by Geoff Olson
What if I told you that the universe not only responds to your thoughts, but rewards them? That’s The Secret that Prime Time Productions, an Australian media firm, has hit on. Through public relations, viral marketing and word of mouth, its multimedia paean to self-empowerment has become Down Under’s most successful cultural export since Crocodile Dundee. The DVD is a top seller on Amazon.com and the accompanying hardcover book has broken the New York Times bestseller list. Recently, Oprah gave The Secret her blessing. Entering the Vancouver Chapters store, the first thing I saw was an entire book display devoted to the video and book.
I picked up a copy of the hugely popular DVD to give it a spin. In the opening scenes, a toga-clad figure is frantically burnishing a scroll on a tablet. Armour-clad soldiers break into the room, just as their target escapes with the tablet. “The secret was buried,” we are told, as the fellow drops the tablet into a hole in the ground. The scene fades to men in a smoke-filled room, and we learn that a select few throughout history have unearthed this hidden knowledge, using it to their selfish benefit. Other great men, on the side of life and light, have hinted at the truth, in an attempt to share it with the rest of us: Churchill, Einstein, Buddha, Henry Ford, mythologist Joseph Campbell and others.
The Secret examines how thought creates reality. Think about what you don’t like or don’t want and it will come your way. Think about what you desire and it will come your way. All of this apparently functions through the “Law of Attraction,” a cosmic principle in which like attracts like. The Secret explains how people can exploit this law for greater health, wealth and loving relationships.
In the film Secret, producer and writer Rhonda Byrne tells how she went looking for contemporary teachers of this ancient wisdom. It turned out most of these gurus weren’t hidden in the dusty halls in academia or tucked away on mountain peaks. Most of her Secret teachers were found in the business world, working as management consultants and motivational speakers in the US. They all get to have their say in the film and the book.
According to her website Marci Shimoff is “… one of the nation’s leading motivational experts.” Business consultant Bob Doyle maintains a website (wealthbeyondreason.com). Loral Langemeier is “… a master coach and financial strategist.” Dr. John Demartini is a “… doctor, author, business consultant and dynamic, international, motivational professional speaker.” Bob Proctor is a motivational speaker who runs The Science of Getting Rich seminar and Dr. Joe Vitale is known on the web as “Mr. Fire,” a consultant with the power to corral consumers in a “hypno-buying trance.”
Much of The Secret’s message could be summed up with a Wayne Dyerism: “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” You do have some control over your own neurochemistry through positive self-talk and visualization. As for negative thinking, if you think you have problems and you’re looking for problems, you’ll have problems. Helpful, and good to remind people, but hardly a secret with a supernatural foundation. The problem with this Aussie effort is its central thesis.
Most of the featured teachers in the film credit the Law of Attraction for their fame and fortune, and promise it can do the same for you. It’s all “really fun,” to use the Law of Attraction to your own ends, says Dr. Joe Vitale. “This is like having the universe as your catalogue and you flip through it and say, ‘Well, I’d like to have this experience, and I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that.’ It is you just placing your order with the universe. It’s really that easy.”
In one scene in the film, a boy gazes longingly at a red BMX bicycle in a store window. In bed at night, he contemplates a picture of the bike in a catalogue. We next see him at a riverside, staring at the picture torn from the catalogue. We learn that by focusing on this desired object, he aligns the universe with his thoughts. At the scene’s close, he opens a door, and there stands a smiling adult – presumably his father – with the bike he had wished for.
Wouldn’t it have been more straightforward for the boy to ask his dad for the bike, rather than the universe, skeptics may ask. Instead of meditating on the object of his desire, wouldn’t it have been a better idea for him to get a paper route to make some spending money? Yet the film assures us that the Law of Attraction is as dependable as gravity and as serviceable as electricity. (Another scene shows a guy visualizing himself successfully into the seat of a new Porsche and a woman visualizing a gold necklace, and then receiving it as a gift.)
As with any cosmic principle, however, the Law of Attraction is a harsh mistress with big demands. “You deserve to be happy; you deserve to be joyful; you deserve to be celebrative, but in order to do that, you must first fall madly in love with yourself,” Lisa Nichols tells us in the film. And once you’ve learned to love yourself – truly, madly deeply – you’re ready for your very own Renaissance. “You are the masterpiece of your own life; you are the Michelangelo of your experience,” says Dr. Joe Vitale. “The David that you are sculpting is you. And you do it with your thoughts.”
