March 24, 2008

elephant journal: Religion vs. Reality: A Conversation with Dr. Deepak Chopra.

I used to be a wild and crazy guy. I still have the reputation, but nowadays it’s unearned: five years of publishing elephant have turned me into someone who sits alone at his dining table working (and, yes, reading politix on nytimes.com or twittering on facebook). And so, last night, after a long wintry Sunday spent editing, editing, editing, I went to bed at 11:30, watched Sex & the City alone (while Redford tried to chew my hand off) and fell asleep after just a few minutes, just like an old man. If that ain’t pitiful picture, I don’t know what is. But if I feel lonely or depressed, all I have to do is join the 20 million folks who have bought a self-help book by Dr. Deepak Chopra. Only, I don’t go in for that self-help stuff-it smacks of spiritual materialism (the use of spirituality to perfect the self, and/or ward off pain-a disguise sometimes taken by the Truth).
Anyways, just before I’d drifted off, the girls were gathered around a table, and the redhead says, “Who am I to judge you? We all have our own paths in life.” After which the blond with the big hair noted: “Three days with Lew had changed Miranda from deeply sarcastic to Deepak Chopra.” And I said to myself, “Self: even here, even now, I can’t escape.”
This interview, our second with Dr. Chopra in two years, was held in the basement of the historic Boulder Theater, which the historic Boulder Bookstore had rented out (and sold out) for a reading of Dr. Chopra’s new book, “Buddha.” Now, if Deepak doodled on a napkin it’d become a bestseller. Still, choosing to write a novel-about the Buddha, at that-signaled a new direction for Dr. Chopra, who only a week before had sat with one of my mentors, Stephen Colbert (search ‘Deepak’ at comedycentral.com). Enjoy! -ed.

Waylon H. Lewis, for elephant journal: I don’t think I can do quite as good an interview as Stephen Colbert: I just watched that interview…

Deepak Chopra: [Laughs]

ele: He’s one of my heroes.

Chopra: It was fun.

ele: Dr. Chopra and I were just looking at the [Autumn ‘06 issue]. We interviewed him a year ago, when our magazine was about half the size. So I was just thanking Dr. Chopra.
You’re a busy man, I understand.

Chopra: My body’s busy; I’m not.

ele: Right! That’s a great answer.
You recently authored yet another book that’s getting a good reaction from the public-this one’s a novel, I understand. The story of Buddha. Why do you feel like it’s a good time to tell that story?

Chopra: It’s a good time to explore secular spirituality. Most of the world’s conflict is in the name of God! Religion everywhere has become divisive, quarrelsome and, I’m afraid to say, frequently idiotic. Many people in this country still believe that God created the universe some 5,000 years ago, when we know that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. And our planet is 4 billion years old and human beings have existed for 60,000 years, as Homo sapiens.
And yet, we have the longing to know the deeper meaning of our existence. Do we have a soul? What’s the purpose of our existence? Where do we come from? What happens to us after we die? Does God exist? And if She does, does She care about us?
But we need a spirituality that is consistent with what we know about reality through the arena of science. Spirituality that’s consistent with modern cosmology; consistent with the facts of biological evolution. Buddha’s contribution was that he said, “The only thing that you can be sure of is that you exist. Forget about God for a moment. We don’t know whether God exists or not-we rely on things like belief and faith, which are all cover-ups for insecurity.” We only believe in things we are not sure about-you don’t have to believe in gravity to experience it. Or electricity. Or any of the forces of nature.
We are conscious sentient beings: we know that consciousness expresses itself as our thoughts, behavior, biology, speech, interactions with society, personal relationships and the environments we create. So we know that consciousness and the by-products of consciousness exist. But even deeper: “I want to understand consciousness in its original state. What is consciousness?” And [the Buddha] came to some startling conclusions: that our consciousness, our thoughts, is the same consciousness behind the intelligent activity of the universe. And that by getting in touch with the ground of your being, you touch the ground of all beings and everything else. [Buddha] did not promote an ideology or belief system. He was a scientist of the inner life: “This is the experiment, or protocol. This is how you do it. And if you get the same results as I did, then maybe we’ll consider it to be true.”

ele: My mom [Buddhist] always said, when I was a child, “Don’t believe anything we tell you unless you experience it to be true,” which is what the Buddha said.

Chopra: Yeah, the word buddha simply means to be awake. The awakening of our consciousness.

ele: Is the Buddha’s story a religious story?

Chopra: No.

ele: It’s a human story, that can help [people of] other religions?

Chopra: It’s everybody’s story. I heard stories about the Buddha when I was a child, growing up in India. I heard many variations and versions of his story, depending on which part of India [I was] living in-over 2,500 years the story has been embellished.

ele: That’s true, [as with] the Jataka Tales [children’s fables concerning the Buddha’s various lifetimes].

