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Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret:
Anatomy of a Pop Culture Phenomenon

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Rhonda Byrne
The Secret
New York: Atria Books/Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words Publishing, 2006

DVD:
The Secret (Extended Edition)
TS Productions, 2006

Many whites embrace New Age beliefs; sometimes the beliefs have venerable roots.

Several years ago a bestselling self-improvement book and video in this vein—both entitled The Secret—by Australian TV producer (Sensing Murder, World’s Greatest Commercials, Marry Me) Rhonda Byrne (née Izon) caused an international sensation. Both were phenomenal successes, and sold millions of copies. Although the book has been translated into 42 languages and the DVD into 31, it is certain that whites constitute the vast majority of Byrne’s audience.

In 2010 Byrne published a follow-up book, The Power.

What is The Secret?

We are told: “The Secret is the Law of Attraction.”

The essence of the “Law of Attraction,” not a new concept, is that ideas powerfully shape, indeed determine, inner and outer reality. We possess the power to direct and control our ideas and emotions, thereby attracting to ourselves wealth, health, love, or anything else we desire, transforming our lives and the world in the process. We also cause bad things to happen when our thoughts and emotions are misdirected. Although the exact mechanisms by which the process operates are not understood, it works, and therefore can be beneficially employed, much as we flip a light switch to turn on a light or turn a key in the ignition to start a car without understanding how electricity works.

Byrne writes, “The Secret reveals how you can change every aspect of your life. You can turn any weakness or suffering into strength, power, unlimited abundance, health and joy. Everything is possible, nothing is impossible. There are no limits. Whatever you can dream of can be yours, when you use The Secret.”

Byrne’s Awakening

Byrne’s New Age epiphany was triggered by a series of personal and financial disasters beginning with the death of her father in 2004. At her lowest ebb, Byrne’s 24-year-old daughter Hayley handed her a photocopy of a 1910 book by New Thought pioneer Wallace Wattles (The Science of Getting Rich), saying, “Read this. Everything will be OK.”

The book transformed Byrne’s life. (She states that she was “asleep” before her discovery of The Secret. “It lit a fire in me. It was exactly the opposite of the way I thought life worked.”) In two and a half weeks (she says) she read “hundreds” of books tracing “the secret” back to 3000 B.C. She also resolved to make a film revealing her discovery to the world.

Although Byrne envisaged a worldwide release for her film, broadcasters were unwilling to touch it. After it became an international sensation it was shown on Australian television network Channel Nine, which partially financed it.

Instead, The Secret quickly went viral via paid Internet streaming and DVD sales through a website established by Byrne, where it is still available today.

What really catapulted The Secret to the top of the lists, however, was its promotion on two episodes of Oprah.

The Secret book and movie (which closely track one another) cobble together brief snatches of inspirational statements by twenty-four little-known (outside of their field) motivational speakers and writers—white, Negro, and Jewish—whom Byrne calls “teachers.”

The film’s fast-paced, Da Vinci Code/National Treasure-style opening sequences melodramatically insinuate the existence of an explicit, discrete, millenniums-old “Secret” with secret society (specifically, Rosicrucian) traditions surrounding it. (Which is hokum.)

For example, “The Secret was Buried” shows the text of the Emerald Tablet, a mainstay of medieval and Renaissance alchemy purportedly written by a mythical Greco-Egyptian deity named Hermes Trismegistus, being copied onto a scroll and buried near the Pyramids of Giza.

“The Secret was Coveted” shows a Knight Templar handing the scroll to a sinister-looking Catholic priest.

In “The Secret was Suppressed” a cabal of evil white businessmen conceals “the secret” from the masses in order to enrich themselves at humanity’s expense. (This familiar trope, not the “Learned Elders of Zion,” is, together with ubiquitous “racists” and “Nazis” under every bed, contemporary society’s most cherished conspiracy theory.) Even Newsweek felt compelled to ask: “Is it really true that a cabal of elites has conspired to keep the rabble from getting their hands on Chicken Soup for the Soul?”)

Readers wishing to sample the movie can watch the first 20 minutes of it here (8.3 million hits so far).

The Teachers

Rhonda Byrne

One of The Secret‘s “teachers,” “Dr.” Denis Waitley, propagates the conspiracy theory in the movie. (It does not feature as prominently in the book.) A year after The Secret appeared, it was discovered that Waitley did not possess his claimed Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; his supposed Ph.D. from the unaccredited La Jolla University cannot be verified either.

