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something odd happened on the way to the printer
on October 15, 2009
I have a long-standing interest in the power of the mind over the body dating back to my graduate school days in psychology. Today I help people stop emotional eating and lose weight by connecting with this power. So I was very interested in this book when I heard about it. I went to hear Deepak Chopra speak about the book on the day it was launched. Everyone attending received a copy.
I loved Chopra's talk and left feeling excited and inspired by his insights. I expected the book would explore these ideas more deeply. I wanted to like this book - I tried to like this book. But I was disappointed. The book did not deliver on the promise of his brilliant lecture.
The book adds very little to what Chopra said at his talk, and actually dilutes the impact of the core ideas. It's filled with anecdotes (e.g. "Paula's story") that sound very contrived, and are often tangential to the point. The book wanders quite a bit from its core thesis of the power of the mind over the body, which is a shame, because these ideas are fascinating. It ends up being just another self-help book with lots of pop psychology and "be nice to others" platitudes when it could have been so much more. I don't know what happened. How could his lecture be so brilliant and his book be so mediocre? Maybe it was the fault of the editor, trying to popularize and dumb down.
The ideas Chopra talked about in his lecture are in the book, they're just buried amidst a lot of weak and irrelevant content. Some of it is contradictory. For example, a chapter on surrendering your ego and not needing to win is followed by a whole section at the end of the book on how to win at the game of life. Another example: he says that your mind trumps all things physical, that you can think your way out of any disease, and yet you still should eat healthy and exercise. If I can think my way to health, then why can't I live on candy?
Other parts of the book over-promise or over-state, suggesting (often through the contrived anecdotes) that if you live right and think right you will never age, never get sick, never have any problems, and live in everlasting ecstacy and peace. There also are whiffs of a "blame the victim" mentality. If all the problems in your life are under your control and nothing is random, then every bad thing that happens to you is your fault.
None of these contradictions or over-statements were in Chopra's lecture. Here's what he highlighted in his lecture that gets a little buried in the book.
Chopra says that the physical world, as we experience it (touch, smell, color, etc.) exists only in consciousness. Physical reality is just a bunch of vibrating atoms, and doesn't intrinsically contain the physical qualities we experience. Nor is our experience located in our physical body - our ear drums or the neurons in our brain. In our body there are just vibrations, electricity, and chemistry. Our experience is reflected in our body through physical manifestations, but these are reflections. The physical isn't primary; our experience is not located there. Our experience, he says, is located in our consciousness - another word for "soul".
The soul is the only constant part of us, and thus the only possible repository of our memories. Our physical body is actually in constant flux as our cells die and are replaced. In a year's time, every atom in our body has been replaced. "Last year I gave a talk wearing these same clothes," he said, "but I was not wearing the same body." What a cool idea!
The soul is the timeless part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the managing intelligence that creates our body, and in a very literal way. Research has demonstrated that our mental processes - what we think and feel - changes the actual structure of our brains, a phenomenon called "neuronal plasticity".
And that's not all. Our gene expression also is pliant. The DNA we're born with never changes, but many of our genes can be turned on or off through epigenes. Chopra doesn't provide any references in his book, but I saw a segment on NOVA scienceNOW on epigenetics. Gene expression changes dramatically over time as a function of lifestyle and experience. By the time identical twins reach old age, there are so many differences in gene expression that their DNA hardly looks identical anymore.
Some genes are fixed - eye color, hair color - but many more are pliant. Chopra says that 500 different genes, including genes for cancer, heart disease, and inflammation, can be turned on or off within a few months by changes in diet, lifestyle, and attitude. Our bodies, to a large extent, are created by our consciousness - our awareness, our souls. "You're not in your body," he said, "your body is in you." How's that for an awesome insight! (I'm a big fan of insights that come from reversals.)
We are not separate beings. When we sit in the same room together, breathing the same air, we are actually exchanging the atoms of our bodies. We breathe out atoms of our heart and kidneys, and the person across from us breathes it in. We are one - parts of a larger process. Our collective consciousness, he says, is what we call "God".
The upshot of all this is that we have much more control over our destinies than we realize, on every level, including the physical. How we look at ourselves and the world is all-important, and potentially transformative. We literally can change our bodies and our destinies by changing how we think. "Changes in diet and lifestyle," he said, "are byproducts of shifting consciousness." I totally agree! This is the core idea of my "Normal Eating" program.
The implications of these ideas are profound and I hoped he'd explore them in greater depth in the book, but he doesn't really. He starts to, and then diverts into anecdotes that are variously irrelevant, trivial, or contrived.
Part of the problem is the organization of the book into five breakthroughs of the body, and then five breakthroughs for the soul, each with numerous examples which interrupt the train of thought. I think it would have worked better if he laid out the core assumptions, and then devoted the rest of the book to the implications organized by areas of life - how you use these ideas to address health problems or being stuck in an awful job. That would have flowed better and been more impactful.
In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, he says, "In many ways [my editor] is the silent author of the final manuscript." I believe it! After hearing Chopra talk in person, I feel very sure that his original text was greatly changed, and not for the better.
Author of "Normal Eating for Normal Weight"