The Alphabet of the Heart

I recently read “Into the Magic Shop” by James Doty MD, a neurosurgeon and professor at Stanford University. It was his story of growing up in the high desert of California, faced with the hardship of being from a poor family, with a depressed mother and alcoholic father.

One day he walked into a magic shop and met a woman called Ruth who changed the course of his life forever. Ruth taught him a series of exercises to ease his own suffering and manifest his greatest desires, giving him a sense of purpose and hope. Some of those exercises are known today as mindfulness.

James Doty is now a successful neurosurgeon and has founded the Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Their work explores the benefits and the methods that help cultivate compassion and altruism within individuals and society.

One of the most fascinating ideas in the book was about how our individual happiness and our collective wellbeing depend on the integration and collaboration of both our minds and hearts.

People often talk about sensations of the heart. The pains and aches of loss. That thump when you hear bad news. The feeling of lightness on a calm, beautiful summer day. The lifting sensation during moments of joy. These feelings can be powerful. And we know how strong emotions can often overpower and silence a thought. So what’s going on in our hearts?

What’s interesting is that research has shown that our hearts send far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. This communication happens through the vegas nerve. Doty writes that “the neural networks around the heart are an essential part of our thinking and our reasoning”.

We often separate the mind as rational from the heart as relational, but ultimately the mind and heart are part of one unified intelligence.

Doty makes the case for how important it is to look after our heart and find ways to open it up. Because when our heart is open, it compels us to go outwards and connect with others. So many people today suffer from loneliness, anxiety and depression. It shouldn’t be that way. We are wired for social connection, to be cooperative and connected. So how can we cultivate this?

To help people on a journey towards compassion and mindfulness, James Doty created a mnemonic that he uses in his meditation practice. It’s called the Alphabet of the Heart. Here it is:

The Alphabet of the Heart

Compassion: Open your heart and be compassionate to yourself and others.

Dignity: Recognise the dignity of every human being.

Equanimity: While acknowledging the ups and downs, try to find an even keel.

Forgiveness: Give forgiveness to those who have failed you or made you angry.

Gratitude: Keep in the front of your mind gratitude for all that you have.

Humility: Remember that you are no better and no worse than others you encounter.

Integrity: Value honesty and integrity and use it guide your actions.

Justice: Acknowledge your obligations to those who are most vulnerable.

Kindness: Kindness does not require suffering, only the recognition of another’s humanity.

Love: And finally Love which contains and binds all. Let your heart be open to love yourself and give love freely to others.

If you want to discover more about James Doty’s story, aside from the book, you can also find him talking on Krista Tippitt’s On Being podcast here.