I missed my calling in quackery

Deepak ChopraI missed my calling. I realize that, now I am semi-retired and counting my pennies. But I could have been like Deepak Chopra: rolling in dough, had I been astute enough to see the trends. Too late, I suppose, for me, but maybe not for you.

All my life I have criticized and lampooned New Age notions as fuzzy-headed, pseudoscience codswallop. But I should have embraced them because, it seems, there’s money to be had in conning and conniving. Lots of it. Instead of debunking and deconstructing the diaphanous piffle that gets spewed from these folk, I should have been plagiarizing from them. 

I’m a writer. I could easily tossed together a word salad of New Age bafflegab liberally spiced with buzzwords, phrases and aphorisms lifted from classical and Oriental sources. Written a pretentious self-help book full of woo hoo, like Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” or “The Power” – bestselling pap for the hard of thinking. Both of which were the butt of a merciless critique in 2010 in The New York Times:

“The Power” and “The Secret” are larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge,” as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do. In one clever experiment by the psychologist Rebecca Lawson, people who claimed to have a good understanding of how bicycles work (and who ride them every day) proved unable to draw the chain and pedals in the correct location.

Or I could have written a New Age book that tossed science and reason out the proverbial window and filled the pages with pseudoscience nonsense, like that supreme wingnut, Masuro Emoto’s cringeworthy book, The Secret of Water. He claims water’s feelings can be hurt by yelling at it. Stop laughing: that’s just what landed me here. Follow the path to riches instead. Embrace your inner con artist.

My book would be replete with similar deep-sounding but essentially meaningless statements and nebulous epithets that no one can quite counter because to do so makes the challenger seem shallow and dim. Like these (can you guess the sources?):

“The unexplainable unfolds through existential molecules.”*
“Your heart is the continuity of a symbolic representation of facts.”*
“The goal of meridians is to plant the seeds of karma rather than desire.**
“You and I are dreamweavers of the quantum soup.”**
“There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our planetary existence.” ***
“No matter how closely you examine the water, glucose, and electrolyte salts in the human brain, you can’t find the point where these molecules became conscious.” ***
“Consciousness conceives, governs, constructs, and becomes the activity of the body.” ***

“People are incredibly receptive to meaningless buzzwords,” a 2015 story on Mental Floss opened, adding:

…according to a new study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making… the vast majority of people are willing to believe complete bullshit, to use the scholarly term. (Title of the study: “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”)

Well, even a few minutes surfing for any New Age claptrap – astrology, homeopathy, gluten-free, chemtrails, angels, GMO resistance, crystals, aromatherapy, reflexology, reiki, feng shui, anti-vaccine – and you’ll be up to your neck in the swamp surrounded by the predatory charlatans who sell their services and products to the gullible. Of course, it’s a pretty shallow swamp, intellectually speaking.

Wisdom is, you seem, like truth. It has shades of affectation that distance it from its source. Like truthiness; stuff you want to believe is true, stuff you are willing to believe is true because it matches your preconceptions, without having any proof or evidence. What is the wisdom analogue? Wise-iness? Wiseryness? Wisdomerly? Okay: it’s bullshit.

You don’t need to be profound: you just have to be confusing and dense.

Take the mindfulness movement. Buddhism lite, if you will: a tiny wedge of Buddhist practice inflated into a behemoth for Westerners big on fads and low on patience to suffer the actual work of study and meditation. Instant enlightenment that can be had by just ordering this handy online course or e-book for a mere bunch of money. A 2014 article in Salon called it the “truthiness” version of Buddhism:

Like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” it is more that it “feels” like science than that it is science. In many respects, branding mindfulness in the cloak of science is not all that dissimilar to how any new fitness fad, whether it be low-fat diets or some exercise craze, is promoted. Promoters of the latest diet or exercise program are notorious for cherry-picking studies and appealing to the authority of science to bolster their claims, promising that we can shed pounds and dramatically improve our lives in just a few short weeks. Their solutions almost always turn out be short-lived fads.

And guess what? Deepak promotes his own version of mindfulness, too. As his site notes:

We can choose whether to make time an enemy or an ally. We can shift from time-bound awareness into timeless awareness . . . to the ecstasy that can only be found in the present moment. If you want to have all the time in the world, you can train yourself.
Practice #1: Transform Your Internal Dialogue
The way we talk to ourselves has a profound influence on how we perceive the world, how we feel, and ultimately how the events of our lives unfold. Instead of letting your internal dialogue bully or scare you with endless commentary about time running out, use affirmations that empower you and fill you with a sense of ease and wellbeing. You can use these affirmations or come up with your own:

Uh, sure. Whatever. It’s not supposed to mean anything deep.Just sound like it does. But it doesn’t seem to matter. People fall for it and open their wallets eagerly to every fad and fancy. And that’s probably why Deepak Chopra will be presenting a talk to a major conference about autism, in Edmonton, the CBC recently reported.

