A Spiritual Empire -- Deepak Chopra's Metaphysical Message Is Resonating Globally
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
Deepak Chopra was on the phone.
His mellifluous voice rasped slightly - perhaps from granting too many interviews or perhaps from talking too early in the morning.
His message of healing the body with the proper diet, rest, exercise and daily meditations on the inner spirit has resonated deeply and lucratively in America. Why?
"American society is at a very critical moment where there is an awareness that even though material success is a necessary thing in order to feel good and be happy, it is not the only thing," Chopra said. "You can be very wealthy and be very miserable at the same time."
Like Henry Ford or Bill Gates, Chopra has figured out how to achieve great material success by giving people what they need. He has a predominantly baby-boomer following to which he offers a spiritualism he claims will slow aging, foster serenity and fill the emptiness wrought by consumerism - for a price.
An endocrinologist-turned-spiritual muse, Chopra is now so fashionable that Donna Karan outfits him. Actress Demi Moore calls him guru (he is said to dislike the label). And last week he was busting rhymes for his first rap compact disc, to be released soon. He recorded his own raps over an urban dance beat ("Make love to me. Take me to the state of ecstasy").
Chopra tends to talk and write in a style mixing science and metaphysics, at times enigmatic and esoteric. It's a chord that definitely and defiantly resonates, especially in Seattle. At Elliott Bay Book Company, his books - 17 to date - do well, as does the self-help genre in general.
"Over the years self-help has been one of the consistently strong sections in the store," says Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay staff buyer, referring to both the pop and serious psychology books. "There is a certain energy in Seattle, and these books address these people who aren't totally complacent about their lives."
Chopra calls his philosophy multidisciplinary. His latest book, "The Path to Love: Renewing the Power of Spirit in Your Life," cites Judeo-Christian, Moslem and Buddhist philosophies. He is a native of New Delhi and his writing has a decidedly East Indian flavor. One of his earlier books, "Perfect Health," centers on ayurvedic medicine popularized by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation, of whom Chopra was once a devout follower.
At the root of Chopra's teachings is the 6,000 year-old ayurvedic (it means "the knowledge of life span" in Sanskrit) philosophy that uses diet, stress reduction, neuromuscular integration, exercises and daily routines to reset the balance between mind and body, creating a higher state of health and with it, spirituality.
He also refers to prana, the East Indian version of universal energy similar to qi gong in Chinese medicine and the Western version of therapeutic touch.
Much of America has seen Chopra on television. The day after Oprah Winfrey featured him for an hour in 1993, sales for "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind," jumped by 173,000 copies. His television special, "Body, Mind and Soul: The Mystery and the Magic," aired during a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) fund drive and raised $2.5 million in pledges in six months.
I heard Chopra speak in person once, for free, nearly four years ago. It was in a packed Kane Hall lecture room at the University of Washington. He was explaining quantum healing. It felt so cutting-edge academic. He said every year we are a new being because 98 percent of our cells regenerate annually ("a timeless flowing field of constant transformation . . . is us"). He urged us to take advantage of that and turn back the clock by changing the way we eat, sleep and think about our age, our bodies and aging in general.
He was promoting "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind." Back then, he emphasized his medical credentials; the letters "M.D." were prominent on the book cover beside a photo of him holding a stethoscope. I mentioned this to him during the phone interview.
"It seems like such a long time ago," Chopra sighed. "It seems like a different reincarnation."
It turns out that "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind" rocketed him into a higher commercial orbit. It was his first New York Times bestseller. He no longer needs to speak for free to sell books and he no longer has a medical practice.
Tapping the inner self
Money can't buy love, but it can buy the tools to tap the love that springs eternal from your inner self. At least that's what seems to be the moral of Chopra's business empire, Infinite Possibilities. He was already a millionaire back in 1993, thanks to the ayurvedic product business. His 17 books - on health, spiritualism and mysticism - have sold 3 million copies in English and been translated into 25 languages. He has tapes and videos to go with most of his lectures and books.
He and his wife, Rita, have a house in Boston and another "lavish" house in La Jolla, as Time magazine described it last year in an issue on faith healing. Last August he opened the Chopra Center for Well-being near his La Jolla home, touted as a mind-body spa. Paying guests check in for one to seven days for panchakarma, ayurvedic therapies that remove stress and impurities, as well as yoga, skin care, massage and vegetarian cuisine. He estimates his businesses have made him $10 million to $15 million.
Not a shabby chunk of karmic change. And if you think that all that green tarnishes his spirituality, he says that is your problem.
"I'm doing what I do because I get great joy," Chopra said, indignation clipping his melodic voice. "Why sing in the bathroom? Why run on the beach? Because you get joy. Sharing what I learn gives me great joy. People impose their own ideas of how that creates an image of me. They have to be responsible for that image. That is so totally nonspiritual."
As Chopra tells the story, he has walked among the spiritually malnourished. He arrived in the U.S. in 1971 to take an internship in New Jersey, eventually teaching at the medical schools at Tufts and Boston universities. He reached the post of chief of staff at the New England Memorial Hospital, but smoked a pack a day, drank a cocktail each evening and thirsted for a higher truth. He said he devoured the spiritual writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Theosophism. It was during this spiritual quest that he found ayurvedic medicine and transcendental meditation. He began incorporating mind/body healing into his practice because he wanted to do more to help his patients live well.
Skyrocketing success, he said, surprised him.
"You know why angels fly?" he suddenly asked, adding that the question was a famous Irish expression. He paused at length until I asked why. "Because they take themselves so lightly."
Much of what Chopra says and writes makes people feel good. That 98 percent-new-me concept he spoke about in the Kane Hall lecture has stuck with me, though I can't say it's really changed how I live. But then I didn't read the book. I have the book, though. It's autographed "Love, Deepak Chopra," although the name is illegible. I've read pages of the book, but I soon start to feel as though I'm floating untethered out in orbit. Maybe that's what's supposed to happen and I'm just not properly prepared for takeoff.
Chopra summed up his philosophy in one sentence: "Know thyself." Chopra says he makes a special journey to do this every three or four months. He takes a solo weeklong retreat to a quiet expansive place like the canyons in Utah and asks his inner spirit for guidance.
He sounded annoyed when asked how, day to day, or even year to year, regular people who don't have houses on both coasts and multimillion-dollar incomes can find the time to meditate on achieving the desired states he writes about: "Perfect Health," "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind," "The Path to Love." But he answered.
"In the way you integrate going to the bathroom, moving your bowels, having a meal. It's a part of life. It's a question of priorities. We have been brainwashed by society that it is OK to take time to brush our teeth but not to sit quietly." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Chopra in town -- Book signing: Deepak Chopra discusses and signs "The Path to Love: Renewing the Power of Spirit in Your Life" at noon Friday at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400. -- Workshop: At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Chopra begins "Journey to the Boundless," a three-day workshop at the SeaTac Red Lion, 18740 Pacific Hwy S. $425; $200 for primordial sound meditation. Call 1-800-757-8897 for information. -----------------------------------------------------------------
Here is an exact transcription of the voice-mail message callers receive when they call Deepak Chopra's toll-free number (800-757-8897).
"Thank you for calling Infinite Possibilities. If you know the extension of the person you are calling, press 1. To receive a free information package about our products and seminars, press 2. To listen to a sample of Deepak Chopra's new book of poetry `Raid on the Inarticulate,' press 3 now. To place an order for our products or register for a seminar, press 4. For information regarding the global network for spiritual success, press 5. For customer service, press 6. To request Dr. Chopra to speak at a meeting or seminar, please press 7. To speak to an operator, press zero, or just hold and your call will be transferred."
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