laying down the laws

Interview by Antonella Gambotto-Burke

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

His few errors have been cited by many as irrefutable evidence of quackery. 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, the former president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, expressed his anxiety that "people with serious diseases may turn their backs on legitimate medical care and follow his path."

The caliber of Chopra's acolytes has enraged his detractors. Prince Charles 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". Reformed junk-bond genius, Michael Milken, testified that after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Chopra's medical attentions shrank his lymph nodes by 90 percent. Sarah Ferguson, David Lynch, Oprah Winfrey and Donna Karan have passionately expressed their admiration for his work. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton has acknowledged that his theories are "very interesting".

Married for 35 years to Rita Chopra and the father of two grown children, he has written over 25 bestselling books that have been translated into some 40 languages, their sales exceeding 20 million. Time magazine heralded him as "poet-prophet of alternative medicine" and one of the 100 icons of the twentieth century. Chopra acknowledges that he is the hub of an extraordinary industry, at the cutting edge of a new consciousness.

"The media is recognizing it," he says, "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, more loving and compassionate. I just happen to be part of the tide; if it weren't me, it would be somebody else."

A physician, an endocrinologist and a mystic in the ancient tradition, Chopra is, at heart, an alchemist. Chafed by the limitations of the conventional either/or framework, he studied medicine, physics, and metaphysics to form an holistic synthesis. This "web" principle - that of mind-body interdependence - was recognized in the days of magico-religious medicine but buried at the turn of the twentieth century until soaring health budgets and disturbing increases in rates of suicide, depression, and other manifestations of malaise caused the public to question rational materialism.

The "superstition of materialism" is, Chopra believes, killing people. Loneliness and alienation 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," he writes in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, "have emerged for rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, intractable pain, and other disorders."

Freud and Jung 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 the public's 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 onto 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 mind-body medicine tag may be broad, but reflects the ongoing 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.

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 current system. Few of these critics seem to care that Chopra has not charged for a consultation in 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 the charity he created for those in need of funds for health problems, and to the Chopra Centre For Well Being in La Jolla, California, into which he has invested millions. 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, a creature of abstract thought. Chopra wants to fix things; he is a relentless self-improver. Now 58, he rarely stops; half the year is spent on the road, talking, talking, talking. He enjoys a lot of attention - the hallmark 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, but now I agree. I do need approval, and I'm working on 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 that would 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. "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. 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 worked 16-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?"

He had no free time and earned little money. His family's small apartment soon grew cramped; 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. She still had a heartbeat. Her eyes were very fixed. 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 liters of coffee, and used Scotch to maintain some outward measure of equilibrium. "Life," he says, "was crushing."

The shift in his thinking was triggered when he saw that a terminal diagnosis led many patients to exhibit relief. 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 said, 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. "When I address top-ranking executives," he says, "I see a predatory world. They are male predators, aggressive achievers, and they're getting ill. They're getting cancer, heart attacks, and are beginning to see that they are victims of their own predatory instincts. I tell them that bringing back the feminine softness and nurturing, a contextual approach to relationships, and love will make their lives easier."

To cope with the onslaught of traumata and the barbaric hours, most doctors learn to react automatically to situations which, in turns, leads them to treat 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 - that is driving patients away from allopathic medicine. The increased demand for attention-rich therapies indicates that a "sense of specialness, of being charmed, of being the exception, of being eternally protected" is a necessity and not the luxury Western medical traditionalists had presupposed.

Lecturing at Tufts University and Boston University Schools of Medicine helped Chopra understand the way in which Western doctors are intellectually conditioned. At the age of 38 and a "master of the post-colonial medical system", he was made Chief Of Staff at the New England Memorial Hospital. "I was a doctor when I was 21! I finished training when I was 25, and was first made 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 began when he read Krishnamurti and in 1985, he met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, from whom he learnt Transcendental Meditation. "My curiosity goes back to the day my grandfather died. My father was in England at the time. My grandfather was looking at alternative healing for his heart disease - my father thought it all 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. 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. "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 inquiry was alien to his father, the late Krishnan Chopra, an eminent cardiologist and committed Anglophile who wanted only for his eldest son to study medicine. (Krishnan Chopra was consultant emeritus and member of the board of trustees at the Moolchand Khairati Ram Hospital in New Delhi and Sanjiv, Chopra's brother, is Professor of Medicine and Faculty Dean for Continuing Medical Education at Harvard University.) 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 prestigious All India Institute Of Medical Sciences in his hometown of New Delhi.

"My father was very 'British'," he explains. "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 was 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 favor of "sophisticated" English culture and with it, absorbed a non-holistic view of medicine.

"When my father was a medical student," he says, "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 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-martialed as a result."

Chopra initially saw the British through his father's eyes. "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 looks away. "My father did drink too much," he hastily says, "but then he stopped. 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."

Contrary to the perspective of humane psychiatrists such as Alice Miller, Chopra has referred to anger and anxiety as "negative" rather than as potentially positive and liberating expressions of feeling. During his Sydney seminar, a socialite took the microphone and began speaking of a desire to "erase" her tortured childhood. Chopra's expression changed as she continued; his discomfort 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."

On some level he is still processing the humiliation, but remains dedicated to its release.

Such graceful transcendence of suffering infuses every aspect of Chopra's work. Like his father, he wants to heal. Like his Ayurvedic ancestors, he wants to treat man as a whole and not two halves. And 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 and shakes my hand. As he leaves me at the door, I remember a quote 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-Burke

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Deepak Chopra's official website