What do you do when the person next to you on the plane is reading Deepak Chopra?

What do you do when the person next to you on the plane is reading Deepak Chopra?

The title of this post pretty much says it all.  I recently flew from South Africa back to the US after flying on four flights: Cape Town-Johannesburg-Dakar-Washington, DC-Boston.

On the Johannesburg to Dakar leg, I was lucky enough to have the seat next to me empty, so I stretched out, enjoyed my two blankets and two pillows, and tried to sleep a little. The airplane landed in Dakar, Senegal to refuel, take on food and drink, and also take on a new crew and new passengers. I was a little disappointed when a man took the seat next to me on the plane, but he turned out to be a friendly man from Ghana who was well-educated (a degree in engineering as well as a PhD in business administration), well-spoken, well-traveled, and had interesting stories about his work for the World Bank over the past ten years or so.  The man travels all over the world managing various projects for the World Bank, such as providing start-up money for coffee farmers in Ethiopia and managing various grants and investments  in his home country of Ghana.

About halfway through the 9 hour flight, the man took out the book he was reading. I was dismayed to see that he was reading “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra. I had to mask my momentary shock and disappointment when the man praised the book and said how he hoped it would make him more successful. I didn’t know how to respond, but I decided that the tactic of “Deepak Chopra is dumb, spiritual laws are dumb, and you’re dumb for reading this book” was not the right approach. The man sitting next to me on the airplane was far from dumb; he was very successful and intelligent and also doing very good, important work in Africa and other places around the world.

So, I tried another approach. I inquired about the book and politely read the introduction and the description on the cover jacket. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, here is a description from wikipedia:

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success – A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams is a 1994 self-help, pocket-sized book from author and physician Deepak Chopra, freely inspired in Hinduist and spiritualistic concepts, which preaches the idea that personal success is not the outcome of hard work, precise plans or a driving ambition, but rather of understanding our basic nature as human beings and how to follow the laws of nature. According to the book, when we comprehend and apply these laws in our lives, everything we want can be created, “because the same laws that nature uses to create a forest, a star, or a human body can also bring about the fulfillment of our deepest desires”.

The book has sold 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and about 3 million abroad, and appeared in the top 10 list of New York Times.

I then handed the book back and said something along the lines of, “Well, this looks interesting, but I’m a little skeptical of both Deepak Chopra and of self-help books in general.” Yes, I used the word skeptical, but I tried not to sound too bitter or condescending. My tactic seemed to work– the man asked why I was skeptical and listened to my reply.

I continued with something like, “Well, first I am not a fan of Deepak Chopra in general. He’s a medical doctor, but he often praises dubious alternative medicine. I feel that his writings about alternative medicine– which hasn’t been proved scientifically– can keep people from receiving real medical help. I  don’t think he means to, but he harms people in this way. I also don’t like him because I think he’s often just out to make money. Many self-help books are just money-makers, and that makes me skeptical of their contents.”

I decided to stop there, though I wanted to say some harsher words about Deepak and what I thought about “spiritual laws.”

The man paused, took in my words, and asked me some more about Deepak’s medical beliefs. He apparently didn’t know much about Deepak Chopra. I told him some more about the alternative medicine rubbish and why I felt it was harmful, and the man seemed to consider that deeply. He frowned a bit and said he would look into it more.

Eventually, he also said, “I still think these laws are good, though. But maybe they’re just more common sense. I don’t think Deepak was the first person to come up with these laws; maybe he is just trying to make money from them.”

Again, I wanted to condemn the spiritual laws in stronger language, but I let it go, saying only “maybe.” I felt that shouting and stronger words would not necessarily help, and I felt that I had at least planted a seed of doubt about Deepak and the book. Hopefully that is enough for a smart, educated man to figure out the rest on his own. Time will tell, though perhaps I’ll never know. Though the man did leave his business card with me, so maybe I’ll follow up with him by email sometime to see what he thinks about Deepak in a few months.

Let me just comment here quickly on the “Seven Spiritual Laws for Success.” I haven’t read the book in detail, but I think I have a good idea of the contents. Deepak says in the book that success is not a result of hard work, precise plans, or driving ambition. Rather, you just need to relax, help others, and give into the universe or some nonsense.

