What if someone were to tell you that you can have anything you want? Anything, if you can just believe you could. Within the 2006 documentary, The Secret, screenplay writer and executive producer Rhonda Byrne walks us through the centuries-long secret of the Law of Attraction: changing your life with your thoughts alone. In its debut, the world was fascinated with Byrne’s work, which was followed by a novelization of the same name (2006a), and this fascination also came with skeptics. Largely, in 2006, everyone had their own opinion on the viral documentary, and being a 9-year-old in a low-income household, the messages that were said and the narratives that were given brought hope for a better future, and it was all in my own control.
After putting in The Secret documentary DVD, with my father, mother, and older sister sitting next to me on the couch, the room was filled with an immersive orchestra and a beautifully smooth Australian voice, the voice of Rhonda Byrne, and it starts: “A year ago, my life had collapsed around me […] Little did I know at the time, out of my greatest despair was to come the greatest gift […] I began tracing The Secret back through history. I couldn’t believe all the people who knew this. They were the greatest people in history” showing the portraits and names of the world’s greatest thinkers, “Plato, Shakespeare, Newton […] Edison, Einstein,” in sudden bursts and flashes like in the changing of an old, small projector (2006a, p. ix). The orchestra became more and more accelerated, showing dramatizations of different points in time where a scroll was passed down, guarded, stolen, and used to create great change. Between every few lines, Byrne’s voice would whisper, “The secret was buried,” with the words on the screen, “The secret was coveted,” and finally, “The secret was suppressed,” (2006b). With this, Byrne looked for people today who understand and use the Secret, and the dramatic orchestra stopped suddenly with a turn to uplifting melodies as the documentary introduces seven individuals with diverse backgrounds. A philosopher and personal coach, a metaphysician and marketing specialist, an entrepreneur and “moneymaking expert,” a chiropractor and healing specialist, a psychologist, a spiritualist, a motivational speaker, nearly all of whom are authors, including the co-author of the famous book series Chicken Soup for the Soul (2006a, pp. 1-3). Going back and forth between these esteemed thinkers, The Secret documentary starts with a clear answer for what the Secret is: the Law of Attraction, “You become what you think about the most, but you also attract what you think about the most […] Thoughts become things!” (2006a, pp. 8-9). And from here, the intention of thinking and attracting what one wants from life is shown to us as something that is in our own hands with our own lines of thinking.
There are three steps to using the Secret: Ask, Believe, and Receive (Byrne, 2006a, pp. 60-61). Throughout the documentary, experiences are given from the interviewees that submit proof to this process, examples include things from finding empty car spaces to park in daily, to gaining nearly $100k in a year, to curing cancer in five years; all you need to do is have faith (2006b). Positive thinking and attracting the things that you want, which the interviewees admit is not easy and does take time to learn, can change one’s life from turbulence to sanity and part of this is to change one’s perspective on all things, (Byrne, 2006b). With the Law of Attraction, The Secret highlights multiple times that the Universe will take lines of thinking quite literally and will attract more of whatever that thought is to the thinker – like a genie in a bottle, (a metaphor used in the documentary) the Universe will take thoughts as they are and respond “your wish is my command” (2006b). A change in perspective and one’s expectations of the world is what allows one to first Ask what they want from the Universe, following this is Believe and in The Secret, it is said that once faith is gone, the Universe responds “your wish is my command” and so “unwavering faith” is crucial to truly think positively (2006b). The third step, Receive, is broken down into two components including gratitude and visualization: being grateful for what one has now and visualizing what one would be grateful for in the future as if they had it in that moment, “always and only dwell upon the end result” (Bryne, 2006b). The documentary presented the idea of a “Vision Board” and this entails all three steps to following the Secret, a board with pictures of what one wants to then visualize already having (2006b). A story given in The Secret by an interviewee is about a board he made and found five years later, “I finally understand how the law of attraction works. I finally understand the power of visualization. I finally understand everything that I have ever read, everything that I’ve worked with my whole life, the way I’ve built companies. It worked for my home as well, and I had bought our dream home and didn’t even know it,” (2006a, pp. 90-91). Quotes from powerful people across history were used as transitions throughout the documentary to show how the Secret has been used and subtly shared, “You create your own universe as you go along,” from Winston Churchill (p. 36), “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions,” from Albert Einstein (p. 91), and “What you resist persists,” from Carl Jung (2006a, p. 142).
