laying down the laws

He has been accused of hawking "leveraged spirituality". Extremist religious groups despise him for believing that "man makes distinctions, God makes none". Christian fundamentalists angrily picketed St Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, when he was invited to speak by the resident Catholic nuns. "The signs they carried," Deepak Chopra wryly says, "read: SATAN GO HOME!"

His few factual errors have been cited by many as irrefutable evidence of quackery. Certain defenders of the Western scientific tradition, disturbed by recent academic surveys showing that those with powerful spiritual beliefs enjoy far superior health, yearn for the opportunity to expose him as a charlatan. Dr William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, recently expressed his anxiety that "people with serious diseases may turn their backs on legitimate medical care and follow his path."

The calibre of his acolytes has enraged his detractors. Prince Charles recently invited him to an academic forum to discuss ways of integrating "non traditional forms of healing into the Western scientific framework".

When he gave a keynote speech at the State of the World Forum at an international science convention in San Francisco, Mikhail Gorbachev was beside him. Jackie Onassis regularly breakfasted with him at the Four Seasons. Demi Moore calls one of his bestselling books, The Seven Spiritual Laws Of Success, her "bible". The disgraced junk-bond genius, Michael Milken, "testified that after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Chopra's medical attentions shrank his lymph nodes by 90%". Sarah Ferguson, Michael Jackson, David Lynch, Oprah Winfrey, Donna Karan, David Stewart, and George Harrison have passionately expressed their admiration for his work. Even Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that his theories are "very interesting".

Married for 25 years and the father of two grown children, Chopra has written 17 bestselling books which have been translated into 25 languages, their sales exceeding 6 million. For the past seven years, he has been conducting seminars all over the world on mind-body medicine. Toastmasters International named him as one of America's top Five Speakers of 1995. Chopra acknowledges that he is the hub of an extraordinary industry, one of those on the cutting edge of a new consciousness.

"The media is recognizing it," he acknowledges, "Hollywood is recognizing it, the general public is recognizing it. A paradigm shift was inevitable. I hope that it's irreversible, that we're moving towards a more healing world, that we want to be more loving and compassionate, and more caring. I just happen to be part of the tide; if it weren't me, it would be somebody else."

A physician, an endocrinologist, and mystic in the ancient tradition, Chopra is, at heart, an alchemist. Chafed by the limitations of the conventional either/or framework, he has studied medicine, physics, and metaphysics to form an holistic synthesis in which the mind is not treated as alien to the body. This "web" principle - that of the interdependence of mind and body - was recognised in the days of magico-religious medicine but buried at the turn of this century.

The grave remained undisturbed until soaring health budgets and disturbing increases in the rates of suicide, depression, and other manifestations of twentieth century malaise caused the public to question rational materialism. The U.S. health budget alone amounts to AUS$1995 billion, and serious problems with the Australian health budget have resulted in attacks on symptoms and not causes; it is, after all, easier to blame "hypochondria" or "the victim mentality" rather than address the deeper implications of the situation.

That which Chopra calls "the superstition of materialism" is killing people. Loneliness and alienation, he points out, are carcinogens every bit as effective as nicotine. He believes the immune system to be a "circulating nervous system", and the supporting evidence is startling. Examples? Those who feel loved by their partners are statistically more likely to recover from cardiac complications. A 1987 Yale study showed that breast cancer spread most effectively amongst women who had "repressed personalities".

"Similar findings," Chopra writes in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, "have emerged for rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, intractable pain, and other disorders."

The pioneers of psychology - Freud and Jung, in particular - long ago discerned the connection: the human body literally embodies or enacts the mind's conflicts and tragedies. This knowledge was ignored in an effort to retain public faith in pharmaceutical products and technology, a public faith that was necessary to private profit. Chopra has often spoken of having felt like no more than a "licensed drug pusher" during his medical career, and this frustration and a sense of moral futility caused him to explore alternative healing methods. His attention locked on the ancient Ayurvedic doctors of India, whose cardinal belief was that as the body is created out of consciousness, consciousness is where healing must begin.

