Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Secret" Proves Deadly

By now most of you have probably already read about the case of two people who died during a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona at the beginning of this month. Police have announced that they will be investigating the deaths as homicides and are inquiring into whether or not the sponsor of the event, self-help author James Arthur Ray, had any idea of what he was doing in putting together the sweat lodge ceremony.

A search warrant was executed Wednesday at the James Ray International offices in Carlsbad, California, the sheriff said. Authorities were attempting to determine whether documents exist on how to construct sweat lodges and on their proper use, as well as documents showing whether participants were advised of the risks of sweat lodges either before or during the program.

One of the things that I did not realize when I first heard the story is that James Arthur Ray is one of the more prominant individuals teaching the spiritual method that Rhonda Byrne wrote about in "The Secret," a modern interpretation of the New Thought Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that has recently been embraced as part of New Age theology. New Thought postulates that the universe is made of thought, and as a result you attract positive situations to yourself by thinking positive thoughts and attract negative situations to yourself by thinking negative thoughts. Physics never even enters into the equation.

I've criticized "The Secret" a number of times on this blog, and this case is a perfect example of everything that's wrong with it - what negative thoughts was Ray thinking that killed two of his students and has landed him in the middle of a murder investigation? If the model of the universe proposed by "The Secret" is correct he must have drawn this experience to himself and clearly should not be teaching others because he has not even mastered his own mind. On the other hand, if the postulates that make up "The Secret" are wrong Ray shouldn't be teaching either because the subject matter is bunk.

I'll say it one more time in the hopes of moving my comments further up in the search engine listings. "The Secret" is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of magick. Reality isn't made of thought, reality is made of energy. Thought is less substantial than energy. There's a reason that it's easier to light a fire with a lighter than it is with a thought, even for experienced magical practitioners. That doesn't mean thought is useless for manipulating the physical world, but rather that it is limited in its effectiveness.

My friend Frater Barrabbas posted an article on his blog earlier this month about practical magick. I'll repeat an excerpt from my comment on that article here because it explains the basic truth that "The Secret" completely glosses over.

The laws of probability make the role of mundane action in practical magical operations abundantly clear. To use the lottery example at the beginning of the article, it is possible for a lottery spell to be successful even if the magician doesn't buy a ticket - he or she could, say, happen upon a winning ticket lying on the sidewalk while out for a stroll. It's just that such a thing is very unlikely, much more so than picking a jackpot winning number. If your magical powers are such that you can produce a probability shift of 100 to 1 against or even 1000 to 1 against there's really no point in bothering unless you shift the odds into a more reasonable range by buying a ticket. Similarly, you can do a spell for a better job and there's a possibility that you will just happen to be out at a party or something one evening and meet the right person, but again your odds are a lot better if you send out resumes and go through the usual job-hunting steps in addition to casting a spell.

The key to understanding this is that magick is not all-powerful, despite the fallacious arguments of skeptics that imply if you can do anything paranormal it automatically implies that you can do everything paranormal. In my experience, there is a limit to the probability shift that any given magician can produce and the key to successful practical magick is to take enough mundane actions that your goal falls within that probability range.

The positive visualization advocated by "The Secret" can be useful, but many of the teachers who talk about the method treat it as all-powerful. The idea that any bad circumstance you experience must have been drawn to you by your own negative thinking is a wonderful exercise in victim-blaming that I encourage James Arthur Ray and others to clarify, especially in light of the "circumstances" that Ray apparently "drew to himself" in conducting this deadly sweat lodge ceremony.

My guess is that in this case "The Secret" will prove to be the root of negligence on the part of Ray and his staff. After all, if the universe is made of thought and ruled by good intentions as long as none of the people working on the sweat lodge ceremony wanted anyone to be killed nobody would be, even if serious errors were made in the lodge's construction. Unfortunately for the victims the universe is made of energy, heat is energy, and energy is a lot more tangible than thought.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, in this article I'm using the term "energy" to mean tangible, physical energy - in this particular case heat. I'm not talking about "psychic energy" or "magical energy," which I agree are terms that get thrown around pretty freely among magicians and often don't correspond to anything physical. I think the last sentence makes that pretty clear, but at least a couple of readers seem to have gotten the impression that I was saying "thought is less substantial than psychic energy." Obviously, that's a meaningless statement without some way to physically quantify "psychic energy."