Giving both new and familiar voices with influential social standing, esteemed authors, successful practitioners, in addition to historical figures, The Secret paints the Law of Attraction as a proven, tried-and-true method toward success and happiness. “Mother Teresa was brilliant. She said, ‘I will never attend an anti-war rally. If you have a peace rally, invite me.’ She knew. She understood the Secret. Look what she manifested in the world,” (Byrne, 2006a, p. 143). All it takes is this change in perspective, and if they can do it, so can you. The documentary concludes with a moving, inspirational piece of orchestral music along with the interviewees finishing their monologues with thoughts on happiness, determination, being a magnet of pure positivity, and acceptance of the Universe’s order (2006b). And with this, comes a community that could be called a “religion” or a cultural trend that inspired religious faith toward the Universe itself. For a 9-year-old, The Secret was presented as a way of life that can only lead to happiness.
Once the documentary was finished, my father and I were entranced by the possibilities that were at our own fingertips. “Vision boarding” became a verb in our household. This is where I grew to love the art of making collages, placing only what I was grateful for or would be grateful for all around me to look at every day. Again and again from 2006 to today, the philosophies of positive thinking have been at the forefront of my mind and more than likely lead to my interest in philosophy itself. “Not anti-war, pro-peace,” I would say to myself as a basis and reminder on how to use my language – how to word my thoughts and speech in a way that is positive to what I want. Ten years later, my father and I coined ourselves as “the wishmasters” (not at all believing in jinkes) as we have both been humbled and grateful to have gained so much in ten years: with persistence and effort, my father went to a university and had successfully created the first speech lab graduate assistant position. While, in 2016, I would have been finishing my first semester at college. Five years later, my father is a university professor in communications and I am about to graduate with two bachelor’s degrees in advertising/public relations and philosophy.
A few semesters ago, I brought up the Secret to my father on a car ride home, we would often have conversations for forty-plus minutes as he would lovingly take me to my own apartment across town. Strangely enough, he welcomed me to the world of skeptics. During the craze of the documentary, I would have been too young to have heard anything negative about the Secret. To think, a fact could not be true; a way of life could have consequences. He said that believing in the Secret with “unwavering faith” could lead to self-doubt if one were to think they didn’t wish hard enough. I remember thinking, “isn’t their self-doubt the same as doubting the Universe, and thus … they shouldn’t do it?” Nevertheless, he may have a point, we do not live in a magical, fantastical world, and the documentary gives a strict sense of what expectations should be, but one should consider how much they can control, meaning how much they can ask from the Universe.
March of this year, 2021, will be the fifteenth anniversary of The Secret (2006b). Since then, Rhonda Byrne has written three sequels, Magic, Power, and Hero – as a collection these can be found on both Amazon and AbeBooks for purchase with four-and-a-half-star ratings from hundreds of people (2015a, 2015b). But still, even today, skeptics are publishing articles on the topic. “#1 NYTimes bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope,” Mark Manson published an “Evidence-Based” article on his blog called “The Truth About “The Secret” (The Staggering Bullshit of “The Secret”),” outlining some of the potential consequences of following the Secret (n.d., 2021). On Manson’s blog, articles have “one of four” official “Editorial Process” icons and an “Evidence-Based” icon indicates this article was “built off of academic research;” whereas if it were “Opinion” it would have been marked as such. In skepticism, this differentiation is very important as the Secret is proven with evidence in both the documentary and further in the novel. Manson writes that “The Secret actually requires that you never doubt yourself, never consider negative repercussions, and never indulge in negative thoughts […] While this sort of ‘delusionally positive’ thinking may make one feel better in some (or even many) situations, as a long-term life strategy it is utterly disastrous,” (2021). The evidence provided to support this suggests that the Secret may be harmful to those who have mental disorders or tendencies toward compulsive thinking, “psychological research shows that trying to suppress thoughts about something only makes those thoughts more likely to recur,” (Manson, 2021). This likely stereotype to those who follow the Secret, that one might be “delusionally positive,” is jarring to hear but easy to imagine as a possibility.
Being a part of a community of individuals who are only connected only through philosophy and not through a church or school as most communities are, keeping optimism and a positive perspective can be difficult in a world where most people are outwardly pessimistic. To this, it is easy to see how optimism can be taken as “delusional” and positive messages can be taken too literally where they no longer make sense. The Secret does not propose to “suppress thoughts,” all of the interviewees go through their own process on how they transform their perspectives and acknowledge the work it takes (2006b) and this should be thought of as “replacement” rather than suppression. This is one example of how the Secret can be taken to the extreme, or too literally, but it can be admitted that those with mental disorders ought to seek professional guidance in terms of their own thinking process – philosophies may work better for some than others. In considering the fact that I was 9 years old when The Secret was shown to me, one could say that I did not choose to belong to this “delusional” community, but in contrast, I did choose to watch the documentary hundreds of times following the first experience, showing it to my closest friends in order for them to understand my line of thinking.
