Chopra, The Secret, and the unenchanted world
I’ve never been a big Deepak Chopra fan. (Does it show?)* Chopra gets points off in my book for several things, including his considerable ego, the Q.M. (quantum mysticism) factor, his former close ties with the Maharishi, and just the general fact that he's been a New-Wage cult figure for over fifteen years.
Even so, I’m granting him some benefit of the doubt when it comes to his opinion of The Secret. Apparently Chopra doesn’t think much of it, as he indicated on the March 9 broadcast of Bill Maher's Real Time. Chopra's distaste has been a topic of discussion on Marcy From Maui’s Powerful Intentions forum and elsewhere.Not surprisingly, Chopra's dissent, and the apparent reluctance of some other New-Wage megastars to get behind The Secret, is causing a bit of a disturbance among some Secret fans. Is it possible to be both a Law Of Attraction believer and a Chopra follower? Since LOA is touted as a universal law, what does it mean if Chopra, whose insights so many have taken to heart, finds fault with the way this law is presented in The Secret? Some Secret fans think it's all about competition. One person on the Powerful Intentions forum wrote:
... it seems Deepak is concerned about the Secret being competion [sic] to what he discusses and markets. Perhaps he feels his sales could suffer, who knows. He has abundance and blessings in his life that I can only wish and dream about now, so something must be working overtime in his own system.
It is funny that he would criticize the Secret when he is applying the principles to his own workflow and gaining great success. Perhaps modified a bit for his purposes, but...That's what it seems to me anyway.
Another participant wrote:
...it seems that their (sic) is a conflict among the so called "experts'. Deepak is not too thrilled with this whole secret thing and is practically disgusted by it as we could see on the TV today. This is a real problem and it must be discussed in an open manner. I personally think to hell with everyone and more power to so called average people like you and me, even though we KNOW we are not average at all. We are awesome and as good as anyone out there.
Spoken like a true narcissist! Actually, though, this person had a point, and I think The Secret would have been far more palatable to many if, instead of a flock of self-serving New-Wage hustledorks, the DVD had mainly featured average people who seem to be making LOA work in their lives for something more than lassoing a shiny new bicycle or a fancy sports car. But Rhonda Byrne apparently felt she needed marketable "names," not everyday people, to give her project leverage.
I’ve been discussing this and related matters with one of my new pals, Tony Michalski, an author, publisher and blogger who, like me, is no fan of The Secret. Tony is a long-time student of self-help and still likes some of it – he even publishes some of it** – but he thinks much of what is on the market today is schlock. He too has said he is willing to give Chopra a little benefit of the doubt where The Secret is concerned.
As I noted to Tony in a recent email exchange, I am sure Chopra is a bit miffed at the economic success of the Secret franchise, as some have speculated, but I am willing to bet his objections go beyond professional jealousy (if that's even an appropriate term here). Particularly since he is from India and, I would think, is still affected on some level by the devastating poverty there, he surely must be appalled by the materialism and narcissism that pervades LOA/New-Wage culture. And being a deeper thinker than your average New-Wage hustledork, he no doubt thinks that, at best, The Secret presents an overly simplistic view of universal law.
Apart from that, I’m not willing to cut Chopra much slack, thought I do understand why he appeals to so many. When doing some research about him I came across a Salon article by David Beers, written in 2001. Beers made a good point about the ultimate futility of skeptics’ arguments with Chopra’s ideas.
A lot of…credentialed scientists take their runs at Chopra's "factual errors" and "absurd ideas." All of them are wasting their time, because their angle of attack cleanly misses the appeal of Chopra today. What pulls people to Chopra is their yearning to pull free of scientific rationality, or, more accurately, to escape the unenchanted world that two centuries of the Age of Reason has bequeathed us.
Beers went on to cite an essay written in the mid-1970s by Theodore Roszak, "In Search Of The Miraculous." The article was written at a time when the so-called age of Aquarius was really just taking off, but it is as relevant today as it was then. As Beers explains it:
Roszak sees a great cultural divide. At the top stands "a secular humanist establishment devoted to the skeptical, the empirical, the scientifically demonstrable" which is out of touch with "a vast popular culture that is still deeply entangled with piety, mystery, miracle, the search for personal salvation."
There are two ways to interpret this split, writes Roszak. The first is to roll one's eyes, to blame "the hunger for wonders" on "incurable human frailty, an incapacity to grow up and grow rational." If so, "sadly one would have to conclude that the masses are not yet mature enough to give up their infantile fantasies."
