The Medicine Man
A Rebel To Many Of His Peers, Deepak Chopra Is
"Why polio? Why the Black Plague? Why malaria? Why tuberculosis? Epidemics have come and gone. There are no simple answers. The AIDS virus has been around for a long time. When I was in medical school, there wasn't any AIDS. Suddenly it's all over the world. I'm sure the virus was always here. Like other epidemics it is going to start declining. No epidemic has lasted forever."
Though calm and soft-spoken, Deepak Chopra, fifty-five, is mesmerizing as he discusses his views on health and the infinite powers of the mind in his office at The Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California. Co-founder with Dr. David Simon, the Center practices a 5,000-year-old Indian system of preventive medicine and healthcare called Ayurveda, which means "the science of life." As Chopra explains in one of his twenty-seven books, Perfect Health: The Complete Mind Body Guide, "Ayurveda embodies the collected wisdom of sages who began their tradition many centuries before the construction of the Pyramids and carried it forward generation after generation." Trained as an endocrinologist, Chopra has brought together Western medicine and ancient wisdom in his crusade for optimum health through spiritual and emotional contentment and a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Devotees include Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, and Demi Moore.
The Center is housed in a modern, two-story, Santa Fe-style building in a lively and beautiful seaside town just north of San Diego. In addition to private consultations, spa treatments, and therapies, the Center offers a variety of classes, including yoga, along with providing wholesome meals (the Center has a full time chef). Near the front entrance in a tiny café called Quantum Soup. While on a guided tour, I peek into one room to discover a birthing seminar in progress for Russian physicians. Near Chopra's rustic office on the second floor, a meditation room is open to the public (no shoes please).
Chopra's intimate office, colored in warm earth tones, contains a small library, an abundance of candles and family photos, and fresh-cut flowers atop his desk. A subtle scent of incense wafts through the air. He is dressed in a black, knit, short-sleeved shirt and eggshell-colored painter's pants. He is not a tall fellow but his strong, reassuring presence dominates the room.
"Ayurveda is about creating a healing environment, creating a body that's healthy, creating an emotional context of health. It's about getting rid of toxic relationships, habits, emotions, and diet," says Deepak, sitting comfortably in an armchair. "Ayurveda is about cleansing and enhancing the strength of the immune system with herbal preparations and mind/body techniques. It is concerned with the person's entire life—your environment, body, mind, emotions, intellect, and soul." Chopra takes off his reading glasses and continues: "You also need to be intellectually satisfied that what you are doing makes sense. Because if it doesn't satisfy your rational mind, then you're going to doubt whether Ayurveda is working or not."
The Center offers healing programs to people with HIV/AIDS. "Our patients are taking the cocktails and doing the Ayurvedic treatment, which includes nutrition, exercise, supplements, meditation, herbs, yoga, etc. Ayurveda does help with HIV, and most patients are doing well. There is even a subset of patients seem not to be HIV-positive now—they cannot detect the virus. This is very good news," says Chopra as he plays with his multi-colored drug-store bought glasses. And these people feel so good. They are living fully normal lives, and end up living a much healthier life and feeling better than before. In fact, some of them have more energy than anybody on the street!" Chopra prescribes the same regimen for those who have been recently exposed to HIV.
Some New Age theorists subscribe to the idea that the individual is responsible for succumbing to disease. "It's too simplistic a notion. Every disease is contextual. And that means as human beings we're part of a context. We participate together in everything that happens to us. Our relationships, fears, anxieties, hopes, aspirations, habits, daily lifestyle, sense of security or insecurity, self-esteem, diet, all have a role to play," he says. "We always confuse the word responsibility with guilt. If you look at the word 're-spon-si-bil-i-ty', it means the ability to have a response. Responsibility means to have a creative response to a challenge, and you have to have a creative response to a challenge, and you have to have a creative response to a challenge if you're feeling guilty. So what responsibility means is expanding your awareness. You might say, 'What other things in my life could I change to maximize my participation in my recovery?' But you are one factor. There are many other factors, including the fears that come with the past embarrassment from the stigma associated with the disease. Hopefully, we're getting over all of that.
"Of all the demographic subsets of the people who have AIDS, I think you will see that the gay population is the one with the least risk at the moment. And that's because they are more aware. That is a great blessing. I wish we could do that with everyone to totally prevent disease," says Chopra in a hopeful tone. "AIDS is not the dreadful thing it used to be. We can say clearly that AIDS is preventable and if you have it, there's a lot you can do today to stay healthy."
AIDS has not affected Chopra in his immediate family, only in his extended family, as he puts it. Married for thirty years, he and his wife Rita have two children, Gotham, his son, and Mallika, his daughter. Chopra has logical views on raising kids, focusing on their strengths. As he writes in his book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, "If your child's not doing well in math but is an excellent tennis player, get him a tennis teacher, not a math tutor." Chopra strengthened his offspring's interests in ways that led them to follow in his footsteps. His son has authored several books and his daughter is the founder of MyPotential.com, a company dedicated to assisting people achieve healthier lives. "Gotham and Mallika are very well informed and well read,' he says. "We have discussed the risk factors, how AIDS comes about, what you can do to prevent it. Our talks about AIDS were in the context of what creates healthy living. We always have frank discussions about everything."