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13 comments:

Patrick said...

The Secret is bullshit, true that. But you're wrong about why it's bullshit. If reality is "energy," then magic can't work, because the world is material and deterministic. If magic works, it works because our minds are primary.

The Secret is bullshit because it doesn't teach how to organize and discipline the mind in order to change reality. It just suggests that general and vague good wishes will do it.

Ananael Qaa said...

If reality is "energy," then magic can't work, because the world is material and deterministic.

That doesn't follow, though. Quantum physics is all about energy states and still is not a deterministic model. The energy that makes up the universe is governed by probability functions, and magick allows us to use thought as a tool to manipulate those probability functions up to a point. At least, that's been my working hypothesis for quite a few years and so far it fits all of my experimental data.

If mind really is "primary," shouldn't a skillful enough magician be able to materialize objects, walk through walls, or throw Dungeons and Dragons style fireballs? I've met plenty of practitioners in my life, some of them very good, and none of them have ever been able to do such things. Or is that not what you meant?

The Secret is bullshit because it doesn't teach how to organize and discipline the mind in order to change reality.

On this, though, I agree 100%. Without the ability to focus the will on a single thought the mind really can't be used as an effective tool to influence material events.

Optimystc said...

It seems that this comes down to a difference between the element of Fire and that of Air.

Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out about this phenomenon. Its called "Bright Sided" and talks about how and why Americans have adopted the philosophy of relentless positivity as a reaction against Calvinism. She is on tour right now lecturing about this very phenomenon.

Here's one of her interviews:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0R4BsbklchU

Robert-Joseph said...

The energy that makes up the universe is governed by probability functions, and magick allows us to use thought as a tool to manipulate those probability functions up to a point. At least, that's been my working hypothesis for quite a few years and so far it fits all of my experimental data.

Energy and matter are intimately connected, and both are relatively very complex. As such they are native to lower planes. Once you get into higher planes both energy and matter cease to be, but thought holds out quite a bit longer.

That's why the HGA is necessary for higher workings. The physical body is composed mostly of matter, and the astral body is composed mostly of energy, and neither one can exist beyond the first triad, necessitating the HGA as an alternate body.


If mind really is "primary," shouldn't a skillful enough magician be able to materialize objects, walk through walls, or throw Dungeons and Dragons style fireballs? I've met plenty of practitioners in my life, some of them very good, and none of them have ever been able to do such things. Or is that not what you meant?


I'm working on it dude. I've actually gotten partway through the wall before I lose focus and think 'oh my god, I'm walking into it'. Also managed to light candles on fire with my mind, but that probably had a lot to do with using fire elementals in all of my spellwork as of late.

For years now certain people have been running around yelling 'Magick doesn't work like that, you can't just fly around on broomsticks and shoot fireballs from your hands' and getting everyone to believe this. And now no one's flying on broomsticks and running around bringing flaming death to their enemies. I wonder why that is.

Ananael Qaa said...

I've actually gotten partway through the wall before I lose focus and think 'oh my god, I'm walking into it'.

What happens then? Does part of you wind up stuck in the wall?

Also managed to light candles on fire with my mind,

I'd love to have a reliable technique for that if you're willing to share.

And now no one's flying on broomsticks and running around bringing flaming death to their enemies.

But did people ever do that? I'll clarify - I know that cursing enemies has gone on since the dawn of time and I've done it myself, quite effectively. But flying around on broomsticks? The Malleus Maleficarum is not exactly a reliable source for medieval magical practices.

I also don't buy the belief-only model of magick, especially across populations. It should make no difference what most people around you believe when you cast a spell, and I've never seen any evidence that this is the case. If everyone in the world believed in magick I'm convinced that my powers would work exactly the same. If anything, they would be less effective because more people would be to influence the environment and many of their goals would likely be opposed to mine.

In my opinion the only kernal of truth behind the belief-only model is that doubt acts as a negative factor because it divides the mind's attention. But you can't "believe more" in order to increase your powers. Once you believe something, you believe it, and increase your abilities beyond that point you need to work with things like your own subtle body, external spirits, ritual procedure optimizations, and so forth.

