Deepak Chopra is a man with a fascinating mind. But if you asked him to point to it, he might point to his heart or his entire cellular makeup rather than to his skull. He’s also one who has never been afraid to swim against the current of conventional wisdom or speak openly about his thoughts on consciousness and the nature of the universe—something he’s contemplated since he was a child.
This is a man who’s ventured that, like the dinosaurs, humans could be an experiment of the universe—and that consciousness is not a byproduct of matter, it’s the other way around; “Matter is the epiphenomenon. Consciousness conceives, governs, constructs and ultimately becomes the physical reality,” he says, in Conversations from the Edge of the Apocalypse by local author David Jay Brown. In one of that book’s most thought-provoking interviews, in which Chopra speaks openly for the first time about his personal experimentation with psychedelics as a young man, Brown asks Chopra if he thinks the human species will survive the next 100 years, and Chopra answers, “I think it’s a 50-50 chance.”
Really? Clearly, though, Chopra, an M.D. and a professor at UC San Diego Medical School, is determined to give us a shot—which is where the self-help message that runs through much of Chopra’s life work, and indeed his more than 80 books, takes a less selfish approach: he believes that to lift ourselves up and evolve consciously is to lift humanity as a whole.
Chopra’s recent book, The Healing Self: A Revolutionary New Plan to Supercharge Your Immunity and Stay Well For Life—which brings him to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 16—is set against an increasingly toxic present-day reality where global travel, environmental degradation, exploding world population, pharmaceutical dependence and poisons in our water and food are working against our health in unprecedented ways.
Co-written with world-renowned expert on brain health, Rudolph E. Tanzi, The Healing Self leads with a sharp edge of fresh science to unpack the connection between the body and mind, which Chopra calls bodymind. It includes studies into love’s unexplained physiological effects on immune response, the links between emotions and social connectedness (and isolation) on heart health, compassion’s correlation with antibodies, and the latest science on how stimulating the vagus nerve (yoga is one of the best ways to do this) can switch our nervous systems from sympathetic overdrive to heightened parasympathetic activity.
The Healing Self offers practical tools for all individuals’ power to heal themselves, and postures that a life built around the bodymind could create a quantum leap in well-being. And While Chopra’s other recent book, You Are The Universe, co-written with leading physicist Menas Kafatos and published on Jan. 30, explores a paradigm shift in our cosmic awareness, The Healing Self explores a paradigm shift in medicine that has been a long time coming.
Chopra has long stirred the ire of the American Medical Association (which he says he is grateful for, because it brought him attention), and in the 1990s, William Jarvis, the president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, accused Chopra of promoting “prescientific nonsense in the name of medicine.”
More than two decades later, the criticism of the body-mind connection—a fundamental message in Chopra’s work since the beginning—has dissolved considerably, as science turns up study after study indicating an undeniable connection between the two.
I rang Chopra’s room at the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, where he was speaking at the Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center, to talk about The Healing Self.
At what point in your career did you realize the body and mind were not separate?
DEEPAK CHOPRA: I would say probably almost 40 years ago when I was in training, and I trained in neuroendocrinology—which is the study of brain chemistry—and I realized at that time that molecules like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, opiates and other neurotransmitters were influenced by our emotions, and that these neurotransmitter molecules were also immunomodulators. They modified the immune system. The science was already there 40 years ago, but it took a long time for the general community in the medical world to accept that. Now because we have new advances in neuroplasticity, epigenetics, the understanding of the microbiome, it’s very clear that bodymind operate as a single activity. So my hope is that just like today we say “space-time,” we don’t say “space and time,” we say “mass energy,” we don’t say “mass and energy,” so too, in the future we will just use bodymind as a single phrase, just in the same way as we say “wave-particle.”
Q You write that the bodymind concept is starting to show up in Western medicine as the “whole systems approach.” You also trace yoga’s inception in the West, from a time in the ’50s when it was done, largely by men, in the East, as well as meditation, which was once a more mystical activity that’s become mainstream as mindfulness shows up even in hospitals. Do you think it’s possible for bodymind to be accepted and fully integrated into Western medicine, and how long might that take?
It’s happening right now. I’m now a professor at UCSD Medical School in California, and we are already seeing medical students and residents taking internships in this area. It’s become part of the curriculum in many medical schools throughout the country. But in medicine usually it takes a full generation to see a full change before it becomes part of the curriculum of the training of both medical students and doctors. I’m happy to say it’s happening, so I think we are pretty close to being mainstream, as this understanding of bodymind is already validated in science. So now it has to be incorporated in the curriculum. The public accepts shift much faster than academia. So, it took us 40 years to get here, but we are almost close to the finishing line.
One obstacle that might be in the way is Western medicine’s dependence on pharmaceuticals and the “silver bullet approach” to treating the symptoms and not the cause. You address this in The Healing Self in a very sobering way—particularly when you address scientific studies of statin drugs and antidepressants—but also in a way that focuses on solutions rather than finger-pointing. The CDC estimates that 91 Americans are dying every day from opiate use. Is this not due to rampant irresponsibility on the part of doctors, and greed of pharmaceutical companies?
