‘The Secret’—a ‘spiritual’ self-help documentary launched in Australia in 2006—hit the Western world with incredible impact, generating millions for its producers. I wrote the following article a year or so later but never published it. Today, although a thousand other scams have rushed in to take its place, the reasons why I reacted so negatively to it are still pertinent. The plethora of gross misinformation spreading across our planet has inspired me to write spiritual fiction, and all three of my novels in the MOKSHA TRILOGY (Whip of the Wild God, Krishna’s Counsel and Copper Moon Over Pataliputra—Whip is out and the other two novels are soon to be published) deal with the great eastern truths that helped me come to grips with reality.) So here goes….
In the summer of 2008, I lived in a delightful suburb located a twenty-minute drive from the White House in Washington D.C. A string of disappointments had driven me into a chasm of despair. Despite the spiritual tools I’d acquired over the decades, my state of consciousness had sunk into such a quicksand of self-doubt that I expected the bathroom mirror to crack every time I peered cautiously into it. At night, as breezes ruffled the branches of the majestic old trees surrounding that beautiful home, I would hear the fat lady screech, and know I was trapped within another dark night of the soul.
I called my friend Meredith who had moved to Taos, New Mexico. “I’ve got the perfect remedy for you, hon!” she cried when I mumbled the shameful details of my depression. “Watch The Secret! It will change everything for you!”
Meredith had been trained as a shaman, and while I did not share her general views, I desperately wanted to believe her on this one. That evening I visited my friend Amy, a writer and yoga teacher. I mentioned The Secret to her and thought it was part of the divine plan when she immediately said, “Oh, a friend sent me the DVD…you can watch it right now if you like, honey.”
I sat down in nervous anticipation before her giant TV screen as Amy slid in the DVD. Tan tar aaaa… and it took off with a blast of thriller-like effects, flashes of sound and light that jarred my already shaky nerves. It spoke of The Secret that had been known to highly successful people of past centuries, the law of attraction, which, when applied to mundane life, transforms it into the dream life each of us craves.
‘Famous’ new age prophets got its message across. One smugly said he was now living in the multi-million dollar home he’d visualized for himself several years ago. All he’d done to manifest it was to pin a picture of it on to his bulletin board and focus on it deeply, thereby imprinting it on his relative universe, which had eventually manifested his desire. Others spoke of getting the lovers they desired, the fancy gadgets they craved, all by using this simple yet magical law of attraction.
I waited impatiently: when would someone break in to explain that the spiritual quest is not about the acquisition of material things—which are, by nature, ephemeral and unsatisfying? When would a wise one push these materialistic clowns aside and begin to address the nature of the true quest, which moves one out of the relative realm and into the realm of the Absolute, where we experience our true nature as blissful immortal beings of light?
But this did not happen. Crushed by the weight of my fallen expectations, I realized that the The Secret was no different than all the other rag-tag band-aid crap foisted on the gullible through the ages. Indeed it is the worst form of lie—for it leads people to believe that if one simply ignores the darkness, superimposing upon it a vision of personal egotistical happiness—mansion, millions, gorgeous lover, ageless body, etcetera—it must lead to lasting happiness.
Anger rose within me like a tidal wave. Some folks were making millions on this great big lie, this distortion of the precious teachings that had kept me alive despite a series of personal failures. I told Amy how I felt. “For some people it’s OK to fall for this stuff, sweetheart,” she shrugged. “We all have to start somewhere, don’t we?”
But my anger did not dissipate, for, over the years, I had watched many sink into confusion and angst simply because they bought some serious untruths from self-styled ‘gurus’ who did not care about the negative effects of their dissemination of falsities and only wanted more money, fame, adulation or in some extreme cases, sexual favors from their disciples.
As for me, I had first started studying eastern philosophy as a teenager in south India—whereupon finally things began to fall into place. Through the lens of karmic and reincarnation theory, I began to make sense of the suffering of our servants, the inhuman conditions our urban poor endured, the uneasy coexistence of palaces and slums, ubiquitous corruption. Born hypersensitive to my suffering, as well as that of others, eastern philosophy provided me with tools that allowed me to survive in a mad, disgruntled, suffering world.
As the decades flashed past, I gravitated to great teachers, primarily in the Yogic Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist traditions. I also delved into Gnostic Christianity and Taoism and finally came home to nest in the pristine simplicity of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings on Advaita-Vedanta. Through all the ups and downs of my tumultuous life, it was the distilled essence of these pure gold teachings that have kept me going.
