Ten Zen Questions

Exploring the Mind from Within

Debating Deepak Chopra

Is the 'spiritual guru' truly spiritual?

When I was asked to debate the famous guru, Ayurvedic practitioner and promoter of mind-body medicine, Deepak Chopra, I was delighted to agree. I had long been concerned by his brand of ‘spirituality’ and was keen to meet him and find out what he is really like. You can watch some of what happened on YouTube.

The debate took place at Towards a Science of Consciousness, the biennial consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona, along with two scientists, Menas Kafatos and Leonard Mlodinow. Indeed it was Chopra’s book with Mlodinow War of the World Views that inspired the title our debate. These science vs. spirituality debates can be frustrating because Deepak uses lots of scientific ideas in his books and talks – from quantum mechanics to evolution – but he tends to twist them just at the crucial point. For example, he claims that consciousness directs evolution so that we are all evolving towards a higher state of consciousness. But this attractive idea misses the whole point of evolution by natural selection – that it is a marvellously mindless process that requires no designer or ‘power of consciousness’ to drive it along.

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I chose instead to tackle his brand of ‘spirituality’ because I think he treats both in the same disingenuous way. He takes their underlying, and often uncomfortable, insights and then twists them just at the crucial point into something far more palatable – into something everybody would like to be true and many will pay plenty of money for.

The problem, as far as consciousness is concerned, is the same for both science and spirituality – it’s dualism. We seem to be conscious selves having a stream of mental experiences in a physical world, yet there cannot be two fundamentally different kinds of stuff that make up the world – the physical and the mental. Scientists tend to make matter primary and cannot explain how a physical brain creates subjective experiences: Deepak’s version of spirituality makes consciousness primary but cannot explain how consciousness creates matter. Meanwhile mystics and meditators throughout the ages have said all this is illusion — ultimately ‘I’ am not separate from the world around me. Seeing the true nature, or becoming enlightened, means seeing through the illusion and realising nonduality.

I have some sympathy with both sides, having been training in Zen for thirty years as well as being a scientist. That’s why I agreed with Deepak when he said “There is no separation between mind and body … Self and other co-arise and fall away all the time”. “I am not a dualist” he proclaims. But I say he is. “How do you wiggle your toes?” he asks “Isn’t your mind sending an order to your feet?” or “Before a brain can register a thought, a mind must think it. … every step of the way is mind over matter… We override our brains all the time.”

Really? This implies there’s a ‘me’ that overrides ‘my brain’. Yet this is precisely the kind of dualism that most spiritual traditions deny – and so do most neuroscientists. Giving up belief in the importance of our own inner self is painful, but it is ultimately the way to see through the illusion. Then we can see our self as an ephemeral construction (to put it in scientific terms), or something that arises and falls away all the time (in spiritual terms).

Deepak claims not to be a dualist. Yet he twists his ‘spirituality’ right back on itself into the old familiar and comfortable idea that ‘I’ exist, ‘I’ control my own body, ‘I’ am important and may even live forever. His book ‘Reinventing the body: resurrecting the soul’ is one example. Another is

Ageless Body: Timeless Mind (two million copies sold) in which he describes those timeless experiences familiar to long-term meditators and those who have spontaneous or drug-induced mystical experiences. The world does not disappear, yet self, time and space cease to have any meaning. All is one and time is gone. Whether you come at this from a scientific or spiritual perspective this makes sense as a process of dropping the usual illusions of self and separation.

But surely this does not justify Deepak’s claim that through developing the timeless mind ‘… the effects of aging are largely preventable’ and that ‘In moments of transcendence, when time stands still, your biological clock will stop’. This, he says, is ‘The quantum alternative to growing old’!

Then there is the question of money. I ended my presentation on his mega-bestseller The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success where Deepak considers ‘the creation of wealth’. One might imagine he is promoting ‘spiritual wealth’ – the joy, equanimity, compassion or peace that may result from spiritual practice. But no. He is urging us to align our consciousness ‘with the subtle yet powerful, unseen forces that affect the flow of money in our lives.’

Finally, there’s the question of enlightenment? Well – you can always try his video game that promises “a soothing journey to enlightenment”. More interestingly, Deepak described enlightenment as “getting rid of the person that never was.” I agree with him (again). This is the whole thrust of the spiritual journey, that you discover that you aren’t, and never were, who you thought you were. The feeling of being a powerful entity who persists through time and who will either die or live on when your body dies is an illusion. Yet it is surely precisely this illusory self who craves an ‘ageless body’ and an eternal soul, and who longs for success, material wealth and ‘control over the flow of money’.

So is what’s being sold here really anything to do with spirituality? What do you think?

Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist, writer and broadcaster, and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.

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