The tag of mind-body medicine may be broad, but reflects the on-going process of a field searching for methods and values. Its axis? That emotion cannot be separated from the body which produces it and as such, is inextricably related to illness. Inquiries into the extent and nature of this relationship have been instigated by academics and enlightened medical professionals throughout the world, many of whom feel that technology and resultant emotional detachment of those who use it have replaced humaneness in medical practice.

His critics have always spuriously used the fact that he earns millions of dollars a year as evidence of his "McSpirituality", and yet the only way in which his income relates to his perceptions is that it indicates a widespread public dissatisfaction with the structures of the current system.

Few of these critics seem to care that Chopra has not charged for a consultation for ten years or that he retains only the royalties he makes from his books; profits from his seminars, products, treatments, and forays into television are donated to his Seven Spiritual Laws Charity (created for those requiring money for health-related problems, including transplants), and to his Californian Chopra Centre For Well Being, into which he has invested over six million dollars.

Offering instruction in yoga, meditation, practical philosophy and a comprehensive system of eastern and western therapies, the centre also provides world class cardiac and cancer programs to assist those with more acute needs. Despite describing himself as "playful" and "carefree", he is by nature an intellectual - serious, concerned, a creature of abstract thought. Chopra wants to fix things; he is a relentless self-improver. Those unfamiliar with him imagine a hypnotic-eyed cult leader wreathed in turbans, an urban seer, a prince of the Fourth Dimension.

These are common misconceptions. Although there is an unspoken or untranslatable quality about him, he is essentially pragmatic and shy. "A wizard's heart has triple-thick walls," he writes in his first novel, The Return To Merlin, "and only those who have the courage to breach the fortifications can discover the hidden treasure within."

The blue and blinding Sydney day is filtered by curtains in his standard Sheraton-on-the-Park suite. A desk, some chairs, occasional lamps, a coffee table littered by notebooks which he has filled with writing. Now 50, he rarely stops; half the year is spent on the road, talking, talking, talking. He is a driven man who enjoys a lot of attention - the hallmarks of a child who felt overlooked. "My wife would agree with that," he chuckles. "Nobody else would say that! I used to resent it when she said that to me, but now I don't; I agree. I do need approval, and I'm working on that."

Having just completed a new translation of the 11th century Sufi poet Rumi's work, an essay entitled Does God Have Orgasms?, and overseen the publication of his new book, The Path To Love, he is finalising the details for an ongoing television series based on The Return Of Merlin. The effect created by his black collarless shirt, black socks, black loafers, and houndstooth trousers is priestlike in its austerity. It is said his shiny abundance of black hair is dyed, but his eyes are naturally clear; in them, astuteness and a certain heaviness of intention.

Two hours of weight training at the gym each day have not eradicated his gentle paunch. His tone ranges from the learned indolence of the British Raj ("I presume," "yah," "fancy,") to the see-saw enthusiasm of the Indian to American amiability ("I guess," "you know?" "sure!") Only when enthusiastically recalling his childhood or speaking of healing does the drama and lyricism of his native Urdu becomes evident; his voice is otherwise resigned.

"It's tough to be in medicine because you constantly see suffering," he explains with a deep sigh. "During every shift I did, two or three or four or five people died. One person comes in after an automobile accident, another comes in after a gunshot, another comes in after a heart attack, another comes in with a stroke and they are all terrified!" The emphasis with which he invests the word is chilling. "They're absolutely, totally terrified. You watch them going through terror, helplessness, resignation - the full gamut of emotions in a few minutes! It is not easy to deal with that."

Chopra left India 25 years ago with $100 which he impulsively spent at the Moulin Rouge during his stopover in Paris. He had been given the money and a free plane ticket by the New Jersey hospital which was to employ him as an intern (during the Vietnam War, a severe shortage of medical staff in America led to this "incentive" system).

