The Real Secret

On the way to work after therapy the other morning, I was listening to the most recent episode of the 21st Century Buddhism podcast, which is about anger. Ethan was offering the insight, which can be found in the teachings on the five Buddha families among other places, that there is wisdom in anger. He was trying to get past the dichotomy that holds that anger is simply and only bad. However, one of the students in the class spoke up and pushed the discussion in a slightly different direction. She was trying to distinguish, I think, between good anger and bad anger, and brought in the issue of motivation. She suggested that anger motivated by love is different than anger with other motivations. The question that immediately occurred to me is: Is anger ever ultimately motivated by anything other than love?

This question seems to me to be related to the recent uproar over Oprah Winfrey’s championing of The Secret. The legitimate bases for practical and factual criticism of The Secret and the so-called “law of attraction” alleged to underlie it are legion, but I think the bases of the vitriol directed at the whole enterprise are more often moral and aesthetic (and in that way, it reminds me of The Prayer of Jabez, against which the Real Live Preacher somewhat uncharacteristically railed a few years ago). Critics are responding not as if The Secret’s proponents have made mistakes of fact (which they certainly have), but as if they have done something deeply offensive. Whether the critics believe that people should have to earn their rewards, or that people shouldn’t seek those rewards without regard for others, or that people shouldn’t put their faith in the superficial trappings that are most often presented as the rewards to be sought, or that it’s distasteful to suggest that people who haven’t received those rewards are to blame for what is seen as their failure, they sound hurt and angry.

But The Secret’s proponents have made, and are stubbornly persisting in, factual errors. They’re actually starting from the right place, from our shared basic goodness or Buddha nature, which the Dalai Lama ceaselessly states as some variation of, “From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.” They lose their way with their next step. They separate the self that wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering from the rest of reality. They then go on to suggest that the self can benefit by taking things from the rest of reality. In fact, we’re not separate from reality, and therefore, attempts to benefit at the expense of reality or any facet of it are ultimately futile. That inherent personal compassion, that basic goodness, that motivation to make ourselves happy and protect ourselves from suffering is distorted by the ignorance of dualism to become, perversely, the cause of all of our suffering. The delusion of dualism leads us to believe that we don’t have what we need to be happy right here and now, and that we were happy in the past or could be happy in the future when we had or will have the proper configuration of external circumstances. Though it may sound optimistic, the message of The Secret (that we can have whatever we want if we just envision it properly) is fundamentally pessimistic. It implies that we don’t have everything we need right here, right now.

Having made those mistakes, the proponents of The Secret aren’t evil–they’re only causing their own suffering. It has been argued that they’re preying on the weakness of those who are suffering most, making them feel worse about their situation, offering them false hope, and then taking some of the little money that they have. But those people wouldn’t be susceptible to The Secret’s siren song if they didn’t already believe that the answer to their problems lay outside themselves, and so long as they believe that, they’ll end up suffering no matter what huckster happens along to exploit them. That isn’t to say that the hucksters are blameless or that the people exploited by those hucksters are to blame for their predicament. It is to say that there’s a whole pile of suffering past, present, and future here for hucksters and exploited alike, and writing exposés and think pieces about the evils of The Secret probably won’t help much. Nor will a Weblog entry pointing that out.

What might help is the recognition that we’re not separate from the situation or anyone in it. Like those being exploited, I’ve been frustrated by having less than others, and I’ve tried to get what I can, within reasonable ethical limits, to make myself happier. And like the hucksters, I’ve had some success in getting those things that are expected to make me happier, and I’ve been frustrated that not everyone (family especially) has been able to do the same when it seems so simple to me. And finally, like the writers and other pundits who decry the whole situation, I am upset by the ignorance of it all and the way that it only proliferates dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I know that the primordial impulse behind all of these actions is basically good, but because that impulse is filtered through the delusion of dualism, it only results in suffering for all involved; for the exploited who can’t seem to get ahead; for the hucksters because even getting ahead, they still suffer; and for the pundits because they can’t seem to persuade anyone of the folly of it all.

Similarly, all anger is ultimately motivated by love. That love is a preference that someone, ourselves or others, be happy and free from suffering. Anger arises when, having mistakenly separated that object of our love from the rest of reality, we perceive that object to be suffering at the hands of a reality from which it’s not really separate. So in anger, there is compassion (for the object), wisdom (a clear relative discernment of the situation), and ignorance (the delusion that that relative discernment reflects ultimate truth). It’s important to recognize that there is compassion and wisdom in anger, but it’s also important to recognize that without the underlying ignorance, there would be no anger. And to say that there’s compassion and wisdom in anger isn’t to say that acting out of anger (which would mean acting out of ignorance) will ever be helpful. As the Dhammapada says, and as Ethan quoted it in the podcast:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Without addressing the delusion of dualism, all other attempts to reduce suffering will ultimately fail. We’re already basically good (and if we weren’t, what hope would there be?), so we don’t have to address our motivation. Instead, we have to cultivate wisdom, not just by reading and studying, but by understanding in every moment that we’re not separate from any aspect of the reality that we experience. Talking on the phone, ordering food, driving, walking down the street, riding the subway or the bus, going through our work day, or being with our loved ones, we will be best served by engaging in every moment with the intention of removing suffering and cultivating happiness for everyone involved. It’s the only way we’ll avoid suffering and find happiness for ourselves, and no one else is going to do it for us.

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