The Secret: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Alexis Johnson, PhD  Center for Intentional Living

The best-seller, The Secret first came to my attention at the very beginning of this year when a client, a vibrant 70 year old asked me if I had seen it. When I told her I had not even heard of it, she said I should because it was sweeping the country as a very popular book and DVD and that was upsetting her.
“Why, what’s up?”
“Well, it is exactly the kind of thinking that broke my heart in the 70’s and I so wish people did not have to go through that kind of omnipotence again.  I know each generation has to discover things for itself, but it is really heart-breaking.”

It took me many months to get around to seeing it.  Watching it I was enticed (could it all be this easy?) and immensely irritated by what seems to be to be a tangled web of truths and half-truths.

The Good

Yes, there is certainly some good in the message of The Secret.  Its basic premise is simple: like attracts like.  The spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (not on the DVD) would certainly agree to that fundamental principal on a spiritual level.  Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a meditation that ends with a smile – a smile for yourself, a smile for the day, a smile for the people who you will meet in the day.  A smile will bring you smiles back, a smile changes your biochemistry, a smile will give you a better day.  It is clearly true that the positive is contagious, expansive and life-enhancing.

It also says stay on the positive side of each issue.  Be for something, not against something.  It quotes from Mother Theresa saying she would not go to an anti-war rally, but would always be available for a peace rally.  Good advice I say.  It is always better to find the positive expression of any issue, particularly one you are passionate about.

Several of the ‘talking heads’ mention the importance of feeling and expressing gratitude.  They teach that if we can deeply feel gratitude it will shift our thinking and bring us more into the life enhancing possibilities of life.  I think most spiritual teachers and religious thinkers would agree; I certainly do.

The Secret also values the imagination.  It mentions Einstein’s devotion to the imagination calling it everything.  Using the imagination to dream, to visualize, even to daydream are wonderful human capacities and much that is good in the world has come from someone imagining it first.

The Secret is very optimistic.  You can change.  You can have what you want.  You can create abundance for yourself and those around you. When I sit with very despairing clients, or people lost in a clinical depression or self-hate, I so wish for them some of this optimism, this faith in the positive.

The Bad and the Ugly

When I saw the DVD, I thought much of it was merely bad and some seriously ugly.  All of the truths mentioned above are interwoven within some half-truths and non-truths.  However, when I write about it, my words can’t untangle those two strands of emotional response so I will share these aspects together.

Unfortunately, most of The Secret is upsettingly flawed both because of its main focus – financial success – and its on-going distortions of spiritual truths.  It is certainly true that our thoughts matter and we do attract in some sense according to those thoughts.  It is also true that our feelings matter and it is only by knowing our feelings that we have our integrity and inner ground to stand on.  But it is NOT true that the universe will shape our immediate personal reality to accommodate our needs and desires of the moment, no matter how hard we focus or how pure our intentions are.  That kind of thinking is magical, inflated and narcissistic.  I recently heard a story of a gay man using the public baths to find sexual partners.  He reported he had no fear of getting AIDS has he always carried crystals that would protect him!  His belief was strong, unwavering and positive and purely magical.

A major problem is that The Secret does not differentiate between self – that egoic part of myself that I create to get along in the world and Self – that given part of myself that unfolds and guides the journey.  Most of the stories are around financial successes and material abundance.  This is clearly the domain of the self.  There is certainly nothing wrong in wanting abundance – especially in extreme material poverty – but it is hardly the whole purpose of life!  To watch The Secret is to believe that by visualizing unlimited wealth, I will create unlimited wealth and that material wealth will give me a totally fulfilled life.  There are at least two errors in that thinking: 1) thinking and feeling I can create wealth, will create wealth and 2) financial wealth will totally fulfill me on all levels of my being.

When we think about what we want, of course we ‘want’ health and wealth and loving relationships. While the majority of the DVD is on gaining financial well-being, The Secret does give a moment or two to health and a brief vignette on love. As long as we are in a body, we want and need enough of those things to enjoy the life we are given.  But wanting them, visualizing them, believing in my right to have them, does NOT mean they will materialize.

There is so much more to us than this ‘little self’ wanting every thing it wants.  Remember the Buddha: enlightenment involves freedom from clinging and acquisitions.  Enlightenment involves a state of being that is at one with all – but does not confuse itself with the All!  Enlightenment involves accepting suffering and finding a place beyond words and feelings but including words and feelings -non-dual reality. I sit with several clients each week who are struggling with realities of this world they certainly did not create and do not want: t he sudden death of a beloved spouse, a chronic illness, an ill child.  These are not creations of an individual; these are sufferings to be endured and lived through.  Life on this planet is ultimately a gift given to us, to be lived in both joy and suffering.  The journey of consciousness must include everything, my shadow, my helplessness, my despair, my joy, awe and delight.

While it is true that thoughts and feelings can influence my reality, that is not the same as my thoughts and feelings create my reality.  Thinking that I create my reality is the magical thinking of a very young child. If we take that distortion to its logical conclusions, then the people of Dafur are thinking and feeling lots of very bad thoughts in order to create the reality they are living in.  All the mono-theistic religious traditions have to struggle with the dilemma of either an omnipotent god that creates bad things, or a non-omnipotent, positive god who help us deal with bad things.  Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People to bring a human face to this very dilemma. He tells story after story of people having to come to terms with loss and grief, things they in no way ‘deserved’ or ultimately created.  Part of the mystery of life is coming to terms with unfairness and the realities we are confronted with.  To be personally responsible means finding my best response to what I am given, not to believe that I created everything around me both good and bad.

It is true that Self is at one with the Universe, with the All, but that is not the same as self has godlike creative power.  There are certainly moments of transcendence in any creative act, in meditation, in music, in lovemaking and these connect us with something much bigger than ourselves.  Eckhart Tolle writes that this experience of total oneness simply came upon him, he was not particularly looking for it.  But it certainly does not make him omnipotent and nor does he claim omnipotence.  His writings and teachings are on the steps necessary to find the Now, the Power of the Present Moment.  He teaches that you will find peace in those moments of transcendence, but not omnipotence to create and get everything your ‘little self’ wants.

Another distortion within The Secret is the lack of discernment between when to use my will and when to accept the reality that is given to me.  AA has made the dictum of Reinhold Niebuhr famous: Lord grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.  There is tremendous grace and human dignity in accepting that which I cannot change.  It is even true, that sometimes with deep acceptance change does happen, but what change in what direction, is not in my control.

A part of me wishes there were more ‘good’ than ‘bad and ugly’ in The Secret but I don’t find it so.  I am left with my dismay at its seductive half-truths and some incredulity at its popularity.  I find myself in complete alignment with my client: a lot of hearts are going to be broken once again.

Your comments and responses to these ideas are welcome.

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