Yes, it is. I mean, the fact is, pharmaceuticals are very effective in acute sickness, if you have pneumonia or you have an infection, then of course you need an antibiotic. But generally speaking, for chronic illness, pharmaceuticals do not address the underlying disease. And yet, you know this is part of our educational system, and a lot of the education is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. There’s a strong lobby in Washington D.C. of lobbyists on behalf of the pharmaceutical and medical industrial complex. Ultimately the laws are influenced by Congressmen who are easily influenced by lobbyists, and of course there’s a lot of money involved. So, it’s going to take a while, but in the meanwhile I think that education of the public [is important], and awareness that the number one cause of addiction in the world is not street drugs, but medical prescriptions, prescribed by physicians. And that we have many people dying every day of hospital accidents. Almost 40 percent have iatrogenic disease caused by medical prescriptions [“iatrogenic” refers to illness caused by medical examination or treatment, and not necessarily by medical mistakes]. The more this is brought to public awareness, the more likely it will be that ultimately Congress and government policies will shift. But right now we are almost hijacked by the system.
“The science was already there 40 years ago, but it took a long time for the general community in the medical world to accept that.” — Deepak Chopra
It’s interesting how the government and society demonize some drugs, but are more tolerant of anything prescribed by a doctor. What do you think of psychedelic therapy?
I think we’re learning a lot of it right now and under supervision and expert monitoring it has a role to play in many illnesses, including terminal illnesses and the fear of death.
At one point in the book, you mention that our bodies haven’t evolved fast enough to cope with the disruptions we are forcing on them, which you follow with the physiological response to eating a burger and fries. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the modern world today, and its risk to our health compared to 50 years ago. How much more dangerous to our health is today’s world than back then?
Well, global travel has increased the risk of spreading infection all over the world. So many infections that were localized in one part of the world quickly spread everywhere in the world, particularly viruses. Also, the problem of jet lag, and also with increased urbanization we have no contact with nature.
One of the ways that animals reset their biological rhythm is that they burrow themselves in the ground when they’re not feeling well, and it resets their circadian rhythms. But we have a world where everybody’s wearing shoes, walking on cement, there’s no contact with nature at all. Although people are creating what are called “grounding devices” right now. But our bodies are not in sync with the biological rhythms that are part of nature, and at the same time, urbanization is causing a lot of problems with poor or contaminated water, even the water that you drink from the tap usually has pharmaceuticals, because you know, it’s recycled water, and if somebody’s on an antidepressant or some other toxic chemical, you might be getting it. Furthermore, your food, most of it which is manufactured, refined, processed, and has high sugar, also has petroleum products like organicides and pesticides, which cause a lot of inflammation. Animals that are produced in factories also have antibiotics and chemicals and hormones in them. So our modern society has definitely, while getting rid of some epidemics like polio, and in the Western world malaria and tuberculosis, it has also brought on a whole epidemic of modern diseases that are major threats to the world. Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune illnesses, which are usually a result of environmental toxins and also, as I said, poison and inflammation in our food chain, which could be a risk factor for cancer as well.
I was surprised to find no mention of cell phones or ubiquitous technology use—though you do mention the impacts of sitting at a computer all day. Was this left out of The Healing Self because you think it does not play a role in our health?
You know, technology is now part of our evolution and its unstoppable, so if you don’t choose technology you soon become irrelevant. So my take on technology is that you use it selectively and actually set aside some time to use technology, because otherwise you’ll be out of touch completely. You and I are communicating, not on the cell phone, but I could have been. And so, you know, the internet also provides us information, and a good assessment of the global brain. So it’s unstoppable. But I personally schedule time for technology, once in the morning and once in the afternoon and once a little bit later, not too late but early evening, and then the rest of the day I don’t address it, and there’s nothing that gets lost in being focused on one thing at a time. So there’s sleep time, there’s meditation time, there’s focused awareness eating time, there’s exercise time, there’s down time, there’s play time and there is technology time.
Reading about the studies of open placebo, in which the patient knows they are getting a placebo, made me wonder: in the context of healing our bodies, how important do you think the human-to-human factor is in having another person express care, support and compassion when we’re feeling sick?
It’s crucial. And “placebo” is just a word for the power of intention. And so placebos work through intention, influencing your body chemistry, and ritual helps focus the attention, but now we do know that intention, focused awareness, rituals, have a way of optimizing a thought into a molecule.
You say that we are all works in progress, and that is the best way to exist. How is this inherent to the healing process?
I’m talking about the evolution of consciousness beyond the usual waking, dreaming, sleeping states that we all experience. There are higher states of consciousness, starting with self awareness, intuition, creativity, insight, imagination, and ultimately getting in touch with the nonlocal, timeless aspect of existence, which is really the religious experience, one of transcendence, emergence of platonic values, like truth, goodness, beauty, harmony, love, compassion, joy, equanimity and the loss of the fear of death. So, I think that is very much part of the healing process.
You note that after the 2016 presidential election Gallup polls showed a sharp upturn in worry. What does endemic worry mean for society at large?
Worry is the worst use of our imagination. It’s about anticipating a poor future, and worry can lead to anger and resentment and grievances and hostility and guilt and shame and ultimately depression, and therefore is the number one cause of stress, which is the number one cause of inflammation, which is the number one underlying factor in all chronic illness.
How do you activate your own personal healing and stay out of overdrive?I practice meditation
and yoga on a daily basis, and I remain centered and not easily swayed by situations, circumstances, events and people. My next book is called Metahuman, which is just about this.
Do you think that the concept of the bodymind and empowering ourselves to activate our own healing can be applied to the greater picture of healing the world?
Ultimately yes, because our collective consciousness is dependent on individual consciousness and there’s no social transformation in the absence of personal transformation.
INFO: Presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Deepak Chopra will share insights from The Healing Self at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16 at the Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $34.95 and include one copy of the book. 240-5260, santacruztickets.com.