The Trip to Boundless: Deepak Chopra Leads Followers
The parking lot attendant at the Sea-Tac Red Lion is already turning cars away. "Stop sir. We are full," he says, as if I am personally responsible for his gridlocked yard. "There is some seminar tonight." Not just some seminar. It's Deepak weekend. The calendar of events in the lobby lists only two functions this evening: the Hemophilia Foundation of Washington's annual auction and Deepak Chopra's "Infinite Possibilities Seminar." The infinite-looking line of Deepakers snaking past the espresso stand induces a pang of regret that I will not be bidding against the hemophiliacs tonight. At the registration table a woman hands me a vanilla-colored binder marked "Journey to the Boundless" and a name tag that hangs like a yoke around my neck. "Boundless Bruce Barcott," it says. I put it on and join the queue of Boundless Bobs and Boundless Bettys bound for three days of limitless love, energy, and potential. Or so the brochure has promised.In the world of publishing there are authors, there are bestselling authors, and there are phenomenons. Since 1993, when his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind began making cash drawers sing, no author has out-phenomenoned Deepak Chopra. By blending Western medical techniques with East Indian mysticism, Chopra's message of health, wealth, and eternal youth has attracted millions of readers and thousands of hardcore followers. Every title he touches turns to gold. From his beginnings in mystical medicine Chopra has branched out to offer wisdom on a wide range of topics. For financial advice he offers Creating Affluence: Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities. For insomniacs, there is Restful Sleep. For the obese, Perfect Weight. For the constipated, Perfect Digestion. He has even found success in the literary arts. His 1995 novel The Return of Merlin enabled the doctor to achieve an unheard-of publishing double: residence on both the fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists.Chopra might have remained a cultish figure were it not for public television, which discovered his ability to pull in big audiences during pledge drives. PBS shows like Body, Mind & Soul and The Way of the Wizard gave Chopra enough respectability to move beyond the limits of the self-help/New Age audience. For viewers who can't get enough of the doctor on TV, he conducts five or six workshops every year in places like the Sea-Tac Red Lion. This weekend 450 of us have paid an average of $350 apiece to hear wizardry from the mouth of the man himself.It would be easy to write off my co-seminarians as New Age nuts, but they're not. A few people wear spiritually significant beads and one guy sports a "Celestine Synchronicity" T-shirt but other than that we could just as well be attending a conference on K-6 teaching. It's PBS' dream demographic: well-off people in their forties, fifties, and sixties. On opening night I sat next to Jack, a Napa Valley winery owner who flew up for the seminar with his wife. Jack must make a big first impression on most people because he settles into his chair as if he were wrestling a steer and then leans back at an angle sufficient to keep the rest of us wondering when that sucker's gonna give. Over the synthetic strings of crystal-shop music he talks about the wine business and how he built his up from nothing. By the time the show starts I am confident that, feet-on-the-groundwise, at least one person in the room knows how to fix a tractor.Like any big-time performer, Deepak Chopra doesn't go on cold. His first stage-warmer is Roger Gabriel, a meditation instructor possessed of an aging- pop-star handsomeness who is conducting "primordial sound meditation" sessions all weekend for an extra $150. Primordial sound (whatever it may be) seems to separate the spiritual strivers from the rest of us C-average sloughers. Gabriel's classes take place before and after the main Deepak seminars; it's kind of like an advanced placement course. Already I hate the primordial sounders. They're so smug.Gabriel asks a few audience members why they've come. A Bellevue businessman stands and declares his intention to get in touch with his purpose in life; to "find my dharma." A woman three rows up says she rolled her car a few days ago. "And as I was hanging there upside down, I realized that's how my life is: I'm OK, but everything's upside down." One man says he knew no better way to celebrate his 50th birthday. Another woman says Dr. Chopra just makes her feel all happy and good inside.Gabriel passes the baton to Bija Bennett, a professional in the field of "breath work" who prepares our bodies for the information we're about to receive from Chopra. She starts off easy with a lesson in back-of-the-throat breathing before moving on to slow-motion jumping jacks and into a full-on meditative trance. "Close your eyes," she says. "Become aware of the room. Become aware of the walls around you. Become aware of the ceiling above you. Become aware of inside sounds." Jack's stomach growls. "Become aware of outside sounds." Across the hall the hemophiliacs burn down the house. The house lights rise and we open our eyes to find Chopra materialized on stage. He is a blocky man dressed in an expensive black shirt (silk, I'm guessing) and pleated slacks who speaks in a soothing monotone with just enough of an East Indian accent to make everything he says sound insightful. "We're not here to brainwash ourselves," he says. "We're not here to hypnotize ourselves. We're here to break free of the brainwashing, the conditioning of society." We're here, he says, to enter the world of the spirit, which is boundless.Tonight's lesson will begin with basic theory; we'll get into more specifics on Saturday and Sunday. I'm still confused. A basic theory of what? By the end of the weekend I will find that my parameters are far too constricted. Chopra's theory encompasses life, the universe, and everything. First principle: Spirit is everything, and everything is spirit. "I am not speaking metaphorically," Chopra says. "I mean spirit very very