The latest in the blockbusters of alternative spirituality is The Secret, now both a film and a book. Both have been huge successes. The film version has sold 1.5 million copies in DVD format, while at this writing in early June 2007, the book version of The Secret has been on The New York Times’s best-seller list in the US for “advice nonfiction” for twenty weeks, and currently sits on the top.
No wonder. In breathless, gee-whiz language, The Secret’s Web site promises the key to human existence: “The Secret has existed throughout the history of humankind. It has been discovered, coveted, suppressed, hidden, lost and recovered. It has been hunted down, stolen, and bought for vast sums of money. Now for the first time in history, The Secret is being revealed to the world over two breathtaking hours.”
Well, then, what is the Secret? Was it the source of the success of great men throughout history, including Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Napoleon, and Einstein, as its promoters claim?
The Secret as a film is the brainchild of Australian documentary producer Rhonda Byrne, who began reading self-help literature while going through a rough patch in her life in 2004. Through such books as The Secret of Getting Rich, The Master Key System, and The Secret of the Ages, Byrne was exposed to an idea that has long fascinated seekers and self-promoters alike: your health, wealth, and success in love, work, and life depend not on what you do but what you think. “That principle can be summed up in three simple words: thoughts become things,” proclaims Mike Dooley, one of the ‘teachers’ featured in The Secret.
That, in essence, is the Secret. Whether it was “hunted down, stolen,” or “bought for vast sums of money” and whether Plato, Aristotle, and other great men had any knowledge of it remains highly open to question, but there’s nothing particularly astonishing about the Secret itself. As the film’s promoters concede, the idea has been a part of occult philosophy for centuries, although it entered the mainstream only about 150 years ago.
The seminal figure in promoting the Secret was a now little-known American healer named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66). Quimby, like many men of his time, was a jack of all trades. He started as a clockmaker but eventually became a healer. Eventually he realised that it didn’t matter what remedy he prescribed; it was the faith of the patient that made the difference. By simply convincing the individual that he or she was already well, Quimby became a tremendous success. His office filled with patients, many of whom went away feeling completely healed. He often treated people for free when they could not pay.
Around 1859, Quimby began to write down his ideas. Believing he had discovered the secret by which Christ had performed his miracles, he wanted to make his discoveries known to all. “My philosophy,” he said, “will make man free and independent of all creeds and laws of man, and subject him to his own agreement, he being free from the laws of sin, sickness, and death.” The cardinal tenet of this philosophy was this: “Every phenomenon in the natural world has its birth in the spiritual world…. Instead of your happiness being in the world, the world’s happiness is in you. Here is your true position, and this is the struggle you will have to go through. Shall the world lead you, or shall you lead the world? This is the point that is to be settled in your mind.”
Quimby, like his most famous pupil, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science (a term coined by Quimby), focused mostly on health and healing. “Disease,” wrote Quimby, “is false reasoning. True scientific wisdom is health and happiness. False reasoning is sickness and death.” But as these ideas – which came to pervade nineteenth century American religion under the rubric of New Thought – grew more widespread, practitioners began to use ‘the Secret’ for prosperity and success. One of the most famous promoters of this idea was Napoleon Hill, who, in his 1937 book Think and Grow Rich, contended, “TRULY, THOUGHTS ARE THINGS – and powerful things that when they are mixed with definiteness and purpose, persistence, and a BURNING DESIRE for their translation into riches and other material objects.”
The idea proved irresistible to the success-crazed American public, and Hill’s book became a perennial best-seller. In the 1960s it attracted a reader named Jerry Hicks, who would claim that the ideas in Hill’s book helped him succeed in business. Hicks would become responsible for the latest flowering of this perennial of American spirituality.
In 1980, Hicks married. His wife, Esther, was at first indifferent to his interests in spirituality, but soon both of them became fascinated with the Seth books by Jane Roberts, which described Roberts’ activity as a channel for an entity named Seth. (‘Channelling’ is a term used to describe a situation in which the speaker believes he or she is serving as a mouthpiece for a invisible, spiritual being.) Later the Hickses began to meditate on their own, and in 1986 Esther began to channel a collective entity (that is, a number of related spiritual beings) called Abraham.
