Plundering Eastern religions for enlightenment and profit
· illustration by Jason Logan
In the winter of 1999, I was playing in the surf at Kovalam Beach on the southwest coast of India when a riptide swept me out into the Arabian Sea. The harder I swam against the current, the more surely the shore receded. As the futility of my struggles sank in, I felt the slap of something abrasive against my leg — a rope! Wrapping my hands around it, I rapidly pulled myself handhold by handhold toward shore, aided by a strong tug from the other end. Just as crashing waves broke my grip, my toes scraped sand.
Where had the rope come from? Was it part of a fishing net locals in the adjoining cove sometimes floated out to sea? If so, what to make of the anomalies? The moment I realized how desperately I needed help, it slapped my leg. Though I could see no fishermen in either cove, the rope pulled me directly to shore. It consistently remained at a convenient level despite changes in water depth — any lower and I wouldn’t have been able to reach it, any higher and I wouldn’t have had full use of my arms. When I didn’t need it any longer, it disappeared. Had I hallucinated the rope, allowing me to tap energy reserves I didn’t know I possessed? Certainly it felt real enough — fibrous, taut, and always in motion.
The fortuitous appearance of a lifeline in the middle of the ocean seems to validate the premise of the blockbuster The Secret: desire anything fervently enough, and you will get it. The power of thought trumps material cause and effect. Ask, believe, receive.
That simple message — repeated over 184 pages by two dozen of the world’s most persuasive motivational coaches and stitched together by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne — resulted in first-year English language book sales of 1.75 million, along with 1.5 million dvds and spinoff seminars. And most of that was before Oprah Winfrey’s ecstatic endorsement. Simon & Schuster currently has 5 million copies in print, and the book is being translated into thirty languages. Predictably, its popularity, based on wish fulfillment and marketing wizardry, has boosted the sales of a multitude of similar offerings: The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World, by Lynne McTaggart; Law of Attraction: The Science of Attracting More of What You Want and Less of What You Don’t, by Michael Losier; and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires, by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Read enough of these titles, and you won’t have to buy the books.
The Secret owes its triumph to the convergence of two powerful forces: Western publishing’s self-help genre and Eastern philosophy’s 3,000-year karmic tradition. Like The Secret, the laws of karma, fundamental to both Buddhism and Hinduism, proclaim that the universe is a place within which we create our own possibilities and limitations. Both endorse a form of the law of attraction: positive thoughts and deeds produce positive responses, while fear, hostility, and negativity become self-fulfilling prophesies. Both declare these intangible laws are as absolute as the laws of physics.
Where karma and The Secret dramatically diverge is in values. Despite trumpeting invisible power, The Secret dazzles its followers with the promise of instant gratification in the material world: more money, more sex, and more status, all in the time frame of now. By contrast, karmic questers are engaged in a soul journey through many incarnations in search of enlightenment and inner peace. Commitment to that journey is the point of each incarnation, with misfortunes accepted as the result of past transgressions or as an opportunity to learn. While the extremes of poverty and self-denial are not considered virtues in and of themselves, desires are treated as distractions. Instead of wanting more of everything, the quester is urged, “Have no expectations and happiness will always be one hundred per cent.”
Though The Secret, like karmic law, encourages its followers to cultivate gratitude and generosity, its basic appeal is as a “gimme” handbook arousing a shallow desire for easy rewards on demand. All its contributors were world-class hawkers before Byrne conscripted them: Jack Canfield, co-owner of the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise; Bob Doyle, creator of the multimedia Wealth Beyond Reason program; James Arthur Ray, developer of the Science of Success and Harmonic Wealth. Their collective prosperity and mutual admiration are the book’s chief selling points.
From an Eastern perspective, The Secret is a rip-off of thousands of years of freely offered wisdom. Its commercialization parallels that of yoga: the exportation from the land of the sacred cow to that of the cash cow. “Yoga” is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” and is an activity intended to join body, mind, and spirit using techniques that require a lifetime to perfect. In the West, it’s now more often a recreational add-on for the display of cute butts in overpriced yoga toggery. In the documentary Yoga, Inc., director John Philp estimates this ancient discipline has become an $18-billion industry, comparable to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
Among self-help trailblazers, one of The Secret’s early forerunners was The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. Published in 1952, it sold 15 million hardcover copies in its first three decades and is still being reprinted. As its chapter titles suggest, Positive Thinking teaches what The Secret calls the law of attraction as the key to worldly success: “Expect the Best and Get It,” “How to Create Your Own Happiness.” Like Eastern philosophy, it’s spiritually inspired, but where karma bases itself on universal law, Positive Thinking looks to God through Jesus Christ: “Try Prayer Power,” “How to Use Faith in Healing.”
It was during the 1960s and ’70s that the self-help genre hit its stride, spearheaded by a new breed of therapist eager to reject the authority of both God and Freud. Convinced by their own clinical findings that classical psychoanalysis didn’t work, these renegades defied professional orthodoxy by appealing directly to the life experience of the intelligent reader with popularly written, groundbreaking texts.