The members of Charles Dalton's Law of Attraction Group believe you can get anything your heart desires by concentrating and sending positive vibes into the universe. The idea is pretty basic: You ask for something. You visualize that thing and believe it's coming to you. Start your entreaty with the phrase, "Wouldn't it be nice if ..."
As in, "Wouldn't it be nice if I lost five pounds this year?" group member Julie Frank says at one recent meeting. "Or, 'Wouldn't it be nice if my car worked beautifully for the rest of the week?' Then you don't expect instant results, but know that eventually your cells, your body will adapt to this." For the magic to work, she added, you have to stanch all doubts. You can't bemoan the fact that those five pounds haven't melted off yet, or the car isn't running. "That's not really you," Frank assures. "That's the voice in your head."
Dalton started leading his group almost a year ago. The group meets every Saturday morning in the living room of his home on a quiet Concord street with squat houses and manicured lawns. Between five and ten people show up on average — today there are six — some of whom drive from as far as Berkeley's Elmwood district, like regular Mary Tansey. Dalton provides coffee, Ritz crackers, and dried fruit. He sticks a white board in one corner of the room so that each person can get up and deliver a lecture on some law-of-attraction-oriented theme, such as the recent Time magazine feature that asked, "Does God Want Us to Be Rich?"
Dalton is what you might call a career spiritualist. Raised Catholic in Baltimore, he switched to Hinduism as a teen and moved to Hawaii, where he learned yoga and ate a strict diet of sprouts and tofu. Eight years later he became a Buddhist. Then he moved to Berkeley to work as a massage therapist. Dalton found out about the laws of attraction fifteen years ago, after answering an East Bay Express personal from someone who wanted to study the teachings of best-selling author and motivational speaker Esther Hicks.
In his meet-up group and private consultation business, Dalton provides distilled versions of Hicks' teachings — cribbed from a CD of recorded lectures and a series of books with titles like Ask and It Is Given — along with lessons gleaned from Rhonda Byrne in her popular 2006 book The Secret, which followed on the heels of an ubiquitous self-help DVD of the same name. All of these texts promote a similar "Law of Attraction" — the notion that "like attracts like" — with slight variations in presentation. Hicks, for instance, claims that her entire text is received from a group of divine beings, collectively dubbed "Abraham." Several of these guides became publishing phenomena. Most popular of all was The Secret, which garnered fervent endorsements from Larry King, Ellen DeGeneres, and Oprah, who assured, in a 2006 interview with King, that "the message of The Secret is the message that I've been trying to share with the world on my show for the past 21 years."
Dalton, who typically starts his group off by chiming a Tibetan bell and plays meditation music throughout, says that he actually knew about the law of attraction years before Byrne rendered it a household name. But he doesn't begrudge her success. After all, Byrne and Hicks gave him the ammo to turn a spiritual muse into a bona fide business venture. He's in good company. Other entrepreneurs like Walnut Creek massage therapist Tamara Shulim and Alameda life coach Nicola Ries Taggart have launched their own consulting businesses or meet-up groups, some of which reprise teachings they got from the bestsellers.
"A lot of people are searching for answers and searching for some way to have control in their life," Ries-Taggart said. "I think what's appealing about the laws of attraction is that essentially what it's saying is that you do have control of your life. I think it shifts people from being a victim of, like, 'Life is just happening to me, I don't have any control.' It shifts them to the driver's seat. I think that's what's appealing to people. It's just a very empowered approach to life.
Although The Secret's national visibility may be on the wane, its true believers are still going strong.
