A candid conversation about existence, technology, and the pillars of true health.
BY MATT TUTHILL
Of all the thought leaders and luminaries of the new age movement, none are as famous, outspoken—and sometimes polarizing—as Deepak Chopra. But the prolific author (the New Dehli native has written 86 books) and public speaker has credentials that many of his peers in the movement don’t have; an overlooked fact about the 70 year-old is that he is a medical doctor, and early in his career served as chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital. That background uniquely positioned Chopra to bring Eastern concepts of health and mindfulness to the West; he then exploded into the mainstream in the early 90s when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
His earlier books about self-healing and personal fulfillment have now given way to exploratory writings on the subjects of quantum physics and technology. He co-authored You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why It Matters, with Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., an American physicist. The ensuing journey is a true head trip that asks deep, seemingly impossible-to-answer questions about the nature of the universe, such as, “What came before the big bang?” and posits the notion that each of us are co-creators of a reality that spans the entire universe. Without mankind, Chopra and Kafatos write, the universe ceases to be.
How could this possibly be so? We asked Chopra himself, and touched on a number of other timely subjects, such as the rapid advance of technology, the idea of an absolute truth (and fake news), health and fitness, and Donald Trump.
RI: My first question is in regards to your most recent book, You Are the Universe. Right off the bat in that book, you take the old riddle “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” and you answer it definitively in a really surprising way. You say, “Well, actually, if there’s no one around, then there’s no tree.” The premise early on is that without people to observe it, there is no universe. And you explain this throughout the book by citing different studies, and you construct all these very useful metaphors. So I’m not going to ask you to restate the thesis of the book, but I am curious to know if I take what you’re saying at face value — that if we’re not here then the lights go out and everything ceases to be — what can people do with that information? How do you think this book can help people?
DC: The first thing is, sound is an experience. Just like color is an experience. Form is an experience. Taste is an experience. Smell is an experience. Sensation is an experience. Thought is an experience. And anything that you call “imagination” is an experience. If you didn’t experience these entities, then you wouldn’t know that they existed. So your only knowledge of the existence of anything is the awareness of it.
Without going into detail … is there a universe? Is there a body? Is there a mind? I think we can say for sure there is something called “existence”. You know that you exist. And you also know that everything that you look at and experience around you also exists. Never mind defining that in detail. So then the next question is, “Where is this existence apprehended? Where is this experience occurring?” And most people would say, “It’s occurring in the brain, or it’s occurring in the body.”
But even that is questionable. You have to question that because how do you know there is a body? How do you know there is a brain? And you know there is a body and a brain, because you’ve experienced such a thing. You experienced a brain on a CAT scan or you look at it on a dissection table. You experience your own body. And in fact, when you look deeply into the experience of your body, you’ll realize that it’s a bunch of sensations, and sense perceptions, and images in the same way as everything else is.
Furthermore, your body is changing. The experience of your body is changing in every moment of now, even though you don’t see it as such. And every time you look at your body, it’s like taking a photo of the body, because the body’s on the move, you know. You don’t have the same body you had ten years ago, fifteen years ago, or as a child. So what is the essential experience of anything including your body or your brain? It’s sensation, images, feelings, and thoughts, and sense perceptions.
When you go deeply into this, and you realize that these are all modifications of awareness of that which we call consciousness. We have to use these words, because without words we wouldn’t be able to communicate. So in reality, that which we call the physical universe, that which we call a physical body, and that which we call a physical brain, and even that which we call the mind are human constructs. So most of knowing and experience is awareness. Ultimately there is only awareness, though the experiences seem to occur in time. The experience you had five minutes ago, before you called me, is gone. Experience you had one minute ago, when we started this conversation, is gone. By the time you’ve heard the end of my sentence, the beginning of the sentence is gone.
So experience is in time, or appears to be in time, but the awareness in which that experience is, is not in time. Because when you had the experience of a baby or a teenager as you, your awareness is that experience occurred is a constant. The only constant is that which we call “I”. You know, “I went to a movie yesterday. I had Chinese food today. I’m in love. I don’t like Donald Trump.” “I” is the only constant.
So what is the “I” that experiences the body, mind, and universe as a unified activity? And you can see just from your own logic and also from your own experience, that “I” doesn’t seem to be in time. And that’s a very important thing to know, because then all these constructs that we have, birth and death and body and mind and universe, are literally constructs. And they’re human constructs. We experience a human universe. You don’t experience dolphin universe. You don’t experience the universe of an insect with a hundred eyes. You experience the human universe and it is not only a construct, it’s a modification or a modulation of your own awareness.
