EMPEROR OF THE SOUL

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Dr. Howard Fuerst was perplexed by his stepdaughter the book publicist. The year was 1991, and she had sent him a volume called Quantum Healing by some sort of Indian spiritual healer named Deepak Chopra. Fuerst, a practicing internist in Hollywood, Florida, from 1955 to 1986, did his med school at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chopra's thesis--that the human spirit and the human body are intimately connected--had not been on the curriculum. He skimmed the book and put it aside.

Then he found that he had prostate cancer so advanced that it was deemed inoperable. Standard hormone therapy was prescribed; at best, it was supposed to buy Fuerst two years. He retrieved the Chopra book, which claimed that meditation, the right diet and a Westernized version of Hindu mysticism could prevent or even reverse disease. Fuerst became a Chopramaniac. He meditated 30 minutes a day, prayed for five and recited Chopra's 10 Keys to Happiness. He showed up at every Chopra speaking engagement within a 200-mile radius. Once Chopra joshed, "What are you doing here? You've heard all this before!" Fuerst didn't care. He had nothing to lose.

And then he got well. The tumor disappeared. Tumors sometimes do that, of course. But Fuerst knows whom to thank. "My professors would be turning over in their graves," he says with a grin. "It's a shame more doctors don't listen to him."

A generation ago, it would have been hard to pronounce the words faith and healing together without an implied sneer. Of course, people have never stopped praying for divine intercession on behalf of their stricken loved ones; and some religious groups, like Christian Scientists, continue to see spiritual engagement as the paramount medical technique. But at least since Pasteur and Ehrlich established the connection between microbes and disease in the 19th century, medicine had regarded belief as a distraction at best and, should it make claims to medical efficacy, as a possible symptom of a pathology called fraud.

Times have changed. Countless studies attest to the connection between psychological condition and both illness and recovery. What might be called the spirit/ body connection, although still regarded skeptically in most parts of the medical world, has conquered popular culture, the staging ground from which mind/body launched its siege of the academy. The prophets of this healing offensive are photogenic and media-friendly (enlightenment these days almost never implies asceticism), but here their common traits end. They speak in different tongues to reach different audiences. Physicians like Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Larry Dossey remain soberly scientific but eventually make their way to questions of medicine and the soul. Weil writes in his latest book, Spontaneous Healing, "The more you experience yourself as energy, the easier it is not to identify yourself with your physical body." Jon Kabat-Zinn has applied Zen concepts to stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which he directs. Approaching the same point from another direction are California's Marianne Williamson and Louise Hay, whose concern with the spirit sometimes leads to thoughts on health. Williamson has advised some seekers to write letters to their illnesses, coming to terms and peace with sickness by expressing the depths of their suffering. She writes, "The Atonement is so gentle you need but whisper to it and all its power will rush to your assistance and support."

Arrayed next to the M.D.s and what might be called the spiritual innovators are synthesizers like Thomas Moore, who has researched the Christian and classical wisdom of millenniums to create his best-selling "owners' guides" to late-20th century souls. Moore does not prescribe cures but has much to say about illness. "We live in a world of fate and destiny and mystery," he writes. "Of course illness affects our entire being. It is a shame that medicine still treats illness as physical." Then there are those who offer old, if exotic, solutions straight up: the Tai Chi masters, the Tibetan sages and the modern shamans who treat illness with auras and crystals.

To some the combination of faith and healing is not so much a novelty as a welcome recapitulation of the last Western tradition to see them as part of one overarching cosmology. Says Sister Judian Breitenbach, a Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ nun who heads the Healing Arts Center in Mishawaka, Illinois: "We're moving toward the integration of the East and West, and it's happening through health care." A fan of Chopra's, she sees no conflicts between the new and the old age: "People are so uptight about this kind of thing. We used to call it trust in God."

There is no conscious movement here, just a work in progress. Yet combined, these disparate voices reach a mighty throng. Sociologist Paul Ray, who has been studying the makeup of the self-help and healing movements for eight years, calls the eager listeners "Cultural Creatives"--some 44 million strong, 60% women, mostly middle and upper class, with auxiliary interests in ecology and women's issues. Others suggest that they have already been named: they are the baby boomers, who happen to have begun turning 50 this year and are looking for ways to face their mortality.

Fractured as it is, the mind/body landscape features one uniting figure. Deepak Chopra, 49, is a physician, an endocrinologist who came to the U.S. in 1970. He is also a mystic in an ancient tradition, Hinduism. But his true genius lies in synthesis, in an amalgamated vision he can express in the language of computers or Arthurian magic or devotional verse.

