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The Secret Behind The Secret

What is Attracting Millions
to the Law of Attraction?
by Ingrid Hansen Smythe

PSST! HAVE YOU HEARD THE SECRET? If not, the first thing you need to
know is that The Secret isn’t a secret, and this in itself should set your
skeptical alarm bells ringing, since whenever the very name of a thing is a
contradiction of the thing itself, it is easy to imagine that the bridge up ahead
may be washed out.
The Secret is a simple New-Age notion that is the subject of a recent and
wildly successful book by Rhonda Byrne and DVD by Rhonda Byrne of Prime
Time Productions. The secret is “The Law of Attraction” that asserts what you
think creates what you feel, and these feelings flow from your body as
magnetic energy waves over vast distances, which then cause the universe
around you to vibrate at the same energy level as your feelings. If your feelings
are negative, negative experiences will inevitably flow right back, positive
feelings elicit positive experiences. Like attracts like. “Thoughts are sending
out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. It always
works; it works every time, with every person.”1 Thus there is no such thing as
accident or coincidence; it is you, the individual, who brings misery on
yourself because of your toxic thinking. But the good news, Eeyore, is this: if
you can only alter your thoughts, and therefore your feelings, you can actually
cause the universe around you to vibrate at a positive energy level and the
desires of your heart will come to be realized! All you have to do is Ask —
Believe — Receive.2 You just have to visualize what you want, feel good about
it, and then ask the universe (and ask once only, oh ye of little faith) — and
whatever you can imagine can be yours. “This is like having the universe as
your catalogue and you flip through it and go, ‘Well I’d like to have this
experience and I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like
that’ … It is you just placing your order with the universe. It’s really that easy
… [Just] start to have different beliefs like there is more than enough in the
universe, everything goes right for me … have the belief ‘I’m not getting older,
I’m getting younger.’ We can create it the way we want it.”3
This is excellent news indeed for those of us who previously thought that
something like aging was not optional. There are 100 assertions that constitute
the backbone of The Law of Attraction,4 including:

• Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting.
• Thought = creation. If these thoughts are attached to powerful emotions
(good or bad) that speeds the creation.
• Those who speak most of illness have illness, those who speak most of
prosperity have it, etc.
• It’s OK that thoughts don’t manifest into reality immediately (if we saw
a picture of an elephant and it instantly appeared, that would be too
soon).
• Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.
• You get exactly what you are feeling.
• What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always
a match — no exception.
• You don’t need to know how the universe is going to rearrange itself.
• How long??? No rules on time; the more aligned you are with positive
feelings the quicker things happen.
• Size is nothing to the universe (unlimited abundance if that’s what you
wish). We make the rules on size and time.
• If you turn it over to the universe, you will be surprised and dazzled by
what is delivered. This is where magic and miracles happen.
• The Hows are the domain of the universe. It always knows the quickest,
fastest, most harmonious way between you and your dream.
• Our job is not to worry about the “How”. The “How” will show up out of
the commitment and belief in the “what”.
• We are mass energy. Everything is energy. Everything.
• An affirmative thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative one.5
One needn’t quarrel with the psychology behind some of The Secret’s
hysterically cheery rah-rah motivational coaching. For instance, their “Don’t
Be A Negative Sourpuss” philosophy has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral
Therapy, a psychological approach to altering maladaptive, unrealistic, and
negative thoughts in an effort to change feelings and, as a result, behavior. It is
hardly revolutionary to claim that attitude and negative feeling-states can have
an impact on goal attainment. Who among us has not had the experience of
trying to accomplish some task, only to fall prey to our Inner Idiot who keeps
telling us, “You’ll never learn this,” or “You’re an impostor,” or “You hate this,”
and these irrelevant messages lead to avoidance of the task, depression, and
the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help rid
the individual of unhelpful self-talk, and this inevitably leads to more
successful living — no supernatural intervention required.
Imagining that we are like magnets is not an especially harmful mental
exercise in metaphorical thinking, but when metaphor slips into metaphysics,
problems with The Secret become glaringly apparent. The Secret relies heavily
on fuzzy thinking, and nowhere is this fuzziness demonstrated better than by
the fact that The Secret is actually proposing two completely different systems
for achieving one’s goals and then blurring the line between those systems —
in effect, selling the system that works on the back of the one that doesn’t. On
the one hand, we are told that all that is required to get what we desire is to
ask, believe, and receive. For example: A little boy wants a bike, he believes he
will get a bike, he gets a bike (as dramatized in The Secret DVD). On the other
hand, we are told that we can’t merely ask, believe, receive. “A lot of people
watch The Secret and they say, ‘Well, I’m sitting around visualizing my
millions coming into my lap.’ Well, they’ll come take your furniture away. And
then how are you going to visualize [when you’re living] on the curb? You’ve
got to act on it.”6 So, a little boy wants a bike, he gets a paper route to earn
money to get a bike, he gets a bike. In the first scenario, the supernatural is
required. In the second scenario, a paper-route is required. The second
scenario is the one that most of us recognize as the only one that will actually
work, in which a person has an “idea,” then acts on that idea, and then gets the
desired results. The second system renders irrelevant the first system.