"Very unhappy people, physicians," he says, directly holding my gaze. "The relatives of patients with whom they deal are demanding, litigious, intimidating. That's the environment of medicine. Most of my fellow colleagues were very stressed; a lot of them were addicts. I used to experience the most extraordinary frustration and tightness." He pats his solar plexus. "My great fear was getting into trouble. Malpractice suits are a big deal in the United States."

Determined to succeed, he relocated to Boston, where he worked16-hour shifts at a veterans' hospital. "Having moved to America," he explains, "I was suddenly in a position where I wasn't taken seriously. There was a certain vulnerability, yah. I was treated in a condescending way by the senior physicians, not necessarily invited to social occasions with the American staff, and definitely not given the same opportunities for higher education. There was a distinct bias against foreigners, particularly Asians. But again, I was so competitive that I used all this as a spur. I'll show them!! You know?"

Paid a salary of $500 a month, he had no free time, and when his cramped apartment became too small for the family, he decided that the only option was to double his workload by working until dawn in a suburban emergency room. One of his most traumatic experiences was performing an emergency Caesarean on a murder victim. "A pregnant woman had just been shot in the head.," he murmurs. "She still had a heartbeat. Her eyes were very fixed. I don't know - I just - she was dead. I automatically reacted - cut her open. The baby was alive."

During those years, he suppressed all natural emotional and physical responses to such stress and instead chain-smoked, gulped litres of coffee, and used Scotch to maintain some outward measure of equilibrium. "Life," he acknowledges, "was crushing."

Superficially, he could explain the desperation of his patients. The profound shift in his thinking was triggered when he saw that a terminal diagnosis led to many of them exhibiting a palpable relief. Chopra appreciated that implicit in sickness is escapism; he also knew there had to be more to the situation.

Disease, he ultimately realized, offers opportunities denied by ordinary life in that it permits the sufferer to explore his feelings about and place in the world.

This caused him to wonder how destructive the demands of everyday Western life could be if terminal illness seemed like the only escape. It is disturbing, he has remarked, to think that our culture provides us with so little opportunity to confront the basic meaning of life that sickness and death have filled the void by becoming conversion experiences. "Our culture is psychotic," he says, his hands lightly outspread. "We take ethnocentrism, bigotry, hatred, violence, prejudice, religious intolerance, genocide, poverty, inequality, murder, rape, and child abuse for granted. We sensationalise it on television!"

Recently at a party in London he met a former senior KGB man who asked him what he thought had destroyed Western culture. "Star Wars?" Chopra suggested, "Reagan?" "No," the former KGB man replied, "it was Dallas, the soap opera." He begins to laugh, and slowly shakes his head. "You go to Rwanda or Bangladesh or Zaire, switch on the television, and you see Santa Barbara or some stupid American soap opera. People are such victims of this hypnosis of conditioning! So few actually realize that it is happening."

During his seminars, he speaks eloquently of the imprisonment of conditioning and the boundaries that are created as a consequence. He walks his audience through the physiology of perception - arbitrary, and limited not only by time but by the five senses. "We perceive less than one billionth of what is actually occurring," he says as he paces the stage, cupping his microphone with his left hand, "and what you perceive is that which reinforces original beliefs. The human body, for example, is perceived to be an anatomical structure fixed in space and time, but seen through the eyes of a physicist, the human body is null and void." Action, memory and desire he refers to as "the software of the soul" - "without karma, there is no memory; without memory, there is no desire; without desire, there is no action."

And without action, there is no life.

"When I address top-ranking executives," he remarks, "I see a predatory world. They are male predators, aggressive achievers, and they're getting ill. They're getting prostate cancer, heart attacks - they are beginning to see that they are victims of their own predatory instincts. I tell them that bringing back the feminine softness and nurturing, intuition, a contextual approach to relationships, and love will make their lives easier."

