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THE PROCESS AND ECOLOGY OF THE FORUM

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: The Curriculum and Pedagogy

As we got used to the room and our straight-backed chairs. the light conversation is broken by the arrival of our Forum leader. She trots up the left aisle from the back of the room, and hops up onto the platform. Very attractive. smartly dressed in skirt and blouse. this woman is full of energy and wired for sound. Her voice penetrates the room. The FM microphone frees her to roam the area. extending a warm welcome to all present

She is introduced simply as "Darcy Polanski. your Forum leader." 10 I met Darcy two nights ago at "An Evening About The Forum." Immediately I notice that she makes no mention of the "Ph.D." which follows her name on the gold badge. Nor does she share that she was a psychologist who sold her practice back East to become a Forum leader. Given the fact that The Forum literature declares that this is not therapy. and that there will be no mental health professionals on sight at the training, I can appreciate her silence on the subject Nevertheless. I am especially intrigued to watch a psychologist,. who closed shop to join the LGAT scene, in action.

10 This description recounts. as accurately as possible. the initial session of a Forum led by Dr. Polanski. The researcher relied on notes taken after each session. since note-taking was not allowed during the sessions. Other leader descriptions in this chapter draw from sessions with various Forum leaders. both male and female. A few of the quotes are verbatim renderings of what was said. but most have been carefully reconstructed from the researcher's observations. It should also be noted that the reseamber did honor the rules of the seminar room at all times. only taking notes when given permission to do so. Notes taken between sessions were done outside the seminar room.

The first order of business does not sound like "business" at all. Darcy opens up the conversation for questions, comments and concerns from the audience. There are the standard topics which they seem to bring to every Forum. "I had this friend who took est..." Now, how does this Werner Erhard guy fit into the picture? ... " I've heard this is, like, a cult. Can you clear the air about that for me?" Darcy has a ready-answer for every concern.

The personal questions begin too. "What is your Ph.D. in?" "Do you have a family?" "How come you are in this line of work now?" Darcy won't answer that one directly; instead, she promises that by the end of the weekend everyone will know why she's in this work. Sure enough. there will be a dozen times in the training when some liberated soul has a life-changing insight and Darcy smiles: "Did someone ask why I do this work?"

During the first session Darcy mentions the idea that "Life is a conversation." and this conversation continues for over an hour. The leader begins to drop little concepts into the flow of the discussion. and builds on some participants' comments until the point is made. There are suggestions that high expectations among us will produce the most results for us. We begin to share what personal concerns. issues, and hopes we have brought to address this weekend.

And the Forum leader has some questions for us. too. "Can you share how you were already listening a certain way when you came here today?" She is introducing a "distinction" of The Forum. which is called Already Always Listening. We are bringing all our past experiences with us into every situation. and that is what dictates our perceptions of everything in the present. Furthermore, "your past is not really your past. In fact. the past is the future you are living into!"

The mood is light and friendly. Darcy's big smile and energetic demeanor hold the attention of this diverse group. The 10-inch elevated Platform seems too confining for Darcy, and she steps down closer to the 150 men and women gathered here.

Few of us seem to know what is going to happen over the next three days so most listen carefully, hoping some light will be shed in this windowless room. The casual atmosphere in the room is formalized only by flawless rows of lightly padded. straight-backed chairs. But even the discomfort of the chairs is not evident-yet.

Darcy, our leader, has welcomed us and assured us that the weekend will be life-changing, full of "breakthroughs." The beaming faces of the volunteer .assistants' in the back of the room seem to affirm her promises.

Then she readies the room for her first bomb."OK. how many of you were pressured to be here?" Darcy casually asks. Since the seminar uses only its graduates to recruit participants, and since many graduates are persistent in enrolling friends and family, the question evokes snickers of understanding from the group. She is standing even with the first row-center, right hand in the air to model the method for responding to the question. Still smiling- "Go ahead and just raise your hand if you were pressured to be here." Nine or ten hands go up over the next five seconds.

"OK. great! Now those of you who raised your hands stand up." Pause. Half a dozen slowly stand. "Come on now, go ahead and stand up if you were raising your hand. Who was pressured to be here?" A bit more movement; now eight are standing. "OK. great, thank you." Darcy acknowledges them. "That wasn't so bad."

Her facial expression now becomes more serious. and a tone of authority is projected in Darcy's voice: "Now, those of you who are standing, you want to just make your way to the table in the back of the room there. Please take off your name tags and give them to Sharon. Then Randall will give you your $290 back. including your $60 deposit You are dismissed and you can leave and go on about your weekend." The Forum has begun!