The testimonial of the editor of the Chicken Soup for the Soulbooks, Jack
Canfield, provides an excellent example of the first system (ask-believe-
receive) getting the credit for the second system (idea-action-results). He tells
us that he visualized earning $100,000 (even writing the desired amount on a
bill worth far less and tacking it to the ceiling above his bed) and focused his
mental energy only on the goal of attaining the money. He tells us that he had
absolutely no idea how he was going to get the money — he simply focused on
believing that he would get the money, somehow. But how? For four weeks he
had no breakthrough ideas but then, one day in the shower, he remembered
that he had written a book and, if it was published (particularly if he sold
400,000 copies and he made a quarter on each) he just might achieve his
financial goals. Of course the book was published, and the results were only a
few thousand dollars shy of 100,000 dollars.7
Mr. Canfield attributes his success to knowing and applying the principles
of The Secret — he literally attracted 100,000 dollars through good feelings,
positive energy, and the power of visualization. Is it possible, however, that
this is a misattribution, and that the actual reason for his success is that he
suddenly remembered that he had written a book, got it published, and
subsequently earned money from it? You know, the way all other authors do it.
The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy
would appear to be working overtime in the minds of enthusiastic Secreteers.
“It happened because I wished for it,” the Secreteer would say, instead of the
more obvious explanation, “It happened because I worked for it.”8
Perhaps the believer in The Law of Attraction imagines that to use both
systems in conjunction is more powerful than using just the one. It seems to
me that this is like a woman using some form of birth control and then lying
back and affirming “I will not get pregnant! I will not get pregnant!” It seems
obvious that it is the birth control, and not the positive thinking, that is getting
the job done. Certainly affirmations alone do nothing to prevent pregnancy —
any woman who believes otherwise is undoubtedly a mother. The Secreteers
seem to think that positive affirmations and happy feelings affect the
probability of an occurrence, but it would seem that the only odds that are
being improved in the above example are the odds of having a pretty lousy
time.
Other lines are also expertly blurred by the editors of The Secret DVD. For
example, we are shown a man visualizing himself attracting a car and — no
surprises here — magically getting the car. But here an objection arises — if
everybody knows The Secret, won’t there be a mad dash for all the good stuff
and no one will get anything? Not to worry. Not everyone wants the same
things, we are told — and here there is a visual of an Indian snake charmer,
followed by a little Chinese woman in a boat with a bunch of domestic fowl.
Apparently, the Indian man and the Chinese woman don’t want a car. (“We
don’t all want BMWs,” we are told, and this is undoubtedly correct.9 Some
people want Hummers.) “The truth is there’s more than enough good to go
around. There’s more than enough creative ideas, there’s more than enough
power, there’s more than enough love, there’s more than enough joy.”10 So in
one breath we’re talking about attracting a car — with the next breath we’re
suddenly talking about attracting love and joy and other emotions sans wheels
or an engine. Add to the above the following quote: “Wise people have always
known this … Why do you think that 1% of the population earns around 96%
of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s no
accident. It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand
The Secret.”11 Ah, there it is then. It is the wise people who have the money
and the BMWs. Are we to conclude that the Indian man and the Chinese
woman are fools? The deeply offensive racial overtones are hard to ignore, as
are the sexist slurs — for instance, during the delivery of the above quotation,
the visual is of a boardroom full of white, cigar-smoking male executives.
Evidently social inequality and injustice, a lack of resources, several thousand
years of patriarchy, oppression and inequality between the sexes — all the
usual explanations as to why people don’t have money are incorrect. Social
factors are irrelevant in a world where “You are the only one who creates your
reality. It is only you; every bit of it you.”12
What about the scientific claims upon which The Law of Attraction is
based? Such as: Our thoughts are magnetic and travel as energy and vibration
for vast distances. “It has been proven scientifically that an affirmative thought
is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.”13 “It is no more
difficult to attract on a scientific level something that we consider huge to
something we consider infinitesimally small.”14 “Our physiology creates
disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective
and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.”15 “Even under a microscope
you’re an energy field.”16 “You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate
a whole city for nearly a week.”17 These are extraordinary claims that surely
require extraordinary evidence, which The Secreteers do by using the word
“science” over and over, as if merely saying the word is the same as doing it —
as if feeling good about science will attract more science into your life.
