Deepak Chopra is currently one of the most popular figures in the self-help, transpersonal movement. He is the author of such books as Unconditional Life, Quantum Healing, and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Chopra offers many audio and video presentations about his ideas, including recent coverage of his lectures on public television. He is also the Executive Director of the Institute of Mind-Body Medicine and Human Potential located in San Diego.
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, subtitled A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams, elaborates upon the ideas presented in another one of his books, Creating Affluence: Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities. The back cover, categorizing the material as "Personal Growth/ Business and Property," claims that The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success is "a book you will cherish for a lifetime, for within its pages are the secrets to making all your dreams come true." In 111 pages, Deepak Chopra attempts to fulfill that grandiose goal by outlining seven "laws" about nature and our daily activities in relation to them. Chopra says that when these laws are understood and respected, they will "give you the ability to create unlimited wealth with effortless ease, and to experience success in every endeavor" (pgs. 1-2).
I am immediately skeptical of such rhetoric, and I suspect that I am not alone. The purpose of this book critique is to articulate exactly how and why Deepak Chopra's ideas may be questionable. I present seven such questions and concerns about The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but more than that, these questions apply to any of Deepak Chopra's works and ideas (as well as to any similarly styled "personal growth" material). They are critical, but honest questions, ones that would probably arise in the mind of any critical reader. My intention is to ground Chopra's lofty discussion in commonsensical concerns, and balance his ideology with philosophical and logical responses.
In the very first sentence of the book Chopra says that the seven spiritual laws of success could also be called "the seven spiritual laws of life" because "they are the same principles that nature uses to create everything in material existence." This is the first of many questionable metaphysical claims. Others include his claim that his book Creating Affluence is "based on a true understanding of the workings of nature" (p.1); his claim that "the physical universe is nothing other than the Self curving back within Itself to experience Itself" (p.4); his reference to the literal (not metaphorical) "intelligence" of "nature" (p.18, "creative mind of nature" (p.20), and "universal mind" (p.105); and his claim that there is a "mechanism that the universe has to help you make spontaneously correct choices," a mechanism that "has to do with sensations in your body" which determines a "right choice" by a sensation of "comfort" and a wrong choice by a sensation of "discomfort" (p.43).
What is questionable about such claims? Three fundamental things: they are all mentioned without any hint of proof, evidence, or reasons why they should be considered true; they are vague ideas that Chopra does not elaborate upon, define, or clarify despite the significant consequences they would offer if they were true; and they form the premises for the spiritual laws themselves. To take questionable metaphysical claims such as these and to fail to argue for them, clarify them, or elaborate upon them is frustrating in itself, but to use them to support ever grander and bolder ideas is downright sloppy.
For these vague and general concepts, one might respond that the purpose of this book is to discuss these ideas, not to argue for their veracity. The reasons for believing these notions may be contained in another text, or at least reserved for a different discussion. But even if that were so, that would not excuse the bold metaphysical assumptions Chopra makes. In order to ground his ideas properly, he should refer the reader to those books or discussions that would clarify these ideas, else be accused of having ideas that may never have been clear or proven in the first place.
For any metaphysical claim, there should be support; it's simply proper philosophy to ground a thesis (not to mention seven theses) in solid reasoning and evidence. Otherwise, there is no real way to tell such ideas from rubbish. Therefore, Chopra's metaphysical claims leave much to be desired.
On the back inlay of the book's cover, it says that Chopra's "lectures and books blend physics and philosophy" as well as blend "spiritual, venerable Eastern wisdom and cutting-edge Western science with dynamic results." Indeed, Chopra seems to want to use scientific language and ideas to support his laws. Some phrases he uses are "quantum soup" (p.21), "cosmic computer" (p.44), "operational software of the soul" (p.47), "space-time events" (p.70), and "entropy" (p.86). He also claims that the "quantum field" is "just another label for the field or pure consciousness," a field "influenced by intention and desire" (p.67).
It is widely known that computer science and quantum physics are currently two "cutting-edge" fields, but if Chopra is supposed to be "blending" these "Western" sciences with "Eastern" spirituality, I believe he has created an imbalanced mix. Unless quantum physics has made strides I am not aware of, I do not believe anything at the level of quanta has been shown to have consciousness.
