Man, this sucks. I've got a cold -- the runny nose, the scratchy throat, the cough. All of that is bad. But guess what sucks most of all?
You'll never guess, so I'm going to tell you the secret:
This cold is my own fault. I got it from looking at too many people with snotty noses. Had I kept my focus on people who were not slinging phlegm, I'd be breathing easy.
That, in a nutshell, is the message of the latest self-help fad, The Secret, a book and movie created by Australian Rhonda Byrne. Promoted on two episodes of Oprah Winfrey's TV show, The Secret discloses the so-called "law of attraction" by which your thoughts attract whatever they are about.
Thus, Byrne writes (and I'm not kidding), if you want to lose weight, stop looking at fat people. It isn't food that makes you fat. It's giving your attention to fat. This also applies to illness, like my cold, and everything else. If you don't drive that BMW you want, it's because you haven't been visualizing it, pretending you already own it and feeling open to receive it.
Poor? Visualize checks arriving in the mail. Need a new necklace? Imagine you're wearing it. Want a hot, romantic, good-looking mate? Picture the person. I'm not making this stuff up. The Secret says, literally, that the universe is a catalog from which you can pick anything you want – including a parking space when none seems to be available.
The Secret has sold about 1.5 million DVDs and about as many books. It may well end up the best-selling self-help book of all time. Of course, there's absolutely nothing new in the book or movie. The "law of attraction" has been a staple of New Age spirituality for years. But few have taken it as far as Byrne and the 24 "teachers" she interviewed for the film. They include such luminaries as Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jack Canfield and Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch.
The difference in Byrne's thinking and that of more conservative promoters of positive thinking is her apparent belief that taking action is unnecessary. The traditional "power of positive thinking" is that such a mind-set helps one notice and seize opportunity. But in The Secret, one need simply "ask, believe and receive." If what you want doesn't materialize, it's a failure of your thinking, not a result of your behavior or forces outside your control.
I saw this years ago when many of my friends who had AIDS became entranced by the work of Louise Hay, who taught that disease is a product of our thoughts. Correct your thoughts and disease will disappear, she preached. I remember when one friend was close to death and members of his "support group" came to the hospital. They each told him that he could avoid death by changing his thoughts. He died, as did, eventually, every one of them.
But health, much less the welfare of the suffering, is not the main point of The Secret. Although cloaked in the look of an ancient mystery cult, it stresses wealth above all else. In that, it is the ideal "spirituality" for a consumer society. And nobody represents the weird fusion of the spiritual and the material more than Oprah Winfrey, who has done plenty of good in the world but, as one of the world's richest people, has also engaged in embarrassingly ostentatious displays of her wealth, giving away cars to audience members, for example.
The Secret is tailor-made for a person such as Oprah, providing a self-satisfying reason why she's so obscenely rich in a society with a rapidly growing underclass. You see, it's because her thoughts are more profitable, just like Jesus' thoughts. You did know that Jesus was a millionaire and a prosperity teacher, didn't you? The Secret tells me so. And it tells me I can be as rich as Oprah and Jesus, too.
Is The Secret harmful? Not unless you think peddling a snake-oil balm for narcissism is harmful. If you can unilaterally blame people for their own suffering and depict materialism as a spiritual value, you don't owe anyone anything, except maybe a DVD copy of The Secret.
Incredibly, when Byrne was asked in one interview about the genocide in Rwanda, she blithered about fear, cutting the massacred a break only because they were "unconscious" of how they attracted their fate. In other words, had someone such as Oprah distributed copies of The Secret in Rwanda, nearly 1 million Tutsis might be driving BMWs instead of occupying graves.
A better name for this bullshit is "the law of distraction."
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. His website is www.cliffbostock.com.
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