WHEN MY SISTER arrived from New York over the holidays, she plopped a hand-tooled leather satchel on my piano bench and said, "See the beautiful bag I manifested for myself?" Gorgeous, indeed. But manifested?
Well, I suppose that's easier than dealing in cash.
"Manifesting," for those outside the self-help loop, is the big buzzword from "The Secret," a new DVD with a tie-in book featuring the ancient idea of having it all without trying very hard. If "The Secret" had a plot, it might go something like "Tony Robbins uncovers the Judas Gospel and learns to use the Force."
The DVD is screened regularly at gatherings of the energy-healer crowd. The video opens with a "Da Vinci Code"-style shot: A man in a ragged tunic makes off with a hot papyrus. A voice-over assures us that an ancient secret, hidden from most of mankind, is about to be revealed. (Insert little conspiracy montage: A medieval priestly type privately unrolls the secret scroll; men in suits scheme in a smoke-filled boardroom.) Then motivational speakers take turns elaborating on this idea: If you want something, think of it with loving and positive feelings and it will "manifest." The concept apparently stems from the work of Esther Hicks, a famous channeler.
I never would have heard of "The Secret" if it weren't for my sister, the sort of person who has a spirit guide and professes to "massage energy." (Friends say the wrong sister moved to California.) But apparently it has found major cultural traction. It was featured on "Oprah" last week. The book is No. 4 on The Times' nonfiction bestseller list and No. 2 on Amazon (with the audio CD set No. 3). At my local Barnes & Noble, it was sold out.
Americans are never too jaded for another get-rich-quick chimera. In "The Secret," real and sustained effort is unnecessary, even frowned on. The scheme lays out a "law of attraction" -- a strange misreading of quantum physics -- that asserts that the universe grants your wishes because you are the "most powerful transmission tower on in the world." Send out "wealth frequencies" with your thoughts and the universe's wealth frequencies will be pulled to you.
Here was my favorite bit: "Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight." It's a position that seems to have a lot in common with President Bush's ideas about global warming. Carbon emissions warm the Earth only if you worry that they will.
On the flip side, nothing -- nothing -- happens to people that isn't brought to them by their own persistent thoughts, and the book strongly implies that this includes those killed in the Holocaust and the World Trade Center. Under this philosophy, why bother contributing to Oxfam or worrying about Darfur? What a guilt-reliever.
Near as I can tell, the whole idea is just a new spin on the very old (and decidedly not secret) "The Power of Positive Thinking" wedded to "ask and you shall receive." So it's not surprising that its author, Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne, is best known for a show called "The World's Greatest Commercials." Warming over others' old work appears to be her area of expertise. She took the well-worn ideas of some self-help gurus, customized them for the profoundly lazy, gave them a veneer of mysticism -- and she tapped right into that wealth frequency. What a pro.
Strange to say, people are buying it. Not just the book and DVD. The message. Therapists tell me they're starting to see clients who are headed for real trouble, immersing themselves in a dream world in which good things just come. The therapists obviously ought to visualize smarter clients.
My sister says I'm over-intellectualizing. She, after all, had manifested a fine leather satchel. And I have to admit, if there were designer leather goods to be had out of this, I was interested.
The reality was -- drat it all -- far more prosaic. Watching the DVD gave her the idea that she could afford this bag if she really wanted it, and so she went ahead and charged it. I say, if you need an Amex card to make a handbag appear, you're an amateur.