Come On! There's A New Life Waiting Over The Weekend
By Jill P. Capuzzo
Part drill sergeant, part stand-up comic, Gale LeGassick works the crowd of 100-plus who are sweating it out beneath the fluorescent lights in a colorless conference room in Center City. She cajoles, she challenges, she taunts, she leads on, and eventually she drops the bomb, or a series of bombs: Nothing that has happened in your life up until now matters, we're all hiding behind old, destructive "stories," everyone in this room is simply "surviving" rather than "being alive," and the only thing that is really guaranteed is we will die.
The revelations leave the group quite dismayed, and it isn't even the midpoint of the weekend-long - a very long weekend-long - workshop known as The Forum. Some people threaten to quit, others are determined to hang on to their beliefs no matter how destructive they may be, and others try to challenge LeGassick's assertions. This is no easy task, facing down someone who looks like, and often commands the authority of, Margaret Thatcher.
Her authority comes from experience. LeGassick has led "The Forum" all over the world, and many of the thousands who have attended her weekends say their lives have been transformed.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: The Forum is just one of more than a dozen personal-growth workshops you can sign up for around Philadelphia, and all offer the hope of major life changes.
I must admit I had a little trouble letting go of my skepticism about these enrichment programs and the healers who purport to have the answers, all neatly delivered for the few hundred dollars price of admission. I'm no workshop junkie; I'm not even in therapy. For me, this was another writing assignment.
But once I allowed myself to take in the startling concepts that were being offered - I observed parts of "The Forum" and a couples workshop called "Getting the Love You Want," and went through the full, four-day weekend known as "Essential Experience" - I made some eye-opening discoveries about myself and how I function in the world.
These three workshops represent just part of a wide range of seminars that are proliferating in both the secular and non-secular realms. While quite different from each other, they share a basic goal: to break people of old patterns and to enable them to confront issues in their lives.
Some workshop participants may have tried traditional 50-minutes-a-week therapy, but find these intensive weekend-long sessions a chance to speed up the process. Others sign up as a last resort, when friends and family, ministers or doctors, can no longer provide solutions to their anxieties and concerns. Still others are simply curious to learn more about themselves.
"Who wants to share?"
It's a question Gale LeGassick asks repeatedly over the course of the three-day weekend, and plenty of hands go up. One woman, microphone in hand, tells the group a story: When she was 12, her mother asked her for permission to divorce her father, a little episode that has made her feel responsible for her mother ever since.
"That never happened," LeGassick insists. "It's only what you decided happened, and that decision is now living your life, and is costing you your relationship with your mother."
LeGassick's point - indeed, the theme of the workshop - is that there is an alternative to living your life simply as a response to your circumstances. The woman with the microphone may not remember the exact exchange with her mother, and even if she does it makes no difference. The interpretation she's placed on the event is what controls how she is now. Convince her that that interpretation isn't the only possibility, and her whole life can be different.
Through lectures and one-on-one exchanges, Forum participants are taught to rid themselves of their old "stories," and old responses to those stories, and start with a clean slate. From that vantage point, they are told they can create a future different from any they've imagined.
LeGassick, one of 42 Forum leaders who travel from city to city virtually every week, repeatedly reminds participants about their mortality, asking them to think about what would be written on their gravestone, or what they would stop putting off until later if they knew that today was the last day of their lives.
The Forum takes the direct approach. Other seminars may offer supportive hugs; this one hits you between the eyes.
The group is encouraged to take action right away. This means that during the breaks, people scurry to the bank of phones to call mothers they haven't spoken to in 20 years, wives with whom they had a bitter divorce, or bosses who don't appreciate them. The result, according to LeGassick: "You'll be amazed to discover the power you have to create a relationship."
Many people who sign up for The Forum think they are taking a course that will help them be more successful in their businesses, and instead find renewed connections to family and friends. By the end of the weekend, participants are expected to have real breakthroughs that will affect the rest of their lives.
When the group I observed met again on Tuesday evening, several people reported such breakthroughs - one man found out he had a grandson after contacting a son he hadn't spoken to in years; a woman in her 70s reconnected with her 93-year-old father; and a young man reported that Philadelphia felt alive to him for the first time.
One of the most irritating aspects of The Forum is the hard sell to sign up future participants. Leaders encourage people to bring friends and family to the Tuesday session to help celebrate their newfound love of life and invite them to enroll in the next available weekend. By the end of the evening, nearly a fifth of the visitors have done so. Close to half the original participants have signed up for an advanced course, as well.
Excerpted from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Weekend,