Certainly, helping others and being a nice person in general can help your success in the long-term. People are more likely to help you if you help them, and if you’re friendly and nice to people this can help you make contacts, hear about opportunities, and so forth. So, the advice in the book is not all bad. However, if I can be considered successful in my career as a geologist (I guess so, though some days I don’t feel like the best student or geologist), it is not just from helping others or being friendly. No. I’ve had to work extremely hard, and I still work extremely hard. And not just in graduate school– I’ve worked hard in science and mathematics my whole life. Or at least since I was five or six or so. I was lucky that I was born into a middle class American family with a strong belief in the power of good education. I went to excellent schools, and my parents pushed me to do my homework well. I’ve also been ambitious and driven– I’ve applied for internships, research positions, graduate school. All that takes ambition and drive. All of this has also taken planning– filling out the applications on time, obtaining letters of recommendation, researching projects, and so on.

My fiance– from a poor South African family and the first to go to college in his family (even his extended family)– would agree that success takes hard work, planning, and ambition. He did not have the same support and luxuries that I did growing up in middle class America, so he’s had to work even harder than me and be even more ambitious than me in order to be successful.

So, yes, in my experience success requires hard work, planning, ambition, and some luck– though maybe in some cases it’s a Richard Wiseman sort of luck.

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

19 Comments

  1. The line between being too pushy about what you think and trying to give someone some good information is a hard one to walk. It sounds like you did a great job at it, just enough info to get him thinking, not enough to make him tune out to what you were saying.

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments on hard work. I am currently getting a B.S. in Environmental Science and my dedication and hard work have been essential to my success. though I think I am missing the ambition gene sometimes. If going with the flow of the universe would teach me differential equations, life would have been so much easier :)

  2. Also- forgot to say in the post: What would you do if the person next to you on the plane were reading Deepak Chopra? Or Sylvia Browne or some other nonsense?

    • I think you did just enough and not to much. Asking some questions to get people to think and ask questions is as far as you can really go. If the questions smell the least bit like an attack most people will only be encouraged that they are on the right track and you’re an ass. Cognitive dissonance seems to work that way.

  3. One of the things I like about flying is the chance to meet interesting people. A couple of months ago, while waiting to board a flight (Johannesburg-Atlanta-DC, in my case), I met this one dude who works for Exxon in West Africa. We talked about a wide variety of topics: the weather in Cape Town, rock concerts, cricket… and then the subject of South African television came up. I think I had mentioned how funny it was to come to SA, turn on a television, and the first thing I see is the show American Chopper.

    Anyway, he then said that his wife constantly watches those History Channel documentaries about Nostradamus, 2012, and the end of the world. Fortunately, for the sake of our friendly conversation, he seemed to find it all pretty amusing. Personally, I hold to the view that Nostradamus was either writing about the past, the present (his present, not ours), or that he wrote those quatrains because he wanted to mess with the heads of people in the future. But regardless, I was lucky because the guy gave off clues that he didn’t believe that stuff. I don’t know if I really would have pushed it if it were clear that he was into that sort of thing. I probably would’ve asked questions about the evidence for his beliefs (I’m a curious guy), but I also probably wouldn’t have pushed my own opinion on the matter. Still, that’s just me, and I like to avoid any confrontation… plus, I know dick about Nostradamus. I was however, able to give a few reasons why I thought the whole 2012 thing was a big load.

    So anyways, in the end, I told him what I thought about all that various woo, and I think I managed to get that across in a friendly way, and without insulting his wife :)

    • Are you a Cape Town or Joburg resident? I’m really looking forward to moving to Cape Town later this year!

      • Oh, no. Unfortunately, I was only there for about 6 days of a two week vacation. It was actually my first time leaving the USA by myself :) I definitely loved Cape Town (and it’s surrounding area) though! Would absolutely go back as soon as I could, but it’ll be another year before I even have enough vacation time saved up, let alone the necessary funds :)

        Anyways, best of luck with your impending move! Please rest assured that I am totally jealous. :D

        • Whoa, smiley overload. My apologies. I miss my preview button :(

        • Gotcha– hope you enjoyed your vacation. It’s hard not to in Cape Town! I am very excited about my move. I’ve started moving some of my things over already, and it’s difficult for me to stay here knowing I’ll soon be in Cape Town. Must work on my studies, though :-).

  4. re: The 2012 thing: I picture 2 Mayans on top of a pyramid. One says to the other, “I’m tired of writing, let’s get a beer.” (saw that in a comic, can’t remember where)
    .
    Something along those lines happened to me just yesterday. A friend said something about the stupidity of some people, and I agreed, saying, “Yeah, some Americans still think that Bush was responsible for 9/11. Some even think that Obama was not an natural-born American citizen!”
    That’s when the fun started. But not from my perspective. Another person heard me say this and piped up with, “I’m one of them!”
    I didn’t know what to say! I was completely frozen in my tracks, caught like a deer staring at oncoming headlights. Fortunately, I could absorb myself in pretending to work at the time, so that’s what I did.
     
    but it was the fear…
    the “what the hell do I say now?”
    the “what if I look like an ass?”
    the “what if this guy starts spewing illogic that I can’t understand?”
    What if… what if… what if… :(
     
    I actually feel like I’ve let my people (the Skeptical community) down in some way. I couldn’t plant the seed of doubt in someone’s mind, and what’s worse, is I couldn’t even try.
    I’m sorry, everyone. :(

  5. Sounds to me like you had an interesting, modest, discussion with your travel companion. I don’t think you conceded any ground in your beliefs and neither did he.

