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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.
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