Instead it seems clear that Chopra is invoking this language in order to make his ideas appear scientific. Unfortunately, this is the stuff of pseudoscience precisely because it is not related to the methods, experiments, or findings of traditional science. Similar to his metaphysical claims, Chopra offers no real definitions, reasons, or elaborations for his physical claims. Instead, he throws a scientific term around here and there, and it lies there isolated, vague, and virtually meaningless... other than the fact that it creates a thin air of scientific connotation which would only convince the least learned of science and its method.
For those who might say that this scientific language may be just stylistic and not literally scientific, there is a discussion of molecular biology in the "summary and conclusion" of the book that makes it clear that Chopra wants to be scientific but nonetheless fails. After having discussed the seven spiritual laws of success, Chopra says that "if you look at any cell in the human body, you will see through its functioning the expression of these laws" (pgs. 105-106). This includes Chopra's belief that "every cell" executes "the Law of Karma" "because built into its intelligence is the most appropriate and precisely correct response to every situation that occurs"; that every cell is in a state of "restful alertness"; that each cell has an "intention" that "harnesses the infinite organizing power of nature's intelligence"; that every cell is "detached from the outcome of its intentions," and as a result, "doesn't stumble or falter"; that each cell has "life- centered, present-moment awareness"; that each cell "must discover its own source, the higher self," "serve its fellow beings," and "express its unique talents"; and that every cell has an "internal dialogue" that says "'How can I help?'" (pgs. 105-108).
This is not really a discussion about human biology, despite the fact that it mentions DNA and cells. This is a strange, vague discussion that anthropomorphizes cells and treats them as if they were these splendid spiritual entities. Each and every cell in every single one of our bodies is made out to have more intelligence, ambition, and altruism than the average stranger you would run into on the street. Additionally, where do cancerous, mutated, or dead cells fit into Chopra's seemingly flawless schema where cells don't "stumble or falter?" Not only does this instance fail to exemplify Chopra's spiritual laws (since it is so unfounded and bizarre), but it fails to be scientific. Chopra's rhetoric may incorporate scientific terminology --and he may even claim that he is qualified because he has as extensive scientific education (an issue to be addressed in my Seventh Question below)-- but it clearly falls short of real science. His ideas are 99% spiritual, and their pervasive flavor dilutes any real science in this supposed "blend" of the two.
(As an aside, I also can't help but grimace at the pseudoscientific remark made on the back cover of the book by Peter Guber, Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. In praise of Chopra, he says "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success is a Virtual Reality tool-kit for the 21st-century spiritual traveler." I have no idea what virtual reality has to do with any of Chopra's ideas, but using that pop-culture technological phrase, as well as mentioning the "21st-century," sure sounds impressive coming from the CEO of a technology corporation. Too bad it's just as strange, vague, and unfounded as Chopra's scientific language. Guber and Chopra give "principle of uncertainty" new meaning.)
Someone might respond to my first two questions by saying that Chopra is primarily a spiritual thinker whose ideas and strengths lie in his religious, spiritual, and personal discussions and not in his science. Although I would agree that Chopra is far more spiritual in his thinking, rhetoric, and rationale, I believe he offers many strange spiritual claims that require a closer look.
Chopra's main flaw is his vagueness, leaving me to consider his spiritual claims not so much contradictory or false (because I would need more detail from him to make those assessments), but mysterious. When Chopra says that there are "seeds of divinity within us," that we are "divinity in disguise" (p.3), and that "the source of all creation is divinity" (p.4), I would very much like to know what he means by "divinity." It's a simple question with no answer in this text. Chopra says that "we're spiritual beings" (p.97) and that with the "support of divinity" we can be "in the state of grace," but what he means by "spiritual" and "grace" are equally undefined.
The context of these ideas leaves no substantial clues either. Chopra quotes or mentions the ideas of Kahlil Gibran, Carlos Castaneda, the Hindu Vedas, Lao Tzu, and Gautuma Buddha, suggesting an Eastern potpourri of ideas. But this blend is so extremely general and undefined that it's nearly impossible for any of the major world religions --Eastern or Western-- NOT to apply to his spiritual rhetoric. A Christian or a Hindu would find Chopra's language and ideas accommodating to their system.