“Quantum physics really begins to point to [The Secret],” says a proponent
of The Law of Attraction. “It says that you can’t have universe without mind
entering into it. The mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being
perceived.”18 Here, then, we have an authority on the subject telling us that our
minds create reality. First, however, it seems obvious that a universe without
sentient minds perceiving it is entirely possible, given that this was the story
on Earth for the first 13 billion years. Second, it would seem that this
particular proponent of The Law of Attraction is using an understanding of
quantum physics based more on the questions that Schrödinger was trying to
answer, rather than on the answers themselves. Does the mind of the observer
truly shape reality as claimed? After all it is true that, at the quantum level, a
scientist has great difficulty recording and measuring particles and their
interactions without changing the results of the investigation. Is this because
the scientist’s mind is influencing the experiment? Is it because the scientist
perceived the experiment and, as a result of perceiving, changed the results?
No. The answer is far more mundane. To put it in crudely simplistic terms, as
soon as the scientist switches on the light to see what’s going on, other
particles, like photons, get in the way. It is the photons that are responsible for
messing up the results, not the thoughts of the experimenter.19 This
explanation has the obvious disadvantage of being extremely boring and must
be ruled out on the basis that it doesn’t support the “create your own reality”
claim.
Besides scientific gibberish, The Secret DVD props up faltering dogma by
relying on charismatic representatives and a lot of smooth talk, which is so
expert and cleverly edited it is easy to miss the false premises, tautologies, red
herrings, straw men, non sequiturs, and other varieties of fuzzy thinking.
However, even if The Law of Attraction was logically consistent and
scientifically sound, the moral implications of a Law such as this are alarming.
Interestingly, some of the difficulties with The Law of Attraction are similar to
those encountered by believers in The Law of Karma, and comparing and
contrasting the two yields some curious insights.20
It is the business of both laws to explain why good and evil befall us, and
both laws come to the conclusion that the fault is exclusively ours. In neither
system can there be accident or coincidence — we are all at all times getting
exactly what we deserve, and what we have attracted.21 The Law of Attraction
seems particularly suited to the modern temperament though, given that with
karma, you might have to wait a thousand lifetimes to get the good things you
deserve, whereas with The Law of Attraction everything is possible in this
lifetime. No waiting! Better service! The Law of Attraction might be said to be
the lazy person’s karma, since karma is based on doing, whereas the Law of
Attraction is based on feeling. This is also handy for the modern American,
who is quite busy enough as it is. In addition, karma is concerned exclusively
with morality (specifically good and evil deeds), but The Law of Attraction is
concerned only with positive feeling vibrations, which needn’t necessarily be
connected to pesky morality at all.22
When dealing with instances of extraordinary evil, however, both The Law
of Karma and The Law of Attraction break down rather spectacularly. Imagine
a particularly hideous situation — a healthy young girl is raped and tortured,
hacked to pieces, her remains stuffed into a plastic bag and thrown in the
trash. What the believer in karma is forced to admit, as morally repugnant as it
may be, is that this girl deserved what happened to her. There is no innocent
suffering in a universe where we all, at all times, are getting what we deserve.
The believer in karma must also conclude that this event is in some sense good
because this girl rid herself of an enormous amount of bad karma and is bound
to come back to a glorious life next time around. Likewise, a philosophy that
claims we are always getting what we ask for, and that nothing is accidental,
must also believe that this girl in some sense deserved what happened to her
because she attracted this evil to her. (Remember the law: “Everything in your
life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.”) One might protest that a
young girl has not yet developed the “magnetic powers” to attract anything to
her — but one must then ask at what age do these powers develop, and does it
really make the situation any less tragic? If a 12-year-old boy can attract a
shiny new bike, can a 12-year-old girl attract a rapist and killer? It would seem
the answer is yes, since there are 12-year-old girls who come to such a brutal
demise. Perhaps, though, 12 is too young to attract such powerful evil; is it
really better, though, if we imagine the rape, dismembering, and plastic-bag-
stuffing of a 25-year-old woman? A 35-year-old mother of three? A
grandmother? Can we really feel comfortable ever saying that people attract
fatal accidents, illness, trauma, and death?
