Coincidences, Consciousness & Quiche

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Overindulging in anything even if it is “good” for you, can quite quickly give rise to a headache.

Or at least that has been my experience with dark chocolate, red wine, and Deepak Chopra’s scientific assault course that he uses to explain whatever is in his latest book.

Deepak, an endocrinologist by training, loves to blind his audience with science and is partial to using quantum physics as the explanation for consciousness, god, or the universe depending on one’s personal spiritual orientation.

The new book, Self Power: The spiritual solutions to life’s greatest challenges, is not yet out, but he was in London today giving a five hour workshop on self mastery.

I was having a dilemma about whether or not to go. Self mastery is my subject du jour, so I always like to see what Deepak has to say on a subject I am into. But the prospect of five hours of mind boggling science on a Saturday made think twice.

I have now been to three of Deepak Chopra’s book tour lectures and own 12 of his books. Operative word being own; I have only read six of them from cover to cover, including Power, Freedom & Grace and Creating Affluence and The Ultimate Happiness Prescription, largely because they were science-free and small enough to fit in my hand bag. The biggies still remain on my to read pile.

The first time I heard the stories of his arrival in the US aged 22 with $8 in his pocket and of how in tune his father was with his body that he knew the exact moment he would die, I was captivated. It is easy to see how Esquire magazine ranked Deepak, who had once wanted to be an actor, among on the top 10 motivational speakers.

So 18 months later, when Deepak returned to tour for Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, I went back. This time hearing Deepak, who was dressed more like a rock star than a sage, tell the same biographical story did not have the same impact. Somehow, the “scientific” explanation for consciousness no longer impressed me, but I did not know why. I walked away deluded.

I will always associate Deepak with SynchroDestiny, the first of his books I ever read. Despite understanding almost nothing of this book back in 2005, I found the idea that coincidences somehow had meaning really comforting. I made the classic mistake that new spiritual adventurers can make, namely that of believing the first spiritual teacher I came across in that moment had all the answers.

I bought The Book of Secrets, Perfect Health and The Path to Love, and promptly overdosed on Deepak, trying to read all three at the same time. Looking back, trying to mend a broken heart, heal fatigued body and gain enlightenment in one sitting could not end in any other way but in tears. Frustrated, I gave up. I was left with a deep sense of confusion.

Ian McDermott my first NLP teacher once said that confusion is an essential part of learning. He argues that to be confused you must already have some of the knowledge. “Many adults avoid confusion but this prevents learning. Welcome confusion as it means you are moving out of your comfort zone,” I recall Ian saying on the first day of NLP Practitioner training.

So having reflected on my journey since my first Deepak book, I decided to harness the power of a coincidence that happened to me in Paris last week and made plans to go to the workshop. Instead of going with the expectation that Deepak had all the answers, I decided to adopt Miguel Ruiz’s The Fifth Agreement: Be sceptical but learn to listen. I put on my journalist’s hat and went off to Friends’ House.

In Paris, last week I had got talking to someone about a book he was reading. The book, SynchroDestiny, had opened his mind to the idea of spiritual development. In that moment, I wondered what proportion of the audience that goes to listen to Deepak Chopra were first timers.

As if the question had been past on to him via a psychic channel, Deepak, who wore a more demure Nehru-style look, opened today’s workshop with a request for a show of hands of who were new to his talks. Of the 1,000-strong audience it looked like a good three quarters of the room were Deepak rookies. What motivated them to come? The new book? Perhaps seeing if he made more sense live than in his books?

Deepak is after all one of the spiritual development world’s most prolific and best selling writers with more than 50 books under his belt. He has also recorded more than 50 audio books, many in collaboration with other well known spiritual explorers, such as Robert Thurman, Anthony Robbins, Neale Donald Walsch, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer and Miguel Ruiz. I felt sure I must be missing something.

The day started by whispering in the ear of the person next to us the question “Who am I?” every 15 seconds, and allowing that person to reply intuitively. Today, more than 1,000 people took time out of their daily routines to explore existential questions such as “Who am I?”, “Where did I come from?” and “Why am I here?”

Fifteen minutes into the five hour day, I was listening. “Ask the right question and life will move you in the right direction,” Deepak said knowingly. The key is to ask the questions, it does not matter to know the answer, Deepak says. “These questions lead to self awareness and that allow us to make the changes required to change our lives. The questions are the intentions that turn possibilities into realities,” he says with the sort of conviction that makes you believe he has all the answers.

As I sat facing him through a sea of heads—boys, girls, old, young, seemingly of every ethnic type—I wondered if his life purpose was to be an awakener of the modern era. For me, asking questions is not only part of the job description for a journalist but one of the fundamental principles for spiritual exploration, as opposed to Guru devotion.

While it is frustrating not to be able to ask Deepak questions directly on these book tours, today I finally understood why I had Deepak delusion; I had expected him to have all the answers. He has built a business by publishing the findings of his own spiritual discovery. He cannot have the answers I need to my life. Only I have those. I simply have to start asking those questions.

