My first morning at “Sages & Scientists,” I walked into a cavernous ballroom as Deepak Chopra, on a stage, brilliantly illuminated, assured the audience that “consciousness is reality.”
He looked weird, almost too real. Then I realized I was seeing not Chopra himself, the spirituality and holistic-health mogul and host of the meeting, but an image of him projected onto a screen. That unsettling moment presaged my lingering ambivalence toward Chopra, whom I met shortly after that initial sighting.
In lectures, books, videos, online courses and programs at the Chopra Center for Well Being in Carlsbad, California, Chopra promotes “integrative health,” in which meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices supplement conventional medicine.
Chopra convened “Sages & Scientists,” which took place September 9-11 in Beverley Hills, California, to explore the possibility that consciousness is “fundamental and not just something generated by the brain.” Chopra often cites this philosophical claim when touting the mind’s capacity to heal the body.
I enjoyed the meeting, in spite of the occasional whiff of hucksterism. I met cool people and heard interesting talks on physics, biology and psychology. [See Postscript and Deepak Chopra responds at the end of this post.]
Chopra, who paid me to speak, was unfailingly gracious to me, even after I denigrated his consciousness-centered worldview as “neo-geocentrism.” When I complained about the lack of attention to war, he immediately hauled me to a make-shift studio so we could plug my book The End of War on his social media site Jiyo.
Researchers making these claims are often linked to pro-meditation groups, like the Chopra Foundation and the Transcendental Meditation movement. Objective assessments of meditation show mild benefits, consistent with the placebo effect. If you think meditation will alleviate your anxiety or depression, there’s a chance it will. Meditation is certainly safer than antidepressants, which are like placebos with side effects. But telling people that wishful thinking can help them overcome serious illnesses, like cancer, is cruel.
During a panel discussion after my talk, Chopra denied ever saying that meditation can heal cancer. When I emailed Chopra to confirm his public statement, he replied: “Yes I've never said meditation or anything we do can heal cancer.”
I didn’t contradict Chopra during the panel discussion, but the online version of my talk linked to a 2009 Chopra Center press release, “Healing Cancer Through Mind-Body Medicine.” The release advertises a DVD called “Return to Wholeness: A Mind-body Approach to Healing Cancer.” The release begins:
Mind-body healing pioneers and Chopra Center co-founders, Deepak Chopra, M.D. and David Simon, M.D., and renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie Simonton, have created a first-of-its kind DVD for those coping with cancer. The DVD “Return to Wholeness: A Mind-body Approach to Healing Cancer” demonstrates the power of the mind to heal the body and offers a three-step healing approach that combines science, animation, and meditation.
The release quotes Chopra: “Meditation and visualization are two of the most effective technologies we have for bringing the body-mind into a deep state of relaxation, restoring balance, and allowing healing to unfold.” A YouTube clip from “Return to Wholeness” shows an animated macrophage devouring a tumor cell. The narrator says:
Through meditation and healing visualizations, you can learn to calm turbulent thoughts, leading to a reduction in stress hormone levels, as you bring peace to the turbulence in your mind and body. The stress chemical cloud dissipates. As the fog clears in your bone marrow, healthy immune cells begin actively dividing and are able to enter into the circulation. Your awakened immune system can then perform its duty of defending you from infection and cancer. With the fog clearing, your macrophages can perform their job of gobbling up and digesting tumor cells.
The “Return to Wholeness” video reminds me of Pfizer’s widely criticized televised advertisement for Zoloft, which shows the antidepressant correcting an “imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells.”
After “Sages & Scientists,” I noticed that the link embedded in my Scientific American post no longer goes to the 2009 press release “Healing Cancer Through Mind-Body Medicine.” It goes to a webpage for the Chopra Center. (I found another link for the 2009 press release here.)
When I emailed Chopra to ask if he had ordered the link’s redirection, he replied, “No I did not redirect. I have not looked at our website for almost a year!” In a later email he said, “The headline [for the 2009 press release] is not appropriate. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.”
