JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Latest in Intellectual Rubbish
The Secret is the latest edition in a long line of books dishing out New Age pabulum to the credulous masses suffering from a terminal case of low self esteem. This ridiculous book that has now sold millions along with the companion DVD belong in the intellectual trash heap along with other rubbish pumped out by charlatans such as Deepak Chopra, Anthony Robbins, Steven Covey, Wayne Dyer and a host of other quasi-religious kooks. Some of the material written by these people of course is just common sense – stuff you should have learned in kindergarten. Like many others of its genre it proposes the outrageous notion that reality is merely a human construct. In other words, reality can be created merely through the power of thought. Who with an elementary school education and functioning brain can believe metaphysical nonsense such as this? But the market for this crap seems limitless. It’s a distressing comment on the species called Homo sapiens.
One of the more inane passages I found while scanning through the pages of The Secret at Chapters was: “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an unbalanced perspective, or we’re not being loving and grateful.” I suppose this implies that Aids is a sign of ingratitude and Cancer a sign that you don’t love enough. The Secret is not only a fraud; it’s perhaps a social barometer that reveals something poignant about our psyches after 30 years of New Age mumbo jumbo, accelerating inequality and the collapse of political hope. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the rise of the self-help industry is coincidental with the decline of confidence in collective political solutions.
The piece below appeared in Discover magazine.
The Secret is no secret
By Douglas Rushkoff (Discover Magazine – July 2007)
As the saying goes, opposites attract, as when an electron races to a positively charged ion, or the north pole of a magnet pulls the south pole of another. But try telling that to proponents of The Secret, the latest in a long line of spiritual systems aimed at selling personal prosperity through faulty scientific reasoning.
In case you've missed it on Oprah or Larry King Live, The Secret is a self-help DVD and companion book synthesizing the pitches of a few dozen of today's most prominent self-help gurus. Its creator, an Australian named Rhonda Byrne, claims there's a single truth underlying all these systems. It's more ancient than the Bible and has been intentionally hidden from human beings for just as long. The great secret? Positive thinking. Abundance is a state of mind: Think healthy and you'll be healthy. Or more to the point think rich, and you'll get rich. Most of the spiritual teachers in The Secret are wealth seminar leaders who display the book's logo on their Web sites. The Secret has certainly worked wonders for its marketers'. More than 1.5 million DVDs have been sold, and the book hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list of hardcover advice books.
While positive thinking no doubt has its benefits—from the placebo effect to good old self-confidence—The Secret tries to justify itself not only in the language of pop psychology but in that of modern physics. According to the book, happy thoughts will do more than affect behavior. It claims the interrelatedness of matter and energy (a principle proven by Einstein) allows people to change reality to their liking by changing the way they think about it. (Thought is presumably energy in this schema, and reality is matter.) For most, however, this potential for cosmic transmutation is limited to attracting more money into their personal bank accounts.
To be sure, it's entertaining to marvel at Masaru Emoto,a Japanese alternative healer who claims that crystals grow more symmetrically inside bottles labeled with positive messages than in those with negative messages attached. But such "results" can be explained by the observer's tendency to notice the crystals he is looking for rather than the ones that don't fit his expectations. That's why people basing psychiatric therapies on pseudoscientific research will get mixed results at best. Stick a Post-it note with a positive message oh a schizophrenic's forehead and see how far you get changing the water molecules in his brain into happy ones.
Meanwhile, a growing arsenal of healing machines based loosely on tenuous non-locality theories from the fringes of quantum physics have become an increasingly popular alternative to the discomfort of scientifically verifiable chemotherapy. With names like SCIO and Rife, these machines don't even need to be in the same room or city as the patient they're treating—since, as their proponents reason, quantum mechanics doesn't recognize physical distance. Sure, if this "energetic medicine" makes a person feel better or more optimistic—and doesn't delay or replace therapies that might actually work— there's no harm except to the wallet.
