Deepak Chopra, the world-renowned Indian-born guru of mind-body medicine is in Dublin for a flying visit on his European tour. The diminutive 76-year-old author of 93 books on holistic health and meditation is here to speak to an audience of 300 people at the Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) Creative Minds and Wellbeing Day. The event is co-led by Minding Creative Minds, a state-supported agency which offers counselling, financial advice and career mentoring to all those working in the creative industry.
In a panel discussion with singer, podcaster, documentary maker and author Niall Breslin, Senator Lynn Ruane, psychotherapist Dil Wickremasinghe and Minding Creative Minds board member Anne Marie Shields – Chopra looks a little uncomfortable as MC, Dermot Whelan (comedian, broadcaster and meditation teacher) injects lots of Irish humour into the proceedings. “The problem is, I don’t necessarily understand all these jokes,” he says, with a smile.
Yet, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand when it’s his turn to speak. “There are four illusions responsible for all human suffering – predictability, control, identity and time,” he argues, going on to explain why, in essence, our world is unpredictable and out of control, our identities imposed upon us and time an illusion.
It’s an introduction to the existential theme that is central to his message. “There is a big difference between self-image and self-esteem, the latter is from your true self – beyond your personal ego and identity. Self-image is a socially-induced hallucination but self-esteem is where joy, health, creativity, insight, imagination and higher level of transcendence comes from.”
Director Jim Sheridan presented Chopra with the Irish Academy lifetime achievement award for his contribution to and support of the creative industries worldwide, saying: “You’re incomparable and so gentle, and your spirit just radiates.”
Chopra grew up in New Delhi. His father was a British army doctor and later an Indian doctor. “My father gave free clinics at the weekends and my mother cooked for [his patients] and prayed for them, making sure they had enough money for the bus or train home. She was almost as good at diagnosing conditions as he was,” he says. His father later became a physician in the Royal Hospital in London and Chopra studied to become a medical doctor in India.
Chanting and poetry and music are languages of the soul – they cut through the intellect and go to the heart of our being— Chopra
He moved to the United States to do his specialist training, later qualifying as an endocrinologist. “My father was very compassionate which with empathy is key to alleviating suffering,” he says, adding that he knew he had lost his compassion when – aged 45 – working in a busy American hospital, he became very stressed, smoked one pack of cigarettes a day and got drunk on Fridays.
Thus began his crusade to focus instead on the mind/body connections to ill health through the Chopra Foundation, an approach which the medical profession vilified for years. Over the decades, however, the mind/body connections became more accepted (with brain scans validating some theories) by orthodox western medicine and Chopra now holds a professorship at Mount Sinai medical school in New York.
Yet, sceptics might argue that Chopra is peddling home truths that have been central to religious teaching for centuries. “I don’t believe in religious dogma, ideology or institutions, but I believe in the religious experience,” he says.
And he peppers his talks with wisdom shared by most world religions. “In every tradition, people chant and sing hymns. Chanting, singing, deep slow breathing, loving intention meditations, yoga, t’ai chi, qigong – they all stimulate the vagus nerve which is the healing nerve in our bodies – the brain’s connection to the body. There are cultural differences but they all have the same effect. Chanting and poetry and music are languages of the soul – they cut through the intellect and go to the heart of our being” he says.
When Whelan asks Chopra if Irish people are a little bit lost, Chopra quotes Rumi, the 13th-century poet and Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic in his reply. “Rumi says that a longing is the way to enlightenment, truth and a deep desire to know who we are beyond social constraints.”
He goes on to reference more concrete initiatives he has been involved with – digiceuticals (eg Chatbot counselling for teenagers) and electroceuticals (medical devices which provide neurostimulation for therapy). Yet, he says, “there is no mental solution to depression, fear, anxiety, anger and hostility. The mind is always vacillating between different emotional states. Only spiritual wellbeing which transcends the mind will bring us beyond conflict.”
The Chopra Foundation worldwide initiative, Never Alone aims to develop a new vision of mental and emotional health which has community, spiritual practice and a sense of purpose or service as key elements.
Speaking to The Irish Times after his presentation, when asked if he is wealthy, he remarks that, by many people’s standards, he is. Living on the 11th floor of a building on Washington Park Square in New York’s East Village doesn’t come cheap. His Indian wife divides her time between New York and Los Angeles where their children and grandchildren live. Most of his money comes from speaking engagements and his books – which he says he writes using artificial intelligence to substantiate the facts and one good editor.
Responding to questions about many Irish people’s disillusionment with the Catholic Church following scandals and abuses, he says, “every religious institution in the world has scandals. That’s what happens when people have power and influence.”
He doesn’t have much time for politicians either – although he does cite former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern as exceptions.
The last 25 years [of life] are about recognising that it was all a dream. I practice every night my preparation for death with joy— Chopra
Educated by Irish Christian Brothers in New Delhi – although his family was not Catholic – he says he still loves the rituals, chorals and gospels of Christianity. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater or the bathwater out with the baby. What religious traditions call your soul, we call conscious presence. It’s where you find beauty, love and joy if you carry it wherever you go,” he says.
Referencing his knowledge of James Joyce, WB Yeats and Oscar Wilde, he says: “I owe a lot to my Irish teachers. Irish people are amazing storytellers and storytelling is full of paradox, contradictions, ambiguity and humour.”
Reflecting on his life stage, Chopra says that he is more at peace now. “The first 25 years of your life are about education, the second 25 are about fame and fortune, the next 25 about giving back and the last 25 years are about recognising that it was all a dream. I practice every night my preparation for death with joy.” He has also spent two hours each day on yoga and meditation over the past 30 years.
As he ends the event by leading the audience in a short guided meditation, he speaks about the importance of giving yourself time to rest and rejuvenate. “One Buddhist meditation asks you to close your eyes and smile in every part of your body,” he says.
The simple meditation is a signal to ourselves and the world we live in that we need time out – not just from our frantic to-do lists but also from ourselves, our endless thoughts, anxieties, work and financial pressures and yes that self-image that maybe doesn’t need to be promoted on social media quite as much as we believe.
Yet, in spite of sharing this need for transcendence, Chopra poses for selfies with fans just after the event in O’Reilly Theatre at Belvedere School in Dublin.