Brigid Delaney is a senior writer for 'Guardian Australia'. She has previously worked as a lawyer and journalist at the 'Sydney Morning Herald', the 'Telegraph' (London), 'ninemsn' and 'CNN'. She is the author of two books: 'This Restless Life' and 'Wild Things' and attented the weekend seminar given by Deepk Chopra. This is what she wrote about it...
"The guru presents an exciting vision of our ability to control our wellbeing, but leaves little else than to blame ourselves if we are stricken with disease."
Brigid Delaney: "I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was certainly more. The crowd at the Melbourne convention centre is in the hundreds, not the thousands, and they are subdued, not elated: focused like students cramming lectures in before the exams.
Deepak Chopra, the “new age guru” they have come to see, is also understated, the cadence, volume and pace of his voice unchanging – soporific even. There’s none of the ebullience of tent revivals, no ecstatic climax or deafening revelations. Chopra – a veteran of public appearances, and the author of 80 books – is not a pulse raiser.
In the two-day conference – the Deepak Chopra weekend – it is just him and a screen on the bare stage, talking in an even monotone about how to slow the ageing process, how to think yourself healthy, how to have more interesting dreams.
This is a suburban spirituality. The pack of angel cards on the mantelpiece, the fretting over newspaper horoscopes, the turning of the tarot. Most of the crowd, of mostly women, are dressed the same, in black puffer jackets and big scarves; they could have been scooped up at random from the Chadstone shopping centre. They have paid between $500 and $600 for their weekend pass.
How to activate Self Healing
“I’m going to be talking about almost every aspect of healing,” the 68-year-old Chopra tells us. He’s wearing all black – pants and a sleeveless jacket – with bright red sneakers, and glasses that seem to have diamond-encrusted arms. He is in Australia to promote his “six pillars of wellbeing”: sleep; meditation and stress management; exercise; healthy emotions; peace of mind; and good nutrition and hydration. On paper, it’s all sensible stuff.
This much I know
Live with these front of mind, he says, and you can begin to “access your higher consciousness”, and live a life that’s mostly free of disease.
He begins with the healing power of sleep, “a fundamental pillar of wellbeing.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve had particular trouble sleeping and am getting ill, so sit down the back of the auditorium, a mess of tissues and water bottles.
Sleeping is the most efficient way to improve health, Chopra says; it will increase immunity, memory and creativity, and aid in the elimination of toxins. Deep sleep is also “a way of returning to your soul, to the underlying or inner being”, he says. “Ask yourself any question before you sleep ... and you will get the answer in the morning.”
So far, so good. It’s hard to argue against sleep. But then Chopra goes off piste, and gets the science involved.
In his new book Super Genes, Chopra claims 95% of disease-related gene mutations – including cancers, auto-immune diseases, and Alzheimer’s – are “influenced” by how we think, how we feel and our relationships. “You are not simply the sum total of the genes you were born with,” he and his co-author, Rudy Tanzi, write. They believe we can learn how to shape our gene activity. “You are the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”
In other words – we make ourselves sick. And not just sick, but terminally diseased.
Pad Thai and ginger tea
A few years ago, at a meditation centre in Ubud, Bali, I met a group of women who were all on the alternate healing circuit. My curiosity was piqued – they looked less Eat Pray Love than suburban mums who had got on the wrong plane, ended up on the wrong holiday.
Over dinner, I discovered three of them had cancer and one had Parkinson’s. They were sick, but well enough to travel. They had a window of time, a grace period, and they were spending it in Bali.
They had read Chopra and motivational author Louise Hay, and over dinner they told me they had caused their own illnesses. Not through lifestyle choices that we associate with cancer – they were not smokers, and they were only occasional drinkers. Instead it was their emotions that had caused their cancer. Their anger. Their repressed sexual drives. Their unexplored trauma, going back to when they were girls. All the things they could have been but weren’t. All the things they could have said but didn’t. These things caused their cancer, was their cancer.
Pad Thai and pots of ginger tea. The heat and wetness of the night and the beads of sweat on the bottles of mineral water, and the driver booked the next day to take them to the place in the countryside where someone they called a healer would shake the cancer out of them in eight-hour stretches. I argued with them, like Robin Williams does with Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” But they weren’t even listening. They had read the books and listened to the tapes and this was their firm belief. But to me it seemed like just another way of being a woman, another way of blaming and hating yourself, of giving yourself the smallest lamb chop, of not making a fuss; of the quiet voice saying again and again, “sorry”, and “it’s my fault.”
Or maybe it’s just that we need to tell ourselves a story. A rogue cell dividing and dividing and dividing and dividing and dividing and dividing and dividing – this does not in itself a good story make.
Influence your genes
Chopra does not move explicitly into this dark territory during his weekend conference in Melbourne, but it’s a philosophy coded into much of his material.
Pacing the stage, he tells us again: “Ninety-five per cent of your genes can be influenced by you – your consciousness, your being, your soul. By changing the activity, you can change your body – and this is related to how we age and how we get sick. Ninety-five per cent of your gene mutations that may cause a disease to happen are influenced by your lifestyle. You can change the activity of your genes.”