My fifteen years in Manhattan brought about a great transformation in my psyche. The Big Apple allowed me to experience all the pleasures of samsara as well as the dreary horrors of divorce. Alone, battered by the consequences of my naive choices, I was forced to grow up. Too proud to stay down for long, I used spiritual tools to pull myself up again. Bizarrely enough, it was in this frenetic city that I began to seriously meditate—and this led me to a tenuous peace and flickers of a strange happiness.
I left NYC in 1999, whipped forward by the inspired teachings of a charismatic Buddhist monk. I sold my expensive apartment, quit my legal admin job, said farewell to bohemian friends, and landed in the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala, bang in the middle of an intense snowstorm.
Snowed into a hotel room with no electricity, shivering my sorry ass off despite piling on every item of clothing I had crammed into my huge suitcase, I berated myself for giving up my comfortable life in America. My companion was an American Buddhist woman with chronic fibromyalgia and severe ear-ache whom I had met in Bodhgaya. Natalie had travelled to Dharamsala in order to be ordained as a nun by the Dalai Lama—and if she hadn’t made me laugh hysterically at our situation, I believe I might have moved heaven and earth to return to the West.
As winter gave way to a vibrant Himalayan spring, I found myself a terrific little apartment a ten minute walk from the Dalai Lama’s palace. My noble aim was to study at the feet of masters and to write great novels. The gods giggled as I made my plans, but life did work out in its out erratic and elliptical fashion. I plunged into philosophy and learnt to apply ancient teachings to everyday life, meditated regularly, researched a novel set in the grand ancient times of the Mauryan Empire, and communicated with shining souls. When the weather got too extreme, I traveled to other parts of north India, to one of the highest villages on earth for the Kalachakra initiation by the Dalai Lama, then to Thailand, where I alternated between blasts of hedonism and the rigors of Vipassana.
One essential teaching I received from the Mahayana Buddhists is called The Two Truths and pertains to Absolute and Relative Reality. In Advaita-Vedanta, the Absolute is characterised by three simultaneously experienced elements: Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Existence-Consciousness and Bliss, and it from the Absolute that all things originate and eventually return. Here, the little “I”, whose sole purpose is to create an identity and then to preserve it at all costs, has dissolved. The result is that one experiences one’s true nature, a blissful peace that surpasses all human understanding.
So the Relative emerges from the Absolute, propelled by the force of past karma (one definition of karma is: the movement of the mind and what it produces in terms of speech and action; consequences come later, either in this or another lifetime.) The core of this teaching is that no matter how miserable one’s relative existence may be, the divine is embedded within each of us. This is the hidden meaning of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum—literally: the Jewel embedded in the Lotus, metaphorically: that the Absolute is embedded within the Relative, the Subtle animates the Gross.
The human form is considered the highest because humans alone experience both suffering and joy, and can learn to distinguish between the two—a process which leads to enlightenment. And what is enlightenment? The permanent melting of the egoic self into the great Self, which is blissful and immortal, loving, wise, fearless, and connected to every other speck of life in the cosmos.
Our job on the physical realm is not to shine by virtue of our material success; indeed, if we choose the material path, our suffering increases exponentially. Why? Because attaching oneself to that which not ‘real’ compounds our suffering and delays the journey to the formless bliss of the spiritual heart. (Advaita-Vedanta defines ‘real’ as that which is permanent and lasting –and as you may note, no person, event or thing meets this standard).
All of this leads up to why I was so agitated by the so-called ‘Secret.’ Band-aids don’t heal existential wounds—at best, they mask the bloody mess. Half-truths don’t work; they mislead. One cannot pay homage to both Mammon and God. Making huge amounts of cash by spreading half-truths in the name of the ancients is a crock of….
The producers of The Secret neglected to focus on this single critical point. The producer, gushes: “I can’t believe all the people who knew this! They were the greatest people in history.” She refers to giants like Hermes Trismegistus, Buddha, Aristotle, W. Clement Stone, Plato, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, Carl Jung, Victor Hugo, Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Robert Collier, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Campbell, Alexander Graham Bell, and Ludwig van Beethoven. True, honey, I found myself thinking, some of these folks probably did get The Secret—the point is, when will you?
One of the creepiest twists in the documentary is the distortion of the Golden Rule by a self-styled ‘expert’ on mystical traditions. “Here’s the question I want you to consider,” He says. “Do you treat yourself the way that you want other people to treat you?” He preaches what I facetiously call ‘The Sermon of the Ego’—how to massage and pamper the ‘little I’ or ‘mini-me,’ which, according to genuine masters, is the one thing keeping us from realizing ourselves as Divine. Oh, and by the way, as one of the critics I read on the net mentioned, this man was charging only $997 for a ‘harmonic wealth weekend.’
