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Shortcomings of the Spirituality of Deepak Chopra

 

[Deepak Chopra, Creating Health: How to Wake up the Body’s Intelligence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).  References to this book are abbreviated as CH.  Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life you Want (New York: Harmony Books, 1995).  References to this book are abbreviated as WW. Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams (San Rafael: Amber Allen Publishing, 1994).  References to this book are abbreviated SS.  Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York:Atria Books, 2006. References to this book are abbreviated Secret.   All italics are in the original unless otherwise noted.]

 

To understand Deepak Chopra one must realize that he combines two traditions, the New Thought movement and the Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with a good understanding of modern holistic science.  The New Thought movement says that on the inner spiritual level we are divine and share the powers of the divine.  Thus we can attract health, wealth and other unlimited abundance to ourselves if we open up to it.  Chopra does not add much to basic New Thought ideas but he articulates them extremely well and his thoughts are often grounded in the best of modern science.  These features explain his popularity.  Chopra, however, cannot escape the main problem of New Thought: exaggerating.  In particular the proponents of New Thought exaggerate how old their ideas are, how much science supports their ideas, and how much humans are like the divine.

Chopra seems to avoid the first exaggeration most proponents of the New Thought movement make: claiming their ideas have been taught for all time by all the great sages.  These ideas were really developed in the mid-nineteenth century.  In the 1850s, Phineas Quimby discovered that he could heal people by projecting healing thoughts on their subconscious.  His later disciples combined his healing method with the German philosophy of Idealism to develop the philosophy of what came to be called the New Thought movement.

The second exaggeration New Thought proponents make is claiming the latest scientific research proves its ideas are true.  Unfortunately, often these claims are exaggerated or distorted and Chopra suffers from this fault.  Rhonda Byrne in The Secret claims quantum mechanics shows the truth of her ideas and quotes Fred Wolf and John Hagelin to back up this claim.  (Secret, p 156, 21-2, 160, 167-8, 181)  Hagelin says, “Quantum mechanics confirms it. Quantum cosmology confirms it.  That the Universe essentially emerges from thought and all this matter around us is just precipated thought.  Ultimately we are the source of the Universe… ultimately [it] is Universal consciousness that runs the Universe.”  (Secret p. 160)  Hagelin is a trained physicist, but he is also a very dedicated follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  He is not being a careful scientist when he says science shows the universe emerges from thought and we are the source of the universe; he is advocating the ideas of his guru and exaggerating how much science supports them.  Byrne just believes what Hagelin says; she breezily admits she does not know much about science (as she never studied it in school, and learnt everything she knows about it in a week). (Secret, p. 156.)  Chopra is in a much different league than Byrne as he is a well-respected medical doctor.  One of the reasons he is so popular is that he is well educated and knowledgeable about scientific matters.  Unfortunately Chopra often acts like Wolf and Byrne because he exaggerates how much science supports his ideas.

To just give one example, he talks about pulverizing a rock and then pulverizing the rock’s atoms into even smaller elementary particles.  He says, “What do we see? We see organization.  We see protons, electrons, and other particles arranged in an organized manner.  Before the cracking, blasting, powdering and smashing, this knowledge went about its existence coherently, automatically, and we can say, intelligently.” (CH, p. 91)  It seems reasonable to say that the rock’s elementary particles are organized.  However it is a jump to say there is knowledge in the rock that exists intelligently.

He is not finished drawing conclusions from this rock.  He then says that all things in the universe “are expressions of organizing power, or knowledge.  Another insight from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi comes to mind: ‘Knowledge is structured in consciousness.’” (CH, p. 91)  He is moving from the rock has organization to that means all things have consciousness.  He does not stop there, though.  While most people think that material things like rocks are the most tangible and real things in the universe, Chopra says knowledge is.  He says “all things in the universe, then, arise from consciousness as knowledge….It tells us that the only thing in the universe that is real and tangible is knowledge.” (CH p.92)  Chopra starts off with scientific truths (the rock is composed of elementary particles) and if we are not careful we can get seduced into thinking his point about knowledge and consciousness is proven by science, when they really come from Maharishi’s ideas.

