Lost, confused, looking for meaning? A good cup of tea and a quick lie down does the trick for some but others are opting for some serious soul-searching. Here we explore steps to finding what it is you need…Can’t find the perfect pair of Manolo Blahniks? Miffed that you can’t get a bungalow on the beach at Lizard Island? Forget about it. The only thing the cool crowd are spending time and money on these days is their spirituality. In the late 80s we had re-birthing and floatation tanks. The early 90s heralded our obsessive discovery of aromatherapy and its cure-all qualities. Then came the East in the late 90s. Bad Feng Shui in our homes suddenly became one of the causes of an unsatisfying existence. In the new millennium we’ve all been there, done that, looked high and low, been high and low and we want to talk about it. We are all happy to question and find new ways to ‘get happy’. After going as far as we can materialistically all of us are starting to ask why? If our marriage is unhappy, we question. If we are alone we want to confront the demons that have put us there. If our work is unfulfilling we look for a change. No longer do we just want to plod along blissfully ignorant and blaming our past. We all want more and it’s become pretty clear that we’ve all been searching for one thing: ourselves.

Personal development is current. It’s the hottest ticket in town and self-acceptance is the key. To know yourself and to like what you see gives you more kudos than that ‘must have’ Prada saddle bag or Platinum American Express card. It’s now hip to search for more meaning in our lives and the A-list are onto it. Richard Gere and Uma Thurman have been devoted Buddhist for years. Ex-Spice Gerri Halliwell has recently ‘found herself’ through Eastern religions and leading man of the moment Tony Martin cheerfully admits he stumbled across a course that enriched his life.

Everyone is finding a spiritual pocket to suit themselves. Some like to do it alone. Others in pairs and many prefer large forums. There is an array of courses out there to choose from. The Landmark Forum, The Spirit of Freedom or the 10-day retreat of Vipashnaa are just a few to mention. “The fragile nature of life has never been more obvious. We have become emotionally bereft as a society,” says clinical psychologist Dr Susan Ballinger. “Our society is more and more dependent on material things and less and less caring about human beings. By doing a course where you are encouraged to talk about your problems in a non-judgemental environment – it might just be the answer for you.”

The reasons for people doing the Landmark Forum differ. Some people sense ‘something’ is missing in their lives and they’ve heard about the program and want to give it a go. Others have specific problems to look at or work out; be it relationship, family or work-related. Landmark Education offers a series of courses entitled Curriculum for Living. The first is an intensive three-day course called The Forum. Over 125,000 people participate in Landmark’s programs annually, making Landmark one of the largest, most relevant and diverse ‘campuses’ in the world. On any given weekend, there are about three or four Forums going on around the world. Indeed the very next question on many people’s lips would be, “Is this a cult?” “That wasn’t my experience of it. It wasn’t a cult for me.” claims actor Tony Martin.

Anyone can leave at anytime and if people leave before mid-afternoon on the first day (which takes place over three 14 hour days and one evening), they get their entrance fee of $430 back. “I went into the first programme a sceptic and cynic,” says Martin. “It’s an intense three days. It’s amazing. I came out stimulated and refreshed. They opened up areas of thinking I hadn’t pursued before. I didn’t get fixed up – that is not what it was about for me.” What The Landmark media kit offers to deliver to you is to, “move beyond the limits you have set for yourself and break through to new levels of accomplishment, enjoyment, and self-expression”. Is it for the lost soul? Sandy Bernasek, from The Landmark’s media department says, “Frankly, people don’t do this because they need it. They are already successful and accomplished. They just feel they are missing something in their lives.”

Another intensive course attracting a lot of attention is the Spirit of Freedom. Spirit of Freedom clients openly admit they have turned their businesses around, improved relationships and generally got rid of any negativity in their lives. A weekend course requiring a fee promises to deliver you, ‘positive ways of dealing with your life and the opportunity to clear away any negativity so that you can move and live your life to the fullest.’ Some even say it has saved their lives. However it is impossible to get details about what really happens there. Positive affirmations – only. It is shrouded in secrecy and the organisers are highly protective of any negative publicity. Contact details are difficult to get hold of and they pride themselves on people discovering this intensive course via word-of-mouth.

Vipassana lies at the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Free – donation only. It is a 10-day live-in retreat during which participants follow a prescribed Code of Discipline, learn the basics of the method and practice enough to experience the benefits of its results. Vipassana, which means ‘to see things as they really are’, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a remedy for universal ills. Teacher Patrick Given-Wilsen says, “It’s a practical course and a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body. We are teaching people to listen to what is going on inside and accept it.” It is no camping holiday though. The course requires hard serious work. For the duration of the training each student is asked to observe the five precepts:

To refrain from the use of intoxicants and drugs.

To refrain from lying

To refrain from stealing

To refrain from sexual misconduct

To refrain from killing

The thought of 10 days silence can sound intimidating, but Given-Wilsen confirms, “You should not talk amongst the other Vispassana devotees but you are encouraged to talk to the teachers and managers at anytime. There is a daily interview where students can express verbally their experiences.” Sound scary – no daily chit-chat? Apparently the training, if followed diligently will lead to a calmer mind and inner peace.

Like The Landmark and Spirit of Freedom, people find themselves at Vipashnaa for different reasons. Some are genuinely lost and need direction. Others like nurse and mother of three teenagers, Anna Adams says she needed a, “strong thing. Ten days in silence seemed strong. I’ve had a hard life and I wanted to learn how to live happily. My original reason was because I was intolerant of everything. My first Vipashnaa was in 1989 and it was extreme. I liked the silence and knew immediately from the first day that this was the right thing for me. It was really powerful.” So powerful in fact that Adams is into her tenth year. “I go every year and do the 10 days and consequently I have developed as a person. It is different every visit. You start to see things in a new light. My self-talk is a lot more positive and I am more tolerant and less self-centred. I’m glad I found it. It works for me.”

The entire 10 days is actually a mental training. Just as we use physical exercise to improve our bodily health, apparently Vipashnaa can be used to develop a healthy mind. “Stripping back all the material things in your life can be very powerful,” says Dr Ballinger. “Maybe Vipasana is not taking you over as much as some of the intense three-day courses. You’re not force fed or led into anything that you don’t want.” People from all walks of life have found Vipashnaa helpful and beneficial to their day-to-day lives. Given Wilsen is continually overwhelmed by the noticeable change he sees in people, “To see the transformation in them is extraordinary. They arrive tense and leave glowing.”

Vipashnaa like The Landmark Forum is not some quick fix. If it does not come naturally to you then it probably isn’t the right thing for you. As Martin confirms, “I’ve done other courses and The Landmark is the one that really worked for me.” People who are emotionally happy already can benefit from making the decision to do a course. As Martin says, “I think my acting has improved because I was able to see why a character behaved a certain way. It helped me deal with fears about being in front of people. I am closer to my family and friends.” Dr Ballinger backs this up, “If a course teaches you to communicate better and it promotes confidence boosting skills then this can’t be a bad thing.” Ballinger worries about the emotionally vulnerable people. “There are so many out there. I wouldn’t recommend any courses to anyone that suffers from anxiety disorders such as panic attacks or phobias. Nor would I encourage the clinically depressed to do them.”

If it’s a course that has helped you face the music of your life and ‘save it’ – so-to-speak and set you on the road to true happiness and given you more depth then that is a good thing.

Soul Food

Vispassana Mediation Centres around Australia

Sydney: (02) 4787 7436

Victoria: (03) 5961 5722

Queensland: (07) 5485 2452

Tasmania: (03) 6263 6785

Perth: (08) 9435 4858

The Landmark Forum