The Neuroscience of Getting What You Want

The Neuroscience of Getting What You Want

Discover James Doty's journey in Into the Magic Shop and Mind Magic, blending neuroscience and compassion to manifest fulfillment beyond self-interest.

About eight years ago a brain surgeon and neuroscientist named James Doty, M.D.—the head of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research—wrote a best-selling memoir called Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, and you should put down this magazine and get on your bike and ride to your local bookstore and buy the book. Go ahead, get the book and make it a quest—even if you order it at the bookstore and it comes by mail.

While you’re out there, buy Doty’s new book, Mind Magic: The Neuroscience of Manifesting and How It Changes Everything, which just came out. Seriously. You are going to learn about Doty and both of his books over the next few magazine pages, but you’re not going to get enough to manifest what you want. That takes time and practice and what seems like magic, but Doty shows that it’s actually neuroscience that you can use systematically.

What it takes to hit all your goals is a fierce dedication to your quest over time—and that means sinking your goals so deep into your subconscious that your conscious mind automatically tracks paths to take you to those goals like a bloodhound on the scent of synchronicities. Real effort is key. So is having a talented guide take you by the hand. Such hand-holding through stories and practices is the reason for buying and reading and rereading Doty’s books. In the meantime, the next few pages can help you clarify your goal for whatever magic you choose to muster.

But here’s a twist: If you are reading this magazine, you are probably already seeking something other than what you want. That’s the real key. Then you’ll be reading Doty for the magic between the lines. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Into the Magic Shop is a narrative from rags to riches, and back to rags (or as close to rags as one can get and still be a brain surgeon at Stanford), and then to fulfillment—the sort of fulfillment that includes having a happy family life and running a center for compassion and spending time with folks like the Dalai Lama. Not such a bad life! The second book is a workbook for getting to such fulfillment without the raggedy roller-coaster ride. Even if you feel on top of the world and confident in your ability to manifest stuff, you’ll likely enjoy the books. If you’re feeling in a rut or at a loss, the stories and workbook provide the tools to build a new path toward such a life. But that’s not the magic between the lines.

Doty’s version of manifesting is appropriate for the leader of a center for altruism. “Manifesting is a process whereby you utilize the power within yourself to have an intention occur that ultimately is not pure self-interest,” he says. In other words, this recipe for manifesting comes from within you—it’s your brain at work—but is not just about you. As he explains, “Plenty of others say that manifesting is a way to get anything you want. That’s the more traditional message of The Secret and the prosperity gospels: The narrative, ‘I want, I want, I want, I deserve, I should have. The Universe wants me to have.’” That’s not what this is about.

A World of Want

Doty had good reasons to start off wanting. “My father was an alcoholic,” he says. “My mother had had a stroke when I was a child, was partially paralyzed, had a seizure disorder, was chronically depressed, and attempted suicide. We were on public assistance and evicted from various residences. And of course, that is not the typical narrative of a person who has success in our society. When you have experiences such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, poverty, et cetera, the likelihood of you being ‘successful’ diminishes. And the obvious fact is that many of the children who grow up in those environments have drug and alcohol abuse issues and often end up in poverty or have mental health issues.”

In short, young James Doty needed a miracle to get much of anywhere—or at least a significant intervention. This is how it happened:

“I would frequently get on my bicycle and ride as far and as fast away from home as possible,” he says. “And on one of those excursions, I ended up at a strip mall where there was a magic shop. I walked in and I was greeted by a woman named Ruth who had no knowledge of magic per se. Her son owned the store, and Ruth was minding it.

“She greeted me with a radiant smile. And I’m sure all of us have met people who are so inviting that their presence makes you feel good about yourself, what people nowadays call psychological safety. That was Ruth. We began a conversation, and after several minutes she said, ‘I’m here for another six weeks, and if you show up every day, I think I could teach you something that could help you.’ Now I should preface that by saying that she was asking me very personal questions. And normally I would not have shared the answers because I was ashamed, frankly, and embarrassed. But with her, I did.

“And I think that stimulated her to ask me to show up every day. And I did. And she taught me a practice where I could overcome the negative voice that was going on in my head, and also made me realize that I was in a constant state of trauma, and people who are constantly traumatized are always tense. So the first thing she taught me was a relaxation technique, very similar to a typical mindfulness practice. I had never realized how tense I was. Every muscle was always tense.

“After that, she made me realize that the negative dialogue that was constantly going on in my head was not me. And that was very important because I used to think it was truth. And so she gave me the tools, if you will, to change that narrative from one of negativity to one of positive self-affirmation. And that made a very huge difference.”

The Irony of Magic

Young Doty made a list of 10 things a 12-year-old boy in 1968 would want, and he put the list in a box, what proved to be his magic box. On the list was a million dollars, a mansion, a Porsche, a Rolex, and all the things he thought were really important and would make him happy. And not only did Doty make his million, he got himself into the stratospheric position of being able to lose about $80 million in the dot-com crash. He had a mansion in Newport Beach. He had a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Range Rover, and a Mercedes. He was flying around in private jets and had a villa in Italy and was buying his own island and dating model/actress types. He got all the things on his list and more, and his friends from childhood thought he had the life fantastic, but …

“Deep inside I was miserable,” he says. “There was nothing that was making me feel good. I kept waiting to feel good about myself. When I ended up losing everything and being $3 million in the hole, I went back to the house in Newport Beach before I sold it. I was sitting on the steps and trying to understand what the hell had happened to me. And then I went back to these lessons that Ruth had taught me. And I suddenly realized that although I was a doctor and was helping people, every step I was taking was to have people tell me that I was okay. And it wasn’t working, and it had not worked. And then I reflected on the lessons, and then I had an insight. And the insight was that all the actions I was taking were about me. I wanted this, I wanted that. And I thought by having all these things, that that was my purpose, and that would make me happy. And after that period of reflection, I changed my perspective. And the perspective change was, ‘It’s not about me.’ The important thing is, how can I do things that are of service or helpful to others outside of myself?”

Another and perhaps jarring revelation that Doty had would become the very first lines of his second book: “The Universe doesn’t give a f*** about you. It may not sound like it, but this is good news. The Universe doesn’t give a f*** about you not because you are not worthy or are out of alignment with the cosmos or have been put under a curse for 10 generations. No, the Universe doesn’t give a f*** about you because it has no f*** to give.”

But you do, Doty says. The better you understand how you work, the more effective you become. And if you are the person reading for the magic between the lines in both books, you see that these books are not about manifesting stuff or even finding some lost key to happiness. The two books are about becoming Ruth, the person who changes everything.

“You see on a very powerful level how you can be that person,” Doty explains. “And when you’ve experienced the power of what it does to change a person’s life, you sit there and go, ‘Ah! I am so blessed!’”

This piece appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine. Subscribe now.

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