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Psst: 'The Secret' isn't total bunk

Despite the silly 'science' and fake experts on the hit DVD, some of The Secret's advice actually helped me.
By Fred Small
11.19.07

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After three minutes of watching The Secret, the fabulously popular DVD, I almost turned it off.

Torch-bearing Roman soldiers, a medieval knight clutching a cryptex, a bewigged scholar in wide-eyed amazement, sinister corporate barons, ominous music overdubbed with synthesized chanting monks and muffled whispers: It might have been outtakes from The Da Vinci Code.

Rather than leaders of recognized educational, scientific, or religious institutions, the talking heads came with dubious credentials like “Philosopher,” “Entrepreneur,” “Author and Law of Attraction Specialist,” and my favorite, “Dr. Joe Vitale Msc.D., Metaphysician.” A little poking around on the Internet reveals that Msc.D. stands for “Doctor of Metaphysical Science,” a degree offered exclusively online by the (nonphysical) University of Metaphysics, and that Vitale also goes by the professional name “Mr. Fire!” (his exclamation point).

Most disappointing was the apparent message: Success means wealth; more is more; don’t be a loser; get rich quick with The Secret. You want a jeweled pendant, a fancy car, a big paycheck, a huge mansion in California? Learn The Secret, and they’re yours.

“Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money . . . being earned?” asked Bob Proctor, “Philosopher.” Hmm, I wondered. Unequal opportunity? Inherited wealth? Tax favoritism? Nope. “They understand The Secret, and now you are being introduced to The Secret.”

It was nearly unwatchable.

And yet . . .

A trusted member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as minister recommended the DVD, and she’s not alone. Two million people have purchased it so far, while the book version has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past 43 weeks. Earlier this year, Time magazine named The Secret’s author Rhonda Byrne one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. (Neither George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, nor Kim Jong-il made the list.) The Secret has been canonized on Oprah! and satirized on Saturday Night Live. It has ascended beyond success into the ether of phenomenon.

So I was not easily to be discouraged.

Every time I reached for the “Eject” button, something drew me back—a snippet of common sense, a sudden insight, an expert with credentials beyond bravado and a big smile.

Okay. What is The Secret?

The Secret is the Law of Attraction: “Thoughts become things.”

“Everything that’s coming into your life,” Proctor explains, “you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind.”

To dramatize the point, the DVD conjures a genie out of The Arabian Nights by way of Hollywood, who intones, “Your wish is my command.”

The Secret demands three simple steps: 1) Ask. 2) Believe. 3) Receive. (The requirement of belief, of course, suggests that if you don’t receive, you didn’t believe enough, which lets The Secret off the hook.) According to Bob Doyle, “Action will sometimes be required, but if you’re really doing it in line with what the Universe is trying to bring to you, it’s going to feel joyous.”

“It’s like having the Universe as your catalog,” explains Vitale. “You flip through it and say, ‘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.”

As this catalog image suggests, The Secret’s initial emphasis is on material possessions—or, as Dr. Vitale, Metaphysician, so elegantly puts it, “the green stuff.” A man plagued by debt visualizes checks in the mail, and within a month they arrive in his mailbox. A recommended affirmation is “I love money and it loves me.”

But The Secret extends to health, relationships, social change, even theology.

Rhonda Byrne has caught a lot of flak for her discussion of food and fat. “[I]f someone is overweight,” she writes, “it came from thinking ‘fat thoughts.’ . . . Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight.” To attain your perfect weight, she advises, “look for, admire, and inwardly praise people with your idea of perfect-weight bodies. . . . If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.”

If we say our thoughts determine our reality, is that personal empowerment, blaming the victim—or both?

When bad things happen to good people—even when masses are slaughtered—“by the Law of Attraction,” Byrne insists, “the frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event. . . . Thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Is she saying the thousands who died on 9/11 or the millions in the Holocaust were all thinking negative thoughts?

On the DVD, a gay man struggling with harassment at work and on the street focuses his mind on what he wants rather than on what he fears, and the harassment stops. Obviously, our self-confidence influences our relationships—but what about homophobia and culturally sanctioned gay-bashing?

But just when I was ready to dismiss The Secret as magical narcissism, it turned its attention to social activism. Lisa Nichols, co-author of Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul, observed, “In our society, we’ve become content with fighting against things. Fighting against cancer, fighting against poverty, fighting against war, fighting against drugs, fighting against terrorism, fighting against violence. We . . . fight everything we don’t want, which actually creates more of a fight. . . . How much sense does it make for us to give the particular problem all of the energy, as opposed to focusing on trust, love, living in abundance, education, or peace? . . . [D]on’t spend your energy faulting or complaining. Embrace everything that you want so you can get more of it.”

