I can't believe I'm doing this. At the encouragement of a friend, I
am reading a New Age book, and participating in a New Age event.
Next Monday, Oprah's Book Club is presenting a Live Web Event: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, with author Eckhart Tolle. This is from Tolle's invitation to the ten-week online course:
I invite you to join Oprah and myself in our weekly online sessions. We will be studying A New Earth, but not as an academic subject or in order to acquire new theories or beliefs. Our aim is to explore through the teachings of the book the most important question you can ask: What is the purpose of my life and how do I fulfill that purpose? It will be a course in self-exploration and awakening. It will help you see what the dysfunctional patterns are within yourself that create unnecessary conflict and suffering and prevent you from finding true fulfillment. Hopefully, it will also help you access a dimension within yourself that perhaps you didn't know existed or only caught glimpses of on rare occasions. Don't be trapped for the rest of your life within the narrow confines of your personal history and your conditioned personality and allow your life to be transformed from within, through the power of consciousness itself.
Let's see, it's all there: belief, teachings, purpose, self- exploration, awakening, dysfunctional, suffering, fulfillment, dimension, transformation, consciousness. All the New Age touchstones. The first chapter of this book (The Flowering of Human Consciousness) even uses flowers, crystals, precious stones, and birds as metaphors for enlightenment.
I am going to write about this experience, to clarify for myself why I am annoyed -- even worried -- by much New Age thought; and why I am, nonetheless, interested in it. Two years ago, I worked through -- and wrote about -- The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. I suspect that I will encounter some of the same problems, conflicts, resistance, and discoveries with this book.
Some of you may know that Oprah has a fondness for this sort of reading. She has previously promoted a book and movie called The Secret. I have not seen the movie, I have not read the book, and I don't plan to do either. Like many other such examples of mushy reasoning, this one leaps from the power of positive thinking to you make your own reality with no apparent blushing, no bridge, and no evidence.
Not too long ago, one of your viewers—a woman named Kim—wrote you to announce that she had decided to halt her breast-cancer treatments and heal herself with her mind. Kim had just seen your two shows dedicated to The Secret, the self-help phenomenon that says we shape the world with our thoughts, and she was inspired to bet her life on it.
You're an optimistic lady, Oprah, but this gave even you the willies. So you went on the air to "clarify your thoughts" about the Law of Attraction, The Secret's underlying theory that mind conjures matter. You implored Kim to go back to her treatments. And you told your audience that the Law of Attraction "is not the answer to everything. It is not the answer to atrocities or every tragedy."
If The Secret's logic is to be believed, then those who are hungry are not envisioning food hard enough, those without running water aren't imagining the feeling of satiation with enough enthusiasm. It doesn't matter if you are born in the Sudan or San Francisco, according to The Secret's catch-all claim; you can always fantasize your way into "massive wealth." ...
This point of view neglects the effects of government policy, class, race, gender, geography, and a host of other systemic influences on the kind of wealth -- and life -- one is able to create...
The idea that people invite abuse or oppression with their thoughts is insulting. The Secret crew only acknowledges this interpretation briefly: "Often when people first hear this...they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time...those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time." I can't begin to imagine how offensive this claim must be to those who have lost family members under horrific circumstances, like the massacres in Rwanda or the events of September 11th.
Most scathingly, Peter Birkenhead at Salon writes:
Worse than "The Secret's" blame-the-victim idiocy is its baldfaced bullshitting. The titular "secret" of the book is something the authors call the Law of Attraction. They maintain that the universe is governed by the principle that "like attracts like" and that our thoughts are like magnets: Positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract negative events. Of course, magnets do exactly the opposite -- positively charged magnets attract negatively charged particles -- and the rest of "The Secret" has a similar relationship to the truth ... And worse than the idiocy and the bullshitting is its anti-intellectualism, because that's at the root of the other two.
These excerpts demonstrate very well my own problems with much of the material we've seen in the last few decades on spirituality and self-improvement. So often, these writers misread, misinterpret, or misstate what we know -- or think we know -- about our world and our place in it. Usually these distortions have to do with an inflated view of individual choice and empowerment, and the significance of our (human) place in the universe. We want to feel powerful -- perhaps this feeling is necessary for our survival -- so we pretend to have more than we do; we pretend that others have more than they do; and we desperately want to believe that there is something more.
Perhaps this sense of something more is a mere trick of our biology, some genetic quirk that may contribute to our survival, or may be irrelevant. Or -- perhaps -- there really is something more, something unmeasureable, or, at least, not yet measured. We have a long history of human thought that insists so.
Like many others, caught in the net of circumstance, personality, and character -- I find myself wanting, in all the senses that implies. I find myself wanting, and so I look in the available places for something to fill that want, or repair it, or explain it, or make it go away. I try to open my heart without closing my mind, to use an old but still expressive metaphor. And, since writing seems to be part of my purpose just now, I shall record this particular seeking in this particular place, and trust you to help me see what I may be missing, or misinterpreting, or misstating, myself.
So. I begin again.
P.S. I meant to mention, the articles excerpted above are well worth a read, if these issues are of interest to you; and the comment threads are, too. The comments include many vehement defenses of both Oprah and The Secret. Not being, myself, an extraordinary person who has changed countless lives, I am not in a position to criticize Oprah, and don't mean this as such a criticism.