Deepak Chopra, the doctor and self-help guru, who turns seventy-three next week, has written more than one book for every year he has been alive. Chopra was born in New Delhi and studied medicine in India before moving to the United States, in 1970. After practicing as an endocrinologist in Massachusetts, he became involved in the Transcendental Meditation movement. He eventually relocated to the West Coast, left T.M. behind, and became a spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson and other celebrities. A quarter century later, his books have sold millions of copies, and his television appearances—especially alongside Oprah Winfrey—have made him perhaps the most prominent advocate for alternative medicine recognizable around the world.
Chopra’s work evinces a consistent skepticism toward the scientific consensus—he has called into question whether evolution is merely a process of the mind—and a firm belief that mental health can determine physical reality. He has written of a place called “perfect health”—the title of one of his books, and now the slogan for one of his wellness retreats—in which human beings can go somewhere internally that is “free from disease, that never feels pain, that cannot age or die.” These beliefs have made him controversial among doctors and scientists. In 1998, Chopra was awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Prize for “his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.” A random Chopra-quote generator is popular online, and Chopra has been called out for tweeting and writing phrases that, in the words of one paper, “may have been constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.” (Example: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”)
Chopra’s latest book is “Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential,” and it touches on a number of themes that have been present throughout his career: that human beings can become “metahuman” by reaching a new place of awareness; that science has “served to block the way to the absolute freedom that metahuman holds out”; and that self-improvement can “move creation itself.” I recently spoke by phone with Chopra. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed controversial remarks he has made about cancer and AIDS, his claim to have never been even a tiny bit sick, and whether there is a reality that exists independently of our own minds.
How do you define yourself and what you do?
I would say that to define oneself is to limit oneself. But I’ve had various roles through my life. I’m an internist, an endocrinologist, a neuro-endocrinologist; a teacher of integrative medicine and an author; a husband, a son, a father, a child.
I know you are a doctor, but does thinking about yourself as a doctor seem limiting to you in some way?
It seems limiting to me, but I would say I think of myself closer to a healer. Because, when I look at healing and the origins of the word “healing,” it’s related to the word “whole.” So wholeness means everything, including body, mind, and spirit, and the environment. I think of myself as a doctor who is interested in the physical body, but also in all aspects of human experience—human emotions, human thinking, human experience, and, ultimately, in understanding ourselves beyond the conditioned mind. So I would say I want to be a healer. That’s my aspiration.
At what point in your career did you become famous?
Some people think it happened with “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 1993, when she did a one-to-one with me for a book called “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” which then stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty-some weeks. Actually, my most well-known book is “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.” But I have to say that Oprah helped me a lot with the launch of my career, and she’s been an ally ever since. We’ve taught six million people meditation online together.
How many books have you written now?
This is my ninetieth book.
Would you say your writing process has changed between your first and your ninetieth?
Yes. My process was more structured in the past. And now I feel it’s more a flow than anything else. I used to always be told by media and publishers, and even the BBC when I was in England, to dumb everything down, and I used to, and I don’t anymore. I feel free to say whatever I want to.
I’ve been looking for a through line in your work, and the one that I’ve noticed most is the idea that our minds can determine reality, or that there’s a connection between our minds and reality. Is that a fair way of phrasing it?
Yes. The correct phrase would be that our experience of the world, and of our body, is a projection of our conditioned mind. So, when you’re born, you have no human constructs. You’re looking at the world as a messy, gooey experience of color, form, shapes, sounds, pictures, smells, tastes, and random thoughts, which are yet not clear. But then a construction process begins. And so you’re told, “You’re male, you’re of a religious background, ethnic background, nationality, gender.” And that begins to create a provisional identity. And then that provisional identity has perceptual experiences but interprets them as the physical body and the world. But, in the deeper reality, there’s no such thing. All there is is consciousness experiencing itself perceptually, as perceptual activity, which is species-specific. You don’t see the same world as a painted lady, a species of butterfly that smells the world with an antenna, tastes the world with her feet. So what is the picture of the world to a snake that navigates through the experience of infrared?
If you and a snake perceive the world differently and experience it differently, does that mean that the world is actually different? Or does it just mean that we perceive it differently?
We can only experience a narrow band with our perceptual reality. So there is no such thing as a physical world. That’s where I’m going. Our experience of the world is species- and culture-specific. And that is what we interpret as fundamental reality.
You once said, “Consciousness is key to evolution and we will soon prove that.” What did you mean?
