A doctor who found ‘Magic’ from an unusual encounter

Doctor and author Jim Doty.
Tenzin Priyadarshi
Doctor and author Jim Doty.

One hot day in the summer of 1968, a 12-year-old boy named Jim Doty, the son of an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother, wandered into a magic shop in a strip mall in Lancaster, Calif. The owner of the shop wasn’t in, but his mother, Ruth, was. Ruth took a liking to Jim and told him that if he came back to the shop daily all that summer she would teach him magic.

That magic, it turned out, had nothing to do with sleight of hand. Ruth showed Jim meditation and visualization techniques to calm and focus his mind and increase his compassion for himself and others.

Now 60 and a neurosurgeon at Stanford, Doty acknowledges that his encounter with Ruth was unusual. “Retrospectively, as an adult, I’ve thought, ‘That was wild and bizarre. Did it really happen?’” he said by phone. Still, Doty credits Ruth with giving him the tools to emerge from an impoverished and chaotic childhood and graduate from college and medical school. Now he’s written a new memoir, “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart,” about his unlikely journey.


As British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh did in his popular 2015 memoir, “Do No Harm,” Doty writes of patients with brain disorders and offers graphic accounts of the operations he’s performed on them. But “Into the Magic Shop,” which grew out of Doty’s talks about the healing power of compassion, centers more on his own personal story and how it was shaped by Ruth.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Doty’s path has not been entirely smooth. During the tech boom of the 1990s he became a multimillionaire as a medical entrepreneur, but was never more miserable. He realizes now that he had misinterpreted Ruth’s lessons about the power of intentionality to mean that if he just had everything he wanted — houses, affairs, a Ferrari — he’d be fulfilled. When the economic bubble burst and he went bankrupt, he says, he gave what was left of his fortune to charity. He also began meditating again after a long hiatus. “In the depth of my own misery,” he recalled, “I started thinking back to Ruth and what it was that made me feel empowered and happy.”

Today, in addition to practicing neurosurgery, Doty heads Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), which he founded with the support of the Dalai Lama. CCARE is currently researching the neural pathways involved in nurturing behavior and the role of compassion in wound healing and in the prevention of nurse burnout.

Doty still carries Ruth’s magic with him — literally. He keeps a set of “compassion beads” in the pocket of his white coat. As he makes his hospital rounds, Doty touches beads labeled “F” for forgiveness, “G” for gratitude, “I” for integrity, and so forth and focuses on these qualities one by one. “That’s my practice,” he said. “It sets my intention for who I want to be.”