The simple practices of mindfulness meditation can help us accomplish major goals in life. Just concentrating on our pattern of breathing, for example, brings us into a more reflectional state that helps us quiet our inner, distracting dialogue. In this interview, Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty reflects on his own experience with meditation and explains how taming your mind and opening your heart can help you reclaim some of life’s most difficult experiences. Everyone’s life is beset by truly challenging obstacles. Instead of treating our own burdens as character flaws, or flaws in our circumstances, we can achieve new levels of empathy through meditation.
James Doty: I get asked this question of, "Geez, I haven’t meditated. How do I get started?" And it’s hard for many people because what many of us don’t appreciate is that — and I use the term in my book, a DJ, but it’s this internal dialogue and it is a dialogue that isn’t necessarily who you really are at all. It is a collection of events, experiences, commentaries from your environment that oftentimes you allow to define you. And not necessarily in a positive way. And as a result, you have an emotional response when you’re listening to these voices or this dialogue or the DJ, if you will. And the first thing that I recommend people do, and certainly as one of the bases or the legs of doing mindfulness or meditation, is to simply breathe in and out and be attuned to that. And as you get distracted if it’s really distracting, actually consciously think about the air going through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. And the very nature of that type of concentration distracts you from the dialogue. And once you’ve mastered that and you pay attention to the fact that oftentimes your muscles are very tense because again you’re carrying your emotions. And with intention, go through actually and say, "I’m relaxing the muscles in my feet, my legs, my chest, my abdomen," and so forth.
And sort of go through this process with intention doing each one of these things and with that intention it also distractions you from listening to that voice. And once you’ve done that for a period of time, then you suddenly realize the very nature of that action, the consistency of that; you’re no longer having that same emotional response or you’re not starting to listen to that dialogue. And that starts releasing you. And then the next step as you learn these techniques, the wonderful thing is you can actually change the dialogue. And change it to one where it is a supportive dialogue. One of the greatest challenges of people in the West is they have this negative internal dialogue and it’s the nature, unfortunately, of our society. In Eastern cultures — actually it’s interesting — it doesn’t really exist. And so when you, if you will, stop the DJ and then change the dialogue to one that is nurturing, supportive of yourself, the most wonderful thing that happens is your physiology changes and then the manner in which you react or interact with other people becomes completely different. And having been through this myself and seen this and taught this, it’s really quite extraordinary — the possibilities. Because when you take the time to do that breathing; when you take the time, if you will, to tame the mind; when you take the time to open your heart and recognize that not only are you suffering, but that everyone in some way or other has their own burdens. All of those steps then allow you to be much more thoughtful, kind, and interested because then you recognize that the other person is just like you. And when you recognize that key aspect, then what you do to others, you’re doing to yourself. And if you treat yourself with kindness, compassion, love, it’s so much easier then to give that gift to other people. And it changes not only that other person; it changes the entire environment around you.