Summary: The popular New Age film “The Secret” contained many half-truths, as do many of the popular documentaries circulating on the Internet. The concept of a “Law of Attraction” may have legitimate merit, but its presentation in the move was quite poor. Most significantly, due to a contractual dispute between Esther Hicks and Rhonda Byrne, it turned out that Esther Hicks (who was almost certainly one of the primary sources for the material found within it) was edited out of the film. Whilst there appears to be conflicting stories on how this occurred, Esther Hicks has stated that she was asked by Byrne to choose between handing over intellectual property rights from the film or being edited out of the movie. In light of the fact that Byrne has been sued by several other people involved in the film who claim that they were duped out of a their share of the films earnings, and that Byrne also contracted a conman to appear in the film as an enlightened teacher, I personally suspect that Esther Hicks is giving an accurate portrayal of their falling out. Furthermore, the presentation of the “Law of Attraction” concept in the Hicks/Abraham material is of a far higher standard (in my opinion), thus giving context to the half-truths that appear in “The Secret”.
One of the most popular concepts in New Age spirituality is that of the Law of Attraction, the belief that thoughts literarily create reality. The concept is quite popular in 20th century western occult and self-help literature, though I would suggest that it has its origins in the far older philosophy of monistic idealism. A fundamental feature of the worlds mystical and occult traditions is that the material world is a temporary construct that appears in the mind of God like a dream. Hence, consciousness or spirit is seen as the substratum of the material world. It is only a small step from here to argue that mind therefore has a direct causal effect upon the physical world. This idea of the mental nature of reality is present in Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism (amongst other schools of Indian philosophy), all forms of Buddhism, it is present in the Corpus Hermeticum (amongst other Hellenistic philosophy) and is explicit in the 1908 pseudo-Hermetic book “The Kybalion”.
The popularity of the Law of Attraction in the West can be ascribed to a number of sources, such as “The Science of getting rich” by Wallace D Wattles from 1910, “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill in 1937, “Power of Positive Thinking” from Norman Vincent Peale in 1952. Certainly however the most well known proponent of the theory in recent times is trance medium Esther Hicks, whose vast literature on the subject was certainly one of the primary influences for the hugely popular and infamous telemovie come hit DVD, The Secret. When I first watched The Secret I had distinctly mixed feelings about it. On one hand it seemed like an attempt at another inspirational modern spiritual film in the theme of “What the Bleep….” (of which I also now have mixed feelings about). On the other hand, it made me want to throw up. It had all the features of a pyramid sales scam presented by a greasy used car salesman, and it wasn’t helped by the sole focus of the movie on attaining material wealth through supernatural means.
Furthermore, there is a scene where it jumps straight from one of the teachers stating that it is an awful lie that there is a limited supply of resources and that there is not enough to go around, to another boasting about how he owns several luxury homes, has servants and travels the world on a sort of permanent holiday. This seems to be implying that anybody that has legitimate concerns with this philosophy is an “awful liar”, and hence appears to be shooting down legitimate criticisms of the philosophy with mere name-calling. I would advise severe caution to approaching material resources as if they were infinite. Clearly, if matter emerges from an infinite spiritual source then there could be some truth to this, but if it is false then treating material resources as if they are infinite when in fact they are finite would have disastrous consequences. Even if the Law of Attraction is true one still has to find a way around how everybody could afford to be rich enough to servants. The basic laws of commerce tell us that there needs to be a million people in the lower and middle classes for one person to be wealthy enough to have everyone else working for them.
Many of the same spiritual traditions that have taught that the universe is mental in nature have simultaneously encouraged an ascetic lifestyle, and discouraged the pursuit of wealth. The Tao Te Ching spoke out against social and political corruption and injustice in as explicit terms as it could in its historical context, speaking up for those that suffered at the hands of the wealthy and corrupt ruling class. However, mystical ascetism has often gone way too far in denying material life and diminishing this life. In the first book in the “Celestine Prophecy” series, James Redfield spoke of the need to find a healthy balance between seeking a prosperous and fulfilling earthly life and traditional religious ascetism and charity. In a sense then, I personally feel that the Law of Attraction can be one side of this balance, with modern spiritual works attempting to bring balance back to the spiritual views of the importance of earthly life in comparison to spiritual ideals.