Two prominently featured Negro teachers are Lisa Nichols and dreadlocked, charismatic Michael Bernard Beckwith, a minister at Culver City, California’s Agape International Spiritual Center. This (non-Christian) church, which Byrne, who now lives in Los Angeles, attends weekly, reportedly has 7,000 members, 1,500 of whom might show up on any given Sunday. Celebrity Negro congregants include LeVar Burton, Vanessa Williams, Stevie Wonder, and Vondie Curtis-Hall; white celebrants include Christina Applegate and Hilary Swank. Forty percent of Agape’s members are said to be Jewish—many still active in synagogues.

Jewish teachers featured in The Secret are Marie Diamond, Hale Dwoskin, Morris Goodman, David Schirmer, Marci Shimoff, and loopy physicist Fred Alan Wolf.

Bill Harris is an ambiguous character who may or may not be Jewish. He tells a long, tedious story about an alleged persecuted homosexual that screams “tall tale” as loudly as anything ever related by a Jew with a number furtively tattooed onto his arm after the war.

The remaining teachers are mostly white. With physicist John Hagelin, the director of the Transcendental Meditation movement in the US and former associate of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles’ Hindu guru), the most notable are John Canfield, creator of the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and John Gray, author of the bestselling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992).

Gray, like Hagelin, was long associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. A few years ago he signed a 9/11 truth petition calling for “immediate inquiry into evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur.”

Gurus David Schirmer and James Arthur Ray are currently experiencing difficulties. Ray is facing criminal charges and civil lawsuits stemming from the 2009 accidental deaths of participants in his sweat lodge ceremony modeled on Amerindian practices, and Schirmer has been exposed on Australian television as a con man. In 2010 the Australia Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) banned Schirmer from providing financial services for life.

Pantheistic Underpinnings

William Pierce

Two physicists often skewered as proponents of “quantum mysticism,” Fred Alan Wolf and John Hagelin, assay a scientific explanation of The Secret.

“The Universe,” Hagelin says, “essentially emerges from thought and all of this matter around us is just precipitated thought. Ultimately we are the source of the Universe. So we are the creators not only of our own destiny, but ultimately we are the creators of Universal destiny. We are the creators of the Universe.” (160)

“All that exists,” in Byrne’s words, “is the One Universal Mind, and there is nowhere that the One Mind is not. It exists in everything. The One Mind is all intelligence, all wisdom, and all perfection, and it is everything and everywhere at the same time. If everything is the One Universal Mind, and the whole of it exists everywhere, then it is all in You!” (160-61)

Black preacher Michael Bernard Beckwith states: “We could say that we are another way that the Universe is becoming conscious of itself. We could say that we are the infinite field of unfolding possibility.” (164)

All of this parallels aspects of the pantheistic Cosmotheism ( 123 ) of white nationalist and physicist William Pierce, who said:

No man, no race, not even this planet, exists as an end in itself. The only thing which exists as an end in its self is the whole. The whole of which the things I just named are parts. The universe is the physical manifestation of the whole. The whole is continually changing and always will be. It is evolving. That is, it is moving toward ever more complex, ever higher, states of existence. . . . an evolution not only in the sense of yielding more and more highly developed physical forms, but also an evolution in consciousness. It is an evolution in the self-consciousness of the whole. From the beginning, the whole, the creator, the self-created, has followed, has in fact embodied, an upward urge — an urge toward higher and higher degrees of self-consciousness, toward ever more nearly perfect states of self-realization. . . . Today’s threshold is a threshold in self-consciousness. We stand now on the verge of a full understanding of the fact that we are a manifestation of the creator, that we are the means and the substance by which the creator, by which the whole of which we are a part, can continue its self-evolution. . . . We are not the playthings of God but are ourselves a manifestation of God and can become, must become, now a conscious manifestation. (William Pierce, “Our Cause” [1976]. Text | Audio)

Criticism

Byrne says she read “hundreds” of books in two and a half weeks after her epiphany, and the movie was produced within about a year. The resulting superficiality in form and substance shows in both versions of The Secret.

The movie looks low-budget, although it actually cost $3 million to produce and had a large cast and crew.