Some of his detractors see him as a spiritual plagiarist, but I think that misses the point of brand Chopra. Deepak is simply a mass distributor of age old concepts that all have  the essence of non-duality, or the god within, in common. At the heart of what he is trying to describe is what sages as Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius to name but a few have already experienced.

Deepak believes that the next stage of human evolution is the survival of the wisest and he seems to have made it his mission to make us wiser. Deepak simply repackages these teachings so that they resonate with the appropriate audience in the medium that they use, such as Twitter and web logs. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and The Soul of Leadership, for example, are written in a language that will resonate with CEOs. Whether or not one understands or even agrees with all of what he says, one cannot fail to be impressed by the vivid brain that resides within.

Deepak, who himself is a seasoned meditator, genuinely believes a healthy mind and body can lead to a happy, healthy, and wealthy life. So much so that part of his business includes The Chopra Center. Until today, his style has been to blind the audience with science. But what I found refreshing today was that instead of trying to convince us that quantum physics explains the existence of consciousness he simply admitted “We don’t know how something that lives in an imaginary mathematical space becomes a particle with mass and energy.”

As his learning has evolved from devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation organisation and a proponent of the ayurvedic way of life, to a more science-based spiritual research so too have his books.  To further this kind of research The Chopra Foundation now hosts the annual Sages and Scientists Symposium, first founded two years ago.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been doing something similar since 1987. His desire to meet with scientists to dialogue about the nature of reality took shape in the form of the Mind & Life Institute. The first dialogue with His Holiness was supposed to be around physics but eventually they became discussions on biology and cognitive science.

This time Deepak too has turned to biology in search for the answers to consciousness. His explanation of the biology of the brain felt familiar. The idea that most of us adopt fight or flight responses to a situation using our prehistoric reptilian brains was eye opening. Learning that all mammals have a limbic brain—the seat of our emotions—and that modern day human suffering comes from what Deepak called limbic dysfunction was just within my realm of understanding.

But it was hearing Deepak talk about teaming up the limbic brain with the newer neo-cortex part of the brain—that houses speaking, writing planning, abstract thought and rationality—through meditation and mindful awareness helped me join the dots of the last six years. The ‘how to’ of love, compassion and empathy that Deepak talked about today are that the heart of the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness.

Today to attempt to explain consciousness, Deepak tried something different. Earlier he had explained how he is often asked “Where do I go when I die?” To illustrate this, he asked the audience “What did you have for lunch?” He then asked us “Where is that answer stored?” Deepak’s argument about consciousness, or the field of potential (where the miracles happen), hinges on the belief that the answer is not phyisically stored in the brain.

He tried to prove the existence of this so called non-local space, i.e. outside of the mind or body that he calls consciousness; by suggesting that the answer to “What did you have for lunch?” is only the potential for a memory. Once the question is asked it sets the Intention for an answer and a physical reaction in the brain is triggered by the question is then actualised as a memory of, for example, quiche.

Taking the quiche one step further, he answered the question “Where do I go when I die?” with a grin: “Where the quiche was before I asked the question.” Is that the truth? I don’t know. Do I like the idea of this? Yes. Does it make me curious to find out more? Of course.

How does any of this change my life? What I got from today was space and time to explore concepts and learn a few new ideas. Two topics from the depths of science that resonated with my current thinking were the idea of epigenetics and neuroplasticity. Epigenetics is the idea that most genes can be switched on or off depending on environment, suggesting that outside forces such as meditation or other lifestyle changes can help turn off certain genetic predispositions.

Meanwhile, neuroplasticity, which is in line with the thinking of practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming, is a new branch of neuroscience that suggests that the brain can change as a result of one’s experience. To highlight how the brain worked and how easy it was for us to re-train our brain he showed slides of optical illusions many of which can be seen on Amazing Art.

“You make the choice to see things in a certain way,” really resonated with me. “When you change the way you look at something, what you look at will change,” said Deepak quoting Max Planck, the Nobel prize winning German physicist regarded as the founder of quantum theory, and the title of Wayne Dyer’s book The Power of Intention.

When I stopped looking at Deepak, or anyone else for that matter, for answers I started to find them. Deepak and his books are simply a door way for my own exploration. An old Chinese proverb states, when the pupil is ready the teacher will come. When I first came across Deepak I was looking for a teacher and I found one in his book SynchroDestiny.

I have since come to realise that we take away what ever we need at that moment it time from what ever the source: a teacher, a book, an event or a coincidence. Last time I came to hear Deepak, he urged us to notice and welcome coincidences and Synchronicity, stating cheekily “It’s a conspiracy.” He sounds just like James Redfield discovering the first insight, that of coincidences, in The Celestine Prophecy. From Deepak’s first book six years ago, I think I have come full circle. Now its time to move forward.

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