While some may believe that Chopra's general ideas lend themselves to universality, I believe he invokes just enough rhetoric to suggest substance while offering absolutely nothing to hang your hat on. Keeping the seven laws so general, Chopra succeeds in letting the reader fill in their own gaps for themselves. This, however, is not a sign of quality, for the same thing occurs when people accept Tarot card readings or tea leave interpretations. Chopra should not be able to walk away with the spiritual respect earned by people's own subjective interpretations of his generalized ideas.
It's ironic that when Chopra is more specific about his spiritual claims, he manages to raise more questions than he answers. An example is his "Law of Karma," which is his "third spiritual law of success" (p.39). Though Karma may be true in itself for all I know, Chopra's discussion of it is guilty of the same lack of definition, lack of evidence/ proof/ reasons, and missing elaborations that his metaphysical and pseudoscientific claims are guilty of. He treats the concept as if it's definition is given and it's truth is unquestionable, never so much as stopping to show any detail of why or how what he says is true.
His spiritual claims provide premises and foundations for his seven laws of spiritual success, which means that those laws cannot be any clearer or less mysterious than the original, more fundamental claims. This should be of great concern to any reader who is considering the authenticity and worth of Chopra's, because if clarity is one of the hallmarks of great works, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success fares dismally.
One of the most striking features of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success is the hyperbolic style it employs. Outside of a mathematics text, I don't think I've ever read something with more uses of the words "infinity" or "infinite" than in Chopra's book. Chopra mentions such phrases as "pure joy," "infinite creativity," "pure knowledge," "infinite silence," "perfect balance," "invincibility," and "bliss" on one page alone (p.9).
There are two serious problems with such terminology, one dealing with substance and another dealing with style. First of all, it's philosophically weak, maybe even nonsensical. To claim that some things are "infinite," for example, Chopra would need to have an understanding of what "infinite" means. If he has this knowledge, he fails to convey it specifically and reasonably. If the concept of infinity is not completely understandable to him either, he is hasty to assign it as a value to such things as "creativity" and "silence." Chopra says such things as "you and I are essentially infinite choice-makers" (p.40), and I have no idea what he means by an infinity of choice-making in the first place, much less how we are such "infinite choice-makers," much less how he knows it's true if we were.
He also uses these extreme phrases and concepts as if they were ultimate, objective, and absolute. He never argues for their truth and he never tries to make these ideas clear. This makes them every bit as mysterious and bold as any of his other spiritual or metaphysical claims. These extreme, ultimate terms are also used in extreme, ultimate ways (they are said to "always" do this, "never" do that, etc.) which means that Chopra's logic is often as exaggerative as his phraseology. This is most unfortunate for Chopra, because this reasoning and these ideas help to form the foundations of his seven spiritual laws, showing once again that they are unfounded. Substantially, those terms using such concepts as "infinite," "pure," and "absolute" are practically meaningless.
But there is a problem of style with Chopra's exaggerative language. What are the connotations of using such extreme language as "infinite" and "perfect"? They are quite powerful, I believe. Chopra sounds assured by using language so ultimate, and his system seems attractive because it claims to fulfill so much. If you claim that your system or your book will give its readers and followers "bliss" and "perfect balance," many people are going to take notice.
But what happens when the reward for a system like this is so great? I believe you're going to get a lot of people who will overlook its flaws and generalities in order ease their mind with its promised fulfillments. It's natural, after all, to want to conquer fear and to handle all situations happily and easily. It's just that wanting can't make it so, and yet Chopra offers little more than vague descriptions of these rewards (his supposed means to them will be discussed in the following question).
Chopra's exaggerative language --a style that uses overstated, ultimate adjectives, overgeneralized and undefined words like "love" and "divinity," and capitalized phrases that seem to suggest authority, but which are never truly discussed at any length-- is common among transpersonal books. Frankly, it sounds wonderful; it is soft, accepting, noncriticizing, nonjudgemental, and so forth. But there is a reason why scientists and thinkers delve into detail and learn to criticize ideas, including their own. That reason is because such rigor yields truth more effectively. A medical doctor can be as eloquent or as silent as she wants, and yet her knowledge of science and the practical effects of her trade can be shown clearly and openly. Criticism will not hurt her efforts, but will only serve to show how truthful and pragmatic her methods are by surviving scrutiny.
