Oakland, CA–September

(Dallas Smith: Report on Landmark Education forum–a descendent of EST including comments on modern Oakland)

To travel from Reno to California is to travel back down Memory Lane. Susan and I both have decades-long histories of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, prior to meeting each other. Though the trip spurs memories, we are brought into the present as we enter Oakland’s Chinatown, which was a neighborhood previously unfamiliar to either of us. This is a true ethnic neighborhood, in which some businesses have no signs in English, only Chinese. There are also Vietnamese (American) and Korean (American) businesses. Other Asian countries, such as Laos or Cambodia, are probably present as well…we just can’t recognize the difference from the Chinese businesses.

On our second evening, we experienced something unexpected…a reminder of the tough crime-ridden neighborhood in which we found ourselves. Visiting a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, the manager locked the door in between customers’ coming and going. The reason for this was that there had been several instances of masked robbers entering restaurants and robbing the diners at gunpoint. The Oakland police had recently arrested several suspects in the robberies, and so people were hopeful that the guilty culprits had been caught, so that restaurants could once again leave their doors unlocked.

It is striking to be in a part of America in which Caucasians are a distinct minority, which is the feeling one gets in Chinatown. As earlier immigrants integrate into mainstream American society, learn English, and acquire our unhealthy fast food habits, new waves of immigrants arrive, full of hope and energy. It’s the same story in the Hispanic neighborhoods. Though Hispanic and Chinese neighborhoods are California’s largest ethnic concentrations, our Iranian neighbors speak of a large Iranian community in the Los Angeles area. The writer of the recent best selling book and movie, The Kite Runner, lives in a large Afghan community in the East Bay area. And so it goes…the American melting pot has evolved into a tossed salad…a mixture of many things, each preserving its unique character as expressed in its distinct neighborhood.

Running through the city is the presence of African-American culture. San Francisco and Oakland feel completely and successfully integrated from the black-white perspective. Reading the weekend entertainment guide for the SF Bay area, I remembered the years during which I lived there, reveling in the rich entertainment options. It was during that time that I personally experienced listening most of the great jazz musicians whose recordings I continue to enjoy. Reading the entertainment guide tempted me to want to attend several enticing concerts. And yet, now as then, the choice is between going to hear somebody else, versus doing my own thing. Ultimately, doing one’s own thing has to win out. And so, maybe in the years to come, we will make a point of traveling to the Bay area to attend concerts.

The point of this trip was to attend a three day personal-improvement seminar called the Forum, by the Landmark Education foundation. The Forum is a direct descendant of EST, Ehrhard Seminar Trainings, founded in the 70’s by new-age guru Werner Ehrhard. We were invited to a free guest seminar in Reno by a friend who had previously attended the Forum and other seminars presented by Landmark Education. Susan and I had both become aware of EST in the 70’s, though neither of us had previously attended it. Indeed, EST had generated a popular backlash following its initial popularity. And so, Susan and I were not attending the Forum ignorant of the history and EST’s jargon/terminology that had spilled into popular usage.

EST garnered intense criticism for its initial policy of not allowing attendees to freely leave the sessions to go to the bathroom. The Forum discouraged going to the bathroom…thirty minute breaks were taken every ninety minutes or so. Sessions went from nine in the morning until ten in the evening, with one ninety minute evening meal break. Note-taking, texting, and side-conversations were not allowed. The presentation of the Forum is designed to command one hundred percent attention for three long days. There was actually an evening follow-up on Tuesday evening, but Susan and I opted not to stay around for it, due to our many pressing commitments in Reno. Our doing this was strongly frowned upon, but we’re glad we came home when we did…there were decisions to be made during our ongoing house construction/re-modeling that required our presence

All in all, I enjoyed the Forum. I entered the process with some preconceived notions and resistance to embracing the process. Nonetheless, being in the room with over a hundred other attendees and concentrating so intensely in the activities swept away those resistances. I was invited to be aware of “my stories”, my history, and then let go of it. We examined the genesis of our identities, based on formative events at different stages in our youth.

We were encouraged to sit with different people at every session, in order to meet as many other attendees as possible. In the course of different processes, we would pair up with whomever we happened to be sitting next to at each session. One of my “share partners” was an African-American man with his hair in dreadlocks, Jamaican style. He dressed like a “street person”, i.e. unkempt baggy clothes. As we told each other our stories, he showed me where his ex-wife had shot him. He had bullet scars on his chest and arm. This ex-wife, after shooting him, had started a new life as a lesbian. This man had “anger issues” of his own that he was still dealing with.

