Reviewed by Judith Asphar
Part memoir, part confessional, part teaching of mindfulness, Into the Magic Shop is a paradoxical story of our times. A childhood shaped by an alcoholic father and severely depressed suicidal mother — understandably resulting in truancy, violence, and failed grades — nevertheless magically morphed into the future James Doty, MD, FACS, FICS, FAANS.
The thirteen chapters of this highly-praised volume are divided into three parts, making an inspiring read. It does however, begin by describing in some detail the “excruciatingly difficult“ removal of a malignant tumor– a medulloblastoma — from the brain of a four-year-old boy. “There’s a certain sound the scalp makes when it’s being ripped off a skull—like a large piece of Velcro tearing away from its source.” Touchingly, and tellingly, he adds, “when the brain is exposed you can see it move in rhythm with every heartbeat.” To study those very neural correlates of the heart, in 2005 Jim Doty established CCARE —The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford — of which he is the Director
Thanks to a serendipitously “disruptive” meeting when he was twelve years old, Jim was spared from family patterns that most likely would have resulted from an unsafe and unpredictable childhood. Doubtless to help escape the shame and humiliation of extreme poverty, he describes being drawn to the lure of magic from an early age. The fatefully life-changing moment manifested when — as a scared and lonely boy on his bicycle — searching for a particular magic shop in a run-down strip mall, he came upon a woman whose name was Ruth. Her influence is the warp and weft of his story. An avatar for him, Ruth’s prescience identified Jim’s potential and ended up indelibly shaping his world.
To be sure readers don’t gloss over pivotal lessons learned from his faithful daily visits to the magic shop, four early chapters are set off by gray-colored pages that highlight “Ruth’s Tricks.” They wrap up the first part of the book with: Breath and Relaxation; Taming the Mind; Opening the Heart; and Clarifying Your Intent. Although early on Jim conscientiously followed “Ruth’s Magic,” it cast no spell on his early plight which remained a challenge throughout his school and college training years. Gradually extricating himself by incorporating Ruth’s tools of visualization, intention, and attention, his lowly beginnings were to evolve into dreams of becoming a doctor and earning a million dollars — along with the accompanying Rolex, Porsche, and mansion.
Acceptance at UC Irvine in LA, and Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans was followed by a neurosurgery residency and nine years at Walter Reed, the National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. Not all smooth sailing, though; one night proved particularly fateful. After grueling hospital rounds — at a time when he’d abandoned his mindfulness practice for alcohol, cocaine, and half-naked women — he was kicked out of a strip-club with a car-load of fellow residents. Piled into an old Ford, they crashed headlong into a tree, totaling the vehicle and almost themselves in the process. Close to bleeding to death from abdominal injuries, the doctor became a patient. Watching the surgery from above his body, he was moved through unforgettable blackness to the tell-tale, split-second, slow-motion, illuminated biography — drawn ever deeper into the pure white light of Love. Brought back to life by a pin-prick to his foot, he had experienced first-hand the total acceptance of an NDE — a near-death experience. What did die that night, he recounts, was his belief that Ruth’s magic made him invincible. By his own admission, he still had to learn that the arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon he would become, had many more years of costly mistakes ahead.
Fast forward to age forty-four and by Chapter 9 —he is a neurosurgeon, at Stanford, a multi-millionaire, married, then divorced and facing failure as a father. Owner of a villa in Florence, a private island in New Zealand, and living alone in his 7,500 square-foot home overlooking the Pacific Ocean – with Porsche, Range-Rover, Ferrari, BMW, and Mercedes too. Hooked by the speed of Silicon Valley start-ups, his one-night-stands with nameless women were punctuated through the wee-small hours by checking the markets and watching his fortune fluctuate. Unimpeded by having no background in business, “one of the most successful neurosurgeons in Orange County” — who had incidentally invented a brain monitoring electrode — had won and lost tens of millions. His rescue of Accuray — a cutting-edge radiation oncology company — embroiled him in the dot-com crash. Somehow, he regained enough wealth to fund his future philanthropy by understanding it would only bring happiness if given away.
Peppered with applicable definitions of brain functions as they became increasingly revealed and understood, occasional — somewhat graphic — descriptions of surgeries appear here and there. But, prompted by his own near-death experience, his reflections on the unified intelligence of the mind and the heart and love’s greatest longings proved to be most meaningful for this entrepreneurial physician. Happily remarried, with a new family, and recommitted to his neurological work and research in both New Orleans and Stanford, Jim’s deepening personal practice offers a further lesson. This one a mnemonic — CDEFGHIJKL — a reminder to start the day with powerful intention incorporating: Compassion; Dignity; Equanimity; Forgiveness; Gratitude; Humility; Integrity; Justice; Kindness and once again…Love.
Into the Magic Shop ends where it started, with the “way of doing what Ruth asked me to do, to teach her magic to others.” Now through the eyes of a neuroscientist, the Doty definition of compassion as “an innate instinct” becomes the core mission of his field of influence. It grew most profoundly through a meeting — and a now a close relationship — with the Dalai Lama. After speaking at the School of Medicine, and deeply impressed by Jim’s groundbreaking endeavor, His Holiness chose to make a substantial personal contribution to the establishment of Stanford’s CCARE and its far-reaching research, courses, and certification programs.
Not least, in 2014 with CARE’s Dr. Stewart Mercer in Glasgow and a collaborative event with the University of Edinburgh hosted at Stanford in March 2016, which “will culminate in a distinguished panel addressing the cutting edge of compassion research involving artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics: The Compassionate Robot: Myth, Nightmare, or Solution? This panel will be anchored by Sir Timothy O’Shea, The Principal of University of Edinburgh, who has explored computer-based learning and artificial intelligence in over 100 articles and 10 books. Other distinguished scholars include Jon Oberlander, Professor of Epistemics at the University of Edinburgh, whose work focuses on building machines which can adapt themselves to people, and the Rev. Professor Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, who is currently working on a project involving empathy, the arts, and social change.
Judith Asphar — newly, a great fan of SciMedNet — was a: PR Director of Laura Ashley N.A.; The New York Open Center; The Biological Medicine Network; and Resurgence magazine in the USA. A founding (and environmental) editor of Hearst’s Healthy Living magazine. Volunteered for: Friends of the Institute of Noetic Sciences; The Omega Institute; CG Jung Foundation, NY; Suzanne Zeedyk’s Science of Human Connection; Hudson Valley Hospice; plus various environmental & renewable energy entities. Endlessly curious about the effect that love — or more commonly, its lack — has on anything! Mostly how it shapes these off-kilter brains of ours that are so swiftly hurtling humanity (and life on Earth) over the cliff, and, in the process busily hurling blame at each other?! Hoping that all you wise ones at SciMed can save us from ourselves before it’s too late!