High Times Greats: Deepak Chopra

A 1999 interview with the man who merges modern medical practices with ancient Ayurvedic techniques.
High Times Greats: Deepak Chopra
Deepak Chopra in 2006/ Wikimedia Commons

The preeminent writer in the field of mind/body/spirit medicine, Dr. Deepak Chopra has sold over 10 million books on spirituality and health. In this May, 1999 interview with Steven Hager, Dr. Chopra readily asserts his belief that cannabis and other mind-altering plants have a legitimate place in spirituality and medicine. In honor of his birthday October 22, we’re republishing it below.

High Times: Did you start out wanting to be a doctor?

Dr. Deepak Chopra: I started out wanting to be a writer of fiction. But then my father convinced me I would be a better writer if I became a doctor, because I would understand more about human nature. My training was in neuroendocrinology, which is the study of brain chemicals and brain chemistry and hormones. That’s how I got interested in consciousness. I realized our thoughts and psychology and emotional framework and chemistry are all interconnected. Physicians are taught to look at the body purely in physical terms. The human body is seen as a physical machine that has learned how to manufacture thought. We have become superb technicians—we know everything about the human body—but really lousy healers because we know nothing about the human soul. The word healing is related to the word holy, which is whole, which includes everything: the body, the mind, the emotional world, and the world of soul and spirit.

In the Rig Veda [an ancient Sanskrit text], it says “Soma is king of the healing plants… the blind see… the lame walk… and it clothes the naked.”

Well, soma, originally in Ayurvedic terms, is the elixir of life, and it is related to the word ojas. Ojas is the final expression of metabolic transformation. So you start with ordinary food in your body, and it becomes plasma, blood and tissue. And the final product of intelligence is genetic material, sperm and ovary. Ojas is the elixir of life, and if you’re a very healthy person, you have a lot of ojas or soma inside you, and if you’re not, you have a lot of ama. Ama is the toxicity that builds up in your life from toxic relationships or toxic emotions or toxicity in your environment. So, soma is the essence of life, the elixir of life. In the hymns of the Rig Veda we find reference to a plant which also gives that experience of a higher state of consciousness. What that plant was we don’t know, but we can guess.

What would you guess?

I think it could be a plant that was a mild, mild hallucinogenic, probably, because it took you to a state of heightened awareness, alertness, but it also altered your cognitive mechanisms and your perception and gave you an experience of a higher reality, what in Vedic tradition is called cosmic consciousness or God consciousness, or divine consciousness or even unity consciousness. And the rituals associated with Tantra, which is a division of Vedantic thought which relates sexuality to spirituality, in some of those rituals, frequently cannabis-like plants are used in India, particularly something called bhang. It is put in food, in drink, and, under very strict ritual, people imbibe it to experience a higher state of awareness. But it is done in a very controlled and ritualistic manner.

We know cannabis is effective in the treatment of glaucoma, which explains why the blind see. We also know cannabis is effective with multiple sclerosis…

And neuropathy.

And cannabis also clothes the naked.

It is possible soma was a cannabis-like substance.

What about cannabis itself?

It could have been.

How do you feel about the possibility that one of the central plants of the oldest living Eastern religion is illegal everywhere in the world?

I think it is reflective of the psychosis of our social conditioning and our tribal minds. We are OK with tobacco and alcohol, and we know these substances cause tremendous discomfort and disease in the world, and yet we say they are OK. And I think it is OK. I don’t think the government should be allowed to interfere with a person’s choice. But it is kind of strange that we legalize substances which are much more harmful and we outlaw substances which could be significantly important.

Do you think hallucinogens have a place in spirituality?

I think a lot of us who grew up in the ’60s had our first experience of spiritual insight through hallucinogens. But I don’t think they have a regular place in spirituality. They have a place in possibly giving you some insight, but if you become dependent on any substance for your experience of spirituality, then it takes you away from genuine seeking.

Your most recent project has been the release of a musical CD with text by the Persian poet Rumi. Can you give me a brief history of why you decided to do this record?

I was translating the poet. The manuscript was on my desk. Madonna was staying at my home, going through the Ayurvedic program at the Chopra Center. She had gone shopping at the local bookstore and I noticed she was reading Rumi. I was a bit surprised. I said, “You read Rumi?” She said she was a big fan of his poetry. At which point I introduced her to my manuscript. She thought the poems were quite musical. So I asked her if she would recite one to music. She said yes. So it was a conspiracy of the universe that this CD was born. There was no original intention. The music is totally original, heavily influenced by Indian and Persian music.

Who is the most enlightened person you ever met?

An old swami who lives in India next to my house. My mother introduced me to him as a child. He is timeless and ageless, and whenever I go to India I pay my respects and sit with him.

Does enlightenment carry a telepathic serenity that is conveyed to other people?

