Mar 21, 2007

Sick As Our Secrets

One does not become enlightened
by imagining figures of light,

but by making the darkness conscious.
The latter procedure, however is disagreeable,
and therefore not popular.

-- Carl Jung

It took me a while to get around to seeing "The Secret." Once I learned what the secret actually was, I felt no great urgency. But when I saw how it had been savaged on Salon.com, I resolved to see how bad it was for myself. Pretty bad, really.

This is not to say that it has no value. A number of the tools recommended by its co-creators are effective, at least up to a point. Far be it from me to discourage the use of creative visualization, visualization boards, affirmative thought, or any other of what I would consider rituals. When appropriate I recommend these tools to my clients. But they are not a panacea, and that caveat is decidedly missing from the slickly produced movie; and presumably the book, which I did not, in all fairness, read.

I don't think I'm revealing any state secrets when I tell you, gentle reader, that the secret revealed in "The Secret" is the "law of attraction." The problem is that this is not so much a law as it is a bromide. What many of us learned during the "new age" revolution of the 80s and 90s was that all of our affirmations and creative visualization did not, in fact, work. At least not fully or "every time," which is what "The Secret" promises... well as long we don't think "bad" thoughts and undo all the promise of our "good" thoughts. According to the brain trust that brings you "The Secret" our "negative" thoughts bring unpleasant experiences, and our "positive" thoughts bring pleasant ones. I almost wish life were that simple.

The "law of attraction" is really a very dumbed down -- one might say truncated -- version of a much deeper truth. This is probably why it has resonance and "feels" true enough to inspire a cottage industry. It has what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness."

Underlying this attractive idea is what mystics have been teaching for millennia. It is that all things reflect all other things. That it cannot be otherwise because we are, in fact, one with everything around us. This means that the people you meet are not "like" you ("like attracts like"). They are you.

Where the "law of attraction," as presented in "The Secret," teaches us that if we are attracting unpleasant experiences, we need to shift our thoughts away from the negative and make ourselves happy, mystical thought teaches what Virginia Sandlin terms "sourceful awareness." Mystical thinkers honor that anything that comes into our reflective experience is mirroring something that exists inside of us, all be it, to a different degree. So our recognition of what we find unpleasant in our reflective environment is an opportunity to complete and heal that aspect in ourselves, thereby facilitating healing for the world that is our reflection.

So this mystical awareness comes with a greater sense of responsibility than thinking happy thoughts in order to get a new car.

I entitled this review "Sick As Our Secrets" not simply as a play on words, but because that axiom speaks to one of the deeper problems inherent in the philosophy advanced in the "The Secret." That phrase, popular in Twelve Step programs, is used to describe the dis-ease that arises because of the fraud, shame, and denial that are so much a part of the life of addicts and their families. As anyone who has undertaken a healing process on that level learns, the secrets that do the most damage are the ones we keep from ourselves. Try as a I might, I can't see the difference between the practices advocated in "The Secret" and plain, old-fashioned denial. To advocate that people simply stop feeling their "bad feelings" is not just glib. It's irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

I nearly fell out my chair when I heard "The Secret's" Bob Proctor advise that when you're feeling bad you should simply put on some music, because it would change your mood, and to "block out everything but that [happy] thought." Try that if you're clinically depressed. Just try it. Or if you are recovering from childhood sexual abuse. Or if you are one of our returning veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even the joyous sounds of Steve Martin's banjo won't make you happy, and to suggest that it's that simple is insulting. And if you could block out all that pain, it would be anything but healthy.

In her appearance on "Oprah," Lisa Nichols explained how she addresses people who want to talk about their personal history or "story." Her response is "I don't want to know it, because you've used it to keep yourself where you are." So word to the wise, if you want someone to help you heal and come complete with your painful history, Lisa Nichols is probably not the appropriate facilitator for you.

The implicit hostility of this particular assumption is one I'm all too familiar within my own field. That is to say, the idea that people are holding on to past trauma because they are "unwilling" to release it. I have even heard colleagues say of their clients, "Well they don't really want to get better." If they're showing up for help, they want help. It just may not be the kind of help that healer is willing or able to provide. And when a healer runs into the limits of his or her own paradigm, it is easier to blame the client than to question the belief system. When a client pushes your buttons, it's easier to dismiss the client than to determine why you have sourced them into your practice.

The glib, binary approach re-popularized in "The Secret" has real world consequences. I was recently emailed an article by Ross Bishop that addresses the impact on people suffering from mental or physical illness. He writes:

I received an email recently from a woman who had suffered through bi-lateral breast removal. She wrote:

Do you have any insight on why I developed this disease? It's been very difficult for me to handle what they teach in "The Secret" and all the Unity Church beliefs and that we create illness through negative thinking because I worked so hard to heal my life and have lived a life of joy for the past two years.