So why bother condemning all this wishful thinking? After all, who of us hasn't ever experienced a bit of The Secret's real power? Wearing an expensive suit to an interview or flying first class, as one of The Secret's featured instructors suggests on his Web site, can make you feel and act differently. Sometimes spending more money does seem to bring more money in, and speaking positively often leads to better results than whining about how tough life is.
But such techniques are hardly new, let alone secret. Like mastering the will through self-hypnosis or better negotiating through body language, the "power of positive thinking" has nearly a century-old track record among car dealers, admen, and others for whom attitude means as much as, if not more than, attributes. It's from this universe of phantom values and socially constructed truths that The Secret derives its ultimate power. Try sharing The Secret with some refugees from Darfur; you'll probably find the results are not terribly impressive.
No, The Secret is best applied in the same foggy arenas from which it emerged. It's great for self-help gurus, spiritual evangelists, salespeople, and multilevel marketers because it's based in the same kinds of mythology on which they've always relied: There's a timeless principle, a preexisting law of nature only now becoming understood by science but completely easy for you to use to make your life better.
Just pay me, and I'll share it with you.
The Secret of Mass Delusion by Barbara Ehrenreich
A review of Rhonda Byrnes #1 international best seller and latest in New Age mumbo jumbo called The Secret
From This Land is Their Land (2008)
The leaders of Delta Zeta – the sorority that made national news by expelling all overweight and nonwhite members from its Depauw University chapter-must have read The Secret. In this runaway self-help best seller, Rhonda Byrne advises that you can keep your weight down by avoiding the sight of fat people: "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it." Don't worry about calories; just get rid of that 150-pound sorority sister down the hall.
Here's The Secret, in case you missed it: you can have anything you want simply by visualizing it intensely enough through a mysterious "law of attraction." I don't have to write this article; I can simply visualize it already written—or could, if I'd bothered to read the whole book and finish the DVD. To be fair to Byrne, she does not suggest avoiding nonwhite people; in fact, one of the teachers of The Secret whom she cites is the African American motivational speaker Lisa Nichols. The Delta Zeta leaders probably just thought: Why take a chance?
Can you really get anything you want through the law of attraction? It may not work as smoothly as its advocated promise. Take the case of Esther Hicks, spirit channeler, motivational speaker, and coauthor of a book entitled The Law of Attraction. Byrne had told Hicks she would have a starring role in the DVD of The Secret, but her face was never shown in the film's first cut (although her voice, channeling a group of spirits called "Abraham," was used throughout). Hicks was furious and demanded that her voice, or Abraham's, also be excised from the DVD, which has now sold about 1.5 million copies.
Possibly Hicks was just too fat for the film, or at least too dowdy. It's hard to judge her weight from a photo in the New York Times that shows her seated-eyes closed in channeling mode-inside her $1.4 million bus. But just underneath is a photo of a sylphlike Byrnes frolicking on a beach in a fur-trimmed jacket. From a Delta Zeta perspective, whom would you rather look at?
Hicks says she is not going to sue, and why should she? She could just use the law of attraction to reinsert herself back into the DVD. Or to deflect Byrne's profits into her own bank account. Or to take off fifteen pounds and have them padded onto Byrne's tiny waist.
If a leading proponent of the law of
attraction cannot control a little thing like a DVD with her thoughts, then why
are millions of Americans spending good money to find out how to use that law to
control the entire universe?
Check out the credentials of the "teachers" enlisted in The Secret. Most are well-known motivational speakers who claim to instruct such business heavyweights as financial advisers, developers, and a "master marketer." One of The Secret's teachers, Denis Waitley, includes on his Web site testimonials from Merrill Lynch, WorldCom, 3M, Dell, and IBM, among many others.
Well, here's a little secret I'd like to share, channeled to me by Einstein, Newton, and thousands of Enlightenment thinkers: when the leaders of a major economy lapse into mysticism and come to believe they can accomplish things through their mental vibrations, without lifting a finger, then it's time to start thinking about going into subsistence farming on a remote compound in Idaho. I'll have the DVD out in no time.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a PhD in biology but discovered writing and has made a career out of it. She writes wonderful witty satire, debunking everything from political philosophy to New Age bunkum and her favorite target for her skewers, religion.