Chopra is not done with drawing conclusions from this rock though.  On the next page, he jumps to New Thought’s favorite position:  “We come to the inescapable conclusion that mind or consciousness or intelligence pervades every part of the created universe.  Our own minds are an expression of this intelligence; from it our human consciousness derives its infinite scope.” (CH, p. 93)  So from a rock having subatomic particles that are organized, he jumps to it has knowledge, and then he jumps to that means there is intelligence in the rock.  From there he jumps to a point about consciousness and how this consciousness pervades the universe and our consciousness has infinite scope.  (Both New Thought and Chopra will then jump to the further conclusion that as our own minds have infinite scope, we can create anything, without limitation).  If one is pre-disposed to accept these ideas, and one thinks Chopra is a careful scientist sticking to scientific facts, one could be seduced into thinking science has shown these ideas are true.  But Chopra is not sticking to careful facts; he is stretching them for his own purposes.  Part of what makes Chopra so effective and persuasive is that he does have a lot of scientific knowledge and is careful much of the time.  He is not like Rhonda Byrne who has only studied science for a week and thinks she can understand the essence of quantum physics.  But when it comes to points that he already thinks are true because he believes in the ideas of New Thought and Maharishi, this carefulness gets lost; he overstretches the science to jump to conclusions he already believes in.

Of course this does not mean Chopra’s ideas are not true.   It means that science has not proven these ideas and so Chopra is exaggerating how much science supports his ideas. 

Chopra also suffers from the third way proponents of New Thought exaggerate: how close we are to the divine and how much we share its power.  God, or whatever word one wants to use to describe the Spirit behind things or the Oneness or the being who made the world, would seem to be significantly different than humans.  God is very powerful; humans often need diapers, both when they are young and when they are old.  God has immense knowledge; humans often can’t remember their children’s birthdays.  God or the Spirit is very good, maybe even all good.  Humans are often extremely mean.  The difference between the two seems significant, to say the least.  Proponents of New Thought say these kinds of statements are made by people who focus only on the outer material level.  They say we should take our awareness off this outer level and focus on the inner spiritual level where things are much different.

Advocates of New Thought say we are so closely connected to the Spirit or God that we are God.  Chopra says, “in reality, we are divinity in disguise, and the gods and goddesses in embryo that are contained within us seek to be fully materialized.” (SS, p.3)  In another place he says we are more than just garden-variety gods or goddesses, we are one with the Spirit.  He says there is an  “underlying infinite diversity of life [which] is the unity of one all-pervasive spirit…. [this] is your own Self.” (SS, p. 10) 

As there is the one spirit, Chopra thinks you can draw the things you want to yourself as this oneness “magnetizes people, situations and circumstances to support your desires….It is the support of divinity.” (SS, p. 13)  In another place he uses the language of quantum physics to express the same thought, saying we are “a localized disturbance in the larger quantum field.  The larger quantum field—the universe—is your extended body.” (SS, p. 69)   The important point is that you can influence your extended body, which is the universe, “and cause things to manifest in it.” (SS 70)  How do you do cause things to manifest in the universe? Through your thoughts.  Chopra says that we need to “grasp the idea that our thoughts and our way of seeing indeed structure the entire material universe.” (CH 106)  Then we can be healthy and live forever as long as we have positive thoughts of health and immortality.   “Disease and aging persist because of myths and prejudices that propel people into decline.” (CH 109)

Chopra and other advocates of New Thought are exaggerating how close we are to the divine and thus how much power we get from our connection to it.  They would respond that people like me are too focused on the outer physical level.  But they are committing the same mistake many spiritual people make nowadays: overemphasizing our connection with God or the Oneness.  Our current cultural paradigm implies that we are all separate individuals with little or no connection to God.  Nowadays, when many people become more aware of their connection to the Spirit or God or the Tao, they reject the dominant culture’s paradigm.  Too many of them, however, go to the opposite extreme and say we are One with this divineness.  This is overstating or exaggerating our connection to the spiritual reality.  While we have a divine aspect to ourselves, we also have other aspects.  We are connected to the divine, but we are not One with it. 