literally. This microphone is spirit." Simple enough.Second principle: "The whole is contained in every part." The secrets of the universe are contained in even the smallest object. Okey-doke. Third principle: "As spirit creates from the unseen to the seen, it does so through vibration." Every physical object is merely a vibration of spirit, Chopra says. The body is nothing more than a vibration of the spirit. I'm not sure how to interpret this. We're all just notes plucked on the universe's acoustic guitar? Among the people nearby, who are clearly not insane, this raises no visible sign of skepticism.Principles four through six are meat-and-potatoes theology, but number seven sizzles. "Sexual energy is the creative energy of the universe." Hello! "Art, science, music: All are expressions of the primal energy of the universe," Chopra says. "A peak experience of sexuality gives us true insight into freedom." Sexual energy and spirit are the same thing, he adds. Lesson seven adds to my confusion. If spirit is a microphone, and sexual energy is spirit, the microphone is beginning to take on symbolic properties I'd rather it did not have.Conundrums like this flourish in the Chopra universe. "I want you to suspend your assumptions about what we call reality," he writes in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. "We will explore a place where the rules of everyday existence do not apply." In Ageless Body, Chopra proved himself a master marketer by supplying a product demanded by millions of aging baby boomers: eternal youth. Achieving it, he promised, required only the right mindset. "An aging cell is the end product of an awareness that has forgotten to remain new."At the heart of Deepak Chopra's world there exists one principle: The world is an illusion that you alone create. Once you accept that, anything goes. There is no objective world. Anyone can escape the ravages of time. Suffering is not a necessary part of life. Deepak Chopra says he knows a way to control the world around him. The rest of us want to know how. On Saturday morning some of my fellow boundless journeyers arrive sans nameyoke, which really annoys those of us who are still playing by the rules. Probably primordial sounders. More people are wearing sweatshirts and loose cotton pants, the better to facilitate full-body yoga action. There's some significant neck rubbage going on.Bija the breath master puts us through our paces before Chopra arrives and recaps the previous lesson. "Last night we came to the conclusion that the soul exists in the silent field of infinite possibilities." Two hundred heads bow to record this in their vanilla binders. I scribble too, but at the end of the day I never come up with much. Chopra's lectures don't go anywhere; he fills the day with aphorisms like "The self in its essence is pure joy." His words sound meaningful but when you analyze his phrases they reveal themselves as gassy rhetoric. They're strings of buzzwords. The silent field of infinite possibilities. The possibility of infinite silence. The silence of possibility. It doesn't make sense, but that's the beauty of Chopra's system. If you're striving for reason, you're in the wrong race altogether.Few acts strike more fear into me than public soul-baring. So when Chopra announces "I would like everyone to choose a partner," my heart leaps into my throat. Frantic, I spin around and lock eyes with Rosemary, a thirtyish woman from Spokane: "Partners?" Rosemary agrees, although she seems as pained as I at the prospect of revealing secrets to a stranger. For the next five minutes Rosemary closes her eyes while I whisper "Who are you?" at her every 15 seconds. She's supposed to say whatever comes to mind but she doesn't, and I can tell Rosemary and I are going to have a real Battle of the Shy People on our hands. We switch and Rosemary whispers into my ear. I'm supposed to look for identity deep in my soul but I can't stop singing Who are you in my head like Roger Daltrey."Now I would like you each to tell the other person what you learned about yourself and what you learned about your partner," Chopra says. I give Rosemary some spiritually lame answer about identity and family and friends, and she told me -- well, it wouldn't be fair to say, but take my word that it was more thoughtful than my bit of verbal boilerplate.We repeat the exercise, this time asking our partners "What do you want?" and Chopra tells us it's OK to admit to material wants. "If you desire a new blue Mercedes, go ahead and say it. It's your desire." Not 30 seconds into the exercise a woman a few rows over begins sobbing uncontrollably. Roger Gabriel comforts her and leads her out of the room. I've never been to est (or "The Forum," as it's now called), but this is about as creepily close as I want to get. Rosemary and I continue our dance of the reticents, and in the end we each learn a little something about ourselves. I am -- how did Rosemary put it? -- "a conventional person." Rosemary, thy tongue doth carry the hornet's sting.To wrap up the morning's self-examination we take a quiz to determine our body type. According to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of healing, there are three basic body types: Vatas are thin and high-strung, Pittas are more muscular mesomorphs, and Kaphas are heavier and calmer. I'm a Vata. And as a Vata person there are an array of products specifically formulated for my body type available for purchase in the Infinite Possibilities Resource Center located in a nearby conference room. Two round tables stacked with copies of The Path to Love and Chopra's 365 Days of Wisdom & Healing page-a-day calendar anchor the Resource Center while around them sit pyramids of the many and varied fruits of Chopra's pen. There are videotapes of Chopra's PBS special Body, Mind & Soul and audiotapes of The Return of Merlin. You can hear Chopra read passages from the Bhagavad Gita or the Rig Veda, or invest in the doctor's complete $54.95 guide to weight loss. There are aromatherapy kits specially prepared for Vata, Pitta, or Kapha people; there are Vata-Pitta-Kapha teas and