Deepak Chopra earns $20m a year selling spiritual guidance to the likes of Demi Moore, Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev – and he’s not the only self-help guru making a fortune. In the first of two extracts from his new book, Francis Wheen traces the rise and rise of mystic mumbo-jumbo
In September 1784 a Berlin magazine invited Immanuel Kant to answer the question: What is Enlightenment? “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” he replied. “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without another’s guidance. Dare to know! That is the motto of Enlightenment.”
The Enlightenment had many critics, but its illuminating influence and achievements were apparent in the history of the next two centuries – the waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of secular democracy, the understanding of the natural world, the transformation of historical and scientific study, the new political resonance of notions such as “progress”, “rights” and “freedom”. Does that light still shine today? According to the philosopher Roger Scruton, “Reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality.” The leaders of the counter-revolution may seem an incongruous coalition – post-modernists and primitivists, New Age and Old Testament – but they have been remarkably effective over the past quarter-century. Those who lack the courage to use their understanding “without direction from another” are easy prey for self-styled gurus, and the sleep of reason has duly brought forth many such monsters, exploiting and expanding the demand for mumbo-jumbo.
In 1982 a young management consultant from McKinsey & Co, Thomas J Peters, co-wrote In Search of Excellence, a relentlessly optimistic primer which celebrated America’s best companies and sought to identify the secrets of their success. As the Economist noted, Peters had “a knack of saying the right thing at the right time”: In Search of Excellence was published in the very week unemployment in the US reached its highest level since the 1930s, and it found a ready audience in a nation worried about declining competitiveness but sick of hearing about the Japanese miracle. (Perhaps Peters had learned from the precedent of Dale Carnegie, whose equally cheerful and vastly popular How to Win Friends and Influence People had appeared in 1936, in the depths of the Depression.) In Search of Excellence sold five million copies, and Peters used the proceeds to buy a 1,300-acre farm in Vermont, complete with cattle and llamas.
After that, the deluge: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey; The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge; The One-Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson; Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins … The New York Times list of non-fiction bestsellers soon became so clogged with inspirational tracts that the paper established a separate category for “Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous”. In the words of Mike Fuller, author of Above the Bottom Line, “you have to have a shtick of some kind”. One promising approach, as the emphasis shifted from “management” to “leadership”, was to seek out historical analogies, though the history usually turned out to be a mere promotional gimmick rather than a serious examination of past experience. The pioneer here was Wess Roberts, whose book The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun appeared in 1989. Described as a “fantastic” guide which “will help you make the most of your leadership potential”, it vouchsafed these truly fantastic discoveries: “You must have resilience to overcome personal misfortunes, discouragement, rejection and disappointment”; “When the consequences of your actions are too grim to bear, look for another option.”
Could anything be sillier? You bet: other authors have since come up with Confucius in the Boardroom, If Aristotle Ran General Motors; Make It So: Leadership Lessons from “Star Trek the Next Generation”; The Heart of an Executive: Lessons on Leadership From the Life of King David; and Moses: CEO. The 10 commandments, we now learn, were the world’s first mission statement.
Recognising that not everyone wanted to be Donald Trump, or even Queen Elizabeth I, publishers extended their self-help lists to include more emollient titles on “personal growth” such as Chicken Soup for the Soul and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These might seem more New Age than New Economy, but it is instructive to note how often the two overlapped, as in Barrie Dolnick’s The Executive Mystic: Psychic Power Tools for Success or Paul Zane Pilzer’s bestseller, God Wants You to be Rich. When Anthony Robbins performed for a 14,000-strong crowd at a stadium in Dallas, the supporting speakers included John Gray, the man who inflicted Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus on the world.
The marriage of mysticism and money-making reached its consummation in Deepak Chopra (or rather, Deepak Chopra MD), a Harvard-trained endocrinologist who turned to transcendental meditation (TM) and ayurvedic medicine in the early 1980s. He began marketing TM herbal cures – and indeed praised them in the Journal of the American Medical Association without mentioning that he was the sole shareholder in the distribution company. Chopra’s transformation from an obscure salesman of alternative potions to a national guru can be dated precisely to Monday July 12 1993, when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. His revelation that “love is the ultimate truth” was perfectly pitched for Oprah and her millions of fretful yet hopeful viewers. Within 24 hours of the broadcast 137,000 copies of Ageless Body, Timeless Mind had been ordered, and Chopra’s publishers – the deliciously named Harmony Books – were reprinting round the clock. By the end of the week there were 400,000 copies in circulation.
Since then he has published 25 books and issued at least 100 different audiotapes, videos and CD-roms, in which Eastern philosophy, Christian parables and even Arthurian legends are distilled into a bubble-bath for the soul. (One video offers “Lessons from the Teaching of Merlin”.) Like Covey and Robbins, Chopra understands the magic allure of numbered bullet-points: hence titles such as The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success and Way of the Wizard: 20 Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want. In public performances, the soothing effect of his Hallmark-card ruminations – “Everything I do is a divine moment of the eternal”, “You and I are nothing but saints in the making” – is intensified by his mellifluous Anglo-Indian cadences and the mellow sitar riffs that often accompany them.
