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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 11/08/2008 | 1 Comment

I like Ken Wilber’s work and I particularly think he is right on track with one of his main observations about modern life: narcissism. If you are not sure what that might look like let me introduce you to one of the most depressing developments of modern life: the Secret. For those who don’t know about it, the Secret is a DVD, and suite of materials, which for a price, tell you the secret of the universe. The secret is the ‘law of attraction’ or in Noel Edmonds’ more modern version ‘cosmic ordering’. Basically all we have to do is send our wants out to the universe and we shall get what we’ve ordered. Sometimes this truth is dressed up as the wisdom of all sages and philosophers across history. Sometimes it is shown as part of the teaching of the bible – ‘ask and ye shall be given’. More generally it is portrayed as scientific – part of quantum physics, no less.

This type of thinking has now taken hold so much that I’m sure quite a number of people who come to our website might agree and may well assume it is also our philosophy here at the Centre. It’s not. I’m not trying to be difficult here and I understand why folk want to  accept a way of looking at life which seems spiritual. I’m sure I even have a copy of Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success somewhere on my bookshelf. But the fact that so many people nowadays seem automatically to accept these types of views doesn’t mean they are right and shouldn’t be questioned.

One of my main problems about the Secret is it is so materialistic. It sounds spiritual but in fact it is generally about stuff. Here’s the prompt list from one cosmic ordering website:

What exactly can you order? Anything you can possibly imagine!
  • Order as much money as you can handle
  • Buy a top of the range car
  • A new house - even a mansion!
  • New designer label clothes
  • Exotic holidays - or a second home abroad!
  • A new partner
  • New Friends
  • Good health
  • Absolutely Anything!
So forget world peace, and end to global hunger or more ice in the north pole just think of all the things you would like to have.

Another thing about cosmic ordering is that it can’t be disputed. If people get anything they've ordered then the system is effective. Noel  Edmonds was out of work and really wanted to get back on tv. He put it out to the universe and voila he landed ‘Deal or No Deal’. But if an ordinary person, like me, wanted to become a tv host is it really likely to be that easy? Of course not. But then when it doesn’t work advocates  explain that the person didn’t want it enough or has unconscious blocks which they need to deprogramme -  how do they do this? Via various programmes and website, like the one quoted above. I accept that there will be a few people using cosmic ordering who will appear to have great success. But they could have had this success anyway. Remember Uri Geller’s antics on tv to stop people’s watches? Well, it often worked. When some people were watching the tv and looking at their watches, they stopped. It looked like magic. But  Geller knew that in a population of millions a few watches were bound to stop working at the very moment he was on air.

Now in some ways I am a strange sceptic.  I have no problem in saying that we completely underestimate the power of thoughts – that the placebo effect, for example, is enormous. I also am a firm believer that clear goals and intentions can have a huge effect on people’s lives. In the space of an hour most people in western cultures are surrounded by millions of different bits of information. When we have a clear focus in our lives we shut out a lot of this noise and in so doing we channel our energy more effectively. This can make us much more productive (though admittedly it can impoverish us as well). Once we start to focus our attention, it can start to look as if things are coming into our life when actually we just never noticed them before.

I am also prepared to say that there are lots of things about our world that defy our present scientific understanding: perhaps some people are psychic and have a sixth sense, perhaps unspoken thoughts can influence others, perhaps there is some great force in our life that cannot be understood materially. However, while I am prepared to accept that life is much more complicated than we think, I just cannot accept the ‘put it out to the universe’, notion at the heart of the Secret and cosmic ordering.

Quite simply I believe that people’s thoughts can influence how they experience life, and also can effect their lives but that this isn’t the only thing going on. Opportunities, inequalities ... the real world also matter.

A few months ago I attended a meeting where the speaker was a man who is a coming figure in what bookshops categorise as ‘mind, body and spirit’. I’m not going to name him as I really don’t want to embarrass him and I’m only quoting his comments here as I think they reveal where these types of beliefs lead to. After he had told the audience that all they needed to do was put out to the universe what they required I asked him a difficult question. Why does cosmic ordering seem to work for middle-class people who want an easy parking place, a better job, a new partner or more money but it doesn’t work for poor people in Africa who are starving to death? In short, why is the universe interested in folk who already have a lot and have good lives, rather than people in terrible need? He had two answers to what he acknowledged was a challenging question. The first is that the poor Africans might be at too low a stage of development. The second was that these poor folk might have done something in a previous life and so they have various lessons to learn in this one.

To my mind, this whole philosophy leads to really horrible politics: it makes out that inequality doesn’t matter, real life circumstances don’t matter, all that matters is people’s individual thoughts. If people can’t think their way to wealth and health well there’s something inadequate about them.

Like Wilber I agree that we need a more spiritual understanding of the world. Cosmic ordering and the Secret may sound as if they are spiritual but, sadly, they are simply another version of me-centred consumerism. Real spirituality plays down the importance of the ego and its desires. It does not place the ego centre stage and say ‘take your pick’, ‘you can have anything you want in life’.

I have been meaning to write a blog on this topic for a few months now and have been prompted to do it since I have just been sent the link for an entertaining spoof on the Secret. It is called Shhhh! and it’s worth a look.

Comment By Comment
Alan Coady
Joined: 30/04/2008

Comment Posted: 12/08/2008 09:38
Cosmic Ordering seems like a 21st century version of the traditional consumerist prayer depicted in cinema. Avoiding a 'Thy Will Be Done' approach, the bedside faithful simply deliver the list of desires necessary to order their universe. A conditional feel often obtains - the promised good behaviour set to kick in upon arrival of the goods.
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