I have a secret. I believe in the secret. As in, The Secret, the hokiest of all contemporary pseudoscience trends. I really didn't mean for this to happen, but here I am, one year out of college, and the only things I've found to help me pass as a functional adult are the teachings of a bestselling self-help phenomenon.
It's embarrassing to admit, but The Secret is working for me. Or I'm deluded. Either way, it feels great.
For those who don't regularly peruse the self-help aisle, The Secretbrand is best understood as the Da Vinci Code of positive psychology. Citing opinions of experts ranging from Galileo to Ben Franklin to the co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secretteaches us that the universe is governed by the law of attraction. We attract things to us with our thoughts; positive thoughts attract positive things, and vice versa. Therefore, if we can harness our minds, we can create our future life through our present thoughts.
I found The Secret in my instant Netflix queue one winter afternoon and put in on for a laugh. I needed a laugh. Since graduating the previous spring, my life had become an absolute mess.
I was living in Denver, thousands of miles away from my family and the vast majority of my good friends, and working a shitty restaurant job with zero motivation to find something more interesting or at least better-paying. I lived like a slob, eating two out of three meals in bed while watching TV on the Internet and smoking a bowl. All the sexual encounters that took place on my crumb-filled bed were, needless to say, lackluster.
I wasn't depressed. I knew what that felt like, and this funk was a different animal.
I felt suspended in a post-graduation abyss, directionless and unsure of myself. In a year's time I had transformed from a know-it-all, ambitious philosophy major into the sort aimless malcontent that comprised The Secret's target audience.
When I clicked on the movie, I intended to get a sort of cynical satisfaction akin to laughing at those Greenpeace canvassers I found so irritating. Instead, the Chicken Soup guy's earnest argument for how thoughts manifest themselves tangibly in our lives struck a chord.
Before his franchise became enormously successful, he drew six zeroes onto a dollar bill and pinned it to the ceiling above his bed, where he stared at it every night and first thing every morning. And then, as he tells it, within a year, viola! — he was a billionaire.
If The Secret was that easy, then this lazy stoner would give it a shot.
There are three steps: ask, believe and receive. First, ask the universe for what you want. Get very clear about your request, and focus in on it.
Next, believe. Know that your request has already been granted; it's just a matter of time before it presents itself to you. Don't concern yourself with the how; allow the universe to do the work for you.
And finally, receive. Trust your instincts and proceed when opportunities arise.
Easy enough. So what did I want? I wanted to not be so freaking broke. I wanted to get decently laid. And most of all, I wanted something interesting to happen. Life had become so boring, and me along with it. These were my desires: money, sex and excitement.
Lowbrow? Perhaps. But I was accustomed to mitigating expectations. Enough bad sex will do that to a girl.
So I began, and the weirdness started in immediately. The night after watching the movie, I ran into an old mentor, an editor at the paper I interned with a few summers before.
"You should write something for us," he told me.
"Is that you, Universe?" I wondered. The moment felt a little magical, like it was a sign or something. Then again, I was pretty stoned.
But the weirdness kept coming, and it got harder to blame it on the bud. A friend hooked me up with a part-time catering gig, where I earned more money in a night than in a week at my other job. Up a few hundred, I felt like a million.
Where once there was only awkward drunken fumbling, my dating life was suddenly lush. Not one, but two prospects came to fruition within the same week, neither of whom ever texted me things like, "What you doozing tonight?" at 3 a.m.
Flush with money and orgasms, I fervently practiced The Secret's "powerful processes" of gratitude and visualization. Every time a manager handed me a check, instead of ripping it open and immediately bemoaning taxes, I gripped it tight and silently repeated "Thank you" until I got funny looks. I passed the slow hours before close at the restaurant visualizing the days when my work outfits wouldn't require name tags or ties.
Despite my early success, I couldn't shake the suspicion I was becoming a desperate consumer of pseudoscience, satisfied by a few trivial victories. Since its release in 2006, more than 21 million copies of the book have been sent into the world — and yet besides Oprah, who has featured it twice, I have never known anyone who abides by it. I wanted to talk to another believer, someone credible to reassure me The Secret worked for them, too.
I posted an ad on Craigslist to no avail. Since The Secret advises us to be persistent, I posted another and another. I never got a single response — very un-Secrety.