 

New Thought advocates like Chopra are right when they stress our relationship to God or the Spirit.  They are also right that most people are insensitive to their spirit because they center their awareness only on the outer material level.  But it requires more than just right thoughts to become connected with God or the Spirit.  A person needs to give up exclusively following her own desires and join God’s team.  In this way, rather than just trying to satisfy your own purpose in life, you let the Universe flow through you to accomplish something It wants done.

New Thought advocates deny the higher power has any definite purpose for individuals.  Neale Donald Walsch says, “there is no blackboard in the sky on which God has written your purpose, your mission in life.  There’s no blackboard in the sky that says ‘Neal Donald Walsch.  Handsome guy who lived in the first part of the twenty-first century who…’ And then there’s a blank.  And all I have to do to really understand what I am doing here, why I’m here, is to find that blackboard and find out what God really has in mind for me.  But the blackboard does not exist.” (Secret, p. 177)  Rhonda Byrne says, “So your purpose is what you say it is.  Your mission is the mission you give yourself…You get to fill the blackboard of your life with whatever you want.” (Secret, p. 177-8)  She also says, “Whatever you choose for You is right.” (Secret, p. 179)

Chopra is a little different than these other New Thought advocates.  He thinks God has a purpose for us; it is just that this purpose is to satisfy our desires because he gave us these desires.  Chopra says, “Honor each and every desire you have.  Cherish those desires in your heart.  Do not struggle to get what you want; trust that your higher spirit has put the desire inside you, and leave it to spirit to make your wishes come true.” (WW, p. 131)  Chopra asserts that an aware person “sees desire in a larger pattern laid down by spirit.  Seen for what it really is, desire expresses your ultimate need to rejoin perfection.” (WW, p. 131-2)   In this way, satisfying your desires is doing what God wants you to do.  For Chopra, this is such a great universe that there that is no more direct path to God than following your desires.  “Desire is the direct path, for there is no quicker way to God than your own wishes and needs.” (WW, p. 132) 

Do we have to do anything like give over our will to God? Not according to Chopra.  He says all we have to do to receive things from God is to just open up and accept his goodness.  Chopra says we should have the “willingness to receive what God wants to give.  This world is a gift; there was no compulsion for the Creator to make it.  God’s ability to grant unto you is limited only by your ability to receive.” (WW, p. 132)

 The world portrayed by science is an unfriendly one where humans are mere animals in a material world.  There are no friendly spirits like angels to help us and God seems distant and uninvolved if present at all.   Chopra goes to the opposite extreme and asserts we live in a totally friendly universe where the spiritual power makes no demands on us and stands ready to fulfill our every desire.

Throughout history spiritual people have been very leery of their desires.  Most spiritual people practiced asceticism, or extreme discipline of their desires, in order to become spiritual.  Chopra goes to the opposite extreme, saying “every desire has a spiritual meaning.” (WW, p. 135)  Even spiritual people who reject asceticism usually say we should discriminate between our good desires and the less pure ones.  Chopra says that we should not judge our desires at all as this constricts the flow of energy and gets in the way of manifesting them. (SS, p. 17)  He says that “our true nature is one of affluence and abundance; we are naturally affluent because nature supports every need and desire.” (SS, p. 33-4)

 

For many people throughout human history, the kinds of things Chopra and other New Thought advocates are saying would not qualify as spirituality.  They would say the body and its desires need to be disciplined so that we can be more spiritual.  Chopra would say these ascetics are painting the universe as too dismal, too unfriendly.  I agree with Chopra that ascetics go to one extreme.  But I think he and the other New Thought advocates react to this asceticism by going to the opposite extreme.  They think the universe satisfies all our desires.  They think spirituality is so easy once we open up to the abundance the Universe wants us to have.

The middle way here is a kind of active mysticism, which says that as we do God’s work in the world, God’s energy and joy will flow through us enlivening our lives.  Once we join the Universe’s team, It will also help us through synchronicities and blessings.  But we have to discipline our lower desires and wants so that we stay attuned to God’s purpose for us.  We are connected to God, but not one with God.  We get great energy from being on the Tao’s team, but not every want will be satisfied. 

 

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