I enjoy reading Deepak Chopra. I find his books hard to put down when I start to read them. But I have always found myself feeling a profound ambivalence about him - facile, cloying and sanctimonious are words that spring to mind whenever I see his well-coifed portrait on one of the covers of his books that I have, on a number of occasions, avidly read.
In his books, there's plenty of wisdom and insight to be found, garnered from Eastern as well as Western spiritual and philosophical traditions, lovely quotes ancient to modern, supported by up-to- the-minute (sometimes beyond-the-minute) scientific findings. Chopra is a superb communicator, an awesome manager of others and himself. But his greatest mastery may be slick marketing, image management and word-mincing sophistry, and all that makes me inclined to push my "beware!" button.
Like fellow New-Age Sages Wayne Dyer, Ram Dass and a thousand other motivational speakers, his is a Power (read Ultimate Power) of Positive Thinking message spoken as it were from on high by a model of good looks and success marvellously ensconced in the highest socio-economic echelon of the richest and biggest economy in the world (namely the USA, if there's any question).
Chopra's self-help books thrive on extravagant claims. Look at the title of this one. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: A quantum alternative to growing old. Ah, we have a bit of quantum theory (that sounds interesting - how many of us know much about that?), timeless mind - the promise of eternity, or philosophy around that - and there's a definite alternative to growing old. Who wouldn't want that? I am reminded of Dwyer's There's a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem. A solution? To every problem?
Chopra's books are introduced a way that is calculated to challenge the reader's assumptions, pique his or her curiosity (even playful, sceptical curiosity) and read on. But with a bit of critical appraisal, the confidence game becomes transparent and pretty well applies to all these books - at least any of a number I have read.
Look at the way this book is introduced. Italics mine.
I would like you to join me on a journey of discovery. We will explore a place where the rules of everyday experience do not apply. These rules explicitly state that to grow old, become frail, and die is the ultimate destiny of all. And so it has been for century after century. However, I want you to suspend your assumptions about what we call reality so that we can become pioneers in a land where youthful vigour, renewal, creativity, joy, fulfillment and timelessness are the common experience of everyday life, where old age, senility, infirmity, and death do not exist and are not even entertained.Wow! Is this possible? That three of the four sufferings do not exist? The Buddha would turn over in his bardo. He goes on to say,
If there is such a place, what is preventing us from going there? It is not some dark continental landmass or dangerous uncharted sea. It is our conditioning, our current collective worldview that we were taught by our parents, teachers, and society. This way of seeing things - the old paradigm - has aptly been called "the hypnosis of social conditioning," an induced fiction in which we have collectively agreed to participate.Yes, indeed, we have. Those big bad (or sad, pitiable) parents, teachers and society are the responsible ones. We have our part in perpetuating the hypnosis, of course.
A few pages later, he invites us to entertain ten "new" assumptions that will start us on our journey. Here is number ten:
We are not victims of aging, sickness and death. These are part of the scenery, not the seer, who is immune to any form of change. The seer is the spirit, the expression of eternal being. (p. 7).
Lovely wordplay with "seer" and "scene", but already there's a scene shift: aging, sickness and death are now part of the scenery. Before, they did not exist and were not even entertained; now they are there, but in the background. However, we are assured that we need not be victims of it. But victims in what sense? Notice the slippery-slidey way he slips the subjective in.
On page 60 of the same book, Chopra finally lets the Death and Aging boogiemen out of the bag, but carefully shackled in rhetorical restraints:
Aging seems to be universal, because all orderly systems break down over time, but our bodies resist this decay extremely well. Without negative influences from within or without, our tissues and organs could easily last 115 to 130 years before sheer age caused them to stop functioning.
It took 60 pages to acknowledge the obvious - that aging is fatal, and we all have to die. Even then, aging only seems to be universal- here's the good doctor sugar coating the Ugly Truth pill before administering the gentlest, most minimal dose. And it is true - who's not to deny that, given the elimination of negative influences, we could possibly live 30 years longer?
