By Leila Doty
CDEFGHIJKL. For most people this series of letters is a seemingly random chunk of the alphabet devoid of any special meaning. But to Dr. James R. Doty, a clinical professor in Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery (to whom I am not related), these ten letters are anything but meaningless; these letters are the alphabet of the heart.
As the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. Doty believes in the natural disposition for compassion and empathy that all people have — a very powerful aspect of the human condition that I think doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. Too much emphasis is placed on the brain, but not nearly enough is placed on the heart and the powerful relationship that exists between the two. A heartful living movement has taken shape in the past decade or so, and over this past summer, I’ve been absorbing as much material about heartfulness that I can get my hands on. When I heard about CCARE and the various compassion-focused research projects the center works on, I couldn’t stop myself from learning more.
After a little digging, I found that Dr. Doty had met with prominent religious figures like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh and had also written a memoir about his life and journey to where he is today entitled “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Secrets of the Brain and the Mysteries of the Heart.” Of course, I had to read it. I learned about some of his incredible life experiences, the power of unconditional love and the origins of the alphabet of the heart.
Dr. Doty had a rough childhood. Every day as a young boy he was forced to confront the reality of living with an alcoholic father, depressive-suicidal mother and sensitive older brother who was often bullied for being gay by kids at school. In many ways, Dr. Doty was forced to be the adult in his household despite his being the youngest. Much of his childhood was spent very differently than the way in which other neighborhood kids spent theirs, but magic was one childlike joy he cherished.
In fact, Dr. Doty had always been fascinated by magic tricks and kept his various magician’s tools inside a wooden box hidden under his bed. Learning new tricks and impressing his friends made him feel happy. But after the experience he had in eighth grade with a woman in his town’s local magic shop , the trajectory of his life changed forever. And it was this experience that inspired him many years later to write his international bestselling book.
This isn’t the time nor place for me to spoil the book, but if you’re even vaguely interested in learning more about thoughtful living, the power of compassion or just looking for a good book, “Into the Magic Shop” belongs on your reading list.
Since reading “Into the Magic Shop,” I’ve been trying to be more conscious of my actions and intentions, and to practice compassion even when it goes against my self-interests. But this is not an easy thing to do, not for me or even for Dr. Doty. It’s easy to forget the importance of being mindful. In an effort to recenter himself throughout the day, Dr. Doty recites the alphabet of the heart. Compassion. Dignity. Equanimity. Forgiveness. Gratitude. Humility. Integrity. Justice. Kindness.
Contact Leila Doty at ldoty ‘at’ stanford.edu.