The film is hokey and New Agey. The statements of its motivational gurus are interspersed with smarmy, gooey footage of Third Worlders (thankfully, Auschwitz and Adolf Hitler were omitted) and quotes from plastic saints such as Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa (along with less tiresome individuals)—which possess a powerful appeal for Oprah Winfrey’s white fans and Rhonda Byrne, but is off-putting to me. The dramatic sequences are unimpressive, including shots of Aladdin and the genie in which Aladdin is jarringly portrayed by an Oriental with a Mestizo surname.

If I’d seen the DVD before the book, I would not have finished it and not checked out the book, either. The latter, though better than the movie, leaves a lot to be desired.

Conclusion

It is surprising that this particular presentation of positive thinking/New Thought ideas reached a larger audience than previous works, with the possible exception of teachers like Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale. Several older books listed by Byrne on her website present essentially the same philosophical-religious viewpoint more soberly and persuasively, in my view.

One of the useful Special Features of the DVD is an hour-and-a-half dialogue in the form of an audio (no video) interview of Rhonda Byrne (who rarely appears in public, though she is seen in the film) by her producer, Paul Harrington. Harrington does not share Byrne’s philosophy—at least not in its extreme form—although Byrne seems unaware of this.

At bottom, The Secret conveys a positive, empowering message that Byrne, unfortunately, pushes to an extreme.

“Imperfect thoughts are the cause of all humanity’s ills, including disease, poverty, and unhappiness.” (130)

“Beliefs about aging are all in our minds. Aging is limited thinking. You can think your way to the perfect state of health, the perfect body, the perfect weight, and eternal youth.” (131)

“Just the simple process of letting go of negative thoughts will allow your natural state of health to emerge within you. And your body will heal itself.” (134)

“I’ve seen kidneys regenerated. I’ve seen cancer dissolved. I’ve seen eyesight improve and come back.” (Beckwith quote, 134)

In particular, Byrne’s position is that right thinking alone is enough. You can simply wish things into being without action or effort.

Yet, curiously, at least from Byrne’s perspective, The Secret‘s monumental success serves as a ringing affirmation of her belief.

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5 Comments

  1. Ryan Oblivion
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    If Max Weber wrote a book about capitalism today it would probably be called “The New Age Multicultural Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

  2. LightofApollo
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    This article reminds me that I should get around to reading Upton’s Systems of the Antichrist, which is all about this New Age kind of thinking (which is a sinister counterfeit of Tradition) and related postmodernist thinking.

  3. Posted November 29, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Excellent book from Feral House:

    “The Secret Source” reveals the actual occult doctrines that gave birth to “The Law of Attraction” and inspired the media phenomenon known as” The Secret.”

    Why did “The Secret” divulge only one of the seven Hermetic Laws? What are the others, what do they say, and how could they enrich your life?

    “The Secret Source” provides the actual texts and fascinating stories behind the “Emerald Tablet,” the Kabbalistic treatise known as “The Kybalion,” and Manly P. Hall’s essay on the occult movement that produced it.

    Maja D’Aoust lectures at the Philosophical Research Society; Adam Parfrey, editor of “Apocalypse Culture,” is writing a history of secret societies in America; and Jodi Wille is editing a book on the mystical commune known as “The Source.” Manly P. Hall is the author of” The Secret Teachings of All Ages.”

  4. Amanda Bradley
    Posted December 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    “If I’d seen the DVD before the book, I would not have finished it and not checked out the book, either. The latter, though better than the movie, leaves a lot to be desired.”

    I rented this movie years ago but could not finish it–I’ve really never seen anything worse.

    This film/book has received a lot of criticism for how wrong it is and how much distortion it contains. The idea behind the criticism is that there will be a lot of stupid Americans thinking that merely wishing for something can make it come true or puts “energy” toward it. While the power of “positive thinking” is certainly helpful, this book/movie errs in attributing a metaphysical quality to the intellect–which means that it is a perversion of anything related to its supposed sources like the Emerald Tablet. Even popular writers like Edgar Cayce at least included a transcendent aspect to their work and message, so it is disheartening that something that is so materialistic (in its technique and what people are “wishing” for) has become so popular. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything different in the Kali Yuga.

  5. Silver
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    The idea behind the criticism is that there will be a lot of stupid Americans thinking that merely wishing for something can make it come true or puts “energy” toward it.

    In fairness, Americans were busy at prayer for many years before “The Secret.”

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