In a matter of thirty seconds. the room has undergone a transformation of mood. All jocularity has taken its leave and the whispering has ceased. The silence of the participants seems to ask, "Now what?"

The eight who are standing have not moved. despite instructions. Volume up; no nonsense in the voice: "What is the problem here? You were pressured to be here. and I don't lead The Forum for people who are pressured to be here! Now you get to spend three days doing something you really want to do! Turn in your name tags.... Is this not clear, people!?"

The next thirty minutes or so is spent in Darcy's public. and confrontational. interaction with the participants who "made the mistake" of labeling themselves victims of pressure. One by one she discusses the issue with them, and even then only when each person chooses to remain standing and speak into a microphone. When all is said and done, all eight remain in this Forum. Sighs of relief resound throughout the seminar room.

The concept of "pressure" and "how it lives" for us has been dramatically demonstrated before our very eyes. This is the first, but certainly not the most intense of many challenges throughout the next three days.

"Conversation" as Pedagogy

The movement of The Forum clearly begins when the Forum leader arrives. The interaction between leader and participant is the impetus of the entire experience. There clearly is a curriculum to be presented; however, the pedagogy is in the form of a large group "conversation" and the traditional lecture is used very little throughout the training.

The leader reinforces participants to start "sharing" (i.e., speaking) within the first 15 minutes of the first session. There are no challenges during the first hour or two, just positive recognition for their participation. The leader sets a norm that the group will "recognize" every "sharing" by offering applause to every person who stands and speaks. Later. after the willingness to share has been solidly reinforced. the leader begins to confront and challenge participants.

For a group of this size (commonly 130 to 150). there is a unique dimension to the conversation. Every interaction is shared publicly, and it is always directed to the leader. Ninety-five percent of the time spent in conversation at The Forum (by researcher's estimation) is of this nature: One participant at a time carries on a discussion with the Forum leader and everyone else "listens in." Only upon the request of the leader will persons be allowed to talk among themselves.

Conversation as Curriculum

The group conversation is more than a method for facilitating the experience in The Forum. The concept of "conversation" is itself a foundational premise in the curriculum. In the Constructivist sense, The Forum suggests that life itself is a conversation. and that in that conversation we create our lives, our problems, and our possibilities. Therefore, The Forum emphasizes identifying our past based conversations and taking responsibility for creating new possibilities in our present conversations:

Tom: [A] philosophical thing that I enjoyed enormously ... is about language, and that human reality is based in language. Language is the powerful synthetic, and therefore a huge part of human reality is "made up." Either made up by the individual or made up by society ... And I think that has an empowering kind of idea to it. It's another philosophical thing-if I made it up and everybody else makes it up, and it isn't working. then let's make it up a different way!

On the last day of The Forum, participants are given the opportunity to step onto the, platform and declare a new statement of "who I am is ... " This is the high point of the conversation about conversation.

The Discipline: Their Promise ... and Yours

If you play according to the rules. you can expect big results from The Forum. If you don't. "...you may still get the result. but you forfeit your right to expect it." In other words, cooperative participants can expect to bear the fruit of "The Promise of The Forum." Unfortunately, the promise is not readily identified, and none of the subjects seemed able to quote it. There are a number of handouts which document the promise, albeit none of them represent the definitive statement an the subject. The ones the researcher has on file include:

Perhaps the most comprehensive statement of "the promise" is the one written on the board during the training:

THE PROMISE OF THE FORUM IS THAT YOU CAN GET ANYTHING OUT OF THE FORUM THAT YOU ARE WILLING TO STAND FOR HAVING GOTTEN

It is understandable that one is not greeted with that statement in the tricolored brochure or in the "Introduction to The Forum." Such a statement may sound too general, too abstract. compared to the specific and concrete goals some have brought with them to The Forum (see participants' goals. earlier in this chapter).

Promises are requested of participants. too in The Forum. In the informed consent packet (which arrives in the mail) registrants have been notified of the required promises and the recommended promises which they will be asked to make. "We are asking you to give your word and to keep your word. specifically to make certain promises and to keep those promises you made, during the entire presentation of The Forum..."

Required promises (paraphrased):

Then there are the recommended promises:

11 I was reminded of this by the doorkeeper who greeted me on the way to my first bathroom break. on Saturday.

We knew all this before any of us entered The Forum room on Friday, since we had all been mailed packets which informed us of these promises. No big surprises. But getting through the discussion of, and agreement to, the promises took well over an hour. The Forum Supervisor reads each promise from center stage on Friday morning, and the Forum leader engages in a discussion of the matter with anyone who so wishes to discuss it. It is somehow obvious (to me, at least) that the leader has heard every complaint many times before.