This is important to note. This changes everything. Because human beings suffer because they don’t know what fundamental reality is. They hold on to experience that is ephemeral and over as soon as it arises. They’re afraid of impermanence. They identify with a socially induced hallucination called ego, and they fear death. And all these problems, are actually occurring because we confuse the construct with the awareness in which the construct is conceived.
In other words, you confuse yourself with your selfie. Your selfie is literally the body you perceive at this second, but there’s no permanence to it. It’s just another experience. Broken down into sensations, images, feelings thoughts, sense perceptions, which toward the end of the book I call “Qualia”. This is a Qualia universe, a human Qualia universe. Qualia means “quality of experience”. Just like Quanta means “quantity of measurement.”
RI: Now, if I’m taking that and I’m distilling it into something smaller, like the realm of self-help, I see the value in that. I see that that would make me let go of the past and stop stressing about the future and kind of stay in the moment. But do you see any danger — ?
DC: Wait there, just wait there. You cannot experience the past, and you cannot experience the future. All you can experience is thought about the past and the thought about the future, which is always now. Now is not a moment in time. Now is the awareness in which the universe is arising and subsiding. And that’s all it is.
RI: Okay, but do you see any danger in espousing this theory? Imagine it takes root all over the world, and everyone accepts this. The absence of an absolute truth or constancy without human involvement, that might open the door for a lot more people to take it too far and say, “Well, nothing is permanent so I’m going to do whatever I damn well please whenever I want”?
DC: The danger is only if you think of someone taking away your personal property. Awareness is that in which we all experience ourselves and each other, and therefore you cannot divide that awareness, so that takes you to a place or an understanding of inseparability. I won’t use fancy words. Scientists blame me, you know, they’re always kind of targeting me, they say I steal their words. But if you understand quantum entanglement, or the inseparability of space, time, energy, information, and matter, then you see that the ultimate truth is the one awareness in which we are all being experienced. And as you go in that direction and the people are understanding, then love and compassion and joy, and equanimity and peace of mind, and thoughts begin in that truth. Not as moral imperatives to be followed, but as natural aspects of your being.
RI: Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool for alleviating much of the anxiety that it seems like more and more people are feeling these days. I felt that maybe at the turn of the millennium that it was permeating the mainstream pretty well but with technology advancing so rapidly and being the addictive thing that it is, it does seem like fewer and fewer people are willing to disconnect, to take that time for themselves. We’re rarely looking within, we’re often looking without. Do you have any hope that in a society that really worships technology, that meditation could ever take root firmly enough to make a positive global impact?
DC: I think technology is the next leap of human imagination and therefore part of our evolution and if we kind of resist technology, we’d definitely — if we understand Darwinian principles — we will be soon obsolete. So you can’t stop technology. The question is, how do we use it? Do we use technology to disconnect? To create cyber hacking? To create atomic bombs? To create biological warfare? To create destruction of the planet? I read today that an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware separated from its main shelf in Antarctica. This could create huge havoc in the world. So we are at a crossroads. We can’t stop technology, but how do we use it? I’m a big fan of the good, appropriate use of technology, including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality. I think these can give us a deeper understanding of the very fact that the present reality is also virtual reality. The extension of that augmented reality can give us a deeper understanding into the matrix of existence from where all this happens. Whether that’ll happen or not, I don’t know.
Many experts think that we’re on the brink of the next mass extinction, the last one being 65 billion years ago when a meteorite fell on our planet, and dinosaurs were wiped out and humans are a product of that extinction. So if the human species goes extinct — maybe nature has other plans, I don’t know. But on the other hand, the technology can also connect us in a way that we have never been connected before. People are connected already but they’re not connected at a deeper level of emotional and spiritual bonding. But technology can, if we so will it, or engineer it, we can use technology to our advantage.
RI: You mentioned the iceberg. I’m curious if anything really does seem to worry you or keep you up at night. Does global warming, or the prospect of famine or overpopulation, do those things worry you?
DC: Nothing worries me, but I do see the insanity of what is happening in the world, and I refuse to participate in it. Because if you think that climate change, and extinction of species, and social and economic injustice, and poison in our food chain is not insanity, then you are participating in and declaring your own insanity. So I refuse to give up my stance that the world is insane at the moment.
And I’ve kind of, in a way, picked up my visitor’s badge and I will not participate in the insanity. I will speak what I think is the truth. I’m not concerned. The universe existed, not as a human concept, but whatever existed, existed before we came along. And if we are wiped out, it will go on its merry way, and the human species will have been an interesting experiment that did not work. So who am I, a puny little ego, squeezed into the volume of a body in the span of a lifetime to worry about that, you know?
