Change We Can (Almost) Believe In

On the eve of a famous guru's manslaughter trial, one flawed man explores the self-help spectrum for the secret to personal growth

  • Photograph by Juliana Sohn for TIME

    Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar John Campbell taught the author a style that promises to "boil the blood"

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    In Search of Breakthroughs
    The American obsession with transformation isn't new. It's about as old as the nation. In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached about tapping into the "infinitude of man." In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy founded the religion of Christian Science, premised on the limitless power of faith and mind. Norman Vincent Peale was an early best-selling self-help author with The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. But it was Werner Erhard, a lean, wolfish former salesman, who created the first modern transformation empire when he founded EST seminars in 1971. His courses were legendarily uncomfortable. He paced and cursed at his students. He had them writhe on the floor and scream out all their anxieties. He challenged participants to control their bladders so they didn't have to leave the long sessions. ("You are not a tube," he preened in the documentary Transformation while sipping water at the end of a seven-hour session. "You have transcended peeing.")

    But it's a tribute to the power of his central concept — you have imprisoned yourself, and a few days of endurance ontology can set you free — that more than 20 years after he sold his ideas to a group of employees who went on to create Landmark Education, Landmark is still the natural first stop in any transformation tour.

    The seminar I attended, held over a long weekend in the basement of Landmark's center in midtown Manhattan, was led by a slight, silver-haired former Air Force pilot named Roger Smith. He started our group of 127 students off with some nonnegotiable ground rules: No food, no drink except water. No texting, no note taking, no talking except at one of the three microphones set up around the room. No narcotics, alcohol or aspirin until the entire course is over. Commit to being there from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. or later each of the three days, with just two 30-minute breaks and one longer break for dinner. There were assignments — usually attempts to make "breakthroughs" with people in your life, on the phone or in writing — to be completed during those breaks and at night. The rules felt harsh, almost punitive, and yet nobody left, least of all me. In the first hour, Smith had effectively convinced us all that if we walked out on him, we'd only be walking out on ourselves.

    At its heart, the course was a withering series of scripted reality checks meant to show us how we have created nearly everything we see as a problem. A fair amount of time was spent explaining the Forum's peculiar vocabulary, which reads like bad fortune-cookie copy. ("Transformation," one poster said, is "the genesis of a new realm of possibility.") These opaque missives came to life, though, through "sharing," the testimonials that participants gave at the microphones. In our course, at least, this became a speed-walk through the awful things that people do to themselves and to each other — infidelity, incest, anorexia, abuse. Weeping at the mike was so common that one dry-eyed grandmother seemed compelled to explain, "If I wasn't taking antidepressant pills, I'd be crying right now."

    Like the Zen master who strikes his students while they try to serve him tea, Smith was unsparing. Each time someone looked to blame others or the world at large for his or her problems, he hammered back. His tone was compassionate, but the message was steely. "Who was there every time you got fired?" he demanded of the group. "It's not the economy, the climate, world conditions, your mother, your father. The right person to make a difference in your life is sitting in your chair."

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