The Alphabet of the Heart

doty dalai lamaI love me a good story. Fiction is fine, but stories written by life are so much more compelling if you ask me. I just finished “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart” by James R. Doty, MD. What a remarkable path he has followed – from a poor boy growing up with an alcoholic father and a chronically depressed mother to a Stanford professor of neurosurgery and the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. Doty knows his stuff as he has been a practicing neurosurgeon for decades, but, even though the book makes references to scientific research, it is a nice and easy read. But it is not trivial. The wisdom contained in this book rings true to me and that’s why I would like to share the essence of what Doty discovered on his remarkable journey.

The Alphabet of the Heart by James R. Doty, MD

C – Compassion is the recognition of suffering of another with desire to alleviate that suffering. Yet to be compassionate to another, you must be compassionate to yourself. Many people beat themselves up by being hypercritical, not allowing themselves to enjoy the same kindness that they would offer to others. And until one is truly kind to oneself, giving love and kindness to others is often impossible.

D – Dignity is something innate in every person. It deserves to be acknowledged and recognized. So often we make judgements about someone because how they look, or talk, or behave. And many times such negative and wrong. We have to look at another person and think, “They are just like me. They want what I want – to be happy. When we look at others and see ourselves, we want to connect and help.

E – Equanimity is to have an evenness of temperament even during difficult times. Equanimity is for the good and the bad times because even during good times there is a tendency to try to maintain or hold that feeling of elation. But trying to hold on to the good distracts us from being present in the moment just as trying to flee from the bad does. Grasping for that feeling of elation is not realistic, not possible, and only leads to disappointment. All such ups and downs are transient. Keeping an evenness of temperament allows for clarity of mind and intention.

F – Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts one can give to another. It is also one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. Many have used the analogy that holding anger or hostility against another you feel has wronged you is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other person. It doesn’t work. It poisons you. It poisons your interactions with others. It poisons your outlook on the world. Ultimately, it makes you the prisoner in a jail where you hold the key yet won’t unlock the door. The reality is that each of us in our lives has wronged others. We are frail, fragile beings who at various times in our lives have not lived up to our ideal and have injured or hurt another.

G – Gratitude is the recognition of the blessing that your life is – even with all its pain and suffering. It takes little effort to see how many in the world are suffering and in pain. People whose circumstances allow for little hope of a better life. Too often, especially in western society, we look at each other and feel jealous or envious. Simply taking a few moments to feel gratitude has a huge effect on your mental attitude… You suddenly recognize how blessed you are.

H – Humility is an attribute that for many is hard to practice. We have pride about who we are or what we have accomplished. We want to show and tell others how important we are. How much better we are than someone else. The reality is that such feelings are actually a statement of our own insecurity. We are searching for acknowledgement of worth outside of ourselves. Yet doing so separates us from others. It’s like being put in solitary confinement, and it’s a lonely place to be. It is only when we recognize that, like us, every person has positive and negative attributes, and only when we look at one another as equals, that we can truly connect. It is that connection of common humanity that frees us to open our heart and care unconditionally. To look at another as an equal.

I – Integrity requires intention. It requires defining those valued that are most important to you. It means consistently practicing those values in regard to your interaction with others. Our values can easily disintegrate, and the disintegration can be at first imperceptible. If we compromise our integrity once, it becomes much easier to do it again. Few start out with such intent. Be vigilant and diligent.

J – Justice is a recognition that within each of us there lives a desire to see that right be done. It is easier when we have resources and privilege to have justice. Yet we need to guard justice for the week and the vulnerable. It is our responsibility to seek justice for the vulnerable, to care for the weak, to give to the poor. That is what defines our society and our humanity and gives meaning to one’s life.

K – Kindness is a concern for others and is often thought of as the active component of compassion. A desire to see others cared for with no desire for personal benefit or recognition. The extraordinary thing is that research is now finding that your act of kindness not only benefits those who receive your kindness but benefits you as well. The act of kindness ripples out and makes it more likely that your friends and those around you will be kinder. It is a social contagion that puts our society right. And ultimately kindness returns back to us, in the good feelings it generates and in how others treat us…with kindness. 

L – Love when given freely changes everyone and everything. It is love that contains all virtues. It is love that heals all wounds. Ultimately, it is not our technology or our maditine but love that heals. And it is love that holds our humanity.

Here is the link to the book, check it out!

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