So if transpersonal thinkers believe that their ideas are every bit as true as scientific ones --and indeed, if thinkers like Deepak Chopra believe that their ideas mesh with science more directly-- then detail will be easy to provide and questions will be easily answered. Why, then, resort to hyperbolic vagueness? Why not give more signs of why these laws are true, how they work in specific, realistic cases, and then give general elaborations and descriptions of each of them? Why resort to fanciful language and high-flown promises?
At the end of his discussion of each spiritual law, Chopra has a small section about how to apply the laws to our personal lives. They are steps stated in the first person, and each of them starts with the sentence, "I will put the Law of (whichever law) into effect by making a commitment to take the following steps." Each law has exactly three steps outlined after this opening. Having such sections is Chopra's way of teaching people how to apply his spiritual laws, a motive I commend. Although I think much of this book has ideological and practical problems, this is an effort to provide useful guidelines for his system.
To look closer at these steps, however, is to see yet another questionable issue: It is the question of Chopra's nurturing style. This style borrows the exaggerative language I discussed before, to be sure, but adds a blend of sentimental "I'm-ok-you're-ok" poetry. This style is very much the stuff of current inspiration literature, and here are examples of it from some of the laws' application section.
In Law One, he says in step two that "In the ecstasy of my own silence... I will enjoy the life throb of ages, the field of pure potentiality and unbounded creativity" (pgs. 23-24). In Law Two, step two, he says, "I will receive the gifts of nature: sunlight and the sound of birds singing" (p.35). In Law Three, step three, Chopra says, "I will then ask my heart for guidance and be guided by its message" (p.50). In Law Five, step two, he writes, "I will release [a] list of my desires and surrender it to the womb of creation" (p.79). Law Six, step three, it says, "I will step into the field of all possibilities and anticipate the excitement that can occur when I remain open to an infinity of choices" (p.92). Lastly, Law Seven, step one, says, "Today I will lovingly nurture the god or goddess in embryo that lies deep within my soul" (p.102).
This sample reveals three things about Chopra's style right away. First of all, we see his exaggerative language at work again. Secondly, the poetic language I mentioned is also clear. It seems aimed at being affirming and inspiring, but if you really look at it, is stirs the soul little. His metaphors are common, and at times, almost comically inflated.
But lastly and most importantly, what kind of practical advice is this supposed to be? Having steps like following your heart is about as specific and useful as telling someone to do the right thing. His advice can be summed up very easily: Accept things as they are, including situations that bother you, opportunities that come your way, and yourself as the person you are. In addition, slow down your lifestyle in order to relax, and become more conscious of your thoughts and actions. All of Chopra's steps are little more than those two sentences. Unfortunately, this kind of advice is fraught with problems. It's simplistic, vague, unspecific (that is, how are we supposed to apply such general steps to specific, everyday situations?), unoriginal, substantially unfounded, and at best, merely commonsensical. I found myself asking again and again, "what?!!", "now what?", and "so what?"
I sense that the effect of this style of Chopra's is meant to coddle the reader with acceptance and assurance. He promises "carefreeness," "effortless ease," and "bliss," which is wonderful... who wouldn't want such things? But when he discusses the ways we can achieve these qualities, he advises us with such passages as "if you embrace the present and become one with it... you will experience a fire, a sparkle of ecstasy throbbing in every living sentient being" (p.61) and "we are travellers on a cosmic journey --startdust, twirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity" (p.111).
What on earth is this man saying? Is this really practical advice, or is it a style that lulls insecure readers into feeling more hopeful and confident? Practical advice may not always be as poetic or dramatic as this, but it has the distinct quality of working. I don't understand how one could apply Chopra's steps specifically and effectively when they are so airy and thin. If Chopra wants to help people, I don't see why this vaguely poetic, father-figure language would succeed more than specific, clear, evidential principles and applications. And if people want to feel better about themselves --and if a system as exaggerative, vague, and poetic as this fulfills that desire-- then they should reconsider how resilient such a system will be in a world that plays out specifically, simply, and devoid of "twirling" "eddies... of infinity."