Nichols brought me up short. I’m an activist. My despair is exquisitely informed, my brain an encyclopedia of how bad everything is. My mental movie house runs continuous showings of bombings in Baghdad, abuse at Guantánamo, genocide in Darfur, deforestation in the Amazon, asthma in Roxbury. So I protest and denounce, and the world keeps going to hell pretty much as I expected.

The Secret reminded me that to dwell constantly in the negative is its own kind of hell—a hell of my own choosing. I don’t want to deny or flee the negative, but I need not build my house on its sinkhole. How effective an activist for change can I be when my thinking and speaking are infused with hopelessness? How much time and energy in all areas of my life do I devote to criticizing what is, rather than creating what could be?

So—I gave The Secret a try.


The DVD insert invited me to make a list of what I want in life, introducing each desire with the phrase “I am so happy and grateful now that . . .”—to bring the desired future into present consciousness. It told me to read the list every day. So I did.

“I’m so happy and grateful now that I dwell in peace, joy, and possibility,” I began. “I’m so happy and grateful now that I have ample time for what’s important . . . now that people around the world are caring for the earth and each other.”

It turned into a long list, from the personal (“I’m so happy and grateful now that I weigh between 170 and 175 pounds”) to the political (“now that the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue is a huge success”) to the mystical (“now that I am one with God”). I review it at least once a day.

And I have to tell you, I feel better. My step is a little lighter, my gaze a little higher. I’m dwelling more in peace, joy, and possibility than in violence, pain, and negativity. I have no more time, but less anxiety. As an advocate, I take care to lay out a positive vision of where we’re going, not just a litany of the daunting challenges we face. I don’t know if people around the world are caring any more for the earth and each other, but I’m more likely to notice when they do. And the Interfaith Walk, which brought public attention to the dangers of climate change back in March, was a huge success.

For weeks, I maintained my target weight of 170 to 175 pounds. Then came Easter and my wife Julie’s birthday, and I gained weight. I don’t think it was “fat thoughts”—I think it was the calories.

As my chiropractor was attempting a difficult adjustment, I thought, “I’m so happy and grateful now that my body is healthy and strong.” As it happened, he made the adjustment just as I was thinking the word “healthy.” “Wow!” he said. “That was easy.”

Of course, the mind-body connection is no secret, let alone The Secret. It’s a long stretch from visualizing health to manifesting checks in the mail, from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to creating our own reality.

The science of The Secret is vague, undocumented, sometimes just silly. “You are an energy magnet,” Byrne declares, “so you electrically energize everything to you and electrically energize yourself to everything you want.”

Still, when James Ray calls a human being “an energy field, operating in a larger energy field,” that’s consistent with my reading of the new physics. When John Hagelin, (who is actually a physicist) says, “the Universe essentially emerges from thought and all of this matter around us is just precipitated thought,” he echoes astrophysicist James Jeans’s observation that “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” When John Assaraf says, “Everything in the Universe is connected. It is just one energy field,” he’s restating the Seventh Principle of Unitarian Universalism. When Rhonda Byrne writes, “You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You,” she is expressing the perennial philosophy.

The idea that matter springs from consciousness rather than vice versa goes back to the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Hebrew Book of Genesis, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Call it fatuous if you will, but you can’t call it flaky. And when physicists are not just speculating but postulating dark energy and multiple invisible dimensions, I’m not prepared to rule it out.


But as a Unitarian Universalist who married into the Emerson family, I have to defend the integrity of my wife’s distant cousin, Ralph Waldo.

The Secret quotes Emerson several times. For instance: “The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be.” When I searched the complete works of Emerson online, however, I found nothing of the sort. When I queried the Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute, I was informed that none of the quotations The Secret attributes to Emerson is his.

Now, Rhonda Byrne is free to create her own reality. But putting words in the mouths of the dead—that ain’t right.

But there I go again—being critical and negative! Old habits . . .

The truth is I am happy and grateful I found The Secret. For all its flaws, it has made a positive difference in my life and I suspect in the lives of countless others.

“There is no greater power in the Universe than the power of love,” says The Secret. “The feeling of love is the highest frequency you can emit. If you could wrap every thought in love, if you could love everything and everyone, your life would be transformed.” That’s a view I wholeheartedly endorse.


Adapted from a sermon preached at the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Massachusetts, May 13, 2007. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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