It gets worse, for what can the believer in karma or The Law of Attraction
possibly say about an event such as the Holocaust? Again, the believer in
karma is forced to say that each and every individual got what he or she
deserved and that karmic justice was served. “Whatever one deserves … he
deserves by virtue of his actions and he gets all that he deserves and only that
which he deserves. Nothing which accrues to a doer on account of his actions
is ever lost and nothing accrues to him on account of anything other than his
actions.”23 What about those who hold the belief that, through your feeling-
state, you attract either positive or negative events? Here is a little
visualization for the believer in the Law of Attraction: Imagine looking each of
those six million Jews in the eye and telling every one of them that due to the
negative feeling-states they were each projecting, they were all, in effect,
asking for it. They got what was coming to them because, “What you think and
what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match — no exception.”
The Secreteers say that “There is no such thing as coincidence… Everything
happens by principles and laws in our universe.”24 How can this be true in the
face of such evil? Does The Law of Attraction simply not apply in some cases?
Why not? Why does the believer in this alleged “law” jump to credit The Law
of Attraction for a little boy magically receiving a bike from the universe, or for
a motivational speaker landing a spot on the Oprah show, but fail to mention
dead girls stuffed into plastic bags or six million Jews butchered in
concentration camps? Is The Law of Attraction really a law at all? The Secret’s
proponents want to claim for it the unchanging status of a physical law of the
universe. “Just as there is a law of gravity — if you fall off a building it doesn’t
matter whether you’re a good person or a bad person you’re gonna hit the
ground.”25 Thus, if the Law of Attraction is also a physical law, it cannot be
suspended to allow for events such as the Holocaust. Pity the believer in The
Law of Attraction, therefore, who is in the unenviable position of having both
to congratulate a little boy on attracting a bike, and also explain to all those
other unfortunates that, due to their negative feelings, they attracted an
airplane piloted by terrorists, a tsunami, muscular sclerosis, cancer, genocide.
Given the moral defects, the lack of scientific backing, and the various
philosophical shortcomings, how is it that a significant number of people still
believe there’s something to The Law of Attraction? Part of the reason must
certainly be the powerful testimonials coming from celebrity figures such as
Oprah Winfrey, a woman who attributes her success to her mighty powers of
attraction, and not to the stupefyingly enormous Oprah industry which she,
and many thousands of others have worked so hard to put in place.
One might conclude, Well so what? What harm is there in believing in
things that are not literally true as long as the desired result is achieved? The
harm is great, I think, and no one has given voice to these concerns better than
W.K. Clifford in his essay The Ethics of Belief:
The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things,
though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose
the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back
into savagery… It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet
illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my
neighbors ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the
cheat.26

The Law of Attraction cannot admit doubt or skepticism. If one begins to
doubt the power, or even to harbor negative thoughts in one’s unconscious
mind, one is assuredly on the road to ruin.27 The Law of Attraction requires
uncritical acceptance of, and unwavering belief in, a doctrine that has been
revealed by alleged authorities, which is interpreted literally, not
metaphorically, and is at the extreme end of credulity. It is just another kind of
magical thinking and, worse, another brand of fundamentalism.

Resources & notes

1. Joe Vitale and Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD, 2006.
2. Rhonda Byrne, speaking on the Oprah show, 8 February, 2007.
3. Joe Vitale, The Secret DVD, 2006.
4. Assertion: a positive statement, usually made without an attempt to
furnish evidence. (Collins English Dictionary, p. 89)
5. These assertions are listed at www.universallawstoday.com, but they
have been reproduced on dozens of other websites.
6. James Arthur Ray, The Oprah show, 8 February 2007.
7. Jack Canfield, The Secret DVD.
8. In another instance, an advocate of The Law tells us that he posted a
picture of his dream home on what he calls his “vision board”, forgot
about it, found the vision board five years later, and was astounded to
discover that the home he was currently living in matched the one he
had visualized. This does sound amazing, except that he also tells us that
he spent an entire year renovating the house that is currently his dream
home. The question, therefore, is this: is he living in his dream home
because he wished it, or because he renovated it?
9. Joe Vitale, The Secret DVD.
10. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.
11. Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD.
12. Esther Hicks, The Secret DVD. Imagine the fellow in the DVD who
claims that “Wealth is a mindset,” speaking to an open-air audience in
Calcutta or Bangladesh or Rwanda. What would the reaction of the
crowd be to this message? The image that instantly leaps to my mind is
of an angry mob running down a man in an Armani suit as he sprints to
the safety of his private jet.
13. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD. “Powerful in what way?” one wants
to ask. If I affirm, for example, that there is an elephant in my garden
shed, by affirming it have I increased the likelihood of its existence there
by 100?
14. Mike Dooley, The Secret DVD.
15. John F. Demartini, The Secret DVD. If disease exists to teach us to be
more loving and grateful, one has to wonder why even dinosaurs got
bone cancer.
