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An excerpt from "The Children of est: A study of the Experience and Perceived Effects of a Large Group Awareness Training (The Forum)"
By CHARLES WAYNE DENISON
Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, 1994
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The Forum begins Friday morning at 9:00-sharp, so please be there by 8:30 to complete any unfinished business. Out an the main street, a smiling man with a bright tie is waving a big sign: The Forum. Not exactly "professional" looking. but certainly enthusiastic. He directs the cars into the lot, where other nicely dressed assistants will welcome us to our Forum. Smiling volunteers direct me from my parking space all the way to the registration table.
My name tag is easy to find in the immaculate rows of alphabetized badges. How did they got those lined up so perfectly? I don the CHUCK tag. It is to be worn on the outer garment, in a visible place, for the duration of The Forum. Okay. I got it. "Have a great Forum!"
Pleased that my tag does not read "Researcher-Participant-Observer" I move over to mix in with the crowd. I already know that they are going tell me that I can't take notes in The Forum, so I am pondering my strategies for remembering what I want to document. There is some comfort in the fact that most registrants are basically as lost as I am. "Nice day, huh?" "Yeah. How's it going?" "So what do you guys think this thing is all about?" "I don't know, but I hope I come out of here with that same shit-eatin' smile my buddy had when he did this thing!" "I have no idea what I'm doing here." "I'm a reviewer (whatever that is), I did The Forum in 1987, then again in '90. Actually this will be my fourth time. It's awesome! You'll see."
Every one's name is plastered on his or her shoulders "in a visible place," so the assistants come along and address you like an old friend. "Hey CHUCK, it's time for The Forum to begin. You want to just make your way into The Forum Room." (I do? Are you saying that I want to go in there, or are you asking me? Or is this a pre-hypnotic suggestion?) Over the next day, much of the language will seem a bit "odd" to the uninitiated.
The doors open and 135 men and women (including four or five minors) make their way into the artless, windowless seminar room. More volunteers, "assistants," that is. "You want to go up to the front row in the center section." I do?- "Jackie has a seat there for you." Somehow I stray off course and slip into the third row, left section, hoping to make myself invisible. Seated next to me is a young Asian woman, a student from Singapore. She is one of the four or five persons of color in this Forum. We exchange our hellos and I begin to scan the room,. collecting mental snapshots.
The Structure of a Training Room
In every Forum the room setup is virtually identical. There are little aesthetic stimuli. no pictures, no windows. grayish carpet, grayish-white walls. The room arrangement is perfectly symmetrical. There is a slightly elevated (8-10 inches) platform which is center stage. A table near the back of the platform contains the single object of intrinsic beauty- a vase with fresh-cut flowers. That table also supports a dictionary, a box of Kleenex, a stainless-steel thermos cup and, perhaps, a small saucer of Ricola candies.
In front of the table is an adjustable music/lecture stand: beside that is a tall director's chair. At each end of the platform are large chalkboards. with wide point chalk and erasers. Another ten feet from the edges of the platform, on the floor,. are two more chalkboards. Finally,. in the front corners of the room are black loudspeakers mounted on stands.
Moving into the seating area, the chairs are in perfect rows. A center section, plus matching left and right sections. They have been counted out, as if to provide a chair for everyone, and everyone in his chair. On the outside walls are tables with plastic water pitchers and Dixie cups (the shot-glass sized ones). No other food or drink is allowed inside the training room.
The back of the room is staff/assistant "headquarters." A line of conference tables, with tablecloths, consumes nearly the whole back wall. There is one break between the tables to make room for two tall director's chairs and a music stand between them. During The Forum those two chairs will always be occupied. either by the Forum Supervisor, the Center Manager, or some other individual with a title.9
9 None of the interviewees or the researcher has ever watched the room being set up at The Forum. An observation of the Life Training. which uses virtually the same floor plan. revealed that the 'team' expends great effort in establishing the symmetry. A roll of twine was used as a horizontal plumb line to identify the center of the training room. More string. and 2x4 boards. were used to ensure that each chair was straight and equidistant from the chair next to it. In both LGATs the writing on the chalkboards is kept uniform by first lining the board with masking tape or light chalklines. then removing the guides after the printing has been done. Since only capital letters are used for anything written. no marks will go below the line of the guides. I heard a team-member of the Life Training declare that. when the trainees walk in. "the room speaks consciousness from every square inch.
Janice described it this way:
What they do is present you with a totally neutral room. There's nothing in the room-neutral in the sense that it has zilch personality ... It's as bland as it can be. Functional. And you can't do any interpreting, you can't do any meaning-making out of the room...There's not much stimulation.
