How living with an open heart creates hope

Buddhist monks Seigen, Jisho and Costa meditate on the helipad of Copan building in downtown Sao Paulo.
Buddhist monks Seigen, Jisho and Costa meditate on the helipad of Copan building in downtown Sao Paulo.
Image: Reuters/Nacho Doce
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When I read James Doty’s New York Times bestseller, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain, I was thoroughly enchanted. His story inspired me to believe that my future could be brighter than I can currently imagine.

Doty is a medical doctor and a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, and also the founder and director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). His work and accomplishments in this field put him squarely in the company of spiritual and religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, who is also a founding patron of the center.

It was a bright Monday morning when I went to visit Doty in his Stanford hospital office. After walking through a short, nondescript hallway, I arrived at a sparse waiting room. Doty was punctual; before I could finish reviewing my notes, I heard soft, jingling chimes approaching. A young and lanky golden retriever with a collar of bells bounced through the door, and then Doty himself stepped through. He is a bear of a man, imposingly tall with a shock of thick white hair. His wide face glows with a quiet kindness, softening the initial impression of his intimidating size.

He exudes a regal but disarming energy. It is a curious combination that made me wonder how I felt alert and at ease at the same time. The unexpected blend of his humanness and other-worldliness gave the impression that he somehow exists on another plane, yet firmly (and oddly) in our midst. He seemed like someone who has clearly transcended the mundane challenges of human life. He grew up in a poor, dysfunctional home, and as an adult he struggled with common issues like divorce, loneliness, and a financial downfall. He had the immense good fortune of having met Ruth, the woman who taught him the magic of harnessing his mind when he was 12 years old. It should be no surprise that the inherent power and mastery within him is beyond anything that we encounter in everyday life. After all, how many of us meditated for two to three hours on a daily basis during our adolescence?

Doty firmly believes that practicing kindness and compassion without dogma allows us to look at each other eye-to-eye as equals. He is a veritable evangelist of this belief, both preaching and living the example of walking on this earth with an open heart. Trying to live in this way has become his proudest achievement. In his book, he writes that mental training is the tool to open your heart for meaningful relationships; to give yourself positive affirmation, kindness, and compassion; and to reframe the events in your life in order to practice equanimity. Doty speaks about all this with great enthusiasm, giving multiple examples and emphatically gesticulating with his large hands. He is also surprisingly comfortable with showing his emotions; his voice cracks and he holds back tears while turning red and clearing his throat.

We covered a lot of ground in the hour and a half we shared, and had a seemingly rambling conversation about everything under the sun. Still, the theme was clearly a lesson in creating the life of our dreams. Our conversation gave me even more conviction in his book’s promise that it is possible to fully live up to our potential. We all can connect to the incredible magic—the realm of infinite possibilities—inside each of us.

Opening your heart

Doty met Ruth in her son’s magic shop during the summer of 1968. He was looking for a trick thumb when she engaged him in conversation and offered to teach him the most powerful magic of all. The lessons he learned at that time informed much of his thoughts on happiness and compassion. Ruth taught him “that really deep, lasting happiness is about connecting with people: being kind to people and being of service to people.”

Many of us are confused about what sustains us. We think the new flashy car will make us happy, so we get caught up in a cycle of conspicuous consumption. Doty woke up to how empty his life was when he lost over $70 million during the financial crisis. He had built a fortune through his surgical practice and investment in several medical-device businesses and had reveled in acquiring luxury cars and an oceanfront pad. When his considerable net worth collapsed, he was forced to sell his house and most of his cars. On his last morning in his mansion, he received a call from his lawyer who explained that the paperwork for an irrevocable charitable trust that he set up was never executed. The millions of dollars set aside for it were still available to him. He faced a choice of either keeping the money or keeping his promise. Doty had just rediscovered his old notes of his sessions with Ruth while packing up the previous night. With the fresh reminder to open his heart, he decided to meditate before making a decision, and ended up honoring his commitment. Referring to this experience, he said, “That’s where I went from having this emptiness, even though I had all of these things, to sort of giving everything away, but then actually being fulfilled, and not being empty.”

Doty pointed out that there is an ever-growing body of science showing that you’re both happier and healthier when you practice generosity and gratitude with intention. Additionally, he believes that caring and connecting is at the core of being human. We are hard-wired for kindness and compassion. This is one reason why we rear our offspring for twenty years. At the same time, we have evolutionary baggage that blocks our natural way of being. Our DNA is fundamentally unchanged from 200,000 years ago, so we continue to react to the world with a flight, fight, or fear response, even though there is no imminent grave danger. In other words, we walk around as if being attacked by a lion. Due to the demands of modern life such as artificially extended hours or incessant work obligations, our sympathetic nervous system is chronically engaged. Since we don’t have the ability to adapt to the rapid changes in technology, we are plagued by stress, anxiety, and depression. Doty explained that high levels of constant hormonal release have deleterious consequences, as they affect the peripheral vascular system, cardiac function, and the immune system. “Ultimately, it has an impact on your longevity,” he said.

Changing the narrative

Doty spoke ardently about how we manifest things in our lives. Creating a positive narrative in our minds is imperative: We can take the first step only if we believe we can. We must drown out our own downbeat discourse as well as that of nay-saying friends or family. “I don’t ever use can’t. I don’t ever use never,” Doty said. “They just don’t exist in my vocabulary. The only time that is reality is when you say it, and it becomes you. And this is this whole idea of changing this dialogue because the dialogue that goes on in so many people’s heads is not a positive one. It’s a negative one. It’s one of being hypercritical. It’s one of not being kind to yourself. It’s one based on the negative judgments of others.”

