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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."