December 18th, 2014
The Secret of “The Secret”.
A review of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, Simon & Shuster, 2006.
About a year ago, a talented young performance artist came to me for some hypnotherapy for performance anxiety. Nervousness and anxiety had made her reluctant to try for auditions. After some therapy and self-hypnosis tuition she was once again able to put herself “out there”.
In the course of our initial discussions she mentioned a book which had been recommended to her. She had read the book and tried to follow the suggestions it contained to no avail. This was a book which promised everything. Your heart’s desire can be yours and you don’t have to do a thing to get what you want – apart from alter the way you think.
I have encountered many books like this in the past. Books about bringing out your inner power, utilizing the “magic” in your own mind, and so on. But this book rang a bell. Unlike most “cult” books, this one had got itself mentioned by “successful” (i.e. famous) people, of one sort or another, who claimed to use its techniques. The title of the book is The Secret. It is by Rhonda Byrne. I try to make it a guiding principle not to voice opinions about books, or other things, which I haven’t read or seen, so I acquired this book from the local library. It shocked me. And I don’t shock easily.
The whole book rests on one single assumption. You can have literally whatever you want provided that you attract it with your thoughts (by asking the “universe” for it) and you then behave as if that thing has already been granted to you. Thoughts, apparently, have some sort of magnetic quality. If you think about something it will come to you. But that includes bad things as well as good things. If you have money troubles and you think about debt all the time then you will attract more debt. If you want to have a happy life then you need to be happy. Think happy thoughts. Always be grateful. Love yourself. And then – the whole world is your shopping catalogue! Having explained the “secret” – hardly a theory of Kantian intricacy – the theory is then applied to certain aspects of life – money, relationships, health and so on.
The book is very short – under 200 pages. It is written is a style of patronizing simplicity. It is one of those books which although ostensibly written for adults is couched in terms presumably intended to appeal to our “inner child”. This is highly characteristic of many American “therapy” books. Just consider the titles of some books about the now unfashionable “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” (or NLP, for short). Here are some of them: Frogs into Princes; A Handbook of Magic; Language Patterns Wizardry; Magic of NLP; The Sourcebook of Magic – and so on and so forth. The Secret is similar to the above in that everything is rendered simplistic. Everything works always and all the time, everything is miraculous without exception, realistic context is excluded and counter arguments are banished entirely. To consider a counter-argument would, presumably, mean thinking negatively. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?
Because the book says only one thing and repeats it on virtually every page I found it intolerably boring and incredibly difficult to finish. It took a real effort to stay with it to the last page. What made the “journey” even more irritating were the constant interpolations from “teachers”, “experts” and “inspirational figures” whom I’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. One of the most irritating of these is a certain “Dr” Joe Vitale. I put his title in quotation marks as his “doctorate” is in something called “metaphysical science”, which is not an academic discipline recognized by Ivy League or Russell Group universities – or any other respectable academic establishments which lay claim to the title of “University”. There are numerous interpolations from this “academic” in this book and each is prefaced by his name and title – always a bad sign in my experience. As the holder of a PhD from a major British university I don’t take kindly to people who hijack the title of Doctor, even if they do so legally. The title is thereby devalued. But, then, I suppose that “Dr” Vitale attracted the title by just thinking about the qualification and having a high opinion of himself.
This book, then, consists of little more than stories or anecdotes of how certain people used the “secret” in various contexts for various ends and always with 100% success. Some of these stories and illustrations are of quite staggering banality. On p 88 we read the touching story of Colin. Colin was a ten-year-old boy whose family took him to Disneyland for a week (!). Colin didn’t like the queues at Disneyland. Lying in bed on the first evening he imagined being able to board all the rides without queuing. And – guess what? The very next day he was given a VIP pass to avoid all the queues. Hey presto. What a profound testimony to the power of the human mind. Pass the sick-bag, someone.
At least such stories as the above are harmless. This one isn’t. On p 59, the author tells us how she overcame the delusion that food was responsible for weight gain. Thinking “fat” thoughts is responsible for weight gain, not food. Here, then, is the author’s three-step weight loss plan. Step One: decide what weight you want to be. Step Two: attract that perfect weight to you by admiring clothes which fit a person of that weight and by praising people who are that weight. Think about that weight and size all the time. Step Three: Behave as if you are already at your target weight. Feel good about yourself and praise every inch of your body. That’s all there is to it. And, because thoughts and not food are responsible for weight gain you can presumably follow this simple three-step plan while stuffing your gizzards with every bit of chocolate you can lay your hands on. Hey presto. (When this fails, maybe come to me for some hypnotherapy for weight loss and we can start to make changes to your diet).