The DVD shows people’s thoughts expanding from their heads across the globe in high production, computer generated ripples. Everything is energy and consists of vibrations, we are told, a long-known scientific fact rather than a secret. Yet the film tries to have things both ways, first claiming that the universe responds unerringly to our thoughts and later claiming that it requires action on our part to bring our thoughts into reality.
Yet every cultural creation, from cantatas to cruise missiles, began as a thought in someone’s head. The end results didn’t assemble spontaneously, but through hard work. The DVD labours to inform us that thought creates things, but that’s just another truism, and hardly a secret.
As for the Law of Attraction, it first appeared as a popular expression in the work of Ernest Holmes, the founder of a movement known as Religious Science. Holmes counselled readers to “… never look at that which you do not wish to experience,” and legions of authors, including Norman Vincent Peale, have since taken up the positive thinking banner and marched off into the self-help market. In 1957, Earl Nightingale, a famous motivational speaker and author made a record called The Greatest Secret. Same secret.
Many of the film’s participants insist the Law of Attraction is endorsed by science. That’s not so; in the form they put it, it’s a notion that can be neither invalidated nor proven by scientific methods. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s nonsense. What it means is that it’s a metaphysical claim people have to try out themselves. In any case, it’s a psychological truism that intent and attitude shapes the world to a significant degree, in terms of how you see it.
A Google search for the non-Newtonian version of the Law of Attraction yields well over a million hits. A secret? Only in the sense of being hidden in plain view.
What’s problematic is when the film’s participants stray from boggy territory into uncharted nonsense. On Ellen de Generes’ talk show, one of The Secret’s featured teachers told the audience that each one of us has “… about a hundred trillion cells that act as little magnets and those little magnets attract a frequency that attracts to that frequency, whatever it resonates with.” That’s not a secret; it’s pseudoscience.
So is the universe really some celestial piñata that can be whacked and cracked from the right mental angle? Do the prizes of wealth, health and happiness rain down on you if you love yourself enough? Or is this just setting up a lot of people for failure? On the talk show circuit, The Secret’s various teachers insist that debt is the result of focusing always on debt, rather than thinking about abundance (even though it was the average consumer’s ideas about personal abundance that probably got them into trouble in the first place).
Recently on Oprah, a whole phalanx of Secret teachers assured the audience that negative thoughts draw nasty things toward them, including car accidents. Had I been in the audience, I would have mentioned the baby that dies of crib death, or the child that dies of cancer. Were they thinking the wrong thoughts? And what of all the many millions of human beings throughout time whose prayers weren’t answered? Were they getting their karmic comeuppance, by not thinking the sunny thoughts of motivational speakers?
The quick-cut editing of the film reduces sophisticated ideas to easily digested soundbites, sugary-sweet but with empty calories of information. These conceptual gummy-bears are also preserved in the accompanying book and on the official website. “Anything that makes you feel good is always going to be drawing in more,” says Dr. John Gray. Tell it to a heroin addict. “Incurable means curable from within,” says Dr. John Demartini.” Tell it to a lung cancer victim. “All we know is that you are, if you will, the acme of perfection,” says Dr Fred Alan Wolf. Tell it to pig farmer Willie Pickton.
It all seems less about the music of the spheres than the ringing of cash registers. On the official website (www.thesecret.tv), you can sign up for a newsletter and order a magic genie lamp like the one seen in the film for $49.95 (the cheesier merchandise appears to have been pulled recently, however). On the commentary section of The Secret DVD, creator Rhonda Byrne explains that she got inspired after reading the 1910 classic The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles. At (www.officialsecretseminar.com), Byrnes approvingly quotes from Wattles: “Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.”
On Larry King Live, the host had a telling exchange with several Secret teachers, along with Ramtha channeller J.Z. Knight. The latter will be familiar to viewers of the film What the Bleep Do We Know? There is a lot of crossover between the talking heads in The Secret and those in the pop-science film that preceded it.
King: “Time Magazine had an article Does God Want You To Be Rich?” In a nutshell, it suggests that God who loves you does not want you to be broke. It’s been propelled by Joel Osteen’s four-million-selling book, Your Best Life Now. Does He want you to be rich?”
Assaraf: “But most people don’t understand...”
Anytime anyone talks “absolutely” about what God wants, I get edgy. On Larry King Live, dapper Secret teacher and “visionary” Michael Beckwith tells the audience: “God has always loved you. What is so? Wholeness is inside of your being. What is so? Infinite supply surrounds you. What is so? It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House. Who’s in your house?”