Not everyone there is happy with having a notorious New Ager at a science event, however.

Chopra is the “embodiment of pseudoscience,” according to Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta… “He’s like the great de-educator. He legitimizes these ideas that have no scientific basis at all and makes them sound scientific. He really is a fountain of meaningless jargon,” said Caulfield.

But we love jargon from the Master. As Professor Gad Saad (the “Gadfather) wrote in Psychology Today in an article titled, New Age Gurus: Dispensers of Nonsense:

To any person steeped in an ethos of reason, science, and logic, these New Age proclamations are nonsensical gibberish. And yet to millions of people, these men are holders of universal truths that lie below the “vulgar” realm of mere material reality. You see, Chopra, Zukav, and their ilk have access to deeper spiritual truths that plebeian schmucks such as myself can never understand (as was “explained” to me by a Twitter follower).

Saad offers this simple, two-step advice for wannabe gurus:

The prescription for being a New Age guru is the following: 1) Create verbiage that appears profound but that is otherwise meaningless. People will attribute their inability to understand your sentences to their own failings rather than to your charlatanism; 2) Be charismatic and self-confident in your delivery, and perhaps deceive yourself as to the veracity of your words.

The former I think I can manage without too much effort. I always have thousands of New Age websites to use as inspiration and if cut-n-paste works for them, why not me, too? The latter, however, probably takes practice  Start small: gulling your friends and family, then move on to your neighbours before taking on a full time career as a guru (aka con artist). I may be too old to change my ways.

Maybe I could be a New Age doctor, like Deepak. I could profess bizarre ideas counter to every known medical practice and claim they were ancient, traditional. I’m sure there are dozens of internet-based universities and colleges willing to sell me a degree in Ayurveda or some similar nonsense. And who but the Master to lead me? According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary, Deepak eschews actual medicine for what are to the rest of us quackery, even unhygienic practices. But they must work better than medicine if he says they do:

Chopra claims that perfect health is a matter of choice and that he can identify your dosha and its state of balance or imbalance simply by taking your pulse. He claims that allergies are usually caused by poor digestion. He claims you can prevent and reverse cataracts by brushing your teeth, scraping your tongue, spitting into a cup of water, and washing your eyes for a few minutes with this mixture… a false hope based on an unscientific imagination seeped in mysticism and cheerily dispensed gibberish. Science is unnecessary to test Ayurvedic claims since “the masters of Ayurvedic medicine can determine an herb’s medicinal qualities by simply looking at it.

Gawds, I do love that sort of claptrap. It’s just so much fun to pull the wool over people’s eyes with New Age woo hoo and watch the money just roll in. Had I been more canny in my choice of careers, and more practiced at the craft of deception, I could be up there on stage in Edmonton with the Master, raking in the moolah by spouting bafflegab and annoying platitudes to the adoring masses. Ka-ching!

Ah well, there’s always my next life. Which, of course, I expect to have. Deepak said so (on Oprah’s site, that beehive of scientific inquiry…), sort-of:

For all we know, souls may be released in some kind of order human beings cannot fathom. Maybe there’s an endless supply in an infinite Pez dispenser. The rhythm of soul birth isn’t our concern. All we know is that each of us is here, doing the best we can to evolve… Souls are patterns of movement and behavior in a single consciousness. Call it the mind of God or the womb of creation, this single source can give rise to as many souls as the universe calls forth, just as the ocean can have a few waves or many.

Okay, I’m not sure what that means, or if it means anything at all, but it just sounds so cool. It has all the right buzzwords: souls, evolve, consciousness, God, creation… all it’s missing are a few spicy terms like quantum, energy and transformation. A few of which you’ll find in this, another Deepak statement on reincarnation:

A drop of water becomes vapor, which is invisible, yet vapor materializes into billowing clouds, and from clouds rain falls back to earth, forming river torrents and eventually merging into the sea.
Has the drop of water died along the way? No, it undergoes a new expression at each stage. Likewise, the idea that I have a fixed body locked in space and time is a mirage.
Any drop of water inside my body could have been ocean, cloud, river, or spring the day before. I remind myself of this fact when the bonds of daily life squeeze too tight.

How can anyone not be mystified by that? It says nothing but in such a lovingly convoluted, vague way your head will spin. He never says a simple yes or no: he spouts this deflective gibberish naturally. It just flows from him. And I could have been doing that, too.

I could have been on the lecture circuit, had I not had a bent to reason and logic. Instead I’m an old curmudgeon, sitting at a cheap laptop surrounded by cats and dogs, drinking homemade plonk and banging out critical blog posts on how the charlatans are hogging all the money.

Ah, well.

* Generated by the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator.

** Generated by the New Age Bullshit Generator.

*** Alleged quotations from Deepak Chopra, lacking verifiable source attributions, taken from the inappropriately named site, “Brainy” Quotes.

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