You know, I’ve said in the past that Darwinian evolution is a human construct—that, ultimately, consciousness drives at least human evolution. We can direct our evolution by the choices we make. And now that we know the science of epigenetics and neuroplasticity, we can see very clearly that, because we are self-aware, unlike other species, we can consciously direct our evolution. And that is what epigenetics and neuroplasticity are showing us.
Epigenetics is not that we can “direct” our evolution, though, is it?
Well, we can trigger the activity of certain genes and decrease the activity of certain other genes. So, when people practice self-reflection or mindful awareness, or they have the experience of transcendence, you can actually see which genes get activated and which genes get deactivated. There’s a mechanism to that. So you can actually activate the genes that cause self-regulation or homeostasis, and actually decrease the activity of the genes that cause inflammation. So what is healing? It is nothing but self-regulation or homeostasis. And what is disease is mostly linked to chronic inflammation. Only five per cent of disease-related gene mutations are fully penetrant, which means they guarantee the disease. That includes everything, from Alzheimer’s to cancer to autoimmune disease. Only five per cent is related to genetic determinism. The rest is influenced by life style. [Gerard Karsenty, the chair of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, says, “Those assumptions include non-Mendelian diseases. It is for now hard to precisely assess in multigenic diseases the extent of the contribution of gene mutations and the one of lifestyle taken in a broad sense. This is particularly true for autoimmune diseases that hit at all ages, including during childhood and with a higher incidence in women.”]
You tweeted, “An emerging view, alternate to Darwin’s random mutations & natural selection is that consciousness may be the driver of complexity/evolution.”
Correct. But there are a few people who agree with that.
So, you know, scientists generally are naïve realists. Which means they look at the picture of the world, and that’s what it is.
What do you do, if not that?
I’ve become aware of that which is having the experience rather than the experience, which in spiritual traditions is called the self. The body, the mind, and the world are the self.
It seems like all of these things are fitting under the rubric of what we were talking about earlier about consciousness and reality. I know you once said something like, “The moon doesn’t exist unless someone sees it.” Is that right?
No, no. That was Einstein’s quote, by the way. He actually said, “I refuse to believe that the moon doesn’t exist if no one is looking at it.” [In his biography of Einstein, Abraham Pais recounted an interaction he had with the physicist who “asked me if I really believed that the moon exists only if I look at it.”] That’s a statement coming from a naïve realist. The moon that you and I see is a human experience. A horseshoe crab doesn’t have that experience living in the depths of the ocean.
Einstein was incredulously asking someone whether they really believe that the moon only exists when it’s looked at. Correct?
Yes. The moon is an experience in human consciousness. The moon that you and I see is an experience in human consciousness. If there was no human consciousness, no body, mind to go with it, there would be no awareness of the moon.
But the moon would still be there, correct?
How do you prove that? How do you validate that? How do you disprove that? How do you prove an unobserved phenomenon?
The moon is a human story. The universe is a human story. It’s a human construct, or human experiences, and interpreted by the human mind.
So this would be akin to the question, which I’m sure we’ve all heard, that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
Correct. The sound is only in consciousness. Before that it’s a vibration of air molecules.
But the vibration of air molecules are occurring. Correct?
The vibration of air molecules is a human construct for a human mode of knowing and experience in human consciousness, so yes, they are constructs. The air molecules are as much of a construct as latitude and longitude, as The New Yorker, as Greenwich Mean Time, as money, as Wall Street, as Manhattan.
I’m not sure what that means.
Human constructs are human ideas around modes of human knowing.
So an atom, a molecule, a force field, vibration of molecules—these are all human constructs.
So it’s not that the tree is making a sound and we just happen to be there or not there to hear it. It’s that the sound is only present to the degree that we are also present.
Actually, there is no tree and there is no sound and there is no body and there is no mind. There’s only consciousness that’s having an experience. The rest is human constructs.
In your book “Quantum Healing,” you wrote, “Research on spontaneous cures of cancer conducted in both the United States and Japan has shown that just before the cure appears, almost every patient experiences a dramatic shift in awareness. He knows that he will be healed and he feels that the force responsible is inside himself, but not limited to him. It extends beyond his personal boundaries throughout all of nature. Suddenly he feels, ‘I am not limited to my body. All that exists around me is part of myself.’ At that moment, such patients apparently jumped to a new level of consciousness that prohibits the existence of cancer. Then the cancer cells either disappear, literally overnight in some cases, or at the very least stabilize without damaging the body any further.”