The history of the Law of Attraction is ancient, although Byrne did not write the exact origins of the Secret within the 2006 documentary. The first appearance of the words “the law of attraction” can be found in the 1877 book called Isis Unveiled by Russian philosopher Helena Blavatsky, which summarized and solidified her own philosophical school of Theosophy.
“By whatsoever name the physicists may call the energizing principle in matter is of no account; it is a subtile something apart from the matter itself, and, as it escapes their detection, it must be something besides matter. If the law of attraction is admitted as governing the one, why should it be excluded from influencing the other? […] we have the unimpeachable testimony of thousands upon thousands, that there is a regular science of the soul,” (Blavatsky, 1877, p. 340).
Across all chapters of her book, Blavatsky points to the ancient Greek Hermetics and Egyptians as the originators of thought as both matter and spirit working together (1877). In more recent studies, the title of the first work in Greek Hermetics, Poimandres, has been translated to mean “knowing of” or “understanding of Re,” the Egyptian sun god (Trismegistus, 1995). The title of Blavatsky’s work, Isis Unveiled, is explained in her preface, “we stepped in spirit within the temple of Isis; to lift aside the veil of ‘the one that is and was and shall be’ at Sais,” (1877). In Sais, an ancient Egyptian city, there is a statue of Isis that reads “I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised” (Plutarch, n.d.). Meaning that Blavatsky attempted to unveil a truth that no mortal has ever successfully done, while also showing great respect for the originators of the philosophies by identifying them as such.
Just before Blavatsky, a 19th-century metaphysician named Phineas Quimby popularized the philosophies of the Secret and this “became known as New Thought” and “a practice of psychological healing,” basing its origins as a new form of mesmerism, which is a healing technique that utilizes the use of forces and energies to form hypnotic-like states to affect both the world and body (Pickren and Rutherford, 2010, pp. 77-79). The “New Thought” movement was started without any major written texts but with Quimby’s method of “intense empathy” to find and correct “false beliefs” proven and bolstered by others; and mesmerism similarly so (Pickren and Rutherford, 2010). In considering both Quimby’s New Thought and Blavatsky’s Theosophy, the Secret may find more literary depth in the former but the two are considerably alike. The feeling of profound happiness is said to lead to a happy body, and changing beliefs to a more welcomed perspective can create happier feelings, attracting a happier life (Byrne, 2006). And so it can be seen that communities of Secret thinkers can be found throughout all of time, it is only the nomenclature that changes between them.
An experience that has helped me understand why I have been following the Secret happened during my winter break in school, in December of 2017. It was a month where a lot of time was spent in my father’s office watching television and I was feeling the need to change jobs, I had learned all I needed to know from the one I had at the time and wanted to move onto another challenge. A word that I kept hearing on TV and popping in my mind was “Ambassador” – “I’m an ambassador,” I said, smiling at myself. We would often watch one of the Star Trek series and on these shows, the ambassadors would also seem very important and respected, and the word itself just sounds cool. Without looking up what the word means, I got an email from my college asking if I wanted to apply to an ambassador program. And then without asking what the pay would be or how many hours I would get, I got the position and quit my job. Being one of three ambassadors, I only worked a few hours a week and the pay was not very agreeable. Luckily I was living rent-free with my parents and so I was able to see past losing a great deal of money in every paycheck.
The ambassador position was very different from my previous jobs and I was not actually sure what it even was. One day I asked my boss, “what is it that I do? I really enjoy it.” And he said, “public relations” explaining roughly what that was. It was that month that I had finally chosen a major to study outside of philosophy. Advertising/public relations (PR) classes have unpacked a huge and contemporary world of human communications that philosophy classes largely do not have the time for, including business from the inside out; psychology in all publics; and philosophy with the metaphysics of branding and the ethics in communication. For me, following the Secret allowed me the opportunity to go from one word to an entirely focused career in philosophy, which was something that I was struggling to find. Hilariously enough, advertising/PR can easily be explained as an interest because it is often shown on television. Another proven Secret success story that could be added here is my focus on television and movie production advertising/PR and finding a job with a production company doing just that, a company that also values its philosophies in making equipment accessible to all social classes.
