Not So Secret

Plundering Eastern religions for enlightenment and profit

Illustration by Jason Logan

In the winter of 1999, I was playing in the surf at Kovalam Beach on the southwest coast of India when a riptide swept me out into the Arabian Sea. The harder I swam against the current, the more surely the shore receded. As the futility of my struggles sank in, I felt the slap of something abrasive against my leg — a rope! Wrapping my hands around it, I rapidly pulled myself handhold by handhold toward shore, aided by a strong tug from the other end. Just as crashing waves broke my grip, my toes scraped sand.

Where had the rope come from? Was it part of a fishing net locals in the adjoining cove sometimes floated out to sea? If so, what to make of the anomalies? The moment I realized how desperately I needed help, it slapped my leg. Though I could see no fishermen in either cove, the rope pulled me directly to shore. It consistently remained at a convenient level despite changes in water depth — any lower and I wouldn’t have been able to reach it, any higher and I wouldn’t have had full use of my arms. When I didn’t need it any longer, it disappeared. Had I hallucinated the rope, allowing me to tap energy reserves I didn’t know I possessed? Certainly it felt real enough — fibrous, taut, and always in motion.

The fortuitous appearance of a lifeline in the middle of the ocean seems to validate the premise of the blockbuster The Secret: desire anything fervently enough, and you will get it. The power of thought trumps material cause and effect. Ask, believe, receive.

That simple message — repeated over 184 pages by two dozen of the world’s most persuasive motivational coaches and stitched together by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne — resulted in first-year English language book sales of 1.75 million, along with 1.5 million dvds and spinoff seminars. And most of that was before Oprah Winfrey’s ecstatic endorsement. Simon & Schuster currently has 5 million copies in print, and the book is being translated into thirty languages. Predictably, its popularity, based on wish fulfillment and marketing wizardry, has boosted the sales of a multitude of similar offerings: The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World, by Lynne McTaggart; Law of Attraction: The Science of Attracting More of What You Want and Less of What You Don’t, by Michael Losier; and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires, by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Read enough of these titles, and you won’t have to buy the books.

The Secret owes its triumph to the convergence of two powerful forces: Western publishing’s self-help genre and Eastern philosophy’s 3,000-year karmic tradition. Like The Secret, the laws of karma, fundamental to both Buddhism and Hinduism, proclaim that the universe is a place within which we create our own possibilities and limitations. Both endorse a form of the law of attraction: positive thoughts and deeds produce positive responses, while fear, hostility, and negativity become self-fulfilling prophesies. Both declare these intangible laws are as absolute as the laws of physics.

Where karma and The Secret dramatically diverge is in values. Despite trumpeting invisible power, The Secret dazzles its followers with the promise of instant gratification in the material world: more money, more sex, and more status, all in the time frame of now. By contrast, karmic questers are engaged in a soul journey through many incarnations in search of enlightenment and inner peace. Commitment to that journey is the point of each incarnation, with misfortunes accepted as the result of past transgressions or as an opportunity to learn. While the extremes of poverty and self-denial are not considered virtues in and of themselves, desires are treated as distractions. Instead of wanting more of everything, the quester is urged, “Have no expectations and happiness will always be one hundred per cent.”

Though The Secret, like karmic law, encourages its followers to cultivate gratitude and generosity, its basic appeal is as a “gimme” handbook arousing a shallow desire for easy rewards on demand. All its contributors were world-class hawkers before Byrne conscripted them: Jack Canfield, co-owner of the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise; Bob Doyle, creator of the multimedia Wealth Beyond Reason program; James Arthur Ray, developer of the Science of Success and Harmonic Wealth. Their collective prosperity and mutual admiration are the book’s chief selling points.

From an Eastern perspective, The Secret is a rip-off of thousands of years of freely offered wisdom. Its commercialization parallels that of yoga: the exportation from the land of the sacred cow to that of the cash cow. “Yoga” is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” and is an activity intended to join body, mind, and spirit using techniques that require a lifetime to perfect. In the West, it’s now more often a recreational add-on for the display of cute butts in overpriced yoga toggery. In the documentary Yoga, Inc., director John Philp estimates this ancient discipline has become an $18-billion industry, comparable to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

Among self-help trailblazers, one of The Secret’s early forerunners was The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. Published in 1952, it sold 15 million hardcover copies in its first three decades and is still being reprinted. As its chapter titles suggest, Positive Thinking teaches what The Secret calls the law of attraction as the key to worldly success: “Expect the Best and Get It,” “How to Create Your Own Happiness.” Like Eastern philosophy, it’s spiritually inspired, but where karma bases itself on universal law, Positive Thinking looks to God through Jesus Christ: “Try Prayer Power,” “How to Use Faith in Healing.”

