Summary of “Into the Magic Shop” by James R. Doty: Into the Magic Shop is an autobiographical novel that recounts how, thanks to the teachings of a lady he met in a magic store, a poor little boy whose family was regularly evicted, whose mother was depressed and whose father was an alcoholic, realized his ability to change the course of his life, and succeeded, despite the many difficulties he encountered, in fulfilling all his wildest dreams until he became a distinguished professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and the director of CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education).
This inspiring and heartwarming demonstration of one’s pursuit of happiness gives readers a wealth of insight into how anyone can use their brains and hearts to create the life of their dreams, regardless of their past or challenges.
By James R. Doty, 2016, 308 pages
Note: This is a guest review written by Virginie Vanbressen from the blog ‘’Happiness Seeker’’ (‘Chercheuse de Bonheur’).
Review and summary of “Into the Magic Shop”:
In this preface, written by Mathieu Ricard, we discover the human behind the author. Mathieu Ricard describes the vulnerability and humanity hidden behind the physically imposing neurosurgeon that is Dr. James R. Doty.
To better understand the essence of the book, Mathieu Ricard briefly reflects on 3 words: altruism, compassion, and empathy. He provides a concise definition of each in the context of Buddhism and discoveries in neuroscience:
- Altruism: a deep interest in the happiness of others + the determination to do whatever you can to make them happy.
- Compassion: this is the form that altruism takes when confronted with the suffering of others + the determination to do everything possible to prevent others from suffering.
- Empathy is the ability to relate to the situation and feelings of others.
Drawing on recent research in neuroscience and his own contemplative practice, he makes altruism the focus of his preface, honoring this virtue as that which will reconcile the world economically, socially, and culturally.
He closes by highlighting the CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) institute founded by Dr. James Doty. Mathieu Ricard states that their discoveries are useful to everyone and that Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama‘s main interpreter, has even designed a curriculum based on altruism and compassion that is capable of being integrated into any educational system and considered by the Dalai Lama as the very foundations of our society and the key to true happiness.
The introduction wastes no time in grabbing the reader’s attention! James Doty recounts the operation he performed on a 4-year-old boy with a brain tumor! The introduction includes some details that can be chilling for someone unfamiliar with surgery and plunges us into the breathtaking suspense caused by an error of inattention on the part of one of the doctor’s assistants.
To save the boy, James Doty will use a technique he learned in the back room of a small magic shop decades before: he closes his eyes, relaxes his mind, visualizes the problem and, blindly, performs the maneuver that will save the little boy.
Part One: Into the Magic Shop
Chapter 1. Real Magic
Lancaster, California, 1968
Jim, a 12-year-old boy from a modest family, was fascinated with magic. He kept a box under his bed in which he hid all his treasures. One day, one of them disappeared. His most prized possession, his plastic thumb! It was nowhere to be found!
Jim got on his bike and went looking for his big brother who might know where his precious thumb was. While riding along a deserted shopping mall not usually on his route, he discovered a magic store: Cactus Rabbit Magic Shop. Not a penny in his pocket, but curious to know if there were any plastic thumbs, he entered the store and met Ruth.
Ruth was the mother of the store’s manager who had gone on an errand. She was in Lancaster for six weeks. After a few moments of conversation, Ruth offered to teach Jim real magic, that which would allow him to make anything he wanted appear, without tricks, without plastic thumbs. As long as he practiced daily and came to the store every day.
Jim didn’t know if what Ruth was promising was really possible, but he felt strangely at ease around her; he felt happy. It was the first time anyone had said he was different, and the old lady’s eyes promised him adventure and mystery. Since he was on vacation and had no plans, Jim accepted Ruth’s proposal.
It was then that his fate took a new turn.
Chapter 2. A Body at Rest
Jim’s mother was depressed and rarely got out of bed. If she was having a good day, only then could he expect to get a meal. Here are 5 natural solutions to depression. As for his father, he was an alcoholic and often disappeared from the house for a few days at a time. Jim didn’t have a stable, safe environment, and the only thing he wanted was someone to talk to. And with Ruth, Jim found that someone.
When he arrived at the store on the first day, Jim felt worried. Was he right to trust a stranger and agree, with no second thought, to visit her every day? His worries dissipated as soon as Ruth opened her mouth to greet him with a warm welcome.
Jim also met her son Neil who, after giving him a tricked-out deck of cards, invited him to follow his mother into the back room to learn real magic! Not before telling him that it would require more practice than he would need to remember a simple card trick.
