[ Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006). In the book Byrne has extensive quotes from many other people and she calls them co-authors. So I also call them authors of the book.]
Many people unfortunately find themselves without enough money or being sick or overweight or without a loved one. The Secret offers hope to these people; the book says that we can use the power of our positive thoughts to get these things. Considering how sad it is to be without money or love, the universe would be so wonderful if this method worked! Unfortunately, even the authors themselves don’t really believe their ideas work as well as they claim they do.
The authors relate stories of positive things happening when people used the law of attraction. So one person visualized his dream house into existence, another visualized meeting an important person, a third attracted a hundred thousand dollar check. (p. 89-91, 87-88, & 95-97) Another person says that he “would visualize a parking space exactly where I wanted it, and 95 percent of the time it would be there for me and I would just pull straight in.” The other times he would have to wait only a minute or two. (p. 65) My favorite story, though, because I hate waiting in line, was of a boy who had to wait in long lines while at a week long vacation at Disney World. One night the boy, who had read The Secret, used the law of attraction and visualized the next day he would not have to wait in line at all for any of the rides. The next day this happened to him because his family was given VIP status! (p. 88)
I do not doubt these stories actually happened. Some people can visualize some things and have it work out for them. The much larger question is if it works for everyone all the time or does it work just for some people sometimes because they are special or lucky or just especially talented visualizers? Rhonda Byrne claims that “the law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial and impersonal as the law of gravity is.” (p. 27) The law of gravity works all the time for all everyone in all places. The authors are making the same claim for their idea.
Unfortunately one of the best-known authors says it does not work all the time. Neale Donald Walsch, author of the very popular Conversations with God series of books, says that when you visualize things coming into your life, you first get its exact opposite. He says that “no sooner will you call something into your reality than its exact opposite will also appear- and always first.” [i] He says this happens because we need the opposite of what we want to appear so that we can fully experience and appreciate the positive things that will soon be drawn to us.[ii] But this is silly. People who start visualizing have already experienced the lack of the thing they are visualizing; that is the reason they are visualizing this thing. Thus they have no need to experience the opposite of what they are visualizing. Imagine if Isaac Newton said that gravity is a law except, sometimes, especially when you first test it, the opposite works. No one would believe that his supposed law of gravity is a real law.
There is a second reason to doubt that the authors themselves think it works. The authors don’t claim the law of attraction works for some things, they very explicitly claim it works for everything without limits. The basis of law of attraction is that we are one with the universal mind or God, so we have all its powers. Because we have all its powers, there are no limits to what we can create. Michael Bernard Beckwith states in the book, “Are there any limits to this? Absolutely not. We are unlimited beings. We have no ceiling. The capabilities and the talents and the gifts and the power that is within every single individual that is on the planet, is unlimited.” (p. 170) John Hagelin says, “We could go anywhere. We could do anything. Achieve anything.” (p. 181) In case the reader missed the general idea of how powerful her thoughts were, Rhonda Byrne says, “You are the Master of the Universe,” and “You are God in a physical body…You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are all perfection.” (p. 46 & 164)
These are amazing claims. Do they really mean them? One of the most basic facts of human life that shows our limitations is that we have to die. One of the featured authors of the book, Robert Collier, has two chapters in his own book about how we don’t have to grow old if we have the right thoughts. He says, “the fact is that there is no natural reason for man to grow old as soon as he does, no biological reason for him to grow old at all!”[iii] In the next chapter he says: “Universal Mind knows no imperfection -- no decay – no death. It does not produce sickness and death. It is your conscious mind that has decreed these evils. Banish the thought -- and you can banish the effect [death].”[iv]
Another basic fact of life is that other animals get sick and so it seems natural for us to get sick too. But a person the authors respect and look up to, Nona Brooks, says that is not natural for other animals to get sick, they get sick because of our thoughts: “The question may be asked, ‘If disease is a mental condition, why should animals be ill?’ It is a case of the higher influencing the lower; animals respond to the thoughts of men; they do not originate mental images of imperfection, but they follow ours.”[v] Many other people these authors look up to say similar things indicating that they mean, in a literal way, these statements about there are no limits to our powers.
On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence these thinkers do not take these statements of unlimited power literally; not even the authors of The Secret really seem to believe in our unlimited power. The Secret has many reports of the authors using these ideas to get things such as a million dollars or parking spaces. It is wonderful to visualize and have the money show up. It is wonderful if you are sick and thoughts help you to get better. Thoughts are important and may effect our reality to a much greater degree than society’s conventional paradigm allows. But it is a big jump from saying thoughts are more powerful than most people think to saying that people’s thoughts have unlimited power. If the authors of The Secret really believe they are the Master of the Universe, why aren’t they doing something that manifests this total power? I would believe their ideas if these people showed their unlimited power and did something really cool like turn themselves into dolphins for a day.