In understanding the Secret as a way of life, one metaphor for the values I have gained can be found in my appreciation for gardening and the art of bonsai. It was the summer of 2016 when my father bought me my first bonsai tree, though that tree is not alive today, the light he bought me for growing my own garden has been lit ever since. When one wants to plant a seed, it is important to first prepare the soil; filling the dirt with the right amount of water and packing it down precisely right takes time. Often it can be beneficial to plant more than one seed in order to have success in gaining a sprout. After this, one has to be patient and understand how much light, water, and heat a seed may need to grow. But before preparing the soil and planting the seed, choosing the right seed can be advantageous as well: has the seed expired? Is it poisonous or pet-friendly? Do you have the right environment for the plant to grow? And then once everything is said and done, each alteration to a bonsai tree takes years to train for the tree to stand without any support. One may need to have a positive attitude to attract their dreams and goals, but it is still up to that person to guide themselves and choose the right path, understanding that dreams can never truly come instantaneously and without any effort.
Rhonda Byrne’s documentary did not offer us the dawn of the Law of Attraction, but it has been found that the magic of thought and words can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians time and time again. Living this way has also shown to spring the values that can be found in ancient Egyptian literature and belief systems. One illustration of this can be found in “The Teaching for King Merikare,” a guidebook written by a king for his son: “Be proficient in speech, so that you may be strong, / For the strength of a king is his tongue. / Words are mightier than any struggle, / And no one can outsmart him who is skilled of heart,” (Simpson, 2003, p. 155). Good speech that reflects respect, education, patience, kindness is consequential for leaders to practice, “for as you do, so it will be done to you” (Simpson, 2003, p. 160). This passing down of knowledge can be dated back to nearly 5000 years ago in the Old Kingdom (History.com Editors, 2009), and shows that ethics of reciprocity and regarding words themselves as powerful is the mainstay of the Secret’s roots.
Blavatsky’s keen attention to the Egyptian origin in 1877, and later research to find her other source as stemming from the “understanding of Re” (Trismegistus, 1995), another example to add would be from “The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant,” which comes from a peasant who presents nine speeches to a local judge for rectification as a nobleman stole his property (Simpson, 2003, p. 25). Due to his eloquence, the peasant is forced to plead without any effect nine times as these were written and shared with the king; during the third speech, the peasant humbly pleads “You are Re, the lord of heaven, with your attendants; / The provisions of all mankind are from you as from the ﬂood,” (Simpson, 2003, p. 34). Leaders, and especially those in working for justice, are expected to reflect the highest virtues of the gods, and so in his eighth speech the peasant says, “You do not give me due recompense for this ﬁne speech / Which comes from the mouth of Re himself. / Speak Ma’at! Perform Ma’at!” (Simpson, 2003, p. 42) In ancient Egyptian, the word “Ma’at” means “order and righteousness” as well as “practical justice” and this is the focal point of this story (Simpson, 2003, p. 25). Ma’at is one of four different personifications of Re, where others stand for “thought,” “speech,” and “protection,” and it is said that to write these schemas down was to produce more power to them (Van Den Dungen, 2016). The importance of writing in Egypt is partially hinted at in The Secret, as the interviewees suggest us to write down everything in order to visualize or to feel grateful easier and more thoroughly (2006b). Within the Secret, having faith in the Universe’s order is the one true way to follow the Law of Attraction and as this tale shows, as the peasant does gain justice by his ninth speech, patience may be the one thing that can fruitfully show this sort of faith. This perspective on Re may potentially be familiar to some as Karma, as Re is written to provide the tools for what we know as justice; through the idea of Karma, we can be calmed by the knowledge that the right outcomes will come. Through the eloquence of the peasant, it can be seen that the order in the Universe requires effort, patience, and persistence from those who ask of it, and from thought to speech to writing the effort will not go unnoticed.
While there are skeptics out there who think that The Secret may be “delusionally positive” or not right for everyone, there is undoubtedly a long history for the Law of Attraction. There is power in the words we use and without a positive perspective, life will often seem more unjust than it is; and by having a better attitude toward life, the things that we want or may need to orbit themselves towards us. In watching this documentary at an influential age, my perspective does include my bias towards its success but this can also be called faith in the Universe and its order. Through researching the origins of this mode of life, more and more can be learned about how different cultures across the world practice curating their thoughts as they affect the world around them. Taking everything into account, The Secret was a jumpstart to my finding philosophies in the same teachings like in Buddhism and more recently in Egyptian thought, and I would welcome disbelief to help provide further explanation.
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