"What if somebody has hypoglycemia and needs to have a little food at their seat?"
"Oh. do you have hypoglycemia?"
"Well. no."
"Next question. please."

Some of the discussion comes in the form of a challenge:

"All this seems like mind control or something. like you're just trying to control us. Like we're being deprived of food and sleep. Like we can't even go pee if we need to: can't talk to anybody."
"Do you have a question about the promises?
"It just seems ridiculous. weird."
"I got that. Do you have a question about the promises?"
"No. You know. that's just how I feel about it."
"Are you agreeing to make these promises?"
"Uh. yeah. I guess so."
"Yes or no?"
"Yeah ... Yes."
"I got it. Anything else?"

Then there is what students sometimes call the "trick question:"

"I have this leg injury, and sometimes my knee really starts hurting. So, you said that we are only supposed to take medication prescribed by our doctor. right?"
"Yes."
"Well. he told me that I could take Tylenol for it. when it rcally starts hurting. If I do that, will I be breaking my promise?"

Conditions Created by the Promises

The researcher and several interviewees recognized a great deal of resistance to the Promises as they were being presented during The Forum. After The Forum, there was a shift in attitude among some participants about that process-that it was actually "the work" of The Forum, as opposed to an inappropriate delay in getting The Forum started. The promises are an integral part of the structure of The Forum, and they are a means by which this unique experience is facilitated.

Leo: What's the big deal? I guess it's a part of the warm-up for the whole thing. that you had to be committed to doing it ... The things they asked us to do were. I thought. very minor. I know some people thought it was onerous. and difficult to maybe not cat a meal at the normal hour. or to stay up late. or not drink. or be on time... People were complaining about things. like that "the seats are hard."

Victor: The first time I looked at it. it struck me as being a little rigid. a little legalese... I looked at it like. "Gosh. we're spending an awful lot of time here to read each line and get real clear ..."

Luanne: I have no idea why it has to be that way ... Like the aspirin. Not even taking aspirin. Shit! That took three hours to get through. People were so upset.

These representative statements illustrate participants' early, and varied reactions to the promises. In the end, however. there was agreement among the vast majority that the Promises were valuable.

The leader might invite any who wish to publicly complain about the promises to have a conversation about what kinds of personal issues the process is unveiling to them. As in the earlier exercise of looking at whether participants were "pressured" to be here, the promises are an impetus for a new way of looking at one's life. In the end, keeping the promises may simply be a chore or an ordeal; or it may create for the participant what Darcy Polanski called "a new way of being with 'promise.'"

In the end. most participants saw the promises as a very positive part of their experience. That view is represented by one of the physicians who participated:

Jerry: [At first] I kept thinking, as a physician. "this is crazy."A little bit of Seldane-D or Tavist-D every 12 hours isn't going to interfere with my ability to do The Forum! ... Can't they treat us like grown-ups?... At the end of The Forum. I started to think that the very beginning of it was very important. because it helped to instill a little bit of impatience in us so that we could see what kind of self-control we had... Now I think they were trying to help us learn how to grow...I don't know how they did it. but they convinced me that I would be a failure in The Forum if I made a commitment and broke it.

Mary, a psychologist and the respondent who had the most negative reaction to The Forum among the Participants, did not come to a positive conclusion about the promises:

They listed a bunch of rules that. right away. I thought were ... like I was getting brainwashed... But it was real clear that most everybody else was willing to go along with the rules... I found that demeaning. I felt controlled. and I objected to that inside myself.

Mary then recalled that she had had a similar reaction to the 'disciplines' Presented at the Life Training LGAT which she attended in 1992:

It hit me the same way. Like, "right, I am not going to say what you want me to say. And I'm not going to stand up here and make promises that seem ridiculous to me ... you cannot own my mind!"So when she made everybody stand up and [verbally agree to the disciplines I went "blah , blah, blah, blah." That's what I said to myself! I never ever made those promises. Interestingly enough. I felt the same kind of resistance as I did [eight years ago at The Forum].

Mary's response was presented as a hypothetical scenario to another interviewee, who said "it was something confronting her in her own life that she doesn't take authority very well-never has ... It's costing her, probably, a whole lot in her life ... just being that way."

The presentations of the promises, and the process of determining who was "pressured" to be at The Forum are primary examples of several processes which provoke anxiety and resistance in Forum trainees. Nineteen out of 20 interviewees reported a generally favorable response to the pedagogy and structure which creates discomfort--they saw it as an opportunity for growth.


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