Last fall, patient of mine suggested I read a book entitled “Ask And It Is Given”. Never having heard of it before, I looked the book up on Amazon and found that it was just one of a number of books, tapes and videos created by couple named Esther and Jerry Hicks. Collectively referred to as the ‘Abraham material’, this prolific body of work seemed to have attracted a large number of devoted readers who enthusiastically reviewed the book on Amazon. Intrigued, I ordered “Ask and It is Given” along with one other, more recent book by the Hicks. When I sat down to read the book the day it arrived, my first impression from just a few pages was less than positive. The content was repetitive, the language stilted and the sentence structure strained. I began to doubt whether I would be able to get much out of the book – or even tolerate proceeding much further. It crossed my mind that perhaps I had ventured a bit too far onto the turf of the New Age. But, on the strength of my patient’s recommendation and the fervor of the Amazon reviewers, I pressed on.
It was a good thing, too. Because once I got used to the lingo and the writing style, and accommodated myself to reading and re-reading essentially the same thing numerous times, I found the actual subject matter absorbing. The message it conveyed, though not entirely new to me, was of great personal as well as universal significance.
As far as I can tell, when boiled down to its essence, that message comes down to one simple proposition. All of their publications and all of their numerous seminars (it appears they spend a great portion of their lives traveling from one venue to the next in a giant RV) are dedicated to disseminating it, explaining it, clarifying its implications.
That proposition – though the Hicks I’m sure would claim it is a law of nature more than a mere proposition - is that thought creates reality. The same idea can be expressed in any number of ways: thought attracts reality, intention precedes existence, intention brings into being reality, what one thinks is the cause of what will occur… “Ask and it is given” is just another variation on the same theme. All of them come under the rubric of what is called “The Law of Attraction.”
As I mentioned, it isn’t that this concept is original with the Hicks. Not by any means. It has been known since antiquity and found its way into many spiritual and philosophical traditions. In twentieth century American culture, a variation on the Law of Attraction was most famously popularized by Norman Vincent Peale when he preached the ‘power of positive thinking’. Fundamentally, his point was that constructive, affirming thoughts bring about constructive, affirming consequences. Destructive, negative ones likewise bring about destructive, negative results.
But what distinguishes the Abraham materials, what makes them so, well, attractive, is that they are extremely practical. They not only provide a construct by which one can understand why the Law of Attraction exists and the implications of that fact, but more importantly, for me, at least, they also provide a relatively straightforward methodology that assists people to apply it.
It is all well and good to say, “Think nice thoughts and your life will be wonderful!” But the fact of the matter is that we often don’t think nice thoughts at all – and it is difficult to control the ‘not nice’ thoughts that creep into our minds. This ‘don’t think about white elephants’ phenomenon is the insidious side of the Law of Attraction.
If you are looking for a parking spot on a crowded street, thinking about how few spots there are will attract a street with no parking. The same applies to feeling lonely, poor, unhealthy or any number of negative experiences. Unfortunately, most of us have deeply ingrained habits of focusing on what is wrong or missing, and drawing more of the same into our lives.
‘Ask and It Is Given’ gives numerous ways by which one can unlearn some of these injurious habits in order to break this viscous cycle. It really is a matter of habit, a matter practice to train or retrain the mind to perceive what is wanted and not focus on what is not wanted.
When a person is ill, the application of the Law of Attraction can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it implies that on some level people attract illness. I certainly have met my share of people who concern or fixation on their poor health or the possibility of being sick seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Yet, it is beyond my level of perception to see how a very young child attracts cancer (or any other significant illness, for that matter). All of us know of active, positive people with life affirming attitudes who have been struck with terrible diseases. In these cases, it is difficult to comprehend how the law applies without reference to concepts such karma or a collective will.
In addition, for some, the implication that this is possibly true will be a burden with its own negative consequences of increased worry and self-recrimination. Obviously, this is the opposite of what the Hicks wish people will take away from their work.
The focus of the Law of Attraction is less on looking backward into the past, and more about being inspired about the future. It offers a hope that positive thoughts about one’s health will lead to a positive outcome. “Ask and It Is Given” is full of practical instructions on how to go about that.
