Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty MD: the magic in mindfulness and compassion

51cjzFQElSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty, founder and director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), captivates from the first page and continues at an unrelenting pace through Doty’s life, beginning with a disadvantaged childhood to his current work as a leader in the field of compassion training. The book opens with a searing description of brain surgery he conducted on a 4-year-old, intense not because of any tired trope about blood and gore but in how it stands as a practice of the heart. This is Doty several years away from the pivotal point in his life: a 12-year-old discovering from a loving presence the mind’s ability to transform itself.

As a magic-loving 12-year-old, he meets a woman named Ruth in a magic shop; she sees in him both the potential for compassion and the risk for doing damage to himself and others. As with all great teachers, Ruth begins to plant the seeds that will shelter and nurture his potential for the former, giving him a compass to navigate the damage he (and we all) eventually do in life as we stumble about. His “magic” lessons from Ruth form the practice points in the book and are essentially mindfulness practices of awareness of breath and body. But 12-year-old Jim is hardly interested in spiritually transcending his poverty-stricken and trauma-laced life. He has a plan for his life: getting away from his hometown of Lancaster CA, an alcoholic father, and a suicidal mother frozen by depression and a stroke.

After the six weeks with Ruth, Doty’s life story unfolds as a tale of sheer, uncompromising determination. “That’s unacceptable” becomes the knife blade cutting through the obstacles in his path to become a surgeon. Although the arc is set by his own dreams as a pre-adolescent, the lessons transmitted by Ruth emerge making this a moral tale that winds through the chapters of Doty’s life. Of the many lessons and warnings (many he doesn’t understand and therefore fails to heed), these are the most powerful:

“(T)his last (magic) has the power to give you everything you think you want. Unfortunately, because it can give you everything you think you want, it can be dangerous. You need to understand that what you think you want isn’t always what’s best for you and others. You need to open your heart to learn what you want…”

Whether we’re reading Doty’s life as a tale of hope that we can overcome disadvantage or taking up the practice of mindfulness and compassion as a means of salving our own pain, Ruth’s message is crucial. Real faith in magic is to learn that what we want – be it peace, serenity, money, fame, acceptance -may not come to us in a form that is in our best interest. In other words, the lesson imparted by blind faith in magic is that it inevitably fails us. Subtly, Ruth is pointing to the near enemies or the dark side of contemplative practices that are taken up without the intention to change our tendency to grasp at pleasing or reject painful experiences. As Doty writes, “Experiencing pain can be a gift if one learns from the pain. But when one needlessly causes pain and suffering, not only to oneself but to others, it is neither enobling nor fair to those who are sharing the path with you.” Moreover, avoiding pain can be protective but it leads to a self-concept that feeling pain means we are less than who we want to be.

“I remembered Ruth once telling me that just because something is broken doesn’t mean everything is broken.”

After many losses, Doty learns this: his history of physical and emotional impoverishment is not a life sentence. His parents’ lives are entwined with his as he struggles to get through college while resolving their crises. His life, at its pinnacle of success, takes a downward spiral into bankruptcy; but he remembers the simple fact that he can still work. His family suffers from his merciless schedule and relationships founder. Aware of the risk markers he has in his developmental years, Doty notes that an impoverished background often predicts a poor outcome in later life.

Child development researcher Norman Garmezy and his colleagues published many such studies in the 1990’s including the exploration of resilience. A 2007 Canadian study here points to several physical and mental impact of poverty on child development such as obesity, mental health issues, injuries, early infant mortality. A recent WHO study (risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12; table below) points to mental health issues related to adverse factors. A 2015 study here links childhood adversity to later risk for depression. A powerful examination of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, its outcome predictors and treatment programs is available here (ACES presentation) in very readable format.

WHO impact

In other words, the deck was hugely stacked against a small child with little to no emotional support getting the outcomes Doty envisioned for himself. And yet, he did, eventually learning the greatest magic of all. He remember Ruth’s words:

“Compass of the heart….

Each of us in our lives experiences situations that cause pain. I call them wounds of the heart. If you ignore them, they won’t heal. But sometimes when our hearts are wounded that’s when they are open. Frequently it is the wounds of the heart that give us the greatest opportunity to grow. Difficult situations. Magic gift.

Your heart is a compass, and it is your greatest gift. Jim. If you’re ever lost, you just open it up, and it will always steer you in the right direction.”

Ruth had given him the most important magic lesson. Without an open heart, Doty writes, “mindfulness and visualization” can increase “focus and help us make decisions more quickly”. But “without wisdom and insight (opening the heart) the techniques can result in self-absorption, narcissism, and isolation.”

Perhaps the most potent message Doty sends through this intimate biography and teaching of the power of practice is this:

Integrity requires intention. It requires defining those values that are most important to you….

This path will take you to life’s deepest and darkest valleys where you will see how trauma and disease destroys lives, and sadly you will see what one human is capable of inflicting upon another and even more sadly what one human is capable of inflicting on himself.

Whatever you practice, may it bring you what your wish for yourself dearly. May it make transparent the true intention and clarify the values you hold dear. May it break your heart open.

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