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Deep(ak) thoughts 

New age sage's simple teachings raise complex questions about religion/spirituality

The telephone voice is sesame-oil smooth, perfectly suited for guiding seekers through the nomenclature of Eastern philosophy. Recognizable to nearly anyone not living underground for the past decade, it belongs to Deepak Chopra`CHOH-pruh`, arguably the late-20th century's best-known propagator of the mind/body/soul ethic.

While explaining the esoterica of ancient wisdoms and the boundless potentiality of quantum physics, this India-born, Hindu endocrinologist has garnered an astounding worldwide following, from heads of state to homemakers.

What is it about his views that makes them so appealing to millions of people? Despite being lumped into the amalgam of New Age philosophies, he has not invented a new spiritual doctrine: His philosophy is based in quantum physics, blended with Eastern religion and Ayurveda, a Hindu system of medicine practiced in India for a thousand years.

What in the name of neutrinos is going on here?

Chopra himself isn't sure. "I don't know ... I probably serve as an effective bridge between philosophical speculations and science, `since` I don't personally feel a conflict between science and spirituality.

"Throughout history, people have wanted to know, ‘Where did I come from? What's the purpose of my life? Am I a freak accident of nature on this speck of dust we call earth, or is there God?'"

For a long time, Chopra observes, the questions were answered simply: God was a white male in the sky with a white beard. He judged you. If you were good, you went to heaven; if you were bad, you went to hell and burned for eternity.

At the threshold of the millennium, though, the big question remains.

"A deep anxiety of our civilization is this question of meaning or purpose, and as we become more technically advanced, the question becomes more urgent.

"Science is successfully stripping away our beliefs; that's why there's this deep thirst, this yearning"

Chopra didn't step out of some mystical mountain mist: Born in New Delhi, his dad was a prominent cardiologist. He grew up in a country of caste and contrast: privilege and poverty, pristine landscape and pollution, mysticism and misery.

Neither did he grow up with a calling -- medical or metaphysical. Subtle pressure from his father -- gifts of Sinclair Lewis' books featuring physicians as heroes -- persuaded him study medicine rather than pursue his dream of becoming a novelist.

Intellectually gifted, he entered the distinguished All India School of Medical Sciences at 17, was an intern in New Jersey at 23 and chief of staff at a Massachusetts hospital by the time he was 38.

But there was a dark side to his sunny success: an addictive personality that energized his demanding days with countless cigarettes and quarts of coffee, and anesthetized his exhausted nights with Scotch.

Eventually, the mindset of modern health care started to irk him; Chopra began to feel like "a legalized drug pusher," according to a 1996 Time magazine article.

Ultimately, transcendental meditation led him to stop smoking and drinking, and to return to India in search of spiritual identity. There, he became enamored of Maharishi Mahest Yogi, whose practice of Ayurvedic medicine was big business.

By the late '80s, his medical practice, his own marketing of Ayurvedic products and running an upscale Ayurvedic clinic in Massachusetts had made Chopra a millionaire, far from the $100 a week he made as a young hospital employee in New Jersey.

However, it was Chopra's "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind," published in 1993,that catapulted him to a pinnacle of popularity. The book, among its other principles, explains the body as a quantum-physics manifestation, nonsolid and infinite, whose subatomic construction of an invisible intelligence is connected to a universal field of energy and is malleable through human intent.

Humans, he says, are caught up in the superstition of materialism. "If you believe that matter is the essence of reality, you don't understand what science is telling us about the forces that are invisible and ... that weave the fabric of the universe."

He's been pinned with labels he loathes -- guru and prophet -- categories that he firmly denies occupying psychologically or spiritually.

"Life is an open-ended horizon. If you refuse to be squeezed into labels, then you are in the realm of the spirit ... of potentiality where anything is possible."

Neither do people's expectations of him occupy his attention.

"There's a Zen saying -- a good traveler has no definite plans and is not intent upon arriving. I just have to stay on the journey and enjoy it."

He does allow himself to be looked upon as a leader. But, "My wife and my children make sure that I don't take myself seriously."

How do local religious leaders feel about Chopra? What do they view as the movement's lure? Is the immense popularity of the New Age mind/body/soul paradigm having an impact on church membership? What do churchmen see as the movement's lure?

Dr. Arnold Wettstein, professor of religion at Rollins College and a minister in the United Church of Christ, acknowledges the influence of the New Age movement led by Chopra.

"Although there are some pockets of deepened traditionalism and transformed traditional religions, there's a major movement toward New Age religions. There's a judgment that traditional institutions have been less than effective in cultivating the inner life, especially the midlife person wondering if there is something more to living than he or she is experiencing."

To them, New Age teachers point to a modern world that has reduced spiritual possibilities. Change is up to the individual. New Age thought urges discovery of self-oriented spirituality, rather than doctrinal truths or even faith.

