NOTE: This blog was reviewed and updated in June, 2020
SC writes: “My sister, a confirmed Catholic and the godmother of my daughter, attended a Landmark Forum last weekend in Cincinnati. She was “invited” by her boyfriend. After looking at a website on cults and watching a video that a French TV station did on this group, I do believe that it is a cult. It has been around for awhile, but seems to have really hit the Midwest. I looked on your New Age blog but couldn’t find an entry on this particular group. I told her it is anti-Christian and at the very least, she will be out of a lot of money. She has already signed up for more weekends, and asked me why I thought it was anti-Christian. What could be wrong with trying to make your relationships better with family and friends, she says? She is a smart woman and so is the boyfriend – I can’t understand how they could be drawn to something which is such a scam.”
SC has good reason to be concerned but she needn’t be surprised that someone as intelligent and gifted as her sister could be lured into one of these self-help scams.
According to experts such as Dr. Margaret Singer, Fr. William Kent Butner, Rick Ross, and others, most people who become involved in what are referred to as “white collar cults,” are above average in intelligence, are mentally healthy with normal social skills for their age and tend toward high ideals and a commitment toward making the world better. Even though different seminars recruit different kinds of people, a typical “hook” is to find people who are in the midst of a major change in their lives (divorce, new job, mid-life crisis, etc.). While typical cult converts tend to be people in their late teens and early twenties, in the case of white collar cults, a disproportionate number of attendees are older and female.
Landmark, the program SC’s sister has become involved in, has a long history of problems. It is classified as a “possible cult” in France and The Cult Awareness and Information Center in Australia has listed Landmark among “psychotherapy cults.”
There have been numerous articles written in professional medical journals about the dangers of Landmark (formerly known as est and Forum) which you can read here.
For example, the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology [990; 58(1): 99-108], published a study of participants in Landmark compared with non-participating peers and found that participants were significantly more distressed then peer and normative samples.
Cult Expert Rick Ross has devoted an entire web page to educating the public about Landmark. This page includes court documents pertaining to litigation against Landmark, labor violations, personal testimonies, and a variety of news reports.
For those who are unfamiliar with all this, Landmark descended from the original New Age self-help seminar known as est (Latin for “it is”).
Est was founded by Werner Erhard (not his real name), a former used car salesman who worked his way into a vice presidency at Parents magazine. He became heavily involved in the New Age and Zen Buddhism, and attended some of the earliest group awareness seminars taking place in the New Age retreat known as Esalen in Big Sur, California from where the modern human potential movement originated.
Erhard claims to have had a vision in 1971 while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge that led to the development of est.
Based on Eastern beliefs and teachings from the Church of Scientology, est is what psychologists call a large group awareness training program. It’s a hodgepodge of philosophies ranging from existential philosophy, motivational psychology, Maxwell Maltz’s Pscho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud, Abraham Maslow, L. Ron Hubbard, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, P.T. Barnum, and just about anyone else who appealed to him at the time.
Erhard promised participants that his program would “empower” them to “produce effective action.” He would enable them to “produce new ways of working.” He would transform the basis of their communication. They would be able “to cause life instead of just living it.”
Est adopted, in part, the Zen master approach, which is often abusive, profane, demeaning and authoritarian, and is most famously known for the extraordinary bladder control expected of those in est training as shown in the 1978 Burt Reynolds movie, Semi-Tough.
Before Erhard left the country in 1991, more than 700,000 people had undergone his training programs and he was worth $45 million. Now known as Landmark, a multitude of other programs have spun-off of est, such as the popular Lifespring, many of which employ the same techniques.
The biggest problem with these seminars is that they are often promoted as ways to help improve self-motivation, leadership skills, or workplace performance, which lures people into them who would not otherwise participate.
However, once the attendees arrive, they quickly discover the truth.
“The usual function of these seminars, which is not advertised, is to break down the identity and world view of the participants, and replace it with a new paradigm for reality and self-identity based on the philosophies belonging to the founders of these programs,” writes Marcia Montenegro, founder of the New Age research organization known as Christian Answers for the New Age. “In effect, it is mind re-reprogramming.”
This mind-reprogramming is accomplished through a variety of mind-altering techniques such as deep relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization.
Trance-induction techniques are also employed and involve closed-eye exercises, a form of guided imagery, and the “dyad”, which is the pairing off of participants who are told to stare into each other’s eyes for several minutes at a time. During these “trances” trainers may encourage participants to recall their most powerful memories as a way of conquering their past, something that can cause dangerous psychotic episodes in fragile individuals.
“The trainers usually get you to think of all your most powerful memories, under the guise of somehow conquering your past,” says Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkley and a leading expert on human potential groups.
Dr. Singer has counseled more than 50 workshop graduates, some of whom attempted suicide in the aftermath of a program. “A trained professional knows when someone should not be put under stress,” she said. “And these people have absolutely no training outside the group.”
This blog has documented similar tragedies associated with another one of these programs known as The Turning Point (see http://womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=3566).
Because of how many of these programs exist (and how often they change their names after a slew of lawsuits and other bad publicity), it’s important to learn how to recognize them. Marcia Montenegro lists the following warning signs on her website:
- The organization’s leadership or past participants refuse to share the contents of the seminar beforehand
- You are required to sign a “hold harmless” agreement which protects the organization from legal action should you be harmed by the program
- The organization uses hyper language offering self-transformation
- Strong sales-type techniques are used to get you to participate
- The organization portrays its critics as ignorant, evil, or influenced by Satan
- The organization dissuades you from evaluating the teachings and methods yourself
- The organization discourages or discounts criticism from participants or others
- Promises are made to redesign your view of your self and reality
- Past participants exhibit an elitist attitude toward those who have not participated
- Past participants are pressured to recruit
For all of the above reasons, Christians should never become involved in any of these programs because they often seek to destroy the Judeo-Christian worldview and replace it with a New Age version.
This is why the Pontifical document, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, condemns the human potential movement, of which Landmark is a part, calling it “the clearest example of the conviction that humans are divine, or contain a divine spark within themselves.”
Send your New Age questions to firstname.lastname@example.org