Sixteen people sit in folding chairs, hunched over single sheets of paper, scribbling purposefully. They're crammed into a tiny room behind the sanctuary of a nondescript Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tierrasanta, surrounded by religious texts, the buzz of florescent lights and the smell of microwave popcorn.
After a quiet interval, the group leader speaks. A heavyset woman with a beatific smile and a voice like warm milk, she looks up from the blue folder resting on her lap and invites the group to share.
The first guy says he wants to attract success. The second wants a loving relationship and the third says he wants a career that is 'energizing and life-affirming.” Similarly vague requests are echoed around the circle until a blond woman looks proudly up from her paper-balanced on a borrowed hardback copy of The Origin of Satan-and announces that she wants to manifest $27 million. The woman with the blue folder looks thrilled.
The workshop, held by Vision: A Center for Spiritual Living, is about The Secret, a self-help book and movie that-thanks in part to an endorsement from Oprah-has sold more than 2 million DVD copies and 4 million book copies since its release in 2006.
As many critics have pointed out, there's actually nothing secret about it. The philosophy within the movie-allegedly a phenomenon confirmed by quantum physics called the 'law of attraction”-has been regurgitated in numerous incarnations throughout the 20th century.
In the film, the law of attraction is explained by a string of philosophers, authors and entrepreneurs, each perched in front of a backdrop that looks something like a Dead Sea Scroll, spouting gems like, 'Your job is to declare what you'd like to have from the catalogue of the universe” and 'The universe will correspond to the nature of your song.”
According to The Secret's panel of experts, the law of attraction works in three steps.
The first is asking, or identifying the things you want to bring into your life and visualizing them daily. The second is believing, cultivating a 'solid, unwavering faith” that you deserve and will eventually attain all your current desires. The final piece is receiving by making yourself viscerally feel, in advance, the happiness, achievement and gratitude you'll experience once you manifest your desires-this, they say, sends signals into the universe that draw those things to you.
A lot of people don't buy into the law of attraction. The film's most outspoken critics insist The Secret's a toxic piece of cunningly marketed malarkey, dangerously advocating that poor people wish their way out of poverty and sick people hope their way out of terminal illness (one woman in the DVD actually claims to have sent her breast cancer into remission after three months by renting a lot of silly movies and laughing her way into health).
But people have been practicing the law of attraction long before The Secret franchise came along. The law of attraction is one of the main tenets of Religious Science-Vision: A Center for Spiritual Living is one of many local congregations.
Jeanne Phillips is the head of Vision's education ministry. Warm and friendly with close-cropped hair, utilitarian makeup and a cell-phone clipped to her jeans, she bears no physical traits of new-age eccentricity. She also seriously claims to have manifested her house, her dog and a recent trip to Ireland.
Phillips says that for practitioners of Religious Science, getting what you want from the universe is just the beginning.
'It's not just for yourself, so you have more money, so you have a nicer house,” she explains. 'It's that you can live a greater life, you can be more, you can express more, you can make this a better world. And that, in the movie, is pretty much like the last 10 minutes.”
Paul Hemmerling, one of Vision's founding members, says he's been practicing the law of attraction for the past five years. A bubbly, good-natured guy who works as a custodial maintenance manager at San Diego State University, Hemmerling reports that he's now making the best money of his life and recently manifested himself a free car.
Nevertheless, Hemmerling says The Secret doesn't fully reflect his beliefs.
'They get most of the way through the movie before they talk about ‘things can't make you happy,'” Hemmerling says. 'Being happy makes you happy; things are just added on to your happiness.”
OK, but what about healing yourself through positive energy?
'When something develops, yeah, I believe and I think our teaching accepts that you can pray and think and heal yourself out of any condition,” Hemmerling says, 'but we also believe that God exists in Aspirin.”
Having suffered from abuse as a child, Hemmerling agrees with one of the biggest criticisms of the film: the idea that people who are suffering have somehow brought these conditions upon themselves through negative thought patterns.
'We say that everything in your experience you have created, and that was hard for me,” he says. 'It may be false according to our belief systems, but I cannot accept that I chose that at the age of 3.”
Ultimately, for Hemmerling and the Religious Science community, people who practice the law of attraction without deeper spiritual faith will only scrape the surface of possibility and fulfillment.
'I think people who are looking for that quick fix, that Western secular fun thing, they may find it,' Hemmerling says. 'They may be able to get a few cute manifestations-they'll get lunch, they'll get a boat.'
Debra Hoogestraat disagrees. A local life coach who specializes in law of attraction strategies, she says following the principles recently enabled her to lose 180 pounds.
'You can use the strategies and not believe that it's the universe drawing things to you,' says Hoogestraat. 'It's a psychological thing.'
Some faith is required, Hoogestraat concedes, but only in the strategies themselves.
'If you don't believe that the strategies are going to work, it's not going to work,' she says. 'But you have to believe in the strategies of ‘emotion creates motion' either negatively or positively.'
Mortgage advisor Ronald Johnson was feeling a bit short on happiness and abundance when he attended a Vision workshop to try to get deeper into The Secret. He spent the two-hour session alternately cradling his head in his hands, rubbing the bridge of his nose and furiously scribbling on his worksheet.
'It seems to me like [the law of attraction] was based on hope,' Johnson said afterwards. 'And you can have all the hope and the faith in the world, but it's not going to get you anywhere.'
If there's one thing The Secret can truly accomplish, it's separating pragmatists from idealists.