But that's not how Roszak reads it. The second view, his own, is to see "the psyche at war" with itself. Each of us contains a critical intellect, but also "the innate human need for transcendence." Philosophy used to bridge the gap, but today's postmodernists have nothing to offer in that vein, having made a fetish instead out of "deconstructing" language rather than asking the questions of Socrates: What is the good? What is life's purpose?
Roszak argues that when super-rational scientists and academics "scorn and scold, debunk and denigrate more fiercely" the longing for wonder within each of us, it is "like scolding starving people for eating out of garbage cans, while providing them no more wholesome food."
Many people, particularly skeptics, would argue that science is providing that "more wholesome food" Roszak wrote about. The "real world," they argue, is sufficiently full of wonders without giving everything a mystical bent. And countless creative people have spent time, effort and money, especially within the past couple of decades, to popularize science and make it more accessible to the masses.
But most people want something more, and, for once, I’m not talking about wanting more "stuff." They want poetry and passion, mystery and magic, and not all of them can get their fill of that in the wonders of science and nature. (It doesn't help that some of those in the skeptics' camp are insufferably sanctimonious and patronizing at times; I myself have been guilty of those faults, at the same time that The Rev and I have been the targets of skeptical sanctimony, for the crime of not being skeptical enough. I truly have been on both sides of this conflict.) Though the worst of the New-Wage hucksters are shamelessly pandering to the sloth and greed that reside in all of us, people who want "more" are not necessarily lazy and greedy. Many truly are searching for a way to transcend the mundane. Many really are looking for a deeper meaning to their lives. And that is one reason why so many have flocked to Chopra for years, and why so many are flocking to The Secret now.
But none of this, in my view, excuses the narcissism and materialism that pervades LOA culture these days. In our conversation about Chopra and The Secret, Tony Michalski (who graciously gave me permission to quote him) wrote:
One of the things I REALLY disliked about The Secret was its Baby Boomer, me-me-me, I want-I want-I want philosophy. As I researched self-help books, you can see how they sort of mirrored the prevailing attitude of the times. The turn of the century books were essentially Christian Science philosophies rewritten to satisfy a wider readership. The 40s and 50s gave us a work-centered philosophy that appealed to the "greatest generation" – the ones who made it through the Depression as well as WWII. With the Baby Boomers, we see a group who didn't really work for anything, but were given everything. Thus, you see "manifesting" become this "I think about it and I get it" type philosophy that was only made possible by the working parents and the working people who invented the new products and methods of production that provided satisfaction of wants on a whim.
With each move, we see the philosophy migrate from the society-centered (the Biblical love your neighbour as yourself) to the economy-centered (Napoleon Hill's T&GR) to the solipsistic (The Secret's focus on YOUR desires).
At each turn, we can ask if this is good? I think the economic-centered is the apex as it allows the individual to prosper as he finds his place within the framework of modern society. The new wave of New Wage brings about a gluttonous self-absorption – a new religion based not on a higher good, but a self-defined good. In other words, it's sanctioned masturbation for the masses.
And (bringing it back to Chopra), Tony's point was that while he's no Chopra fan either, Chopra "does profess to a higher standard than stroking the self. So, I wonder if it is indeed a money-related rejection or if he truly believes The Secret to be contrary to his own beliefs."
That's a good point. Beyond that, Tony has a good grasp of the history of self-help. And I agree with him that baby boomers were the original "me" generation of our times; it could even be argued that boomers are largely responsible not only for the narcissism but also for the sheer silliness of New-Wage culture. But, to borrow a phrase from Billy Joel, "We didn't start the fire." And as most folks know by now, The Secret was initially spawned by Rhonda Byrne’s discovery of Wallace D. Wattles’ 1910 classic The Science of Getting Rich. (Some, of course, would point out that notwithstanding the age listed on her MySpace page, Rhonda is a boomer herself, and who better to smack a New-Wage seal on a century-old classic?)
I do think it's ironic that many members of the generation which at one time famously rejected the crass materialism of its elders is now courting mammon in ways that would make the "antique people" in the late Tim Buckley's old anthem, "Goodbye and Hello," seem ascetic by comparison. Don't laugh, but at one time I thought the lyrics to that song were profound. Now they just sound like a parody. "New children," indeed. (Buckley, by the way, was the father of another singer who died young, Jeff Buckley.)
On the other hand, the New Wage is definitely not just a baby-boomer thing. The Internet is alive with a bustling herd of Gen-X and Gen-Y go-getters, and I always get a kick out of reading their fawning remarks on the discussion forums and blogs presided over by New-Wage leaders. Furthermore, what is commonly known today as "prosperity consciousness" had its roots long before Wallace Wattles. Before Wattles there was New Thought, and of course some of the ideas go back much further than that.
