Deepak Chopra says he was inspired to write his 91st book, Total Meditation, by the many people who approach him daily to say they don't have time to meditate but would like to reap the benefits.
With a similar payoff in mind, AARP caught up with the author and guru to hear why meditation later in life is so beneficial and how to combat anxiety in difficult times. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the benefits of meditation, especially for someone over 50?
Meditation slows down the aging process at a very fundamental level. We did a study with [biological researcher] Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel laureate, that showed that attending a meditation retreat increased participants’ levels of telomerase, the enzyme that regulates biological aging in the body. There's no drug that does that. Meditation also decreases things like chronic inflammation in the body and can help regulate hormones.
As people grow older, they can experience what we call existential depression because they start worrying about infirmity and death. So meditation becomes a very important tool in also decreasing anxiety and depression.
How would you describe meditation to someone who has never tried it or might be skeptical?
A deep restful relaxation, but without going to sleep. Meditation and mindfulness give us an experience of what we call self-awareness. Without self-awareness, we make robotic decisions from a panic mode based on past memory and past experience. Meditation puts the pause button between stimulus and response.
What are some simple ways to tiptoe into meditation?
Observe your breathing and make a point of breathing through the nose. Inhale to the count of four, hold to the count of two, breathe out to the count of six. Do that for one minute, and your breathing will come down from 16 breaths per minute to about eight or 10 breaths per minute. At that time, your brain waves change and you go into meditation mode automatically. I do it even while walking. And you can also watch that happening with a Fitbit or Oura Ring or whatever you wear. These devices will give you instant feedback. You can see the effect; your heart rate goes down, your heart rate variability goes up — just by slowing your breath.
I also put out YouTube meditations, which are free of charge every day.
Some people think they are bad at meditation because they can't stop their thoughts. What would you say to them?
It's a major misconception that when you meditate you're supposed to get rid of thoughts, because the desire to get rid of a thought is also a thought. “I have to get rid of thoughts and I can't. I'm thinking about my groceries, my children, my dog,” whatever. All that is natural. You have to be comatose or dead or deeply asleep in order not to have thoughts. Even in deep meditation, thoughts keep emerging.
Do you notice that how you handle stress has changed over the years?
I don't experience stress, period. If I asked you right this second, “What are you stressed about?” it would be a thought. So say to yourself “Next,” because most of your thoughts don't even belong to you; they're recycled through [things like] social media.
I've cultivated this skill for over 45 years, so it took a long time. But no matter what the situation is, I ask myself, “What's the opportunity?” I look at the script and I find an opportunity, no matter what the adversity is.
You mention in Total Meditation that we can get into the meditation mode without sitting cross-legged for hours. How can we do this in our daily life?
Instead of being focused on the situation, you focus on the bodily sensation of breath. That's it. Notice what happens when you're stressed: Your breathing gets faster, it gets irregular and shallow. When you're relaxed, breathing is slower, deeper and more regular.
Any of the five senses — sound, sight, touch, taste, smell — can be used as a means to meditate. Take smell, for instance. You can even carry a smell with you like sandalwood or lavender, and anytime you feel stressed, take a few deep breaths and smell. Follow the nasal breathing and notice any sensations in your body. Do this a few times. And then after a while, you can do that mentally; you don't have to physically smell something. This is called neuro-associative conditioning. Just recall the smell, and you'll have an effect immediately.
And I do “Seven Days of the Rainbow,” where I focus on different colors every day. So I start Sunday with red. And then Monday I focus on orange. I notice everything that's orange. And that also leads to amazing synchronicities and ideas. So every day focus on one color and see what it reveals to you.
Many people are feeling anxious about a long winter of social distancing. And there is so much unknown right now. How do we deal with all this?
Realize that we only live with the unknown. The known is the dead past. If I ask you what's going to happen this afternoon about anything, you can't predict it. So we live and breathe and move in the unknown, always pretending it's the known. In fact, the definition of creativity is to embrace the unknown. When I was raising my kids, I would tell them, “Embrace the unknown every day and pray for unpredictability, because without unpredictability, there's no creativity.”
The short answer is: Create your own network. This is very important. You need three to six people in your life about whom you can say, “I hold their backs, they hold my back, we share our fears, we share our experiences, we also share our best practices.” This could be family, a colleague, a child, a parent, a counselor. Try to maintain your social engagement, whether over FaceTime or Zoom or even if that means sending somebody an emoticon or a message like: “I'm thinking of you. Do you need any help?”
What are some lessons people can learn from trying times, like this pandemic?
I don't want to sound like a cliché, but in every adversity, there is a greater opportunity. I would say the lesson I'm learning in engaging with people right now is people are learning the principles of well-being: deep sleep, stress management, meditation, exercise and movement control, breathing, emotional resiliency, and grounding yourself with balancing your biological rhythms — taking an opportunity to go outside and have some connections with nature. Many people are telling me that they're not taking their blood pressure medication anymore because their blood pressure came down. Or they are feeling less inflamed because they slept better, or they changed their diet. There are a lot of good success stories out there about reinventing life.
Beyond meditating, Chopra says these habits and practices can help you to feel more calm.
Laughter: “Watch funny movies. I watch Candid Camera and Charlie Chaplin. Laughter is good medicine. When you laugh, even the tears of laughter are different from the tears of sadness, chemically speaking. They have immunomodulators in them.”
Massage: “You can even do a self-massage. Warm a little sesame oil and rub your hands, your fingers, your face, all the way down to your toes. Doing this stimulates neuropeptides, like serotonin and dopamine. So massage is actually very powerful in alleviating stress.”
Exercise: “Aim to walk between 5,000 to 10,000 steps briskly, without overexerting (you should be able to breathe through the nose when you walk). That alleviates stress because of the hormones that are secreted.”
Yoga postures: “For elderly people, I prescribe restorative yoga, which includes things like Child pose or side twists.”
Sleep: “If you wake up in the morning fresh, your day is going to be different."
Expressing emotions: “Some people find that a good crying break is a good way to relieve stress. Don't try to suppress your sadness. Don't suppress your anger. All emotions are bodily sensations. And all you have to do is feel the body without actually trying to manipulate it.”
Visualization: “Visualize something that evokes the experience of joy, expansion, love, wonder. This is my favorite: I create a complex visual in my imagination of a picnic with friends, family and loved ones, listening to Vivaldi, watching a waterfall, with a lot of mist and children playing and a circus clown. For me, it immediately evokes a very good sensation in the body.”
Intimacy: “In mature, loving relationships, sex is a very good way to release stress."