The so-called "law of attraction" is at the core of many self-help regimens, from Dale Carnegie, to Norman Vincent Peale, to Tony Robbins. It's basically just common-sense stuff — i.e., think positive, and good things will happen to you. The appeal of The Secret was its mixture of such advice with the notion of some type of higher power — all converted into the can-do language of a twelve-step program. In The Secret DVD, a kid cuts out a magazine ad for the bicycle he desires and takes it to bed with him. In the book, "success coach" Jack Canfield said he tacked a fake $100,000 bill to his bedroom ceiling and its positive energy launched him into a lucrative publishing enterprise. A bachelor who wanted a relationship painted himself with three women and hung the image in every corner of his house. Stock market educator David Schirmer claimed that in a time of financial hardship he started whiting out the totals on his bank statements and replacing them with a more desirable figure; shortly thereafter he was getting checks in the mail. Local healer-in-training Mary Tansey contends that you can use the Secret to imagine parking tickets out of your life — just keep the image of a ticket-free window on your mind's visual screen.
Many of these acolytes claim they've actually known about the laws of attraction for a long time. Walnut Creek massage therapist Shulim said she encountered a similar doctrine in the "MasterMind" workshops she started attending nine years ago. "This is a funny thing," said the red-haired, 47-year-old speaking in a sharp accent that betrayed her Moldovan origins. "Oprah bought it, you know, but it's been already for a long time because the classes for how to attract — you attract relationship, attract money, attract boyfriend, attract, I don't know, anything. It's a long time, it's everywhere. But I was teaching it and then I said, 'Why didn't I go to Oprah?' I could have gone on Oprah and been a millionaire too."
Shulim says the very term "secret" is a misnomer. "It's not a secret, it's just called 'The Secret' because not many people knew about it," she insisted. Dalton concurred that the law of attraction has actually been around for hundreds of years. "It used to be studied in secret, because the Catholic church would go after you," he explained. "Because they didn't want independent minds."
Shulim runs her massage business from a small second-floor office suite packed with crystals, potted bamboo, and bottles of Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water. Arrayed on the shelves are Tibetan bells, massage lotions, Reiki instruments, Tarot cards, and gauzy sheets festooned with crescent moons. Shulim leads law of attraction workshops — dubbed "MasterMind circles" — at her office throughout the week. She'll occasionally make house calls when a whole family takes the class. She advertises on Craigslist and forms a new circle for every five respondents. Participants meet once a week for ten weeks, during which "each person in the circle will have the opportunity to be uplifted and held in light for a two-week period," according to Shulim's pitch. During those two weeks, Shulim and the other members of the circle agree to "flood the universe with prayer on your behalf."
Among all her talismans and crystals, Shulim keeps a thick binder filled with affirmations and "gratitude lists" from her clients. These range from the abstract ("I am grateful for God's love") to the literal ("I am so grateful I weigh 125 lbs."). Confident that such statements serve as self-fulfilling prophesies, Shulim offers her own experience as proof. She insists that the law of attraction helped her find an affordable office and maintain a full roster of clients. "When I took the class and I wanted to work in Walnut Creek, I got an office in two weeks. ... I wanted to work and I 'saw' the office. I just asked and I was so grateful. I didn't even have the office. But I was grateful for my new office." Shulim's process of "asking" for something while simultaneously convincing herself that she already has it accords with the instructions laid out in The Secret ("1. Ask 2. Believe 3. Receive").
The act of writing one's desires in the present tense is designed to lend them a certain immediacy — as if, at any moment, a genie will materialize and take care of all the details. In one of its cheesier moments, The Secret DVD actually dramatizes the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp using a bald, muscle-bound genie who grants Aladdin's wishes. Shulim claims that things will come if you concentrate on them — a comforting thought, in a way, since it puts everyone on an even playing field.
But believers say there is an unfortunate corollary to Byrne's doctrine — that if you don't get everything you want, you're accused of bad faith. "If you say, 'Oh my god, I'm so poor, I'm so poor, I'm so poor,' you're gonna be poor forever. Because you're saying it to the universe, 'I am poor, I have no money.'" Shulim explained. "If you're miserable, I could tell the universe to send some good stuff to you, but you're not gonna get it because you're so hateful to other people. Why would the universe send you good stuff?" She said that one of her clients, now in her sixties, still agonizes about being raped decades ago. "Maybe she was one in a past life who was doing the same thing. She got the lesson. Punished. You know what I mean? Karma." Shulim said she works hard to stave off bad vibes. She speaks quickly and emphatically, and often asks if you see how happy she is.