It is precisely this kind of simplicity that is forgotten in the desperate complexity of materialism, a philosophy antithetical to ordinary human vulnerability. The more violently a natural response to a situation is suppressed, the more complicated and extensive is its impact. In the case of illness, most people are subconsciously aware of its "cause" - that it is a metaphor, an emotional war fought on the body's terrain. "It would be easy for me to claim that your sickness is meaningless," he writes in Unconditional Life, "that it is just the result of some random disruption in your body, [which] is more or less what medical training drums into us."

To be told why the stomach, the intestines, or the breasts hurt is secondary to a greater fear. "Even after you salve the ulcer, unblock the intestine, or cut out the breast tumour," he continues, "the patient returns with trouble in his eyes." Traditional western healing exclusively concerns matter, a premise which struck him as self-defeating. "Training to become a doctor reinforces this bias again and again, from that moment in medical school when you first touch a dissecting scalpel to a cadaver's grey skin," Chopra writes in Unconditional Life.

To cope with the onslaught of traumata and the barbaric hours, most doctors learn to mechanically react to situations which, in turns, leads to them treating patients as if they were no more than components of a machine. It is this sense of alienation and lack of caring (and not, as Dr Jarvis postulated, Chopra's theories) which is driving patients away from conventional medicine. The increase in demand for attention-rich therapies, both physical and psychological, is indicative that a "sense of specialness, of being charmed, of being the exception, of being eternally protected" is a necessity and not the luxury that many old-school medical professionals had presupposed.

"You have to understand," he explains with a vehement hand gesture, "that I was absolutely fascinated by the phenomenon of death. Seeing people alive and then dead - that was a very dramatic experience for me, and totally bewildering. I guess that was the beginning of my spiritual yearning. I went through many phases. The first was a very radical scientific, mechanistic world-view throughout medical school, which is where I read Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, took LSD, smoked marijuana - these, you understand, were hip things to do."

Chopra also worked as a lecturer at Tufts University and Boston University Schools of Medicine, and at the age of 38, a "master of the post-colonial medical system", he was made Chief Of Staff at the New England Memorial Hospital. "I mean," he cries, "I was a doctor when I was 21! I finished my training when I was 25, and I was chief of staff when I was 30! I always felt anxious about not being good enough. And then my consciousness shifted. It was a gradual process." The shift visibly began when he read Krishnamurti's work and in 1985, he met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, from whom he learnt Transcendental Meditation.

"My curiosity really goes back to the day my grandfather died," he says, hooking his thumbs in his belt. "My father was in England at the time. My grandfather was looking at alternative means for his heart disease, and my father thought all that was nonsense. We received a telegram informing us that my father had been made a member of the Royal College Of Physicians and my grandfather took us out to celebrate.

We saw Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves, went to a restaurant, had a great party. In the middle of the night, my brother and I woke up to the sound of wailing and he was dead. I mean, that was a major experience in my life. The following day they cremated him, and brought him back in a bowl this big -" he cups both hands together and extends them to me with a quizzical expression. "All that was left of him was ashes. And I said: where did he go? You know? My grandfather with whom I went to the movies last night - where did he go?"

Such a line of philosophical inquiry was alien to his father, an eminent cardiologist and committed Anglophile who wanted his eldest son to become a doctor. A lonely and profoundly intelligent boy, Chopra was more interested in Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Kipling, and Byron than in medicine, but when he discovered that the novelists Arthur Conan Doyle and William Somerset Maugham had been physicians, he relented. At 17, Chopra was enrolled at the prestigious All India Institute Of Medical Sciences in his hometown of New Delhi.

"My father was very 'British'," he admits. "He spent a lot of time in England and was very influenced by that. He was Lord Mountbatten's ADC [Aide-de-camp] for a time." Whilst Chopra is proud of his "British" father, it is evident that this pride is uncomfortably mixed with the shame that was at the root of his father's Anglophilia. The tiger hunts, cricket matches, and afternoon teas derided the ancient pulse of his country. However indirectly, he had been taught to disdain "primitive" Indian culture in favour of "sophisticated" English culture and with it, absorbed a non-holistic view of medicine and a denial of his own nature and heritage.