When he arrived in the back room, Ruth invited Jim to sit in a chair and asked him to tell her about a time when he felt sad or angry. Jim recounted his father’s drinking problems and his mother’s severe depression. It was the first time he had ever felt truly listened to!
Ruth then asked him to observe his body’s response to his story, and Jim was surprised to feel a tear roll down his face. She then invited him to relax. It was then that Jim realized he had never felt relaxed before. That was it for that day, and Jim left promising to practice relaxing his body every day. When he got back on his bike, he felt different; he felt good.
Chapter 3. Think about Thinking
On day 11, Ruth pulled another trick out of her hat. This time, she asked Jim to observe the voice in his head to avoid being overwhelmed by bad thoughts. Before this, Jim had never noticed that he had a continuous stream of thoughts. It took him a little while before he became familiar with the idea that the voices in his head did not define him and did not always mean him well!
As for controlling the flow of his thoughts, Jim was unable to do so. No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts would drift without him even realizing it! He thought about his father’s drinking problems, the next fight his parents would have, whether his mother would ever get better, and he worried about the mailman’s visit, if he would be bringing the next eviction notice in the mail!
Ruth’s exercise was a total fiasco! However, she suggested various methods to make it easier for him to practice while reassuring him that everyone who had tried it had said they were useless at first. In her gentle voice, she assured him that he could be good at whatever he wanted, but that he didn’t know it yet.
Jim practiced every day and felt himself becoming different. One day, when another fight broke out between his mother and father, Jim came out of his room and for some reason he couldn’t explain, went to tell his parents that he loved them. He then went back to his room, without feeling any anger or sadness whatsoever.
Jim loved the time he spent with Ruth and Neil every day (when he wasn’t so busy with work). They were like a family. By now, Ruth would bring a snack, and they would all eat together after spending time in the back room.
Time was flying by, and it was already only two weeks before Ruth would be going back to Ohio.
Chapter 4. Growing Pains
One day when Jim arrived at the magic shop, he heard Ruth and Neil arguing and he thought it was his fault. He rang the doorbell and entered the store loudly to mark his presence and silence the conflict. Ruth invited him to come in and follow her into the back office for his daily learning and practice session.
Jim told Ruth that he heard them arguing and wondered if he had done anything wrong. Not without wondering why Jim thought he was behind their argument, Ruth explained to him that the conflict between her and Neil was related to a problem with her grandson.
She went on to point out that problems are part of life and that just as we tend to a physical wound, we must also tend to the problems of our hearts. Jim learned that day that a wounded heart has the extraordinary ability to open up even more so afterwards.
From that day on, Ruth would teach him how to open his heart. She stressed the importance of not pretending, but sincerely opening his heart to connect to his true desires beyond his thoughts. She warned him about false desires and explained that with the magic she taught him, he could manifest anything he wanted into existence.
Jim followed Ruth’s teachings to the letter, because he wanted to know true magic and make anything he wanted appear.
He discovered that by applying Ruth’s techniques, the voices in his head would fade or disappear. Jim was feeling better and better.
Ruth was teaching him to train his brain to have new connections, to regulate his emotions, to increase his empathy and to strengthen his social bonds.
She was making Jim more optimistic even though his environment had not changed and there was still so much chaos in his life.
Chapter 5. Three Wishes
It was just a few days before Ruth would return to Ohio. For Jim, time was flying by, and at the same time, it seemed like forever. He couldn’t wait to learn Ruth’s final trick, the one that would give him everything he wanted in his life. So far, he had learned to relax his body, tame his mind, and to open his heart, even if he didn’t quite understand what that meant yet!
When he arrived at the magic store that day, Ruth asked Jim to express 10 wishes. His 10 wishes included, among other things, becoming a doctor, getting a Porsche, and not getting evicted.
In the few days before she left, Ruth taught Jim how to focus on what he wanted with clear intent. She asked him to practice every day and told him, with certainty, that his wishes would then come true.
Even though Jim was worried that his mother would get even more depressed, and he didn’t see how his father could bring in money when he had just been laid off and was spending what little money they had on bars, he tried to focus his intention on his desire. He imagined his mother paying the rent, his family staying in the apartment, and like a mantra, he repeated to himself that the rent would be paid.
The day Ruth left, while Jim was practicing in his room, someone knocked on the apartment door. Jim opened the door and found a man in a suit who handed him an envelope. The man apologized for the delay and asked Jim to give the envelope to his father, explaining that it was a payment he had owed him for a long time.
