Monday, May 16, 2011

Week Four of Doing New Things: I Review The Landmark Forum

I just had my mind blown this weekend, people.  Seriously.  Like blown out of the water.  As my New Thing of the Week, I reviewed the Landmark Forum.  It counts as a New Thing because it's a much different program than it was when I originally did it, as a snot-nosed 19 year old in 1996.  

In case you haven't heard of Landmark, it's a three day inquiry in what it means to be human, as in the ontology of being human.  Ontology is the study of the nature of being, what constitutes reality (going all the way back to the Greeks) and for three days you sit in a room, in a hard chair, and you consider your humanity.  

One of the most basic concepts in the Forum that you get in the very first session is the distinction between what has happened, and what we humans make it mean.  It's very basic stuff if you think about it.  An obvious example is how, if five people see the same car accident, you'll get at least five different interpretations of what happened.  Our lives are essentially made up of interpretations.  Things happen, and we interpret those events into our own meanings (and different people interpret things in different ways, obviously).  

The problem comes when we forget that we made up those interpretations, and we live our lives as if they're reality.  They're not.  When I was 10 and my dad looked at my report card and said, "B+, why isn't that an A?" he wasn't saying that I was a disappointment to him.  I just made that up.  He might have been saying, "you're so smart, I really want you to live up to your potential."  I made up an interpretation, and then I lived my life like that was reality.

One of the biggest things I got from that conversation, on Friday morning, was that I made up a story when I was in 6th grade that I was weird.  There was a new girl at my school - Ashley Grovesner - and she arrived and, for whatever reason, said some things that could be interpreted as "mean".  People laughed, and I sat alone at lunch.  Those are the "facts" in terms of what happened.  What I made that mean was that I was different, that I didn't belong, and society could go screw itself.  And ever since then I've lived a life where I take pride in being "different."  

It's a very strong part of my identity, and I'm very attached to that part of myself.  I am someone who does crazy things.  I drive across the country by myself when I'm 19.  I move to England.  I have 9 cats.  I win $5000 Target gift cards.  I lose babies.  

But the problem is that I live my life from the decision of a 12 year old.  

Like that 12 year old even knew what was going on anyway.  Maybe Ashley Grovesner was jealous of me.  Maybe she was jealous of how much I belonged.  She had her own issues that would have led her to be a bitch in a new school, right?  But I continue to live my life from the decision of a 12 year old, and to this day, if I'm at a conference and it's lunch time, I pretend to be really busy and stand outside the banquet making phone calls so that I don't have to go up to someone and ask to sit at their table.

Maybe it would be fun to try on that I could belong in the world, and see what happened.  Maybe I could sit with strangers at lunch, and talk to people, and not be afraid of them, because maybe they're all just as afraid of me as I am of them.

What's really funny is when we take these stories we've made up and we look for evidence of them.  You know how you can find anything that you're looking for?  Like when you get pregnant and suddenly everyone around you is pregnant?  Or when you buy a blue pick up truck, and suddenly all you see are blue pick up trucks?  We've all had that happen to us.  It's because we're suddenly looking for those things - we're aware of them - and so we find the blue pick up trucks that drove past us before without us ever knowing about it.  

But we do the same things with our stories.  For example, one time, years ago, I thought I deserved a raise at work.  I asked for a raise, and was told no.  In that moment, I made up that my boss didn't like me.  So then I looked for evidence of it.  I noticed how I got crappy schedules.  I noticed how she looked at me weird.  I noticed how she was constantly reminding me to clock in, and always insisted that I had my bag checked to make sure I wasn't stealing anything before I left work.  Suddenly I have all this evidence.  Then I talk about it with people.  "Hey, you guys, isn't she a bitch?  She hates me."  And I get people to agree with me.  Which is more evidence.  And of course I can't stay at that job, right?  Because my boss hates me.  So I quit the job.

The thing is, I made it all up.  All that happened was that she said I couldn't have a raise.  Hell, for all I know, they weren't allowed to give out raises then.  Maybe there was a raise-freeze.  Maybe I hadn't worked there long enough.  Maybe her boyfriend had just broken up with her, or she just got in a car accident.  I have no idea why she said no, but it probably wasn't because she hated me.  

So I cost myself a job because of a story I made up.

But everybody does it.  It's what we do in life.  We live our lives as if we are in reality, but we so aren't.  We couldn't recognize reality if it came up and kicked us in the ass.  Well, we can actually, if we do the Forum.  This stuff is so ingrained in who we are, in our identities, that we need something radical - like three days with 100 other people sitting on hard chairs - to kick that shit out of our systems, and free us up to invent something new with our lives, not based on what we think we know about life.

I did the Forum when I was 19 and I credit it for making me the person I am in life.  I have participated on-and-off over the past 16 years, doing lots of Landmark programs, and stepping away when I thought that was a good idea, too.  But this was the first time I reviewed the Forum, and I had my mind blown again.  I had forgotten how powerful this stuff is.  Most of the people in my life have done Landmark, so I take it for granted that people can separate out what happened from their interpretation of what happened.  I forgot that most humans will go their entire lives without questioning that their interpretation of the world is the Truth.  That's why wars happen.  That's why fights happen and families break up.  Everybody thinks their interpretation is right, and they will fight for that to the death.  If the world could get the simple distinction of making up stories, there could be world peace.  And that's just from Friday morning.  You get two and a half more days of that stuff.  It's nuts.  People get their lives out of this course.  They forgive their parents.  They are finally honest with their spouses about resentments they've been carrying for years.  They fall in love with themselves.  

The main thing I got in terms of my pregnancy losses is how wrapped up I've been in the drama of it all.  I replay it all in my head day after day.  I obsess over the drama of it all.  But that winds up being a dishonor to my babies, because I get them all wrapped up in my drama.  Grief is natural.  Replaying the events over and over, six months on, isn't.  That's drama, and it doesn't do anything to honor my babies.  Now I can just be with my grief, and have my babies near me, and not have to obsess about all the drama.  And that's a powerful freedom.

Are there other ways to this self-knowledge?  Sure there are.  There's therapy sessions at $100/hour and you usually go for years, for one.  There's books, but most people never do anything with the stuff they read in books.  If that wasn't the case, then everybody who read The Secret when Oprah first talked about it would be millionaires now.  

Nope, for my money I'm a fan of the Forum.  

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