My gut feelings told me that there was some truth behind this movie, but that it being distorted and perverted like a jewel covered in mud. I had the same instinct when I first read the Bhagavad-Gita, of which a work colleague (who was a Hare Krishna) introduced me. The translation that he lent me was their own translation, with commentary from their founder A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In this version, regardless of what the actual Sanskrit verse stated, the commentary just stated (paraphrase): “Well, since we are currently in the Kali Yuga (Dark Age) the only valid spiritual practice for mankind is chanting the maha mantra (Hare Krishna…etc.)”, even though the maha mantra is not mentioned once in the entire scripture, and the commentary often contradicts what the actual Sanskrit verses themselves state.
Upon later investigation it appears that my gut feelings were accurate. There has been a significant amount of legal action following the success of The Secret, with Rhonda Byrne being sued by a number of people involved in making the film. Firstly, she has been accused of denying employees legal contracts under the guise of them interfering with the films spiritual momentum, and then failing to deliver on her promises to pay those involved what they deserved(1). Likewise, there are claims that one of the teachers featured in the film (David Schirmer) owed money to a number of past students and employees of his many businesses, which appeared and disappeared back into thin air(2). Without knowing the ins and outs of the accusations I must say that I suspect that they are legitimate. Obviously when someone like Byrne attains such vast success there will always be people wanting a share of it. However the Secret never felt right to me, and these issues appear to me to support that conclusion. Furthermore, Byrne had a well-publicized falling out with Esther Hicks, resulting in Hicks being edited out of the second version of the film. Hicks had featured heavily in the original version of the movie, providing a narrative throughout. However, the version that most people are familiar with has a range of other people presenting the material in her place.
According to Hicks, she was asked to either hand over the intellectual property rights to the material or be edited out of the film, and she chose the latter(3). I have seen it argued that Hicks brought on the problems by asking for more money(4), however that appears unsubstantiated to me. The final version of the Secret affectively ended up effectively using Hicks material, by having her own students present the work without her. Obviously Esther Hicks doesn’t own exclusive copyright on the concept, and her work was not the first to present the concept. However, she was easily the most well known proponent of the concept in recent times, and due to her involvement in the original version the movie effectively ended up writing her out of her own film! Adding to the mess was the way in which the film was edited, leading to an end result that deserves as much of it’s criticism as it does it’s praise.
Obviously the whole Law of Attraction concept has issues that need to be resolved or at very least discussed, completely outside of criticisms from naturalists, who believe that mind is simply a temporary construct of matter. For example, one can argue that the concept would suggest that individuals are responsible for crimes that are committed against them, or diseases, illnesses and accidents that befall them. Likewise it would seem to gloss over the manner in which corrupt rulers and business people sometimes (but not always) take advantage of the disadvantaged in order to secure their wealth. On the flip side however, it suggests that we all have immense power to change our personal circumstances in ways far beyond what we could imagine simply from naturalistic cause and effect. However, this article is not an attempt to resolve all those issues. Rather, I simply wish to suggest that anybody interested in the concept look beyond the Secret (in both movie and book forms) and investigate Esther Hicks’s work, as well as the older material that presents monistic idealism in a different context.
Here is a clip from the original version of the film which featured Esther’s trance mediumship(5) . This is what it should have been; beautiful, inspiring and uplifting. These days I have learned to be cautious about reaching conclusions on things where I don’t know all the ins and outs. In this respect it is possible that Rhonda Byrne may have done nothing wrong, and it is possible that my only legitimate grip with the Secret could be its cheesy tabloid presentation. However, spirituality and religion has always been an area where devious and dishonest people have taken advantage of others for financial (and other) gains. I suspect that the Secret was not without its worth, but I feel that its a sorry shame that its spiritual teachings were revealed to the world in such a dumbed down and distorted form.
4) http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Esther_Hicks. Note the poor quality of this article. I am currently in the early stages of research for my second book (on Science and the Supernatural) and I have found that this website is all rhetoric and no content.