Dr. James Doty is a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founding director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). In his memoir ‘Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart’, Dr Doty combines his personal story with the latest science to show how we can transform our lives by changing our brains and our hearts. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
1. In your book, “Into the Magic Shop” you describe your personal journey of growing up in extreme poverty and an unstable household and how a trip to a Magic Shop at the age of 12 literally transformed your life. Even though your circumstances didn’t change, your intention did – you went from being in a state of despair to one of infinite possibilities. Do you think we all have this power within us to shape our future through the power of intention?
People have a tendency to want and to crave, especially for objects in a western society and that’s the source of a lot of suffering. The nature of what you derive from this happiness is transitory. What you want is the happiness that is deep and maintained, as that happiness gives you a sense of having accomplished something. It manifests itself when you do an act in service of others. When your actions are to benefit the greater good. The other aspect is as you get further to the cliff of our existence you realise that there is no separation, that we are all one. This is the nature of transcendence, and when you reach this point, you understand the true meaning of happiness. I think an understanding that wanting these material things can only give you transitory happiness is an incredible insight and once you realise the transitory nature of this feeling, you will also begin to understand that real meaning and happiness comes from being of service. When you start looking at your life from that perspective, you can start manifesting intention.
2. You were fortunate to have a pivotal moment in your life, in the magic shop, that was a wake up call and jolted you to live life differently. Not many people have this opportunity. How do you think others can change their attitudes and learn how to manifest their intentions to experience true happiness?
A study that really demonstrates the power of belief and the power of intention is one where they asked participants to imagine exercising their biceps, and they found that the simple act of imagining that you’re exercising actually increases muscle size in those areas. On the flip side, when you are filled with doubt and self criticism, and say the words “I can’t, it’s not possible”, then this decreases your chances of something happening. This was the problem in my own situation. I was having a very challenging time in college, because I had so many distracting family circumstances and financial issues. I had this dream of becoming a doctor but several of my friends repeatedly told me I was never going to be anything. Once you buy into that narrative, it becomes virtually impossible to overcome it. People limit this extraordinary power they have within themselves to do almost anything.
Now this isn’t to say that tomorrow if you say I want to be an astronaut, you will become an astronaut. That being said, it is possible to do extraordinary things that you wouldn’t even appreciate as being within your reach. It’s about what it takes to turn the switch. As an example, people who are profoundly addicted, will use the term “I hit rock bottom and then I just stopped’. What is really key here is that within you is the ability to change your brain at any time.
3. Is there a scientific or evolutionary reason why humans have a tendency to put themselves and those around them down?
Most people don’t realise that the nature of our evolution means negative thoughts stick to us, because negatives are what have allowed us to survive as a species. For instance, ‘the grass is moving over there’, means there’s a lion over there so I’m going to run. In modern times, it means negative events stick to us, because of the way our brains are wired, and so do negative comments. This includes thoughts that float by, which can lead to a negative self dialogue and this affects your physiology in a very negative way. It clouds your vision, because you look at others in the negative way that you see yourself. Until you care for yourself and love yourself, it’s very hard to look at people in a non judgemental way. By sitting with yourself and being okay with yourself, you can understand that everyone is suffering and that most people actually deserve to get unconditional love.
4. How can we apply the outcomes of this research to the current pandemic, to help those suffering from stress, anxiety and mental health issues?
Prior to the crisis, in western society, there’s been an epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression. Uncertainty magnifies that, and nothing is more uncertain than the future right now. Generally, if you look at how societies function, people only complain when there is scarcity. Scarcity creates fear, promotes tribalism, and promotes a view of the world that is me against the other. When you have whatever that minimal amount is, to care for everyone, at least on some minimal level, then that results in a much more egalitarian society where people aren’t as anxious or afraid. It’s fear that drives almost every negative action in the world. It’s this fear narrative that leads to negative behaviour. The key for health and wellness is to decrease fear in society.
There is a switch from your sympathetic nervous system and engagement of your amygdala to engage or increase the tone of your vagus nerve, which increases your input from your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the mode we call your rest to digest system, where you’re calm, where you’re not afraid of the other, where you’re inclusive, you’re more thoughtful, and you get access to your executive control areas. This mode allows you to connect to memories and prior experiences. When you’re in the fear mode, you’re in survival mode and you’re not thinking as clearly. I think this distinction is really key. I gave a talk called “from fear to love” which explains it in more detail.
5. It’s ironic because in times when you need the most love, you have the most fear. In times of crises and negative situations, fear is heightened when actually what we really need is love. How can we reduce fear in these situations?
It comes down to exercising your muscle of compassion. Viktor Frankl makes a statement about stimulus and response. For most of us, when we are stimulated, we immediately respond. If somebody comes on aggressively to us, we typically come onto them aggressively versus pausing and reflecting on the action. Viiktor says within that pause is your freedom. Where instead of immediately responding, you step back for a second, and think about the driver of the interaction, because many times what we perceive as somebody acting negatively towards us, has nothing to do with us. For example, consider that you were driving and somebody cuts you off and almost causes you to have an accident. Of course, you may respond with a rude hand gesture or use an expletive, and think about what a jerk that person was. That’s our natural tendency. But if I told you, in that car was a husband who was sitting next to his wife who is 9 months pregnant and her water has broken and he’s driving her to the hospital, how does your perception of your action change? Instead, you would think, “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry… How can I help them? Should I lead you to the hospital?” In that microsecond, everything changes in your head. You go from being angry to putting yourself in their position, to being empathetic, understanding and compassionate.
This is the choice we have everyday. Are you going to be that reactive person that looks at everything in a negative way because of your own pain and suffering or are you going to be that person who tries to be non judgemental and tries to understand that others are suffering and that their actions may not have anything to do with you. If you walk that way, you’re much more kind, much more forgiving, much more thoughtful, and much more happy. There’s a nice Buddhist story to explain this. A senior monk has a student with him and they come to a raging river where there is a woman standing. The woman says, “Could you sir, please help me cross the river?”. The student is aghast, because his vows say he cannot touch a woman. The monk says of course we will help you. He carries the woman across and the student is appalled. The monk drops the woman off, she thanks him and they continue their walk. Two hours later the student says “I just can’t contain myself , I can’t believe you violated your vows, you did these horrible things” and he said “look at you, I dropped the woman off at the river and you’re still carrying her”. It is a tendency all of us have, to carry our pain and our hurt, instead of releasing it. And this in some ways, this is the power of forgiveness.