Jim couldn’t believe his eyes! The envelope contained enough money to eat and pay three months’ rent ! So it was true, he could get anything he wanted. Jim got on his bike, and with tears in his eyes, thanked Ruth before saying goodbye.
Part Two: The Mysteries of the Brain
Chapter 6. Apply Yourself
After Ruth left, Jim continued to practice day after day, week after week. He soon realized that while he could try to create another reality for himself, he could not change his family’s reality.
And although Jim didn’t know how, when, or where, he had managed to develop the certainty that one day he would go to college and learn medicine. No matter how much his family and financial circumstances might suggest otherwise.
A few years later, Jim entered medical school with a completely different mindset before he had met Ruth, without whom he felt he would never have become a doctor.
Chapter 7. Unacceptable
Jim worked harder than the other students, getting up at 5 a.m. to practice rowing, holding down a side job, and also having to travel back and forth to take care of his mother or father.
His absences from class were frequent; his grades weren’t great, and when it came time to enroll in medical school, his grade point average was low. Jim wanted to enroll even though some of his classmates liked to remind him that, given his grades, he wouldn’t get in.
One of the requirements for enrolling in medical school was a letter of recommendation issued after an interview with the premed committee. Jim asked for an appointment with the committee, but the secretary refused him because his file was not good enough. Once again, Ruth’s teaching crossed Jim’s mind.
He thought about what she said about not letting someone else define your worth. He knew deep down that he would become a doctor and that he not only had the ability, but that he was worth more than this file. Ruth had also taught him that he had to fight not to accept the unacceptable.
So, true to the lessons he had learned from Ruth, he connected with his heart and his certainties and gently pressed the secretary. He got the appointment and, despite a committee intrigued by his boldness but puzzled by his abilities, he received his letter of recommendation and was accepted into medical school.
Chapter 8. It’s Not Brain Surgery
Jim’s medical school experience was very different from his undergrad studies. He had an excellent memory and a very good ability to concentrate. He owed his abilities to his meditation practice.
At the end of his studies, Jim did a multidisciplinary internship and, while he initially wanted to become a plastic surgeon for children, he fell in love with neurosurgery. He therefore decided to apply for a neurosurgery residency.
The problem was that they only trained one neurosurgeon per year, and since there were other requests, he would have had to wait 3 years for it to be his turn. Jim, once again refusing to accept the unacceptable, relied on Ruth’s magic and, by a series of fortunate events, got into a neurosurgery residency.
Jim gradually gave up the daily practice of Ruth’s magic until it was no longer a part of his life at all. In addition, he began to become arrogant and felt invincible until one day, on the way home from a night of drinking with his friends, they were involved in a car accident in which Jim was seriously injured. He went from being a surgeon to a patient in critical condition. He had to undergo surgery; there were complications, and as he was bleeding out, he had an out-of-body experience that made him feel unconditional love.
Chapter 9. The Sultan of Nothing
Years went by, and by the time Jim was 44, he was a rich and famous man. He had married, but divorced, and had a daughter whom he wasn’t there for. Jim owned several properties, several cars including a Ferrari and the Porsche he wanted when he was 12. He had become a businessman worth over $75 million in investments and stocks and lived in luxury and lavishness.
This exuberant lifestyle came to an abrupt end when the stock market crashed and Jim lost his entire fortune. He went from having $75 million to being in debt and having to sell his many properties and cars. He felt an emptiness that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
That day, he sat down on the floor, began to relax his body and open his heart. He then tried to focus his attention on his future, but he could see nothing. Feeling lost, he decided to go back to the Lancaster Magic Shop. Maybe Neil was still there and maybe Ruth was still alive.
Part Three: The Secrets of the Heart
Chapter 10. Giving Up
The magic store was gone and no one seemed to know what had become of it. Jim had taken with him the notebook from when he was 12 years old in which he had written all the magic Ruth had taught him, and he reread the notes in it. He had circled the words “compass of the heart”, and then remembered Ruth’s words of caution about magic being connected to the heart above all.
Jim closed his notebook, connected to his heart and sent love to himself and to all those who were suffering. He felt instantly transported into a bubble of unconditional love. It was the same feeling he had while lying on the operating table, except that he was not bleeding to death and was conscious.