Instead of believing our thoughts create everything, the authors of the book actually seem to believe the more limited idea that our thoughts help us live better within the limits of human life. So the person who visualizes parking spots is living in the normal, human world where people drive cars, but he has the added ability of getting parking spaces. Whereas if someone actually was a “God in a physical body,” it would seem he would never use a car, he would just teleport himself everywhere like on Star Trek.
So if this law of attraction does not work as well as the authors claim it does, and even they admit it sometimes, why do they make the exaggerated claim that it has no limits? I think the key reason is faulty metaphysics. By that I mean they have an inaccurate view of the relationship between humans and the divine (whether the divine is called God, the Ultimate Reality, the Universal Mind or another word).
The Secret is part of a larger tradition known as New Thought. (While the claims the great teachers of history always knew its teaching, this is a misstatement. This way of thinking was developed in the 1850s by Phineas Quimby. The origins of New Thought is discussed on this site here.) The key to New Thought’s worldview is the deep oneness between spiritual reality, often called Universal Mind, and a person’s subconscious. One of the book’s authors, Robert Collier, explained this relationship in his own book Secret of the Ages. Collier says, “the Universal Mind is omnipotent. And since the subconscious mind is part of the Universal Mind, there is no limit to the things, which it can do.”[vi] Collier continues by saying that since the Universal Mind and our subconscious mind is one, the only difference is one of degree: “if you take a drop of water from the ocean, you know that it has the same properties as all the rest of the water in the ocean, the same percentage of sodium chloride. The only difference between it and the ocean is in volume. If you take a spark of electricity, you know that it has the same properties as the thunderbolt, the same power that moves trains or runs giant machines in factories. Again the only difference is in volume. It is the same with your mind and Universal Mind. The only difference between them is in volume. Your mind has the same properties as the Universal Mind, the same creative genius, the same power all over the earth, same access to all knowledge. Know this, believe it, use it, and ‘yours is the earth and the fullness thereof.’ In the exact proportion that you believe yourself to be part of the Universal Mind, sharing in its all-power, in that proportion can you demonstrate the mastery over your own body and over the world about you.”[vii]
New Thought proponents continually say there is this deep connection between us and God that we have all the power of God.
I think that overstates the kind of connection we have to God. We are more connected to God than scientists and orthodox Christians think, but New Thought goes to other extreme and claims Oneness with God. They have a mistaken metaphysic that is popular among contemporary spiritual people. The fact that this view is popular, though, does not make it right.
Another problem with New Thought’s view of the divine is what this divine demands of us. Many people think of spirituality as being about a higher power that has some purpose or that you submit your will to. The Secret explicitly denies the higher power has any definite purpose for individuals and, instead, it totally emphasizes getting whatever you want through your thoughts. Neale Donald Walsch says, “there is no blackboard in the sky on which God has written your purpose, your mission in life. There’s no blackboard in the sky that says ‘Neale Donald Walsch. Handsome guy who lived in the first part of the twenty-first century who…’ And then there’s a blank. And all I have to do to really understand what I am doing here, why I’m here, is to find that blackboard and find out what God really has in mind for me. But the blackboard does not exist. So your purpose is what you say it is. Your mission is the mission you give yourself.” (p. 177) Rhonda Byrne says, “Whatever you choose for You is right.” (p. 179) The other authors agree and say that you should choose what gives you joy or bliss. (p. 178-180) Byrne wraps up this line of thought saying, “Be happy now. Feel good now. That’s the only thing you have to do.” (p. 179)
The New Thought paradigm is a reaction to an older traditional Christianity, which focused on certain biblical passages which emphasized God’s will and power and sovereignty over creation to do whatever He wanted. This God chose only certain people to hear His message and consigned the rest to hell because they never heard about Jesus. This God predestined some to heaven or hell for no good reason, and His actions could not be judged by human standards of fairness. He also cursed all humans for the actions of Adam and Eve, and He did not seem to care whether people suffered on this earth or not. The Deists of the Enlightenment period rejected this concept of God and replaced it with a concept of God, which emphasized his fairness, loving kindness and benevolence. New Thought follows this Deist view of God (as does much of Christian theology since the Enlightenment period).
The question is if the New Thought/Secret thinkers have reacted to older views of God by going to the other extreme. While pre-Enlightenment Christians overemphasized how much God demanded and how little we had a right to expect from him on earth, much of New Thought theology and The Secret goes to the opposite extreme. It says God gives us everything and satisfies all our desires. God wants nothing from us in return; all we have to do is accept his total abundance and rise above our doubts.