And that includes the recent loss of Chopra's eighty-two-year-old father. How does he deal with loss? He says: "You prepare for death as a life-long process. You have to be aware always of your own mortality, and that nothing is permanent. You have to be aware of the impermanence of everything on this level of existence. Seek that part of yourself that is permanent and seek that in other people that is permanent."
Chopra crosses his leg to get more comfortable, and continues: "In my father's entire lifetime I never once saw him sick or emotionally upset. He was the most patient and kind person. He died the day Mr. Bush went into the White House, not that that means anything. He watched the Inaugural on CNN in India. He woke up my mother and said, 'Wake up. Wake up. I'm leaving now.' He said that twice, closed his eyes, and was gone. There was no discomfort, no shortness of breath; he died as elegantly as he had lived. And he had always said that's how he would go, and that he would know when he was going. And he went with joy. We celebrated his death because we knew he went exactly the way he wanted to go, when he wanted to go. And that can only happen when the quality of your life...," he trails off and continues: "He lived like a saint and he died like one. In India we call death 'The Big Meditation.'"
Chopra obviously encounters many terminally ill patients. If he were terminally ill himself, how would he confront 'The Big Meditation'? He says: "I think love is the only important thing in life. I'd express that love to the ones I feel connected to. I'd prepare, though. I live my life even now as if I could die this evening. Your priorities are different when you live your life constantly aware that death is stalking you. You don't waste your time in trivia or mundane things, or get upset by people. You are much more loving and compassionate. You should actually live your life as if this is the only moment you have, for sure. Because the fact is that this is the only moment you have!"
When I inquire about his belief in the herafter, Chopra lets out a big sigh. He says: "There's a problem with the question. When you say 'the hereafter,' you imagine that you have this life and then you have the other life. In fact, this particular life that you're living in is a little flicker in the eternal, continual existence. If I ask do you remember the dream you had three days ago, you don't. But did you dream three days ago? Yes. Just like the dream is an interruption in your waking activity, this life is an interruption in your eternal activity. This is just an interruption, a punctuation point in the continuum. So when I go to sleep, I'm not aware of this life, but when I wake up, then I'm totally aware of what happened yesterday. So similarly you're now asleep in this lifetime and when you wake up you're in the other one."
Chopra's day begins at four in the morning. He meditates for an hour and a half, then exercises the same amount of time, and meditates a half hour more in the evening. He is usually in bed by ten. He sums up: "I have fun." Chopra came to America from India when he was twenty-one, and in the mid-'80s, when he was Chief of Staff at Boston Regional Medical Center, he experimented with alcohol and cigarettes. "I've probably had more alcohol than you should have in one lifetime," he reveals. "It's like 'been there, done that.' So I no longer feel the need to do these things."
However, some people do feel the need. Addictions can be symptoms of living in our harried society. Why is it so hard to lead a balanced, healthy life? Chopra comments: "It's a habit. I's a distraction. It is the way we are programmed by our culture., by the media, by advertising, etc. Our natural tendency is to listen to our bodies. But our environment is such that it separates our mind from our body. So the body's saying, 'I'm full,' and the mind is saying, 'No, I'd like to have the dessert.' The body's saying, 'I'm tired and want to go to sleep,' and the mind is saying, 'No, we should go out and have a party.' Our mind has basically been programmed by our culture and mass society to do certain things, which the body doesn't want to do. There is a sarcasm between the two. The highest form of intelligence is to listen to your body."
Spying a photograph on a bookshelf of Chopra and former President Clinton together in the Oval Office piques my curiosity about his views on the new Bush administration. "I think with our present conservative government that AIDS is not going to be high upon the agenda, and that's very unfortunate," he says. "I think more is happening in Scandinavia. I travel all over the world and I think people in other countries are much more aware." He ponders a moment, looking off into the distance. "Australia is unbelievable. AIDS is not a problem because there is so much awareness. They are further advanced than us. We should educate in the schools and start early with children. I am for condom distribution in the schools one thousand percent. People have a lot of shame and guilt behind their sexual preferences and that's something you need to get rid of so you can talk frankly about what is safe."
As I prepare to leave, I ask Chopra if there is one word he would use to describe himself. "You know," he responds, 'my favorite poet is Rumi. He was once asked, 'Who are you?' He said, 'If you label me and define me then you starve yourself of yourself. Nail me down in a box wih a cold word and that box will be your coffin because I do not know who I am. I'm your own voice echoing off the walls of God.'" There is a short silence. "But if I have to give you one word, then—infinite possibilities. As are you."
The Chopra Center for Well Being is located at 7630 Fay Avenue, La Jolla, California 92037; phone: (838) 551-7788; fax: (858) 551-9570; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org