Once a year Deepak Chopra invites world-renowned scientists and physicians to intermingle with pioneers and activists from the realms of faith, healing, impact investing, business, tech, and music at a stunning resort in Southern California. It's sort of like if Jay Gatsby were exclusively friends with social entrepreneurs and intellectuals asking big questions of themselves and of the status quo, and Long Island were replaced with palm trees and infinity pools -- and decadent amounts of quinoa.
This year I got to attend the shindig, a three-day conference called Sages and Scientists, which, to be fair, largely took place within a windowless ballroom rather than getting splashy at the pools. But, as Carolyn Rangel, the VP of Operations for Deepak Chopra's company, told me, the main goal was for people from all industries and cultural/religious backgrounds to genuinely feel that they had a place at the table. With the unrest abroad and in our own country, fueled in part by intolerance of the "other," this seemed a timely goal.
To drive it home, Dr. Chopra -- a sometimes-polarizing figure for his brand of spirituality and selective use of science -- evoked this quotation (of unknown origin) to highlight the group's common interest:
Bring me into the company of those who seek the truth,
and deliver me from those who have found it.
And it worked. Sages and Scientists wasn't just about crashing spiritually-minded people up against scientific ones but encouraging a looser use of labels for each side. We were reminded by example over and over that it's possible -- genuinely possible -- to be both interested in facts and aligned with the soul. Scientists can espouse the power of meditation (with data to back it up). Religiously-guided people can appreciate that the moral arc that bends toward justice is often bent by the least-affiliated among us (see: gay marriage). Business scholars can pin their life's work on the concept that it matters how you make your money, and not just that you make it, and wealthy investors can choose to go "all in," investing 100 percent of their assets in projects that won't just do good but create systemic change -- and wind up getting a larger return nonetheless.
If anything, the group was not just open-minded but wide-eyed at the company they were in: the nationally recognized journalist announced he felt intimidated by the Bollywood dancers, with their incredible stamina and cross-genre creativity; the Olympic snowboarder began her presentation by admitting that she felt quite intimidated by the quantum physicists. The quantum physicists engaged in a no-holds-barred debate about Schrödinger's poor, dead-ish cat with a spirit that was less akin to a Jerry Springer episode than to a summer-camp bonfire that they all felt lucky to attend.
And Deepak danced nimbly among these worlds, asking questions after each 15-minute-or-so talk, like a little boy who's got all his toys out at once.
- Getting the scoop from the doctor voted the number-one most influential physician executive in the United States, Dr. Eric Topol, about medicine's future, in which wireless digital innovations will take the emphasis off diagnosing and treating patients based on population-level averages and put the emphasis instead on that patient's own, individual body.
- Hearing the gentleman who claims to have invented email when he was in high school connect the dots between ancient Ayurvedic wisdom and the West's often-reductionistic modern healthcare system, as well as hearing the current high-schooler who came up with a revolutionary way of detecting various early-stage cancers talk about the need for open access to science journals online for all.
- Watching Dr. Chopra interview the author of the upcoming book A God That Could Be Real (full disclosure: she's my mother) about her quest for coherence: "I just don't want to be a war ground. I don't want my need for spirituality and my interest in science to be at odds, always."
- Seeing a modern family that defied biology and stigma share the love that binds them together and the documentary they made about it.
- Dancing as Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie DJ'd, shimmying alongside the head of Disney imagineering, a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter, and the gal who co-founded the world's largest crowdfunding platform. There were hula hoops involved.
If The Great Gatsby is about the hopeless yearning that can dull a life, then this conference was about the opposite: hopeful seeking that can give purpose to life. It didn't all work -- as with most conferences, some panels fell a bit flat, and some speakers weren't ready for TED. But a musician in attendance, Zoe Keating, announced before she played a piece that "having a child is the ultimate statement of optimism." Participating in a conference like Sages and Scientists has got to be up there as well.
Follow the Chopra Foundation at @SagesScientists for videos of the talks as they become available.