    He probably got off the plane think ..

    ” What an interesting woman..she clearly didn’t agree with Chopra’s Spiritual Laws, but she didn’t shove her opinion down my throat, She listened to me, gave me something to think about. Plus, she was pretty HOT, I hope she gives me a call !.”

  6. 1.) I read that as “what do you do when the person next to you on the plane IS Deepak Chopra?”

    Which I think is an even more interesting question…

    2.) I think you handled that just right, but I think following up is a bad idea. It was a respectful conversation and you didn’t give him the impression that you were trying to “convert” him or thought he was stupid, but following up probably would give that impression, and make the things you said less credible in retrospect.

    3.) It’s weird how much this reminds me of discussions in the Christian communities I grew up in, on how best to share your faith without alienating people…

    • Yeah, I probably won’t follow up with the guy, nice as he is. I’ve met many people on airplanes, and I don’t think I’ve ever followed up with any of them… I sometimes find strange business cards tucked in the bottoms of my desk drawers and such. Usually from semi-creepy businessmen. I’m engaged, so I don’t see the point in following up :-).

      I’ve chatted with many people on airplanes and in waiting areas. I try and view these conversations as interesting but fleeting.

  7. You could always go with…”Wow! That’s unbelievable!”

  8. One thing that struck me as kind of strange about your article was your insistence on the man on the plane being well educated. I just would like to add that I don’t consider education level to be an incredibly accurate predictor of actual intelligence. I personally am in graduate school in the biotechnology field, but there are plenty of people in science fields at my university that don’t think skeptically at all, whereas my husband, who has his GED and who apprenticed as an auto mechanic is incredibly intelligent, and has a very practical as well as skeptical way of looking at the world. I understand that from the point of the article it made sense to note that he has obtained a certain degree of education, I just think that it is a mistake to equate education with an ability to think skeptically.

    • I couldn’t agree more with education and skeptical thinking not being in alignment, necessarily.

      I’ve had professors who believe in woo-woo nonsense, and James Randi– one of the most brilliant and most skeptical people I know– is a high school dropout.

      I apologize if I over-emphasized his education in the post– if anything, I suppose this highlights the fact that education does not necessarily mean you are skeptical and good at critical thinking.

  9. I applaud your ability to refrain from calling Chopra a “wanker of the highest order”.

    Being that I am still only nineteen years of age and very early on in my medical education, I have the same attitude that you see in the young sons of mythological kings and warrior-nobles. I am passionate about my cause and reservation is difficult for me. (Yes, I did just see the movie, Thor, but I don’t think that that voids the comparison!)

    But unlike those characters, I do my best to understand how necessary that restraint is. So I just wanted to thank you for being somebody that I can look up to as a model for self-restraint. (>O.o>_<o.O<)

  10. A couple of years ago, when I was just discovering skepticism, Chopra was invited as a speaker in a lecture series at the company I work for. I didn’t know much about him but he sounded kind of suspect, so I researched in the skeptical blogs. At first, the idea was to write a letter to the event organizers or even going to the lecture and call him out on something. I ended up doing nothing, I didn’t have enough skeptical chops to confront him directly nor do I think it would have been a good career move. I didn’t even go to the lecture.
    I often wonder what I would do if he were invited again. I would be more outraged than I was at the time since I’m more aware of what he’s about, but I still wouldn’t be able to confront him. I’d probably just ask a question hoping to make the attendees think skeptically about his claims. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could do much more.

    • It’s hard to deal with things like this when you value evidence and accuracy, and aren’t totally on top of the facts and background. The other side has no problem making stuff up, which gives them a huge advantage in this kind of situation. I recently attended a lecture by Andrew Wakefield and felt exactly the same way… I was sure an awful lot of what he was saying was self-serving bullshit, but wasn’t confident enough on the specifics to even ask a challenging question.

  11. Long ago, when it was a new book, the woman sitting next to me on a plane was reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion. I made absolutely no attempt to talk to her. :-(

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply