Lessons From Deepak Chopra

The veteran broadcast journalist and host of The Chris Cuomo Project podcast gets big-picture, higher-level strategies from the physician, author and self-help guru on successfully navigating an increasingly chaotic world.
“Life is so short, it goes by like a dream,” says Deepak Chopra, best-selling author and alternative medicine practitioner. Photography: Philip Cheung

CHRIS CUOMO: You have written 90-plus books. You’ve got institutes all over the world. You’re one of the best-known people in the world, especially on messages about the nature of humanity. With all the success as most would measure it, what keeps you wanting to do more?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: It’s kind of a convoluted answer, but I’ll answer it anyway. I grew up in a traditional spiritual family in India, and then I was subject to Western influences, medical school training, everything that happened in my life because after the age of 23, I was American. I maintained a sense of meaning and purpose in my life. I now spend a lot of my time thinking of my life as a dream. I recall moments of my childhood sitting on my mother’s lap. I can smell her skin, I can hear her singing. Well, it’s a dream. But how about last night? How about this morning? How about five minutes ago? How about by the time you hear my words they don’t exist. The whole thing is a dream. It’s a lucid dream, and we’re all asleep. What keeps me going now is looking forward to the final chapters, to the transition we call death. I mean you’re born, there’s a fertilized egg and now there is this old man, 76 years, and in a few years this guy will have disappeared. The whole thing is a dream, and I want to wake up and help other people understand that waking up is not a bad idea.

CC: So, do you really want to be 100?

DC: I don’t know. I’m in very good health right now. My biomarkers are normal; I do two hours of yoga. I meditate. I walk 10,000 steps. I love New York City. Yeah, I don’t mind, as long as I’m in this shape.

CC: You buy into the 10,000-step thing. You believe that’s the right metric?

DC: I think 10,000 steps is easy in New York, so I buy into anything that’s easy. I use the subway. I don’t take taxis or Uber or don’t drive anymore. I walk a lot so yeah, I say why not, 10,000 steps along with the meditation, too.

CC: I don’t know that taking the subway in New York is going to correlate well with your wanting to live to 100. How do you explain that there’s so much cynicism in this world, so much hardness? Everything around us right now in America is expressed as a negative. Everything is bad. Everything is tribal. What effect does that have on you? Do you accept it on any level? How do you process what’s happening in America?

DC: I process everything with one conviction now, and that conviction is that homo sapiens, the human species, is insane. Period. We are an insane species. What other species would create nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, mechanized jet, extinction of species, climate change, social injustice, racial injustice and irresponsible health, addictive behavior and suicidal thinking? We’re sleepwalking to extinction, and we have gangsters as our national leaders globally. I don’t think there are any exceptions. Some are more gangster-like and some are more polite, but they’re all gangsters. This is an insane world, and if you don’t agree with that, then you’re declaring your insanity, as well. I struggled against this for a long time, trying to identify at least one person in the world who is sane. And eventually I did—there were people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and that nice lady from New Zealand who has become the prime minister [Jacinda Ardern], but now even she finds it too insane to be prime minister, etcetera. There’s hardly anybody who is sane anymore. So, what do you do? You just actually accept the insanity, and you accept the idea that the human species was a very interesting evolutionary experiment that just did not work, and maybe then obviously walk to extinction through this insane behavior. Maybe there’ll be another species that will be more empathetic, compassionate, loving, graceful, aesthetic, and creative and loving. The absolute worst use of our imagination is what we’ve done to this world, and yet we have the creativity to send probes into interstellar space.

CC: That’s a fairly dour assessment from a man who’s known for lifting us all up.

DC: If you think it’s revolting and is a joke, then the only sane response to existence is to laugh.

CC: But it’s so hard for people to laugh, especially in America right now. First of all, you’ve got to be careful what you laugh at. Cancel culture is so robust, even though I still believe that it is well intended. People want things to be more fair, more equal. There is an appetite for sweetness as strength, and compassion versus harshness. But maybe I was wrong, or that’s what I would like to be true, but it’s not even true in me, or in anything that I see around me. It just seems that sweetness is weakness these days, and if you’re not against something, and harshly so, you will lose.

DC: On the other hand, what people call morality is just banning hypocrisy. I think morality is just jealousy with a halo. All these people with causes that they come out with—in their own closet, there are skeletons. To be human is to have light and shadow. What’s the big deal? If reality is infinite, then there is a place for infinite variables in humanity. The sacred and the profane, the divine and the diabolical are all aspects of infinite manifestations of something very mysterious. We don’t know what it is. We take the universe for granted. We take ourselves for granted. I’m actually perpetually surprised that we exist, that we have awareness of existence. Furthermore, we take it for granted. The whole thing is so bizarre that in the end, you have to surrender to mystery. You have to be less judgmental. You have to be loving and empathetic and forgiving and not morally righteous, because that’s the domain of cunning hypocrites, as far as I’m concerned.

CC: You say that you don’t shelter yourself from things. You process it as the rest of us do. Just the social media magnification of malice, not to be alliterative about it, but our bad tendencies seem to be exponentially on display there. Does it ever make you think, What am I trying to do here? I can’t help. Look what is winning. Look what people want. Look how they want to be. My work is done here.

DC: I have only three criteria when I do something. Am I having fun? If I’m not having fun, if I don’t have joy, then I’ve missed my life. If joy is not the measure of well-being or success, then your life is wasted. So, first question: Am I having fun? Second question: Am I hanging out with people who are fun to be with? Otherwise, I’m not going to have fun myself. And the third question is: Am I alleviating suffering? Even minor suffering. It doesn’t matter. If I can say yes to all three, then life is good.

CC: How often are you wasting your time? And don’t say right now.

DC: Right now, I don’t believe in time. I’ve come to a stage where I realize that we are just a little hiccup in this timeless eternity, which has no beginning and no ending. These are human constructs. We’ve been bamboozled by human constructs, like we have a physical body, there’s a physical world, our version of God is the right version of God. We’re constantly trying to prove that we are right, and you mentioned social media. We’ve sacrificed ourselves for our selfies. We don’t even know who we are. The selfie gets all the importance, all the likes, all the dislikes, and then we get hurt because we don’t know who the self is. We’re confusing ourselves with our selfies. People overlook. India is overlooking what’s happening in Ukraine, because they want to buy the oil. China wants to side with Russia because of personal issues with America. Nobody is looking out for anybody else. Everybody is looking out for themselves, and what we call nationalism has gone to the level of extreme tribalism. We have no clarity whatsoever. The worst use of our imagination is what we’ve done to this world, and yet we have an imagination that is creative. We have people like Einstein and Mozart and Shakespeare. What happened? We used imagination to ruin ourselves. And this is the most precious quality of our spirit.

CC: So, you think we’re at the peak of our cultural insanity.

DC: Correct.

CC: Does that mean that you believe things get better?

DC: One road leads to sleepwalking to extinction. The other road could be a critical mass of people who want to be the change they wish to see in the world.

CC: What lessons did you draw from the pandemic?

DC: I wrote three books. I saw that climate change was reversible. As soon as we were confined to our cages, people were breathing better in Bengaluru. Fish were returning to dead lakes. You could see the Himalayas from 500 miles away. Birds were singing, and nature was celebrating: “You humans go back to your cages. We’re resetting ourselves.” But we didn’t learn the lesson. I’ve been going to places like the World Economic Forum and listening to all the experts. They fly on their private planes to talk about decreasing fossil fuels.

CC: How do you keep from being sad?

DC: It’s part of life. Why do you not want to experience life? You wouldn’t know what happiness is if you didn’t have sadness. You can’t have an up without a down, pleasure without pain, and ultimately you can’t have freedom without knowing all these things that actually hamper freedom.

CC: What would you change, if you could change anything in your life?

DC: Take it easy. Life is so short, it goes by like a dream. Wittgenstein said, “Our life is a dream, we are asleep. But once in a while we wake up enough to know that we are dreaming.” The Buddha said, “This lifetime of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky rushing by like a torrent down a steep mountain.” Whenever I’m serious, I see that flash of light and say, “There goes Deepak Chopra.”