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"The Secret": New Agey Mind Cure Still Pretending "Positive Thinking" Will Solve Everything

Yes, a positive attitude is important, but it is not going to protect you from actual evil.
 
 
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“I must begin each day with a positive thought,” an acquaintance of mine explained, eyes wide. We were sitting in a café over breakfast on a bright autumn morning. “We naturally wake up in sunlight, don’t we? It’s important that the first shimmer of awareness is constructive. Create optimism in your mind and life will go well.” She was quite evangelical.

And she was a convert. She has bought—and bought into—Rhonda Byrne’s latest smash hit, The Power. This book is the follow-up to The Secret, a small, glossy tome that has sold by the wagon-load all over the world. It’s been translated into 46 languages. In The Secret, Byrne ‘revealed’ the law of attraction. Now read The Power, she urges, and you’ll be, well, more empowered.

I was tempted to mock. Surely the second book is just cashing in on the first, in a cynical way demonstrating the law of attraction, which might be partially summarized as ‘success breeds success’? But I stopped myself. For both books are only articulating, if in a simplistic form, an approach to living that has ancient roots. Which is not to say it’s right.

The law of attraction is likened to magnetism. “Everything in the universe is magnetic and everything has a magnetic frequency,” Byrne explains in The Power. Thoughts and feelings have magnetic frequencies too. Hence, what you feel sets your frequency, and so what you will magnetically attract—be that money or poverty, health or illness, good relationships or disasters, and so on.

She describes a methodology. First, imagine yourself having it. Second, feel yourself with it. Third, receive it—for by then the magnetic force of the cosmos will be working through you. If you don’t receive it, that must be because you messed up steps one and two.

Take money. “If you don’t have enough money, naturally you don’t feel good,” Byrne says. But you won’t have money if you keep feeling that way; you’ll only attract more bills and expenses. So feel easy, at peace, and relaxed about money: “that feeling is magnetically sticky.” And that means cash will stick to you too. “One man wrote a check for $100 to a charity,” she cites in a brief case study. “Within ten hours he’d closed his biggest sale.”

Alongside such ‘evidence,’ pseudo-science is rallied to the cause too. For example, Byrne latches onto the ‘tipping point’ phenomenon, interpreting it to mean that if 51% of your thoughts are positive, you’ll attract more and more in an exponential curve—what people colloquially refer to as a lucky streak. There are nods to quantum physics and Werner Heisenberg’s description of the universe as a sea of ‘potentialities.’ No notice, of course, is taken of the massive destructiveness of the quantum world, which is the source of energy for nuclear weapons, and which Heisenberg was also referring to.

Ancient Attitude

Yet Byrne is writing in a tradition that can claim, in part, a long and serious pedigree. In particular, ancient Greek Stoicism bears comparison. Stoicism’s founder was Zeno of Citium, and the story goes that he was shipwrecked off the coast of Athens while delivering a load of porphyry. Zeno loathed the life of the merchant. Ever since his father had started bringing home copies of Plato’s dialogues, he’d longed to make his way to philosophy’s capital city. Now, he had his chance.

Once on land, he abandoned the ship, and made straight for a bookseller. The first book he picked up was a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a memoir of Socrates written by one of his first followers. Zeno turned to Book Two, in which Socrates discusses how a child should be educated. The sage voices a complaint: children are taught all kinds of things, he notes, but not basic skills like how to withstand pain or nurture happiness. Training in such matters would be useful, Socrates observes. And Zeno agreed.

He focused particularly on how the mental judgements we make in response to the things that happen to us can overwhelm us. For example, a day might be ruined by a trivial disappointment. The good Stoic, though, learns not to let that get him down and, in general, to react well to any eventuality. (Not getting a good deal on your cabbages at the market is one situation discussed; Zeno’s philosophy came to be called Stoicism because he taught in the Stoa, an everyday place of shops, and therefore an excellent place to practice this attitudinal philosophy.)

The Stoics backed up their practical concerns with a complete metaphysics. The cosmos, they believed, was run through and through with a benign force called the logos. Life goes well when we align our thoughts with this all-pervasive current. It sounds like the law of attraction.

Expect Nothing

However, there are critical differences between Stoicism and The Power, for the ancients were wise to life’s tragedies too. Some things do, apparently, go badly. (They could hardly think otherwise, living during that long period of history in which death was associated with the young, not the old.) So, their instruction was to ‘go with the flow’ even when that is hard to stomach. Theirs is not a relentless optimism, expecting everything, like Byrne’s. Rather, the Stoics advocated expecting nothing, but working at everything. Be lightened by life’s absurdities too, they recommended. That way you won’t be disappointed when you don’t, apparently, make progress. You’ll be able to maintain your trust in the logos.

But isn’t there a bigger charge to make against these “mind-cures,” as William James called them more than a century ago? (Books like The Power were bestsellers in Victorian times too.) He reasoned that they succeed ‘in ignoring evil’s very existence.’ Evil is a big thing to ignore, so I have to say that I agree with him. It points to something flawed in the human condition. We have what James called ‘sick souls.’ Do we not do what we wouldn’t do, and don’t do what we would do, as Saint Paul observed?

James opposed mind-cures to what he called ‘twice-born’ religions and philosophies, which teach that life in all its fullness only comes when we’re somehow born again into a state more perfect than this one. In ancient Greek tragedy, only a hero who dies well is reborn in the stars. In Indian philosophy, the karmic echoes of this life are worked out in the next and the next and the next. And in Christianity, it is only those who lose their life who will find it: die daily to yourself, and redemption will come.

The Power, though, and The Secret, need no such savior or sacrifice. It’s certainly an easier sell.

Mark Vernon is a writer and journalist whose books include After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living (Oneworld, 2010).
 
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