What makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise? Deepak Chopra thinks he knows, and he’s sold 20 million books to prove it. David Jenkins meets the good doctor at his Chopra Centre for Well Being in California.
It’s heading for 90 degrees in Carlsbad, southern California, and the sun is slanting into Deepak Chopra’s cluttered office at the swish La Costa Resort and Spa. There are manuscripts on the desk, golf bags in a corner, a bust of Socrates on the shelf and, he tells me, his accent still markedly subcontinental despite 30 years in America, “a map of Merlin country — south-west England, which I adore”.
Among the knick-knacks is a photograph of the 58-year-old Indian sage, or, as Time magazine put it, “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine”, with former president Bill Clinton.
“He’s a friend,” says Chopra. “And Al Gore is a very good friend.”
That’s the temporal Deepak; his more esoteric being is represented by an oleograph of Brighu — “He’s a rishi (holy man) from south India; in chapter 10 of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna talks about him” — and a large black-and- white photograph of what looks like a gaggle of bearded late 19th century mystics. In fact, Chopra tells me: “That is an extraordinary picture. That is given me by somebody who says he took that by the River Jordan, and that (he gestures at a hirsute figure) is supposed to be Christ. That is literally something they saw in the mist, and by the time they went there it had disappeared. So that’s Elijah the Prophet, and you see Christ, and you see John the Divine, and you see another figure that we don’t know who it is.”
And where I’m sitting, across a desk from the best-selling author — worldwide, more than 20 million copies of upwards of 40 books, with titles like The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Everyday Immortality, Perfect Health, Golf for Enlightenment: The Seven Lessons for the Game of Life — Michael Jackson sat a week ago, his three children in tow. “And I’ve never seen healthier children; Daddy this, Daddy that.”
He’s so deep, says Maryann Kelly, a middleaged lady from Massachusetts. When you think he can’t get any deeper, he gets deeper.
What was Michael talking about? “Oh, his trials and tribulations. He’s always called me when he’s troubled.” Chopra fiddles with his spectacles, unusually high-bridged and with luridly multicoloured frames; they’re the sort of glasses you’d expect Sir Elton to slip on between ditties.
“It’s strange: when Michael was in court, in handcuffs, my son Gotham (who, as an adolescent, slept over at Neverland and reports no monkeybusiness, unless, of course, you count Bubbles the chimp) called him on his cell phone, and Michael said, ‘Oh, how are you?’ And there he was, in court, asking about Gotham! My son couldn’t believe it.” Chopra shrugs. “Now, I don’t know what that means.”
Well, I suggest, it’s either denial, or a remarkable inner serenity. “Yes,” says Chopra. “And sometimes they’re the same thing.”
Aha! The reconciliation of opposites! That staple of Hindu argument! That playful paradox so beloved of new-age thinkers! It’s the very essence of the milieu in which Chopra has prospered mightily as a pioneer of meditation and mind-body medicine. (“He’s so deep,” says Maryann Kelly, a middle-aged lady from Massachusetts who’s here, at the Chopra Centre for Well Being, to take the five-day Soul of Healing course at a cost of $1195. “When you think he can’t get any deeper, he gets deeper.”
Maryann says she has “a lot of depression” and has “gained a lot of weight”.)
Chopra brings with him his Indian heritage and a Western scientific background. He’s a managing director who became chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital, and he litters his texts with data from scientific journals. His injunctions mix the terminology of quantum physics — “Pay special attention to anything that breaks the probability amplitude” — with the uplift of a Patience Strong: “True wealth consciousness is the ability to have anything you want, any time you want, and with least effort.”
One of his books, SynchroDestiny, urges the reader to “align your intentions with the cosmic intent” because “perhaps a miracle waits in the wings”. It’s a message that tinkles as appealingly as the plashing rivulets in the water-feature in Chopra’s study; a message so ably delivered that, as Chopra’s PR person declares: “Toastmaster International recognised him as one of the top five outstanding speakers in the world.”