RI: You make the big point in the beginning of the book about the theory of relativity. Once people, especially other scientists, were aware of it, they started seeing it everywhere and realized it had always been there. It had been at work in their lives before they knew about it. It reminded me of when you see a word and you don’t know its definition, then you look it up, understand it, and then you start seeing it everywhere. And you realize, “This has always been around me,” and it’s startling.
RI: I feel like people are starting to realize that about each other, as we’re walking around with these super-computers in our pockets and we’re starting to be much more aware of all the different kinds of people and belief systems that are all around us. And there’s a huge positive there, but it’s also connected us in this way where we can be inexplicably cruel to each other anonymously. As you look at the whole of smart phones and social media and the way things have just exploded in the last decade, do you see there is a net positive still, or do you see a net negative?
DC: I can’t answer your question because we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the absence of technology. So what I can state, that our capacities, our technological capacities, our scientific pursuit, have outpaced our emotional and spiritual development. So, you know, you have ISIS, a bronze-age mythology, but with modern capacities like the internet and cyber warfare. So as long as our technological capacities continue to outpace the emotional and spiritual evolution, it’s a negative net balance.
RI: Okay. The concept that we shape our realities is very empowering, but again I’ll play devil’s advocate and take the negative side of these things, because we see so much of that today. We see so many people saying, “Nothing is real unless I want to believe it.” You see it with “fake news” and the way we have such strong confirmation bias, and the way we choose our information sources.
If I am a supporter of President Trump, there is no amount of evidence of criminal activity that will ever make me believe that he’s criminal. I can just yell, “Fake news!” at you, and I can walk away, and I can live in my own reality. When you think about that phenomenon, and you think about what you’re talking about, does that ever give you pause and you say, “Hmm, maybe this isn’t the message that people need to hear right now. Maybe the idea of an absolute truth could be more helpful even if you don’t believe it?”
DC: The absolute truth is the source of all experience is oneness. That’s the absolute truth. So if you understand the absolute truth that we are activities in a single awareness, then we automatically go in the direction of truth, goodness, beauty, harmony, love, compassion, joy, equanimity. If we feel disconnected, then we do create personal realities that are destructive. But if you look around wherever you are, everything you see is a human construct, and we created it. We created what we call civilization.
Everything. From machines, to technology, to even, in fact, the experience of our body, our biology is an experience in awareness and by changing your habits, like thinking and feeling and giving it good rest, as in sleep, meditation, stress-management, mindfulness, healthy emotions, good natural diet and food, you can actually change your biology and therefore the experience of your biology.
So this understanding is in a way what I would say the original fall from the biblical mythology of the knowledge of good and evil. And so when you have that, it’s a double-edged sword. You can lead the world or you can destroy it. And I think we are at a crossroads at the moment. Which way will we go, only we will find out.
RI: We do write a lot about health and fitness in this magazine, so I wanted to ask you, aside from what foods to eat and what exercises to do, how important are my day-to-day thoughts that I choose for myself? And how important are they to how they affect the overall health of my body?
DC: Here are the six pillars that I call the six pillars of well-being.
Number 1: deep, good, natural, restful sleep.
Number 2: stress management, whatever way you use to manage your stress, including mindfulness and meditation.
Number 3: movement and exercise, possibly yoga and breathing techniques because they help coordinate mind and body.
Number 4: healthy emotions. Not just thoughts, but emotions. Because emotions are what drive us. So, emotions that connect us to life in general.
Number 5: food that is not contaminated by poison, including inflammatory products like insecticides and pesticides, and growth hormone and steroids and chemicals of all kinds.
And finally, Number 6: connection with nature.
All thoughts are important in that, if your thoughts alienate you from the rest of the world, and if you’re feeling anger, resentment, hostility, guilt, shame, disgust, resentment, grievances, fear, that sort of thing certainly cause inflammation in your body, and inflammation is the background of 95% of chronic illnesses. Only 5% of disease-related gene mutations are actually fully penetrant, which means they guarantee the disease. The others are influenced by how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis.
RI: That’s a wonderful formula. Hard to argue with. For my last question I want to get personal. What makes you happy?
DC: You know, I don’t use the word happiness. I use the word fulfilled, and peaceful, and what makes me peaceful and happy is when I’m expressing my creativity and doing something that makes a difference in other people’s lives.
RI: I know you never stop writing. What is your next book?
DC: The next book is called The Healing Self with Rudy Tanzi, who’s the Harvard neuro-geneticist that I wrote my last two books with before this one. Super Genes and Super Brains then The Healing Self, and following that, I’m doing what I think will be the culmination of my career, it’s called Meta Human: The Next Leap in Human Evolution. And it’s about basically what human capacities could be, if you really tapped into our inner-most being and highest potential for evolution.
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