I think so. An enlightened being is so full of nonviolence and peace that it becomes impossible for people in their presence to feel hostility. So I think the one sign of being in the presence of an enlightened being is that you completely lose your ability to be hostile.

Do you believe in monogamy? That people have only one great love affair of their life?

I think you must have a passionate love for life itself, and then all your relationships, no matter who they are with, whether a romantic relationship or sexual relationship, or a relationship with parents, children or brothers or sisters or colleagues, will reflect that passion. There is nothing more important than passion. Rumi in one of his poems says the most important thing you can do for your life is to become a passionate lover. If you are a passionate lover in life you will be a lover in death, a lover in the tomb, a lover in paradise, a lover forever. If you are not a passionate lover then don’t count your life as having been lived. On the day of reckoning it will not be counted.

What do you think about President Clinton’s legal problems and the laws against extramarital sex?

I just read in the newspaper that President Jefferson fathered at least one child through a slave. If we are going to impeach Clinton, then we should think about impeaching one of the founders of the country, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. President Clinton used bad judgment, given the customs and the mores and the social climate of our country, which reflects our opinions. On the other hand, the fact that he gets good approval ratings still means two things. One, it is a very fascinating spiritual transformation that we are seeing. President Clinton was partly in denial. He is now getting to see himself through the eyes of millions of Americans. It is an extraordinary phenomenon that he gets to know himself through millions of other people. But what is equally extraordinary is that millions of people are getting to know themselves through him, because they look at him and they say, “I could have done that” or at least “I am capable of that.”

So the whole episode, hopefully, if you are a sophisticated society, is that we have to look at ourselves before we judge others. Christ said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And if people really deeply look inside themselves, they will find their soul is made up of conflicting and opposing energies. The divine and the diabolical, the sacred and the so-called profane, the sinner and the saint, are exchanging notes. Oscar Wilde said the only difference between a sinner and a saint is that the saint has a past and the sinner has a future. We are all a conglomeration of ambiguities and agglutinations of opposing archetypal energies. And that’s what makes life interesting. I like to think that in some countries, very puritanical, sex is regarded as profane; in some traditions, such as Vedic Tantric tradition, sex is regarded as sacred. Only in America is sex regarded as criminal.

How do you stay spiritually grounded after achieving such success and wealth?

Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When I first read that many years ago, I said, how is it possible for anyone to go through the eye of a needle? Then I found out that to enter the city of Jerusalem in the time of Christ one had to enter a hole in the wall that was shaped like the eye of a needle. And in order to get into the city, the camel had to bend on its knees, and so would the man. And rich people were uncomfortable bending their knees. It is an act of humility. So Christ was referring to the fact that if you’re proud and not humble, if you’re arrogant, then you never enter the sacred city. That is my interpretation.

As far as the general opinion that spirituality and poverty go together, I think it shows only two things: You will never become spiritual, and you will remain poor for the rest of your life. Now if that is your intention, then go ahead with that indoctrination. When I look at nature I see lavish abundance. I see that in every seed there is the promise of thousands of forests. I see not only extravagance, I see absolute lavish, almost wastefulness, in the way nature’s intelligence expresses itself. I want to understand what is the mind of this nature, where is that fountain that throws out these flowers in such an outbreak of ecstasy? I want to know the mind that creates such lavish abundance. And that’s the mind of nature. It is a mind fertile with creativity. The only sign that you’re spiritual is that you can fulfill your desires. You may not have desires like owning a lot of things. I know I can create anything I want. It gives me a place of detachment. When I couldn’t create anything I wanted, when I was a young man, I was attached to things like a fancy car or fancy house. Now that I can, I’m detached. My inner dialogue is, how can I help, instead of what’s in it for me?

Are there any hallucinogenic plants you would use today?

I have not felt the need. I took LSD twice as a medical student. I had very wonderful experiences and great insight into the fact
that cognition and perception are a function of your state of awareness, that the two are intimately linked. Through my deep exploration of spirituality, I know I can achieve those states without the need for hallucinogenic plants, so personally I’m not interested in exploring my evolution through that. Yet I know that in spiritual tradition, through ritual—and ritual is very important because it traps your attention, and gives significance to an event—that you can explore higher states of consciousness using what Carlos Castaneda would call power plants. I would not recommend a casual approach to that, because spirituality is a sacred journey and should be done with an inner attitude that is sacred.

As an MD, how do you feel about the widespread prescription of synthetic, mind-altering drugs?

I think most physicians are legalized drug pushers. I believe 80% of the drugs that are prescribed are of optional or marginal benefit. Wouldn’t make a bit of difference if you used them or not. Would save you money, would save you side effects. I believe most drugs are prescribed when they need not be. The average person in a nursing home is getting between 10 and 15 drugs that are totally unnecessary. I can’t believe that 20% of the population is depressed, because 20% of the American population is on antidepressants. If 20% of Americans are depressed, then we are definitely in a very precarious and dangerous situation.

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