Landmark Forum and its similarities with meditation retreats

Joy Bose
10 min readDec 21, 2022
Photo by Max on Unsplash

I recently did a life coaching course called the Landmark Forum in Bangalore, India. In this article I share my view of the course and some similarities I perceived with meditation retreats which I have done, specially Zen teachings and Buddhist meditation retreats.

Summary of Landmark Forum

Landmark Forum is a life coaching seminar. It is a 40 hours, 3.5 days program of personal life coaching conducted by a forum leader assisted by a team of people. During the seminar, one is taught how to identify and deconstruct the aspects of life that are holding them back, especially the blind spots in one’s behavior that one cannot normally see but which negatively and persistently effect one’s day to day functioning.

It is a form of transformational learning, where the participant is said to be transformed by doing the training, rather than simply information about techniques to deal with different problems. The Landmark Forum is conducted in many countries and millions of people have taken the course and follow-up advanced courses till now since its inception. Landmark Education, that conducts the forum, also has a sister company called Vanto Group that specializes in consulting for organizations to identify their inefficiencies and make them more effective.

We will go through my experiences of the forum a bit later in this article, but one of its important methods is to help one to understand how certain unwanted patterns (the term used in the forum is rackets), which might have originated from one’s past unpleasant events and are continuing because one feels they still gain something from them, are leading to unhelpful behaviors in the present. So if one learns to recognize these patterns operating in their everyday behavior and abandon them, one can break free from the limitations that the rackets impose and become more effective in whatever one wishes to do in different areas of their life. There are also other tools and techniques taught, such as how to deal with breakdowns in life, how the language we use shapes our perception, and how to understand influences from our past life events that shape our present and future identity.

This is the website of landmark forum, a course syllabus, and a review.

Zen Roots of the Landmark Forum

Researching the origins of the Landmark forum, we find it was formed by ex-employees of an earlier life coaching seminar called Erhard Seminars Training (EST). EST was started in the 1970s by Warner Erhard, who gave 60 hours, 6 day transformational seminars which became very successful. Erhard later sold the Intellectual Property rights of EST in 1985 to his employees and retired. The former EST employees formed a new company called Landmark Education, and the current Landmark forum is a slightly shorter and modified version of EST, while it retains many important elements.

In designing and conducting EST, Erhard was inspired by Zen and writers like Alan Watts.

A Wikipedia article on EST is here. This research article looks at the implications of EST on Zen in the west. This parody scene from a US film called Semi-Tough gives some idea on what EST was like. The book “Getting it: The Psychology of EST” which is available to read here shares some insights from a clinical psychologist who did the EST course called Sheridan Fenwick.

Erhard’s biography, The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of EST, also sheds light on the Zen inspirations. Some quotes from Erhard’s biography related to Zen and Buddhism are as follows:

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.

“Zen was not built by clever men,” Werner went on. “The men who built Zen were inspired. What I mean is this: some Buddhist philosophies are as reasonable, as palatable, as the rest of religion. Often the reasonableness and palatableness look like they were put there to make the product salable. In Zen, that has been transcended. Zen does not appeal to mere rationality or comfort or sense. It is highly intrusive, far more intrusive than Buddhism as a whole — just as est is more intrusive than, say, much of the human potential movement or Rogerian therapy.”

“Zen is a particular approach in a broader Buddhist discipline that has enlightenment as its purpose. The distinctive element in Zen is instantaneousness leading to transformation, rather than process leading to change. The great teachings of the Buddha sometimes led to the search for a gradual change of state. There is nothing gradual about Zen. Although even this is not quite accurate. As Zen masters often say about enlightenment: ‘Not gradual, not sudden.’”

“When Werner visited the Karmapa, in Sikkim, His Holiness told him about the ancient prophecies of Padma Sambhava, Guru Rimpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Padma Sambhava prophesied that the Dharma — the Buddhist teachings and knowledge of enlightenment — would go to the West “when iron birds fly and horses have wheels.” It was also prophesied that, in this future time of stress and turmoil, people would no longer be able to pursue enlightenment by traditional means requiring long periods of withdrawal from the world. Instead, there would be created a method equal to the greater stress and accelerated pace of society, so that what had previously taken years of practice could be achieved much more quickly. “So it feels to me,” the Karmapa said to Werner, “very much as if you have come home.””

Hence, we can say that the founder of the predecessor of Landmark forum was inspired and influenced by Zen teachings, although there were also influences from existentialism and other philosophies and techniques. To my experience, this is very much reflected in the design of the forum, which I see is like a meditation retreat applied to one’s material life.

My experience of doing the Landmark Forum

I completed the Landmark forum a few days back. I tried to actively participate and complete all the exercises and assignments and genuinely give it an honest try, rather than let my skepticism and past concepts and cynical thoughts about whether it would or would not work come in the way.

During the forum, we went through a series of thought exercises and introspection exercises, as well as other techniques such as Socratic argumentation, visualizations and reliving of our past, an introspection as to how our self is constructed, about how we use unhelpful patterns in our daily life that limit us and so on. For example, we can see through our present negative thoughts such as “I am unworthy” and investigate where such thoughts arose from. We may have gone through a specific bad experience in our childhood, or our adolescence, in our relationship with our parents or spouse, or at work many years ago, that formed this unhelpful thought. Instead of just treating that experience as it was, we infer additional meaning to it as “we are unworthy” and internalize the same. This internalization might manifest in such unhelpful thoughts and the ways we live our reality and approach our career, our relationships and so on.