For example, Chopra teaches that spirituality is beyond faith, in a universal domain of awareness where we can all explore the same truths.

Says Wettstein, "Much of New Age teaching uses scientific language, and that helps some people; philosophical exploration helps others. The idea is to experience spirituality in a novel way. Too, this is a new pattern with slight talk about sinfulness."

Religion, he says, is now less a social phenomenon, more an inward, subjective one. People who continue a relationship with traditional places of worship personalize it with ideas and inspirations from a variety of enriching sources.

Wettstein, in fact, practices yoga and has a Zen master whose teachings he takes very seriously. But he still thinks it important to be a part of a believing community that keeps one in a continual discourse about the what and why of personal belief.

On the other hand, Jimmy Knott, associate pastor at the First Baptist Church of Orlando, has an unabashed reaction to the insights of Chopra and others in the New Age movement.

"About five years ago, I presented an in-depth study to educate our people about what was out there: Judaism, Mormons, Roman Catholics, New Age -- so they could recognize either the error or the foolishness. One was Eastern influence in America. New Age. It picked up where secular humanism left off, which failed because it's very atheistic, which is not true of New Age."

New Age tenets state that we all have the spark of divinity deep within, which we can discover through meditation or other techniques. That, says Knott, is what makes New Age even more dangerous than the earlier movement.

"God made us innately hungry for Him. Today, much of what is going on in Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Judaism is unattractive, boring, impotent. You walk away empty, still hungry for God.

"Then you read somewhere that you can become like God -- another way of saying you can do what you want, when you want, and you're not accountable. Who wouldn't like to think he's his own ultimate authority? No, New Age doesn't keep God out, it brings him in, way in ... you can become like him.

"That's not a New Age movement, it's an age-old lie. That's what Satan told Eve in Eden."

Knott says such degradation began in the mid-'60s with rock & roll and Jesus music, but now people are returning to the main line, anxious for the standards laid down in the bible. "I think as much as we want to bang our heads against the boundaries, we find safety in them as well."

Knott says that his concerns about the New Age movement are the same as with any sect that denies the existence of one, true, creating God or challenges the "uniqueness" of Jesus.

But Chopra doesn't say Jesus wasn't unique, only that his example is achievable. This idea, by its nature, is anathema to Knott, a self-professed "good, old Baptist man of faith" who, likewise, would decline to join Dr. Wettstein in the lotus position.

"I get worried about anything that tells me to empty my mind; that's on the opposite end of what the Bible tells me to do. Now, I may be wrong or I may be right, but I am never in doubt."

In other words, his is old-time religion.

"Religion," says Chopra, "has nothing to do with spirituality, but is about politics and egos and tribal wars. It uses the tactics of fear, threats, guilt."

Then, too, there is the money generated by the movement.

"New Age is having a tremendous impact economically," says Knott. "Look at all its connections in publicity, movies, seminars, education and medicine."

In 1998, total revenues from the New Age movement are estimated at $2.7 billion. Chopra's enterprises alone bring in about $15 million a year. Sales of his 19 books continue to soar (10 million in 30 languages); there is a feeding frenzy for his newly launched CDs and videos; and he remains one of the most in-demand speakers on earth.

Rollin's Wettstein says there is much in New Age religion that he admires, especially recovering one's inner potential and stewardship of the natural world. But he does have concerns, though different from Knott's.

"I think New Age misses some central moral issues we must address. They seem to show little interest and concern about the hungry and starving of the world and the central moral outrage that there're persistent pockets of poverty in the world of affluence."

In fact, Chopra works closely with people who want to create businesses based on ethics, not profit. He's known as a munificent philanthropist. Additionally, 10% of his 50 lectures (for which he otherwise charges $25,000) are free for charities.

Chopra sighs. "`Wettstein's` statement reveals complete, total ignorance of all spiritual pursuits, East and West. The Spirit, by definition, is a domain of awareness where we experience our universality. The mind/body/soul movement has helped millions of peoples in all cultures throughout the world.

"Those who accuse the movement of solipsism or egocentric motivation have probably never had experiential knowledge of Spirit, `which is` beyond skin and encapsulated ego. It is a realm of consciousness where we feel love, compassion, empathy and concern."

Morality, then, is a byproduct of spiritual experience, not the means to it.

"All the self-righteous morality of the world, which H.G. Wells called ‘jealousy with a halo,' has not helped a single soul," says Chopra.

Along the path of spiritual evolution, Chopra, who recently quit practicing endocrinology, believes he's "maybe somewhere between seeker and seer."

These days, he's embracing his childhood dream of writing novels; a genre, he says, which allows him to express himself unfettered.

Too, he's learned to shrug off the sometimes sarcastic press. "I realized a story says more about the writer than about me."

What has he realized about himself?

"That I, like you, am a field of infinite possibilities."

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