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    From time to time, a client will come in and talk to me about "transforming their life." It usually means they've taken part in an offshoot of what used to be called a "LGAT," or "large group awareness training," a term coined to describe programs like est or The Forum, a kind of weekend psychological intensive that were popular in the 1970's and 1980's. The Forum is still in business, but in a much altered form.

    There are a great many spinoffs and descendants of these groups in existence today, and they all share certain traits: while they are vague about what happens in the program, they promise it will "transform your life," implying that by paying a large fee and participating in an intensive group experience, you will then find yourself suddenly able to break through of all limitations and immediately embark on living your perfect life. The explicit promise is that the program will "transform you" into a focused, clear and powerful person capable of achieving all goals and able to change the world for the better.

    One sure sign that you've come in contact with one of these groups is that the person trying to enroll you is themselves a recent graduate, and they seem almost desperate to "share" the experience with you -- as if your life depended on you enrolling.

    They use words like "breakthrough," "integrity," and "commitment." Much of what they say sounds like a special jargon.

    Whatever else these programs may be, they are pyramid schemes -- multilevel marketing businesses, desperate for new enrollments to keep the money flowing in. It's not enough to take the course, you have to turn around as soon as you finish and enroll others in the course to "validate" your success.

    It wasn't always this way.

    est, the grandaddy of all these programs, started out, in 1971, being about appreciating your life and coming to understand that who you are in any given moment was "enough." But that idea turned out to be a tough sell. It was much easier to make money in America running a "boot camp" program that promised to whip people into shape, and give them everything they've ever want if they could somehow "clean up their act," meaning live with more discipline and focus. So that's what "transformation" transformed into -- discipline -- and transformational seminars went from you celebrating the "unimproved you" to you striving to be an "improved you."

    The original idea of "transformation" was a good one. It was a very simple idea, based on the observation that people live in a state, or context, of being perpetually dissatisfied and wanting "more, different and better." Constant pressure to perform has become a way of life -- we live with a carrot in front of us and a stick behind us, in a constant state of unhappiness and frustration, swinging between the highs of hope and the lows of anxiety.

    The basic idea was that most of us are, to some extent, brainwashed to accept as our fundamental context that there is something wrong, something "not enough" about us, and that we desperately need to remedy this. It wasn't that growth and education and self improvement and self development and achievement aren't enjoyable and important things, just that we're worthy and worthwhile at every point in the process, with or without "self-improvement." We don't become "worthy" as a result of achievement.

    Transformation meant seeing through the ruse of unworthiness, and all the ways we compensate for it, and realizing that who we are is fundamentally enough, even when we're not using our "full potential." Transformation meant relief, that we can stop needing to resist or judge or feel bad about "who we are" and instead embrace it as a good starting point, so that "who we are" can evolve naturally, without pressure or recrimination or anxiety.

    The watchwords of transformation were, and are, "what is, is -- and what isn't, isn't (and that's fine for now)," and, "You don't have to rehearse to be yourself."

    Transformation was originally all about self acceptance, and self approval, and self appreciation--accepting the unimproved self -- and the idea that self-appreciation would then make self improvement easier and more fun.

    But by the late 1990's, most of these groups (with a few exceptions) had done a complete shift and turned cultish. Transformation, as peddled by groups like the Forum, had become it's polar opposite: who you are *isn't* enough and you need to stop lying about your "rackets" or insincerities, confront your shortcomings and promise to work harder (including enrolling new members) to ever get anywhere in life, to be worthy. Transformational work became, like so many other self-development programs, a business of making money -- a "boot camp," which, ironically enough, is where young people are trained to be soldiers, cookie cutter duplicates of one another, and taught to give up their freedom and individuality and ability to think for themselves.


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