16. James Arthur Ray, The Secret DVD. A claim such as this suggests that
Mr. Ray has never actually looked through a microscope. If he had, he
would have seen matter, not energy. The Secreteers are fond of saying
that everything is energy, and back this up with the equation E=MC2.
Equivalence, however, is not the same as identity. (No one would
confuse wood with heat, or gasoline with flames, or cars with motion.
Another example: ice and water can be converted each into the other;
nevertheless, although you can walk on the former, no number of
positive affirmations will enable you to walk on the latter.) What
Einstein’s equation shows is simply that one can be transmuted into the
other under extreme conditions, such as exist in the core of the sun.
17. Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD. Children who have visited a science
center with a stationary bike attached to a generator soon discover that
they barely have enough energy to power a 40 watt bulb for even a short
time, let alone an entire city for a week. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring
to brain waves, which are so weak they require electrodes attached to
the skull to measure them, and therefore seem even more unlikely to
provide much illumination. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring to the
burning of a body, which would undoubtedly light up a small section of
a city — but not for a week. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring to “psychic”
energy which frustratingly, like imaginary energy, cannot be
scientifically measured, tested, quantified, controlled, or studied. Still,
no matter what kind of energy this is, if it is as powerful as Mr. Proctor
claims, I say bring it on — especially if it is devoid of carbon emissions.
18. Alan Wolf, The Secret DVD.
19. “The Secreteers are alluding, obliquely, to the collapse of a wave
function when items in a quantum entangled state are observed. There
is no doubt that unexpected results have been surprising physicists for a
hundred years, when it comes to the very small, and that it is fiendishly
difficult to measure interactions between elementary particles because
the measuring apparatus has to be taken into account. However, it is by
no means clear that the collapse of a wave function in anything more
than a convenient mathematical metaphor for something which we can
explain with equations, but not with words (although David Z. Albert
does a creditable job of trying in Quantum Mechanics and Experience.
Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). Furthermore, the
leap from being able to influence an electron going through one of two
slits to being able to influence an entire mail-order universe is
unquantifiably vast. Surprising effects that work reliably well at the very
small (such as electron tunneling, the foundation of semiconductors)
utterly fail to work at the very large (such as BMW tunneling, in which a
fully-formed BMW disappears from the factory and appears in your
driveway, merely because you asserted that you wanted one).” Steve
Hansen Smythe, from private email correspondence.
20. The word karma is derived from the Sanskrit verb meaning “to act, do,
bring about,” and means that “one makes something by doing
something; one creates by acting.” Thus karma denotes “the impersonal
and transethical system under which one’s current situation in the
world is regarded as the fruit of seeds planted by one’s behavior and
dispositions of the past, and the view that all of one’s present actions lie
similar seeds that will have continuing and determinative effect on one’s
life as they bear fruit in the future.” (William K. Mahony, “Karman” in
The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 8. New York: Macmillan Publishing
Co., 1987, p. 262.)
21. Since individuals are constantly interacting with one another, this
means that there is an inconceivably intricate dance of billions of people
(and, possibly, animals, since many of them are capable of positive and
negative emotions), interacting in ways that fulfill the requirements of
The Law at all times. Surely the composition of such a dance would be a
mind-boggling task for even the most accomplished choreographer. And
what happens if I believe in The Law of Attraction, and reap the benefits
from it, but my husband, with whom I live, doesn’t believe? Or what if
he does believe in The Law but is clinically depressed and is incapable of
generating happy feelings? Does he get to live in my mansion and drive
my BMW?
22. A psychotic killer might feel very good upon terminating his victim, but
good feelings can be created by morally questionable activities even by
those of us who are not criminally insane. An example of this is amply
demonstrated in The Secret DVD, in which a girl is shown laughing with
glee at her pet — a cat, who has his head stuck in a small bag and is
backing up and shaking his head in an attempt to get the thing off. The
girl thinks this is hilarious, and her laughter is apparently generating
good feelings which will bring more good things into her life — but what
is the experience of the cat? It is one of distress, and it is this distress
which the girl is using to generate her own positive feelings. Is it ever
ethical to use another creature’s discomfort to further one’s own ends?
Who cares? The Law is about feeling good, not about being good.
23. Rajendra Prasad, Karma Causation and Retributive Morality. New
Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1989, p. 215.
24.James Arthur Ray, The Oprah show.
25. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.
26. W.K. Clifford. Lectures and Essays, Vol. II. London: Macmillan and Co.,
1879, pp. 185–186.
27. “You end up attracting to you the predominant thoughts that you’re
holding in your awareness, whether those thoughts are conscious or
unconscious — that’s the rub.” Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.