Deepak, elbows on the conference table, hunched over a microphone, talking about God. "Christ wasn't a Christian and Mohammed wasn't a Mohammedan," he explains, obviously not for the first time. "Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. These are dogmas and ideologies. The fight is about semantics."
The author of twenty-six books (translated into thirty-five languages) describes How to Know God as "a scientific approach to understanding the divine."
Everything that we experience as material reality is born in an invisible realm beyond space and time, a realm revealed by science to consist of energy and information. This invisible source of all that exists is not an empty void but the womb of creation itself.
Our brains, Chopra explains, are hardwired to know God; seven biological responses, each one evident in the literature of every organized religion, correspond to the seven levels of divine experience. Each of us, the author insists, can experience God, but "we need a model that is both part of religion and not bounded by it."
We talked for a half-hour or so on a rainy winter afternoon.
Dave: In How to Know God, you cite Vedanta as an influence for much of your thinking on the subject. I thought we could start by providing some background for people who haven't read the book.
Deepak Chopra: In this book I explain God as infinite intelligence, the source of all information: energy, matter, and of course, also space and time, the structure and the fabric of the universe. Then I show how through biological responses humans are capable of experiencing first bits and pieces of this infinite intelligence and, ultimately, the infinite unbounded intelligence, directly.
I've drawn on Vedanta because it is a wisdom tradition that talks about unity consciousness and the one reality from where everything comes. There's a level of existence where space, time, matter, and energy all resolve into pure potentiality. In physics, that's called a singularity. And, in fact, all the latest theories of physics seem to say that space, time, matter, energy, and information are really nothing other than different frequencies of vibration of the same field of pure potential.
The seven biological responses - fight/flight response, reactive response, restful awareness response, intuitive response, creative response, visionary response, and sacred response - are progressively more expanded states of awareness. In Eastern traditions, they are frequently expressed as metaphors. The seven chakras, for example: the first chakra is about survival, which is fight/flight response; the second chakra is about the ability to react, control, and be empowered, in other words, the reactive response. And so on.
This is a scientific approach to understanding the divine, and in many ways it reinforces equally valid, more traditional approaches: love, prayer, meditation, going within, karmically appropriate actions...
Dave: You draw on various traditions, both Eastern and Western. Often you'll cite passages from the Old or New Testament to support your examples. At the same time, you acknowledge that many of your ideas would be considered blasphemous to strict followers of Christianity.
Chopra: If you're a fundamentalist, it doesn't matter what religion you are, Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or Muslim, you're tied to a literal interpretation of the scripture. So yes, some of these ideas would be considered blasphemous if you get stuck with just one aspect.
But you'll find all seven responses in biblical literature. An example of the fight/flight response is Jehovah when he gets upset. The reactive response is Moses when he gets upset with the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The restful awareness response is Psalm 44: Be still and know that I am God. It's also Jesus Christ: the peace that passes understanding. The intuitive response is, again, Christ, when he says, "Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be open unto you." The creative response is the Book of Genesis. The visionary response is the thirty-five miracles in the New Testament. And the sacred response is when Moses asks God, "What's your name?" and God says, "I am that I am." Or when Christ says, "Before Abraham was I am."
Biblical literature contains the various stages of understanding God, as does Vedanta and every other religion. The fact is that Christ wasn't a Christian and Mohammed wasn't a Mohammedan; Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. These are dogmas and ideologies. The fight is about semantics.
Dave: Is there a trait or a feeling readers of this book would share? Maybe a frustration with organized religion?
Chopra: In many cases, it's the simple fact that science and technology have dismantled our traditional beliefs. If we are aware what science has shown us, we can no longer think of God as a dead white male in the sky. We can no longer squeeze God into the volume of a body and the span of a lifetime. That limits God.
This is a huge universe. Planet Earth is a speck of dust in an unbounded expanse, an ocean of space-time. We're part of a little galaxy on the outskirts of infinity. A simplistic notion of God is no longer tenable.
Yet we still have the same questions: Where did I come from? What am I doing here? Is there any meaning to my existence? What happens to me after I die? Who's the real me? Do I have a soul? Does God exist? If God does exist, why should He or She or it care about me? After all, I'm just a little microbe on a piece of cheese in the junkyard of infinity.