I do not stand alone in my distaste for The Secret. From Newsweek came this critique: “On an ethical level, The Secret appears deplorable. It concerns itself almost entirely with a narrow range of middle-class concerns—houses, cars, and vacations, followed by health and relationships, with the rest of humanity a very distant sixth.”
Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University says: “The Secret promises this heaven on Earth in one fell swoop by simply desiring something, by simply wanting it. It’s amazing how we really are a nation of, at best, great optimists, at worst, real suckers.” And Emily Yoffe, writing for Slate, quoted Einstein: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
The producers of The Secret swear up and down that all it takes to make our fantasies a reality is the application of three simple steps—’ask, believe, receive’, steps stated to be the essence of the Law of Attraction. The premise is simple—like attracts like, thought and feeling act as magnetic signals which attract their parallels from the Universe, thereby manifesting that which we desire. According to these optimistic folk, this works 100% of the time, for 100%of those smart enough to use it. “We create our own reality”, they say, and modern science, they add, confirms this.
Is what they say true? I believe it is, but only if one comprehends the underlying wisdom of this simple philosophy and then applies it to the right goal—which is moksha, permanent freedom from fear and desire—and not the acquisition of the shiny baubles of this ephemeral world.
The tragedy The Secret reveals is that, despite high standards of living, many inhabitants of our planet are both unhappy and naïve—a dangerous combination which makes it easy for the wily to con them. A psychiatrist in Washington D.C. mentioned to me that his colleagues all over America were astounded by the vast number of patients who went running to them in the wake of The Secret: these gullible folks had made the awful mistake of taking The Secret at face value, and had entered into financial and relationship situations which had boomeranged.
Humor is another effective weapon. In the March 17, 2007 episode of Saturday Night Live, cast members spoofed The Secret in a sketch with Oprah Winfrey interviewing Rhonda Byrne. Included was a scene of a man in Darfur being scolded for his lousy attitude. Ha ha ha, but not.
According to karmic theory, situations like the Holocaust and the World Wars are the result of past thought, speech and action. Sure. The unspeakable horrors of Darfur, for instance, were indeed manifested by accumulated negativity. But blaming victims for past karma is pointless and cruel; victims have no recollection of their past and are therefore technically innocent. Before people can understand how they manifest their reality, they must be educated in the subtle wisdom that leads one to this principle. In this most vital task, the makers of The Secret failed miserably.
A few years ago, I lived at an ashram where I served at Reception. An obese woman with a rambunctious, speech-defective, ten-year-old son arrived for the weekend. She spilled her life story to me: abandoned at birth by a teenage mother, seventeen foster homes, high-school drop-out, fifty-six ‘relationships’ with drug and alcohol addicts who mostly beat the hell out of her. She lived in a beat-up trailer outside town and worked as a cashier in a grocery store. Her car was such a piece of junk that she’d had to rent a car for the weekend. She had pointed to her son, who was systematically attempting to destroy the phone booth in the reception area and said: “I swear I woulda killed myself off if I didn’t have this little chap to look after.”
Moved to tears by her bleak existence, I offered to help her with tools I’d acquired. “No!” she said fiercely, when I suggested listing a few things she could try. “I don’t want to read The Secret. I can’t lie about how I feel or bottle up my emotions and pretend everything’s hunky dory. I’d go even crazier; maybe shoot my son and myself….”
Funny, but I had not mentioned The Secret. I confided my own loathing for it and tried to convince her that there were deeper ways to melt her pain and find peace. But she wasn’t ready for change; better a known devil, as the saying goes, than an unknown angel. Still, this woman impressed me deeply—with nothing but her instincts to go by, she had intuitively sensed the rotten apple that is The Secret. “They shoulda called it “The Lie,” she said, a crooked grin animating her red mouth.
The ‘law of attraction’ in the eastern context springs from the wisdom of ‘as you sow, so you reap,’ from the inevitability of the laws of karma, the cosmic software. According to these immutable laws, should one reap ginormous profits from a gullible public using so-called ‘spiritual’ wisdom, one stands to be seriously screwed at some later point. Karmic consequences will lighten only if the scam is perpetrated by those truly ignorant of their sin. If the perpetrators of money-making spiritual scams really understood the laws of karma, they would know that the fool’s gold pouring over their unholy heads must vanish sooner or later, leaving them impoverished and in great karmic negative debt to the millions they have conned.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva in the form of a hill who vows to destroy all that blocks us from the luminous wisdom that leads us into the core of the blazing Spiritual Heart!