Deepak Chopra: "I am pissed off by Richard Dawkins' arrogance and his pretense of being a really good scientist. He is not”

The guru of inner peace says his battle with Richard Dawkins is fueled by anger over his arrogance and posturing

Published September 13, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

Deepak Chopra, Richard Dawkins      (Reuters/Fred Prouser/Comedy Central)
Deepak Chopra, Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Fred Prouser/Comedy Central)

In "The Quantum Prophets: Richard Dawkins, Deepak Chopra and the Spooky Truth About Their Battle Over God," the author traces the acrimonious battle between Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, and Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru, from their first altercation at 2002’s TED conference in Monterey to a climactic debate in Puebla, Mexico, in 2013. After hiking with atheists in the Quantock Hills in Somerset, England, doing downward dogs with Vedantists in Carlsbad, California, and following Dawkins and Chopra to Mexico, the author had a final interview with Chopra in January 2014, in the dimly lit lobby of the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan, while actor Jared Leto sits nearby giving them furtive glances and nattily dressed downtowners passed by.

This is my time to ask Deepak Chopra some point-blank questions. I redirect the conversation to his finances, in particular. I want to know why it is that he so brazenly makes money off of inner peace and science with cheesy products, like $300 DreamWeaver glasses that emit light and sounds to induce sleep states.

“I put everything I earn into good use,” he says. “How can I apologize for that? Does Tom Clancy apologize for his books?”

He says that every dollar he gets from his book royalties is handled by his wife, who is responsible for maintaining “our current lifestyle, which isn’t fancy.”

He uses one suitcase. He flies JetBlue. He rides the subway. When his wife isn’t home, he grabs dinner at the deli across the street.

“I have always done well, yeah,” he says. “In America, you should never apologize for being financially successful.” (As if on cue, Jared Leto, the actor and an investor in new technology, approaches our table and tells Chopra he’d like to get into business with him, They exchange e-mail addresses.)

The Chopra Center and the products, he says, had been making a loss or breaking even for more than a decade, until recently. He puts most of his money into the Center, into the consciousness research (the telomere study by Dr. Epel, about the effects of meditation, cost about $250,000) or other “good things.” He supports more than a million children in India so they can go to school, “with lunch,” he adds.

His lecture fee has gone up, nearing triple digits. “Should I say, ‘I’ll do it for you for free?’ To a corporation? No,” he says, adding that he does do pro bono lectures for nonprofits.

Weight-loss programs, DreamWeaver glasses, the workshops, and the meditation CDs all help people, Chopra says.

“If anyone should complain, it should be the people who come to the Center, and they don’t,” he says. And those DreamWeavers are good science, Chopra adds.

“I don’t care what people think. They are jealous,” Chopra says, with an impish smile. “Dawkins is selling DNA necklaces on his Web site. Did you know that? He could learn a trick or two from me.”

Boasting is not becoming of a beacon of inner peace, and Chopra knows it. I don’t want to hear him talk trash, and I ask him why he can’t just let Richard Dawkins go.

“With Dawkins, I am just pissed off. I am pissed off by his arrogance and his pretense of being a really good scientist. He is not,” Chopra says. “And he is using his scientific credentials to literally go on a rampage.”

But it’s more than that, I suggest. Chopra sits back and raises his hands, palms upward, smiling.

“I totally agree. It’s my last challenge,” he says. “It may be a very strange psychological issue.”

Or not so strange.

When he was 6 years old, living in India, his father went to Britain to pursue higher studies in medicine.

“My mother said that the first thing you need to do when you get there is to get a white British guy to polish your shoes,” Chopra recalls. “My parents, they grew up under English colonialism. Two hundred years of enslavement, and he went to Southampton and made sure it was a white guy that had his shoes shined.”

His father sent them a letter, and Chopra recalls his mother reading it to them and saying, “See, after 200 years, your father got his shoes shined.”

Now Chopra can’t stand “these Oxford and Cambridge pseudo intellectuals,” he says, and “India has a habit of aping them. There are more fans of Dawkins in India than anywhere else. It’s the postcolonial hangover.”

“I have to let it go,” Chopra says, with a long sigh, as he looks around the room. “I have to recognize it. Mexico should have been the finish.” (In follow-up e-mails, Chopra repeats his commitment. “I’m being good about disengaging,” he writes. “But as you know disengaging is in the mind.”)

What infuriates Chopra is that Dawkins and his fellow materialists control the dialogue. But I pose to him that using complex language that appropriates science doesn’t really help his cause. It makes him sound like a kook. Why not just be more open about the fact that he sees the universe through a different map, and that he is playing with scientific terminology because it is so limited?

First, Chopra reminds me how “bamboozled” people are by the materialist model of science. Most people are convinced that a rock is a rock. He is not.

“I am trying to create a new model. This is a nonphysicalist ontology. It’s the premise that consciousness is a singularity of which we are all an expression,” he says. “We are creating a new paradigm that requires a new language.”

I suggest that his use of words, such as quantum, as metaphor can be misleading.

“All language is metaphor,” Chopra says. “And people are confusing reality for their model of reality.”

OK. Calling a rock a rock is misleading in a way, because rock is just a name. Words are labels, not the things themselves. This is even truer if you consider the mystery of what exists within that, er, rock, at the subatomic level. The same goes for everything.

And so, I guess, if language is so slippery when referring to a rock, Chopra has no problem appropriating words in his books and lectures.

“But this is your reality too,” I say, knocking on the table between us and pointing to the people sitting nearby. “We are living in the same reality.”

At this, Chopra leans in. “I tell you, the big difference, and I am being totally honest with you,” he says. “I think we’re living in a lunatic asylum.”

He looks around the room. “I think everybody here is an inmate,” he says, his hands touch his chin, quickly, and his eyes widen. “I am also in the lunatic asylum. But I am not an inmate anymore. I have picked up my visitor’s badge, and I can see the melodrama that they are creating. I can even empathize with their drama, but I refuse to participate unless I want to.”

Of this world but not in it,” I say, ignoring the shackles that apparently tie him to Dawkins, paraphrasing what I’ve heard him say before. He smiles.

When a man says he is the only sane person in a room, that pretty much confirms he’s insane, doesn’t it?

“You are looking at the razor’s edge,” he says. “There is a thin line between enlightenment and psychosis.”

I’m feeling like we’re acting out a scene in The Matrix. I try to keep things real.

I ask, “Don’t most people with such epiphanies end up in rags, or, at least, they retreat to live in the mountains where they’re never heard from again?”

He raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “We are living in the 21st century,” he says.

Chopra elaborates on a vision for the future, when nations could become “netocracies,” and, in two generations, a paradigm shift could help create a world with compassion and empathy.

“I may be psychotic,” he says. “But I believe we can reverse global warming, restore the ecosystem, find creative solutions to conflicts in the world, and resurrect extinct species. We have the technology, but we don’t have the will or the spiritual experience.”

It seems like a good time to bring up the prospects of teleportation, which he whispered about in the car in Mexico. “Teleportation of information will be possible,” he says. “You are not your physical body at the fundamental level, you are a bundle of photons and possibility waves. Beam me up, Scotty.”

I get that, theoretically. And also that he’s having fun with the concept. But I am, in this reality, my own physical body. “How is the teleportation actually going to happen?” I ask.

“There is no such thing as a person,” he says, with a deep breath. “A person is an impermanent pattern in the universe. We will be able to take your entire genome, as information, and e-mail or teleport it to a habitable planet or biosphere, and then use robotics to reassemble a version of you.”

While we’re on the subject of concepts that stretch the limits of credulity, I ask him about a picture, in his office, of him seemingly floating next to Michael Jackson.

He says it’s a technique. He did it for a Life magazine photographer, as he’s done it hundreds of times. In yoga, one of the dormant potentials is levitation, Chopra tells me. Actually, there is hopping, hovering, and flying, and achieving them depends on the level of enlightenment in the collective consciousness.

“It’s not a miracle,” he says, adding that he has only experienced and observed hopping. “It feels involuntary. Your subjective experience is that you make no effort. To an outside observer, it may appear I have a yogic physical ability.”

He declines my request that he do it, and I give him a skeptical look.

“Why do you accept the extraordinary abilities that gymnasts have?” he asks. “There is consciousness and intention and neural muscular activity. It’s the same thing.”

I slowly shake my head.

“That is the thing that draws ridicule from everybody,” Chopra says. “Levitation!”

For the first time, he seems impatient with me. Maybe disappointed, even angry.

“I know, ‘The guy is a flake,’” he says. “That’s why I don’t talk about it. But you asked me.”

But he didn’t have to answer the way he did. In fact, he’s telling me I’m a lunatic in the asylum, which he didn’t have to do.

“You could have deflected my questions,” I say.

“I used to do that,” he says. “But how many more years do I have to live? Am I going to play politics? I am in the last phase of my life. I want to stand my truth,” he adds, searching for the words to the saying “Speak your truth.”

I need to know why Chopra has entrusted me with—actually paid me for—dissecting his belief system. I ask him why he agreed to this.

“My interest in your project is to see if you really go deep into what the issues are, if you can empathize with people who are not part of the mainstream paradigm and say that they are not deluded or quacks or psychotic,” he says. “I don’t expect you to root for me, but I do expect you to understand that this is also a model.”

But if the key to understanding consciousness is experiential, if I don’t practice the sort of meditation and yoga that has opened this door for him, how can I be as empathetic as he hopes?

“All you have to do is sit quietly and be aware of your thoughts and ask, ‘Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Is it just electricity in my brain?’ And reflect some more.”

We put our coats on as the words sink in. We walk out into a frigid evening. Chopra will be traveling soon, to Aspen and Eastern Europe. He’s always on the move.

As frustrating as it has been riding Chopra’s Mobius strip of thought, I am fearful of getting off this crazy train. His charm and easy-going confidence are magnetic. The invitation to turn off my mind and slip into a buoyant stream of consciousness is seductive. I want to say, “Take me with you.” But I resist.

It’s dark as we head toward the trains at the Broadway-Lafayette station, where we’ll be heading in different directions.

All along, I’ve been secretly hoping he’d show me the Truth with a capital T. But I feel I’ve gone as far as I can with him intellectually.

One of the last things he says to me is: “I can promise you, if you can reflect long enough on ‘Who am I,’ you will see that you are not Tom Roston. You will figure it out.”

We enter the station and take different stairs. I see him standing on the opposite landing, in a bustling crowd of commuters. My train arrives first, and I lose sight of him.

By Tom Roston

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