It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House? Try telling that to the people of Iraq or Iran.
Can this avaricious secret, handed down through time from a diapered Ancient to an Australian production house, really be this disengaged from the real world and the suffering of others? As the exchange with Larry King indicates, the philosophy behind The Secret is in no way inconsistent with religious fundamentalism. And in its genuflection toward wealth, self-worship and apolitical complacency, it could meld easily with fascist beliefs. It’s not difficult to imagine the book as a big seller in Nazi Germany or Franco’s Spain.
The Secret is all about you, but there’s one little problem: other people. Even if the Law of Attraction really works, what if other telepathic requests rippling across the ether comes into conflict with your own? What if some of those dreams and schemes are at odds? For example, can everyone who shows up at one of The Secret’s teachers’ money seminars, really become a millionaire overnight? Even if they all love themselves madly, and God wants them all to be badass playahs with bling?
If many of the participants in the film come across like motivational speakers, it’s because that’s their job description. If you’ve ever listened to a motivational speaker, it’s all about you, and not one whole hell of a lot about the bigger picture. Motivational speakers don’t discuss downers like dysfunctional work environments, obscene CEO profits or jobs outsourced overseas. Their gig is homespun wisdom, chicken soup for the solo and feel-good fables for a shrinking middle class.
The Secret teachers have taken a tried and true approach about being your own agent of change – something every downsized employee has heard – and gone all cosmic with it. In the past, workers out for a better deal didn’t visualize, they unionized. For an eye-opening look at how motivational speakers and job seminar leaders make big bucks preying on the underemployed in the US, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch.
For a documentary and book that seeks to engage the reader with the cosmos, The Secret has little to say about community, interdependence and the world around us. Yet all our material hopes and dreams play out here and nowhere else, in a thin, fragile margin called the biosphere. And it’s the irrational belief in unlimited, material abundance that got us into the environmental fix we’re in now. Is it socially and ecologically responsible for The Secret teachers to push the idea of universe-as-genie, granting your wishes for more booty, when consumption threatens so many beings on the planet? Is this so-called secret profound or profane? Is this part of a spiritual path or a spiritual Ponzi scheme?
If The Secret really wanted to wake people up, it would have something to say about the social construction of reality, a la The Matrix. There is also remarkably little said about love – except in the narcissistic sense – and nothing about compassion. Much of the film is beautifully done and the ending is undeniably uplifting. It resonates with people spiritually because it offers a twisted version of the truth inside them: a vision of connection rather than alienation. But it all turns out to be a bait and switch game, a promise of perennial wisdom that turns out to be a cult-like sales job for personal power.
In sum, this blunder from Down Under is a cleverly marketed mash-up of self-help kit, sales seminar, spiritual inflation, pop-science and pseudoscience, with some discount solipsism tossed in. With all its talk about positive and negative thinking, it is heavy on dualism. And dualism is all about judgement.
Yet I still believe there’s a grain of truth in The Secret, even though it heavily accreted with condescending mumbo-jumbo. Many of us have experienced coincidences in our lives so extraordinary that mere chance seems a pitiful explanation. These incidents often produce a feeling of awe, a sense of mystery and even humility. Perhaps the feeling itself is the message.
Call it Jungian “synchronicity,” Christian “gratuitous graces,” Islamic “occasionalism,” quantum “non-locality,” or even the Law of Attraction if you like. It could be that the universe whispers in coincidence because it’s the only way we’ll listen, but we just don’t know for sure. That’s what’s so maddening about The Secret’s teachers’ wide-eyed claims of absolute knowledge about such things, inflating the universe of Einstein and Heisenberg into “your catalogue,” from which you order anything you like by thought alone. This is perilously close to magical thinking. It’s similar to how infants think.
Perhaps the bigger secret, the real secret, will forever elude us, and after the initial wave of consumers caught up in a “hypno-buying trance,” The Secret DVDs and books will wash up in remainder bins and garage sales. Or perhaps this multimedia marvel really does contain a core idea of long-forgotten truth, even though it’s been bent out of shape by modern misinterpretation. The relationship between the mind and the world around it is a mysterious thing and we still don’t know how deep it runs.
An attitude of gratefulness to be alive, as The Secret teachers suggest, certainly seems a good way to start changing yourself and the world as you see it. Whether or not the rest of the DVD or book works is for you to decide. But for me, it’s all about concision. Three words from the Vedic tradition – tat tvam asi (that thou art) – sum up the bigger mystery for me, far better than the 90 minutes sales job in The Secret.