The science behind spirituality

Author and practising endocrinologist Deepak Chopra believes meditation is the way to a better, healthier you.

I first read a Deepak Chopra book a couple of years ago in a hotel where there was a small selection of books provided for guests. I picked one at random (he would no doubt call that synchronicity – a coincidence offered to me by the universe) and got acquainted with a book of his called Synchrodestiny .

Although I felt I had discovered a hidden gem, I was in fact coming late to the party. Chopra is author of 55 books that have sold tens of millions of copies, has admirers including Oprah, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, and was named one of the top 100 icons of the 20th century by Time magazine.

For those who may be a little concerned about the rather light evidence base of books by Eckhart Tolle ( The Power of Now ) or Rhonda Byrne ( The Secret ), Chopra offers something more plausible.

A former chief of staff at the Boston Regional Medical Center and a practising endocrinologist, he seems to represent a link between spirituality and science, between eastern and western approaches to healing, between the ancient and the modern.

Not surprisingly then, his detractors come from both sides of the aisle. Christian fundamentalists were upset with his book, The Third Jesus, which claimed that Jesus was talking about shifts in consciousness when he referred to the kingdom of heaven.

Richard Dawkins derided him as one of his “Enemies of Reason” in the titular documentary series.

Scientists and academics dislike his tendency (typical of the mind/body genre) to reduce philosophy to neat packages – the 10 rules of this, the seven principles of that.

Chopra, however, challenges the rigid parameters of the spirituality versus materialism argument and the idea that there are only two possible ways to look at the world – through faith and superstition, or through the rigours of logic and evidence.

In my interview with him, he cites the work of Dr Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, and Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose, as examples of scientists who believe there is a link between spirituality and quantum physics.

Is it really feasible that science and religion could one day sing off the same hymn sheet?

“Well, it would have to be more like a secular spirituality,” he says. “It would have to be religions that do not contradict evolution, because these things are scientific fact.

“Science knows that there is an underlying intelligence that permeates the entire universe. It is just that in religion we call that God. I think that science is getting there.”

Born in 1947 in New Delhi, Chopra had intended to study English literature or journalism, but eventually followed in his father’s footsteps into medicine.

Having graduated from medical school in India, he moved to the United States in 1970, eventually becoming chief of staff at Boston Regional Medical Center.

He has referred to his life at the time as “crushing” – he chain-smoked, drank scotch to cope with the stress, and became increasingly fed up of treating patients as “machines with parts wearing out”.

He has said in previous interviews that he felt like a licensed drug-pusher.

And yet, he writes in Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul , “every one of these people lived lives that had nothing to do with machines breaking down and needing repair”.

“These lives were full of meaning and hope, emotions and aspirations, love and suffering.

“Machines don’t lead such lives. Before long I began to see that the body as seen through the lens of science was inadequate and artificial.”

Ultimately Chopra merged his medical knowledge with studies of physics, metaphysics, psychology and ancient Ayurvedic medicine to come up with a more holistic approach to healing. The central themes?

Thoughts and emotions cannot be separated from the body which produces them and are, therefore, inextricably related to illness, and controversially, that we are not human beings that have occasional spiritual experiences, but rather spiritual beings having a human experience.

“In Christian theology,” he says, “it talks about being in the world but not of it. Our spiritual nature is eternal and transcendent. It exists outside of space time.”

As a physician, he was fascinated by healing and, specifically, the idea of spontaneous remission.

“What I discovered is that a shift in consciousness can lead to a shift in biology.

“If you are stressed, the cells in your body reflect that. We ignored the impact on the body of the states of consciousness we call holiness, love, compassion, joy or just plain happiness.

“It’s only in the past 10 to 15 years that research has shown that when a person is in love, their biology is different.”

Healing, he says, is a return to a memory of who you really are.

“If you look at the word healing it has the same root as the word holy – in many spiritual traditions holiness is the return of the memory of holiness.

“We are able to re-engineer our bodies by changing the self which ultimately means we can live healthier, more fruitful lives and reach God consciousness, which is what this journey is all about.”

A thread that runs through all of Chopra’s books is the importance of meditation. Even though he spends half his year on the road (he’s in Dublin to deliver a lecture in the National Concert Hall tomorrow evening), he still finds time to meditate for up to two hours a day.

As far as Chopra is concerned, there need not be any conflict between the practice of meditation and an individual’s religious belief.

“Meditation is part of every spiritual tradition including Christianity, although it would be called contemplation in that tradition. It was part of the lives of all the great saints.

“Meditation allows you to go past your mind and get in touch with your spirit. Eventually, it means the loss of fear and a gradual discovery of your true self.”

[Michael Kelly: Irish Times]

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