Your body is a very dynamic activity, he says, and we control this activity. I am struggling to come to terms with not just the phrasing but the logic of this – some things are within our control, of course, but at a cellular level? “You can change everything about your body except your archetypal appearance,” says Chopra. “We can change the expression of how we age.”
He believes awareness is the key to reinventing the body, and that the key to awareness is affirmations: repeating a positive mantra or expression until it sort of “seeps” into your body.
The affirmation that Chopra recommends is not particularly catchy: “Every day in every way I am increasing my physical and mental capacity. My biological set point is – and then pick a number,” he says. “If you are 60 make it 40, if you are 40, make it 20. Go back 15 or 20 years. Don’t make it zero – you’ll disappear into an orgasm.”
Everyone laughs, a little grossed out.
But I am confused, as if I’ve walked in on a physics lecture when I am meant to be in a politics class. It doesn’t make sense. Can we really influence the behaviour of our genes, by repeating a phrase over and over?
And, if Chopra is right and we can change how we age, then why do we age at all? Why do we get ill? Why do we die?
A man in the audience poses this exact question to Chopra, during the Q&A: “Why do we age?”
Chopra answers: “Ageing is a program that’s built in your genes, which allows you to express your evolution. Death is the ultimate expression of the creativity of your soul – because after a while your soul says, ‘Been there – done that.’ You don’t want to remain a toddler for the rest of your life. There’s a timing for everything, and there is a program for this in your soul – you don’t want to be frozen in a certain body forever.”
Last year, Canadian researchers published a paper that used Chopra to show how some people have trouble “distinguishing profound statements from bullshit”. Using buzzwords gathered from his Twitter account, they randomly generated impressive-sounding phrases which – like many of his tweets – made sense grammatically but not logically. These were shown to participants alongside tweets from Chopra himself; the respondents were asked to assess the statements’ profundity.
The researchers found that “some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit”, and that detecting it “is not merely a matter of indiscriminate scepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive-sounding claims”. Participants were tested for their analytical skills; those who found Chopra to be profound scored lower in cognition and reasoning ability, and tended to be less sceptical of the paranormal.
Sue Blackmore in the Guardian wrote that Chopra uses lots of scientific ideas – from quantum mechanics to evolution – “but he tends to twist them just at the crucial point”. When he claims that consciousness directs evolution, for instance, he “misses the whole point that evolution by natural selection … is a marvellously mindless process that does not require a designer or the power of consciousness to produce its wonders”.
So why is it, then, that I didn’t walk away from the Deepak Chopra weekend feeling ripped off and cynical?
In his response to the Canadian research paper, Craig Dalton of the University of Newcastle found fault in the methodology: he said that even though the “pseudo-profound bullshit” might indeed be bullshit, it still had the ability to make us think; it could provide “glimpses of insight and wisdom to the subjects” – intended or otherwise.
" A flower, the random sounds of a waterfall, a willow tree playing in the breeze, or the random scattering of autumn leaves, may lack the intention of profundity but they can all lead to transcendence and open us to beauty – as can a random statement generated by a computer."
Oliver Burkeman also approaches Chopra’s ideas with more generosity: “When Chopra writes that “you are not your brain” – echoing Eckhart Tolle’s “you are not your mind” – he can’t properly be accused of pseudoscience,” he wrote . “I think that line expresses an arresting notion, but even if you don’t, you must admit it’s a philosophical claim, not a scientific one.”
And this is where the gold of Chopra lies: in the philosophy, not the science. In the idea that we all share a collective consciousness and an intelligence that doesn’t have the brain as its source.
By day two of Chopra lectures, I find the experience similar to spending time in a new country, immersed in a foreign language. It starts to make more sense the more you let the jargon wash over you – after all, with concepts like those that Chopra trades in, words alone are inadequate to the task.
I meet a man in the audience who is a neurologist, but who also teaches yoga.
I want to hear more about what a member of the medical community is getting out of Deepak Chopra.
“What Chopra has done is distilled a lot of the knowledge from the Vedas,” he tells me. The Vedas is a large body of texts which originated in India, and are mostly published in Sanskrit. “There are thousands of books, which he’s probably read, and he’s distilled the lessons from the top hundred or so texts, and presents them in his own way to a western audience.”
This doesn’t come as a shock; my mum has been giving me the same advice for years: get a good night’s sleep, move around a bit each day, spend some time alone, and treat your body with respect, because it will repay you in spades.
I meet another woman, Sharon, who explains why she is here.
“My mum had one of his books, I read it and it opened my eyes that this,” she gestures to the half-empty lobby of the convention centre, “is not all there is to the world. There’s something else. Deepak doesn’t have the answers, but at least he poses the questions – and I have those questions, too. ”
As Philip Larkin wrote in his poem: Church Going: “Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious.”
Someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to spend a weekend with Chopra, shifting through the thousands of words he speaks, hoping to find that nugget of gold."
Nawoord: je kunt, net als ik, van de inhoud van de videoclip genieten, indien je het kaf van het koren weet te scheiden. Wel is Deepak volgens mij een Eénoog, die zichzelf tot koning in het Land der Blinden heeft uitgeroepen, en dingen vertelt dat door velen als zoete koek wordt geslikt. Bekijk en beluister de videoclip, en oordeel voor jezelf - en, als de koek goed proeft, moet je er maar dubbel van genieten.