One might, for example, imagine a state of good health, or recall a previous time of good health by focusing on how it feels to be well or the things that one is able to do when well. The essence is to mentally put oneself into a state of experiencing wellness by thought or imagination. This mental - or some might say ‘energetic’ – reality attracts more of the same in the physical plane.
The ink had barely dried on the first part of this series when an old college buddy of mine emailed to alert me to the fact that an article about Esther and Jerry Hicks had appeared in the Sunday edition of the NY Times (‘Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos, Feb. 25), of all places.
It was a bit surprising to learn that the esteemed paper of record would take an interest in something so imbued with the spirit of the New Age. But, as it turned out the focus of the reporting was less on spirituality and more on an apparently quite materialistic dispute between the Hicks and an Australian women named Rhonda Byrne.
Byrne is the producer of the wildly popular video ‘The Secret’, which has sold over a million and a half copies and looks like it might be heading toward another million or so. Although marketing of the Secret began humbly enough through word of mouth and the internet, its popularity exploded into the national media limelight courtesy of Oprah Winfrey, who featured it on her show (twice, I am told).
Byrne originally had enlisted Esther Hicks to appear in the video, which was a natural choice since the Secret is really nothing more than a dramatized (some might say over dramatized… way over dramatized) explanation of the “Law of Attraction”. But according to the Times, irreconcilable differences arose between the Hicks and Byrne over the editing, distribution of the video as well as who is deserving of credit for making this information accessible to the public.
In the end, the Hicks demanded to be edited out of the project, a second edition of the Secret was made featuring other experts and Byrne went on to make a fortune. (The second edition is widely available on the internet, going for about $30, while relatively copies of the first edition still can be found usually for triple that price.) Although the Hicks deny financial factors were involved in their dispute with Byrne – their own endeavors apparently have made them quite wealthy, thank you very much - money, or more precisely, the amassing of it, seems to unfortunately be central to the popular interpretation of the Law of Attraction.
The Times article protrays the Secret as the first 21st century incarnation in a lineage of work which it characterizes with phrases like ‘think and grow rich’ and ‘prosperity consciousness. ’ This tradition includes people like Napoleon Hill who wrote “Think and Grow in Rich” in 1930s, Norman Vincent Peale whose “Power of Positive Thinking” appeared in the 1950’s, along with more contemporary descendants like Jack Canfield of “Chicken Soup” fame and Wayne Dyer, writer of “Your Erroneous Zone” and a number of other bestsellers over the last 30 years.
Expressions such as ‘prosperity consciousness’ betray a disturbing interpretation of this entire genre and the ideas behind it. Depicted simply as a means to become wealthy and achieve other forms of material success, they may gain great popularity (and garner wealth for their authors), but they also become easy targets of cynical critique. Most importantly, it misses the depth and subtleties of the principle while ignoring more transcendent forms of happiness and success.
It is interesting that although the difference between material success and contentment has been emphasized in countless ways by countless teachers and authorities for centuries if not millennia, we never really seem to believe it. We all have heard about the consequences of King Midas’s golden touch, but somehow we remain unconvinced.
Perhaps the vulgarization of the “Law of Attraction” is inevitable when it is drawn into the public domain and promulgated indiscriminately. And, my hunch is that this was at the heart of the rupture between Byrne and the Hicks. Not only is there a stylistic garishness to the video that does a disservice to its message, but to a certain extent the Secret is devoid of the actual secret.
It is simple enough to state that thoughts become reality, but thoughts can be very nuanced and have different layers of meaning of which the thinker is not consciously aware. It is not so easy to break habits of long ingrained thought patterns, nor to shape them so as to deliver a sought after outcome.
What the Hicks have spent the last several decades communicating via their books, tapes and workshops is not about money or other forms of mundane success. Rather, they explore the dynamics between consciousness and reality. More fundamentally, it is about understanding that human existence is rooted in a non-material, energetic reality that emerges into a concrete, corporeal world and how, through this understanding, an individual has tools to shape his or her experiences in life.
The prospect of my oldest child graduating from college and setting off on his own in a few months had me reflecting somewhat wistfully about his earliest days as an infant in Sri Lanka. Soon after his birth on a straw mat on the floor of my clinic in a remote village, we took up residence in a wing of a formerly grand manor on what used to be a tea estate.