Chopra says that on a cosmic level, we all exist simultaneously throughout the universe. And he, for one, certainly seems omnipresent. Since the runaway success of his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind in 1993, he has written one best seller after another, selling an astonishing 6 million copies. His videotapes (which include Growing Younger, a co-production with Time-Life Video) are legion. A Chopra Website is in the works as well as a CD-ROM touted as "the ultimate Chopra experience." For those who do not read, watch television or surf the Net, the man himself will most likely soon appear nearby. In a recent six-week span, Chopra spoke in Denver, New York City, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

He hates the term guru, yet that is the term applied to him by Demi Moore, who (along with Naomi Judd and George Harrison) sits on the board of advisers for his soon-to-open healing center in La Jolla, California. Other devotees include Michael Jackson, Donna Karan and Michael Milken. Chopra remains unvalidated by the gatekeepers of higher culture: Bill Moyers has yet to interview him. Nevertheless, PBS stations have not seen fit to abjure the millions they make by playing Chopra's vastly popular lecture tapes during their subscription drives. Dozens of CEOs swear by him publicly, and his lawyer maintains that "it is mind blowing, the list of [Chopra intimates] at the highest levels of government in a variety of countries--including this one."

Chopra may have done more than anyone else in the U.S. to create a vocabulary for the intersection of faith and medicine. Other American doctors preceded him in their insights about the spirit's healing power. But Chopra, by accident of birth and nationality, was ideally positioned to tap an entire pre-existing cultural tradition. And Chopra, harnessing his spectacular ambition and extraordinary communication skills, was ideally equipped to exploit the tensions inherent in being Marcus Welby via Delhi. Like all great teachers, he was telling Americans something they already knew, in this case about health. At the same time, he was hinting at something they didn't know, a simplified Hinduism that was fascinating to a nation of seekers. Says Richard Perl, CEO of Chopra's new corporation, Infinite Possibilities, somewhat grandly: "The world is using Deepak as a catalyst for a step it's ready to take."

First, however, Chopra had to take some steps of his own. A dark anecdote in his 1988 memoir, Return of the Rishi, foreshadows some of his later concerns. Chopra's father, a successful British-trained cardiologist, was in England when he learned that his own father was taking Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Indian herbal cure, for a heart condition. The doctor disapproved. "His success in the system demanded his belief in the system," Chopra writes, and from London he "demanded that my grandfather abandon this nonsense and call in a Western-style heart specialist." The old man did, "and died two weeks later."

Two decades into his own career, it looked as though Deepak was going his father's route. Privileged and smart, he had been accepted by the prestigious All India School of Medical Sciences at 17. At 23 he was an intern at a small hospital in New Jersey, recruited during the Vietnam-era doctor shortage. By 38 he was chief of staff at a Massachusetts hospital, a master of the "system" in its postcolonial incarnation. "My ambition," he writes, "was to equal or surpass my American colleagues."

And yet there were problems. Chopra, who now says he has an "addictive personality," was dismayed at the life-style that came with his job: pots of coffee, packs of cigarettes and Scotch each night to come down again. He also had increasingly grave reservations about modern health care. He had once seen medicine as heroic. But now "all I was doing was seeing patients one after another, prescribing medication like a legalized drug pusher." In Rishi he suggests that by purveying short-term cures but ignoring long-term prevention, the typical Western physician "was fostering a diseased system and beyond that, a diseased world, with himself at its center. Like a spider in its web, he gave off something sticky that entrapped his patients."

Chopra, of course, was familiar with another way, although he took an indirect course back to it. One day in 1980 he picked up a transcendental-meditation manual in a Boston used-book store. Meditation enabled him to quit smoking and drinking, and 1983 found him on what might be called a journey of spiritual rediscovery back in India, where he visited the headquarters of transcendental-meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

TM, which Westerners know primarily as a relaxation exercise, is the stripped-down version of a meditation used in certain Hindu sects to detach from the here and now and attain ever greater identification with the truer consciousness that exists outside space and time and animates the universe. The Maharishi had had immense success popularizing it in the 1970s. Now he wanted to market Ayurvedic herbal cures, whose spiritual underpinnings hark back to the same metaphysics. By adding a hyphen, the Maharishi had even copyrighted a U.S. trade name: Ayur-Veda. And Chopra became its salesman.

"[The Maharishi] is a great sage," he wrote at the time; "his philosophy, the classic Indian view, rubbed free of encrustations...is wisdom made bright and simple." Chopra now says, "I was almost a fanatic, but not quite." He spent the next few years globe trotting on behalf of Ayur-Vedics and running an upscale Ayurvedic clinic in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Until 1987 he was chairman and sole stockholder of Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International. He was a millionaire to whom, in 1989, the Maharishi awarded a title translatable as Lord of Immortality. Best of all, in 1991 Chopra and two co-authors placed their glowing assessment of Ayur-Veda in that redoubt of respectability, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Unfortunately, the J.A.M.A. editors were unclear about the authors' link to the commercial Ayurvedic venture. When they discovered it, they commissioned a second article, which, without addressing Ayur-Veda's medical claims, described "a widespread pattern of misinformation [and] deception" in its marketing. The article gleefully quoted Chopra and his co-authors describing one $95 herbal mix as "pure knowledge pressed into material form" and accused them of a number of small-bore misrepresentations that fell short of fraud but even shorter of scientific rigor. A suit by Chopra against J.A.M.A. for defamation was settled only in 1993.

The bad publicity played a role in Chopra's subsequent break with the Maharishi, who he claims tried to prohibit him from the speaking and writing that provided his income. After the rift, he says, "I felt like a free bird. I started writing." The result was Ageless Body, Timeless Mind.

