Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food, Part 4: Landmark Forum & Cafe Gratitude

Cafe Gratitude started as the brainchild of millionaires Terces and Matthew Engelhart and has since grown into a small but successful chain. But more than just another rawist eatery, it is an unique experience. This raw vegan1 cafe is dedicated to what the Engelhart’s call “Sacred Commerce” and they have described it as “a school of transformation disguised as a cafe.” What began as a single location in San Francisco has since expanded into to several locations in California along with a sister-restaurant called Gracias Madre2 serving up Latin American inspired dishes.

One of the quirks of Cafe Gratitude is that the names of all the dishes are various self-affirmations that you say out load and your server repeats back to you. It ends up making ordering feel like being on an episode of Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley. You can order the “I AM HAPPY” (a Mediterranean wrap with live falafels) or the “I AM PURE” (a Ginger-Tahini kale salad) and wash it down with a “I AM IMMORTAL” (an “immune system enhancing, consciousness expanding, ancient tonifying elixir made from Reishi, Shilajit and Ormus”) or the “I AM POWERFUL” (an “ancient alchemy of Chinese herbs that support digestion, spleen function and weight control”) all while playing their in house board game Abounding River. A bit strange and over priced, but “where’s the problem?” one may ask.

One problem3 is Cafe Gratitude’s enthusiasm for a self-help program known as Landmark Forum. According to former employees attending Landmark’s introductory seminar is a requirement for management and highly encouraged for employees. (The Engleharts say the majority of employees go through at least the first seminar, which at around $500 is not cheap.) It was this policy that caused a public stir in 2009 when it was reported on in the East Bay Express that Ash Ritter, a former manager had been demoted and then fired for refusing to attend a Landmark seminar,

After being promoted, Ritter says her first manager’s meeting involved managers sharing their experiences at Landmark — often emotionally explaining the ways in which it changed their lives. “It was the theme,” she said. “‘Landmark saved my life.’”

According to Ritter, the leaders of the meeting then asked every manager to enroll ten people to come to an introduction to Landmark. They didn’t say it was a required part of the job, but Ritter felt pressured to attend because they asked all managers to e-mail the district manager every time they spoke to an employee who had not attended Landmark about giving it a try. She said they encouraged managers to keep track of the people they talked to, even if they declined the invitation.

Other workers have come forward such as former employee Carina Lomeli who also refused Landmark and expressed other concerns over workers being pressured to take part in a “holotropic breathing” event designed to induce alter states of consciousness through hyperventilation. Even then-current general manager Paddy Smith, a grateful veteran of Landmark, was unable to deny a strong sense of pressure to attend,

“It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable saying no,” admitted Paddy Smith, general manager of the Berkeley Café Gratitude. Although Smith says she was initially “offended” by the invitation to attend one of the seminars, she eventually signed up and found it to be a “life-changing” experience. “I learned how to be empowered and creative, get the results I want,” she said. At Café Gratitude, she added, Landmark’s teachings manifest themselves in the form of better communication, honesty, openness, and a no-gossip policy, and are so ingrained into company culture that she has a hard time differentiating between the two. In fact, Café Gratitude wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Landmark.

So just what is Landmark exactly? Landmark describes themselves on their website,

The Landmark Forum is designed to bring about a transformation in what is possible in people’s lives. Grounded in a model of transformative learning, it gives participants an awareness of the basic structures in which we know, think, and act in the world. From that awareness comes a fundamental shift that leaves us more fully in accord with our own possibilities and those of others. This shift is not a one-time event, but an ongoing access to a previously untapped dimension of effectiveness and creativity. The Landmark Forum offers a practical methodology for producing breakthroughs—achievements that are extraordinary, outside the limits of what’s already predictable, attainable, or known. Participants find themselves able to think and act beyond existing views and limits—in their personal and professional lives, relationships, and wider communities of interest. Read the course syllabus for a day-by-day description.

