James R. Doty, neurosurgeon and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, greeted the standing-room only attendees of his Ottawa Writers’ Festival event Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart with a joke about the weather. Within a few sentences, he had won over the audience by establishing himself as approachable, self-effacing, and in possession of a robust sense of humour. These may not be exactly the traits one would imagine in a world-famous researcher and doctor, but then, Doty is not typical.
“I’m not a writer,” Doty said, waving his book in the air. Into the Magic Shop is a memoir and a guide to the principles of mindfulness and their benefit to the human body. A natural storyteller, Doty began his appearance by chronicling how the book came to be, and how it has been received since publication; it is being published in 19 languages and has blurbs on it from the likes of the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In his work with the Center for Compassion Research, he has made appearances with these and other spiritual leaders, psychologists and philosophers: Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, Amma, Paul Ekman and Pico Iver to name a few. Not the crowd you’d imagine surrounding a scientist, but studies validating the techniques Doty teaches are quickly accumulating.
At Saturday’s event, Doty read from a portion of the book that tells the tale of one of his surgeries. It was a graphic story, and he warned the audience before reading that he’s had people faint at events. However, it was also profoundly moving and almost poetically written; Doty skates on the edge of insights about the fragility and beauty of humanity throughout the scientific description. He was visibly moved while reading – the story concerns a 4-year-old boy with a brain tumour – and during pauses every exhalation of the audience was audible, their spellbound hearts slowing to anticipate the drama in the moments being described. The story outlines the importance of training the mind toward calmness, and illustrates the power of a regular practice, for it is due to this practice that Doty was able to perform a lifesaving maneuver in surgery for this little boy.
The techniques will be familiar to a student of mindfulness. Doty described the practice taught to him by an individual he encountered quite by accident in his youth: focusing the mind on the present moment, relaxing with the breath, separating from negative thoughts, practicing self-compassion and acceptance, and establishing clarity of intention before acting. He also delved lightly into the science behind this practice, describing how brain function can be shifted through regular breathing exercises and contemplative practice to habituate toward decreasing stress hormones, relaxing the body and lowering blood pressure.
Throughout his talk and in answering questions from the audience, Doty remained positive and thoughtful. He enjoyed many moments of laughter with the group and radiated evidence of living in the practice that he is preaching. His studies in his youth and as a young surgeon convinced him, “True meaning in life has to do with service to others.” The messages in the book, which is indeed very well written, and Doty’s techniques to train the mind and bring about wellness in the body are definitely a show of service.