One interviewee described this structure as having a "mysterious" feel to it. Another described it as a "boot camp" feel. and Brent reported his first reaction was "anal retentive." Overall, the data do not reveal a strong sense of reaction to this structure. beyond the fact that it was noticeably different from a normal classroom or other common setting. Brent, who became very involved in the work of Landmark Education. recalls his first experience of The Forum structure:
When I went into the center,. I kind of chuckled to myself, because I figured this company was very anal retentive. Just incredibly precise. They wouldn't just have a pile of pens there...they are always in some little sprawl. They didn't just have the name tags out in alphabetical order, but they were out in very neat columns. They looked like Felix Unger was the guy doing this....
But I have to tell you, Chuck. I really liked it. I thought it was great because, for me, it gave me a sense of "things are taken care of" ... It gave me great comfort to know that they were taking this seriously. That they weren't just. "Alright, just kind of pile into the room there. and just do your thing."
The structure of Time in The Forum
Over a period of three consecutive days, a participant will spend about 45 hours (16 hours per day) directly involved with Forum staff and fellow trainees. Each day begins at 9:00 am. and continues until around midnight. There is one 90-minute break for a late afternoon meal; at that time every trainee is expected to dine with fellow trainees and to spend the time discussing topics assigned by the Forum leader. There are also 20-minute breaks every three to four hours.
There is an assignment at each break; the assignment may be to "share" a piece of information with someone you haven't met before, to go out and do something "unreasonable," or to call a family member to begin "completing" some unresolved issue with them.
When the 15-hour day is completed. trainees are sent out with a homework assignment which they are to complete within the next nine hours. before The Forum reconvenes at 9:00 am. On the first night. each trainee is to go out and do something "unreasonable" (not dangerous or illegal). which will expand behavior beyond the "box" in which we normally operate. They are also assigned the task of "sharing The Forum" with two people (not fellow trainees), and to write a letter to someone they have been 'withholding from.'
An observation of the time structure for the three days of The Forum reveals that there is very little waking time that a trainee is not involved in The Forum itself. Most trainees will have very little sleep over the period. In the 1 1/2-day period between Monday morning and Tuesday evening, trainees are requested to be enrolling their friends and co-workers into coming to the Tuesday night session. In addition to this unusual time structure. trainees are requested to behave in accordance with a number of disciplined "promises" (which are described in a later section).
Subjects' Perceptions of the Structure
A trainee's life structure is significantly altered during The Forum. Many of the research participants interpreted and evaluated the structure of The Forum during the interview. They consistently described it as very strict, rigid, or comprehensively planned.
There were very few complaints from the participants regarding the long days; the time spent on a few, specific issues was questioned, but the overall structure was not criticized. What is the purpose for the structure? Representative statements include:
Sandy: I think they want your head for three days... They want you.
Cheryl: The days are very long. They wear you down. with the length of time you are forced to sit and listen. I think it kind of wears down your ability to resist, where you finally go, "0K, I'll consider this."
Janice: You am so happy because you survived it. You didn't die from it. And you're kind of pleased.. I think most people can handle those days, easily... I remember thinking. "Don't ever sell yourself short. Remember. you can always do a 15-hour day. easily."
Ben: You could come up here and say in 20 minutes what the meat of the matter is for the whole day. but I don't think anybody would get it if you tried to do it that quick. It wouldn't last.
Tom: I think it is a valuable technique to push on through it and get some sleep deprivation. and let it come in at another level... I like that. and was very curious about it... [I've done] a lot of cognitive analysis about what happened ... but I'm still not sure exactly what happened.
Respondents' perceptions of the structure of The Forum fall into three categories:
I . It is intended to "wear you down"/"break down your defenses in order to make you more open/suggestible.
2. It is designed to challenge or stretch your perceived limits and abilities of yourself.
3. It is a unique teaching strategy-highly structured, long days create an effective learning environment.
One of the 20 respondents personally believed that a negative sense of mind control or brainwashing was the intent of this unique structure:
Mary: You were to arrive on time, sit straight, and follow these rules about standing when you spoke... I felt like I was getting brainwashed...
Gina had a decidedly different point of view an this subject
It doesn't have anything to do with brainwashing. That's just what people say who haven't been through it. People who have been through it don't say that.
The Forum is a highly structured event. The physical space gives participants very little aesthetic stimulus. and there is obvious symmetry to the room and its contents. It is also evident that a great deal of care has been given to the planning and setting up of the event.
The days are very long and carefully planned. A participant in The Forum is immersed in the structure for most of his or her waking hours for three consecutive days. After nearly two days away from The Forum, he or she will return an Tuesday evening to complete the training in a three-hour final session.
The participants in this study offered various interpretations of the structure. Those responses were found to fall into three general areas: that the structure is intended to a) break down one's defenses, b) challenge a person's perceived limits, or c) be a unique teaching strategy. While interviewees did have a variety of interpretations about the structure, only one (Mary) found the structure to be a negative point. The others found it valuable.