Chopra: Exactly so. What I wanted to do in this book-and that’s where the fictional element comes in-is that, given the facts of his life, what was he going through internally? The story is divided into three parts. The first part is Siddhartha, the [Buddha] is born a prince in a royal family. He’s trained in everything that a prince should be: martial arts, fencing, mathematics…

ele: He was never let outside of the palace.

Chopra: …and he was surrounded by pleasure. And when he did go outside the palace walls, he saw suffering for the first time. He saw old age, disease, death. He asked his friend, “Does everyone get old and die?” And his friend said yes. He said, “Will I get old and die?” And his friend said yes. And that started his existential angst.

ele: “What’s the point of all this pleasure if it falls apart?”

Chopra: If it’s all impermanent? Which is one of the conclusions he comes to: that everything arises and subsides. That’s the first Dharma [teachings of the Buddha] “seal.” The second is-

ele: The first what?

Chopra: Dharma Seal-the first conclusion. That the relative [anything physical] is impermanent. That this lifetime is as transient as autumn clouds. That to watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. That a lifetime is like a flash of lightening in the sky, rushing by like a torrent down a steep mountain.

ele: That’s beautiful.

Chopra: That’s his! He sees the relative as impermanent-but also everything is interdependent, co-arising. So on the level of perception you see a flower, but in fact the flower is the total universe-it’s rainbows and sunshine and earth and water and wind and air and the infinite void and the whole history of the universe in that impermanent behavior that we call the flower. That’s the second Dharma Seal: everything interdependently co-arises. And we are part of that interdependent co-arising. Today we call that “synchronistic” or “non-local correlation.”

ele: That’s like what you were telling us in our interview a year ago. I said “the environment;” you said “No, there isn’t [a separate] environment.”

Chopra: No. It’s one continuum. And then the third Dharma Seal is that nirvana is the ultimate reality. Nirvana is consciousness, which simultaneously gives rise to the multi-observer and the observed. But a lot of times people say that when I talk it gets confusing. And so, I decided to tell a story. And the story makes all these points through his own experience.

ele: You are well-known as a bestselling author-but I understand that in the last year there’s been a few movies, [including] The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.

Chopra: Yeah, that just came out as a movie with Olivia Newton-John. And we’ve done a movie on How to Know God.

ele: With Fox, right?!

Chopra: We are now doing a movie called The Sadhu, with Nicolas Cage as the main character.

ele: This [The Buddha] would seem like a good story.

Chopra: It was inspired by the man who directed the movie Elizabeth, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards. He came and spent some time with me. He said, “Write a good story and maybe we would make a movie.” Well, I’ve done my job now.

ele: I was asking my staff earlier what I should ask you, since we’ve already done an interview…where could we go next. So I was describing you to a few people who hadn’t met you…of course people know of you. One thing that always strikes me is that you seem busy, in terms of your production level, books coming out, you have all these things going on…and yet what you are talking about fundamentally is peace. On a basic human level, when you’re flying all over and [being] interviewed, how do you maintain a sense of happiness?

Chopra: Well, that’s what [the Buddha] talks about: how can you be in the world and not of it?
It’s being local and non-local, at the same time. It’s not allowing your attention to shift from the still point of silence inside you. You can be independent of the turbulence around you. You can have stillness in the midst of chaos. Most of the energy people expend is because they are either thinking of the future or thinking of the past-both of which are imagination. If you’re present to what you are doing, you do things spontaneously [and] then you don’t expend that much energy. So, yes: my body travels all over the place…but I don’t get involved.
And my mind writes a lot, but again, I let it happen-I just let it come through. It’s an attitude more than anything else. People spend energy in melodrama. And our world is full of melodrama-especially America.
We have Red Alert, Orange Alert, alert all the time. The War on Terrorism, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on A.I.D.S.-[all] metaphors of violence.

ele: Though you are writing about the Buddha and you teach about spirituality, you don’t particularly follow one religion or another?

Chopra: Yeah. Buddhism can be thought of as a religion by some people, but it’s not. It’s a way of being in the world; it’s a mindfulness; it’s practices [such as meditation]; evolutionary thinking, feeling and behaving. Not as moral injunctions-morality should remain the domain of hypocrites-but as natural outcomes of your state of consciousness. If you have [an] awareness, [if] you experience your universality, then you don’t have to be kind or compassionate-they are just your natural state of being.

ele: Does that mean that your natural state of being, if you’re in tune [with] nirvana, is basically good?

Chopra: Your natural state is evolutionary. “Good” and “bad” are judgments.

ele: So fundamentally, it’s okay. We’re full of compassion…

Chopra: We’re evolutionary-toward unity, consciousness rather than separation, fear, delusion or anxiety.

ele: Going back to the notion of God, some people like Henry David Thoreau talk about God as being that unity, consciousness.