For several months I have been receiving calls and emails from people who are distraught over the guilt-producing messages contained in the video "The Secret." These people have been told that:

. . . you create in reality, in one way or another whatever you focus your attention on. Your life is going to be an outcome of where you predominantly place your attention.

This is a resurrection of the discredited "Law of Attraction" foisted by new age teachers, MLM organizers and get-rich-quick real estate infomercials. The idea is a simple one: what you place your attention on will manifest in reality.

Like Mr. Bishop I have been hearing from frustrated clients who aren't finding the tools to improve their lives in these ideas that are achieving a whole new level of popularity in the new age arena. And like Mr. Bishop, I see them beating themselves up for not being able to accomplish what they've been promised is so simple.

Experiences like these with the fall-out from "The Secret" make me tend to agree with Peter Birkenhead of Salon, who characterizes the slickly repackaged philosophy and Oprah's endorsement of it as venal.

Why "venality"? Because, with survivors of Auschwitz still alive, Oprah writes this about "The Secret" on her Web site, "the energy you put into the world -- both good and bad -- is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day." "Venality," because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought." "Venality," because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts."

Worse than "The Secret's" blame-the-victim idiocy is its baldfaced bullshitting. The titular "secret" of the book is something the authors call the Law of Attraction. They maintain that the universe is governed by the principle that "like attracts like" and that our thoughts are like magnets: Positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract negative events. Of course, magnets do exactly the opposite -- positively charged magnets attract negatively charged particles -- and the rest of "The Secret" has a similar relationship to the truth. Here it is on biblical history: "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of." And worse than the idiocy and the bullshitting is its anti-intellectualism, because that's at the root of the other two. Here's "The Secret" on reading and, um, electricity: "When I discovered 'The Secret' I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good," and, "How does it work? Nobody knows. Just like nobody knows how electricity works. I don't, do you?" And worst of all is the craven consumerist worldview at the heart of "The Secret," because it's why the book exists: "[The Secret] is like having the Universe as your catalogue. You flip through it and say, 'I'd like to have this experience and I'd like to have that product and I'd like to have a person like that.' It is you placing your order with the Universe. It's really that easy." That's from Dr. Joe Vitale, former Amway executive and contributor to "The Secret," on Oprah.com.

So scientific it is not -- nobody knows how electricity works, indeed -- but the notion I find most disturbing is that we should disconnect from the realities of the world because they don't feel good. I've even heard people go so far as to assert that by tuning out horrific events we can actually help to heal the world; accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in our minds will reflect itself in a similar healing for the planet, the theory goes. What to say? You know, if reading newspapers is too upsetting for a person and causes discomfort, there's nothing wrong with putting them aside, to create an emotionally safe space for oneself. One would hope that within that context they would undertake the healing necessary to address the world around them again. But to confuse that elective denial for actual healing or some type of spiritual evolution is vanity. I'd love to wish the war in Iraq right into the cornfield by just not thinking about it, but it doesn't work like that. Now when we reach the point that we can look at the news and not get triggered, or thrown into anger or fear... that's an accomplishment. (Full disclosure: I haven't reached that point.)

There's a site I turn to periodically called Awaken in the Dream. The site author Paul Levy writes a great deal about spiritually conscious activism. In a recent piece, "Triggered by Evil" he takes a tack that stands in stark contrast to the idea of ignoring the news because it makes us uncomfortable. Writes Levy:

Due to the horrific events playing out on the world stage, I find myself unable to avoid the subject of “evil.” Some of my readers have objected to my use of the term “evil,” because it “triggers” something in them which makes them feel uncomfortable, and sometimes even makes them stop reading. Their reaction has made me wonder whether I should use a different word so as not to trigger them, or is activating people the whole point of my writing? When I contemplate this question, however, I am left with the feeling that there is no other word that more accurately describes what I am pointing at than “evil.” I find myself wondering, is there something being revealed to us when, for example, people are triggered by the mere mention of the word “evil?”

He goes on to explain how ignoring evil increases, rather than decreases, its power over us.

Evil animates itself, psychologically speaking, through humanity’s unconsciousness. Evil’s power is only operative in the absence of consciousness. Evil, through our psychological blind spots, plays with our perceptions so as to hide itself. In order to not be destroyed by evil we have to understand the nature of the beast we are dealing with. Like that great maxim of medicine says, “Do not attempt to cure what you do not understand.” We have to bring evil to the level of conscious awareness. To quote Jung, “…how can evil be integrated? There is only one possibility: to assimilate it, that is to say, raise it to the level of consciousness.”