Robert-Joseph said...


What happens then? Does part of you wind up stuck in the wall?


I'm not trying to walk through the wall in the traditional sense. For the life of me I can't imagine a reason why I'd want to do that rather than use a door. I'm trying to figure out how to do something akin to what I can do on the astral, which is to use anything (wall, floor) as a doorway which I can walk through and end up somewhere else. So far when the act fails I end up right in front of the wall. If I can't get this to work, I have another theory.

I'd love to have a reliable technique for that if you're willing to share.

Play with fire elementals is all the advice I can give. I end up doing a lot of cool things with fire accidentally when I use them in spellwork.

But did people ever do that? I'll clarify - I know that cursing enemies has gone on since the dawn of time and I've done it myself, quite effectively. But flying around on broomsticks? The Malleus Maleficarum is not exactly a reliable source for medieval magical practices.

That assumes that the middle ages were some golden age of magick, which I would argue was far from the case and that by the middle ages magick was already far degraded. I think magick often times gets assosiated with that era due to fantasy entertainment and a belief by some that witchcraft is some highly evolved spirituality (I don't want to offend any witches, but from what I've seen of true witchcraft it is limited and focused largely on herbalism). Also we have the rise of ceremonial magick in that era, which again I think is a very limited and degraded magick when taken by itself. If anything, right now we're in a much better age insofar as available information and variety of techniques.

But to answer your question directly, take a look at Chinese mythology. All of a sudden we have heroes who are able to focus their chi and fly through the air and shoot fireballs and such. Successful levitations have been claimed all the way up to the modern day. As for the Western world, both the Greek and pre-Greek mythologies feature heroes who achieved feats that are supposedly beyond human ability.

I also don't buy the belief-only model of magick, especially across populations. It should make no difference what most people around you believe when you cast a spell, and I've never seen any evidence that this is the case. If everyone in the world believed in magick I'm convinced that my powers would work exactly the same. If anything, they would be less effective because more people would be to influence the environment and many of their goals would likely be opposed to mine.

So because one extreme example appears to be true it must follow that the opposite extreme is true?

There is a lot of good metaphysical philosophy behind a system of positive thinking and manifestation through focus and imagination. There's a lot of good self-help philosophy too. A lot of this comes down to basic magick theory. Like attracts like, emotion and state of mind effect astral placement, and thinking something causes thoughtforms to manifest. These are ideas ingrained into almost all aspects of magickal theory and belief that it's hard to argue that there isn't some truth to them.

The reason why extremist examples, like the sweat lodge falling apart because of ill thoughts, doesn't work is not because these things are false, but because they've been oversimplified and although they do work, when you start trying to do weird stuff with them they fall apart because of all of the other involved factors in how they work.

[continued]

Robert-Joseph said...

In my opinion the only kernal of truth behind the belief-only model is that doubt acts as a negative factor because it divides the mind's attention. But you can't "believe more" in order to increase your powers. Once you believe something, you believe it, and increase your abilities beyond that point you need to work with things like your own subtle body, external spirits, ritual procedure optimizations, and so forth.

Belief is hardly a binary act. The reason why young children are so effective in so many different areas is because of their ability to faithfully believe in the most surreal and absurd. You'd be surprised how much raw power, manifestation magick, and even physical evidence can be manifested by a practitioner that has disciplined and conditioned themselves to faithfully believe in much the same way as a child does, even when they lack discipline and focus in other important areas.

In any case, I don't see what the point is in going off on the secret people. The sweat lodge thing was unfortunate, but it seems like it was moreso a spiritually based company that didn't follow building codes than any sort of spiritual cause.

For the most part it's just people who've found a spiritual path that, at the moment, they like and believe works for them. I haven't seen the secret being involved in cult-like activity or trying to cheat people out of large sums of money. If that's where a person wants to be, spiritually, then they should be left to that. Coming down on the secret is very much akin to claiming someone's magick, or even religion, is wrong because it differs from your own.

Ananael Qaa said...

I haven't seen the secret being involved in cult-like activity or trying to cheat people out of large sums of money.