For Chopra, this mockery is a road well-travelled, and he’s bored by it. “I’m not going to be defensive about my success. Why should I be? No one starts out saying, ‘I’m not going to be successful’. And some of the most cynical people, they make the presumption that if there are 20 million people reading my books, they must all be stupid. And this one person (the cynic) must be smart.”
But critics say he panders to the mood Jerry Hall identified after attending one of his courses: “Many people seem to be looking for spiritual answers in the new millennium, but they want to do so while making money.”
Chopra jumps in: “That’s her view. That’s her view. I have as many images as there are commentators about me. What’s that poem by Rumi (the 13th-century Afghan mystic, a CD of whose work Chopra, aided by the likes of Madonna and Goldie Hawn, propelled into the American charts)? ‘Define me and label me/And you’ll starve yourself of yourself/Nail me down in a box/With cold words/And that box will be your coffin/Because I don’t know who I am/I am your own voice/Echoing off the walls of God’.”
What’s more, he says: “Critics can say what they want, but my internal motivation was to share with everybody what I was so excited about.”
You could say he has triumphed. When he got into the mind-body field, holistic medicine was derided; now it’s approved of. When he praised meditation, it was seen as the preserve of white-robed gurus from Rishikesh; now William Hague, a former leader of the British Conservative Party, practises it. Both ideas have strong roots in India; perhaps his embrace of them is a reaction to his father, a Hindu physician who became an eminent cardiologist in England.
Chopra snr revered Western ways and sent his son to a Christian school in Delhi; while in England, he learnt that Chopra’s grandfather was employing traditional mind-body Ayurvedic medicine to treat a heart condition. He ordered the old man to turn to Western-trained consultants. Two weeks later Chopra’s grandfather was dead.
Still, Chopra pursued the Western medical model — and the West’s extracurricular activities. At medical school in India he took LSD “more than a couple of times. And when I first met George Harrison, that’s all we talked about, though neither of us was taking drugs any more. But we had good memories.” (Once, Chopra was dining in London with George, Ringo and Dave Stewart. A man came to their table, and asked for Chopra’s autograph. “And he thanks me, and he nods at the others and says, ‘Hi!’ And he walks away. It was so funny.”)
The mysticism lingered, despite Chopra’s success in conventional medicine in America, where he went in 1970. But Chopra began to see himself as a licensed drug-pusher; and, for him, his clinical ascent was accompanied by too many cigarettes and too much whisky.
He visited India and was reminded of Ayurvedic medicine; a chance glance in a Boston bookshop alerted him to transcendental meditation. In 1989, he published Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind-Body Medicine.
His course was set. There were hiccups: the medical establishment was not enthralled by Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Published in 1993, it topped the bestseller lists; its seductive message was that, by employing meditation, Ayurveda and nutritional supplements, “our tissues could easily last 110 to 130 years”. Better yet: “Without stored stress, the ageing process cannot gain a foothold.”
Chopra rode the storm and reaped a plentiful harvest. And he became respectable. Once 80 per cent of his audience were “35 to 50-year-old women”; now he addresses business schools and Harvard Divinity School. He is a founding member of something called the Global Strategic Alliance for the New Humanity. “I asked Al Gore to come. He came. I called five Nobel laureates. They came.” And he is invited to speak at Harvard Medical School, “and they get the maximum enrolment, the maximum”.
To help the medicine go down there are also the homilies — by which, in truth, Chopra is “boxed in”. The big idea in his forthcoming book, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life, is that “there’s no such thing as a person: there is only the universe manifesting, impermanently, as a person”. His publishers sent it back: where, they asked, was “the self-help stuff?” “So I added it — it doesn’t take me too much time.”
Really, he’s more interested in consciousness and limbic resonances and tangled hierarchies. Really, he’s more interested in railing at Bush and the Iraq adventure. Really, he’s more intrigued by the “romantic allure” of asceticism, though he’s not ready for it, yet. And really, like many “in the autumn of my life”, he’s devoted to his young granddaughter — and to golf.
His handicap is down to nine, and he takes lessons twice a week but “it’s frustrating”. He chuckles, the model of a modern, links-loving mystic. “I’m unhappy with my game — the only thing I’m unhappy with in my life.”