“The Secret”

I leafed through a copy of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, just to see what all the excitement was about. What first strick me was the series of descriptions given to the many obscure contributors: “metaphysician and marketing specialist,” “visionary,” “personal empowerment advocate,” “creator of prosperity and human potential programs.”

The secret is a so-called “law of attraction,” meaning a law of the universe, complete with the quantum physics vocabulary of the What the Bleep Do We Know? book and film contributors, although much lighter in this book. This “law” means that if you have certain thoughts, then the universe will give you concomitant results. Thus the usual popular desires for fame, romance, and money only require lots of intensive wishing and obsessing until the universe gives these things to you.

Thus Jack Canfield of the famous Chicken Soup for the Soul books used this “law” to imagine himself wealthy and — sure enough — he became wealthy. He blithely tells us that originally he pasted an image of a $100,000 bill on his bedroom ceiling so that it was the first thing he would see upon awakening every morning.

There is a naive Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie mustiness to this shameless book, but also a flippant arrogance in New Age trappings, all updated to 21st-century old-fashioned American-style covetousness and greed. For example, one of the contributors, identified as “entrepreneur and money making expert” tells us:

We can have whatever it is that we choose. I don’t care how big it is. What kind of a house do you want to live in? Do you want to be a millionaire? What kind of a business do you want to have? Do you want more success? What do you really want?

What do I really want? Well, I already have my own “secret.” I call it the “law of disengagement.” It, too, is a universal law, as far as know. It simply states that peace of mind, habits of simplicity, the company of the wise, and disengagement from the rush of society, culture, and the crowd, is the source of happiness. Maybe that is the real law of attraction. I don’t know, but it amounts to all the wealth I want.

Silence and technology

Is silence the absence of sound and noise or is it something palpable, a substance, a “being”? Max Picard approached silence as a phenomenon and elicits in his reflective fashion all the characteristics of silence as real and independent. Like Heidegger, Picard presents silence as ultimately leading us to the issue of technology, for the noxious sounds and noises of modern technology suggest that the issue of silence is more pressing than ever.

In part the issue is pressing because silence is related to an internal psychological disposition or state. Meditation works best in ambient silence because it represents emptiness or nothingness, and the goal of meditation is to bring the mind into this state of being. There are meditation centers and old churches, etc., in large cities that must function with background sounds of emergency vehicles, the murmur of traffic, and occasional voices punctuating the air. But this is of necessity and clearly not optimal. Noise represents a deprivation of privacy, and is today paralleled by the increasing alienation from nature that urban children experience — and adults as well.

But the pace and scale of technology alone does not influence our view of silence or lack of it. Our perception of space has changed with the twentieth century, as our conceptions of outer space define black holes and dead stars and the enormous flux of energy. Silence is the absence of vibrating frequencies, we may say, and noise is disturbed energy. But silence is the nature and primordial being of space, and vibrating frequencies represent activity, not being, becoming not the substratum of what is. Modern technology has had the inadvertent effect of highlighting these facts, or indeed demonstrating them.

The pace and scale of modern technology is intended to disassemble not only privacy but independence of self, as it organizes and groups what is autonomous into what is controllable. Whether it be control of the atom and energy in the nuclear bomb to the manipulation of consumerism in electronic media to destruction of nature through highways and urban sprawl — modern technology is pressing the individual into a psychological and social confine. Silence is the enemy of modern technology and those who benefit from it. Silence is exterminated by increasing technology and its technology-dependent products and circumstances.

Silence frightens many people. They are content with the buzzing sounds of society around them and within them. It reassures them that they are not alone, that they will not see or sense the yawning emptiness that is reality. I don’t mean emptiness is any nihilistic sense. Whatever your tradition or philosophy, the universe is all the same stuff in different modes and manifestations. I only mean that many people don’t want to acknowledge this interconnectedness, this identity of all beings in a single reality, because it drives out the meaningfulness of their lives. Their lives are without meaning, dependent on contrivance, technology, the interplay of society and noise. Silence reminds us of this contrivance and puts radical thoughts in our heads.

Silence is the fullness of being. To enter silence is to enter fullness of self. As we disengage ever more from contrivance into solitude, from artificial culture into reflection and self-consciousness, we befriend silence.

“Hell is other people”

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s drama No Exit, the character Garcin exclaims towards the end of the play:

So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is — other people!

The context of the play makes this statement almost a denouement, a recapitulation, as three characters stuck in the same place grow in hatred of one another, but as much of themselves to begin with. In the wider context of Nazi-occupied France, the concept of hell on earth becomes plausible but unnecessary as a background to the play and its theme, a sort of redundancy. The notion that hell is other people can stand on its own, let alone as a projection of life on earth with society, culture, and power being what it already is.