Well, Ray charged $10000 per person for this sweat lodge ceremony and then killed two of the participants and sickened many others when it went wrong. That seems like a lot of money to me.

Coming down on the secret is very much akin to claiming someone's magick, or even religion, is wrong because it differs from your own.

This is true up to a point. However, I think that when real harm is being done by a spiritual system of any sort the practitioners of said system at least need to be called out on it.

(1) If the result of believing in the system is that people are more careless than they might otherwise be because they put stock in happy thoughts, especially when doing something dangerous that could hurt others, I think it's a problem.

(2) If the result of believing in the system is victim-blaming ("we don't need to bother with social justice because all poor people are just manifesting their internal desires to be poor"), I think that's also a problem.

Obviously people are free to follow whatever spiritual path they want, and at the same time I reserve the right to call things as I see them.

Rob said...

Well, Ray charged $10000 per person for this sweat lodge ceremony and then killed two of the participants and sickened many others when it went wrong. That seems like a lot of money to me.

It seems I was a little mistaken earlier. Somehow I came under the impression that the deaths and injuries were caused by the sweat lodge collapsing. It appears they were caused by general dumb-assary and a clear misunderstanding of Native American ritual practice.

That said, the $10,000 price tag isn't that much. This was not a sweat lodge but a retreat that combined many different activities together. It's a pricey spiritual vacation designed for the wealthy. The reason why New Agers have such a larger market compared to Pagans or Ceremonial Magicians is because they tend to be well off.

It's common sense that following any ritual, and especially those involving physical hardships, that a person should take time to rest and regain their strength, not jump into something else that will cause physical, mental, and spiritual strains.

However Ray's actions don't negate the teachings or philosophies of the secret, or even his own teachings. It does sort of cast a poor light on Ray's intelligence.


(2) If the result of believing in the system is victim-blaming ("we don't need to bother with social justice because all poor people are just manifesting their internal desires to be poor"), I think that's also a problem.


Which can just as easily be a valid social belief. There are people that believe the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough to seize the opportunities for financial advancement that are presented to them. Keep in mind that I don't know much about the particulars of the secret, but I know and understand related systems and how they work, and I'd guess that a lot of the poor people in the US would be a lot better off, financially speaking, if they spent a few years following such a spiritual system.

Obviously people are free to follow whatever spiritual path they want, and at the same time I reserve the right to call things as I see them.

From what I've seen of the secret, it's just the same stuff the new age community has been putting out for years. And as such, there are better sources of the information (I'm a Bach fan myself). I'm not going to go off on it because I already know a lot of the theory is sound, and the systems do work because of it.

Ray's an idiot, no doubt. But then I can't help but think the people who followed him into this were idiots too, and they should've known better. On the other hand magickal rituals can be dangerous, and sometimes people get hurt, and sometimes people die. I can't say we should shut down a spiritual belief because it is dangerous because I practice dangerous spiritual beliefs. At the same time there is no reason why this had to happen, under the beliefs of the secret or otherwise. The sweat lodge, the entire retreat, could've been done more safely and not lost anything spiritual.

What I see a lot of with this secret business is people condemning it out of pettiness, envy, and people spending a lot of times looking at what other people are doing and attacking them instead of worrying about themselves and improving themselves. It turns into the opposite of victim blaming, where the whole world, and not oneself, is the cause of ones problems.

Case in point, there's an article on your blog roll linking directly to this article where the author spends a paragraph going on about how if he wrote a book (which apparently he did) that was then on Oprah, it still wouldn't sell like the secret. So instead of looking at ways to improve his works, instead of looking at why the secret sells better in terms of style, presentation, marketing, and subject matter, it's best just to bitch about the thing and the people who enjoy it.

Ananael Qaa said...

There are people that believe the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough to seize the opportunities for financial advancement that are presented to them.

...

It turns into the opposite of victim blaming, where the whole world, and not oneself, is the cause of ones problems.

In my opinion these are both serious errors in opposite directions. Peoples' life circumstances are produced by a combination of internal and external factors that defy easy categorization.

So instead of looking at ways to improve his works, instead of looking at why the secret sells better in terms of style, presentation, marketing, and subject matter, it's best just to bitch about the thing and the people who enjoy it.