“I have no real way of understanding how it is that Esther is able to allow Abraham to speak through her,” Jerry writes in the Hickses’ latest book The Law of Attraction. “From my point of view, Esther closes her eyes and breathes a few very deep, soft breaths. Her head gently nods for a few moments, and then her eyes open and Abraham addresses me directly.” The voice that speaks is slightly different from Esther’s own; a New York Times reporter characterises it as “rounder, quicker and more computerlike than Ms. Hicks’s natural voice,” and from the one Abraham session I attended, I would say it has a quality that I can only describe, somewhat imperfectly, as metallic.
The Hickses first began publicising the Abraham material in 1988 with a series of recorded cassettes, and in the years since, the output has blossomed to include books, radio and television interviews, calendars, and even decks of cards. The Hickses regularly offer week-long ‘Well-Being Adventure Cruises’ and ‘Art of Allowing’ workshops, in which participants can ask their own questions of Abraham. At US$195 for a single day, the workshops aren’t cheap, particularly since they can include hundreds of people, making it fairly unlikely that you’ll be able to chat with Abraham yourself.
At any rate, the Abraham material forms the core of The Secret’s teachings. Early versions of the film featured Esther and Abraham, although after disputes with Rhonda Byrne over revenues and distribution, the Hickses asked to be removed from the film entirely. “I’ve got to give Rhonda credit,” Esther has said. “I’ve never seen anybody do that like she’s doing it. And never mind honesty, and never mind doing what you said you were going to do, and never mind anything. Just stay in alignment.”
Do what? Stay in alignment with what? Here lies the Secret. In The Law of Attraction, Jerry Hicks spells out the three “Eternal Universal Laws” that lie at the centre of the teaching.
The first is the Law of Attraction. It says that “That which is like unto itself, is drawn [sic]” – or, less clumsily, like attracts like.
The second is the Science of Deliberate Creation: “That which I give thought to and that which I believe or expect – is.” In short, you get what you are thinking about, whether you want it or not.
The third is the Art of Allowing: “I am that which I am, and I am willing to allow all others to be that which they are.”
From this it’s easy to see how Abraham’s teachings resemble those of New Thought. What you create in your mind manifests in physical reality. If you have positive thoughts, you’ll have positive results in your life. The same is true if you hold negative thoughts.
But, you may reply, how many people go around wanting bad things to happen to them? What about all the people who are constantly saying, “I don’t want this to happen,” but have it happen anyway?
According to Abraham, the Law of Attraction is working in any case. To focus on something that you don’t want is still to think about it – and thus to bring it into your life. The book version of The Secret explains:
The law of attraction doesn’t compute ‘don’t’ or ‘not’ or ‘no,’ or any other words of negation. As you speak words of negation this is what the law of attraction is receiving:
“I don’t want to spill something on this outfit.”
“I want to spill something on this outfit and I want to spill more things.”
“I don’t want a bad haircut.”
“I want bad haircuts.”
This, in essence, is the Secret. As we’ve seen, it’s surfaced in many books and articles over the years, and it has become a central component of what one might call the American Religion. Does it really work?
Yes and no. The ideas in The Secret do work, but the information it presents is incomplete in some serious ways, and incomplete information is wrong information.
In the first place, it’s true that, as esoteric doctrine has always held, thought is creative. The world of thoughts and images – what the Kabbalists call Yetzirah and which Theosophy calls the astral realm – exists prior to the physical world and underlies it. What comes into being in physical form manifests first in the realm of images. This explains not only the ideas behind The Secret but the possibility of such things as precognition: under certain (highly limited) circumstances, you may be able to tap into the astral realm and see the future. (For more on this, see my article “Prophecy: Does It Work?” in New Dawn, Jan-Feb 2007.) Much of occult magic also involves forming a particular thought-form, infusing it with vital energy so that it makes its way into actuality, sometimes in odd and even quasi-miraculous ways.
