Spiritual guru Deepak Chopra on why religion is bad, technology is good and the future is beautiful
Deepak Chopra is on tour through Asia this week and is speaking in Hong Kong, Manila and Bangkok. The best-selling author sat down with TIME reporter Daffyd Roderick on March 28 to give Asia its spiritual report card and the news isn't all that bad.
TIME: What are your impressions on your second trip through Asia?
Chopra: It's very dynamic, it's very vibrant. People are very ambitious, very driven, very serious. I don't find too many people laughing. I don't find enough emphasis--and this is my personal perspective--on play, on recreation, on laughter, on relationships, on nurturing. People are driven, seeking success like it was going out of style. On the other hand, I also find that Asia is less parochial. America can be very parochial and narrow-minded. For many Americans, everything begins and ends in the U.S. The biggest stadiums, the world's biggest hamburgers, the world's biggest everything is right there in the U.S. Recently, what's his name... George Bush Jr., couldn't name the presidents of the most important and significant countries in Asia. He called the Greeks "Grecians" and (laughs) the people of East Timor "Timoreans." This is the guy that's running for president?
TIME: Are you concerned?
Chopra: Very! There's something very alarming about the narrow-mindedness and the view of the world Americans have. I mean, no place is ideal. And these are just my observations.
Chopra: Yeah, I think they are. And I think it's a by-product of the last 50 years of a culture that has very consciously taken religion out of its everyday life, I think for good reasons. Personally, I'm not one for religion at all. I make a big distinction between religion and spirituality. In the name of religion all we've had for 2,000 years is murder, rape and bloodshed, ethnic cleansing of all kinds, and enslavement, pillage, racism, bigotry and prejudice. You name it, it's all religion related. One of the big dangers in the U.S.--not so much in Europe and not in England--is a very dominant fundamentalism, a frightening one in middle America, the Bible Belt of the South. Asia has done well to eliminate religion out of its culture in the last 50 years. But in doing so it has become a society that doesn't have the passion and the spirituality and the feeling that comes with the cultural heritage. These are countries of great culture. Hong Kong after all is part of China, and we know more about Confucius and Lao Tzu and Zen and the traditions of China in the West than people over here know of their own traditions. It's a historical thing: we're all victims of history. I think it's now appropriate that Asians are getting heart disease, heart attacks and cancer and all the stress-related disorders that have been so prevalent in the West. Not only are Asians catching up, they're getting ahead and superseding the West. And in a way, that's a historical cycle hopefully going back to Asians having a more relaxed, easygoing time.
TIME: The East is in many ways behind the West in terms of latching on to New Age ideas. There are not too many people in Asia clinking around with crystals and channeling past lives. Is that coming?
Chopra: I hope not. I hope that what's coming is a mature and sophisticated spirituality. You look at New York and it's fairly conservative, you go to middle America and it's fundamentalist and primitive, and you go to California and it can be flaky. Asia can learn from what the experience of others has been and embrace a more mature age of consciousness. What was New Age in America 10 years ago, a part of that is now mainstream medicine and mainstream everything. There are so called New Age ideas in business in America, and they're definitely in medicine. In the last five years I've lectured at Harvard Medical School, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and the national institutes of health. Mainstream medical schools are embracing the ideas of mind/body medicine and spirituality as part of their curriculum. Business is embracing some of the ideas of consciousness-based thinking and yet you know, the crystals are in a few suburbs of California and on their way out in America.
TIME: You mention the 'soul' of business in your promo material, how does the soul enter into it? Isn't it just about the bottom line?
Chopra: It has been--cutthroat, competitive, reactive and based on primitive responses of survival. We have a long evolutionary history as human beings of conflict: when we were hunter gatherers life was to kill or to run and to react either with confrontation or some other control drama. So these are very primitive human instincts and they have permeated everything. They have particularly permeated our psyche to the point where we are totally unaware of the environment that nurtures us. It's all conquest, conquest, conquest. If you were to look at planet earth from space, and take a picture, it looks like a beautiful organism with metastatic cancer cells--and the cancer is human beings. We are metastasizing all over the place.
TIME: That doesn't sound like flattery.
