What’s the Secret to a Happy Life? Oprah Talks to Deepak Chopra
May 15, 2012
On her first visit to India, Oprah discovers a country buzzing with energy and full of magic— and speaks with one of its favorite sons about truth, wisdom, and joy.
On my vision board, there's a picture of a woman on a camel wearing a shimmery gold sari. "Come to India," she beckons. I cut out the image four years ago, hoping to make my dream of seeing that country a reality. I knew it would happen—I just didn't know when.
Recently, I was reviewing a list of the people I'd most like to talk to about what matters in life. I'd already taped several conversations under the oak trees in my backyard for the OWN show Super Soul Sunday and was thinking, Who's next?
Then it came to me. "Deepak Chopra," I told my producer.
"Would you like to talk to him in the studio? In your backyard?" she asked.
In a flash I said, "I'd like to talk to him in India!" Which is how I found myself sitting across from this spiritual teacher, mind-body healer, and author of 65 books, in the beautiful City Palace of Jaipur—talking about everything from meditation (Deepak and George Harrison studied with the same teacher) to the nature of death (he insists it's not something to be afraid of).
Raised in a family of physicians—his father was a cardiologist, his brother is the dean of continuing education at Harvard Medical School—Deepak was trained as an endocrinologist (or as he puts it, "I used to be a doctor, and now I'm a witch doctor"). I've known him since 1993, but while I've always been impressed by his serenity and wisdom, talking to him in his homeland added a whole new dimension.
India was a shock to my system from the moment I arrived. I was trying to see everything at once, but there's just too much to see. A woman in a pink sari riding sidesaddle on a motor scooter. A group of men squatting around a smoking pot on the side of the road. A cow eating from a pile of trash. And people, people everywhere, millions of them, it seemed, rushing by in tiny taxis or on foot, and everyone going right through red lights—so much so that I decided red must mean "go" here. (It does not.)
From the slums of Mumbai to the Taj Mahal, from the city of widows to the best spa I've ever been to (in Rishikesh), India took my breath away. It really merits the word awesome—inspiring awe. I saw myself reflected in the worn, lined face of an old man driving an ox cart, in the widows covered in shawls and forced to beg for rupees, in the nine people crammed in the back of an open cab on their way to work. The level of patience, tolerance, and cooperation one must have in order to live as a family of five in a six-by-six-foot space (yes, I saw this, too) and still manage some happiness is profound. In India my humanity expanded.
And that, of course, is the test of any great journey: When it's over, are you better for having taken the trip? After visiting India, I can say that I am. It is a place that, like Deepak Chopra himself, invites you to see deeper into your soul.
Oprah: This is absolutely amazing to me, that we get to sit here together with the city of Jaipur in the background. Do you remember our first meeting, when you came on my show in 1993? At the time, people thought talking about the mind-body-spirit connection was in the woo-woo category. But you knew differently.
Deepak: Well, I had this background—this country's background. By which I mean its rich spiritual tradition. But I was also feeling intuitively just from watching my patients that there was some link between the mind and the body. Now, of course, we know from looking at brain scans that there's a direct connection. Thoughts, feelings, brain, body, even the immune system—
Oprah: It's all connected.
Deepak: All connected.
Oprah: I wanted to do this interview because you're one of the great thought leaders of our time and I'm always interested in expanding the way I look at the world. But first I want to talk about India.
Deepak: You know, a couple hundred miles from here is where I grew up.
Oprah: Does it feel like coming home? Or do you feel more at home in the United States now?
Deepak: I feel at home anywhere in the world now. But yes, when I come here, the colors and textures and fragrances evoke strong memories.
Oprah: We landed in Mumbai. I was with my goddaughter Kirby, and as we were driving in, she said, "This feels like we're in the middle of a video game—there's so much going on, you don't know where to look." So I said, "Well, you look on your side, and if you see something you think is different from my side, tell me." She was right: You can't take it all in.
Deepak: That's India. Centuries of culture. And at the same time totally contemporary. An assault on the senses. Paradox and contradiction.
Oprah: What's interesting, riding through the streets of Mumbai, the streets of Agra, the streets of Jaipur, is that even though it might feel chaotic to a foreigner, there seems to be a flow. An underlying flow of calmness. Nobody seems agitated. Nobody's yelling at each other.
Deepak: Even in the midst of poverty, there's no rage. Even in the midst of abysmal conditions sometimes. Which doesn't excuse the fact that there are more malnourished children here than in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. That's inexcusable in a country that's moving so fast in the economic sector. But you won't find rage.