Chopra: Well, God is unity-consciousness but God is also maximum diversity. So God is both divine and diabolical. God is both sinner and saint. God is the creative impulse of the universe but also the destructive impulse of the universe. I think one of the things that is difficult for people to understand is that the nature of consciousness is ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox, contradiction. If you can be comfortable with paradox, that’s the measure of your enlightenment-[otherwise you’re] playing these games of right and wrong. Rumi, the Sufi poet, says, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there lies a field. I’ll meet you there.”

ele: There’s a sense of joy or relief in that statement.

Chopra: Joy is not wanting to judge or be judged. Joy is a sense of profound peace. Joy is creativity. Joy is not a permanently blissed-out state. That would doom us to eternal senility.

ele: Talking with my staff, with Abbey, I told her about this great quote I’d read. [Someone asked] “What you do, essentially, is sell spirituality. And isn’t that wrong?” And you said, “Well, people sell guns and people sell plastic toys.”

Chopra: Pornography…trash…Hollywood entertainment …The Bold and the Beautiful. When the Age of Wisdom finally dawns, then the only way to be wealthy will be to sell products that nurture the ecosystem and improve people’s lives. It will become vulgar to sell weapons or anything that hurts people.

ele: Strange that we consider it vulgar to sell peace or kindness.

Chopra: I recently met the president of Coca-Cola and I said, “Can you help me market peace the way you marketed Coca-Cola?” If you could do that, we would actually have peace in the world.

ele: What did he say?

Chopra: He left Coke and he’s helping me do that now.

ele: I don’t know how much help you need; you’re doing okay.

Chopra: [His team is] going to brand and market and sell peace to the world so that it becomes a reality for everyone.

ele: So how do you do that?

Chopra: You [get] major corporations to contribute to wellness. The number one trend in the world today is wellness, or well-being. Well-being of the individual, well-being of our emotions, well-being of society, ethics, of businesses, well-being of the ecosystem. You tell major corporations “If you don’t focus on this, you’re going to be out of business because the old paradigm is dying.”
One of the organizations I’m working with now is Frito Lay, a division of Pepsi. We are changing their entire product line to nutritious food. All their plants are going to be carbon neutral so they [don’t] contribute to global warming. They [will] take a course I teach called “The Soul of Leadership,” which is decentralized leadership: so everyone’s a leader. That’s well-being.

ele: It was in the news last week: Rupert Murdoch said, “I want Fox and everything I own to become carbon neutral. I believe in global warming.”
Chopra: [If] we can reach critical mass with that kind of behavior, we will change the world.

ele: That’s inspiring. And on the New York Times [.com] today one of the biggest carpet manufacturers said, “We’ve actually made everything green that we can; we have a ways to go but-we’re making and saving more money by being sustainable.”

Chopra: We’ll move from exploitative businesses to nurturing businesses and wisdom-based economies.

ele: So, the final question for all our readers out there, who may only meet you through a book or a movie now: what do you do for yourself that you would recommend? Do you practice meditation or yoga?

Chopra: I practice two hours of meditation every day, but I don’t recommend that for everyone.

ele: A little bit?

Chopra: I get up about 4:30 a.m. in the morning, sometimes 4:00 a.m., and I spend an hour in the gym every day. But I don’t recommend that for everyone. If people can sit quietly even for 10, 15 minutes every day and ask themselves, “What do I want? Who am I? What’s my purpose? How do I make a contribution? Who are my heroes and heroines in history and mythology, religion? What are my unique talents? How do I express them? What are the qualities I look for in a good relationship?” Living those questions, you move into the answers.

ele: Even just thinking about it?

Chopra: Just living those questions. The universe is compelled to make choices when you ask questions.

ele: Huh. And you find that you are able to relate with your family responsibilities and things, even being so busy? That’s an issue for a lot of people.

Chopra: I don’t think I’m busy. It’s all just happening, part of a wave and I allow it to unfold spontaneously. I don’t feel rushed, at all. I manage to spend weekends with my family, take vacations and go skiing and scuba diving and write all the time, everywhere. I’m a obsessive-compulsive, neurotic writer.

ele: Well it’s served you, and many of us I hope, quite well. Thank you so much. You’ve been generous with your time.

Chopra: Thank you very much.

ele: Is there any last thing you’d want to say? Our readers are passionate about the environment.

Chopra: Mmm.

ele: They’re young, active politically-

Chopra: There’s only one way to change the world and that is you have to be the change. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish you see in the world.” That’s it.

ele: We’ll do it and we’ll report back next year.

Chopra: Thank you.
Dr. Chopra’s latest book: Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment.

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