Evil cannot stand to be seen, for when it is truly seen, it is not unconscious anymore, and its seeming power over us gets taken away. Just like a vampire can’t stand the light of consciousness, once we see evil, we take away its autonomy - it can no longer act itself out through us unconsciously. The energy locked up in evil then becomes available to serve what is best for the whole, which is to say it becomes transformed so as to feed and nourish life, instead of creating death.

I offer up these alternative perspectives, because I think they form a necessary counterpoint to the "tyranny of a positive attitude" advanced in "The Secret."

One of the subtler story arcs of the "The Secret" is that its co-creators appear to have gone through a period of struggle, trial, or some other journey through the shadow world. Rhonda Byrne describes her trauma from the death of her father and career crisis. Joe Vitale was homeless. Michael Beckwith was a drug dealer who had a classically shamanic "death/transformation" dream. What he described on "Oprah" could be defined as a "peak" or "mystical" experience. But it came after a long period of wallowing in muck.

The authors gloss over these experiences, using them more as cautionary tales -- things they went through before they knew the secret -- than exploring how crucial these periods surely were to their later accomplishments. But I guess if "The Secret" promised health, wealth, and relationships beyond your wildest dreams, by instructing, "First, go through a period of personal hell," it wouldn't sell very well. The assumption is, I guess, that people are picking up the book or movie because they are as ready as the authors were to come complete with their shadow journeys. But just because you are suffering and want relief from that suffering does not mean that you are done with suffering. It does not mean that you are remotely ready to just release everything that causes you pain. "The Secret" promises that you can come complete with that pain by thinking really hard. If only that were true.

Your "thoughts" are not the sum of your consciousness. You are so much bigger than your thoughts. The universe does not serve your thoughts. It cannot, because the universe does not exist outside of you. You are the universe. All of it. The good, the bad, the ugly. Our challenge as people of consciousness, beings of power, lightworkers (pick your term) is not to wish the "negative" away. It is to own and reintegrate our shadow, because to do so is to heal -- bring into wholeness -- ourselves and all the world.

"The Secret," both book and movie are available in the bookstore.

Also recommended: Nora Ephron's "The Secret: A Testimonial" on The Huffington Post. Hilarious!!!

9 comments:

Bernadette said...

I can not read the entirety of your review right now-will later. I just want to say that I flipped through The Secret (I work in a bookstore) and felt very mentally insulted at times and also felt like there should be rules on how much people can bank on old ideas and stating the obviuos. It seems more like a money making trick than anything groundbreakingly insightful. I'll think more on it after I read what you wrote.

Gail said...

It never ceases to amaze me how human beings obscure and commoditize the very essences of knowledge that would otherwise liberate us. Gail

Bernadette said...

We should talk about this. I'm glad it resonated the same way w/ you. You articulated my issues w/ it better than I could…
One of the people who worked on The Secret, Jack Canfield, came to our school and gave a lecture…And my gut was like "yeah, but…" the entire time. After the lecture, I articulated a question I really should have asked him…but couldn't make sense of right away…
I thought about impoverished countries, where children are born into hunger or slavery, etc., and wondered if according to this "law of attraction" positive attitude sweep-if that would mean the children drew this to themselves or if they should be able to simply think themselves out of it…And I found the whole idea to be very accommodating to western, educated, economically sound people…It doesn't account for all reality and all the universe-it's music to the ears of the "speilbergs" or the "gates" people…(examples he cited that we should be like…they think and it happens) …And there was a moment where I said this is the worst time for this…We need to think about the world, we need to think bigger than ourselves and attracting that car we want…We need to really wake up! This can put us into oversimplistic sleepmode! Talk later.

LaVaughn said...

bernadette said...

I thought about impoverished countries, where children are born into hunger or slavery, etc., and wondered if according to this "law of attraction" positive attitude sweep-if that would mean the children drew this to themselves or if they should be able to simply think themselves out of it…And I found the whole idea to be very accommodating to western, educated, economically sound people…It doesn't account for all reality and all the universe...

And there was a moment where I said this is the worst time for this…We need to think about the world, we need to think bigger than ourselves and attracting that car we want…We need to really wake up! This can put us into oversimplistic sleepmode!


Thanks so much for posting this. This is exactly what Peter Birkenhead was alluding to in the Salon piece. The "law of attraction" idea lends itself far too easily to what he called "blame-the-victim idiocy." (It's also beautifully illustrated by the satirical Nora Ephron piece linked above.) It makes it all too easy to say, well poor people are poor because of their thoughts and they need to learn to think differently. It invites us to push the suffering of others out of our minds, because if we dwell on the negative, well, we'll just never make our million dollars! It's a conceit and it's rooted in schismized thinking. It allows us to make war and poverty "over there."