The questions remain. The anxiety has only increased. Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to lose their identity. I think we need to look at the whole issue from a deeper level of questioning. The fact is though that when we do that our science begins to validate the idea of an underlying intelligence. Science begins to validate that within each of us there is at least something that is not subject to mortality.
Dave: You make the distinction between the brain and the mind, and you use the metaphor of the brain as a radio, receiving waves or broadcasts. Essentially what a person "hears" depends on how open those lines of communication are. Is he or she accepting what's being broadcast? And listening?
To explain, you go into detail about the physiology of neurons and synapses, how the brain works. Does what you're saying speak to people who might not be as familiar with those concepts, people who might not have backgrounds in science?
Chopra: It might or it might not. I can't help that. I must express what I think our current science suggests. The more you look at it and speak to eminent neuroscientists and physicists, the more apparent it becomes that consciousness is independent of brain, that if anything the brain edits the consciousness, taking bits and pieces to reinforce a prevailing worldview.
Amongst the sages and psychotics and geniuses you find access to domains of consciousness that you don't find under the hypnosis of social conditioning. What we call everyday reality is actually the psychopathology of the average edit.
These ideas may not speak to everyone. On the other hand, I find people who perhaps do not have the background to understand it but by diligent examination of what's written in the book and by their own studies begin to open up. When you write a book, you don't necessarily try to please everyone. You have to tell it the way you see it.
Dave: You speak of detaching from the material reality of self. You use an analogy of personality traits and ideas of self as birds roosting on branches; the birds can fly off at any moment; the birds and the branch are not one and the same.
As far as progressing from stage to stage, you mention in the book that many people are comfortable at Stage Two and see no reason to seek a closer relationship with God. Is there a particular hurdle that people tend to fear more than others? Is it detachment from materialism?
Chopra: If you look at Vedantic tradition, there are only five reasons why people suffer: they don't know who they are; they're attached to that which is impermanent and insubstantial; they are afraid of that which is impermanent and insubstantial; they have a false sense of identity through their ego; and they're afraid of death. Period. Those are the five causes of suffering.
The Vedanta also goes on to say that all these causes of suffering are contained in the first one: people don't realize who they are. If they did, they'd be free. They wouldn't have these other problems, including the fear of death. So while it is a fact that people find it difficult to detach, what is death if not the big detachment? Entering into the unknown. If you're going to have to do it anyway, why not start now? If you open yourself to the unknown, you'll find a part of yourself that indeed is free.
Dave: In Creating Affluence, you explain that detachment doesn't necessarily mean living the life of a monk on a mountaintop. You can be part of the world; you can live an affluent life.
Chopra: Detachment is not a physical thing; it's a mental phenomenon. Attachment could be said to be the same thing as fear and insecurity. Detachment is the same thing as being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which are facts of life.
There's a classic Zen story about two celibate monks who are walking on a pilgrimage. They come across a girl who is very lovely and beautiful and sexual, and she wants to cross the river. The young monk is attracted to her, and he says, "I'll take you on my shoulders and carry you across the river and drop you off on the other side." He does that, and the two monks continue on their pilgrimage until after a while the old monk starts to have a frown on his face. He's upset. Six hours, seven hours go by, and finally he looks at the young one and says, "I can't believe you did that." "Did what?" the young monk asks. "You carried that woman on your shoulders." "I dropped her off six hours ago," the young monk says. And the old monk responds, "But you're still carrying her."
Attachment is a mental state, not a physical one.
Dave: Has the response to the book been different in the U.S. than other parts of the world?
Chopra: Actually, I'm really surprised by the response in the United States. The book made it to the New York Times Bestseller list as a hardcover. It's getting good reviews. I've been invited to speak at Harvard Divinity School and many other academic institutions as a result of it. The book is doing well in Asia and India and Singapore and Europe. The U.S. response is as good as anywhere else.
Dave: You've written that technology is a neutral force, as good or as bad as people make it. What positive changes do you think technology will bring in the near future?
Chopra: For one thing, the Internet. If you really think about it, the Internet is cloning our soul. The genome project is cloning our bodies; the Internet is cloning our collective psyche. If you want to know what is happening in world consciousness, go to the Internet.
