Everything popular is wrong.
Several months ago, a friend dropped by with a burned copy of the hit movie The Secret. I listened to her excited rave about manifested riches and parking spaces, though I had to smile at the irony that somehow The Secret had not worked well enough to afford her a legitimate copy of the film. Nor had it given her enough sense of abundance that she felt she could support the filmakers by buying their DVD. Since then several copies of The Secret (all burned) have come and gone from my office, none of them watched. I kept making excuses about just not having time, smiling blithely as I handed back the pirated goods.
But when Oprah Winfrey overwhelmingly endorsed the film, I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Kids tucked in and bedtime stories read, I fortified myself with a bowl of chocolate ice cream and nestled down for the night with our dog Pablo for a two-hour journey to discover what untold ancient mysteries might unveil themselves to me.
You might be wondering what took me so long. One of the reasons I never wanted to watch it was because I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life in various spiritual circles around the world, and have been appalled and saddened by the pseudo-spiritual marketplace that feeds on the sincere gullibility and naivete of seekers and the clichéd nature of the material that gets recycled and sold to its willing consumers year after year. Over the centuries snake oil and sleight of hand has brought hope to many, but ultimately all ends in disillusionment. The other reason I did not watch the film was due to my suspicion of most pop culture.
While it is not my intention to poke fun at something that has seemingly opened doors and launched hopes for many, nor to criticise those who have found it to be useful, I would, however, like to raise a few rather large red flags. Behind the Da Vinci Code-like façade of ‘scientific facts’, ‘amassed research’ and ‘great historical masters and thinkers’ lurks some pretty full on New Age fluff, and with it some serious ethical questions.
The film was created by Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne after she read The Science of Getting Rich, a book written in 1910 by Wallace D. Wattles. In its pages, she discovers information that radically changes her life for the better. The Secret opens with a dramatisation of her discovering this material. The graphics and imagery imply mysteries of old, ancient texts, biblical insights, Akashic records. What she is holding in her hands is an ancient secret that has been passed down through secret societies along the ages (think Indiana Jones), that people have persecuted and killed for, the knowledge that the white power elite have used to keep the masses oppressed and that was known by everyone from Emerson to Shakespeare to Plato to Lincoln to Hugo to Newton to Martin Luther King!
What follows is a plethora of experts, each with their own impressive title such as ‘author’, ‘chiropractor’ and — wait for it — Feng Shui consultant, as well as their own matching graphic backdrop. We are to assume these titles and nice backdrops qualify them in some way to disclose this ancient, hidden, repressed, mysterious, powerful golden thread of all the ancient wisdom traditions of all time.
These experts, one by one, using the rock hard science of anecdotes, tell the viewer all about ‘The Law of Attraction’. Basically the gist is this: what you think, you create. Rhonda Byrne calls it ‘the most powerful law in the universe’, and says it is working all the time (Er, and we should believe her because…?). ‘What we do is we attract into our lives the things we want, and that is based on what we’re thinking and feeling,’ she says.
The movie goes on to say that whatever manifests in your life, has manifested because, yes, you created it — either by focusing on it, or by thinking it. So if you keep noticing those bills in your mailbox, you’ll keep getting bills. And if you keep thinking about that parking ticket, sure enough, you’ll get a parking ticket. If you keep looking at the war in the news … you guessed it, you created the war. Tsunami — you. Poverty — you. AIDS — you.
But the flip side — and this is where the dog’s tail really curls — is that if you start to ‘re-align’ yourself with the ‘universe’ and think positively, feel joyous, you can manifest infinite beauty and wealth. A shiny red sports car — you can have it. Sexy new boyfriend — he’s yours. A brand new shiny green planet — you’re the one to make it happen.
Well, OK. It sounds like it could be a reasonable assumption. Especially when the film graphically illustrates those powerful thought waves radiating out from people’s heads and influencing the universe. And there on the screen are several people who claim that their lives have changed because they ‘knew the secret’. So who’s to argue? And anyway, what, you may ask, could be wrong with an inspiring film that empowers people to use their minds for the better?
Well, a lot.
Firstly, anything based on bad (really bad) science can do nothing but breed ignorance and superstition. Other than authoritative names, alluded-to ‘scientific proof’ (which we never see), story-telling, sweeping assumptions, generalisations and some vague verbal references — there is simply nothing substantial behind the claims this film is making. Yes, intention can play a role in certain outcomes in your life, and with intention will be varied ‘success’, but The Secret and its law of attraction fails to include all the other infinite forces at work.
Historically, science has always been wary of things spiritual, and The Secret certainly would give the scientific community justification for such age-old suspicion. While a bit of soul in science could lift us all up a level, material like The Secret will unfortunately undermine such a merger. On the other hand, spirituality has been equally as suspicious of science, which is a shame, because spirituality without the discerning eye of science turns to dogma, fanaticism or, as in the case with The Secret, a complete abdication of depth in favour of a shallow, superficial, self-centred, narcissistic view of living.