Vata-Pitta-Kapha seasonings. (Vata smells a lot like cumin.) I try to ask the OptiAroma oil saleswoman about the best aroma program for Vata stress but never get the chance because Vijay from Federal Way keeps quizzing her about why the sesame oil is sold out.The fact that Deepak Chopra rakes it in during these seminars became less alarming as the weekend progressed. He isn't bilking any widows out of their life savings. Most attendees are happy to spend 100 bucks a day to listen to the doctor, and at least one woman who couldn't afford tuition was let in as a staff volunteer. For some people these conferences even seem to be a form of weekend recreation. Others are vaguely dissatisfied with their lives or are unhappier than they want to be, and perhaps Chopra helps them get over the hump. The only shame in this whole operation belongs to PBS, which lends Chopra an imprimatur of middlebrow respectability by broadcasting his infomercials as honest edutainment.Saturday afternoon Chopra leads an hour-long meditation in which we are asked to review, as in a home video, today, yesterday, last week, our twenties, our teens, childhood, the nine months in the womb, previous lives, and the future. I get as far as childhood until my tracking goes haywire, but others have finer-tuned machines. When Chopra asks us to share our experiences, a cadre of volunteers marches to the microphone to reveal how many unhappy people dwell among Chopra's followers. Amy from Spokane experienced profound grief and couldn't stop crying. Chris from Salinas got back into the womb but didn't want to come out. Carolyn from Portland didn't like going back to her teenage years and the strictures of her parents. Carolyn gets some kind of cable that the rest of us don't because she was able to regress not only to the womb but to her moment of conception and that of her parents. "My grandparents were having sex and I didn't like that," she says.Chopra pulls a lesson out of Carolyn's vision. "By the way, if your parents had boring sex, then you will be boring and fatigued all your life. If sex was passionate, then you will lead an energetic life." I'm not sure what to do with this information.The meditation review culminates with Pericles, a robust fiftyish man for whom it is as nothing to meditate back 500 years. Pericles is of Greek descent, and he likes to go back to ancient times when the Greeks kicked the Turks out of the Aegean. Which, if you know anything about Greeks and Turks, is pretty much the fantasy you'd expect from a guy named Pericles. After Pericles a softer-spoken woman stands. "Some people come here as emotional wrecks. Now that I've gone through this, I could see the future and I could see the boundless and I could see the potentiality." She says this in such a reflective way that, buzzwords notwithstanding, I quit chuckling about Pericles and realize that, for some people at least, this stuff really works.By Sunday I've learned to skip the first half hour because that's Bija's time and I've had all the breath work I can handle. In the afternoon Chopra works on increasing our brainwave coherence in order to enhance creativity, learning ability, attention span, and memory retrieval. The best way to bring the brainwaves together is through meditation. When we meditate, he says, we increase the levels of seratonin in our brains. The increase is even greater when people meditate together. Not only that: If we were to measure the other guests in the Red Lion this weekend, we'd find their seratonin levels increased too. This elicits a "Woww" from the man behind me, and when I turn around --Pericles!By now the audience is asking more brass-tacks questions. One woman asks Chopra how to measure the progress one makes in increasing one's brainwave coherence. "The more your desires are spontaneously fulfilled," he says. She earnestly writes it down, but there's a sense that the doctor's answer is less than satisfactory.The afternoon winds down with a lesson about how the five senses influence the healing response of the body. More important than what we eat, the doctor says, is how we eat. "It is our state of awareness when we eat that determines how we'll metabolize our food." Concentration on the food is crucial. No dinner in front of the 6 o'clock news. Chopra recommends fasting regimens for Pitta and Kapha people, but advises against any fasting for Vatas. "It would stress them too much," he says."Hah!" says a voice behind me. "Tight- asses." Pericles is not a Vata person. Though his sales figures are remarkable, little of Deepak Chopra's program qualifies as earth-shattering. It's a vague mishmash of East Indian mysticism and ancient healing traditions, standard human potential promises, quasi- scientific research, all tricked up in the form of Chopra himself, who combines his experience with real Western medicine with his East Indian upbringing in an unbeatable package of holy man/doctor. After reading his books I had assumed most of his followers were shopping for eternal youth, but I was wrong. Few people at the seminar really believe Chopra's program can reverse the aging process. The proof is as apparent as the slipcovers on his books. The man on the cover of 1993's Ageless Body, Timeless Mind looks like the younger brother of 1996's The Way of the Wizard. What they're looking for is some form of happiness, of deeper connection with the universe, and a better answer to the question Why. The worst thing Deepak Chopra may do is to convince his followers that perfect bliss is attainable, that pain and suffering and unhappiness are not normal parts of life. That aging is something to be reversed rather than embraced. That the basic illogic and unfairness of life can be reversed through sheer acts of mental will.Of the entire weekend, the one person who remains with me is a woman named Ann, who shared her meditation experience with the audience. While reviewing her life she encountered an old man, she said, who viewed the memories along with her and said, "This isn't such a bad life." "I think that's something I want to remember," Ann said. The doctor had no comment.