So if you were a scientist and you saw one case of that, one in a billion, you’d want to know the mechanism. And I feel the mechanism is a return to fundamental homeostasis, which means self-regulation, and total absence of fear, including the fear of death. Because your identity is no longer your body-mind.
And so is that more important than medicine?
No, I think medicine is very useful for acute illness. If you have pneumonia, I certainly tell you to take an antibiotic. You break your leg, I’d have you see an orthopedic surgeon. If you have cancer, there are many types of chemotherapy and radiation and stem-cell therapies and immunotherapies that will help you. But, in today’s age, if you don’t understand that integrating that with good sleep, with meditation, with stress management, with mindfulness, with healthy emotions, with good food that actually changes the activity of your microbiome—if you don’t conform to that, then you’re out of date.
This is from your book “Perfect Health”: “There exists in every person a place that is free from disease, that never feels pain, that cannot age or die. When you go to this place, limitations which all of us accept cease to exist. They are not even entertained as a possibility. This is the place called perfect health. Visits to this place may be very brief, or they may last for many years. Even the briefest visit, however, instills a profound change. As long as you are there, the assumptions that hold true for ordinary existence are altered.” If you can be in this place, why would you necessarily need medicine to stay healthy?
We don’t. I’ve never used medicine myself. I’m seventy-three years old, never been in the hospital, never had surgery. Can’t even remember having a cold.
You would vaccinate your children, correct?
Of course I would, if I’m in a surrounding where there is . . . You know, I would not vaccinate a child in New York City for polio, because it doesn’t exist. But I would for measles, because it does exist.
Even if the child was in this state that you call perfect health?
The child is in a state of perfect health if it’s born normally. It’s in a state of homeostasis. But we also live in a world that has environmental toxins, that has climate change, that has extinction of species, that has poison in our food chain, and that is ready for extinction. And all of that is the projection of our collective insanity.
You say, “The cause of disease is often extremely complex, but one thing can be said for certain: no one has proved that getting sick is necessary.”
Right. My own situation says that.
Because you’ve never been sick.
Because you’re in this place called “perfect health”?
Because I’m aware of being aware and I can choose the experiences I want and I focus on love, compassion, joy, equanimity, and I’m beyond the fear of personal death because I don’t identify with my provisional, personal, so-called identity. The question you asked me when we started, “How do you define yourself?”—I don’t.
If we were all in this place, would we need medicine?
Yes. Because of the world we’ve created, we would, yes.
But not because—
And, besides that, the ecosystem is a predatory play of consciousness where, you know, it’s a recycling of experience. Birth, death, illness: they are part of our provisional identity, but I don’t identify with that identity. If you do not identify with the experience, if consciousness that is aware of experience, if the awareness of experience is not the experience, then you’re intrinsically free of the experience. Do you know what I’m saying?
I’m not sure.
O.K. If you are aware of a thought, then you’re not the thought, you’re the awareness of the thought.
Dr. Stacia Kenet Lansman, who’s a leading vaccine skeptic, cited your work as an inspiration. Do you—
I have never been against vaccination.
I know you haven’t.
I have never spoken against medical treatment or intervention. You should do whatever works.
But do you worry that the idea that we can achieve this place of perfect health based on our own mental state can give license to anti-scientific thinking, like we see in the anti-vaccine movement?
You asked me if I worry about that. I don’t worry about anything.
Which is why you haven’t gotten sick.
But people can take what I say and interpret it how they want to. There’s also a difference between scientism and science. Science is a very neutral activity: theories, observation, experiments, validation or invalidation. Period. I am a big proponent of science as the greatest adventure that human consciousness has taken. With scientism, it’s a different thing. It’s being a fundamentalist and believing that science has all the solutions for human problems, including the existential dilemmas we have about our identity, our fear of old age, infirmity, and death.
There was an interview you gave many years ago, with Tony Robbins, about AIDS. He’d put forth the idea that H.I.V. is not the source of AIDS. You said, “H.I.V. may be a precipitating agent in a susceptible host. The material agent is never the cause of the disease. It may be the final factor in inducing the full-blown syndrome in somebody who’s already susceptible.” He then asked, “But what made them susceptible?” You answered, “Their own interpretations of the whole reality that they’re participating in.” Do you still feel that way about H.I.V. and AIDS?