But the most amazing story came from an elderly African-American woman who had no feet or hands. She explained that thirty-five years ago, four days after her wedding, it was intended that she would die at the hands of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. One Klan member had a change of heart at the last minute and had allowed her to live, albeit maimed for life. (That Klan member and his family were forced to flee Alabama to escape the threatened revenge of his fellow racists.) The woman confessed that if she had had the chance at that time, she would have killed them, just as they wanted to kill her.

The previous paragraph is just the woman’s “back story”. Rather than dealing with this appalling back story, her current issue was as follows: Her husband had cared for her for over thirty years, acting as her hands and feet, taking total care of her. He had died four years ago, and the woman grieved for herself and the loss of her beloved. But now, four years after his death, she wanted to get on with her life, perhaps get a job. In any case, she wanted to form a new relationship with her three daughters, rather than be caught up in the old story of being the grieving crippled widow. Hearing this woman tell her story was truly touching. Many people cried at this and other stories told during the course of the Forum. In the presence of such stories, my own losses seemed trivial by comparison. Nonetheless, at different parts of the Forum, I was led to grieve and cry for the loss of my parents, and other friends and relatives who have departed this life.

Thus, without going into other specific processes and activities, I can report that the Forum gave me the opportunity to examine in a thoughtful way, my stories, my patterns, my relationships, my intentions, my hopes, my dreams. It was like going to church for inspiration, even if I don’t agree with everything in the sermon. It was like a group therapy session, in which everyone had the opportunity to consult with fellow patients with similar diagnoses. I was struck by the similarities with stories told by so many attendees. These common patterns and stories are one key to the success of the Forum, EST, and other such self-improvement seminars. Our similarities reinforce the application of the “treatments” offered by the group’s leader/facilitator.

The “solutions” offered by the Forum (and EST, therapists, churches, religions, etc.) sound very similar and simplistic when reduced to a few words. So I won’t attempt to summarize them here. Let it suffice to say that I think the Forum offered me good insights and new tools to deal with my personal issues. I don’t know if anyone else notices any difference in me. But I feel different, better off for having gone through the self-examination that is part of the Forum.

One of my trepidations prior to enrolling for the Forum was based on the fact that many attendees of such seminars become overly enthusiastic, indeed “pushy”, about trying to enroll their friends and acquaintances to sign up for the seminars. I could see how certain people might fall into this behavior based on the self-promotion aspect of the training sessions, encouraging attendees to telephone their friends during the breaks to report of the “breakthroughs” that they were experiencing. Susan and I ultimately applied a maxim that is expressed in Twelve-Step programs: Take what serves you and leave the rest. That’s ultimately the approach we took with the Forum.

There was one other special factor that colored our experience of the Forum. In the early nineties, we attended a two-day seminar led by an individual who was influencial in our beginning our careers in healthcare. This man apparently had appropriated the main philosophical points and processes of the Forum, personalizing the jargon somewhat, but basically re-creating the Forum experience under his own name, without crediting the source of his acquired “wisdom”. The fact is, that at that point in our lives and careers, this man’s training affected us profoundly. We still feel his influence in our work. Thus, the Forum had a “déjà vu” feeling for us, which rendered the Forum experience not quite as impressive as it might have been, had we been experiencing the processes for the first time, like most of the other attendees.

The term “therapy-wise” refers to people who have been in therapy enough to know the names of their neuroses, and to be familiar with the types of requests and recommendations likely to be made by the therapist. When it comes to someone at our stage of life attending self-improvement workshops like the Forum, there is no way that we don’t bring into the room our previous experiences in the recurring quest for self-realization. In previous times, the church was the primary source for such quests. Now, anyone can shop at the spiritual supermarket of ideas for improving one’s life.

Is there anything new under the sun? Ideas in the Forum were borrowed from EST. I’m told that Werner Ehrhard derived many of his ideas for EST from Scientology. There are other schools of “new thought” that outline their various paths to enlightenment. For most of the world, the prevailing local religion provides all life’s answers. I’m thankful that my lifestyle is affluent enough to indulge in continuing higher education, rather than the “school of hard knocks” that is the source of the majority of folks’ “learning.”

And so, having relayed my impressions of the Forum, I heartily recommend it for anyone who is interested in looking for new tools for living. Go to: http://www.landmarkeducation.com/landmark_forum.jsp

I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did! I welcome additional personal discussion in case any readers of this blog would like to know more about how it was. If you made it this far in my blog, thanks for reading!

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