By now, this question should naturally follow from the first five. Whether it was a question I had about his system's substance or its style, I believe Chopra has oversimplified his entire discussion. His laws seem so simplistically black and white, it's remarkable he didn't bother to flesh them out more. Whether it was some undefined extreme phrase of his, some mysterious spiritual or unfounded metaphysical claim, or his unoriginal, overgeneralized advice, Chopra should have offered more explanation. His laws and their premises need to be grounded with evidence or reasons, his ideas need elaboration and specification, his poetic and exaggerative language needs to be balanced with straight-forward nuts-and-bolts descriptions, and his advice needs to be more specific to be at all useful.
Read just how oversimplified such a passage as this is: "There is only one choice, out of the infinity of choices available in every second, that will create happiness for you as well as for those around you" (p.42). And again, read how simplistic his advice can be: When making decisions, we are told that we should ask "'What are the consequences of this choice that I'm making?' In your heart you will immediately know what these are" (p.42).
How can such ideas be useful when they seem so far removed from reality? Real cases fail to be this simplistic. You can't just tell people to accept situations and leave it at that because everyone knows that it's much more complex than that. Frankly, I found Chopra's oversimplification to be an insult to the reader's intelligence and sensibility. We have every right to demand more specification from a system that promises so much.
Deepak Chopra does not suggest the seven laws of spiritual success hypothetically; he means his book to be an exposition of fact, of the way things really are. This should compel all of us to step back and ask, How does Chopra know what he claims to? Who is Deepak Chopra to state these laws so easily, factually, and extremely? And what is his authority when he offers us advice and steps to achieving such things as "bliss"?
The book itself offers no credentials. Neither in his biography nor in the course of the book's chapters are any signs for Chopra's spiritual authority given. One could ask why he needs to offer such credentials if he doesn't claim to be a spiritual authority. I believe that if his ideas were presented well enough from evidence, elaboration, and specific cases and advice, Deepak Chopra would not need to say a word about himself because his ideas would stand on their own. But virtually all of what he says stands very poorly upon ethereal legs, and despite the fact that he doesn't make outright comments about his own authority, his language speaks authoritatively.
How did Deepak Chopra come to discover these truths and laws? How willing is he to defend his system and answer such questions such as mine? Why is no one stopping to criticize or ask deeper questions about these ideas of his? It matters little how much education he has, either, because that would not grant him automatic credibility. A scientist cannot reveal strange research findings and then respond to them, when questioned, with, "I'm a scientist; I know what I'm doing." People have to clarify themselves no matter who they are.
Deepak Chopra says that "life is eternal" (p.111) and I want to know why that is true and how he knows it. I want him to explain and describe the terms and assumptions he makes for those less familiar with ideas like "karma" and "dharma." These are simple requests. As it stands, however, how can we tell if Deepak Chopra is authentically wise or just someone who stirs around vague, affirming ideas? If the message relies so heavily upon its source like the seven spiritual laws do, we need to ask who the messenger is and request their sources, their methods, anything. It's a simple question.
I do not mean to seem harsh or overly-skeptical about Deepak Chopra personally, about people who believe that his ideas are true, or even about his ideas themselves. My purpose is not to malign this man or tear his book to shreds; I don't think I did either of those things, even if I had tried. I've simply asked seven kinds of questions about aspects of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success that I found questionable.
If Deepak Chopra could answer all seven of my questions, I would gladly commend the man for helping me understand his system. It's ironic that if Chopra could and would answer these questions, he would create the kind of book he should have written in the first place, one that is balanced, detailed, and reasonable.
And ultimately, I cannot argue against success. If someone finds this book enlightening or helpful, there is at least some pragmatic worth to his ideology. I would wonder, though, how pragmatic it would remain when it's so general, vague, and unfounded... but that's a subjective question we each may ask and answer our own personal ways.
Chopra says on page 109: "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success are powerful principles that will enable you to attain self-mastery. If you put your attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, you will see that you can manifest anything you want --all the affluence, money, and success that you desire. You will also see that your life becomes more joyful and abundant in every way, for these laws are also the spiritual laws of life that make living worthwhile." I believe we have every right to question people and ideas that claim, assume, and promise so much. Please judge for yourself.