We internally criticize ourselves for a variety of things, and very often for making small mistakes or forgetting something inconsequential. Doty explained: “The part that you’re beating yourself up about might make up 1% and you’re focused on that, and not looking at the 99%, which is beautiful, wonderful, caring, giving, and has the potential to change the world and change every life around yourself. When you can change that narrative to understand this reality and change it to one in which you’re overflowing with gratitude, goodness, kindness—where you want to embrace everybody—remarkable things happen.”

Understanding this perspective was the greatest gift that Ruth gave Doty. She taught him how to change his narrative to one of self-affirmation and kindness. “The only thing we have is this moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment, so to sit there and say nothing is going to change… We have no knowledge of that.” He admitted that he did have anger, feelings of failure and hopelessness, despair, and shame, but Ruth taught him how to change his interaction with his life circumstance. Doty’s parents failed him in many ways—his father was an alcoholic and his mother was deeply depressed—but he forgave them because he could see that they were nice people without the proper tools. “This is why I didn’t carry that same degree of anger. I accepted the reality of my situation but did not put the emotional response to it,” he said.

Practicing equanimity

Being free of attachment to any emotional situation enables us to have a calmness of spirit no matter what happens. We can learn to practice equanimity through mental training and by shifting the perspective of how we view the world. The idea is to have an appreciation when things are going well, and also an understanding when they’re not going that well. Feeling down and vulnerable are transient states. As Doty expressed: “We cannot prevent experiencing suffering or pain. It gives us a depth of character. It gives us wisdom. It gives us insight. It’s to keep perspective of how life is.

At the same time, when we look at the world in general, we can have gratitude for what we have, because “most of us are actually extraordinarily blessed.”

After Doty lost his fortune, he was often told how his life must be ruined. He brushed these comments off with a simple retort: “What are you talking about? I have my mental faculties. I’m a neurosurgeon. My worst day in the world is I’m a neurosurgeon who gets paid more than 99.9% of people.”

He continued: “How can I complain about anything? I’m the most blessed, blessed person in the world, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had. You know, it’s just reframing.”

In fact, we can practice compassion by reframing any frustrating situation. Doty talked about the common experience of being cut off in traffic. It would be normal to either use an expletive or a hand motion, but what if we were told that the person in front of us was a man whose pregnant wife next to him was bleeding, and her water broke? When we can acknowledge that a person is probably going through life events that result in certain behaviors, then we don’t have that same emotional response. “So,” he said, “when you always look at the world that way, you’re almost never unhappy. Happiness or unhappiness comes from within. It’s not because of external events. When you recognize this and allow yourself to truly be happy that is always manifested by caring for others, then you’re happy every day.”

The narrative becomes about how we react to the event, and not the event itself.


Doty considers meditation the foundation for creating your dream life. Inner reflection allows us to be much more thoughtful and discerning about how we react to our life experiences. I told him that I’ve been meditating for a few years, but that I struggle with being consistent. I aim for ten minutes twice a day, but I often fail to meditate at all. When I asked him what his advice is to people who are starting out, his answer surprised me.

“Well, I think one of the problems is when people think of meditation, they start thinking of a monk and somebody spending hours in a room that’s semi dark, and they have to sit there motionless. The reality is that that’s not true at all.”

His recommendation is to just sit for a few moments and reflect on the best person you can be, and think of images of having love, and giving it away freely.

“The more you do it, the more it manifests. You know, there is a Buddhist saying that—and I’m not a Buddhist, as you know—if you can’t take 20 minutes to meditate, that means you need to take an hour to meditate.”

He continued: “Most people have hours of aimless time. In fact, they’re wasting time. Either they’re texting people about nonsense, they’re on Facebook, or they’re daydreaming. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming because it can actually be very creative, but my point is that all of us have some time. It doesn’t have to be hours of time. As you said, ten minutes. There’s not a single human being that does not have ten minutes, no matter what your job is.”

It boils down to creating the narrative of what you can and cannot do, as well as what is important to you. Time is not the issue.

Nowadays, his meditation consists of sitting on the side of his bed every morning and going through the mnemonic aid he invented to distill the essence of opening his heart. He repeated that it’s simply focusing on good thoughts about yourself and having love for everybody.

“Turning yourself off,” he said, “being self reflective, slowing down, breathing, and just being with yourself, and not trying to process anything, not trying to solve any problem, just being there and thinking of your best self.”

He picked up his meditation beads and showed me how he meditates—with intention. He breathed deeply and recited the Alphabet of the Heart:

Compassion for self and others

Recognizing the Dignity of every person

Practicing Equanimity

Practicing Forgiveness

Having Gratitude

Being Humble

Having Integrity and personal values

Our responsibility to those who are most vulnerable, Justice

And then Kindness, the act of caring

And then all contained by Love

And you just all have that. And, that’s it.

Sitting in the chair across from him, I could sense that the energy in the room shifted, powered down somehow, slowed, and became thick. It is inexplicable exactly, but nothing else in the world mattered. I felt as though I had shrunk into the office’s corner while the mantra’s magnanimous energy filled the room. It was magic.