'The Secret,' a phenomenon, is no mystery to many

The book is small, like a diary or personal journal, with a cover that evokes parchment and a brilliant red seal. Just the kind of thing that might hold secrets or treasured thoughts.

In this case, though, it's not just someone's secrets, but something presented as "the" secret – "passed down through the ages ... stolen and bought for vast sums of money ... understood by some of the most prominent people in history." The book jacket proclaims: "Now The Secret is being revealed to the world."

Bookstores have sold out of it, and customers must wait for the next mammoth printing – or buy the DVD on the Internet instead. (Some 3.75 million copies of the book are now in print; 2 million DVDs have been sold.)

"They're marketing it the way 'The Celestine Prophecy' was marketed a decade ago – all of a sudden, someone's found this great 'secret,' " says Douglas Cowan, assistant professor of religion at Canada's University of Waterloo. "It's just the next coming of the same old New Age cavalry."

The publishing world has another phenomenon on its hands, helped along by Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah, who recently touted "The Secret" on their television shows. This time, the phenomenon is not fiction but a prescription for how to live one's life. It is presented as the key to unlimited happiness, health, money, relationships – whatever you most want.

Yet along with the spiraling sales has come significant criticism for what some say is simply a cleverly repackaged message – and one that is misleading in its claims.

The creation of Rhonda Byrne, an Australian TV producer, the book (and the DVD, which came first, a year ago) promises to deliver ancient wisdom known only to historical elites, along with the knowledge of modern "living masters" who have used it in their lives. Some two dozen "visionaries" (entrepreneurs, authors, human-potential speakers, pastors, and corporate trainers) unravel the secret during the 90-minute DVD (www.thesecret.tv).

Ms. Byrne's life had collapsed around her in 2004, she says, but has been transformed since her discovery. And since the DVD appeared on the Internet in 2006, she writes, thousands have responded with "stories of miracles," from healing of chronic pain to finding homes or transformed businesses. (The book is a companion to the DVD.)

The essence of Byrne's message: People create their own reality, and thoughts are things. The secret is "the law of attraction, which is always operating" – you attract what you think about most. If you think positive thoughts, you will attract positive experiences; if you think negatively, you will bring negatives into your life.

The presentation is highly materialistic at times. ("We can have whatever it is that we choose. I don't care how big it is," one teacher says on the DVD.)

One section in the book and DVD focuses on how to get as much money as you want. Jack Canfield, initial author and now CEO of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" enterprises, explains how, when he had only a small income, he visualized a $100,000-a-year lifestyle, and it came about.

Byrne had her initial awakening when her daughter gave her a 1910 book by Wallace Wattles called "The Science of Getting Rich." Wattles, a writer in the New Thought movement, believed that everyone could become wealthy because of the abundance of the universe.

Wattles's approach went deeper than the usual "get rich" tome, including his insistence that one couldn't achieve true wealth through competition. (See:www.websyte.com/unity/rich.htm)

Indeed, the teachings in "The Secret" "stand in a long tradition of American religious history since the mid- to late 19th century," says Sean McCloud, who teaches religion and modern culture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It can be compared to the New Thought movements and to Norman Vincent Peale's 'The Power of Positive Thinking.' All share the idea that, in some sense, people create their own realities by their thoughts."

Turning thoughts into things

There are evangelical versions of this theme, Dr. McCloud adds, such as the "prosperity gospel" among Pentecostals and the Word of Faith movement, which includes pastors T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen.

Eventually, "The Secret" touches on spiritual or religious themes, including the importance of gratitude, expectation of good, and love as the greatest power in the universe. It borrows from the New Testament to define the "powerful process" for employing the secret as "Ask, Believe, Receive." Yet it's not talking of Jesus' prayerful approach to God, but a personal process of visualization.

But even some New Thought advocates object to this approach. "We believe in the law of attraction but apply it differently," says Thomas Shepherd, chair of history and theological studies at Unity Institute. "It's not really about materialistic things, but about spiritual growth – the goal is to become one with God ... not demonstrate a Cadillac in the driveway or get personal power.

"For me," Professor Shepherd adds, "it gets too much into magic, the idea you can control the world by what you think as opposed to letting go and letting God work through you."

Visualization has been most associated with New Age religion and forms of healing, but it has long been used as a meditative technique in both Eastern and Western religions, says Christel Manning, associate professor of religion at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn. "It can be part of religious practice, but most traditional Christian or Jewish perspectives would understand prayer to be opening yourself to the will of God."

In various forms, visualization is practiced in sports and business, as well as in alternative healing methods that focus on imagining changes taking place in the body, such as cells becoming healthy again.

Quantum physicists disagree

"The Secret" also claims to draw from quantum physics in its view of the operations of the universe. John Hagelin, a quantum physicist says in the book, "Quantum mechanics confirms it; Quantum cosmology confirms it: that the universe essentially emerges from thought and all of this matter around us is just precipitated thought. Ultimately we are the source of the universe...."

Other particle physicists dispute that claim, however, on the basis that it goes beyond scientific evidence.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a physicist or cosmologist who would agree that quantum mechanics or quantum cosmology would confirm that the universe emerges from thought," says Bruce Schumm, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "That's something science has not addressed ... and scientists wouldn't consider provable at this point."

While the observer does influence the universe, Professor Schumm says, quantum mechanics does not say humans can do so intentionally. Schumm adds that Dr. Hagelin has done work that mainstream scientists value, but he also stands for "pseudoscientific" things that the majority do not support.

In the eclectic or synergistic mode of the New Age, "The Secret" clearly mixes various streams of thought. (An early version of the DVD featured a couple who "channel" someone called Abraham to teach the law of attraction.) Some Christians call it blasphemous, saying it encourages people to substitute themselves for God and ignores sin.

Undertones of 'blame the victim'

Others term the message narcissistic, adding that it focuses on self to the exclusion of helping others and ignores the need for hard work to achieve results.

Some criticize it for "blaming the victim" by telling people that bad things happen because of their bad thoughts. "If you follow that through, imagine what it says to somebody who's just been raped or kidnapped," says University of Waterloo's Dr. Cowan.

"The Secret," meanwhile, seems to be turning into a brand. Several of the teachers are giving seminars and retreats across the United States, and one says that a sequel to the DVD is also in the works. Publishers, hoping to ride the phenomenon's coattails, are releasing related books, and a few are already climbing the charts.

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