PW: You've written many wildly successful books for adults. Why, with Fire in the Heart, have you now decided to write for teenagers?
In the last three or four years at our center [the Chopra Center, in Carlsbad, Calif.], we have invited adults to bring their teenage kids. These kids would come with very serious questions, and I drew a lot of inspiration from them. There seems to be little congruence between their academic studies and their religious studies, and yet they have a deep spiritual hunger.
I felt very nostalgic about my own teen years, when I read Jean-Paul Sartre and went through existentialist dilemmas. I remember an existentialist novel in which the only solution was suicide. As a 14-year-old I was introduced to Shakespeare: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ .../ and all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death." I remember reading that and being terrified that maybe it was true. But I resolved to do something. I went to medical school. I dealt a lot afterward with suffering and death. At the same time I saw that the medical model we had in Western science is not complete. That's what I've pursued over the past 30—40 years. I finally feel that maybe I'm ready now to talk to children and young adults.
What is your goal with this book?
I asked myself, "How can I give back to kids what they already have—that sense of self, sense of wonder, that sense of mystery, that innocence?" I've seen my two-year-old grandchild, she's so full of wonder, of mystery. If you can keep that delight, it preserves that all-important sense of self.
What is it about adolescence that prompts intense soul-searching?
It's a time of great confusion. First of all your body is changing and you have urges and impulses and cravings that you do not understood. You're leaving behind a childhood that was full of magic and innocence and wonder. You realize that your parents are fallible, that they have problems. You glimpse a level of hypocrisy, you become aware of the world and its problems. You feel pretty helpless at the chaos in the world. And then, you do not want to be a conformist, and yet you end up being a conformist because you end up doing everything your peers do.
As a society, we are in our adolescence. That adolescent functioning of our society rubs off on teens. Even adults are not mature enough to see it.
You have said of Fire in the Heart that you wanted to write something that would be free of the word God. Why?
As soon as you say "God," depending on where you were raised and how your parents were raised, you have a certain image, and that may be different than what other people have, and then you end up going to war.
After all, Christ was not a Christian, Buddha was not a Buddhist, Muhammad was not a Muhammadan. I wanted to introduce the idea of divine intelligence. Can we not experience that universality without necessarily having to conform to an ideology or dogma? It is very difficult to do that with adults. Teenagers may be more receptive.
But you can't entirely not talk about God in a whole book about spirituality, because we have a deep hunger for that which we call God, or divine intelligence, the sacred. It's part of who we are.
How would you define the difference between religion and spirituality?
The essential difference between spirituality and religion is that spirituality is experiential, and religion is frequently dogmatic and prescriptive—and ends up being divisive and quarrelsome.
Religion prescribes morality as a means to getting in touch with divinity or God. Whenever you prescribe morality, you run a risk. Morality tends to be self-righteous, and self-righteous morality tends to expose hypocrisy, as all these highly publicized scandals about religious institutions and leaders show us. It makes people suspicious. People tend to rebel against sanction.
I think it's the other way around, that morality is a by-product of your connection to the sacred.
How do you see your book fitting into teen culture?
The reason that our kids take to Harry Potter, or that Lord of the Rings is the most popular movie for young adults, is that human beings have a deep yearning for a sense of connection to the luminous mystery we call life. We hunger to elevate ourselves to that which is more than ourselves. My book is just one small attempt to nurture that yearning.