DR JAMES R. DOTY addresses health care professionals on the capacities we all have as human beings to bring care and compassion to the field of medicine through the power of heart.
Caring for others is an extraordinary privilege that’s granted to very few, and sometimes we get lost with other aspects of medicine that actually aren’t related to caring. So I thank all of you who, by the nature of your profession, also care, because fundamentally that’s the core of what we really are and that very action, in and of itself, is what defines our humanity.
I am an atheist, actually, but I’ve had the joy of spending time with some of the greatest spiritual leaders in the world: Amma, Sri Sri Ravishankar, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Sadhguru, Eckhart Tolle and others. I have to tell you that the basis for who they are and, frankly, the fundamental basis for every religious and spiritual tradition is Heartfulness. This idea of opening our hearts, of having unconditional love, compassion and caring for others is really at the soul of who we are.
In the modern world we are very distracted. We are a species which probably has the greatest ability to remember the past and also perceive a future, and the very nature of those two qualities fights against our desire to be present. Our true nature is really to be present. And when we are present, it allows us to connect with everyone as they truly are. But this is a challenge in the modern world.
I just want to share with you a thing I do sometimes to be present. I built my house 3 or 4 years ago and in the backyard there’s a hardscape made of concrete with large squares. Between the squares there are loose stones.
My wife said to me, “Why are you doing that? Every time someone comes over or the kids play, all these loose stones will get dislodged.”
I looked at her and said, “That’s okay.”
I’m a sort of perfectionist sometimes so she was very surprised and responded, “I can’t believe you’re saying that!”
I said, “Well, I’ll show you once it is done.”
The stones are always getting messed up, so when I come home every day, the first thing I do is to take control of my emotional reaction and then walk around and replace every stone. In some way, this impermanence makes me focus on the present and centers me to interact with my family again. It is similar to the purpose of creating sand mandalas in some traditions, where they spend days on these incredibly beautiful designs and, when they are done, they let go of them instantly.
I also have a modern sculpture of the Buddha in my backyard, and the interesting thing about this statue is that it is headless and it sits holding a glass persimmon. The sculpture reminds me not to get lost in my intellect but to focus on my heart, because that’s what often distracts us from our true selves. Also, a persimmon can be very hard and bitter initially, but if we are patient and thoughtful, the fruit becomes soft and sweet. When we reflect on this we understand that suffering, too, is actually a wonderful fruit that allows us to understand our true selves and our true potential as human beings.
Instead of being reactive, you now act with discernment
and are able to incorporate your memories, experiences
and things you’ve learned into decision-making.
When you’re not stressed or anxious or fearful,
you are much more creative and productive.
Over a period of time, the idea of compassion, Heartfulness and caring for others kept coming forth, and although I always tried to act with that intention I really wanted to do a deeper inquiry. So in 2007-2008 I funded a variety of research projects with a group of neuroscientists and psychologists, to study these behaviors at a deeper level using the tools of neuroscience. It became clearly evident that compassion, Heartfulness, kindness and caring not only define who we are as a species, but they are fundamental to our health and well-being.
With the right intention, practices like Heartfulness and the Compassion Cultivation Training, conducted by us at Stanford University, stimulate the vagus nerve that connects to our heart. This results in engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. When this system is engaged, blood pressure goes down, heart function improves, immune system is boosted, genes that are typically associated with the expression of inflammatory proteins are suppressed, and cortisol levels go down to normal.
Engaging your parasympathetic nervous system also allows the area of your brain that is associated with executive functions to be at its best. Instead of being reactive, you now act with discernment and are able to incorporate your memories, experiences and things you’ve learned into decision-making. When you’re not stressed or anxious or fearful, you are much more creative and productive.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who was imprisoned during the Holocaust, had understood what he calls the pause between a stimulus and a response. It’s in the pause that everything happens, because during that pause you understand the nature of reality and act with discernment. Practices that promote altruism and compassion allow for such essential pauses in our lives.
Thus it is evident that these practices not only benefit the individual, but also have a huge impact on a variety of domains. In the education system, they can improve attendance and academic performance. In the healthcare system where we have a crisis of stress, anxiety, burnout, these practices allow us to not be as reactive, to be more thoughtful, to calm ourselves, and to look at others and understand their suffering. In business, they can increase productivity and creativity by decreasing stress and anxiety. Studies show that this, in turn, increases the share value of the company. Incorporating these practices in the field of law and justice can decrease violence and recidivism, and shifts our attitude from policing against the law-breakers to reaching out to help them by recognizing that after all we are like each other.
I hope this has given you a brief understanding of the power we have within ourselves, the power to reach who we truly are, and the power to change every life around us.