In Defense of Deepak

June 9, 2015

I’ve been associated with the Chopra Center for nearly 20 years. I’ve read the majority of Deepak Chopra’s and David Simon’s work, attended numerous programs, worked as a Chopra Center volunteer, and become a certified instructor of meditation, yoga, and Ayurvedic lifestyle and wellness. During that time I’ve watched Deepak and David’s focus shift and evolve from perfect health, to living an abundant and fulfilling life, to the path to love, to the philosophy and practice of yoga, to harnessing the power of synchronicity to bridging the gap between science and spirituality. Through all this Deepak has had his share of critics and detractors. Such is the result of being in the public eye while attempting to translate the world’s wisdom traditions into a modern context. People naturally resist and fear what they don’t understand and haven’t experienced themselves. Over the last several years though, that resistance seems to have become increasingly hostile.

Disagreement is part of the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with a spirited debate over opposing viewpoints. However it’s something completely different to attack, insult, mock and criticize someone for their views. Most of this criticism has come from the scientific community who take exception to Deepak’s views on science, spirituality, and the connection between the two. Personally, I find their animosity toward Deepak to be puzzling in that he’s an MD with a thoroughgoing scientific background who regularly interacts and engages with highly respected members of the scientific community in an attempt to better understand how modern science can shed light on the wisdom teachings of the East.  

One of those wisdom traditions is Vedanta, which in India is known as the Science of Spirituality. Although putting those two words together in a sentence may seem cringeworthy to the Western Scientific mind, this model for spiritual inquiry actually very closely resembles the scientific method. It begins with a hypothesis (Consciousness is the foundation of the universe) and this leads to specific experiments that can validate or invalidate the hypothesis (The four paths to unity or Yogas which provide experiential knowledge of that unity). If the experiments appear to validate the hypothesis, then one asks his or her peers to duplicate the results and provide additional evidence for the hypothesis. The key here is having your own experience. When I teach my students about meditation, yoga, and Vedanta, I always make sure to tell them, I can’t prove that any of what I tell you is true…but you can. You have to go out and have your own experience to find out for yourself if what I’ve taught you is valid. Run your own experiment. Your life is the laboratory. But realize if you’re not willing to run the experiment, you’re in no position to criticize it.

While this scientific model of spiritual exploration has proven successful for countless seekers throughout the ages, (myself included), it still does little to convince the critics. That’s because the problem with this method, if you want to call it one, is that it’s experiential. As one of my meditation teachers once said, “The only bad thing about meditation is that you have to do it.” Let’s be honest, of Deepak’s critics, from the well-known scientific community, to the hostile media personalities, to the unknown internet keyboard warrior, they all have at least one thing in common – they will most likely never attend a Chopra Center event, read one of Deepak’s books with the open-minded intention of truly understanding it, or most importantly, invest the time and energy involved in practicing the mind-body teachings that can lead to both the self-transformation and self-validation of a spiritual worldview. As such, this is a particularly safe position for Deepak’s critics to be in. They can accuse him of being a woo-woo, snake oil salesman and new age charlatan while simultaneously avoiding the heavy lifting of actually practicing what Deepak teaches.

This seems like a no win scenario for Deepak. His opponents viciously attack his dedication and passion for creating a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world and show no real interest in exploring the path he has laid down in his books, lectures, and workshops. The fact that he works and co-authors books with amazing scientists like Leonard Mlodinow, Rudolph Tanzi, and Stuart Hameroff appears to account for nothing with his opponents. As such, it seems difficult to fathom why Deepak would continue to interact or debate with such a hostile audience. In fact, I asked him this very question during a retreat a few years ago. It was shortly after a now well-known public debate between Deepak and some of his more contentious opponents that had ultimately turned into something of a science versus spirituality throw-down. I asked, If part of living a spiritual life is to practice defenselessness, and knowing that knowledge and understanding changes in different states of consciousness, and your opponents are not only unwilling but also unable to understand this worldview, why would you want to continue to engage with them; what could you hope to accomplish?

Deepak answered by saying that while on the surface it might seem to be a contentious situation, it was all ultimately all just Leela, a Sanskrit word that describes the play of the universe. As such, the conflict between Deepak and his opponents was part of a divine drama in which the One spirit divides itself into opposite factions to engage in imaginary conflict, much in the same ways children play cops and robbers. Ultimately Deepak and his critics are just opposite sides of the same coin, debating about who gets to be face up.

I can’t say I embrace that notion as fully as Deepak does, but after practicing these teachings and watching them change my life, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll admit, I don’t always understand where he’s going with some of the things he says or does, but I do recognize that he’s trying to help make the world a better place and from where I stand, I believe he’s succeeding. Besides, who says I or anyone else is meant to fully “get” Deepak Chopra? In the documentary Decoding Deepak, Gotham Chopra, Deepak’s son asks himself who his father really is apart from the fame, the books, and seminars and admits that he really doesn’t know. If Deepak’s own son can’t define his father, who are we to do any better, and should we even try?

Regarding Deepak’s critics, I’m sure they will always be there. Deepak’s willingness to openly speak about the bridge he’s trying to build between science and spirituality makes him an easy target for his opponents. But one attribute that Deepak excels at is detachment. While he does get into some heated exchanges from time to time, he seems to say what he feels without any attachment to the outcome. One of the characteristics of the soul is that it is independent of the good or bad opinion of others. The Deepak I’ve watched over the years seems to have that trait down pat. I think it’s also telling to remember the paradox of judgment is that it often says more about the one passing judgment than their intended victim. When Deepak’s critics let loose with seething contempt and vitriol in an attack against his views, his finances, or personal life, it speaks volumes about the person behind such attacks. It reminds me of a story told about the Buddha:

One day, as the Buddha was walking through a village, he was approached by a young man who began insulting him. “You have no right teaching others. You are stupid and a fake.”

The Buddha was not upset by this attack. Instead, he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, but they refuse the gift, who does the gift belong to?”

The young man, surprised by the question replied, “It would belong to me.”

The Buddha smiled and replied, “That is correct. It is the same with your anger. If you offer me anger and I do not accept it and do not get insulted, then the anger still belongs to you. You are the one who is unhappy, not me. You have hurt yourself not another.”

Ultimately, while I titled this article In Defense of Deepak, I honestly don’t think Deepak needs defending. For those of us who follow his work or that of the Chopra Center though, it might be helpful to remember that the test of any teacher or body of knowledge lies in the results you see in your life. Bruce Lee, one of my personal heroes, reminds us to absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add specifically that which is your own. In my experience, I have absorbed innumerable useful teachings from Deepak Chopra and the Chopra Center. I have sifted through and let go of those things that aren’t appropriate to me and I strive to add to and modify what I learn in the most beneficial way for my life. I encourage you to do the same.