"When my father was a medical student," he says, beginning to run his index finger along the armchair's upholstery, "the British were still in India. He was selected from a few thousand to be an officer in the British Army, which I presume was a big deal in those days. Most Indians were soldiers, they were never officers. He was actually quite militant in the beginning about patriotism. He had this schizophrenic love/hate relationship with the British. In Burma during WWII, a British officer said that Indian food was horrible and my father actually beat up the officer." A delighted laugh. "He was almost court-martialled as a result."

This "schizophrenic love/hate relationship" was Chopra's first awareness of the dualistic nature of perception. "I saw the British through my father's eyes, and thought my father's world was fascinating," he says. "The army, the parties, the drinking, the socializing. Servants, celebrations, the adults drinking. I thought British culture was very attractive. Fancy compared to Indian beer-cans and tinned food." Conscious of having used the word "drinking" twice, he briefly glances away.

"My father did drink too much," he hastily says, "but then he stopped when I was in high school. He was never aggressive when he drank, he was a storyteller. He'd have three or four glasses of Scotch and then he'd tell us these stories. We couldn't wait for them to start."

The one flaw in Chopra's argument is precisely this reluctance to address dark emotional issues. Contrary to the perspective of humane psychiatrists such as Alice Miller, he has referred to anger and anxiety as "negative" in his work, rather than as potentially positive and liberating expressions of feeling.

During his Sydney seminar, a high-profile socialite took the microphone and began speaking of a desire to "erase" her tortured childhood. Chopra's expression changed as she continued; a discomfort seemingly antithetical to his native poise became evident. "The only pain I would be trying to avoid," he says in a low and careful voice, "would be connected to the Irish Christian brothers who ran my school. The corporal punishment. If I spelt anything incorrectly or even bowled outside the leg-stump, Father McNamara would take me into his room, pull my pants down, and whip me. Hard. I was bruised, very badly."

He inhales and awkwardly swallows. "I was so terrified that I never told my parents, because I didn't want them to know how badly these men treated us. There was a lot of fear. I was terrified of Father McNamara - terrified! I used to say to myself: if only my father knew!" The few references to this difficult period are treated with levity in his books - passing comments, their emphasis humorous rather than painful.

"Really!" he suddenly exclaims. "Enough of the cane! It was a constant feature. I was also hit in the face. Slapped. By one of the priests. For not wearing my school tie, for being late, for speaking out of turn. So there was a lot of fear of being evaluated." Here his voice becomes sing-song: "I never told my father because it was an amazingly good school, they had such a respected staff, it was difficult to get admission, and, I suppose, I like to keep things in."

His silence is long. "I used to cry alone as a boy. A lot," he says, almost as an afterthought. "I have only remembered that just now. I used to make sure nobody was watching and go and sit at the end of the long verandah at school and just cry." Chopra's embracing philosophy has evolved not only from a deep intellectual curiosity, but also from the desire to transcend intensely felt pain and isolation.

He represents tolerance, inquiry, synthesis. Like his father, he wants to heal. Like his Ayurvedic ancestors, he wants to treat man as a whole and not two halves. Like Aristotle, he wants people to understand perception as a conference of reality rather than its absorption, an understanding infused with real potential for change. Late for a radio interview, he stands - portly, clean-skinned, calm - and shakes my hand.

As he leaves me at the door, I remember a tract from The Seven Spiritual Laws Of Success: "We're not human beings that have occasional spiritual experiences, it's the other way around: we're spiritual beings that have occasional human experiences."

Learn more about Antonella Gambotto
Learn more about Deepak Chopra

Cancer: a new perspective
AIDS: a new perspective
The meaning of suffering
Illness: a new perspective
A healthy life
The biochemistry of hope
Find your own North Star

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