But Chopra still aggressively markets mind-based treatments. The Chopra Center no longer lists the “Return to Wholeness” DVD, but it does sell Chopra’s 1989 bestseller Quantum Healing, which offers advice on how to “defeat cancer, heart disease, and even aging itself.”
Chopra’s recent bestseller Super Brain suggests that “increased self-awareness” can help us “reduce the risks of aging” and achieve “freedom and bliss.” Chopra co-wrote Super Brain and a more recent book, Super Genes, with Harvard neurology professor Rudolph Tanzi, who spoke at “Sages & Scientists.”
The irony is that by the end of “Sages & Scientists,” I had warmed toward Chopra’s consciousness-is-everything metaphysics. If people find that view consoling and empowering, what’s the harm?
My skepticism toward meditation also softened. Although there is no solid evidence that meditation can prevent or cure serious illnesses, it can relieve stress and improve mood in many people, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. And unlike, say, antidepressants or radiation therapy, meditation poses no significant risks and it can be practiced for free. So why not encourage people to try it, especially given the limits of conventional medicine?
Chopra emphasized those limits during the conference and in an email to me. He wrote: “I hope you know that despite tremendous progress in some types of cancer treatment the age-adjusted mortality in cancer has not changed in 3 decades.” Age-adjusted mortality in the U.S. has actually dropped slightly since the mid-1980s, but Chopra is right that conventional medicine isn’t winning the war on cancer.
On the other hand, Chopra’s monetization of meditation bothers me. The Chopra Center offers a two-day meditation program, October 1-2, for $465 (marked down from $675), not including accommodations. The center sells meditation DVDs for $49.99. The “Dream Master,” glasses that emit light and sound and cost $354, can generate “beneficial states of consciousness” and “increase your motivation, personal growth, intuition and creativity.”
The placebo effect poses tricky ethical conundrums. You could argue that more hype induces more hope and hence a stronger placebo effect. You might also also assert, as Freud did, that patients value and hence benefit more from a treatment when they pay for it. Conversely, perhaps skeptics like me harm people by undermining their belief in treatments.
But surely it is wrong for monetizers of meditation to raise false hopes in sick people. Meditation’s limits are exemplified by David Simon, the neurologist who co-founded the Chopra Center in 1996 and helped create the ”Return to Wholeness” DVD. A long-time meditator, Simon was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010 and died in 2012.
Postscript: Here are a few high points of “Sages & Scientists”:
*Physicists Joel Primack and Priyamvada Natarajan talked about the quest to identify dark matter. (Natarajan is giving a talk at my school September 28).
*Journalist Amanda Gefter, author of Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, explained physicist John Wheeler’s proposal that we live in a “participatory universe.”
*Computational biologist Rob Knight reported on how the microbiome, the diverse bacteria living within and on our bodies, can affect our health.
*Journalist Robert Lawrence Kuhn grilled Chopra and six other speakers, including philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, my new pal, who have challenged the idea that matter is the basis of reality.
Deepak Chopra responds: In an audio message, Chopra responded to my concerns about his “monetization of meditation” with two basic points: 1. He oversees lots of charitable work. 2. Meditation teachers and others who work for him deserve to be decently compensated. The Chopra Foundation, he elaborates, supports activities aimed at “creating a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier, joyful world,” including a program to educate and feed children in India. The Chopra Center provides “courses in meditation, improving personal relationships, emotional well-being, nutrition, exercise, yoga, breathing techniques, all of that. But we do also have a medical practice with M.D.s… So Chopra Center is a very labor-intensive organization.” The Center offers free online meditation courses every four months. “If people want personal training, there has to be a cost, because meditation teachers have to be trained, they have to make a living, etcetera.” His online platform Jiyo.com also offers mostly free “expert content on anything from nutrition to exercise to yoga, breathing techniques and meditation.”