Alameda life coach Nicola Ries-Taggart uses the law of attraction in her workshops and consultations, but swaps a lot of what she calls the "woo-woo" stuff for a more common-sense approach. A University of Oregon graduate with a degree in journalism and communications, she worked in human resources for several years and entered the life coaching business in 2003, after completing a six-month online course with the Coaches Training Alliance. Taggart had already put together an "attracting love" workshop and online courses months before The Secret hit stores, and was charging anywhere from $25 for a group workshop, to $279 for a package of six. "I thought it would be great, like I could sort of ride on its coattails," she said of the book. "There's sort of this idea that you can just do it yourself — which a lot of people can, but it's hard."
Ultimately, however, she found The Secret too simplistic and not sufficiently action-oriented. "The Secret sort of implies that you just visualize it and it will show up," she said. "What's appealing to people on that scale is that it seems very simple." In fact, she believes it encourages complacency in its adherents. "Wanting something and visualizing something is great, but that doesn't mean that that thing just magically shows up," Taggart said. "If you want something to transpire in your life, some action is required. You first have to get in touch with what you want, then you take inspired action. It's that action that's required to 'help' the universe line things up. You can't just sit in your chair and just never do your part to help move things forward."
Today Taggart offers a pretty standard life-coaching package: $450 a month for three one-hour phone sessions, unlimited e-mail support between sessions, and access to any online course she's offering (she compares it to "having a lawyer on retainer"). Taggart adds a psychoanalytic dimension to "The Secret" by encouraging workshop participants — mostly single women in their thirties and forties — to figure out the impetus for their goals and desires. She worked with a guy who thought he wanted to be a doctor, but later realized he could get the same personal satisfaction as a teacher. She worked with a woman who came into the workshop desiring a relationship, but realized, through a process of "journaling," that she actually wanted a new home. She's worked with other single women who sought out tall men, but realized they were actually looking for protection and security. She's worked with people who thought they wanted money, but actually desired freedom and flexibility. Though Taggart hasn't entirely renounced the idea of "positive energy" and "vibrations," she allows that such faith-based notions don't work for everyone. "If you go to pray and in the back of your head you're thinking, 'This is a bunch of bullshit,' you know, it's probably not gonna help you very much."
Dalton has heard the whole litany of criticisms levied against The Secret, but he still believes. These days he ekes out a living doing personal consultations which he advertises on Craigslist. Since he doesn't drive, he relies on friends like Tansey to help get around. On a recent Tuesday morning, the two sat together at Berkeley's A Cuppa Tea cafe talking quietly over an ambient soundtrack of Chopin piano music, and the persistent bleat of Dalton's iPhone. Dalton used colored markers to down all the points he wanted discuss, such as: "Communication," "Five senses," and "Emotional intimacy."
Like Taggart, he focuses on the sensual experience of having what you want, rather than the material goal. "What would the experience be like if you had that good friend, or that good partner?" Dalton asked. "What would you smell differently? What would you taste differently?" If it is about making more money, then Dalton suggests you start eating the kind of food you associate with wealth — "You're gonna taste something different," he assured.
Dalton and Tansey were elated when The Secret rose to national popularity in 2006. Meet-up groups sprang up throughout the Bay Area, and people began flocking for Dalton's services. Fortune had suddenly graced him with a burgeoning network of like-minded souls. After attending several MasterMind-style groups in the East Bay, Dalton launched one at his house in Concord. For several months, many of his 54 members kept showing up after other such groups had fizzled out. By now, though, some of those members have gone their separate ways. Still, Dalton and Tansey say they're in it for the long haul. They're hoping for another endorsement from Oprah. Dalton still sits in his living room for two hours every Saturday morning, even if nobody comes to join him. After all, said Tansey, it's important to keep the faith: "You never say, 'The group is gonna go,'" she assured. "You say: 'We'll always have this group.'"
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