Oprah: Why is that?
Deepak: Partly because no matter what has happened throughout its history, through all its trials and tribulations and its very violent past, India has been sustained by its spiritual essence.
Oprah: What is that essence? In every conversation I've had—with housewives in Mumbai, with middle-class people, upper-class, in the slums—everyone says there is an underlying consciousness of karma. That people believe in karma—that what you're putting out is going to come back. If I do something to you, the energy of it is going to come back to me in the future.
Deepak: A child in India grows up with the idea that you have to make choices that will create a better future. In fact, your whole life is a continuum of choices, so the more conscious you are, the greater your life will be. People live that, yes.
Oprah: That's the thing that has impressed me most: People live it. They don't just talk it. It's part of their actions. Am I correct?
Deepak: You're absolutely correct. In India you're taught that there are certain qualities that make you a divine human being. These qualities are joy—
Deepak: Compassion, equanimity, truth, goodness, beauty, and harmony. And at the core of this are three words: Sat, Chit, –Ananda. Sat means "the truth," Chit means "consciousness," and –Ananda means "joy." So if you are connected to truth and consciousness and joy, you're all set.
Oprah: Did you grow up wanting to use your beliefs to help transform the way people thought about themselves?
Deepak: My mother was a very spiritual person, and she taught me even as a child about consciousness, though she couched it in mythical stories. My father was a cardiologist who trained in England. He was actually an aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten before the British left India. So he was way Western, and she was very Eastern. I grew up confused because I went to Catholic school and then I went to medical school. And in medical school I experimented a little bit with LSD and things like that, mind-altering stuff.
Oprah: I read that somewhere and was like, Whoa, Deepak!
Deepak: I did it only once or twice—enough to give me a glimpse of other states of consciousness.
Oprah: At least you didn't say you didn't inhale.
Deepak: [Laughs.] No, no. It was real.
Oprah: You did inhale. [Laughs.]
Deepak: Yes, it was real. But speaking of the Eastern/Western question, there's another aspect of moving with the flow, which is about the movement toward enlightenment. The way we are educated in the West, everybody's looking toward the future.
Deepak: Which means they're never in the present. So when they arrive at the future, it's not there for them, because they're not present for it.
Deepak: And if you get the idea that this is the moment you have—the only moment you have—then you live in the present and you move with the flow because this is the point, right now.
Oprah: Is that how you live your life?
Deepak: I do. I embrace the wisdom of uncertainty, because if everything is certain, where is the creativity?
Oprah: Okay, now let me tell you what you did for me. You know that over the years I've done at least a thousand shows on taking care of yourself, and I listen to Dr. Oz and go for regular checkups. But there's something different about having it modeled for you. So the other night when I arrived in Mumbai, I was feeling like a dishrag. You could have mopped the floor with me at that point, I was so exhausted. I hadn't slept in a week.
Deepak: I kept checking on you.
Oprah: I know. And when I said, "How are you?," I expected you to say, "Oh, I'm exhausted"—because you had just arrived, too. I expected you to go, "Oh, I can't do this." But what you actually said was, "I'm fine—I rested, I slept, I exercised, I did yoga, and I had a massage." And I went, "Oh." [Laughs.]
Deepak: I meditated, too.
Oprah: And meditated! So the next morning I got up, I meditated, I exercised, I got a massage, and I've done that every day since. And it changed my everything. What I realized is, you scheduled it. It was a part of your schedule. You put yourself first.
Deepak: Yes. You can only give what you have, right?
Oprah: Right. Except when I tell my producers that Deepak scheduled a massage for himself, they say, "Yeah, but you don't have time."
Deepak: [Laughs.] We have eternity. You know, as a doctor, I used to ask my patients, "Why do you want to get well?" They'd say they wanted to be rid of this illness. "Why do you want to be rid of the illness?" Oh, so I can go back to work. "Why do you want to go to work?" Oh, so I can pay my bills. "Why do you want to do that?" Then finally they'd say, "Shut up—all I want to do is be happy!" I say, why not start with happiness? Why go about it in such a circuitous way?
Oprah: So tell me this: Have you meditated every day of your life for years?
Deepak: For 40 years, yes. I try to live in the meditative state. I can say honestly that you can't get me upset.
Deepak: No matter what.
Oprah: Really. [Laughs.] How do you do that?
Deepak: I watch myself. By now it's become automatic.
Oprah: But how did you handle your critics back in the beginning?