Is this statement absolute and universal? We know it is not. Friendship and honesty exists as counterparts to enmity and deception. But what the play is getting at is that self-deception is as much a hell as deceiving other people, being as it were the original sin, the original hatred.

Love of self has always sounded like a self-deception because it is a false counterpart to the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Who can love the self that is a mere product of environment, socialization, culture? If that is all that we are, a series of miscalculations brought about from listening to others and to our popular culture, then, yes, hell is other people, because hell is society writ large. And hell is ourselves.

Everyone tries to shape themselves by what they think they like and what they think they do well. But if it turns out that this is based on the society of the moment and can disappear at the whim of that same contrived culture, we are bound to hate ourselves for “giving in” and hating others for “taking us in.”

How can we shape the self so that it does not depend on others, so that the self does not become a hell? We cannot escape socialization in childhood, nor the many influences of growing, maturing, and making our way in the world. But in a way we must be, like the characters in No Exit, “dead.” Not alive and torturing ourselves and others, not even dead and gone to hell to torture ourselves and others — but “dead” to society and culture, to the desires that stoke hatred, desire, delusion, self-deception, what Sartre calls “bad faith.”

That other people constitute hell is not self-evident. It means realizing that we gain nothing by intersecting with the mass of people and the products of society and culture. That realization is difficult enough, for it is what the average person will consider depressing, pessimistic, anti-social, a standard more difficult than loving your neighbor, whatever they may think that means. It is the first stage of solitude, of becoming what Nietzsche called a wanderer and a solitary.

But only in disengagement can the true self emerge, or even have a chance to do so. Nothing good can come out of abdicating the self to the world, for at a whim the world will drop what amused you and substitute something else to torture you. Then, up close, trapped like the characters of Sartre’s play, we will find hell.

Having identified the self as it really is — outside of the contrivances of people and culture — we can begin to strengthen that self, strengthening it to the point of being able to use it only for what is solitary and wise. And in our daily lives, even intersecting with others, we will then know what we are to do, and we can do it well. This “right doing” will give our lives meaning, a meaning that does not intersect with hell, but grazes it tangentially. It will then be at that point that Shunryn Suzuki describes:

When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.

Bird in spring

Late afternoon. In a clump of cypress flits a tiny bird. Surely a sparrow among these spreading trees. On looking closer I see a downy-headed woodpecker, all black and bright-headed, so small that spring has only just pushed him new into the world, into the space called living. A wee bird among ancient things, reckless, bold, curious, full of enthusiasm.

The bird circles the tree, rising like a spiral. But it will find nothing on the smooth firm bark. Better the pines with their knots and insect crevices and– I am teaching the little bird? Proffering instruction, advice, elementary science?

Already the bird is gone, bored with my lecture on self-sufficiency. I who wander to market for my food brought a thousand miles via terrible machines, unbearable noise, industrial stench that would drive off any sensible creature, like a little bird. I have lapsed into unctuous words, words without knots or crevices to catch nuance, irony, contradiction, hubris. Sticky words in which to trap thoughts. I stop, none too soon.

I wonder if the bird will come back, tomorrow or next spring. I hope so. That bird can teach me a thing or two.


Reading A World without Time: the Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein by Palle Yourgrau. The philosopher and scientist Kurt Godel was not only an intriguing personality but a revolutionary thinker who has been studied carefully by a few and ignored by most. Specifically ignored has been Godel’s theory that time does not exist in the universe considered from the viewpoint of Einstein’s theory of relativity. This theory has never been refuted, only ignored.

Though Godel has been described as the only person who could speak “on equal terms with Einstein,” Godel’s is a “forgotten legacy.” He was eccentric and depressive, especially towards the end of his life, as he saw colleagues pass away and his own health deteriorate.

Author Yourgrau has a stimulating and reflective set of passages towards the end of the book:

“We live in a world,” he [Godel] wrote, “in which ninety-nine per cent of all beautiful things are destroyed in the bud.” … “There are structural laws in the world which can’t be explained causally … Good things appear from time to time in single persons and events … but the general deveopment tends to be negative.”

Christianity, with which he was generally sympathetic, was no exception. It “was best at the beginning. Saints slow down the downward movement.” As Simone Weil puts it, although “since [Christ’s] day there have been no very noticeable changes in men’s behavior,” “drops of purity” appear from time to time. Philosophy, according to Godel, suffered a similar fate: “Philosophy tends to go down.” Indeed, “it is, at best, at the point where Babylonian mathematics was.”