Forty years ago, Deepak Chopra was a stressed-out chief of staff at a hospital in Boston, drinking and smoking too much, and desperately unhappy.
The endocrinologist knew he had to get his life back on track so he took up meditation, under the tutelage of world master Maharishi Yogi, who was spiritual guru to the Beatles at the time. Within months, Chopra was on a New Age path to enlightenment. Today, his name – and the Chopra brand – is practically synonymous with the US$4.5-trillion global wellness industry.
As impressive as these numbers are, so too, are Chopra’s efforts over the past 40 years to bring mindfulness to the mainstream. The 74-year-old has written 91 books (of which more than 20 are New York Times bestsellers) and has had his hand in a vast array of wellness enterprises, including real estate, supplements, body mists, retreats, symposiums and meditation apps. Just this week, he announced a partnership with Fitbit, called the Mindful Method, which gives users access to Chopra-led sessions on everything from sleep to nutrition to stress management.
His followers – he has 2.3 million on Instagram – see him as a soulful seer who has helped them find inner peace. His detractors criticize him as a profiteer who has commercialized an ancient spiritual practice that dates back to 1500 BC. In an interview from his home in La Jolla, Calif., Chopra talks about the greatest threat to mankind (stress), addresses his critics (“trolls”) and thanks his lucky stars he found meditation because it enables him to transcend all the noise.
What is your view on the current state of the world?
In a word, stressed. The pandemic, of course, has made it worse for many people. Stress is the number one epidemic of our time. It is also the number one cause of addictive behaviours and countless illnesses. It is ultimately the cause of violence, of terrorism, of extinction of species, of climate change. So many things. Unless we address stress as the number one threat to society we will keep moving in the direction of self-destruction.
When you started this journey almost half a century ago did you ever imagine that mindfulness and meditation would be so popular?
Meditation has been around for 5,000 years, in the east and in the west, but of course, none of its benefits were trackable. Technology has changed all that. It validates every health benefit long promised by the ancient tradition [of meditation]. With the Fitbit app, for instance, biomarkers show us, in real-time, the immediate benefits of meditation – a lower heart rate, improved energy levels, better sleep patterns, etc. Technology and meditation are a natural fit because people see those results and it motivates them to pick up the practice.
So technology and mindfulness are a symbiotic fit?
Technology is the not the bad guy in this equation. Technology is neutral. We are the creators of technology, not the victims of it. It can be used for destructive purposes: You can poison the food chain, you can be a troll on the internet, you can cause a lot of distress and stress. Or you can use it to ease the world. It’s up to us if we use it for the divine or not. I believe technology is here to help us get in touch with the divine. Technology is part of evolution and if we don’t adapt, we become irrelevant.
Throughout your career, you’ve been no stranger to criticism, what do you say to your critics?
If I was bothered by them I wouldn’t be speaking to you today. The critics are always there. I regard them as trolls and they only serve as inspiration to me to do more of what I’ve always done. People make money selling pharmaceuticals and opiates, selling weapons, selling pornography, selling cigarettes and selling alcohol. If some people believe that making money from a spiritual practice that helps people is morally wrong, they are entitled to that belief. I’m proud to do this. It is something I will never apologize for.
How long do you meditate each day?
I’m currently practicing four hours a day, two in the morning and two in the evening. However, a person can meditate for 20 minutes and get the biological benefits of improved mind-body connection and self-healing. Meditation improves immune functioning, as well as your emotional and mental wellbeing. It leads to purpose. It can lead to a change in identity. I, for example, no longer think of myself in a physical universe. The ultimate goal of meditation is to know yourself as a timeless being beyond space and time, and along the way, you get healthier. You sleep better. Your social interactions are healthier. You have more laughter and love.
How do you relax?
I walk with my wife. I resurrect my soul through yoga. I read and I write. Writing is like meditation for me because it transports me to a world of wonder, curiosity, joy and freedom of expression. It’s like singing in the shower.
How do you keep coming up with new ideas?
I go to sleep at night with a question and I wake up in the morning with the answer. Often that is the seed of a new book.
You have said, ‘aging is a learned behaviour.’ How old do you feel?
Today I feel 37. My blood pressure and biomarkers are those of a much younger man. I can do yoga with the ease of a 30-year-old and I’m confident I could run a marathon. Nothing is more important than connecting with your bliss. Nothing is as rich. Nothing is more real. And nothing is more rewarding.
This interview has been condensed and edited.