Find out about transformative learning and Landmark’s breakthrough technology

Of course when you actually do click that hyperlink to learn more about Landmark’s “breakthrough technology” you are led to a page that repeats the same vague statements and buzzwords. If you are a bit confused about what Landmark is all about then you aren’t alone. As Padraig Reidy wrote in the New Humanist,

Well, that’s the problem. It’s not entirely clear what the message is. The programme seems to combine elements of pop psychology with an odd form of existentialism. At one point, I’m fairly sure, the assembled are collectively accused of ‘bad faith’, or what Landmark calls ‘inauthenticity’. A look through the course syllabus also dredges up concepts such as ‘dealing powerfully with breakdowns’, where we learn to welcome breakdowns [defined as 'something that we shouldn't be'] “as an occasion for leadership and accomplishment.” This deconstruction is intended to lead to some sort of ‘breakthrough’ after which, presumably, we all become better people. In reality, all that they seem to be promising is a little self–awareness.

Landmark is actually the descendant of another popular 1970′s large group awareness organization, originally developed by Werner Erhard (an assumed name). Erhard took his inspiration from various sources in the burgeoning human potential movement and called his program “est“. Perhaps the most striking thing about est was its use of a controlling atmosphere and a problematic technique known as attack therapy, in which participants are psychologically attacked and verbally abused until the subject has a “breakthrough”. est soon became the subject of much controversy and eventually worried mental health professionals enough to make it (as well as Landmark) the subject of a number of psychological studies. Charlotte Faltermayer, writing for Time Magazine, had this to say about Erhard and est,

Erhard’s 60-hour seminars were strenuous ordeals, complete with “body catchers” and barf bags for the weak of mind and stomach. Trainers applauded bladder control and cursed those who didn’t get it. Still, Erhard and his message proved popular, even winning celebrity advocates.

est quickly grew in popularity and it wasn’t long before it held a significant share of the large group awareness training/self-help market. In conference rooms across the world veterans and new recruits forked over hundreds of dollars to be torn down and (hopefully) built back up. It continued on like that for years. Both the money and the critical reports kept piling up. But then the controversy reached a climax in 1991 when CBS aired a shocking 60 Minutes expose of Erhard and his organization. Surrounded by a host of devastating allegations4, Erhard left the US, conveniently selling the rights to the est “technology” to his brother Harry Rosenberg only just before the airing of the 60 Minutes program.

After this passing off the mantle the new organization took on the name Landmark Education Corporation and began offering its own seminars. Like its predecessor Landmark was steep in controversy5 from the very beginning. Participants in these seminars are encouraged to be “coachable”, ie accepting and pliable. They are told that they must remain in the room for all the sessions and follow all the “agreements” or they will not get the desired result. They are encouraged to see how their own “inauthenticity” is holding them back and then to create new possibilities. A repeated theme is that participants are “assholes”, that their beliefs systems are “worthless”, and that their lives are “meaningless”. But Landmark can help, rest assured.

Participants are led through a variety of exercises. At one point they may be asked to dredge up past hurts and traumas, exposing them to the group, to be met not with compassion and empathy but blame and derision. The core message of Landmark, that we are ultimately responsible for our lives, may be an empowering kick-in-the-butt for some. But for others, especially survivors of abuse and rape, it is a distressing or even devastating message. It is probably this aspect that I find most troubling. Along with all the many positive testimonials, the internet is filled with horror stories. Sarah Fazeli described one such experience,

I nearly walked out so many times, usually during the abusive interactions between the leader and whatever emotionally wracked person onstage. These were serious emotional breakdowns being handled in five-minute increments by this Landmark leader. Not a well-trained, experienced therapist in a safe environment but an arrogant, would-be dictator who egged on these breakdowns, gave them a quickie “tool” to get over their childhood trauma, and moved right along to the next person.

There were first-time revelations of childhood molestations, my-father-murdered-my-mother divulgements, I-think-I’m-gay moments. The words that best sum up Landmark’s catch-and-release handling of these fragile situations are dangerous and irresponsible.

One could spend many hours reading similar experiences. I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface here. Instead I’ll direct interested readers to the links below which offer at least a starting point.

Notes:

1. While they bill themselves as vegan some of their dishes do contain honey.

2. Serving pricey, less-than-authentic Latin American food in the Mission district has won Gracias Madre its own share of detractors.

3. Additionally there have been past allegations of labor issues. See more here.

4. These allegations included abuse and incest (later recanted), as well as tax fraud. However, Erhard it appears was never convicted of a crime based on these allegations. To add an interesting twist, his supporters sometimes claim that these allegations and other troubles Erhard encountered are simply a part of a larger attack orchestrated by the Church of Scientology . You can get some more details here.
Now that’s a Celebrity Death Match I would watch, Werner Erhard vs. L. Ron Hubbard.

5. Another side of the controversy is Landmarks labor practices. Interested readers can find out more about this issue from the excellent “Background Briefing” documentary on Landmark Education from ABC Radio National.

Further Resources:

I am Annoyed and Disappointed by Sam Levin

Landmark Forum on The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Landmark Education on Cult Education.com (contains an extensive collection of documents regarding Landmark)

ABC Radio National “Background Briefing” documentary on Landmark Education (audio)

The Landmark Forum: 42 Hours, $500, 65 Breakdowns by Laura McClure in Mother Jones

Do you believe in miracles?  by Rosemary Mahoney in Elle Magazine (Elle was sued for this article)

est, Werner Erhard, and the corporatization of Self-Help by Suzanna Snider

Attack therapy and the Landmark Forum by Jules Evans

Drive-thru Deliverance By Amanda Scioscia

It Happens by Steve Jackson

We’re Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together by Mark Brewer in Psychology Today

Pay Money, Be Happy by Vanessa Grigoriadis

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7 Responses to “Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food, Part 4: Landmark Forum & Cafe Gratitude”

  1. Anna Says:

    I’ve heard too many horror stories about Landmark bleeding people’s bank accounts dry. If the restaurant wants “better communication, honesty, openness, and a no-gossip policy,” the management can organize training sessions on their own, without outsourcing it to a third party that charges exorbitant prices to people who can barely afford it anyway (unless waiting tables or washing dishes at a raw vegan restaurant is waaaay more lucrative than I’m assuming).

  2. JawkDNA Says:

    Another awesome write up! Thanks!

  3. Mike Says:

    Our daughter went to the forum at the request of her supervisor. She has been having a tough time at work and they helped pay for it. I received the breakdown call on the second day. She was apologizing to me for all sorts of things that I had no idea. Yea, and she said she loved me about 10 times. She also said she has been pushing the family away and would like to bring the family back together. Funny thing she has not talked to me since that day (~1 month).
    This might be due to the fact that my wife has gone through the forum. I had voiced some seriously strong objections to her attending the class. Including the horror stories and est. But she very calmly said she wants to see what she can get out of it. No argument. Have you seen Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds? She seemed already indoctrinated. I received the phone call on the second day and it was not the intensely emotional breakdown you her about. She understood my concerns for her taking this class and also would like to get the family closer together. This must be a common thread in the Forum.
    I will attend her ‘graduation’ tonight. She seems OK so far. I want to be present to talk to some of the other people. I also want to see how much farther they push their agenda.
    I did attend our daughter’s ‘graduation’ and knew immediately what was going on. It was more intense that AMWAY. These people reacted to the speaker as if he were the second coming. I have never seen people in person reacting like this. Not even in AMWAY. (I mention AMWAY because my wife got into that for about a year). They have strategically spaced volunteers to convince people that they need this class. One guy tried this, but it was ultimately my daughter that convinced my wife that the class would be good. We left after two hours as I was really upset.
    I will see what happens tonight.

