Golf with Deepak

Times Staff Writer

If Deepak Chopra had written the Bible, Moses’ staff would have been a nine-iron and Jesus would have walked across a water hazard. According to Chopra’s new book, the road to spiritual enlightenment is a well-manicured fairway.

For golfers seeking an excuse to skip church on Sundays, this is a major theological breakthrough.

“Golf for Enlightenment” is the 35th book by Chopra, the New Age guru whose resume of spiritual accomplishments includes an essay titled “Does God Have Orgasms?” and a $35-million libel lawsuit -- later settled out of court -- that he called “an act of love” designed to raise the magazine to “a higher state of awareness.”


To find out more, I recently made a pilgrimage to Chopra headquarters in Carlsbad to play a few holes with the Lord of Links himself.

Dubbed “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine” by Time magazine, the 56-year-old physician boasts legions of devotees -- from Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton to Madonna and Michael Jackson. He’s such a superstar, the story goes, that a London fan once interrupted him dining out with several companions and said, “I hope your friends don’t mind, but could I get your autograph?” After obtaining the signature, the fan left and Chopra resumed talking with his friends -- George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

Before teeing up in Carlsbad, I stepped into the lobby gift shop of Chopra’s two-story training center, where the smell of smoldering incense wafts past Hindu statues, bottles of massage oil, “Eternal Om” CDs and boxes of Three Spices Sinus Complex tablets.

From there, it was a short walk to the clubhouse. Chopra, wearing charcoal slacks, a black polo shirt and a leather newsboy cap, arrived moments later aboard a gleaming golf cart.

Right away, it seemed like a mismatch. Although Chopra learned the sport just 14 months ago, he plays every day and uses custom clubs. I hadn’t golfed in nine years and my so-called clubs, which I found at a garage sale, cost less than the box of golf balls I bought for the day.

If golf is a metaphor for one’s spiritual health, I was in serious trouble. And maybe Chopra needed a soul tune-up too.

Golf, he writes, “has the ability to bring out the truth about a person almost immediately. I know of corporations that won’t hire a CEO until he is taken out on the golf course to be observed, unbeknownst to him, by a psychologist.... In just one round you can find out how someone handles crisis, how they deal with others ... [and] what they really think of themselves.”

If that’s true, Chopra might not be the paragon of inner harmony and cosmic consciousness that followers of his best-selling books expect.

‘I will soar with you’

In the gospel according to Chopra, there are seven commandments for the game of golf -- and life. The first is to become one with the ball. After placing the ball on the tee, Chopra silently talks to it. “I nourish my relationship with the ball by saying, ‘You’re part of me.... When you soar, I will soar with you.’ ”

I give Chopra’s method a whirl, even though I feel like Tom Hanks chatting to his volleyball in “Cast Away.”

Good morning, Mr. Ball. I want you to fly like an eagle, off the tee. Fly like an eagle, let your spirit carry me.

Unfortunately, my dimpled white companion either doesn’t understand English or doesn’t like the Steve Miller Band. On my first swing, the ball travels a mere 20 yards.

Chopra’s ball, in contrast, is much more spiritually attuned. It sails heavenward toward the green. However, his next shot plunks into the water hazard. “Bad judgment,” he says, shrugging. “It was a nice shot, but obviously I didn’t choose the right club.”

I don’t laugh because I’m pretty sure my shot will meet a similar fate. But, apparently, my ball is more enlightened than I realized. When it hits the water, it skips across the surface and hops up onto the other side.

When we reach the green, both of us overshoot the cup a few times. Score: Chopra 6, Rivenburg 9.

Between holes, Chopra elaborates on his theories about golf and life, quoting assorted Hindu holy men and PGA pros. Unexpectedly, he drives our cart not like a master of meditation, but like someone in a high-speed police chase.

When I ask about being one with the ball, Chopra says people can become one with anything: “If you’re in unity consciousness, the whole world is animated to you. You can talk to trees and stars. Everything is part of your body.”

This theory about everything in the universe being one reminds me of a prediction comic Paul Krassner once made: “There will be a worldwide religious war between those who believe we are all one and those who don’t.”

It also raises an important strategy question: Is it possible to become one with your opponent and mess up his shots? “You wouldn’t want to do that,” Chopra says.

Actually, yes, I would.

“It’s not about winning,” he insists. “That’s the problem with our world. As an ancient Hindu proverb said, ‘There’s no point to proving your superiority over another person, but a lot to be gained by being superior to your former self.’ ”

Nevertheless, on the second hole, Chopra can’t resist ribbing me about the superiority of his latest shot over mine. “If we were betting, I’d be up a point because I landed on the green,” he says.

Not quite. What Chopra didn’t see is that after his ball hit the green, it bounced off into a sand trap. When I tell him, he is dismayed.

Chuckling to myself, I grab an iron and take my next shot. Naturally, it lands smack in the middle of a sand trap. Talk about bad karma. Three shots later, I’m still there because my ball keeps hitting the lip of the trap and rolling back down.

Final score on the hole: Chopra 4, Rivenburg.... Hey, it’s not about winning. That’s the problem with our world.

Don’t try too hard

Chopra’s second commandment of golf is, “Let the swing happen.”

The idea is to “do less and accomplish more.” Golf legend Bobby Jones’ downward swing was only 3% faster than letting gravity pull the club, Chopra says. When people try too hard, they get in their own way.

Could this explain reports that baseball pitcher David Wells threw a perfect game while half-drunk?

Definitely, Chopra says. Because of the booze, Wells “probably wasn’t attached to the outcome of the game.” Instead, he got by on “muscle memory” from pitching so many times before. Chopra recalled a similar incident from his days as a medical intern. After working several days without sleep, he looked at the chart he’d written about a patient the night before. “According to my own notes, I had resuscitated this cardiac patient and intubated him, but I had no recall of it,” he says. “People have immense reserves they can call on when they need to.... But you can’t do it consistently.”

Hmm. Judging from my play so far, maybe I should have stayed up all night and had a few margaritas before the game. On the third hole, after one of my shots hits a tree, I ask Chopra for advice.

“Pretend on your backswing that you’re handing your club to a person behind you,” he coaches.

I’m not quite sure what he means, but it works. My next stroke is a beauty.

“That was a great shot,” Chopra says. “You handed the club off and you were so relaxed.”

Sadly, I also must have handed off my luck, because the rest of my shots, to borrow a phrase from Chopra’s book, “jump up like wounded ducks.” Chopra’s game also takes a strange turn.

After hitting into a stand of trees, he blasts his next shot to the edge of the green. But as we hop into the cart to move on, another player races up alongside us, waving a golf ball and shouting for us to stop. “Are you using a Nike ball?” he asks.

Uh oh. Chopra had inadvertently played the guy’s ball back in the tree area. Chopra apologizes for the error, but the other golfer remains irritated. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that if we are one with our golf balls, then all golf balls are one, and it doesn’t matter which one we play.

On the next hole, my game completely unravels. I top the ball three times, sending it dribbling forward; then whiff twice; and finally slice a shot into a creek. Chopra, meanwhile, after hooking into another clump of trees, reaches the green in a single stroke.

“Did you see that?” he yelps. “What a beautiful shot. When you make one of those, that’s enough for the day.”

Yeah, yeah, Mr. Enlightenment. I saw it.

Chopra plummets back to Earth on the green, missing the cup several times. My putting isn’t much better. As a veteran miniature golfer, I think I’m distracted by the lack of windmills and drawbridges. So I try Commandment No. 4 from Chopra’s book, “Play from your heart to the hole.”

According to Chopra, each person has two bodies: the physical one and the sukshma sharira, or “subtle” body, which exists “at the periphery of every cell and fiber” and never ages. “If I ask you to close your eyes and visualize yourself walking through every room in your house, it’s your subtle body that does it,” he writes.

Although I’m pretty sure my subtle body is more interested in dating Bridget Fonda than walking through every room in my house, I decide to try Chopra’s technique. “Crouch and pretend to feel the texture of the [grass] with your flattened palms,” he writes. “Now, leaving your hands in place, move your subtle hands forward and pretend to feel the grass with them.... Combined with a good visual read, your sense of subtle touch will add to your ability to assess distance and direction.... When insight is added to sight, you double your game.”

Alas, the only thing I double is the number of putts it takes to sink the ball. So I can’t say I’m entirely disappointed when Chopra says he’s running late for a meeting and this is our last hole.

On the drive back, we return to his theory that a person’s golf game reveals his character and karma. Or, as Chopra phrases it in the book: “The ball knows everything.”

So, what does it mean that I kept topping the ball, I ask. Are my chakras blocked? Do I need to go to confession?

No, he says. “It’s just that your stance was wrong. You stood too far behind the ball. When you were in the right position, you were getting good shots.”

And what did the game reveal about Chopra? A couple of things. First, despite his reputation as a master of Eastern mysticism and mind-body medicine, he’s as human as the rest of us. As our game progressed, he became increasingly rattled and distracted.

At the end of the first hole, he was so worried about the players behind us that he walked off without two of his clubs. And after he hit the wrong ball in the tree area, his karma went completely on the fritz.

“Every swing happens a certain way because of the one that came before,” he says. “If you take the wrong ball, it messes up your next shot.”

Maybe instead of living in the now (Commandment No. 3), he was contemplating his new Web site, which was organized with help from such deep thinkers as singer Ricky Martin.

It’s part of his campaign to eliminate war by creating “peace cells” (the opposite of terrorist cells) to perform good deeds. Chopra was an outspoken opponent of invading Iraq, urging the pope and the Dalai Lama to go to Baghdad as human shields.

Chopra is also a shrewd marketer. “My book isn’t really about golf,” he confided as we drove toward the first hole. “It would be stupid of me to write a book about golf.... The title just gets you in the door. Once you’re in the door, it’s about something else -- spirituality.”

It’s also about drumming up business for his ever-expanding empire. Before the Chopra Center launched its golf program, 70% of the people who took classes there were women, Chopra says. Now, it’s 50-50.

“I wrote the book to get golfers interested in spirituality,” he says.

So, did I feel more spiritual after playing? Not really, but my golf ball and I have developed a deep and meaningful relationship.



In the church of golf

Deepak Chopra isn’t the only writer to find a religious dimension to the game of golf. Christian authors Roger and Becky Tirabassi recently teamed with PGA pro Rick Hunter to write “The Front Nine,” a nine-step program to improve your game and your marriage.

As it turns out, the golf spirituality genre is a fairly crowded one. Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy paved the way in 1972 with his novel “Golf in the Kingdom.” More recent entries include Pastor Robert Kopp’s “Golf in the Real Kingdom,” Joseph Parent’s “Zen Golf,” Printer Bowler’s “The Cosmic Laws of Golf (and Everything Else)” and, inevitably, Murphy’s 1998 sequel, “The Kingdom of Shivas Irons.”

In “The Front Nine,” quotes and advice from golfers are interspersed with Bible verses, golf lingo and relationship lessons from Roger Tirabassi’s Christian counseling practice and Becky Tirabassi’s motivational seminars.

Sample tips include “Loosen your grip,” “Maintain a positive attitude,” “Avoid the hazards” and “When in a slump, get back to basics.”

In the chapter titled “Repair divots immediately,” the authors note that the longer someone waits to replace a divot on a golf course, the longer the grass takes to heal.

The same is true with hurts in a marriage, they write. “The Bible says, ‘Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry’ (Ephesians 4:26).”

-- Roy Rivenburg