I am reading "How To Know God" by Deepak Chopra as I sit in Helen's Grill, a greasy spoon near my home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Outside the window in the rain, framed within the newspaper vending box, is the face of a young, beautiful girl. Next to that face is headline type, big and black: "'Amazing' teen killed in Whistler crash."
For some reason the words reinforce the illusion that the little vinyl and Formica world of Helen's Grill is a shared refuge, a place immune to life's random ravages.
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Deepak Chopra, the spiritual instructor who appears on Larry King and Oprah, the alternative healer with the handsome looks of a Bollywood movie star, the personal source of inspiration to Michael Jackson, Naomi Judd and Bill Clinton, has sold 10 million books.
Here is some of what Chopra, a former endocrinologist in Boston hospitals, believes and teaches:
Chopra does not believe reports that he once described himself as "just a regular guy with the gift of gab." As he told me in a recent conversation, "I am just a regular guy. But I don't have the gift of gab. I wish I did." When not on the speaking circuit, Deepak Chopra is at work on his 27th book and adding to his more than 100 audio, video and CD-ROM titles, while presiding over the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif.
He is said to have misconstrued quantum physics. "Deepak Chopra has successfully promoted a notion he calls quantum healing, which suggests we can cure all our ills by the application of sufficient mental power," writes Victor J. Stenger, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, in the Skeptical Inquirer. Many words and diagrams later, Stenger concludes that "no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe."
Chopra's sweeping claims for Ayurvedic healing -- a 2,000-year-old tradition rooted in astrology, demonology and balancing energy through diet and exercise -- come under similar assault. "As far as I can tell," writes Stephen Barrett, M.D. in Quackwatch, "Chopra has neither published nor personally conducted any scientific studies testing whether the methods he promotes help people become healthier or live longer."
A lot of other credentialed scientists take their runs at Chopra's "factual errors" and "absurd ideas." All of them are wasting their time, because their angle of attack cleanly misses the appeal of Chopra today. What pulls people to Chopra is their yearning to pull free of scientific rationality, or, more accurately, to escape the unenchanted world that two centuries of the Age of Reason has bequeathed us.
Theodore Roszak offered an interesting take on this impulse a couple of decades ago in an essay for Harper's titled "In Search of the Miraculous." He remembers being taught in college in the 1950s that God was dead, killed by the scientific revolution. But it didn't take with the wider public, where flourishes "highly personal, emotionally electrifying versions of Christianity" as well as the sort of New Age mysticism championed by Chopra and his ilk.
Roszak sees a great cultural divide. At the top stands "a secular humanist establishment devoted to the skeptical, the empirical, the scientifically demonstrable" which is out of touch with "a vast popular culture that is still deeply entangled with piety, mystery, miracle, the search for personal salvation."
There are two ways to interpret this split, writes Roszak. The first is to roll one's eyes, to blame "the hunger for wonders" on "incurable human frailty, an incapacity to grow up and grow rational." If so, "sadly one would have to conclude that the masses are not yet mature enough to give up their infantile fantasies."
But that's not how Roszak reads it. The second view, his own, is to see "the psyche at war" with itself. Each of us contains a critical intellect, but also "the innate human need for transcendence." Philosophy used to bridge the gap, but today's postmodernists have nothing to offer in that vein, having made a fetish instead out of "deconstructing" language rather than asking the questions of Socrates: What is the good? What is life's purpose?
Roszak argues that when super-rational scientists and academics "scorn and scold, debunk and denigrate more fiercely" the longing for wonder within each of us, it is "like scolding starving people for eating out of garbage cans, while providing them no more wholesome food."
Over the phone, Deepak Chopra demonstrates his grasp of the opportunity presented. "People have always wondered, 'Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the meaning of existence? Is there a God? Does he care about me? Is the Earth just a capricious anomaly in the junkyard of infinity? What the heck is going on?'"
Those indeed are questions that war within our psyches, even as they resist the withering skepticism of science as their answer. A further question, however, is this. Why do so many people believe the answers provided by Deepak Chopra?
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Part of the answer to that lies outside the window of Helen's Grill, in that terrifying haiku of a headline. "'Amazing' teen killed in Whistler crash." To read it is to want a reason, and a method of evading whatever cruelness kills teenagers who thought they'd kill a day snowboarding, whatever cruelness may next touch us.
In his many books, tapes, lectures, product catalogs and appearances, Chopra is saying what teenagers, among others, like to say these days: "It's all good." He's saying that . . .
No claim of the miraculous, the magical can be ruled out. "Some people vibrate at a frequency of consciousness such that that they can see an angel; far more can vibrate at a frequency to perceive an automobile," Chopra tells me. He explains that nothing is real except consciousness, and so whatever your consciousness experiences -- clairvoyance, astral projection, channeling, visits by ghosts or aliens -- is real for that person. I ask: "So there is no way for anyone else to evaluate whether that experience is real?" Chopra answers, "You have no way to evaluate it."
