Speaking Tree: The Play of Opposites
Deepak Chopra answers seekers’ questions on deja vu, morality and parenting
I often feel a sense of deja vu …the setting, conversation and atmosphere feel familiar as if I have experienced it before. Is this normal? Why does it happen? Sunaina Sharma, Hyderabad
Deja vu has intrigued people for centuries, and I would say that there are three answers that have been offered for such experiences. Before worrying about whether it is normal — studies show that about a third of the population has experienced deja vu — let me offer those answers.
The most basic comes from brain researchers, who explain deja vu as a glitch. One theory says that deja vu happens when the brain has a malfunction in memory. Its circuits for knowing what is the past and what is the present get crossed.
Another theory says that the brain takes small bits of information that aren’t enough to build a complete picture, so other bits are taken out of storage from the past. In both theories, deja vu is a mistake. The psychology of deja vu, which is the second kind of explanation, doesn’t rely on brain malfunction.
Instead, memory is divided into two kinds, known as recollection and familiarity. Recollection is like getting on the bus and recognising that you’ve seen this man riding it before. Familiarity is like seeing that man in a department store, feeling that he is familiar, but not being able to connect him with riding the bus. You have a vague sense of familiarity, but the memory is partial or imperfect.
Deja vu could be like that, a sense of familiarity that you can’t quite nail down. But this explanation, too, sees deja vu as a mistake. Either your brain is fooling you or your mind is.
The third explanation is spiritual and is rejected by science. It says that you feel that you’ve been somewhere before because you have. This is the most intriguing explanation to most people, and it can be connected to reincarnation. There have been hundreds of cases in which children, usually between five and eight years old, vividly recall their past lives and can even walk the streets of a nearby village naming the houses and the people who live in them. Could deja vu be a view into the past, by which the usual veil that separates past lives is suddenly dropped?
My inclination is to believe all three explanations but to see them as applying to different experiences. There have been enough experiments to show that the brain can miscalculate information, that memory can be blurry, and that past-life memories are real.
Which one applies to you I cannot say, but the attitude to take is that human experience is not bounded by the present but has compartments that transcend neat and rigid boundaries.
Who is to decide whether something is moral or immoral? What I consider immoral might be perfectly fine with someone else. Shipra, via email
It is not hard to see that your question is incomplete. You are facing a particular moral dilemma. You want to know if your choice is immoral and might be condemned by others. Yet, you are already guilty enough that you don’t want to tell us what the problem really is. Since countless people find themselves in similar predicaments, let me address how to make moral decisions. I feel that this will be more practical than addressing the cosmic question of what makes things moral or good and immoral or bad.
In a dualistic world, we are told that the play of light and shadow, good and evil, has roots in the eternal. Creation is set up that way, and we are caught up in the play of opposites. If this explanation, which is essentially religious, has a strong hold upon you, then decisions about right and wrong become easier.
You can consult the religious system that you adhere to and follow its precepts about how to live as a good person. On the other hand, you may be caught between desire and conscience.
You want to do something, yet you feel guilty or ashamed about it. A married person who is tempted to cheat goes through such a struggle. Society says that the desire or temptation is bad and should be resisted, while remaining faithful in marriage is good and should be honoured. If you value the judgement of society and want to be seen as respectable, the choice is clear.
Most of everyday life consists in balancing desire and conscience — doing the right thing even when you don’t completely feel like it. People who live successfully within the social system have learnt impulse control. My only comment is that choosing to be respectable is itself a desire, so the choice is not between good and bad. Quite often, the choice is between a fleeting impulse and a more mature desire. The condemnation of desire doesn’t make someone moral; it just makes them out of touch with desire.
Finally, I would say that with more maturity, a person can evolve to the point where decisions about right and wrong become less judgemental. You find that your inner guide can make such choices without fearing social condemnation. You are no longer so attached to rigid rules and dictates. A doctor who must decide whether to assist a patient to die, in the interest of relieving the pain of a fatal illness, will make that decision based on very personal considerations. There is no fixed answer in advance. Society rejects too much freedom of choice. It is easy for someone to excuse their own bad actions by saying, “what is immoral for others is moral for me”. That is self-centred rationalising, not higher evolution. Yet higher evolution exists, and the world’s scriptures tell us that in higher consciousness unity prevails over duality. In other words, instead of condemning evil, a person becomes compassionate toward the wrong-doer and practises forgiveness. I hope these comments are of some help to you.
Meditation brings about a lot of positive changes, but it is something most people take to when they are in their 40s and 50s.
How does one initiate younger people into meditation — especially if they are not willing to listen to you? I have a son who is 24, who I think will benefit immensely from meditation, but he says meditation is for older people and not his style at all. Radhika Bose, Delhi
While you are right that meditation is not only for middle-aged people, I think you should respect our son’s rerspective. After all, it is his life. At 24, he may not know what is right for him as viewed by his mother, but he may know what is right for a 24-year-old. We rob our children of valuable experiences when we don’t let them develop on their own. If you take a step back, you will see that the real issue isn’t meditation. The real issue is your desire to save your child from unnecessary pain, bad choices, and the confusion of an unsettled mind.
These are not things we can save our children from. My advice to you is to join a club where mothers gather to complain about their foolish offspring. It will be a good outlet for your worry, and you might even enjoy yourself.
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