous independent studies by top experts.”

But clinical psychologist Bob Montgomery told 7.30 he was concerned there was no credible science backing the controversial techniques, and that the wrong treatment could leave people with a lack of belief they can solve their own problems, or even be dangerous for the emotionally or mentally vulnerable minority.

“Where’s your evidence for safety? How are you screening out the vulnerable people who are attracted to your program? What backups are there for people who actually fall apart during your program?” he said.

But Landmark insists it makes it clear its staff are not health experts, and what it does is personal and professional growth training rather than therapy or psychology.

Landmark’s director of public relations told that Kevin “misrepresented to Landmark, including in a legal document, that he was participating at his own desire and ‘not as a result of coercion, pressure, a condition of employment or to satisfy anyone other than myself’.”

The organisation said in a statement: “We regret that any customer experienced any kind of pressure from their employer to participate in our course. Landmark makes it clear to companies and organisations that offer our programs to employees that participation must be at the employee’s choice, and we offer full tuition refunds to people who inform us they felt pressured and don’t want to participate.

“Of the 2.4 million people around the world who have done our programs, more than 40,000 of them are health professionals and educators, and of those independently surveyed by Harris Interactive, more than 94 per cent said our programs are professionally conducted and of great value.

“Landmark participants have created more than 100,000 community projects worldwide, including the national suicide prevention program R U Okay? Day.

“Australian Gavin Larkin created this initiative in 2009 as part of a Landmark program that develops people in leadership and making a difference in their communities.

“Top experts have researched Landmark and concluded there is absolutely no similarity to or relationship between Landmark and Scientology, including Dr Norbert Nedopil, who stated, ‘No similarity could be found between the two organisations in regard to their objectives, methodology, techniques and their effects on the health of their participants.’ And further, Landmark is clearly not religious or spiritual in nature whatsoever.”


* Name has been changed by request


No comments: