Sweet Nothing Part 1:
How I Got my Head Handed to Me at Landmark – and Handed it Back, Smiling
We start, then, with nothing…
– Charles S. Peirce, “Logic of Events” 1898
All master salesmen know that ideas can be sold where merchandise cannot.
– Napoleon Hill, “Think and Grow Rich” 1937
Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned, Zen was the essential one. It was not so much an influence on me, rather it created space. It allowed those things that were there to be there. It gave some form to my experience. And it built up in me the critical mass from which was kindled the experience that produced est.
Werner Erhard, cited, “Werner Erhard, The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of est,” 1978
Right—where were we? Seek and ye shall find: I was at a point where I needed a change, and a change I got. Oh yes, I got my head handed to me at Landmark—the world’s biggest LGAT or Large Group Awareness Training program—and went through a gamut of emotions. First I was indifferent, then I liked it, then I detested it, then I hated it. More aptly, I loved and hated it—a familiar confluence of emotions!
For me, Landmark is a curious beast: A motley, if efficacious mix of Zen, Jerry Springer-like public exposures, on-the-spot analysis by trained nontherapists, and garbled simplifications of existential and postmodern philosophy. Landmark is the bastard offspring of one of the most famous consciousness-raising workshops of the 1970s—est, or Erhard Seminars Training.
Erhard was a sketchy, charismatic figure—he left his first wife and kids in Philly with the perfectly named elopee, June Bryde, switching license plates from the used car dealership where he worked to keep ahead of the law in a stolen car. On a plane he read an article in Look magazine that featured the New Germany and, doubly attracted to identity change, he recombined the names of a German minister and the famous physicist Werner Heisenberg to change his name from Jack Rosenberg to Werner Erhard.
I first heard about Erhard and EST in the 70s and pegged it as a cult, but my father, although he hadn’t taken EST training, subtly suggested I keep an open mind. (One of our family members had taken it and sworn by it.)
EST (or est as they like to spell it, and Landmark will read to you from e.e.cummings) was notorious for its policy of not allowing bathroom breaks without permission, calling its clients assholes, and putting them in a psychologically uncomfortable situation designed to make them come to life.
The organization changed names when an incendiary 60 Minutes Program, partially informed by one of est’s intellectual influences, Scientology, lambasted the organization with interviews from Erhard’s family and former staff accusing him of physical and sexual abuse, and general tyranny.
Although there may be truth to these accusations, some but not all of which have been retracted, an associate of a long-time friend of Erhard’s oldest associate told me that to him it doesn’t matter. We all make mistakes, it doesn’t affect the training.
The situation could be considered similar to Martin Heidegger’s membership in the Nazi party, which Heidegger never retracted. Although the style, as Buffon said, may be the man, one’s involvement in a heinous, even murderous political organization, does not necessarily invalidate the value, let alone efficacy, of ideas.
In fact, Heidegger is one of the influences Erhard avidly appropriated for his motley mix of efficacious personality reprogramming, indeed part of the corpus that Landmark Education now claims is its intellectual property.
I don’t buy that claim because I recognized many influences when I took the four-day course, as well as the strange ticks and paces they were put through to be stuffed into a successful marketing program whose roots go back to Holiday Magic, a multilevel marketer of avocado cream and fruit-flavored cosmetics, not to mention parlor room hypnotic vanishing of headache (courtesy of L. Ron Hubbard), neurolinguistic programming, and Mind Dynamics and Leadership Dynamics, a sales course for would-be marketing gurus run by Alexander Everett that was taken to court for stripping its attendees nude, putting them in coffins, and attaching them to crosses.
Apparently, back in the heady days of California consciousness raising, Erhard brain-vacuumed anything and everything of potential value for his grand scheme. No rock was unturned, no body of knowledge, spiritual or sales-wise, was off limits for Erhard in his efforts to reach his goals of wealth through enlightenment. This included everything from the ethically untroubling lectures and radio broadcasts by Alan Watts, the British popularizer of eastern religions, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s teachings on post-world-war II meaninglessness and the need to create your own projects, to the introjection of psyoppy coercive persuasion to make Erhard’s participatory theater a dramatically—or maybe we should say traumatically—unforgettable experience.
It was therefore, as I sat in the room, somewhat of a “shock” to hear the organization swear attendees to secrecy—except of course for chiding us to call friends and relatives up during breaks to tell them how great it was, and how they could fork out their money to have their life changed too—all the while claiming that the philosophico-militaristic-eastern philosophy amalgam was strictly their “intellectual property.” *
I didn’t know much of this before I enrolled, of course. All I knew was that I could use some help. I’d never been in psychotherapy and some said this could be just as effective. Ninety-five percent of participants go to get their lives straightened out—to improve their relationships (love and family), make more money, and increase their self-expression—confidence, communication skills, self-esteem, stuff like that.
Although I was in need to some degree of all these things, my case was a little different, as I was also worried about critical thinking (tactically—at least—put into abeyance at Landmark), the resurgence of hypermilitarism (nicely modeled by some of Landmark’s draconian psychological “techniques”), and fascinated by the uses and abuses, and sources and developments of world mysticism.
So absorbed was I in these intellectual pursuits that once I was there, I neglected to take the mike and relive in public any personal traumas. I completely forgot to mention being nearly bludgeoned to death in bed (fractured orbit, Florida 1985), my subsequent brain surgery (Syracuse, ’86) and flashback (Florence, Massachusetts, early ’90s).
I didn’t discuss how, when I was a fifteen years old, I took a hit of “eight-way windowpane,” a tiny tawny cellophane-like LSD square that I couldn’t cut with my thumbnail so, on the advice of my eighteen year old “mentor,” swallowed the square whole, although it was enough for eight people.
After a couple of hours of uncontrollably shaking in which I could not differentiate between having my eyes open or closed, and experienced eternally recurring ultimate reality beyond the curtain of suburban temporality, and after walking around several more hours like a zombie, I convinced myself, while sharing a cigarette with my brother on our front porch, that I had merely taken a nap.
These events, combined with being in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, gave me a touch of paranoia. And then there was the impromptu diagnosis of “abandonment anxiety” by an ex who went on to become a therapist.
The world was getting me down and I needed to know if the gap I was feeling between me and it, was my fault, or the world’s. Thus, it was time to take matters into my own hands—with a touch of help from my new friends at the LGAT. I didn’t have much to lose. I had gone for a psychotherapy session or two to sit in with others in family situations but always considered myself above it.
Where was I gonna find a therapist who could deal with me? Who could make a dif in the limited time? (I found myself staring at a random ad with the typical words “For a Limited Time” and I thought what a good name for a book that would make.) Did they even know who Lacan was? Not Chaka Kahn, Jacques Lacan. Did they know he ended appointments abruptly? That—fashionable absence being one step ahead of fashionable lateness—you could get the leg up on him by not going? (Although I’d been told that there was nothing like a hot Lacanian to cure what ails you.)
That he was a great critic of what he called “ego psychology,” the American “perversion” of Freudian analysis, its reduction to a simplistic attempt to help “fix” people?
That psychoanalysis was about analyzing the psyche, not fixing it—and that for Lacan you couldn’t really fix people because “everyone was castrated”—indeed dealing with that was a condition for entry into the “symbolic” realm, the post-Oedipal phase that marked socialization itself?
Did they understand that desire was based on this constitutive missingness of language, the repressive law or the “no” of the father (le nom de père), or that Lacan had merged Saussurean linguistics with Freudian psychoanalysis to help jumpstart postmodernism?
And that a great problem of television, Hollywood – ADD culture – was that it remained stuck in the illusory jubilation of the preOedipal “imaginary,” a realm of wholeness that didn’t even exist.
Of course they didn’t! And that was just the tip of the iceberg. And I was supposed to pay them? Please.
As it turned out, I was right; although est taught that you are an asshole and that you’re life isn’t working, Landmark assured everyone that we’re perfect just the way we are. And we were there, why? To get rid of our hang ups, our rationalizations, our vicious circles.
So you can see that me being right didn’t mean I didn’t have an attitude problem. I could even recognize it in others. Sure I had trust issues and a tendency to conflate humor and meanness. And, yes, I had narrowly escaped a series of difficult-to-impossible relationships with attractive but abused women who found me initially charming. And, of course, I had a touch of Peter Pan and child celebrity syndrome and no longer felt all warm and fuzzy about my dysfunctional, abusive relationship with Big Brother, which was non consensual. But I was also a mystic who knew in my heart that there was nothing to lose because everything already is. My ego was an infinitesimal part of the all. What part of attitude adjustment don’t you understand?
The first day set the tone. I kept open-minded but I had a bone to pick with authority and group dynamics I found problematic. Hadn’t Nietzsche said madness was unusual in individuals but common among crowds? Didn’t Stanley Millgram say that a person may be smart, but “people” were stupid. And wasn’t this group trying to fix me? We’d see about that.
Nonetheless because I had resolved to be open minded and good of attitude I suspended disbelief; I was anxious to get my money’s worth: if not get completely cured, then at least learn new tools in navigating the thicket of even the best relationships and learn to separate my self-sabotage so I could make money regularly from the financial markets, a skill I suspected was buried in my unconscious.
And if I was on the way to understanding the markets, I was on to understanding the rest of it. What I needed to do was get out of my own way and implement the deep knowledge I’d hid from myself.
At one point, with the Leader helpfully distinguishing at the blackboard between things we know that we don’t know and things that we don’t know that we don’t know, the lines of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous poem—As we know/There are known knowns/There are things we know we know/We also know/There are known unknowns/That is to say/We know there are some things/We do not know/But there are also unknown unknowns/The ones we don’t know/We don’t know—came rushing back to me and I wondered whether he might also have been a trainee.
To the organization’s credit, upon beginning the Forum leader immediately cleared the air, opening the floor to any questions about the organization. A well-dressed elderly man (unaccountably chatting next to a smiling beauty in the front row) shuffled to the mike and asked a question about cult history. Different organization, it was explained.
Here was my opening. After a few others spoke I ambled forthrightly to the stage with a three-part question. First, I wanted to know more about the cult connection, claims I’d heard twenty-odd years ago that they didn’t let you go to the bathroom, what might be called the sketch factor.
The leader said that like anyone in the media, Erhard was the object of gossip, jealousy, and controversy. The second part of my question referred to a hyperbolic claim: on the big board to our right it was asserted that anything we wanted we could have from our participation.
Anything? What if I desired to increase my intelligence quotient by 300 points?
The Forum Leader pointed out that I had not read the whole thing. (But I had, three times.) He wanted to know what hyperbolic was. Exaggerated, I said. Right. He said I hadn’t read the whole board.
The third part of my question had to do with the narrowness of our own wishes, which tended toward selfishness, bereft of a larger social context. I mentioned a self-help book I’d seen on Amazon, its accoladed author argued everyone could be a millionaire. That’s not really realistic, is it?
The Forum leader remarked that academic studies had proved the effectiveness of the program, and that Erhard himself continued to lecture widely. The program was rated effective by psychologists. Erhard had even lectured at the Harvard business school. But, I protested, Harvard MBAs are part of what got us into this mess. Nonetheless, my fears were addressed, and I’d gotten the last word. Contentedly I returned to my seat.
My next contribution came after the hotel room full of satori-seekers agreed, by raising our collective hands, not to discuss what others said while in the forum, not to be late to the meetings or back from the breaks, and not to use non-prescription drugs or alcohol.
Okay—but hadn’t we just learned that smoking was permitted near the ashtrays away from the building entrance—and I had a headache. My hyperrationalism was killing me. Such a stickler for the rules, was he saying, I wanted to know, that we could chain smoke near the entrance but were prohibited from taking aspirin?
Yes—but, he perked up, explaining that we would later learn a way to eliminate headaches, without drugs, using a special technique. (As a teenager at my alternative school, Murray Road, I had co-taught a class on Altered States of Consciousness, and we had used Buryl Pane’s 1973 Getting There Without Drugs: Techniques and Theories for the Expansion of Consciousness as a text—the school guidance counselor helping to oversee these experiments in meditation and hypnosis.)
Hmmm, I thought, great. By the end of the day, as happenstance would have it, my headache was gone, anyay. I concentrated instead on the feeling of my hatband, which sort of disappeared when I foccussed closely on how it felt against my head. According to the web, this old Erhard trick was a variant of an even older Scientology trick—anything you can imagine perfectly disappears. L. Ron Hubbard called it “duplication.” The pedigree may make it sound more impressive. At the time it rankled me as parlor room hypnotism, a not very good trick.)
My next qualm came with the theoretical insistence that if I felt powerless in some situation I was being inauthentic. Inauthentic? No one’s used that word since Sartre. The very word smacks of inauthenticity, and if Sartre were a native English speaker he would already have known, form the very title of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (where Earnest is a person, not a personality attribute), that the word choice was fatally ill-considered.
Dorion Sagan is author of numerous articles and twenty-three books translated into eleven languages, including Death and Sex, co-authored with Tyler Volk; Notes from the Holocene: A Brief History of the Future and Into the Cool, coauthored with Eric D. Schneider. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, the Skeptical Inquirer, Pabular, Smithsonian, the Ecologist, Co-Evolution Quarterly, the Times Higher Education, Omni, Natural History, The Sciences, Cabinet, and Tricycle.