It was during the 1960s and ’70s that the self-help genre hit its stride, spearheaded by a new breed of therapist eager to reject the authority of both God and Freud. Convinced by their own clinical findings that classical psychoanalysis didn’t work, these renegades defied professional orthodoxy by appealing directly to the life experience of the intelligent reader with popularly written, groundbreaking texts.

After psychiatrist Eric Berne was rejected by the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, he introduced a technique he called “transactional analysis” to a lay audience in Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships (1964). Suddenly, ordinary people were analyzing their everyday exchanges according to whether they were “transacting” from an adult state (rational, objective), parent state (authoritative, supportive, judgmental), or child state (needy, emotional, creative. Like psychoanalysis, TA was insight therapy, but grounded in the here and now, not in early toilet training.

At a time when medical science had severed the mind from the body, psychotherapist Alexander Lowen wrote such books as The Betrayal of the Body (1967), in which he claimed that physical symptoms were often the manifestation of psychological problems, which could be cured through body manipulations designed to produce emotional release. He called his therapy “bioenergetics,” based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, who had been expelled by Freud from the International Psychoanalytic Association three decades earlier. Psychotherapist Arthur Janov also believed neuroses, along with their physical manifestations, were caused by emotional repression. In The Primal Scream (1970), he advocated release through the reliving in therapy of those traumatic childhood scenes that caused the emotional shutdown.

To understand the dynamism of these self-help books, it’s necessary to examine the times they addressed. North America, post–World War II, was an ultraconservative, authority-based culture in which middle-class males were expected to struggle up the corporate ladder while their stay-at-home wives tended their children in their suburban ranch houses. Just as William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man (1956), and Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), exposed the collective frustrations hidden under the smiling surface of North American life, Berne, Lowen, and Janov challenged individuals to look inward for empowerment, rather than upward or outward, spearheading what became known as the Human Potential Movement.

The 1972 surprise bestseller Roots of Coincidence, in which Arthur Koestler explored one of Carl Jung’s more intriguing theories, opened the window to a type of “magical” thinking quite out of keeping with the times. A quirky and original thinker, Jung had broken with Freud when his mentor’s views proved too restrictive for his own protean mind. Though Jung didn’t teach the law of attraction, he came close with his theory of synchronicity. This he defined as meaningful coincidences that cluster around emotionally charged events, often becoming predictors of the future, as if a person’s consciousness were able to influence the material world in defiance of the physics of cause and effect.

For example, in the spring of 1978 I was being driven to a party in Mississauga by a filmmaker and his wife, whom I had just met. Also present in the car was a healer from New Delhi, whom they’d imported to minister to a friend who was dying of cancer. The very next day, I received a Bell Canada bill charging me for a phone call to New Delhi, which I most certainly hadn’t made. An absurd thought struck me: I’ll bet this is the call the filmmaker made to invite the healer! When I looked up the filmmaker’s phone number, I found it was the same as mine except for the last digit — a zero instead of a nine. Further investigation confirmed that the call on my bill was the one the filmmaker had made to arrange the healer’s visit. Given the populations of New Delhi and Toronto, what were the odds that computerized equipment would reconnect four people who’d shared a car the night before? Even more intriguing, if this were an example of synchronicity, what did it mean?

Though I barely knew the dying woman, I was a close friend of her husband’s first wife. Again by coincidence, the summoning call had been made to the Canadian ambassador’s New Delhi residence, where the first wife was a guest, and she was the one who answered the phone and delivered the message to the healer. As the result of an explosive love triangle twenty years previous, the husband and his two wives were still locked in acrimony. Though I wasn’t yet aware of it, for a brief period before the second wife’s death I would function as a go-between for the three feuding parties. Metaphorically, I would become their switchboard; therefore, according to a Jungian interpretation, the short-circuiting of the bill through me by Bell Canada was an “acausal” event that brought into consciousness a connection already present in the unconscious and that would be played out in the future. The synchronicities were generated by the members of the triangle who were undergoing a dynamic psychological shift because of the fatal illness of one of them, drawing me in as an incidental player. In Jung’s view, to ascribe such a happening to mere chance would violate its most striking feature — its meaning.

During the 1980s and ’90s, “self-help” morphed into something more aptly described as “help-yourself-to.” Instead of self-improvement through inner quest, the new theme was entitlement, with books by money men as the hot sellers. Not surprisingly, this was when some Secret contributors, such as Lee Brower, founder of the consulting firm Empowered Wealth, and Bob Proctor, author of You Were Born Rich, laid the foundations of empire. A high school dropout from northern Ontario, Proctor considered himself a loser until age twenty-six, when he took an office cleaning business from startup to international in one year.