Hang on a minute. Anorexics think they’re fat, don’t they? They are constantly thinking fat thoughts. And yet they starve to death. Oh, there I go again, thinking negative thoughts…
The most intolerable of all these mendacious anecdotes comes on p 219. Poor Norman has an incurable disease. (The text says “incurable” not “fatal” but the implication is surely clear enough). But Norman knows the “secret” so he doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself. Not Norman! Instead, he has gets hold of a lot of funny films and has a jolly good laugh. And – guess what? Yep – he’s cured! So, if you’re in the latter stages of incurable terminal cancer all you need to do is to crack open the Bob Hope films and laugh your way to full recovery. Hey presto.
If, dear reader, you have read this far and are as angry as I am that such harmful, delusional and deceitful twaddle was ever allowed into print, then consider the implications of all this and be prepared to feel angrier. If money, health, happiness, success, and so on, are all due to our way of thinking, if these are things which we attract to ourselves through our own thought processes, by being lovable, bouncy, bubbly, smiling all the time, giggling with glee at all the glitz and glitter of the world and carefully avoiding such negative stuff as news of disasters, war casualties, famine and negative stuff like that – if this is the case, then what about the opposite side of the coin? Even “Dr” Joe Vitale cannot deny that there is pain, disease, poverty and suffering in the world but this must be due simply to the way that these suffering people think. If all those people who are starving to death in the Third World would simply lighten up, stop thinking about the agony of their slow starvation and attract a McDonalds or two to themselves then their poverty would be over. Hey presto. If children who are enduring the harrowing agonies of wars which they didn’t start and don’t understand would just stop cowering in basements as rockets fly overhead and get over the fact that Mummy and Daddy have been reduced to pulp, then everything would be fine. It would be Christmas every day. All they need to do is to leap out from wherever they are sheltering, ignore the silly old bullets, land mines and warlords who want to shoot them in the head, and just skip around imagining week long trips to Disneyland. And then – who knows? Maybe they will get a VIP pass, just like Colin. Hey presto.
Here, then, is the rub. If the “secret” is true, if the world around us is merely the product of your own thoughts and feelings, if everything which happens to us has been “attracted” to us by our own thoughts, then we have no one to blame for our misery, suffering and illness but ourselves. The happy and successful need to insulate themselves from such self-harmers as victims of war, famine, poverty and disease. Those wealthy, happy people deserve their millions and their property and all their possessions. Those who haven’t got those things have only themselves to blame. Why should rich (and therefore “good”) people bail them out by paying higher taxes for welfare safety nets, schools and hospitals and so on? They don’t deserve help because they brought it all on themselves.
The Secret is a neo-conservative, wish-fulfilment wet dream. It is one of the most pernicious books I have ever read.
There is a baby languishing in this foul and reeking bathwater. Let us fish it out and pour some disinfectant over it.
Positive thinking is beneficial and self-love is key to a life of happiness. And by “self-love” I don’t mean the toxic near-narcissism of Bob Proctor, on p 121 of the book, who tells us that he loves himself so much that he wants to kiss himself. Ugh! No – I mean loving yourself as you would love those nearest and dearest to you. Looking after yourself, treating yourself with respect, making the most of what you can do and accepting what you can’t – that is self-love, properly understood. And it is my belief that once it truly takes hold it transforms your view of the world. The world is no longer one great big shopping mall. Happiness does not consist in what you are able to buy. The sight of a sunbeam pouring through bare autumn twigs can seem more valuable than any luxury high-definition home cinema, a few lines of Shelley infinitely more pleasurable than the latest loud Hollywood blockbuster which cost millions but which will be forgotten in a decade. But most importantly, it is an attitude which spills over into our relationships with others. To truly love yourself is to see yourself as part of something infinitely greater but something which is not there to gratify your every whim. It takes you away from the shopping mall mentality and places you somewhere quieter and more humane.