It sounds to me like you're making two assumptions here:

(1) That the time it took that particular author to write one sentence in a blog article somehow leaves no time remaining for any work on the author's actual product. As a writer I've occasionally been known to complain about how small the esoteric market is, but I spend a heck of a lot more time working on my writing.

(2) That if something sells better it's automatically of higher quality. I would posit that a spiritual system that confirms rather than challenges peoples' assumptions about the world is always going to sell better, but at the same time be a lot less useful for spiritual development.

just_a_thought said...

You can't blame the James Arthur Ray stuff on THE SECRET. Any good idea can be abused. Long before THE SECRET there was THOUGHT VIBRATION OR THE LAW OF ATTRACTION IN THE THOUGHT WORLD by William Walker Atkinson, published in the early 1900s. THE SECRET can be traced back to this book. A new edition edited into gender neutral language is now available, in recognition of the author's desire to bring the insights of New Thought to all people. Gender neutral language is a subtle but important way to promote equality, and equality is at the core of Atkinson's thinking. It's all good. For more info go to www.hudsonmohawkpress.com

Ananael Qaa said...

You can't blame the James Arthur Ray stuff on THE SECRET. Any good idea can be abused.

Of course it can, and obviously Ray himself is far more to blame for these deaths than the creators of New Thought could ever be. In fact, part of my point here is that how "The Secret" is being presented these days is in effect an abuse of what started out as a good idea.

By disciplining your thoughts along particular lines you can have much more control over your experiences and events around you than the dominant materialist paradigm would suggest, which is one of the basic teachings of New Thought. The problem is that hyperbolic exaggeration of the method's power can distort those teachings into something potentially dangerous.

Thanks for the link on the Atkinson book. Perhaps he's more levelheaded about the application of his teachings than "The Secret" folks, who as I understand it took his work and put their own spin on it. I'll have to check it out one of these days and see for myself.

ChandraNova said...

"...how and why Americans have adopted the philosophy of relentless positivity as a reaction against Calvinism."

Actually, in some ways that mindset has become the NEW Calvinism, in tone and usage if not from its original core.

To try to explain what I mean, I'll take this quote about Calvinism from wikipedia for starters: "It teaches that fallen people are morally and spiritually unable to follow God or escape their condemnation before him."

The whole Secret-derived cult online basically implies that anyone who hasn't fully practised its teachings of absolute surrender of any critical thought, along with absolute non-involvement with the suffering of others, is morally and spiritually fallen, and unable to follow the Law/the Secret, or escape the effectively self-inflicted condemnation they bring on themselves in the form of unwanted events.

They should instead have been thinking happy thoughts about the absolute abundance and perfection of the world, and the absolute rightfulness of any suffering experienced by anyone or anything in it.

I mean, I've met (online & off) people who've literally internalised (as in, centred within themselves) the concept of a God who dispenses the fallen and the saved, and mis-applied it in ways that I find personally quite grotesque. And the intolerance if you question them is every bit as absolute as the worst fanatic.

The scary bit is the tie-in between the Secret/LOA followers who are using the idea that we can influence our own fate to promote their MLM/pyramid scheme scams (in which you learn to "manifest" money by roping in a downline of recruitees, who are only "victims" when it all falls flat because they "attracted it" etc) while at the same time refusing to do simple things like be aware of current events/watch the news sometimes (kinda essential if you're planning to vote, imo) or have ANY compassion for anyone else's misfortune.

We could probably talk all day about the similarities and divisions between the core idea of the law of attraction, and our own paths, but the simplified version of what I'm saying is, the whole notion of manifesting our desired outcome, being a part of the Divine etc, has been as perverted, in the name of making a quick buck, as the actual teachings of the Christ or any other enlightened being.

Any chosen path, be it atheism, following The Secret, Islam, Christianity or paganism, whatever can be misread as entitling people to act like total dicks, while feeling justified and morally superior.

And fwiw, I do use the law of attraction and I'm a keen fan of Holmes, Wattles et al - but I don't think that believing I can improve my own life, gives me a licence to turn off my basic human decency.

As they despise charity and believe that all suffering is needed and deserved, it never seems to occur to these people that less fortunate beings are maybe desperately trying to attract someone to just give them a chance or a break...