But Tony is certainly right about "gluttonous self-absorption" that characterizes so much of today's New-Wage culture.
Another prevailing characteristic of the conspicuously enlightened set is their disdain for science and Western thought (which, curiously enough, coexists peacefully alongside many New-Wagers' insistence, particularly in defense of The Secret, that their beliefs are based in "science"). Calista McKnight has a good comment on some of the latest "science" claims by Secret proponents.
I’ve also found it amusing that so many "cultural creatives" seem to have rejected the entire Western cultural mindset that has allowed them the luxury of wallowing in their own narcissism. I touched on this briefly some years back in my semi-serious essay, A Few Words From The Wet Blanket At The Mystics' Orgy:
...multi-culturalism is a fine concept, but it becomes a sham when it is presented at the cost of trashing the contributions of Western/European civilization, which, after all, was chiefly responsible for giving rise to a society that affords us the leisure time to dream up multi-culturalism in its present form. Such a sophisticated worldview does not, it seems, come naturally to our species. All cultures, from the most "primitive" to the most "advanced," are inclined to put themselves at the center of the known universe. How about all those Native American tribes who referred to themselves as "The People?" Doesn't that say something about how they perceived everyone else? We all cut our teeth on warped histories. Leonard Cohen (whom I just can't stop quoting), wrote, "History is a needle / for putting men asleep / anointed with the poison / of all they want to keep."
If that is true, then this is also so: to awaken from our sleep and seek a larger worldview is an anomaly in human experience, and it is also a luxury afforded mainly to those who have the advantages of education, time on their hands, and technology (or - pardon my political incorrectness - servants) to take care of the grunge work.
In any case, I agree with Tony that self-help/spirituality trends are very much a product of their times. It might even be argued that, increasingly, the reverse is true as well. The self-help / pop spirituality industry – or, as Chris Locke calls it, the Spiritual-Industrial Complex – long ago took on a life of its own. Living things grow and change, which is to be expected. The question is: are we shaping the New Wage, or is it shaping us? At the very least we can ask, as Tony does, if each new development in self-help is good – and I think we should ask that question.
Good or not, we now have a glut of remedies for the horrors or sheer boredom of the "unenchanted world" that Beers wrote about in his article on Chopra. And to many people who should know better, it matters little if these remedies live up to the sometimes outrageous promises of their promoters, or if they provide anything remotely resembling happiness or fulfillment; it matters only that they are profitable, that they draw in ever greater numbers of readers and viewers. That's why people such as Steve Salerno of SHAM fame have so much trouble getting on Larry King or, heaven forbid, Oprah, whereas The Secret stars get invited again and again. In regard to the self-help movement in general, Steve has asked, and has made a serious attempt to answer, "Is this good?" But because his answer has mostly been "no," he's not the most in-demand guest on the chat shows these days. Those in control at the major media outlets have wholeheartedly embraced the huge cash cow that the New Wage has become, and they now allow it to make its way unharmed through our streets. Never mind that the bounteous bovine may very well be the carrier of an insidious form of mad-cow disease, and that the disease is spreading to all of us. It's all about the money.
Like many, I’m still struggling to find a balance between rationality and transcendence, or at least to reach a point where those two parts of my psyche are longer "at war" with each other, as Roszak would have put it. But, as must surely be apparent by now, I do not think the key to that balance is in The Secret. Nor, for that matter, do I think the key is in Chopra's mystically quantum views of life, the Universe and everything. When it comes to the New Wage, I am very much a part of the disenchanted world.
And for the most part, present post excepted, I deal with this by being either silly or snide. It has certainly occurred to me that the above is way too serious for a humor blog (I blame Tony). I promise to get back to being silly and snide ASAP. Next up: an update on what's going on in Hell. I think you'll be pleased.
* Regarding the "ad parody" above, which was adapted from my BLP (book-like product), Cosmic Relief: I realize that Chopra has not been affiliated with the Maharishi for many years, though he still had some financial interest at the time the original parody was created. And there's no doubt that he capitalized for several years on that association. He even got into a spot of trouble with the Journal Of The American Medical Association in 1991, by neglecting to disclose a conflict of interest concerning an article on ayurvedic medicine that he co-authored.
** Worth noting: Through his imprint, Kallisti Publishing, Tony Michalski will be publishing the revised and expanded edition of Blair Warren's book, The No-Nonsense Guide To Enlightenment.