I listen to Deepak Chopra talk about the science of the soul with hope & fervor
T. and I found ourselves at Deepak Chopra’s HomeBase, a long, low space on the mezzanine of ABC Carpet & Home, this Wednesday listening to the guru of human potential, totality and centeredness have a conversation with Rudolph Tanzi, a Harvard neuro-scienctist and geneticist, about the mystery of memory.
This was my first exposure to Chopra, who, as I discovered that evening, has written more than 60 books, appeared countless times on television, charges $30,000 for a tete-a-tete and hobnobs with the high-profile and spiritually inclined. To reinforce that point, Chopra opened the evening with a story about spending the weekend talking out the tough questions of identity, future, soul and the after-life with George Harrison at his country house in England. Harrison had written a song about the conversation. We were given copies of the original lyrics Harrison gave Deepak and listened to a recording of Harrison singing. It wasn’t a great song, but the point was made: These were big questions, and the small nut-colored man wearing red clogs sitting up on the stage in the hot pink chair talked out these big questions with the big people.
It was time to get down to work.
We’re at a remarkable juncture where the highways of science, technology, philosophy and faith have reached a spot where nine lanes have merged into one. There hasn’t been an intellectual pile-up like this since the Enlightment, when Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau and their ilk wedded the tenets of science, philosophy and religion to create a new understanding of Man.
We’ve decoded the human genome, have proved some of the reality-bending abstractions of quantum mechanics and are rewriting the historical records of evolution. Time and space do not mean the same things that they mean just a decade ago.
The one thing that we can’t do is eradicate our basic urge to find meaning in who we are, what we do and why we’ve been blessed with consciousness –an awareness of our unique self and the selves of others — at this single moment in time.
The scary thing about looking for meaning is that it can leave you feeling like your brain is being eaten away by anti-gravity matter. There’s no sure thing, and when you let go of the tether of highly structured faith — either in religion, science or cultural memes — you start wishing you had a jet pack strapped on your back that could thrust you into certainty.
That’s Deepak’s role.
He’s out there taking the thorny ideas, distilling them into bite-sized metaphors that make sense, and then looking for the tenterhooks that will latch new concepts onto old questions, that will create linguistic bridges between the geographies that we’ve explored so deeply that they feel known — like the concept of a soul — and the new geographies that are still getting mapped out, like mirror neurons.
That connecting work resonates. At the event at ABC, while Tanzi worked to marry fact and theory in logical constructs, Deepak would scan the room with his intense dark eyes. He was reading us, looking for the moment of connection that would point him to the next step. He didn’t want to leave us behind. And when he looked around the room, he saw rapt attention, women — and it was almost all women — who were working along through the big ideas and stimulated by the way that science was validating uncertainty.
The science was good. The questions of philosophy were sound. Deepak played the alchemist, bringing two foreign elements together and creating something priceless — a sense of conviction, the promise that we could exert mastery over our fate, that we could expunge the helplessness that comes when we stand in front of life’s mysteries.
I’m not a searcher of absolutes. I’m a searcher of the unknowns that become knowns and the uncertainties that follow. Even for me, there was something to ponder in the wide-ranging conversation.
We’ve learned an interesting thing about our neurological makeup. It’s playing pretend all the time. And, it’s running a split-second behind reality.
There’s this little pea-sized thing at the base of our brain that’s been programmed by our genes to process stimulus almost instantaneously. It’s called the amygdala and it’s part of our limbic system.
The way the amygdala works puts to lie the idea that we can exercise perfect self-control. Expose our sensory system to the hiss of a snake or the smell of smoke and our entire system leaps into action even before we are consciously aware that we are processing something.
That millisecond lag between our physical reaction and our conscious processing is the difference between the present and the past.
This idea of our mind living in the past is reinforced by the way that it processes experience and memory. The simplest way to explain its workings is that when we see something happen the wiring in our brains recreates the experience as if it were actually happening to us, right then. Think about the moment in a horror film that you leap out of your seat. You are wholly aware of the separation of reality between the film and the cushy chair you are sitting in. But you can’t stop your reaction — it feels real. It feels real because it is real, in some miracle of absolute mimicry that is separate from time and space.
At Chopra’s conversation, Tanzi talked about these attributes of our minds and summarized it in a pithy metaphor:
“The mind is the past.”
He followed it was another metaphor, something that is provocative and speaks to what our soul can aspire to:
“Our consciousness is potential.”
These two statements provide a foundation of first-order logic that can govern our understanding of our selves and our relationship with the world around us.
A basic goal of any faith is to give structure and meaning to our lives, to provide the framework for purpose and to dispel the doubt that comes from our awareness of our insignificance in the universe.
If we want to experience existence in a pure state, we want to unravel the binding to our past experience. We want to be able to exist in the present and to allow everything that can stimulate us to flow through us without activating our mind, the vessel of the past as Tanzi characterized it. In that state, we can let our consciousness experience being.
Outside of a series of accepted metaphors this sounds like flimsy New-Age hogwash, sure. As I ran through the implications of the two statements, I had to remind myself that there was an underlying science that supported these unfamiliar metaphors. When I reasoned through them, I found myself struck by how much this first-order logic supported the tenet of presentness, that traditions of meditation and repetitive prayer in the Christian, Buddhist and Muslim faiths, among others, all searched to make the petitioner an empty vessel open to understanding.
As the conversation between Chopra and Tanzi ranged widely, I mused about this idea of the consciousness being potential. What does it mean for Faith?
I realized, as I worked through my questions, how deeply tied to the power of the mind and the resonance of the past I was. I am a slave to these mimetic memories. They feed me.
Is that a thing that keeps me from achieving a greater understanding of the experience of life, I wondered.
There was time for questions at the end. I had one, but I stayed quiet. My question wasn’t trying to draw the easy connections and the answer wouldn’t give anyone confidence. There was no sense in trying to share it there, at the HomeBase.
This is what I wanted to know:
Consciousness is potential.
Mind is memory.
Our genes are coded to recall information from the past to keep us safe and to allow us to move forward.
In order to fully experience the future, we have to shed the past. How do we shed all that knowledge? How do we escape memory?
What will we see when we focus on what is potential, if the only way we can process what we see is through the filter of our mind, its memory and its metaphors?
The walk out of the session took us back through the main floor of ABC Carpet & Homes. It is filled with artifacts, the product of function and aesthetic. I wondered where Chopra was going next. An apartment? A hotel suite? How would it be decorated? I had a different assessment of the man — he was trying to connect big questions and give people something that they could use that wouldn’t leave them feeling unrooted. I wondered what a conversation with him would be like. I imagined George Harrison, ravaged by cancer, speculating with Deepak about what happens to the information that is encoded in us, whether the molecular design will regroup and rebalance in some iteration beyond our awareness. Maybe consciousness is a fifth dimension that exists outside of us and is only loosely associated with our corporeal form. There they would sit, two men who have moved the hearts and minds of millions, fumbling with the words, feeling safe with each other, excited at different moments, in a great flow of spirit, threatened only by mortality, willing to create new metaphors, and, in the end, no more or less certain than a 13-year old boy about what reality is.