When I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I was afraid to tell my New-Agey friends and acquaintances. Mainly, I was afraid they would say, "Why did you do that to yourself?" Not out of cruelty, but from a genuine desire to help me see how I had "created my own reality," a central tenet of New Age thinking. Thankfully, no one said any such thing. (Though one woman did ask if perhaps I should have just ingested a lot of wheatgrass instead of having chemotherapy.)
This choose-your-own-adventure thinking has caught fire recently with the wild success of "The Secret" book and DVD by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne. There are already 400,000 copies of the book in print and Simon & Schuster just announced they’re printing two million more, which is what happens when Oprah champions your book in two separate shows and says this is how she’s lived her own life for years.
The book and the documentary-ish film are essentially the same: a compendium of talking heads—philosophers, life coaches, and authors—all talking about how the essence of our thoughts affects, nay, creates, the world around us through the power of quantum physics, energy, and our interconnectedness. It’s similar in a lot of ways to "What the Bleep Do We Know," but without the narrative Marlee Matlin part.
Except this time the production values are better—everything looks very luxe and DaVinci-code-esque—and the heads are all hitting the same point home over and over: If you "align" yourself by feeling good, the Universe (New Age-speak for God) will provide limitless abundance. This is illustrated in numerous dramatizations: a woman wraps her thoughts around a necklace in a window, pretty soon it appears around her neck; a gay man who’s harassed for his homosexuality starts practicing the secret and soon finds people are offering him new respect.
The "secret" is kind of like prayer on steroids: Instead of a personal God processing and granting requests, a web of energy simply bounces your mindset back at you in material form. As one of the teachers in the film, Mike Dooley, sums it up, "Thoughts become things."
I first encountered the "secret" about 13 years ago when it was much less sexily called "The Law of Attraction" or "Intentional Reality" by many, many authors and alternative spirituality teachers, from Esther and Jerry Hicks to Wayne Dyer to Deepak Chopra. Living at a yoga ashram the summer between sophomore and junior year of college, two friends and I were walking through the woods. City girl that I was, I carried a stick, hoping to fend off dangerous animals or deranged woodsmen.
My curly-haired friend Scott looked at the stick and shook his head, "What you resist persists," he said, very much the 22-year-old sage. He explained that what we fear, we "magnetize" and manifest in our lives. So by holding the stick as defensive weapon, I was actually putting us in unnecessary peril. I reluctantly let it go. And proceeded to head-trip myself on and off for years about my negative thoughts, which were abundant.
I would realize I was thinking negative thoughts, which would trigger more thoughts about how awful I was for thinking negative thoughts and how I was ruining my life with those thoughts, and so on and so on, until my head was ready to explode with all the bad juju. The only thing that freed me from that loop was something else I also learned that summer at the ashram, meditation.
The teaching that inside of us is a "witness" who is not our thoughts, not our body, but just a still, silent observer, soothed me. I could find that perspective when I quieted down and simply did as I was told: watched the thoughts roll by like unimportant clouds—not clinging no matter how great or terrible they seemed, just watching. Buddhism also teaches this, of course, non-attachment to thoughts good or bad; in one of many out-of-context quotes whispered sotto voce throughout the film, "The Secret" cites Buddha as saying "All that we are is a result of what we have thought" to back-up its claims.
The secret, a.k.a. law of attraction (LOA), works, goes the theory, because our bodies and thoughts are made up of the same vibrating matter as the air, the trees, and God. According to a segment of quantum physics, each thought has a vibration that the Universe can somehow respond to, and each thought, especially those charged with emotion, helps to manifest every experience, person, or object in our lives. And, the LOA-teachers say, we can use this knowledge to create lives we want and intend. It’s supposed to be empowering. It supposed to point out how we’ve been unconscious victims of our own undirected intentions and allow us to become victims no more.