Why Deepak Chopra Worries Me—The Tension Between Self-Help and Spirituality

DSC02390I’ve met several people who read widely in the “mind-body-spirit” category and want to write a book of their own in this genre. While I laud their intention, I also offer a gentle warning.

Too many self-help authors treat the sacred teachings of the East—including the meditation traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism—as a vast smorgasbord from which they can pluck ideas at random. This leads to fundamental problems with their writing.

Case in point: I remember being so excited to read The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. Now I see it and squirm.

The problem is that he glosses over some huge cultural tensions. On the one hand is the Western gospel of success. One the other is the teaching of the meditation masters. These are two different landscapes of discourse. And the tensions between them are tough to resolve:

  • The popular self-help literature is largely about becoming happy, which is usually defined as setting and achieving goals.
    • Meditation is about being content—a serenity that is already present and does not depend on achieving any goal.
  • Self-help writers often equate happiness with pleasure, which is impermanent and conditional.
    • Meditation teachers talk about serenity, which is stable and unconditional.
  • Self-help writers load us up with concepts, formulas, and strategies.
    • Meditation teachers talk about nirvana, which transcends all concepts, formulas, and strategies.
  • Self-help writers pose a question: What do you want?
    • Meditation teachers ask: Who does the wanting? Who are you?
  • Self-help tells us to imagine what could be and then take planned action to produce it.
    • Meditation teachers ask us to notice what is and then act spontaneously.
  • Self-help creates activity.
    • Meditation creates stillness.
  • Self-help creates goals.
    • Meditation creates goalessness.
  • Self-help tells us that paradise is planned and created.
    • Meditation tells us that paradise is here, now, and simply recognized.

Both perspectives are useful. And, they contradict at key points. When we forget this, we walk blissfully unaware, straight into land mines of paradox and potential confusion.


  1. Perfectly stated, Doug. The contrast I see, due to being well-rooted in science (I’m a pharmacist) but also practice Vipassana meditation daily and teach at a metaphysical center, is that we as humans tend to want the path of least resistance (quick, easy results) and many times aren’t willing to do the tedious, laborious work of taming the mind, being still and allowing wisdom and peace to rise to the surface. Trying to achieve results is very grasping in nature and it always carries the roots of inherent unhappiness. I applaud your ability to articulate this so well because it is definitely something that needed to be said.


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