According to Dr Deepak Chopra, a physician and philosopher of holistic health, the global crises we now face are evidence of a more deeply rooted crisis of perception. A former chief-of-staff at Boston Regional Medical Center specialising in endocrinology, in his mid-30s Chopra smoked excessively and drank too much coffee and alcohol to cope with the stresses of being a doctor. But a turning point came when he began to learn about transcendental meditation, which helped him to quit smoking and drinking. “So I decided to give up my endrocinology practice to focus on holistic health. I think it was just the fact that there is a lot of frustration when all you do is prescribe medication, you start to feel like a legalized drug pusher. That doesn’t mean that all prescriptions are useless, but it is true that 80 percent of all drugs prescribed today are of optional or marginal benefit.”
Chopra argues that for hundreds of years, science mistakenly set in stone distinctions between the biological organism and the environment which don’t really exist. “We are not ‘biological organisms contained in an environment’, that’s a fundamental misperception,” he points out. “The biological organism, whether it’s a sentient human being, or a sentient mosquito, a sentient bacterium, is not separate from the environment. Both the biological organism and what we call the environment are differentiated patterns of behaviour of a single reality, whether you call that reality ‘Gaia’, or ‘Planet Earth’, or even if you wish, the ‘sentient universe’.” Ok, I’m thinking, if that’s the case then what does this shift in perception imply in terms of action? “So you don’t look at that tree and say, ‘oh that tree’s the environment’, that tree’s your lungs, if it didn’t breathe, you wouldn’t breathe”, explained Chopra. “The Earth is your body. The rivers and waters of our planet are your circulation, if you pollute them, you pollute your circulation. The air is your breath. We need to start thinking of the world as our universal body. Because our survival as human beings is equally dependent on our personal bodies, as well as our universal body.”
Now this was a surprisingly refreshing way of thinking that hadn’t occurred to me before – and it seemed to tie in with the diverse calls from psychologists, philosophers and economists for a fundamental shift in our values. What excites me about Chopra is his groundbreaking suggestion that such a shift in values was not simply a case of social convenience, of what works best; but that it might actually reflect the reality of our embeddedness in nature. Intriguingly, although Chopra has faced hostility from the medical establishment in the United States for his views, his consistent work to expand the boundaries of traditional medicine led to the peer-reviewed Journal of American Medicine doing a special issue dedicated to alternative medicine in November 1998. Since then, holistic conceptions of health care have increasingly been researched and recognized. For several years now, Oxford University Press has published a quarterly international peer-reviewed journal, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM). Dr. Edwin L. Cooper, who is founder and chief-editor of the journal, is also a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Neurobiology at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he heads up UCLA’s Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine. Dr Cooper remarks that the impact of cancer “reaches beyond the physical disease. It shapes a patient’s thoughts and emotions. Increasingly, physicians are recognizing that treating cancer often means more than just aggressively attacking the malignancy. It means considering the whole person—mind, body and soul—and adding complementary approaches that increase health and well-being, reduce stress, boost tolerance of conventional treatments, improve quality of life and help people to live as fully as possible.”
The new UCLA research programme in holistic health is host to the Center for East-West Medicine, housed in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. The Center, which receives 13,000 patients a year, is working to develop “a model system of comprehensive care with emphasis on health promotion, disease prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation through the integrated practice of East-West medicine.” These developments in health and medicine back-up Chopra’s arguments by revealing that the fragmentation and separation at the heart of our normal way of making sense of the world are reflections of a fundamental crisis of perception, a mistaken way of understanding human nature and its relationship to Nature. Chopra is pointing to an inherent interconnectedness, not only between mind and body, but also between the organism and its environment.
The Interconnected Cosmos
This recognition of interconnectedness in the health sciences is paralleled by new breakthroughs in other sciences, particularly in physics, which suggest that old, mechanistic conceptions of nature and the world are relics of an outdated worldview that no longer fits what’s happening at subatomic levels, beneath the surface of everyday life. At first, I was rather sceptical of the relevance, to questions about social change and global crisis, of a field as seemingly obscure and technical as quantum mechanics. But my bemusement quickly turned to fascination, and then conviction, after discovering one of the pioneers of this revolutionary perspective, Dr. Fritjof Capra, a physicist who teaches and researches theoretical high-energy physics at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley. Capra has written widely on the philosophical implications of modern science, and his first book, The Tao of Physics, argued controversially that Western science was now confirming the same fundamental propositions about reality found in Eastern mysticism. When Capra first started work on the manuscript in the 1972, he was spurred on by the realisation that two of his colleagues, both senior physicists who had made paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in the field, agreed with his views. “I had several discussions with Heisenberg. I lived in England then, and I visited him several times in Munich and showed him the whole manuscript chapter by chapter.” The “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle”, which refers to the impossibility of simultaneously measuring the position and momentum of a subatomic particle, was named after Werner Heisenberg, credited as the founder of the new quantum mechanics.