One of the personalities in spiritual movie phenomenon, The Secret, has been found guilty of the negligent homicide of three people on his 2009 “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Arizona. Due to his high profile as a proponent of the “Law of Attraction,” James Arthur Ray was able to command a fee of around $10,000 per person from the almost 60 participants at his week-long event. Sentencing will happen at a hearing a week from now, and the prosecution will continue to rely heavily on direct quotes from Ray about how participants would have to go beyond the fear of death to become true spiritual warriors.
“The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you’ll ever experience is the fear of what? Death,” Ray said in a recording played during the trial. “You will have to get a point to where you surrender and it’s OK to die.”
Read more here. Or stay with me as we go deeper – I’ll come back around to James Arthur Ray at the end, I promise – and show how bad ideas produce bad consequences.
You remember “The Secret.” It was the mega-selling Oprah-endorsed self-help New Age sensation from 2006 that manifested a bajillion dollars for it’s makers by insisting that everyone who watched it could do the same thing – though following the brain-numbingly simplistic the “Law of Attraction.”
Simply put: your thoughts create reality, and the universe gives you EXACTLY what you put out there through the power of your intention, every time.
* Impassioned interviews with their charismatic expert “teachers”
* Images that suggested some kind of scientific basis for their claims, and
* Emotionally persuasive montages to sell their idea and make stars out of their personalities.
Evocative mini-narratives featured:
A woman staring really sincerely at diamond necklace in jewelry shop window – and suddenly a strange and handsome man magically places the necklace around her neck!
A young boy meditating intently on a picture of rad red bike – and hey it appears outside his bedroom door!
Another woman laughs her way out of cancerous tumors!
A man walking down to his mailbox who visualizes a million dollar check arriving for no reason in the mail – and it appears!
In the movie it ALL works, perfectly. There is a direct correspondence between your beliefs and the reality you “create” – regardless of any other factors, because that’s how “the universe” works. Underneath all this is a fundamental incorrect assumption: there is no such thing as reality distinct from your beliefs and thoughts.
In the movie a gay man who is being harassed by homophobes finds that they magically all are either fired or transfer out of his office, once he takes responsibility for his power and stops creating the reality of being picked on. A sick little boy in Africa gets a shipment of magical gratitude rocks from a Californian spiritual teacher and his formerly incurable disease disappears.
In the movie we are told that thinking about being late as you drive through traffic will manifest that reality, while believing otherwise will clear the traffic from your path. Likewise, protesting the war in Iraq will only “give it more energy” – you should rather ignore it and focus on other things, because you see if enough people pretended it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t exist.
Now, I know – being positive is good. Fo’ sho’. I know, setting goals and dreaming big is a good step towards living the life you want to create for yourself. Yes. I am so down.
I know you probably think I am unfairly caricaturing the movie. I am not. Watch it again. This is literally what it says – and the place where positivity turns the corner into delusional thinking is the problem here, for several reasons:
1) People who buy into these beliefs lose touch with reality – and as we know, reality bites. More to the point reality will bite you hard and deep if you just ignore her – and she has big teeth, and you bleed real blood. Period.
2) We live in a world where multiple factors influence the course of our lives: sociopolitical, economic, genetic, psychological – and those gosh-darned other people who intersect with our trajectories, each with their own goals, agendas, biases and intentions that they are seeking to “manifest” as well, right?
3) The big problem of blaming the victim. A unintentional side effect of magical thinking is that it creates the bizarrely inaccurate, psychologically damaging and spiritually un-compassionate perception that victims of oppression, violent crime, poverty, incest, catastrophic illness etc are entirely to blame for their own plight, because they have at some level “created this reality” through the “power of their intention” and the “Law of Attraction.”
Well, this is absolute nonsense and it makes for an ironic distortion of what real spirituality should do – namely make us more humble, more honest and more compassionate toward the reality of suffering in our own and other’s lives. Oh – and good spirituality should help us to think more intelligently and see reality more clearly, not abdicate critical thinking and common sense in the name of nutty beliefs.
EXHIBIT A: THE PRIME EXAMPLE
So what’s the connection between my diatribe, James Arthur Ray and the carnage he has left in his wake after rising to New Age prominence on the fairy-dust-laden winds of The Secret?
Beliefs about thought created reality do create a reality: one in which you have an unrealistically inflated sense of your own powers!
They perpetuate narcissism, they encourage you to believe in belief, and to believe that the logical progression of your spiritual growth is to become powerful enough to shape reality as you wish through your thoughts. With no deeper, more intelligent and grounded model for what the essence of integrated spiritual growth looks like this sounds about right to those of us expecting spirituality to be about tuning up our Jedi Mind-tricks, right?
Don’t even get me started on how this gets woven together with a mangled interpretation of quantum physics to somehow “prove” this fantasy that is as silly as it is popular… And we haven’t even touched on the out of control materialism and culture of entitled privilege that is not only what these ideas support, but what created a market for the film in the first place.
Here is the man himself in a clip from The Secret:
James Arthur Ray followed his own advice too well – he believed he could put people through hell, send them on a 36 hour fasting vision quest (with a reasonably-priced $250 blanket on offer to keep them warm outdoors in the desert) before squeezing them too tightly into a sweat lodge sealed with plastic.
He believed his power of intention was not only responsible for pulling in around $600, 000 for the event, and manifesting all those people, but doubtless that no-one would be hurt if he just put that possibility out of his mind. He believed he could take people to the brink of death and something magical, powerful and worthy of the price tag would happen – and all under his absolutely committed and authoritative guidance. Can you feel the power?!
Turns out he was wrong. The price he commanded was a function of his media profile, the people who came were most likely there because they were desperate and gullible, and his ignorance of their safety and belief in his powers resulted – as is always the case, in reality biting hard with razor sharp teeth.
There was blood.
It didn’t matter what anyone “believed.”
Here’s the kicker: Ray’s lack of thinking actually created a tragic reality.
The thing he wasn’t thinking of is what “manifested.” The whole flimsy belief system should fall apart right there – but you know what, most people I know will keep believing some form of magical thinking anyway – because we let ourselves perpetuate the false idea that spirituality should exist in a compartment free from critical thinking, free from testing in reality – that whatever anyone wants to “believe” is their choice, is harmless, and who are we to say what is really true, if there even is such a thing, right?
Please let’s get this right:
There actually is such a thing as reality – and having our beliefs be a reflection of reality is not only a good idea spiritually, but it defines the line between sanity and insanity. It also makes us less likely to go down the deluded road not only of a James Arthur Ray, but also of the people who made him (and his Secret cohorts) a gazillionaire before this debacle.
Turns out – truth matters, and truth is what is, regardless of what you believe you are manifesting with the power of your thoughts or the bogus “Law of Attraction.”
Don’t get me wrong. Dream. Dream big. Set goals. Transcend your FALSE perceptions of limitation, just don’t lie to yourself about the REAL limitations of being human.
This is my sincere wake-up call to teachers, healers, authors and therapists: encourage psychological honesty and critical thinking, encourage real embodied practices and a model of spirituality that moves beyond the infantile fantasy of omnipotence, magical powers and being invulnerable to reality. It matters.
So: I feel sad for James Arthur Ray. I feel outraged about the people who’s deaths and hospitalizations he caused through following crazy beliefs. I feel devastated on behalf of the families who have lost loved ones in this sick and avoidable way – loved ones who were willing to pay ten grand a pop to become spiritual warriors under the guidance of a man who made his name by being a personality in the biggest selling DVD of all time that teaches both the single most popular and the single most delusional spiritual idea in our current zeitgeist.
I hope we can learn from this.
In a recent pair of articles, 10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality Part One: The Dance of the Psyche and Part Two: What is Truth? I discuss a path out of the delusional, denial-based extreme relativist version of spirituality that is so popular – check it out!
Also, when the movie first came out I was inspired to write a very critical review of the film that garnered around 30 thousand readers, created a lot of debate and ultimately got me interviewed by Ken Wilber on his Integral Naked website.
My condolences to the families affected by this horrible tragedy. I do also hold James Ray with compassion in my heart. The guilt and humiliation must be immense. My hope is that we all can heal and grow from this chain of events and the bad ideas underneath.