One the third day of the forum we come to a state of nothingness and meaninglessness, built up with exercises and introspections and assignments over the previous two days. In this state we realize, from a systematic and careful introspection of our own past experience, that life is devoid of meaning per se, we are just meaning making machines and we have to let go of futile attempts to change to cope that are built out of our attachment to our past. Once we let go of the past, which happens on the third day, we then have a fresh start full of possibilities, where we are free to realize our fullest potential and self actualize and manifest the realities we want in different areas, devoid of the limitations that were holding us back till now.

Over the course of the 3.5 day forum, I felt I experienced a state of transformation in how I looked at my problems: I could now see the blind spots in the way I approached my work, the way I was limiting myself with limiting thoughts such as “I don’t deserve to progress in my career” or “I can’t do this”. As I introspected different areas of my life, such as my financial affairs and daily bad habits and career and relationships, I could see what needs to be done and found a renewed confidence to take risks and to just do it in a proactive way, rather than just going with the flow and waiting for life to take its own course.

Specifically, I noticed the following aspects of the forum that seemed similar to some elements of Buddhism and meditation as I understand it:

a) Introspection or enquiry of one’s past life incidents and their effect on the present, where the method of introspection is by using words rather than meditation

b) Use of Koans or paradoxical word riddles that bring the mind to a state of silence by stopping the habitual always-thinking that goes on

c) The experience of emptiness or nothingness, a glimpse of which one can get once one has seen through their unhelpful habitual patterns or rackets which apply in their daily life

d) The idea of transformation, or a mini enlightenment, that happens once one abandons past unhelpful patterns and results in a vision of a new future with new possibilities

e) the idea of choice and free will, i.e. how we usually function in an automatic mode, reacting to things in a mechanical way, yet once we realize this we can exercise real choice

f) the idea of how time is constructed by our mind i.e. how we have an idea of our future, heavily influenced by our past experiences, and how it plays out in our present

g) the idea that our life’s suffering is often built by our internal mental projections, and even the strengths we cultivate can be our way of coping

h) the importance of being here now and living fully in the present moment

i) The idea that our identity as we construct it, is a kind of myth or superstition that we construct out of our thoughts

j) an emphasis on ethics, interpreted as being authentic and genuine in our interactions and keeping our word in all we do, which enhances the power of our word in creating our reality (there is possibly also a biblical influence here, note John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”)

To this extent, I believe this forum is akin to other laudable attempts to secularize and apply Buddhist practice and meditation to daily life such as Shambhala training, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT, mindfulness apps, Search Inside Yourself Google course and so on. I will not comment to what extent this or the others have been faithful to the original spirit and context of Buddhism, but merely show the similarities.

My experience of similarity with Vipassana meditation retreats

Vipassana or insight meditation is one of the main two aspects of Buddhist meditation, along with Samatha. In the Theravada context from the Pali tradition, it refers to the meditation described in the Satipatthana sutta or the four foundations of mindfulness, namely mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and objects appearing in the mind. It is similar to secular mindfulness (such as MBCT and mindfulness apps), though there are important differences in the aspects it focuses on and the aim of the meditation.

Vipassana meditation is conducted in strict secluded meditation retreats, usually 10 days long, usually in a monastery or retreat center. During the retreats, the participant is secluded from daily life and things such as mobile phones. They do the technique of mindfully noting of all thoughts and sensations that occur in the mind in a non-judgmental and focused way. This technique is applied to each area of life during the retreat, whether it be daily work, cooking, brushing one’s teeth, sitting meditation and walking.

I did a Vipassana retreat in the Burmese Mahasi tradition some years back. Below was my experience: The retreat schedule includes waking up at 4 am to going to bed at 11 pm. Out of this, 14 hours a day is dedicated exclusively to vipassana insight meditation. This involves noting of the breathing process, and the abdomen rising and falling when one breathes in or out. One mentally repeats a word to denote the noting without delving too much into it, such as “rising, rising” and “falling, falling” with each breath. Same goes for noting the steps during walking (“left foot”, “right foot”), and every other activity. One also notes bodily sensations such as pain (“pain, pain”) and everything arising in mind such as thoughts of anger (noted as “anger, anger”). Whenever one sees the mind has wandered, one gently brings back the mind to the primary object of noting, which is the breath during sitting meditation and the steps during walking meditation. In this way, it is a bare attention meditation of whatever arises.

The aim is to slow down, and then note everything that we do and whatever arises in the mind, with focused attention in a non judgmental way, and thus get an idea of the impermanence of the thoughts and sensations. By doing this, we gain an insight into how we construct the “I” of our identity, whose real nature is seen as a series of thoughts and sensations that quickly arise and disappear. This can only happen during the meditation once one has sufficiently slowed down and can note the sensations and thoughts with sustained focus.

During the retreat, I got some very basic idea (more experienced meditators will be able to get a clearer idea) of how what we usually think is an unbroken unchanging I or the self could actually be broken down into a series of sensations and thoughts that occur quickly, one after the other. This deconstruction is achieved by very slow and very focused noting of the breath and sensations of the body and thoughts of the mind. Some meditators might even reach a state where the experience of their “I” totally breaks down momentarily.

To summarize, I felt that the deconstruction of my concept of “I” during the meditation retreat and during the landmark forum had some similarities, although the techniques used (mindfulness meditation to cultivate focused insight vs wordy Socratic dialogue and introspection), are very different.


In this article I have shared my experience of the landmark forum and a meditation retreat, and tried to show the similarities I could perceive. I feel that the forum is an interesting example of applied meditation in daily life to bring about quick transformation over the course of just 3.5 days, although people’s experiences may differ and not everyone may experience the transformation as intended.



Joy Bose

Working as a software developer in machine learning projects. Interested in the intersection between technology, machine learning, society and well being.