Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Chopra Delusion

I was watching Gay Byrne's series on the "Meaning of Life" last Sunday with his guest Deepak Chopra. Chopra certainly made for an engaging half hour. He is clearly a very gifted individual with well honed communication skills. Also hearing his account of his privileged early background in India was very interesting providing a fascinating intersection as between both Eastern and Western perspectives.

Chopra of course has been very successful in bringing the spiritual mystical worldview to bear both on popular medicine and modern living. Indeed I remember when reading his "Quantum Healing" some 20 years ago readily resonating with his accounts of how mind and body form an indivisible unity with illnesses of all kinds potentially ameliorated through an appropriate spiritual outlook.

However I still have certain reservations regarding Chopra whose greatest talent seems to be his ability to market himself with amazing commercial success. He has that capacity - in common with many well-known personalities - of unerringly sensing the public mood and then adapting so as to meet its requirements.

Now on the positive side one can perhaps laud Chopra's ability to thereby reach a wide audience offering it his notion of enlightenment.

However on the negative side in the desire to increase this vast band of followers he is quite happy to dilute the message somewhat so as to readily fit in with conventional materialistic expectations.

So the unconscious vibe that so many take from Chopra's books is this!

"Look at me, your spiritual guru! Can't you see that I am extremely successful leading a rich and varied life while enjoying its many comforts.
And you too can achieve likewise by following my way."

I found it quite revealing that without any prompting from Byrne, Chopra adverted to a previous televised exchange where Richard Dawkins cast him as a charlatan by debunking his books on healing.

In particular Dawkins sought to denigrate his notion of quantum healing as somewhat vague and unconvincing and clearly designed - as he characterised it - to create a bogus physical basis for his theories.
And while accepting that Dawkins extracted just small sections of an interview to suit his purposes, he clearly succeeded in unsettling Chopra.

And then later in the interview with Byrne, he once again returned unprompted to that same exchange with Dawkins to protest the unfairness of how he felt he had been treated.

So to put it mildly Dawkins struck a raw nerve, and to a certain extent in protesting Chopra was missing the point. Whatever about the precise accuracy of Dawkins' charge in the brief extract that was televised, he did successfully convey the fact - which many would privately suspect - that there certainly is an element of new age quackery about what Chopra writes.

Though fully accepting the general point that the mind can play - especially when spiritually motivated - a powerful role in healing, I never found the use of the term "quantum healing" very convincing.

Certainly in the narrow sense that Dawkins implied where quantum theory in physics has proven remarkably accurate in prediction, the same could not be applied to quantum healing.

Indeed even as a metaphor or analogy the very use of the word quantum in the context of healing is inappropriate.
One might well accept the idea that healing in certain circumstances is associated with discrete shifts in consciousness. But such shifts are of a qualitative - rather than quantitative - nature and in terms of scale do not in any case correspond well with equivalent shifts in energy states at the sub-atomic level.

Though there is I believe a valid case - in what I would term integral science - to elaborate more fully the qualitative equivalent of quantum mechanical notions, it is important to establish that this operates at a very different level of understanding from standard methodology in physics.

Though I would accept that Chopra's actual position on science and indeed quantum physics would be considerably more nuanced and enlightened than Dawkins simplistic characterisations, he is however guilty of the old marketing trick of attempting to deliberately create suggestive linkages so as to enhance the sales of his product. And whatever else one can say, Chopra has proven himself a master salesman!

So in this sense by creating a direct association as between quantum physics and healing he has unconsciously created the unwarranted impression that there is a precise scientific basis to such healing (which does not in fact exist).

People who are in so much demand as Chopra become part of a celebrity circus and he includes among his devotees a strange mix including some fellow intellectuals, show business personalites and prominent politicians. He is used to appearing before adoring audiences who hang on his every word. And he has all the easy charm and communication skills to keep it that way.

For example he threw out a couple of remarks during the interview with Byrne that I suspect he has used a thousand times before. At one stage he came up with the line "God writes my books. I just collect the royalties." Though indeed witty, however this is also somewhat glib. For if he genuinely believes that he is just the instrument of God's message, it begs the question as to why he should be collecting royalties in the first place!

He also came up with another good line;

"I used to be an atheist, then later discovered that I was God". Though witty it is again glib as it creates the impression that full spiritual realisation can be easily achieved.

And this is the root of the problem I have with Chopra. Whatever his actual intentions, which may indeed be sincere, he creates the impression that spiritual development is a relatively painless task and - worse still - that it can greatly enhance the materialistic lifestyle.

And if this is the true basis of his great appeal then indeed he is a charlatan.

So once again though Dawkins may well have been unfair with respect to his specific allegations,at a deeper level he did indeed succeed in unmasking this shadow side of Chopra.

Rather than attempting to reassure his audience that Dawkins's specific claims with respect to quantum healing are baseless, perhaps he should accept that there is truth in the general characterisation of his overall impact.

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