By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On May 5, after various schedule changes without explanation and with little warning, Deepak Chopra, one of the world’s most influential and important persons, with almost 100 books under his belt, not to mention the Chopra Foundation, spoke virtually as part of the Crosscut Ideas Festival 2023. The title, “Spiritual Rx for Mental Health,” only partially encapsulated the talk, which barely scratched the surface of the subject or the wealth of knowledge of this guest.
Chopra joined to highlight the publication of his latest book, Living in the Light, and to speak on mental health. However, in this surprisingly short 30-minute-or-so conversation between Chopra and host Amna Nawaz, of PBS NewsHour, Chopra’s valuable opinion on how to deal with our nation’s mental health crisis was only partially sought, though presumed throughout.
There was an unsettling disconnect between the host and guest. Nawaz’s questions were rote and without imagination. She appeared unfamiliar with Chopra beyond preparing for this event, which left one wishing for a more worthy interviewer. While she sometimes expertly employed impromptu follow ups to Chopra’s responses, at other times, she stuck to the script in ways that made no sense based on what he had already said. Asking him, for instance, about politics, after he just confirmed his view that all politicians are “gangsters” (only a few exceptions were noted, such as the Indian statesmen active at the time of India’s release from British colonization; and current Kennedy relation, Tim Shriver) and after he already said he never watches the news (except that his wife watches Nawaz’s show), was disorienting. Asking him to give the human race hope “after everything we’ve lived through in the past few years” when he’d explained that we are not going through anything new, none of it matters in the sense that we are not physical bodies, and most of us are “sleepwalking to extinction,” was nothing short of insulting.
Chopra’s response to this latter point was, then, understandably pat and without any backing from the conversation to that point that he actually felt such hope was merited by our behavior.
“Ask yourself four questions every day. How can I cultivate a joyful, energetic body? How can I cultivate a loving, compassionate heart? A clear, quiet mind? And joy?” He mentioned, for example, how everyone in New York City just walks by the ticker counting down how much time is left until global warming implosion (about six years as of this writing). Better, get up and go fix things. Fix yourself. Fix the planet. This was the solution Chopra’s views implied.
“I’m motivated only by the bigger picture,” he said. “I know that it doesn’t matter who you are. Sooner or later, we are all going to be dead.” Chopra, at 76, lived through the Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination. His parents told him about World War II; his grandparents about World War I and the Great Depression, “and on and on,” he said. “We’re not the first generation to experience this crisis and to me, it’s insane that we keep recycling this behavior.”
Nawaz acknowledged that “that individual practice of working towards that joyful, more just, and peaceful world is important.” Nawaz went on to ask Chopra to elaborate on his daily routine. Understandably, the reason for asking was one might garner from Chopra’s routine a template to follow. But he had already answered this question—his routine is VERY ROUTINE. He is 76, he is successful, he can arrange his days and nights how he wants. He makes time for meditation, yoga, family time, work time, relationship time, and always goes to sleep at 10 p.m., even when traveling. There is no need to know what he means by “relationship time” (in fact, it’s a bit of an inappropriate question). There is no need to know what he means by “recreational time.”
Instead, where was the original topic of this presentation: Spiritual Rx for Mental Health?
Chopra, who does yoga daily, spoke first about the unfortunate lack of attention in 95% of yoga classes to the mental and spiritual aspects of the practice.
“The ultimate premise of yoga is that your body is not physical…but it actually is modality of awareness. As is everything else that you experience is…You experience [the] five senses through the filter of the mind. And intellect/ego. What you’re experiencing as the physical world, including your own physical body, is a perceptual and conceptual interpretation of what is happening in consciousness.” This was the meaty stuff one looks forward to whenever Chopra is mentioned, which sadly only lasted about 15 minutes, and included Chopra’s take on government (we need statesmen philosophers, not gangsters) and technology, which he believes we are using “the wrong way.”
“Technology used correctly…can enhance future wellbeing, and even help us create a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier, and joyful world” (the dream that Chopra says he recites in his sleep).
Chopra is an advocate of using technology and has a regular social media presence. During the pandemic, his foundation utilized AI to gather information about who caught and died from COVID-19. They found that “all the people who are getting sick, including the young ones, old ones,” outside of known risk factors such as heart disease, diabetes, etc., “…all of them, without exception, had stress, anxiety, and depression, and inflammation as foundational factors.” Chopra described young people demonstrating “inflammatory storms,” where the body was “flooded with inflammatory proteins, as if it was on fire.” Everyone in this research also presented feelings of “anger, hostility, guilt, shame, depletion of energy, etc.”
Why has the world not heard more about this?
The nation and planet are experiencing a mental health “pandemic,” which might be more dangerous to society than COVID-19.
“During the course of the pandemic, we also discovered that the second most common cause of death amongst teens is suicide,” Chopra added. “Every 40 seconds, somewhere in the world, somebody’s dying from suicide.” Yet, in this talk, he was asked to spend valuable time on how many minutes he meditates each day and when he goes to sleep.
Tell us more, instead, about the bot his foundation invented that can tell from a video if you are healthy or not. Or how, in India and Pakistan, the elderly are also killing themselves.
“In those cultures, they don’t want to be dependent on their children…they’re dying from suicide because of social circumstances,” Chopra explained. “There’s a deep need right now for some kind of intervention that actually works.”
Part of that intervention is Chopra Foundation’s website, “Never Alone,” which has a bot called “PIWI” that is available 24/7 to speak to those contemplating suicide (and right now is speaking to around 20 million). Why do kids speak to the bot? Nawaz wanted to know.
“Because they [don’t] feel judged,” Chopra replied.
Chopra’s solutions are deceptively simple—love, peace, holistic health—but they deserve a deeper dive than what was offered by this particular portion of the Crosscut Ideas Festival.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.