Originally created 01/22/05

Spiritual leader Chopra tackles world peace

NEW YORK - It's an incongruous image: Deepak Chopra, leader of a spiritual movement that has introduced millions of Americans to the benefits of positive thinking, waving a cell phone in the air as he lists its capacities for destruction.

"I could be sitting anywhere in the world and move a few electrons from here, and I'll interfere with the power grid for the entire state of New York," he says. "Or I'll interfere with air traffic signals so no plane can land at JFK. What is military power going to do then?"

Chopra hasn't snapped. He's explaining what he sees as the ineffectiveness of conventional warfare in an age when terrorists can wreak havoc without a single armed troop.

What's needed instead, he says, is a return to the ancient principle that peace begins within: Just as individuals can now perpetrate mass violence, individuals must also take responsibility for creating world peace.

That's the message of Chopra's new book, "Peace Is the Way," which offers seven daily practices that he says will create inner peace and, by extension, a more placid world.

Is it naive to think enough people will adopt his ideas to make a difference?

"We have to try. If you ask anybody on the street, 'Do you want peace of mind in your life and in your relationships?' nobody is going to say no," he says. "Magnify that a few million times - that's what we need."

It's that steadfast optimism that has become Chopra's trademark. He has made a career of purveying hope, earning an estimated $10 million to $15 million by selling 20 million copies of his 40 books and operating a successful wellness center in California.

His legions of fans include the Dalai Lama, former Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu, Betty Williams and Oscar Arias, and former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose endorsements fill the first few pages of "Peace Is the Way."

He has also become the unofficial television spokesman of the New Age movement, appearing on scores of TV talk shows each year, from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to "The O'Reilly Factor."

It's easy to see why. Wearing a pair of rainbow-framed reading glasses and speaking in a voice that rarely deviates from a singsong cheerfulness, Chopra comes across as casual and approachable. During a recent interview in a lounge at his midtown Manhattan apartment building, he is dressed in a sweater and slacks and weighs a few pounds more than the average health expert.

True to his image as an unflappable guru, Chopra - who's about 58 but doesn't remember exactly when he was born - says notoriety doesn't faze him. He says he leads a normal family life with his wife, Rita, and has two grown children and a granddaughter.

"I don't get drawn into the melodrama," he says. "I meditate two hours every day and exercise every day. Once in a while, I feel stressed, but not really. It's not in my nature."

Another key to his success lies in his ability to make ancient Hindu teachings relevant to a contemporary audience, says Bawa Jain, secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders.

"There are great Indian leaders who know their scriptures in depth, but the way Deepak communicates, I don't see anyone else having that ability," says Jain, who has known Chopra for about 12 years. "He's very carefully crafted those scriptures to have application to our lives, and then marketed them very well. And God bless him for it."

His previous writings have instructed readers how to adopt a positive attitude to combat chronic illnesses such as addiction or insomnia, and in "Peace Is the Way" Chopra treats violence in similar terms.

"Like any habit, war has worn a groove in our minds," he writes in the first chapter. "We reach for war the way a chain-smoker reaches for a cigarette, muttering all the while that we have to quit."

It may surprise some, but Chopra is writing from personal experience. In the mid-1980s, when he was chief of staff of New England Memorial Hospital near Boston, Chopra was on the brink of an emotional breakdown. He drank, smoked and was a self-described caffeine addict. In desperation, he turned to yoga and meditation to relieve his stress, and began to see their positive contrast to the "pill-pushing" he says he did as a conventional doctor.

He also traveled to India, where he was born and earned his medical degree. There, he met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a meditation teacher and spiritual leader who famously served as guru to The Beatles in the 1960s. The Maharishi introduced Chopra to Ayurvedic medicine, which uses herbal mixtures to stave off illness.

After returning to the United States, Chopra founded an Ayurvedic health center in 1985, the same year he quit his hospital job. He started writing books, with the first, "Creating Health," appearing in 1987. His breakthrough success came with "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind," published in 1993, in which he argued that people could slow the aging process through meditation, better diet and self-affirmation exercises.

In 1996, he opened The Chopra Center in La Jolla, Calif. A day spa at the center offers massages, aromatherapy and other 35-minute treatments ranging in price from $95 to $185; seminars and retreats with titles like "Renewal Weekend" and "Journey Into Healing" are also available.

As Chopra's fame and financial success grew, he began to sever his ties to the Western medical establishment, letting his medical licenses expire in Massachusetts and California.

The estrangement was mutual. Some mainstream doctors dismissed Chopra's mind-body approach as ineffective in treating disease, and in the early 1990s he was accused of making a backhanded pitch for his health center when he wrote an article in the Journal of American Medical Association about the benefits of herbal medicine.

Today, he maintains his goals are altruistic, and says he channels much of his earnings to charity.

"I've become successful by nurturing people," he says. "I haven't done it by selling weapons."

Recently, he has even made some amends with the medical community. He teaches a course at Harvard Medical School once a year, and he says courses at The Chopra Center are now certified by the American Medical Association. He is again a licensed medical doctor in California, though he only rarely sees individual patients.

"I was criticized, called a fraud - it was a very cantankerous and antagonistic relationship (with the medical mainstream). So I basically left. Now I get constantly invited to give talks at medical schools, and professional societies are giving me honorary memberships," he says with a laugh, and shrugs.

"I guess we've come full circle."

On the Net:

The Chopra Center, http://www.chopra.com


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