I still feel that pathogens are precipitating factors in susceptible hosts, and that the outcome of illness and recovery is very complex. Now, having said that, when you can find a single agent that you can either attack or get rid of, then, of course, that’s the solution. You know, you and I can be exposed to a pneumococcus and one person gets pneumonia and the other doesn’t. So you can see that illness is not just one mechanistic happening, an encounter with the pathogen. It has to do with everything. Are you deeply rested, are you stressed, what’s your nutrition, what are your personal relationships, what is your emotional state—all of these things have an influence. Every experience we have is ultimately metabolized into a molecule in the body. If I gave you bad news right now, your blood pressure would go up. In fact, if I sent a mean tweet to Mr. Trump, his blood pressure would go up even further.
You went on to say, “I have a lot of patients with so-called AIDS, this label that we’ve given them, that are healthier than most of the population that’s living in downtown Boston. They haven’t had a cold in ten years.” And then Robbins said, “But someone has told them they have this disease.” You said, “Yes, somebody has told them that.” And Robbins says, “And they bought into it.” And you said, “Exactly.”
Listen. You can do a five-hour interview—you can edit it into any way you want. You can take statements out of context.
No, that’s the whole context.
And then you can say, “This is what you said.” Right? I had that experience myself as a physician. I said to the patient, “You have cancer.” Immediately, he looked like he was going to have a stroke. He was going to faint. And then I realized I read the wrong chart and I said, “Sorry, that was somebody else.” In two seconds I could see him recover from high blood pressure, sticky platelets, a jittery heart, and so on. So, you know, there is a lot more to reality than just a simple diagnosis and the label.
But to go on to the point you’re just making now, about diagnosis, when Robbins said about the diagnosis of AIDS, “People are accepting this, and when they accept this, what happens to them?” You replied, “When they accept it, then they make it happen. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah. I might have said that. And, if I did, I regret it.
What I say today is, “Believe the diagnosis, but don’t believe the prognosis.”
You’ve been criticized before for selling products that people claim can help cure cancer or other diseases via meditation.
No, I’ve never claimed that. No.
If you find a reference of that, let me know.
Well, there was a video called “Return to Wholeness: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Cancer.” And the release about it says, “Meditation and visualization are two of the most—”
Right. That video was a program to help people visualize and get into a relaxed state. I believe it was promoted as that on my Web site until I became aware of it, and then it was taken off.
And then you took it down?
Yeah. It was actually an artificial-intelligence program for meditation and self-regulation. And, by the way, used at many cancer-therapy clinics across the world as an aid to relaxation. [A member of Chopra’s staff named Cancer Treatment Centers of America as one of the clinics that use the video, but a representative for the treatment centers was unable to verify this.]
So, when you say in your best-sellers, like “Super Brain,” that increased self-awareness can reduce the risks of aging and help people achieve freedom and bliss, do you feel that you’re doing that at all, or not?
I am. Of course. I’m seventy-three years old, and I don’t think my biological age is seventy-three. In fact, I have publicly declared that I am slowing down my aging process. And I think you can go on social media and look at all the pictures over the last few years and you can see, physically, that I am not looking as old, or feeling as old, as I was twenty-five years ago. I know what I’ve said is outrageous, but, if people actually listen carefully, they will see that they determine a lot of what goes into well-being and health. And, ultimately, I don’t think that health is physical at all. Because, ultimately, we are all going to die, and all going to have some kind of infirmity. But most of what we do is creating anxiety from living a full life in the present moment.
So you feel that you’ve reached a different stage of human existence?
I’m just following the example of people who have lived long, healthy lives without any infirmity and died peacefully in meditation. In the Indian tradition, it’s called mahasamadhi—the big meditation.
When you’re selling books by saying that there’s a network of intelligence in the human body that has the potential to “defeat cancer, heart disease, and even aging itself, ” is that not selling to people that cancer can be beaten by something other than medicine?
Have you read the book? Or have you read criticisms of the book?
I’ve read several of the books, and some criticisms.
So then you have to make up your own mind. I’m not a purveyor of false hope. In fact, I think the term “false hope” is an oxymoron. Either you have hope or you don’t. And those that have hope do better than those who don’t.
So there is no false hope?
It’s up to you how you interpret this, and it doesn’t actually affect me. You know, I’m at a stage in my life where I’ve gone beyond criticism and/or flattery. I don’t need that.
Do you think anyone should be at a point where they’re beyond criticism?
I see. So neither one.
Yeah. I think that’s about time. My next chapter is death.
But it seems like it’s not coming for a very long time, given how healthy you are.
Well, we’ll see. I mean, it’s unpredictable, but so far I’m doing O.K.