Deepak: Oh, not well. I did not handle them well. I became resentful. I debated. I counterattacked. But then I started observing my reactions, and then I read a statement from Mr. Nelson Mandela that changed me forever. He said having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy. I never forgot that.
Oprah: So would you say at this point you have the ego under control?
Deepak: You'd have to ask my kids and my wife. But I haven't had an argument in my family for 30 years.
Oprah: Are you still growing?
Deepak: Yes. Yes. I'm beginning to understand the limitations of the scientific mind. Science is totally bewildered by the nature of our consciousness. If you ask a scientist where does thought come from, what is the source of imagination or creativity, or intention, or free will, or choice—the answer is we don't know. The more we know about the brain, the less we know about consciousness, which is amazing, isn't it?
Deepak: Only our consciousness can understand our consciousness. Only our soul can understand our soul.
Oprah: That's why it's so hard to put into words. And I think it's remarkable that you've written so many books—
Oprah: [Laughs.] I think it's remarkable that you've written 65 books trying to do just that.
Deepak: It's still a struggle. Half the time I've forgotten what I wrote!
Oprah: Who has been your greatest teacher or teachers?
Deepak: These days my greatest teacher is my own inner silence.
Deepak: If I want to know something, I go into silence. I still go into silence. My wife, too. Every January she goes to South India for one month of silence.
Oprah: Oh my God.
Deepak: It's a ritual. She's been doing it for 20 years.
Oprah: Thirty days of silence. I'd lose my mind. And maybe I'd find it. [Laughs.]
Deepak: Once, we went together for silence to the canyons of Utah. All by ourselves. We were dropped off by somebody, and there were no phones, no contact with the outside world. She had her own cabin and I had my own cabin, and we met once a day to walk together, but we wouldn't speak to each other. You're not even supposed to write or anything—just stay in silence for the whole week.
Oprah: Just silence.
Deepak: There were a couple of mice in my room, but every time I went into stillness they would also be still.
Oprah: They didn't bother you.
Deepak: But on day three I got to her cabin and she was gone. I looked everywhere and she wasn't there. And then I panicked a bit. I looked in the trash and everything in case a bear had come in the night. Couldn't find her. And I had no way of getting in touch with the outside world for the next four days. So I meditated for a bit and then I walked out of the cabin again and saw a hill far away. I said maybe if I cross the hill, there'll be something on the other side. So I went across the hill, and indeed there was a cottage a little farther away. And when I got to the cottage, the door was ajar and there was loud noise and she was sitting on the sofa watching television. So I took a piece of paper out and wrote, What happened question mark. And she wrote, Mice exclamation mark.
Oprah: [Laughs.] So you meditated with the mice. And in 2010 you became a monk for a month.
Deepak: Yes, I went to a monastery in Thailand. We took our baths in the stream, we begged for our food in the streets, I shaved my head and walked barefoot. My head monk asked how it was walking. I said it hurt without shoes. And he said, "It hurts on the foot that's down, but the one that's up feels really good—so focus on that one."
Deepak: And I realized that all pain and pleasure is where you put your attention.
Oprah: Whew, I love that. But going back a little to the idea of the soul: What is the soul?
Deepak: The soul is the core of your being. Your body is in your soul. Your mind is in your soul. The whole universe is in your soul, and your soul is part of the universal consciousness.
Oprah: [Takes a breath.] Okay. [Laughs.]
Deepak: It's also, by the way, in the space between your thoughts. So: thought thought thought, and then there's a little space.
Oprah: The little space between your thoughts. That's good. And what do you believe is the purpose of life?
Deepak: The purpose of life is the progressive expansion of happiness and the ability to love and have compassion. And also the ability to be in touch with the creative source inside you.
Oprah: And what is the secret to living a happy life?
Deepak: The secret to a happy life is to recognize that no matter what the situation, there's a creative opportunity in it. Also, finding meaning and purpose in your life to make a contribution. And ultimately the secret is to make other people happy.
Oprah: Got it. Now I just want you to finish a few sentences for me. Life is...
Deepak: A field of infinite possibilities and an opportunity to evolve in the direction of truthfulness, beauty, and harmony.
Oprah: The world needs...
Deepak: More compassion and love.
Oprah: Love is...
Deepak: Not a sentiment or an emotion. It's the fact that we're all the same being in different disguises.
Oprah: I want to thank...
Deepak: All the people who have given me so much love without my even asking.
Oprah: I am ready to forgive...
Deepak: I have already forgiven.
Oprah: Whew. That's great. That's really great. And what do you know for sure?
Oprah: [Laughs.] Well, I know one thing: This conversation has made me happy!