The lady of the house, Mrs. Gunawardena, was a garrulous and corpulent elderly woman who had once presided over a coterie of servants and workers, while raising a handful of children. Now living alone and only able to move with great difficulty, she seemed to enjoy the presence of a young couple and their infant, regaling us with stories of the old days when she enjoyed the privileges bestowed upon the upper caste landed gentry, a time when the estate was both productive and profitable.
But by the time we arrived, that world had long since disappeared. Her husband had died, the estate had closed, and her children had gone to live abroad. She had become a relic of a bygone era living off her memories.
Yet within the time capsule of her home, there intruded a few reminders of the outside world. Most notably, a television and a subscription to the interfaith magazine ‘Guideposts’®, both of which she gladly shared with us. While watching old American shows from a village in the tropics on the other side of the world was entertaining and more than a little disorienting, it was the magazine that made the stronger impression on me.
Guideposts, originally created in the 1940’s by Norman Vincent Peale, the Christian clergyman famous for teaching the ‘Power of Positive Thinking’, found its way to Mrs. Guanwardena’s because, like many of her social class, her ancestors had disavowed the indigenous Buddhist faith in favor of Christianity, which was introduced by the first colonial masters of the island, the Portuguese, in the 16th century.
Now, with a touch of missionary zeal of her own, she suggested I peruse her library of current and back issues, that perhaps I would find its content interesting. Having left my Western religious roots years earlier and immersed myself in the study and practice of Eastern philosophy, medicine and religion for nearly a decade, it was not without a touch of condescension that I humored my landlady by taking a few copies back to my side of the house.
Browsing through its pages, I began to be drawn in by the content, surprisingly touched by these simple stories contributed by everyday Americans. There was something both irresistible and ingenuous about directness of first person narratives based on true experiences. Though they were meant to inspire a belief in a Christian God, what I found more compelling was the belief in faith itself and how empowering that was. The power of positive thinking, indeed.
Running through my first stack of magazines, I went back for a second helping and it wasn’t long before I had read through all the back issues and began to eagerly await the arrival of the latest one in the mail. Although during my year at Mrs. Gunawardena’s, I must have read the contributions of hundreds of people, today, over twenty years later, all of them are lost to memory – except one.
It is the account of a young woman who suffered from a particularly aggressive case of multiple sclerosis. Starting with mild symptoms of tingling and muscle weakness, it wasn’t long before she couldn’t walk and subsequently ended up lying totally immobilized in bed. With the progressive loss of her outward capacities, she turned inward. At first she could read and converse, but when that no longer was possible, she was left with only her own thoughts.
At some point, she decided to focus all her attention and energy on prayer. Every waking moment was spent praying to her God for her family, her friends, and for herself. It was sometime during this stage when physically she was nothing more than an emaciated skeletal shell of herself lying curled in a fetal position, that a group from her church paid her a visit.
She had been placed on the living room couch to receive them. They entered the room and stood before her. I don’t recall whether they sang to her or just spoke personal greetings, but in the midst of this gathering, she heard a voice that clearly intoned, “Stand up.” Thinking it to be the minister who stood at the back of the group, she focused on him. But he gave no indication that he had said anything and a few moment later when she heard the same words again, he hadn’t moved his mouth.
In fact, everyone else appeared oblivious to the message she had heard. But after a third, more insistent command to stand up, she decided to act. Getting to her feet, the group parted with mouths agape in astonishment as she began to put one foot in front of another, slowly making her way to the hallway and into the kitchen where her mother was preparing some food for the visitors. Her mother turned her head to see who had walked in and fainted straight away.
It was a spontaneous and complete remission. The multiple sclerosis with all its symptoms had disappeared. At the time of its publication, this young woman, still in her 20’s, was 100% healthy, devoting herself to sharing her experience with church groups and anyone else who would hear it. The Power of Positive Thinking, the Law of Attraction, thought precedes reality – however one wishes to describe the phenomenon, for me this remarkable story is a constant reminder that health is dependent on something more than the state of our physical being.