What The Secret Law of Attraction Leaves Out

Philip Goldberg Featured Articles

Now that “The Secret” has been revealed on “Larry King Live” and “Oprah,” it’s tempting to say it is no longer a secret. Millions of people are adjusting the contents of their thoughts to align their minds with “The Law of Attraction” and get the things they want. It seems to me this latest craze offers a good opportunity to contemplate some deep spiritual truths.

First, before I’m accused of being too critical, a couple of caveats:

1. I have no argument with the principles expressed in “The Secret.” Whether it’s accurate to call them “laws” the same way that gravity and thermodynamics are laws is arguable, but the idea that thoughts have power and energy is consistent with every metaphysical system I’m aware of. That the content of our thoughts has a strong influence on what happens to us in life is also consistent with spiritual teachings, not to mention common sense. Clearly, sick people who think they’ll heal are likely to do much better than those who think they’re doomed, and I’d rather invest in entrepreneurs who believe they’ll succeed than in someone who’s consumed by the fear of ruin.

2. I have nothing against material prosperity. Going after the good things in life is not, in itself, an impediment to spiritual fulfillment. It can even be a steppingstone.

What gives me pause about “The Secret” is not the secret itself but the hype surrounding it: specifically, the emphasis on getting rich, and the assertion that anyone who follows instructions can, should and will fulfill every one of their desires, guaranteed. The danger is that people will forget about the deeper spiritual laws and look for happiness in all the wrong places.

The secret that’s missing from “The Secret” is at the heart of every spiritual teaching, whether Jesus’s “lilies of the fields” sermon or Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: what you desire matters a great deal, as does the intensity with which you crave it and the degree to which you’re attached to having it.

In a culture that stokes the fire of acquisitive craving at every turn—to the detriment of the planet as well as our souls—it’s useful to remember what all the wisdom traditions teach: don’t pin your hopes for lasting happiness on sensory pleasures or material possessions; they are, by their very nature, impermanent, perishable, or incomplete. Every teaching, East and West, holds that feverish cravings are a setup for disappointment and frustration; whatever joy and satisfaction we gain from a desire fulfilled will inevitably fade, only to be replaced by another craving.

Not that we should stop wanting pleasure and prosperity and worthwhile achievements—as if we could—but rather that we should play those worldly games without any illusion that winning will give us what we’re really, truly searching for deep in our hearts: the imperishable peace and bliss that comes only from awakening to our divine Essence. Material wealth might make that search more comfortable, but it’s not a prerequisite and it can also be a distraction. Therefore, we are advised to direct the energy of desire first and foremost to the inner quest and enjoy the fleeting pleasures of worldly life as icing on the cake.

To their credit, the spokespersons for “The Secret” emphasize that one key to getting what you want is to be grateful for what you already have. This comes close to indicating the spiritual truth that the source of happiness, peace and fulfillment is present within us at the core of being, and it’s ours to access, whether we get the things we want or not. Awakening to that truth—not just intellectually but by direct contact—would seem to be the premiere goal, and a fine platform on which to use principles like “The Secret” to achieve worthy goals (seek ye first the kingdom, as Jesus put it, and all the rest will be added).

So, go for it. Think right, do right and get what you want. But while you’re doing it, keep some things in mind: 1) the satisfaction you gain from any fulfilled desire will be temporary, 2) don’t let yourself get overly attached to getting what you think you want, 3) be prepared to accept graciously what the universe delivers (to paraphrase Bob Dylan, your mind knows what you want, but God knows what you need), 4) seek the sublime union with the Sacred in the depths of your being, where the ups and downs of outer life can’t penetrate.

While you’re at it, think carefully about what you really want, beyond all the glitter and gold and ego gratification. “When all your desires are distilled,” sang the Sufi poet Hafiz, “you will cast just two votes: to love more, and be happy.” Why not adjust your desires upward, toward that which is most generous, noble and enduring? And why not apply some portion of your mind power for the good of others and our wounded planet as well?