About that same time, heavenly assistance came back into vogue — not Norman Vincent Peale’s one-God-fits-all, but designer angels offering specialized services. According to Publishers Weekly, at one time during 1993 five of the ten bestselling paperbacks were about angels, and in a Time magazine poll, 69 percent of American adults said they believed in them. In a return to basics, spiritualist Neale Donald Walsch, a contributor to The Secret, began his Conversations with God series in 1996, breaking previous bestseller records. Another contributor, Jack Canfield, proved himself capable of gripping both sides of the literary wishbone when he followed up his success primer, The Aladdin Factor: How to Ask For and Get Everything You Want, with the 1993 launch of his soul food franchise. Each of the hundred-odd titles dishes up feel-good anecdotes to ever more specific audiences: Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul.

In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne condenses a half-century of self-help promises into one slim volume. Packaged like a sacred text, in faux parchment with a simulated wax seal, it hints at the wisdom of the ages while sounding more like a late-night infomercial: A winning lottery number? A cure for cancer? A zero dress size? A date with George Clooney? Instead of FedEx angels to do the packing and shipping, Byrne and her cronies employ a platoon of genies. As wealth coach James Ray explains, “The Genie always says one thing: ‘Your wish is my command!’” Confirms Byrne: “You are the Master of the Universe and the Genie is there to serve you.” Joe Vitale, a hypnotherapist, ordained minister, and qigong healer, adds, “It’s like having the Universe as your catalogue.” But Lisa Nichols, ceo of Motivating the Masses, cautions, “You must have complete and utter faith.”

If you do, Byrne promises: “The Universe must deliver.” As for product endorsement, Oprah’s trademark ebullience was just the start. Byrne also cites Pythagoras, Plato, Bacon, da Vinci, Newton, Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Emerson, Einstein. As she confidently explains: “Poets such as William Shakespeare, Robert Browning and William Blake delivered it in their poetry.” Proctor confirms: “Wise people have always known this. You can go right back to the Babylonians.” Byrne again: “Through their understanding and application of the laws of the Universe they became one of the wealthiest races in history.” And now Proctor closes the deal: “Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? . . . They understand The Secret.”

The book’s circular logic is dizzyingly clear. Since the Secret is the generator of all success, then every successful person must be practising it whether he or she knows it or not. Similarly, any failure indicates a person is not practising the Secret properly. Be forewarned: the Genie’s mind is literal, much like Google’s, so if you rub his lamp saying “not cancer” you may be accessing “cancer” rather than “not.”

Despite these blatant caveats, The Secret does possess its core wisdom. Optimism, confidence, cheerfulness — Peale’s Positive Thinking — do have an impact on one’s health, achievements, and relationships. For anyone able to conquer irritation at the book’s glibness, its inspirational messages prove hypnotic, like ocean waves. But there’s more to The Secret’s popularity than pep talks, wish fulfillment, and dream team marketing.

For the past 300 years, materialism based on Newton’s physics and Darwin’s biology has been Western society’s defining belief system. It’s not that Newton and Darwin were wrong, but that materialism has proven to be an incomplete system, especially as a way of explaining personal experience and the mysteries of existence.

The anecdote with which I began this article is only one of many deeply meaningful events that have punctuated my life at critical times, and that are difficult to force into a materialistic shoebox. And in this realization, I’m not alone. The knee-jerk habit of Western materialists who dismiss all anecdotal evidence as without merit, as well as deride information that can’t be verified in a laboratory, has alienated and confused a large portion of the population by denying the validity of their personal experiences. This has driven the more easily satisfied into the arms of evangelical religion and the more thoughtful — or fashionable — into an exploration of such other traditions as Buddhism, kabbalism, and shamanism.

As history has aptly shown, extremism breeds its opposite. It was no accident that too much talk of money in the 1980s and ’90s led to too much talk of angels. Today a more dangerous version of that debate pits science (narrowly defined as Darwinism) against religion (defined as creationism), with few of the fulminators seeming to notice the vast, unclaimed intellectual and spiritual territory between the two.

The ironic genius of Rhonda Byrne and her Secret salesmen lies in their skill at cultivating that fertile middle ground by grafting our desire for material wealth onto our hunger for a connection to the Greater Mystery, free of religious dogma. Not a God to be served but a Genie to serve us. Who wouldn’t pay a few bucks for that?

Sylvia Fraser