A remarkable work, it is a hodgepodge of personal anecdote, unfootnoted references to scientific studies, literary allusion, commonsense wisdom and spiritual speculation; it features Dostoyevsky, the Rig Veda, bar graphs, German physicist Werner Heisenberg and exercises you can perform at home. At its core, and repeated in seemingly endless permutations, is a religio-philosophical thesis that runs something like this:

Our bodies, which seem so solid and finite, are not. For one thing, we replace most of our component cells regularly; thus, rather than collections of aging organs, we are works in constant progress. On the subatomic level, moreover, we are no denser than the air around us and indistinguishable from our surroundings. Finally, since quantum physics asserts that matter and energy are interchangeable, we are not individual beings at all but merely local expressions of an infinite, universal field of energy. A smart field of energy: "All of us are connected to patterns of intelligence that govern the whole cosmos. Our bodies are part of a universal body, our minds an aspect of a universal mind."

At an elementary level--which can as easily be called "reducing stress" or "listening to your body"--those who attain some harmony with that universal mind by meditating and following Ayurvedic practices could avoid various diseases. A greater mystical investment should allow the curing of diseases and reversal of tumors. Ultimately, Chopra claims, we could undo the effects of aging, happily and healthily attaining a life-span of 130. Death should hold little fear, since we understand that in our essential identity--as parts of that universal field--we are immortal.

As Chopra notes, "These are vast assumptions." And on an empirical basis, some of them may be shaky indeed. Many scientists consider Chopra's assertions about quantum physics perverse rubbish. Groups such as the Pennsylvania-based National Council Against Health Fraud find his claims about reversing illness potentially dangerous. Nevertheless, Chopra's argument is at least metaphorically consistent. With its cover photo of Chopra holding a stethoscope, Ageless Body camped at the top of the best-seller lists for nine months. One day in 1993, Oprah Winfrey had him on her TV show for an uninterrupted hour. The next day the book sold 137,000 copies.

Today thousands of Americans are immensely grateful to Chopra. Some focus on his commonsense advice. Says Henry Schlegel, a New York City-based private-banking executive: "He reinforced something that I knew: stress affects your body. So I dealt with it. My sense of well-being came back." Lynn Hackett, who braved an endless bookstore line in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to get Chopra's signature, feels a deeper connection: she says her brother's brain tumor has decreased dramatically since he first read Ageless Body. He also took radiation treatment. But thanks to Chopra, he changed his diet and his thinking. "It started him in the right direction," she says. "All of us in the family have become much more spiritual."

Nonetheless, the immense frustration some critics feel about Chopra's vagueness, his seeming unwillingness to distinguish between fact and metaphor and his chronic overpromising is not simply intellectual nitpicking. Last year New York magazine reported on a lawsuit to which Chopra was party. A man with leukemia had adopted Ayurvedic practice and was allegedly deemed cured. When he died shortly afterward, his widow sued. The suit was eventually dismissed, and in a letter to New York, Chopra noted that he was only minimally involved. His letter, however, made no attempt to defend the man who allegedly pronounced the "cure," which is odd, since he was someone described in Chopra's books as "perhaps the greatest...Ayurvedic physician alive today."

In the past few years Chopra has abandoned clinical activity completely, declining even to apply for a California medical license. When the Chopra Center, providing a combination of Western, Ayurvedic and East Asian treatment for outpatients, opens this August near its founder's lavish home in La Jolla, the doctoring will be done by others. Chopra, who says his various businesses have made him between $10 million and $15 million (not all of which he keeps--he is known as a lavish donor to charities), is still selling herbs, but Richard Perl says he hopes to "spin off" that operation. He explains, "I see us providing the knowledge component of an overall regime. We're a software company."

And the software is shifting from concrete how-to advice toward the realm of poetry and performance. Chopra's last big book, The Return of Merlin, was a novel. Nonfiction, he told Publishers Weekly, leaves people saying, "'Where is the evidence?' And it's so boring to try and address that! [But] if you write fiction...with intensity and passion, you reveal yourself--and you write the truth." Merlin was a best seller, and Chopra optioned it as a possible mini-series. He has cut a deal with Tommy Boy records to put his thoughts and poems to music. With Dave Stewart, formerly of the rock group the Eurythmics, he has written a screenplay about a hit man who finds enlightenment in Bombay. There is talk of a Chopra musical.

"It's my destiny to play an infinite number of roles, but I'm not the roles I'm playing," says Chopra. "If I confuse myself with the roles I'm playing, then I get caught up in the melodramatic hysteria of ordinary, humdrum existence."

Doctors who still practice healing may not have the luxury of avoiding the concrete and the humdrum. The melodrama of serious illness is a fact of their lives and those of their patients. Says Dr. Rita Kumar, a longtime acquaintance of Chopra's who incorporates mind/body medicine into her Western-style practice: "If physical symptoms are treated without caring for the mind and the soul, the body will die. I believe what we are thinking changes our body. But we must subject mind/ body/spirit medicine to the same standards as anything else. We must remember, and I hope Chopra still does, that this is only about healing."