New Thought is very much right in emphasizing that our relationship to God/Universal Mind is the most important thing in our lives. It is also right in thinking too many people focus only on their outer material aspect instead of this spiritual aspect. But The Secret misrepresents what it takes to get attuned to the divine. It takes more than just right thoughts. One also needs to give one’s will over to God/the Universe/Flow, and let God work through you to accomplish something in the world. It seems to me that we are God’s hands doing something in the world. If you are doing something the Universe wants done, then It will be on your side helping you. You are like an employee of the Universe doing Its work, and so It pays you by having Its amazing energy flow through you, giving you wonderful blessings and synchronicities. But it does not seem realistic that the Universe wants nothing more from us besides clearing away our blocks to Ferraris or expensive dinners in fancy restaurants. This seems like a one-sided relationship with humans doing all the getting and the divine doing all the giving.
Obviously these authors have a different sense of our connection to the divine and what the divine wants from us than I do; they would probably think I have personal problems that block me from accepting the Universe’s non-demanding abundance. On the other hand, I think all relationships, both between humans and other humans, and humans and the Divine, are based on reciprocity where each side gives something to the other or does something for the other. So I would say they are motivated too much by selfishness and lower material desires to clearly see the real relationship between humans and the Divine.
The ironic thing is not all the authors of the book agree with this non-demanding view of the divine. So Michael Bernard Beckwith agrees with my basic point about the need to surrender to the divine and separate our real needs from our lower desires. In one of his books, he tells his life story and the troubles he went through until he had an experience of Oneness with the divine (which he calls Love-Beauty). He says, “I vowed to myself: From this moment forward my life is dedicated to serving Love-Beauty in the world…I surrendered my life completely to its luminous, transforming touch….I consecrated my life to this Love-Beauty, trusting its goodness to guide the course of my life.”[viii] Throughout his book, Beckwith continually emphasizes surrendering to this higher power, and the need to get through the ego’s lower desires to the higher purpose of life. He emphasizes that we have to distinguish between immature wants of the lower ego and mature wants of our true self.[ix] Another featured author in the book, Prentice Mulford, says a similar thing. Mulford says, “Always in your individual aims and purposes defer to the Higher Power and Infinite Wisdom. The thing you most desire may prove a curse. Be always, then, in the mood of saying, ‘There is a Power which knows what will bring me the most permanent happiness better than I do. If my desire is not good, let it not come…”[x]
Beckwith and Mulford are far from the only people in the New Thought tradition who thinks this way. Emmet Fox says “We must never for a moment try to live for ourselves, or make plans or arrangements without reference to God, or suppose that we be either happy or successful if we are seeking any other end than to do His Will.”[xi] H. Emilie Cady says, “Let go your narrow thoughts of the Divine, cease to desire anything less than the fulfillment of God’s will in you…burst the bonds of personal desire and rise to a willingness that the Father’s will be done through us every moment.” [xii] Just to cite one more important New Thought proponent who thinks the same way, Ernest Holmes says “we must realize that there is One Infinite Mind, which is consciously directing our destiny …which governs, guides and guards, tells me what to do, when to act, and how to act.” [xiii]
There is a split in the New Thought tradition between those like Beckwith, Fox, Holmes and Cady who think we have to surrender our wills to a higher power and those who agree with The Secret that the divine has no will other than to fulfill our desires. I am not in the New Thought tradition, but I agree with Beckwith: true spirituality involves surrendering your personal will to a higher power and an essential part of this process is separating mature and immature wants.
[i] Neale Donald Walsch, Happier than God: Turn Ordinary Life Into Extraordinary Experience (Ashland, Oregon: Emnin Books, 2008), p. 73.
[ii] Walsch, p. 74-7.
[iii] Robert Collier, Secret of the Ages: The Master Key to Success and Fulfilment, (Radford, VA; Wilder Publications, 2007), Collier, p. 133.
[iv] Collier, p. 137.
[v] Nona Brooks, Mysteries, (Denver, n.p., 1924), p. 44-45. (The book is online at the New Thought Library and they say their version has the original pagination.)
[vi] Robert Collier, Secret of the Ages: The Master Key to Success and Fulfilment, (Radford, VA; Wilder Publications, 2007), p. 21.
[vii] Collier, p. 35.
[viii] Michael Bernard Beckwith, Spiritual Liberation: Fulfilling Your Soul’s Potential (NY: Atria Books, 2008), p. 7-8.
[ix] Beckwith, p. 54 & 70-1.
[x] Prentice Mulford, The God in You, in Thoughts Are Things & The God in You (Radford, VA; Wilder Publications, 2007), p. 113-4.
[xi] Emmet Fox, Power Through Constructive Thinking (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 22.
[xii] H. Emilie Cady, How I used Truth in The Complete Works of H. Emilie Cady (Unity Village, Mo: Unity House, 2009), p. 211-2.
[xiii] Ernest Shurtleff Holmes, TheScience of Mind (Radford, Va: Wilder Publications), 2008), p. 136.
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