In the end, Chopra's wisdom supports the enhancement of life through not new, but age-old strategies that enhance life and promote longevity. To quote from his introduction to the second edition :
· Have your attention on the timeless, the eternal, and the infinite.
· Get your ego out of the way.
· Be natural; relinquish the need to hide constantly behind a social mask.
· Surrender to the mystery of the universe.
· Have a sense of communion with Spirit and Divinity.
· Be defenceless, relinquishing the need to defend your point of view.
Along the way, he invites us to consider a number of refreshing insights and findings. He introduces us to some meditation techniques, watered down from the traditions of the East (and West). He provides us some good self-assessment questionnaires. He articulates exquisitely how thoughts and stresses take their toll on the cells of the body, and intuitively this would seem to be correct.
Also, somewhere along the way (actually from Part III on) a more humble, likeable Deepak emerges. (A lingering question to me: is it the same person?) This Deepak precisely delineates the chronic imbalances of living in today's rushed, overpopulated and increasingly volatile society. While maintaining a characteristically soft focus, he does admit to the difficulty of controlling one's emotions in many situations in life. He critiques the fearful American attitudes to aging that his book in its initial stages seems to exploit. He also writes frankly about medicine's poor track record in dealing with a number of degenerative disorders, problems with medications, addictions, spiralling medical costs, improving social awareness so that "given these dismal trends, it is highly unlikely that we are entering a golden age of longevity spurred by medicine."
What we are left with are personal initiatives, healthy eating, exercise, creativity, meditation, knowing that the world "out there" reflects the world "in here", a positive view of death as change (contrasting the physical body and the limitless "quantum self") ending with a paean to passing from the circle of time to the circle of love. All of which amounts to a lovely and poetic description of personally significant life. In passing, along with other activities Chopra recommends twice daily intensive meditation, an idea I would heartily agree with, and do (or try to do) myself - although how an ordinary human being is to establish and keep up such a disciplined practice without at least touching base with a healthy sangha (that is, spiritual community) is a question left begging. (Unless, of course, he or she has the ways and means to shell out for some of Chopra's expensive seminars…)
If we took away the italics in the quote above, I would say, yes, his book does aid us in to enter the kind of existence where youthful vigour, renewal, creativity, joy, fulfillment and timelessness could well be common experiences of everyday life. That in itself is no mean feat. What he promotes, along with himself and his multi-million dollar Infinite Possibilities Products, Centres for Well-Being and other enterprises, are good things. One book of his, How to Know God: The Soul's Journey Into the Mystery of Mysteries, is a masterpiece of the genre: despite the absurd "how to" title that claims far too much, Chopra provides insight without catering to the illusion that he is doing something "new". But in his self-help books, I find he panders far too readily to the kind of quick-fix fantasy endemic to this so-called "developed" world. When we ordinary human beings put down his books and face once again our less than perfect jobs, relationships, circumstances and prospects, the rosy illusions he conjures all too quickly disappear.
Any serious spiritual practice begins with the frank admission that life is tough, that sickness, aging, and death are inevitable, and that however we may fare, shit happens - to anyone. Within these parameters it is possible to extend the limits of health and happiness very far - and just how far it is pretty well impossible - even unwise -- to determine. Of this, Chopra persuades us well. But what did Shakyamuni see when he looked outside the gates of his father's palace? An old man, a sick man, a corpse - and also, an ascetic. The fundamental facts of birth, aging, sickness and death eventually came to bother him so much that he found it necessary to depart from the highly artificial comforts of the palace and embark on his own particular, very trying journey of discovery. This story is of course a symbolic illustration of a universal process. That process is turning poison into medicine, as certain Buddhists put it. Chopra's disservice is that he invites us to stay inside a comfortable palace, lulls us with a soporific of intoned "wisdom of ages", while failing to clearly acknowledge the realities we must face to do our most bracing spiritual work.