Those who want the full-immersion experience can book into the Chopra Centre for Well-Being in La Jolla, California – dubbed “Shangri-La Jolla” by the irreverent – where their “profound personal transformation can be customised for stays of one to seven days”. The centre grosses about $8m a year, though Dr Chopra himself no longer attends to customers personally. “It wouldn’t be in the best interest of patients,” a spokeswoman said, “because of his writing and speaking engagements.” Perhaps wisely, Deepak Chopra MD ceased renewing his California medical licence after the annus mirabilis of 1993 and therefore cannot be held professionally accountable for the consequences of his advice. “I don’t consider myself a religious or spiritual leader,” he has said. “I consider myself a writer who explains some of the ancient wisdom traditions in contemporary language.”
Harold Bloom argued in his 1992 book The American Religion that many Americans are essentially Gnostics, pre-Christian believers for whom salvation “cannot come through the community or the congregation, but is a one-on-one act of confrontation”. Clearly this does not apply to the more traditional churchgoing masses, but it suits solipsistic New Agers seeking the “inner self” – and high-achieving materialists who like to think that fame and riches are no more than their due, reflecting the nobility of their souls. Chopra is happy to oblige: “People who have achieved an enormous amount of success are inherently very spiritual … Affluence is simply our natural state.” Vain tycoons and holistic hippies alike can take comfort from Chopra’s flattery (“You are inherently perfect”), and from his belief that the highest human condition is “the state of ‘I am’”: since we reap what we sow, both health and wealth are largely self-generated. Following this logic ad absurdum, he argues that “people grow old and die because they have seen other people grow old and die. Ageing is simply learned behaviour”. Demi Moore was so impressed by this apercu that she named him as her personal guru, announcing that “through his teachings I hope to live to a great age, even 130 years isn’t impossible”. Chopra himself, rather more cautiously, says, “I expect to live way beyond 100.” Why the longevity formula failed to work for Princess Diana, with whom he lunched shortly before her death, remains a mystery.
Other famous admirers have included the former junk-bond king Michael Milken, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hillary Clinton and Donna Karan, who expressed her gratitude by supplying the dapper doctor with free designer suits. Alas, as Karan looked to the east her business went west: she was replaced as chief executive of her own company in the summer of 1997, under pressure from investors who feared that a growing obsession with mysticism was blinding her to the financial imperatives of running a publicly traded corporation.
Chopra himself continues to flourish. “Go first-class all the way,” he advises his followers, “and the universe will respond by giving you the best.” Named by Time magazine as one of the hundred top Icons and Heroes of the 20th century, he is reported to earn more than $20m a year from his spiritual business empire. No coach class for him.
Or indeed for the many other gurus chortling and whooping all the way to the bank. Blanchard parlayed the success of The One-Minute Manager into an income of $6m a year from videotapes and lectures promoting his message that “people who produce good results feel good about themselves”. In the late 1990s Covey’s Utah-based consultancy had annual revenues of more than $400m, and employed 3,000 people in 40 countries to spread his gospel of “Principle-Centered Leadership”. Stephen Covey’s client-list in the US included the departments of energy, defence, interior and transportation, the postal service – and Bill Clinton, who invited both Covey and Anthony Robbins to spend the weekend with him in December 1994.
Reeling from his party’s defeat by Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in the previous month’s congressional elections, the president summoned no fewer than five feelgood authors to help him “search for a way back”. The other three were Marianne Williamson, a glamorous Hollywood mystic (and, one need hardly add, bestselling author) who had performed the marriage rites at Elizabeth Taylor’s 1991 wedding to Larry Fortemsky; Jean Houston, a self-styled “sacred psychologist” whose 14 books included Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self; and her friend Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropology professor whose study of “non-traditional life paths” had been praised by Hillary Clinton.
This quintet of sages asked the president to describe his best qualities. “I have a good heart,” he said. “I really do. And I hope I have a decent mind.” (If so, one might ask, why seek solace from snake-oil vendors?) As they talked long into the night, and all the following day, the conversation was increasingly dominated by Hillary’s problems – the constant personal attacks she endured, and the failure of her plan to reform healthcare. Houston, who felt that “being Hillary Clinton was like being Mozart with his hands cut off”, informed the First Lady that she was “carrying the burden of 5,000 years of history when women were subservient … She was reversing thousands of years of expectation and was there up front, probably more than virtually any woman in human history – apart from Joan of Arc.”
The latter-day Joan was understandably flattered. Over the next six months Houston and Bateson often visited Hillary in Washington, urging her to talk to the spirits of historical figures who would understand her travails and thus help her “achieve self-healing”. Sitting with her two psychic counsellors at a circular table in the White House solarium, she held conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt (her “spiritual archetype”) and Mahatma Gandhi (“a powerful symbol of stoic self-denial”). It was only when Houston proposed speaking to Jesus Christ – “the epitome of the wounded, betrayed and isolated” – that Hillary called a halt. “That,” she explained, “would be too personal.” The reticence seems rather puzzling: don’t millions of Christians speak to Jesus, both publicly and privately, through their prayers?
There was little the Republicans could do to exploit “Wackygate”, as it became known: too many people remembered Ronald Reagan’s dependence on Nancy’s astrologer. In any case, the management-mystics were everywhere by then. As Newsweek pointed out when the story of Hillary’s chats with ghosts eventually leaked, “From Atlantic Richfield to Xerox, corporate America has spent millions every year putting managers through the same kind of exercises in personal transformation the Clintons have been sampling for free. Houston herself has run seminars for the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies. At Stanford Business School, Professor Michael Ray has prepared future captains of industry with Tarot cards and chants to release their deeper selves.”
• Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy for £14.99 plus p&p (rrp £16.99), call 0870 066 7979.
» See also: Quack Addicts