In March, I attended a debate on the proposition “The more we evolve, the less we need God,” With Michael Shermer and Heather Berlin for the motion and Deepak Chopra and Anoop Kumar against the motion. The next day I published an account titled “Do Not Debate Deepak Chopra” (subtitle: “He’s not even wrong.”).
Soon after, Chopra reached out to me and invited me to lunch. In April I met him in his office at Deepak Homebase in Manhattan, we had lunch downstairs at ABC Kitchen, and returned to his office. This is a nearly full transcript of our two-hour conversation.
Matt: So, I’m curious why you invited me, what you wanted to talk about.
Deepak: I read your article, “Not Even Wrong.” That’s been my label for a long time from a lot of people, so I thought I’d give you my perspective on what I think reality is and see if we can expand the conversation.
Matt: So the debate, it seemed like it was ships crossing in the night. The two sides were talking about different things and so I think it was clear to—or everyone else had one conception about what the debate was going to be about: the usefulness of the idea of God as conceived in monotheistic religions. Whereas the two of you were—it seemed like you were avoiding that debate and talking about something else.
Deepak: So let me give you a little background to that. The first time we were invited to the debate by the organizers—I didn’t know who they were—the topic was, “As we evolve do we need religion?” So I called the organizers and I said, “Let me rephrase that if you don’t mind. Can we say, ‘As we evolve do we need religious experience?'” So they said “We don’t know what that means.”
I said, as I look across the religions of the world, the common features I see are: Number one: transcendence—as a religious experience, not the dogma, not the ideology, not the institution—but transcendence, going beyond subject-object split. Number two: the emergence of platonic values as a result of that experience, like the desire to know the truth, goodness, beauty, harmony, love, compassion, joy, equanimity, gratitude and humility, wonder, curiosity. It’s very human but it gets overshadowed by everyday experience.
And number three: a loss of the fear of death, because that happens to experience, not to the consciousness in which that experience occurs. I think they didn’t understand that, honestly, so they rephrased it as “Do we need God?” So I said, “Listen, before I even go there, can we have a conversation?” So they were very gracious.
We all got together with the board or whatever and we had a conversation. I said, “Honestly, God is a very loaded term and if by God we mean some imagined deity or some dead white male in the sky then it’s not something that we can even address because we don’t have that conception of God as an imagined deity.”
Matt: You mean that’s not something you personally can address?
Deepak: Yeah I can’t address it, nor can my partner. They said, “Well if you make that clear up front, then it’s fine, but we still want to maintain God in the title.” So I was keen to have this conversation because Michael and I have been going back and forth for 30 years now, and I thought, Michael’s come to a very good place with me personally.
So we agreed to the title. But if you go to the Eastern wisdom traditions—Buddhism, Vedanta, Shaoism, all the Eastern traditions—then God is pure consciousness, period. So the debate, you’re right, they were talking about the mythical God and we were talking about that which is inconceivable as consciousness but makes every concept possible.
So I can give you a background on that because monotheistic religions are at war all the time amongst each other, and all of the problems in the world right now are a consequence of that. But nobody talks about “What is a religious or spiritual experience?” Hundreds of millions of people across the world don’t have that idea at all that the monotheistic religions propose. In fact, if you go deep into the teachings of Buddhism, etc., the word God is not mentioned. Only consciousness is mentioned. Vedanta, only consciousness is mentioned. And it’s a very different take on consciousness.
So, if you’ll allow me for a moment to explain that. So when I was a kid, I grew up in India with a father who was agnostic or atheist, who was trained in England as a cardiologist. He went on to become a very famous person. He discovered high altitude mountain sickness. When the Indian and Chinese army were fighting in Tibet he was putting catheters in people’s hearts and measuring their cardiac pressures. He described high altitude pulmonary edema and hypertension. My mother was what you might call a Hindu.
But even when she told us stories as kids and she talked about all these mythical gods and goddesses, she emphasized the fact that these are mythical, imaginary, symbolic expressions of deep aspirations in human consciousness to understand reality. Now she was also, by the way, she wasn’t a very educated woman like my father was. But she had enough ideas in her upbringing to say that the world you experience as everyday reality is not real. She would say that probably because she had heard it an amount of times. But when you’re a child, that sticks with you, that the world you experience is not real. So that’s my childhood background until I went to medical school. Medical school, I embraced everything that my father had taught about reality being physical, material. He was actually more than—he was almost like Michael Shermer in the earlier days when I was growing up.
Matt: How did your parents get along?
Deepak: Oh he was a very loving person.
Matt: Completely different philosophies.
Deepak: Yeah but he was an amazing person in terms of being a physician. I mean this is long before technology. He could listen to a heart with a stethoscope and tell you, which you may or may not know, the PR interval, which means the difference in microseconds between the atrial and the ventricular beat, which you could verify on an electrocardiogram. He was astonishing as a diagnostician.
He trained with Wallace Brigden in England who was one of the earlier pioneers in electrocardiography. He was a consultant to the royal heart hospital to the queen at one time before he came back to India, the British army. So, he was an amazing person but he was also very compassionate. On weekends he would see patients free of charge, and my mother would cook food for them and make sure they had enough money for their bus or their train. So there was a very compassionate aspect to him, but he didn’t believe in religion or anything like that.
So then when I went to medical school I totally embraced my father’s constructs. Except for one or two experiences during medical school, which was in India by the way. And it was one of the newer medical schools after British independence, called the Indian Institute of Medical Sciences, and it was funded by, amongst other people, the Rockefeller Foundation, and so we had lots of international faculty. So in my fourth year of medical school, when the Beatles were in India—that’s George Harrison behind you, by the way, in a turban sitting next to me.
So that is a later picture but the Beatles came to India in 1969, when I was finishing my medical school. I didn’t know these guys at that time. But Sergeant Pepper’s had come out, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and we had four medical students as visitors to our classroom for the summer from Harvard. And they had with them a bunch of LSD. So my first experience was—and I was just near 18, when we had the first LSD experience.
And then another one. Twice. And suddenly what my mother had been saying all these years about the world being an illusion was in the way an epiphany to me, at the age of 17. I mean I saw that the construction of—dissolving of boundaries like this, this, this and melting away. And then just colors and shapes and forms and sounds. And then a vast nothingness with no boundaries. But I was there. Not as a body, not as a mind, not as anything I could identify with, but just totally boundless. It was totally life-shifting at the age of 18 years.
But then what happened is the medical school is very busy. You have to study, pass exams, this, that. And I put that aside, that experience side.
Then at the age of 22, I came to the United States, and I had to do a lot of hardship to get here. My father wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be an academic. He was a professor, too, of cardiology. So I worked hard. India wasn’t encouraging people to leave. I had to go to Sri Lanka to pass my exams, I had to borrow money to get a flight to the United States, I passed all that, I had to spend a year in New Jersey at a very ordinary community hospital, hard-working, and I got a residency in Boston with various hospitals with academics. So, Harvard, Tufts, BU, internal medicine, hard work, no thinking about consciousness whatsoever. Just passing one exam after another, getting one fellowship after another.