The mystical thinker asks not how poor people, or sex slaves, or victims of genocide, created that reality for themselves. The mystical thinker asks where is that poverty, slavery, tragedy, etc., in me? Why have I sourced that reality? Because those suffering people are not just like me in some way. They don't just trigger me and make me uncomfortable. They are me.

Mystical thought challenges us to address the suffering we see in the world within ourselves, so that we can heal both. It says, well I've become aware of starving people in such and such place; it's come up in my reflective reality, so its reflection is inside me somewhere. It forces us to look within and heal on a deeper level, rather than simply suppress and split off the unpleasantness.

Lusmila said...

it was a little hard for me to understand, only because i have never read the book or watched the film. BUT, i do know that the film is not getting good reviews.

LaVaughn said...

Lusmila said...

it was a little hard for me to understand, only because i have never read the book or watched the film. BUT, i do know that the film is not getting good reviews.


You know what? My bad. I should have posted these links as well:

First 20 minutes of the movie
Oprah 1
Oprah 2 is MIA for some reason.
Oprah 3
Oprah 4
Oprah 5

If you've seen the first 20 minutes of the movie, you've seen it all. It's fairly repetitive.

zigzagbuddha said...

I saw the movie 'The Secret', but only because I love Esther Hicks so much. I wasn't much impressed with the movie, and never even watched the version without Esther.

Esther Hicks was pretty displeased with the situation herself. 'Abraham' blabbed that Esther at one point was wishing Rhonda Byrne's teeth would fall out, hehehe.

But Esther didn't deny or resist her negative emotion, she experienced it fully, and just kept looking for the best aspects of the situation in order to make peace with it, and get back the sense of well-being that she had come to prefer.

One of the positive aspects of 'The Secret' that Esther latched onto was that, in spite of it's inaccuracies and shortcomings, still, it made a whole lot of people aware of the concept that they create their own reality... and that is a pretty valuable concept to own.

Esther and Jerry Hicks made a video called 'The Secret Behind the Secret' that I found much more interesting.

But aside from opinions about all that stuff, my own experience is that the energy that is the same energy that people have called 'God' and 'Source Energy' is the same energy that moves through me, and you and everybody and everything else, and that energy, does not make a distinction between 'good' and 'bad', right and wrong, beautiful or ugly... it is the limited perspective of the human mind that attaches those 'significances'.

But even that limited human perspective serves a purpose... it sends messages to the 'broader perspective' about 'what is needed down here', hehehe.

And since I have observed that everything I see in my subjectively experienced world is a reflection of something that I have going on in my inner space, it therefore makes sense to focus my attention in such a way that what is going on in my inner space is something that I wouldn't mind having reflected back to me in outer space.

Sometimes nothing changes for awhile, and sometimes stuff might even get worse before it gets better, and I have to say, sometimes sticking my head in the sand and ignoring all the shit flying around me is exactly what any good doctor would order.

The bottom line is it's not about getting 'stuff' or experiencing only peace, love and abundance, it is about discovering how to work in harmony with the energy that creates worlds, for no reason than that it is more fun that way, the fact that you get more 'peace, love and abundance' is just a fringe benefit.

I reckon I am "teaching grandmother to suck eggs" with some of the stuff I've written here, and sorry for that, but I noticed you tripping over a certain concept or two and I just couldn't resist the urge to offer some clarity on the subject. It's what I do best. In my own mind anyway, hahahaha!

LaVaughn said...

Hi zigzagbuddha,

I remember there being some drama over Esther Hicks being cut from The Secret but I don't remember the deets. Was that another thing that went to litigation? Funny just how much legal trouble The Secret law of attracted.

"The bottom line is it's not about getting 'stuff' or experiencing only peace, love and abundance, it is about discovering how to work in harmony with the energy that creates worlds, for no reason than that it is more fun that way, the fact that you get more 'peace, love and abundance' is just a fringe benefit."

On this, we agree. On much of this we agree, I think. I just think The Secret was too much about getting stuff by ordering the universe around instead of being in alignment and allowing universe to express through you.

zigzagbuddha said...

I think it started with copyright issues and ended with contentions over 'spirit aspect' being removed.

"I just think The Secret was too much about getting stuff by ordering the universe around instead of being in alignment and allowing universe to express through you."

Hahaha, I really love the way you said that... it has reminded me of a P.J. O'Rourke quote (I am really into him today). He's talking about government, but still...:

"Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.”