Maybe, like me, fellow followers were ashamed of it. Or perhaps once you've truly harnessed the power of The Secret, you no longer need to browse the Internet for used couches and rookie prostitutes.
Or maybe there were just no believers at all. As if millions of people purchased The Secrethoping to find some wisdom and never made it past the first chapter once they realized that it intended to quote Albert Einstein and the guy from Chicken Soup for the Soul side by side.
It's a sign
Although Craigslist let me down, I began to hear the sentiments of The Secret reiterated in unexpected places. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence muses on the secret to success: "If you were young, you just set your teeth, and bit on and held on, till the money began to flow from the invisible ..."
I'm sure any English professor from my alma mater would backhand me for drawing such a connection, but it felt good to imagine Lawrence might somehow be on my side.
If The Secret was real, my remaining skeptical for the sake of pride was interfering with the second step: believe. With or without any outside reassurances, I was seeing results, so I decided to change my approach.
On a recent trip home, I spent an entire afternoon camped out on a park bench in Philadelphia with a huge, colorful sign reading "Do You Know the Secret?"
I was going to meet someone who knew what I was talking about. I just made up my mind about it, and concentrated on radiating certainty.
At first, my sign only attracted some bubbly teenagers and a long-winded, burnt-out hippie. I fielded questions and handed out coconut cookies. After a while, a girl about my age approached.
"Excuse me, what is going on here?" she gestured toward my sign.
"Have you ever heard of The Secret?"
"Like the book? Yeah, I've read it like five times."
Sasha's New Age spiritual healer had introduced her to The Secret when she was 17, and she's been a believer ever since. We sat and talked for about 20 minutes. We were a lot alike; same age, similar backgrounds.
"One thing I've learned," she mentioned just as she got up to go, "is that the negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones."
How did she mean?
"Like, one time, I wished a person would die and then they did. I wasn't the only person to wish death on this guy," she added hastily, "but when they did the autopsy, they couldn't find a cause of death. He was 17 and he just died in his sleep."
No more burritos in bed
Sasha left me with a lot to think about. For example, does it bode poorly that the only fellowSecret-er I could find may be a murderer?
If I could be open with strangers about my Secret secret, I figured it was time to also come out of the closet to my friends. I started asking around and was surprised by the general lack of cynicism on the subject.
In general, friends said parts sounded realistic while other parts, definitely not so much. My friend Maggie, a very accomplished psychology major, said research has shown that thoughts about experiences, rather than experiences themselves, are the key difference between feeling depressed or not. Hence, The Secret's claim about positive thinking being of the utmost importance may actually enjoy some scientific support.
Another particularly smart friend, an English major, put a literary-theory spin on her analysis. Laura made the excellent point that ... actually I couldn't follow, but I'm sure it was excellent. I'm done with college, and therefore no longer have to pretend to understand things like literary theory.
But both Maggie and Laura made the same objection. What about the random? The unexpected? Aren't some of the best things in life supposed to be the ones you never saw coming? And the worst, too?
Each one pointed out the foolhardiness of believing that our thoughts alone are responsible for everything that happens to us. A valid point, to which my only counter-argument was, sure, but if The Secret isn't real, then why has everything felt so damn magical lately?
Perfunctory skepticism aside, I knew I was a full-fledged convert. I had started to get myself out of a funk, and now I had two jobs, two guys and never a moment to feel bored.
However, not being bored, I slowly admitted to myself, isn't the same thing as being happy.
In the Arcade Fire song "Neighborhood #2," the vocalist cries, "If you want something, don't ask for nothing." I've listened to that song countless times, but now I hear something completely different. It draws attention to a crucial aspect of The Secret.
It invites you to ask for anything, to make any request of the universe. Anything at all.
And what did I ask for? Not to land a dream job, but to not be broke. Not to meet someone wonderful, but to get laid. Not for something exceptional to happen, but to not feel bored.
I was consistently selling myself short with lack of vision. If The Secret could make all my crude dreams come true, I figured it was time to get more ambitious. I need to get specific to order for The Secret to do its Secret-y thing.
I want to be the kind of person who doesn't eat Chipotle in bed anymore, or anything else for that matter. Beyond that, I don't really know yet. But when I do, you can be damn sure the universe will hear about it.
** this article originally appeared on the cover of the Colorado Springs Independent on May 5, 2011