I think this technology can bring a true spirituality to the world and create a critical mass of awareness. Possibly in the future I see the elimination of poverty, economic freedom, the repair of the ecosystem, the elimination of war...all possibilities. In biotechnology, in the near future, you'll be able to replace your body organs with your own cells. That will be a great boon to those who are blind, to those with terminal heart disease, to those who are paralyzed. It's amazing what can happen in the near future if you focus on the positive aspects.
On the other hand, the technology is powerful enough that we could use it to cause our extinction as a species. Again, it has nothing to do with the technology.
The way I see it, creativity directed outward is science and technology. Creativity directed inward is spiritual evolution. Most of our creativity has been directed outward so our spiritual evolution has not kept pace. We need to bring that back. Once you do that, technology is the most wonderful thing.
Dave: The Internet connects people in a way that people haven't been connected before. Some evidence suggests that many of the ills we've developed in the West will become common everywhere - not just because of the Internet, of course, but also with the spread of capitalism, economic imperialism at large.
Chopra: It's all a question of how you are prepared to deal with the world. I find I can use technology to my advantage. I don't allow it to dominate me. No matter how hectic the schedule, I'm fine.
It's not necessary to get caught up in the melodrama; it's a matter of training yourself properly. You'll find highly stressed people in rural areas. I've been to remote areas of the world where there's not a soul to talk to, where people live a very laid back life, and still they have addictive problems and divorce and misery. It has nothing to do with the outside environment.
The outside environment is an excuse. The real existence is inside, but you have to train for it. It's like training for anything - you have to learn to ride a bike, you have to learn how to deal with people and circumstances around you and not be victimized by them.
Dave: Any competitive athlete knows about a "zone," a state in which you're no longer conscious of what you're doing; you simply are. In the book, you use the example of a marathon runner, but I think any sport would apply. For example, the basketball player who sinks ten difficult shots in a row, after the game, will say, "I was feeling it. I was in the zone."
One doesn't tend to think of athletics as the home of spiritual matters, but there's definitely a state athletes reach where they're no longer conscious of what they're doing.
Chopra: It's true. I just saw a program the other day about these football players who said, in the middle of all that screaming, a deafening noise from the stands, they don't hear a thing; their minds are totally silent.
Dave: To look back on the day when you were practicing medicine...Do you still think of yourself as a doctor?
Chopra: Healing, health, holy, wholeness...it's the same word. I was trained as a technician, not a doctor. Modern training of a physician is to make him or her a superb technician who knows everything about the human body but a lousy doctor because you know nothing about the human soul.
Dave: Do you see that changing? Improving?
Chopra: It is. I speak at Harvard once a year. I've spoken at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the world is changing.
Dave: What kind of advice do you give young doctors?
Chopra: I don't. I just explain the bigger picture of what healing could be. There's a new generation of doctors who are very interested in the broader perspective of what healing really is.
Dave: Are there books or authors that you fall back on, books you go back to?
Chopra: I think there's a lot of good research and data. I don't follow authors as much as I watch the research.
Dave: In journals?
Chopra: Yes, in journals. There's some really good research at Duke and at Harvard, and of course all literature in the field of physics. There's some fascinating stuff happening.
I didn't grow up in a particularly religious atmosphere, but even so I was taught that science was somewhat anti-God. Do you find that ironic?
Chopra: Science will be responsible for the climactic overthrow of the superstition of materialism.
Dave: This book comes recommended by the Dalai Lama himself. Is there a particular experience or anecdote you'd share about the time you've spent him?
Chopra: The Dalai Lama is the most innocent, childlike person I've met, full of wonder and amazing wisdom that has nothing to do with book knowledge. It's all from experience.
Dave: Does it feel different, being around him?
Dave: You mention Mandela. Where does politics fit into all this?
Dave: In another interview, you noted a certain concern about the man who recently was elected President and his lack of...
Dave: Awareness of the world at large, let's say.
Chopra: Well, he's learning to delegate appropriately, so maybe we'll survive.
Deepak Chopra, the first man to wear a sports coat in our office in more than seven weeks, visited Powell's on March 1, 2001. For this and various other reasons, his appearance caused heads to turn in the typically nonplussed quarters of our fulfillment department. "I have no idea what he writes about," one staff member admitted, "but hell, he's been on Larry King Live with the Dalai Lama."
Dr. Chopra's cell phone did not ring during the course of our conversation.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State