I think this is my biggest criticism of The Secret — that it disguises itself as a profoundly high spiritual truth. It’s one thing to bring in a philosophy of, say, positive thinking or affirmations and present them within the realms of pop psychology and self-help. It’s quite another to use authoritative innuendo, to imply great spiritual and scientific significance, and then, to use that charade to perpetuate triviality is, well, deeply disturbing.
How about that dramatised scene where a great big genie appears from Aladdin’s rubbed lamp? The voiceover tells us that the universe works just like Aladdin’s genie. ‘Your wish is my command,’ he says. Oh yes, that’s right, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurthy and Jesus — that’s what they were really trying to tell us all along — God is a genie. Gosh, I’m so relieved that modern day graphic ingenuity can finally illustrate to me the complex concept of God!
Another issue is the subtle blame and shame that is implied around the so-called negative aspects to thinking and feeling. The Secret implies that if your life is not going the way you would like it to, you are somehow ‘off’. In Christianity they have another word for it — sin. Lisa Nichols herself (title: motivational speaker) then proceeds to say that people who live by the secret are ‘in alignment with the universe’. My jaw fell into my bowl of chocolate ice cream. So, let me get this right … when we are in fear, sadness, disappointment, anger, we are ‘out of alignment with the universe’?
This film is the worst of what the New Age produces. It denies the presence of true suffering, of racism, elitism, globalised poverty, starvation, oppression and terror. It sits on the sidelines of the human catastrophe and dares to imply that a ‘simple shift in emotion or thought’ will turn everyone’s lives around. This includes the hundreds of thousands of children currently enslaved in child-prostitution rings, the one million murdered Tutsis in Rwanda and the one and a half million people left homeless after Katrina.
It promises you a free ticket out of this mess, without a care in the world (because, after all, you putting your attention on that catastrophe only ‘feeds’ it) — to leave the others to their ‘negativity’ while you thrive on wealth, happiness and lots of parking places.
Or worse, it gives you even more to feel frustrated and shameful about when things don’t manifest as you would like. Once again, you get to feel like you are not quite enough. Consider the implications of being certain you personally are responsible for your diabetes, your house burning down or the ice-caps melting.
Either way The Secret perpetuates an ‘it’s all about me’ attitude and gives the viewer hope for (or threat of) super-human capabilities. This super-sized me is not an ‘awakened’ me, nor is it a me in a mystical union with the universe; it’s simply the egoic self looking out for itself, cloaked in mystical self-importance.
The Secret bolsters itself on several profound misunderstandings. First, that the personal you (the ‘small you’ as ancient wisdoms call it) is of such great significance that it can wield what it likes, when it likes. This simply is not true. Actually, you are creating the universe moment-to-moment, but it’s not the ‘you’ that you think. The only self that works in this way is the transcendent self, the I-Amness of being. And that Self is inherently connected to all, at peace and needs nothing. Incidentally, hanging out with that I-Amness not only provides one with more peace and joy than a new car, but inexorably links us to the whole of who we are, all sentient beings, all the universe — an essential and humble understanding in these uncertain times.
Second, The Secret denies the importance of negative emotions and experiences, and worse, implies that such experiences are indicative of being ‘out of synch with the universe’ (sinning). Yet negative emotions and circumstances are the compost of transformation, where deep learning and growth happens. Think about it. Would you choose, instead of that big new house, to instead go bankrupt? Or choose to have a car crash over getting that new job? No way. But Life knows better, and provides us with circumstances to push us deep into the unknown territory of our psyche. Our shadow is to be met with compassion, genuine inquiry, curiosity, gentleness and humility — not to be imposed upon with a ‘you shall feel good and happy’ commandment. And it’s certainly not helpful to meet it with a concept of being separated from the universe in some way, like you are some kind of lost soul.
Third, the film presents spirituality as a feel-good fix, based on flimsy unexamined ideas and ill-conceived principles meant to serve the individual self. Wrong. The divine is to be loved for its own sake, not because it’s going to give you something. And true spiritual practice, though inspiring in moments, requires honesty, humility, courage and yes, critical thinking. Discerning between snake oil and truth is an important skill.
Fourth, that the planet can sustain each and every person’s American Dream. Yes, everyone in the world can have two sports cars, two children, two homes, a huge thriving business and several overseas vacations per year. Wrong again. The Secret uses spiritual justifications for everything. Questioning its platitudes will always be met with irrefutable cosmic rationale such as, ‘Well then, we’ll manifest another earth with room enough for everyone’s American Dream!’ But our tiny little planet, and we only have one, cannot sustain our desires as they are.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of The Secret is that undoubtedly thousands of people are watching it because they are sincerely looking for tools, resources and strategies to help them make sense of their lives, and support them to improve things for themselves and the ones they love. Yet what The Secret bestows is confusion, self-judgement and a shallow counterfeit to the divine.
Contrary to what The Secret would have us believe, there’s no quick-fix to the discomforts of being human. But there is a beautiful and profound invitation. And that is to step out of a me-centred existence, and into our humble part of the whole.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.