Chopra: But it's true. We are the predators on this planet. It comes from our original need to survive in a predatory environment, and we became so good at surviving and killing. That same impulse has permeated business, so business is a very predatory environment. It's also male dominated. Asia is very much male dominated: it's been successful, there's no question about that. Up to a certain point there's been tremendous success from these kinds of behaviors: cutthroat competition, winning at all costs, having it my way and getting to the bottom line. But there is a cost: stress-related disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, a lot of alcoholism, smoking and other addictive behavior... work addiction included. So the success has come at a high cost. There is a way of being extremely successful in business--and some people have proven it--that incorporates relationships, that incorporates nurturing, that incorporates ideas like intuition and creativity and interdependency. A lot of those ideas have permeated the business environment in the United States and I lecture in Scandinavia and Europe and I find the same is true. I've lectured to CEOs of major companies in Europe and North America and I find that the idea of 'soul' in business is something that many multinational corporations are embracing. And they are finding that they have better bottom lines. Ultimately, the bottom line is dependent on loyalty from three constituencies: employees, investors and customers. There are many studies that show that if you can ensure employee loyalty, then you get customer loyalty and following from that investor loyalty. There are also some good studies that show you can predict how long a company is going to last by its high [staff] turnover rate. And turnover rate is not just dependent on how much you pay people--it's whether you take care of them or not and how you take care of them. I have large corporations sending people to me for courses in synchronicity, intuition and creativity, relationships...
TIME: Technology lets us cram so much more productivity into our daily lives, that life seems to move so fast. Is this healthy?
Chopra: I love it. I absolutely love it! Technology itself is neutral. How we use technology depends on whether we are mature or adolescents or kids in our psychological development. Everyone criticized nuclear technology because it is used to make nuclear bombs. But the best kind of technology available from nuclear study can be used to create a pollution-free environment. So it depends on us. It's the same with biotechnology. People are so afraid of genetic engineering yet as soon as the genome project is finished, which will be in a year or two... we will have the ability... to give people a new eye if they need it, or a new heart or kidney, from their own cells. And it will not only be new but it will be 10 years younger than the one it replaced. So technology is the best thing and it's part of our evolution and it's unstoppable. The difficulty is that psychologically and spiritually we've not paid attention to our own selves. We need to catch up and if we do, it is the best thing that can happen. I think the Internet, e-mail, artificial intelligence and where we are going with the genome project ... these are going to be amazing things within the next few years. I personally see that through technology we have the chance now for the first time to eliminate poverty from the world. I honestly believe that. Once Internet technology is somehow combined with ecology and nurturing the biosphere and understanding of inter-dependency and relationships, we will be able to eliminate poverty and create a global culture of interdependency that will become so obvious that you won't need nationalism. I personally feel nationalism is just a sophisticated form of tribalism. It's barbaric that you salute a flag and go die for your country in the name of some symbol. I think what religion hasn't accomplished--it hasn't got rid of ethnocentric behavior, racism, bigotry, prejudice, war or poverty--technology will do for us. Technology will bring us spirituality. I'm all for technology. But of course, if you feel pressured that when you get an e-mail that you have to respond in five minutes, that's your problem. That's not technology.
TIME: You mention prejudice. When I told people I was interviewing you, some people said, 'He's great, how interesting.' But more said, 'Charlatan, he's a flake. He's made millions by preaching the positive, isn't that easy?'
Chopra: If it's easy they should do it. They should try it. The fact is, whenever your successful, no matter what you're doing, you're bound to face criticism and have people who either like you or dislike you. I think it's healthy to have critics and have people who are skeptical. I think it's not healthy to be cynical. There's a difference between the two. Skeptics are at least open minded, they say 'show me.' Cynics don't want to look. If I was you I would have asked the people critical of me, 'have you read any of his books?' And if they had and they were still critical, then I would have loved to know what the criticism was. I would take it positively and I would treat those critics as my best friends. But if people haven't read anything of mine and they're just being critical because they've already got a preconceived idea of who I am, then my tendency would be to ignore them. Because there's no point in wasting energy on those people.
TIME: Just one last question. If James Brown is the "Godfather of Soul" and you're the "Emperor of Soul"...
Chopra: Now listen, you know who came up with that label? TIME! Not me ...
TIME: Nevertheless, who's in charge?
Chopra: Definitely James Brown. Any day. No question about it.
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