Into the Magic Shop: a neurosurgeon’s story of the life-changing magic of mindfulness and compassion

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Some books come along and change how you think and what you want for your future. Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty was one of those books for me. It’s quickly going to become one of my most-gifted books, I know that for sure.

I first heard about Dr. Doty on the On Being Podcast: my go-to podcast for drifting off to on sleepless nights. It was on this podcast episode that I first heard his story, but it didn’t really hit me properly until I read the book.

James Doty grew up poor in the high desert of California, with an alcoholic father and a mother chronically depressed and paralyzed by a stroke. He couldn’t see a way out of poverty until a chance meeting changed his life, setting James on his course to becoming a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founding director of CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

The moment that changed everything? When he wandered into a magic shop looking for a plastic thumb at twelve years old. Instead he met Ruth, a woman who “looked like she could be anyone’s grandmother, except for her eyes. Her eyes promised mystery and secrets and adventure.”

“I’ve felt that connection with others throughout my life—sometimes it’s a random person in an elevator, where you look into each other’s eyes, and for reasons you can’t explain, there is a connection, not just simply eyes meeting, but some deeper knowing, an acknowledgment of each other’s humanity and the reality of being on the same path.”

On that first meeting, Ruth asked James if he was willing to learn the most powerful magic – magic that would change his life and the lives of many others. Her only request was that he would teach it to someone else during his lifetime.

James agreed, and in the next six weeks Ruth taught him how to meditate, visualise his goals, and practice loving kindness.

As Ruth promised, the magic changed James’s life. She gave him his first glimpse of the unique relationship between the brain and the heart.

The real magic of Into the Magic Shop, published in 2016, is how much it brings together in one book.

It’s a fantastic memoir, for one. It’s hard not to love James’s underdog story: a young boy born into a struggling family who becomes a leading neurosurgeon and reaches the goals he’s always dreamed of.

“When our hearts are wounded that’s when they open. We grow through pain. We grow through difficult situations. That’s why you have to embrace each and every difficult thing in your life. I feel sorry for people who have no problems. Who never have to go through anything difficult. They miss out on the gift. They miss out on the magic.”

As James becomes a doctor, we hear his stories from the operating room and his heart-to-heart interactions with patients – both of which brought me to tears, once on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London and a week later on a train from rural Southern England to Glasgow.

I was bleary-eyed within about ten pages of opening the book – which is usually a strong sign I’m going to love it.

“We are born into families and situations, and it’s all really out of our control. But as we get older, we choose. Consciously or unconsciously, we decide how we are going to allow ourselves to be treated. What will you accept? What won’t you accept? You’re going to have to choose, and you’re going to have to stand up for yourself. No one else can do it for you.”

But Into the Magic Shop is so much more than just a memoir. It could stand alone as an exploration of the beautiful and mysterious synchronicity of our hearts and brains – and it’s one of the best books I’ve read on the power of compassion and mindfulness to transform our thinking and our lives.

Dr. Doty also dives into the law of attraction, a term I’ve always found a bit woo-woo but has transformed my life in the last few years nonetheless.

Medical memoir, story of an underdog, exploration of the brain-heart connection, celebration of mindfulness and loving-kindness, a testament to visualisation to achieve our goals… this book does a lot. And it does it superbly.

“When our brain changes, we change. That is a truth proven by science. But an even greater truth is that when our heart changes, everything changes. And that change is not only in how we see the world but in how the world sees us. And in how the world responds to us.”

I would love it if everyone I knew read Into the Magic Shop.

I’d love it if you read it, too.

Read it and think about how your dreams align with your heart. Look at the goals you scribbled down last time a self-improvement book told you to and think about if they’re what you really want. Think about if you’re living in the way that matters most to you.

And when you’re finished, decide who you will give the book to next.

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