The Secret

says the only reason to read self-help books is to write another one.

WHEN RHONDA BYRNE, producer of indifferent reality shows for Australian TV, created The Secret did she know what a good thing she was on to? Both her film and book have cut a wild swathe through the world since their release in early 2006. establishing her as the queen of positive thinkers. The book has sold six million copies worldwide. India’s thriving market for spirituality and self-help books has not escaped Byrne’s husky whisper. The Crossword Bookstores chain has sold over 10,000 copies in the last year, double the number of any book in the non-fiction category. Priti Singh who manages one of the Tekson book stores in Delhi says, “The book has been selling better than any Mitch Albom title.” Bangalore’s near-legendary TS Shanbagh of Premier Bookshop admits, with some embarrassment,
that the book is selling well.

While Byrne encourages the pursuit of instant gratification, both film and book engage in an elaborate build-up that she probably learnt while producing her reality show Sensing Murder. For those who are not going to pay Rs 550 for the book or Rs 2,000 for the DVD here are the basics. Byrne’s Great Secret of Life or Law of Attraction is that “like attracts like”. So whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting. Dozens of breezy assertions then support this simplistic truism. (See box.) Metaphors are mixed with bad science and fuzzy thinking (“Even under a microscope you are energy”) to drive home the idea that positive thoughts will give you all that you desire. The source of all the abundance (necessary for spiritual growth) is the Universe. A beloved metaphor is the idea of the universe as a catalogue from which we can order anything. For most of us, listening to that loud voice of inner doubt (“You are going to lose again. You will never do well”) is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cognitive psychologists have successfully experimented with changing negative thoughts in an effort to change feelings and, hence, behaviour. Byrne’s book unfortunately does not operate in the world of learning. It operates in the world of commodities where it needs to be newer and shinier than the other processed goods. (When Byrne was recently featured on TIME magazine’s annual list of 100 influential people, she was not placed in the “Thinkers” category but in the “Builders and Titans” category, sandwiched between the owner of a hedge fund and the brain behind Nintendo.)

Byrne conflates the idea that you can be successful because of hard work with the idea that you can be successful because of thinking of success. As one critic, Ingrid Hansen Smythe, said of Byrne’s (and other self-help gurus’) fusing of these two ideas, “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!” Most readers with a modicum of common sense would see that optimism accompanied by action would probably yield results and that optimism, in itself, cannot replace action. Even the relentlessly feel-good filmmaker Karan Johar says “Nothing in the book is new. These are things that you know if you are reasonably introspective and have had sensible parenting. The basic idea that you need to be positive and that success is in your head is fine. The book is great because it breaks the idea down into simple steps. But it is inspiration for a weekend. When you go back to the real world on Monday morning, these noble intentions of thinking positive thoughts disappear. I think self-awareness is far more important.” Byrne’s project is almost too easy a target for laughter with its hushed, conspiratorial tones revealing ancient wisdom and its softporn production values.

While Byrne lists a phalanx of self-help gurus including Jack Canfield (author of the Chicken Soup series) and John Gray (author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) she is clearly channeling the spirit of Dan Brown in her deployment of grand-sounding arcana. The epigraph of the book quotes the Emerald Tablet, “As above, so below, as within, so without”. What is the Emerald Tablet? A thirteen-line text supposedly dating back to 3000 BC that has intrigued many a bright mind with its elusive recipe forboth alchemic gold and spiritual growth. If this book is different in any way from its predecessors it is because of powerful patrons such as Oprah Winfrey who gushed about it on her show.

When a viewer wrote in saying that she had decided to adopt The Secret’s teachings to heal her breast cancer, Winfrey had to organise an episode urging people not to abandon medical science. It is this sort of astoundingly gullible viewer that whips most editorial writers into a froth. But Byrne’s work is problematic in other ways. Byrne preaches relentless self-interest and the pursuit of middle-class El Dorados with a blade so keen you feel no pain. For instance, Bob Proctor (one of Byrne’s ‘Secret teachers’ quoted in the book) asks an ill person to “See yourself living in a perfectly healthy body. Let the doctor look after the disease.” Byrne’s riff on this is that you are inviting illness if you listen to people talking about their illness. Therefore, if your 22-yearold cousin is dying and wants to discuss her issues of mortality, change the subject. You are making her more ill and may kill yourself in the bargain. Byrne equates her Law of Attraction with the law of gravity. She says once she understood “The Secret”, she could understand quantum physics despite never having studied physics in school. She would have you understand that there are similar quantifiable explanations for all that befalls you. Did you think you were definitely going to get a raise and then fail to? Ah. That is because you must have had a moment of doubt. In fact, thoughts of anything other than sunshine and kittens are likely to have nuclear fallout. “Unfortunately Western society has become fixated on age, and in reality there is no such thing.” This is how Byrne describes Western civilisation’s deplorable tendency to grow old.

The pursuit of complex thought in itself becomes very tricky. For instance The Secret says anti-war campaigners cause war and antidrug movements have created more drugs. It carefully avoids mentioning the victims of rapes or car accidents. However the book is very clear that people are poor because they are thinking of poverty and the wealthy are those that have wisely channeled their thoughts. Byrne’s inspiration was the 1910 exponent of New Thought, The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles. Many readers eager for answers in a difficult world choose to look past the trappings and say that the book’s basic suggestions such as positive visualision are effective. Sachin and Prerana Thombare, a young couple from Mumbai, who watched the DVD, explained what they gleaned from it this way. Prerana, a marketing consultant, said “We do think that people will be better off if they are positive and the universe will create situations for them to get what they want. My brother has been practicing the teachings of The Secret. He asked for a job in the US and it happened.” Sachin, who has been keenly interested in the teachings of Osho and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for a decade, says, “I watched the video and did not get any impression of it offering any pursuit of higher spiritual goals. The video teaches the pursuit of desire. I have no issues with that.”

Others are more critical. Arunima Shankar, a translator, says, “Of course there are things in the book that struck a chord. But I wonder whether I would have enjoyed the book so much without its expensive paper, its fancy lettering. One is not expecting the author of a self-help book to be altruistic but there is a sense of being manipulated. It seems to say: Here is this amazing gift that you can have for $12.99!” Delhi-based hypnotherapist Sudha Shankar regularly buys and reads books that fall in the broad category of spirituality. Soon after reading The Secret, which she liked, she stumbled upon Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualisation. “It is the same thing! Except that it was written in the 1970s and Gawain did not have such marketing skills. Gawain’s book has more meat,” she said.

If you went to school in the 80s you will recall fervently collecting pencil shavings with the firm belief that a critical mass of shavings with the application of water would turn into an eraser. While it would have been more efficient for even thrifty six-year-olds to simply buy an eraser, the satisfaction was in getting something out of nothing. Byrne’s book may appeal to those who still retain the six-year-olds within them. But what can she offer those with grown-up problems?

First published here.

3 comments:

waste of time kind of a book

July 6, 2012 at 5:02 PM  

Complete waste of time this is

July 6, 2012 at 5:03 PM  

waste of time book
and the movie

July 6, 2012 at 5:03 PM  

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