You need accept no limits, physical or financial. Noting that the title of one of his books is "Creating Affluence: Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities," I tell Chopra I was raised by my Catholic mother to curb material longing, to remember Christ's teachings about the rich man and the eye of the needle. Growing up blue-collar in the Depression era, this teaching no doubt afforded her people some comfort. Chopra replies that "wealth is an expression of the spirit" and that because those without money always obsess about getting it, "the solution is to help everybody have wealth." But is there a conflict between desiring wealth, and seeking God? "Why should material success be an impediment to spirituality?" he responds. "Keep increasing your desires until nothing satisfies you except God. Wanting material wealth is part of that."
Chopra himself has the lifestyle and some of the problems of a rich celebrity. He's spent a lot of time in court fighting those he claims are out to ruin his good name and extort his money. In one case he won a $1.6 million dollar settlement and apology from the Weekly Standard magazine, which he says libeled him with a prostitute story. More recently, he dropped a lawsuit against a former co-worker he claims was trying to blackmail him. But Chopra is adamant that wealth has not changed him. "If I have the ability to create wealth, why would I think about it? Where my wealth comes from is inexhaustible. Consciousness is the source of anything, and that includes wealth. And consciousness is without limits."
You -- not nature, God or dumb luck -- determine your fate. "Happy thoughts change molecules" is one of Chopra's common declarations. Happy thoughts can defeat a specific disease like cancer, and they can stop the aging process. "If you can wiggle your toes with a mere flicker of an intention, why can't you reset your biological clock?" he has said. "The reason most people can't do it is because, first, they never thought of it and secondly they think that certain things are easier to do than other things. [But] the same principles apply everywhere in the body."
You -- and everything else -- shall fit together as one. As Chopra teaches, ancient folk medicine need not conflict with latest science; they can be melded into a seamless synthesis. As can differing dogma: Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, they all had it right in their own way. Similarly, a clean and ordered template can be stamped on each person's churning emotions and conflicting instincts.
In laying it all out, Chopra makes use of the scientific precision of numbers, the ordering of stages, the listing of corresponding physical and spiritual traits. The "range of built-in mechanisms" that are "directly related to spiritual experience" according to Chopra are:
1. Flight-or-fight response.
2. Reactive response.
3. Restful awareness response.
4. Intuitive response.
5. Creative response.
6. Visionary response.
7. Sacred response.
When mechanisms, traits or stages are listed in "How to Know God" they usually add up to seven. And the seventh is always the most pure or complete or one with God and the universe. Chopra's message is the bedrock of New Age: All the screwed-up mess of life shall be resolved through an ordered progression towards harmony.
Spiritual transformation is readily procured. Deepak Chopra is the "regular guy" who asks why, if you can wiggle your toes, you can't stop aging, earn buckets of money, achieve bliss. At a moment when consumer choice equals democratic participation in many people's minds, Chopra's organization has innumerable products to sell you, from OptiWoman herbs sold under the Ageless Body, Timeless Mind logo, to seminars on "Time-based awareness, versus timeless awareness -- the path to immortality." You may purchase exactly what Chopra sells to Demi Moore. The secret to his acceptability on "Larry King Live," on "Oprah," on U.S. public television pledge nights, is that he presents himself not as exotic but as accessible, clean shaven in suit and tie. My mother-in-law finds him "charming."
Some academics like to describe and analyze public life as a matter of "competing discourses." They mean that behind the specifics of what anybody is talking about, whether it be sex, free trade or finding God, are the embedded assumptions, fears and desires that shape the lines of argument.
As discourses go, Deepak Chopra has either shrewdly crafted or innocently arrived at a real winner. His "It's all good" discourse steamrolls over the assumption behind competitors like, say, traditional Christianity that preaches modesty and acceptance of this difficult world in order to inherit the next. Or social justice advocates, who want us to see that wealth is distributed unfairly through wile and the brute power of institutions. Or Roszak's "secular humanist" rationalists, who would have our fates be accidents of evolution.
The tough sell for these discourses, unlike Chopra's, is that they want us to bow to limits, accept uncertainty, give up individual power and control, to imagine that any real spiritual progress must come through hard choices, hard work. Even then, you will never achieve absolute perfection, or absolute protection.
"'Amazing' teen killed in Whistler crash." Plain mean. That's how you look if you laugh at Chopra's ideas, or any belief system that allows people to feel safe within, yet capable of transcending, this world, this life, this vinyl and Formica refuge from the rain.
Then again, the more earnestly you contest the message of Deepak Chopra, the more you invite a patronizing smile from his believers. You have not made the leap yet, you have not opened yourself.
Even among the unconverted, you will likely encounter that admirable spirit of tolerance essential to making a pluralistic society go. "Who knows?" you will hear. "He may be right."
It's all good now, or it might be, at least. Which means that to grouse about the guru is to be out of step with the times. This is the era of the libertarian shrug, as well as the therapeutic reluctance to give offense. So perfectly does the current mood accommodate and reward the ambition of Deepak Chopra, you have to wonder. Maybe we all are but a perfect figment of the guy's imagination.