  4. Mike Says:

    I just got back from the three hour ‘graduation’ last night. I must admit that this speaker was totally different. They must have a rotating schedule of speakers for each forum in the different cities. I did not see the wild enthusiasm surrounding the previous speaker. And this guy was pretty good at explaining what Landmark was about through a mini lecture and analysis of the participant’s experience.
    The previous speaker, for my daughter, was very aggressive and really pushed the course as a path to success in life, mostly to the point of making money. Which I consider as just pushing peoples buttons. There was little explanation of the forum and no participants, so I gained nothing about their ‘philosophy’.
    One of the first questions we got as guests and participants was what could I get out of the training and what they got out of the training and how my getting it would help my life. Yes, there is an IT.
    After that, it was the, what you know and don’t know etc. and the circles … (you can see these on the net). I have to admit this guy was very logical and made a good point. Then it was on to the participants affirmations.
    Most of what these people have or are going through, I have been through and successfully worked it out on my own. There was a point I started to get upset and my wife got worried, but deep breath and calm down. This was totally different than my daughter’s ‘graduation’ as I was P.O.’d most of the time.
    We took a break after 1.5 hours and went outside to talk. The last part of the night was devoted to an example of a breakdown from one of the guests. He walked this person through it and described to everyone that this is what you can expect from the training. This was simply no more than that person describing a problem of the day and he kept asking her questions to help her realize what the answer might be and possibly come to a conclusion. I guess some people need that guidance in their lives.
    There was the pitch to register guests for the forum. It turns out that after taking the forum, you are entitled to take free seminars (good for the following year). The volunteers and staff really pushed the participants to continue with the seminars. I would say that participants should digest what they have ‘learned’ for a couple of months and then decide if and when to take the seminars. They also did push the advanced course for the graduates again as they did on the third day. Again, digest what you may have learned and then decide. But there were still a lot of people that signed up. Luckily not my wife. She was not chastised in front of me for not doing this, luckily. And I was with her the whole time. You can read other stories on the net.
    In Jr. High (‘72-‘73), we were deluged with anti-drug education and one of the stories is that drug dealers offered free samples to get you hooked and keep you coming back. Heck, I was offered free drugs while driving down Freemont St in Vegas back in ’83.
    Overall, this was a much more pleasurable experience than the previous one. NO, I have no plans to take the Landmark Forum. My life has been lucky. I have gone through a lot of the same experiences and I have learned to deal with them on my own. Do I still have problems? Yes (minor), and I can take what I have learned in my lifetime and what he told us in the first half of the ‘graduation’ to help me deal with them.
    They make a point of saying that this course will change EVERYONE’s life greatly for the better. I still do not believe that. But some people will benefit. Young people who have not experienced much or have had many problems in their short life. But hey, that is part of life, dealing with problems and working it out. And there are those who have a hard time dealing with problems in general. In some cases, it is cheaper and a lot faster than therapy. You can also get a lot this same information from management training classes offered by your Human Resources Department. Albeit, in a very diluted form. (ie Boss is a Jerk analogy).
    As in college there are many different professors with different personalities. Good and Bad. I think my wife got one of the good ones. I would not recommend this course to any I know, as most of my people are pretty ‘normal’. But there are a few that should take a look at it. And I would definitely not recommend it if the that was the same person that ‘coached’ my daughter.
    About the What You Know (YK), What You Don’t Know (DK), and What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know (DKDK): a confusing premise: What I understood is YK and DK (self explanatory). This is the realm of human knowledge and most everyone is constantly trying to learn to expand their knowledge. The DKDK is the dilemma. Coming from a science background, I believe this to be the unknown aspects of physics and nature. From what I heard last night, it seems to me that they are probing the human Psyche (ID, ego and superego), hence Therapy. It could also be religion and self-awareness.
    I don’t think it is for everyone. Again, digest what you have ‘learned’ (give it a good 3-6 months) and then decide whether or not to take any more courses. This is what scared me with my wife. I was afraid of ‘brainwashing’ and all that nonsense.
    I’ll let you know if anything happens.

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