The nonprofit Chopra Foundation in California is bringing its Sages and Scientists Symposium to Bentonville this weekend beginning Thursday. It’ll be held at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Deepak Chopra, the foundation’s namesake and the co-founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif., is the organizer of the conference. Chopra moved from India to the U.S. in his early 20s to continue his study of Western medicine. Following a residency in New Jersey, he landed in Boston, where he quickly rose to chief of medicine at New England Memorial Hospital.
Now 73 years old, Chopra is considered a pioneer of integrative medicine, which recommends mixing mainstream Western medicine with alternative treatments. He has written nearly 90 books on the topic, many of them The New York Times bestsellers.
Chopra organized the first Sages and Scientists in 2010 in Carlsbad, where it was held annually through 2014. The most recent Sages and Scientists was in Beverly Hills in 2016.
In a recent interview, Chopra discussed his rationale for choosing Bentonville for this year’s event, which will attract thought leaders from around the world. The interview has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
Paul Gatling: How did you decide on having Sages and Scientists in Arkansas? What’s the appeal of having the event here?
Deepak Chopra: We decided to do it at Crystal Bridges for two reasons. One is Alice Walton was very gracious to give us the venue to do the conference. I have been to Bentonville several times over the years and to Crystal Bridges. And of course Northwest Arkansas has a great tradition of various things: food, culture, music, film and so on. I have a special proclivity to be enchanted by this kind of culture, so we decided to come to Bentonville, Ark., and people are coming from all over the world.
Gatling: What’s your take on Bentonville versus maybe what your preconceived idea of Bentonville was before visiting? I can’t imagine you’ve been to Arkansas too many times.
Chopra: I have, actually. I have been there several times. Over the course of a year I come out at least three or four times. I love the atmosphere. Bentonville, particularly, has grown over the years. I remember it from the late 1980s, and it keeps getting even more culturally, unusually attractive to me. People are unaware of the fact there are direct flights from New York and Los Angeles. Once they come there, they find it very enchanting.
Gatling: How long have you known Alice Walton?
Chopra: I have known her since 1988. I knew Sam [Walton] as well. And I have known the [Walton] family for several years.
Gatling: Sages and Scientists, in general, what was the goal when you first began to organize these events?
Chopra: To bring together luminaries and thought leaders in academia, and also entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, and also thought leaders in business and philanthropy in three areas. No. 1, well-being; No. 2, humanitarianism; and No. 3, a deeper understanding of the nature of reality or what we call the cosmos. We have thought leaders in every field, from machine learning to deep learning to understanding genetics and neuroscience and cosmology. We have the professor from MIT who created the VR for the landing on Mars. She very kindly accepted the invitation to speak about virtual reality and how that will have immense applications, not only for exploring intergalactic space but right here at home with the treatment of illness and disease.
It’s going to be amazing, and every time we’ve done this conference, it has evolved to a new level of understanding. We have 3.5 days. The first day is the future of well-being and then the future of humanity and the future of the cosmos. It’s a very ambitious program.
Gatling: You have said Sages and Scientists Symposium is a catalyst for your work to improve global well-being trends? Which trends need the most work? What is most concerning to you as a thought leader in that space?
Chopra: Right now, we know that only 5% of disease-related gene mutations are fully penetrant, which means they predict the disease. So if somebody has the BRCA gene for breast cancer, it’s almost 100% likely they will get breast cancer. But that applies to only 5% of all chronic illness, including cancers. For those kinds of mutations, there are new technologies emerging.
You may have heard of CRISPR, which is basically gene editing and splicing. Just like you can read a barcode of an item at the grocery store or cut and paste an email, you will soon be able to … it’s already being done … you can actually read the barcode of a gene and delete the defective gene and insert the healthy gene. Even that only helps 5% of chronic illness.
So 95% of chronic illness is related to inflammation in the body — low-grade inflammation in the body, low-grade depression, anxiety, stress. If you pay attention to things like sleep, stress management, exercise, movement, yoga, deep breathing, healthy emotions and relationships, nutrition and the connection with nature … that is why we also chose Northwest Arkansas … then you can actually prevent a lot of chronic illnesses.
So the future of well-being is predictable. It requires your participation. It’s preventable, and in many cases even reversible. We want to highlight what the future of health and well-being is. Right now, the discussions around health are not really about health. They’re about insurance. Everybody needs to be covered, but I think people need to realize that a lot of disease is preventable, and they can participate in their own well-being.
Gatling: You are a proponent of alternative medicine. What’s your definition of alternative medicine? An alternative to what?
Chopra: So I don’t use that word, even though I have been given that designation. It’s integrative medicine, which means you use whatever works. Pharmaceuticals, surgery, radiation …they all work in selective cases, and also particularly in acute illness. Integrative medicine means mostly lifestyle and stress management and nutrition and healthy emotions. Even things like good sleep. We have been doing studies on aspects of well-being, and we were among the first to be published in peer-reviewed journals how you can change the activity of your genes toward health and well-being or self-regulation, instead of inflammation.
Gatling: What’s the single biggest barrier that’s keeping integrative medicine from the mainstream?
Chopra: There are special interest groups that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and that’s not going to change unless there’s public awareness of what it means to be healthy.
Gatling: How would you say you spend the majority of your time these days? Writing, speaking, traveling, advising, podcasting? What occupies most of your time?
Chopra: Writing and public speaking, but also at the Chopra Foundation. We collaborate with other researchers at places like Harvard and Duke and Scripps [Health] and UCLA on looking at integrative modalities. And we publish a lot of research in peer-reviewed journals.
Gatling: Suicide prevention is something that you are specifically focused on through some of your podcast work. Why are those rates so high in America or around the world?
Chopra: This is an epidemic that has reached a proportion that we never envisioned, and a lot of attention has been brought to it recently because of very successful people, celebrities, committing suicide. It is the second most common cause of death in younger people as well, between the ages of 10 and 30.
We need to do something about it. If you bring awareness to people, if you help them create social networks, both online and offline — much in the way of Alcoholics Anonymous without the stigma — then we can actually do something about the epidemic. And we need to, for the next generation.
Gatling: What are your thoughts on technology today … a necessity versus a necessary evil? Smartphones for example. Good or bad?
Chopra: I actually am a big fan of technology. I also think it’s part of our human evolution, and by itself it’s neutral. Neither good nor evil. It’s up to us how we use it. You can use it to hack elections. You can use it to create a better world. It’s all up to us. We should schedule technology time, just like we schedule other times for exercise, sleep, relationships.
Gatling: How old are you?
Chopra: I am chronologically 73, but biologically I feel very young.
Gatling: Still a practicing physician?
Chopra: I have a group practice in California, and I maintain my license in Massachusetts and also California. But I mostly consult with other physicians who are part of our group practice. Once in a while when I am in California I will see patients that are intriguing to our group. Our group practice [Mind-Body Medical Group] in San Diego has lots of physicians — internists, oncologists and others who are trained in internal medicine and in some specialties, but also have expertise in integrative medicine.