But there are some major caveats. Both The Secret and Abraham tell us to focus very specifically and precisely on what we want. Joe Vitale, one of the ‘teachers’ featured in The Secret, says, “Your job is to declare what you would like to have from the catalogue of the Universe. If cash is one of them, say how much you would like to have. ‘I would like to have twenty-five thousand dollars, unexpected income, within the next thirty days’.” Abraham also recommends having a ‘Magical Creation Box’ in which you put pictures of anything you want to manifest in your life – “furniture, clothing, landscaping, buildings, travel destinations, vehicles…. if it feels appealing to you in any way, clip it, and drop it into your Creation Box. And say, as you drop it in, ‘whatever is contained in this box – IS!’”
The problem with these procedures is not that they don’t work, but that they do. The subconscious – the part of the mind that is involved in shaping the image and giving it energy – is slavishly literal-minded. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t understand negative commands terribly well, so if you ask it not to do something, it may end up doing that very thing. But the problem doesn’t stop there. You could have your wish fulfilled in a way that you don’t want. A friend of mine once used Secret-like techniques to get $10,000 to help her boyfriend start a business. Her car was robbed on the day she was moving, with all her belongings in it. The insurance settlement amounted to $10,000. As the proverb says, “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.”
Sophisticated practitioners avoid this problem by making sure to leave the request more open-ended, and also to specify that no harm come to anyone through the wish. Florence Scovel Shinn, an American New Thought teacher of the early twentieth century, taught her students to say, for example, “Perfect work with perfect pay comes to me now under grace in a perfect way.” Adding the rider “under grace in a perfect way” should – at least theoretically – prevent any harm from resulting from one’s wish.
Another equally serious omission in The Secret lies in its exclusive emphasis on thought. To read The Secret, and much of New Thought literature, you might conclude that it is thought alone that makes the difference. This is not really true. A small detail here has been overlooked because it (quite accurately) makes the process look like far more work than the best-sellers would have us believe. To sit around and visualise enormous cheques arriving in the mail is not much trouble; in fact, it’s a great deal like daydreaming. Sometimes the cheques do come. But sometimes they don’t. In what are, I would say, by far the most common cases, what really works is thought combined with action – a process that requires will, concentration, and effort. If you’re looking for the perfect job, the visualisation and affirmation techniques of various New Thought teachings may be helpful, but in all likelihood they will be far more so if you combine them with your own best efforts in finding the job – even if, in the end, the job seems to manifest in a completely unexpected way. This is not as breezily simple as The Secret and its kin like to make out, but it is so.
A crucial issue is lying under the surface here. What you wish for comes true: that is the Secret. But it’s what you wish for with all your being – and much of your being is concerned with action, with doing. If you are thinking with your mind that you want the perfect job while your body is sitting on the couch all day watching cartoons, you may not get anywhere. What’s still worse is that you will tend to induce an inner dissociation that lies behind much of today’s mental illness: one part of your mind is doing one thing while another part is doing quite the opposite. This, in fact, is one of the dangers of simplistic applications of The Secret.
Another difficulty with The Secret has to do with its ethical component. From The Secret’s point of view, you create your own reality. Which means that other people create theirs as well. Which means that you are not responsible for them. Which means that you are not your brother’s keeper. The Secret does, of course, talk about love (“There is no greater power in the Universe than the power of love. The feeling of love is the highest frequency you can emit”) and the Law of Allowing does teach a tolerance that can be helpful in enabling certain types of people to be less compulsive and controlling. But the emphasis in The Secret and in the Abraham teachings is on feeling love: “The greater the love you feel and emit, the greater the power you are harnessing.” And yet ‘feeling’ and ‘emitting’ love are not necessarily the same as doing loving things. The Secret does not leave much room for compassion. If everyone is creating their own reality, ultimately, it would seem, that is their business, and all one can do is cultivate one’s own garden.
We can see this problem echoed in Esther Hicks’ comment about Rhonda Byrne’s behaviour: “Never mind honesty, and never mind doing what you said you were going to do, and never mind anything. Just stay in alignment.” Fortunately or unfortunately, “staying in alignment” is more than feeling good or thinking nice thoughts. The universe has a profoundly moral dimension, and you can’t “stay in alignment” with it by acting dishonestly or deceitfully. While I personally have no idea of the rights and wrongs in the Hickses’ differences with Byrne, I can see how they might directly result from Abraham’s ideas. The Hickses may have gotten a taste of their own medicine.
This leads to another inaccuracy in The Secret. It is not only our thoughts that create reality, it’s also what Hindus and Buddhists call samskaras – a word that can be roughly translated as ‘karmic dispositions’ or ‘seeds of karma’. Put extremely simply, these are imprints left by one’s past actions on the mind at its deepest and most inaccessible level. These samskaras are a key component in creating our current reality. They can be eradicated by a persistent process of cleansing and release (one aspect of which is The Secret’s own “letting go of the past”), but they also require what the Twelve-Step programs call “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself and “making direct amends” to those we have harmed. If you ignore these facts, your mightiest efforts at visualisation might go for nothing. No one is perfect, but if you’re to “be in alignment” with the universe, you are going to have to hold yourself to moral standards that are at least as high as those of ordinary decency and kindness.
The ultimate problem with The Secret and the Abraham teachings may, however, be what they focus on. It’s almost entirely a matter of attracting abundance, of finding love, success, money, nice things. In fact, if you believe Abraham, that is what we’re here to do. The universe is an enormous vending machine that operates using the coinage of our thoughts.
What’s striking about this advice is how directly it contradicts practically all of the great spiritual teachings. These teachings, as I’ve suggested, have no quarrel with the fundamental concepts of The Secret: mind does create its own reality. But they differ very much with The Secret about what we’re supposed to create. Most of the great spiritual traditions insist that the ‘abundance’ The Secret urges us to generate is nothing more than a distraction from discovering the truth of our own nature. You can call this enlightenment, liberation, gnosis, or whatever you like, but the goal is the same. Material wealth is nothing more than an impediment to this goal.
While it would be possible to find examples of this truth in practically all the world’s spiritual traditions, I can cite only a very small number in this space. The Hindu master Ram Chandra has said, “Sit in loneliness for some time, and think of God with at least as much power as you have bestowed to your own difficulties. What then? It is as easy to realise your own God as it is to realise the worldly things in crude form.” There’s also the advice of A Course in Miracles, another extraordinarily popular channeled text, supposedly dictated by Jesus Christ to a New York psychologist named Helen Schucman in the 1960s. The Course has this to say about material wealth:
The world you see holds nothing that you need to offer you; nothing that you can use in any way, nor anything at all that serves to give you joy. Believe this thought, and you are saved from years of misery, from countless disappointments, and from hopes that turn to bitter ashes of despair. No one but must accept this thought as true, if he would leave the world behind and soar beyond its petty scope and little ways.
Each thing you value here is but a chain that binds you to the world, and it will serve no other end but this. For everything must serve the purpose you have given it, until you see a different purpose there. The only purpose worthy of your mind this world contains is that you pass it by, without delaying to perceive some hope where there is none. Be you deceived no more. The world you see holds nothing that you want.
Passages like this one explain why, in my view, a single page of the Course is worth The Secret and all the utterances of Abraham put together.
What, then, are we to want? The Course explains this in a lesson entitled “I want the peace of God,” adding:
To say these words is nothing. But to mean these words is everything. If you could but mean them for just an instant, there would be no further sorrow possible for you in any form; in any place or time. Heaven would be completely given back to full awareness, memory of God entirely restored, the resurrection of all creation fully recognised.
The Course, like much channeled material (including Abraham’s pronouncements), makes the process sound easier than it often is in practice; perhaps channeled entities don’t understand how difficult life can feel to those of us on earth. Nonetheless, a goal of manifesting inner peace strikes me as far superior to manifesting lovers and cheques and SUVs.
On the other hand, it requires a certain amount of illumination even to see through the deception of appearances. Up to a point, we are going to desire the solid satisfactions of life because they are all we can trust in. A time will come, however, when disillusion sets in, when the desirable things of the world start to seem not so desirable after all, and one realises that there is something more to life. This recognition will come to each of us according to his or her own readiness. Until then, I suspect, many will use the ideas of The Secret and similar teachings as elementary lessons in the truth that the world is more than we can see with our physical eyes, and also as a mild but helpful form of cognitive therapy. After all, it’s better to focus the mind on good things than on bad.
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