That night, Jim resumed his meditative practice and went to sleep with an open heart. The next morning he was awakened by a phone call from his lawyer. The lawyer told him that he had just discovered that it was possible to recover a portion of his fortune, estimated to be in the millions, because the donation he wanted to make at the time had not been registered! Surprisingly, Jim refused to take back the money he had promised to others and signed the papers to validate the donation. He felt free and had just discovered the power of compassion for himself and others. He had just understood Ruth’s cautionary advice, which he had forgotten all these years.
Chapter 11. The Alphabet of the Heart
Jim realized that the most beautiful magic was to help others and being a neurosurgeon was a great way to do just that. He no longer wanted to be a businessman; he wanted to work so that everyone could receive quality care, especially in poverty-stricken areas.
One day, a public hospital in southern Mississippi asked for his consulting services. The hospital was the primary free health care center in the area, and many doctors refused to practice there because it was not profitable for them. Jim agreed and was able to secure funding for a regional neuroscience center for which he was asked to become the director.
This was an opportunity for him to do something that would have a real impact in an area that sorely needed it. He accepted the offer and moved from North Carolina to Mississippi with his new wife and son.
Almost two years after his move, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city; washing away Ruth’s notebook of magic in the flooding of their home. While he could have moved away like many Americans, Jim decided to stay; as he did not want to disappoint all those who had believed in him and his vision.
After completing his mission, Jim was eager to return to Stanford where he had practiced for many years. He thought back to Ruth’s messages, about compassion, about the heart; and he was desperate to understand the interactions between the heart and the brain. Jim returned to his position in the Stanford Department of Neurosurgery and became interested in the advancement of neurosurgery research.
As he had done at the time, he made a new list of ten goals that could help him open his heart and listed the teachings he had discovered with Ruth. He found a mnemonic to remember the 10 principles of the heart, CDEFGHIJKL: Compassion, Dignity, Equanimity, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Humility, Integrity Justice, Kindness, and Love. Jim repeated these 10 principles to himself every morning during his meditation practice and discovered that by opening his heart, he was able to connect with the hearts of all those around him.
Chapter 12. Manifesting Compassion
Jim had always loved opera without really understanding why! Like many surgeons, he always put on music when he operated. Studies have shown the power of music on patients. Listening to music makes them less anxious and requires less pain medication and sedation.
One day, Jim had to perform a delicate operation on a friend who was an opera singer. Her voice was her reason for living, and if he botched the operation, she could lose it. Jim began the operation when suddenly his hands began to shake. He had never had to operate on a friend before, and the fear of failure gripped his stomach. He put down his instruments and took a moment to breathe and refocus. Although Jim could now open his heart easily, he also had to be an emotionless machine when he operated.
When he returned home that evening, tears of gratitude were streaming down his cheeks; he felt happy and lucky to be in his profession.
Jim met every other week with his colleagues to discuss their progress on their research into the interaction between the heart and the brain. They called the study “Project Compassion.” One day, despite knowing nothing about Buddhism or the Dalai Lama, it occurred to Jim that it would be great to invite the Dalai Lama to discuss compassion with him.
Ruth’s magic worked again, and Jim brought in the Dalai Lama. Even more amazing, His Holiness was so enthusiastic about the determination and project of Jim and his team that he contributed a large donation. Other generous donors followed suit, and the CCARE (Center for Compassionate and Altruistic Research and Education) was born.
In the meantime, Jim had learned of Ruth’s death, but he knew that she would have been proud of him and that, just as she had passed on her magic to him, Jim was passing it on to others by teaching it through CCARE.
Chapter 13. The Face of God
One day, Jim was contacted by Tulane University, which he had been accepted to despite not having an adequate grade point average. Each year, the university would invite an inspirational figure who embodied the ideals of medicine to speak at the “White Coat Ceremony” where students receive their coats and recite their oaths!
Jim was still amazed at the surprises life had in store for him. He, the poor little boy who would never have become a doctor without Ruth’s magic; he, the student whose grades were not supposed to be good enough to be accepted; had been invited as an inspirational figure to speak to new medical students. He felt moved.
When the day of the ceremony arrived, Jim was overwhelmed by his emotions. He told his story, about meeting Ruth, about the alphabet of the heart, etc., and did not realize that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
He spoke with an open heart about the suffering from which students cannot escape; but the great gifts that it also contains, and closed by expressing that kindness and compassion can heal many ills; and that in doing so, students will see the face of God. When he stopped speaking, he noticed that many in the audience were crying as were his colleagues on stage. The students applauded and thanked him for his beautiful and inspiring speech.
As he left the auditorium, Jim felt the warmth on his face… he was fine, everything was fine.
The brain and the heart, when combined, can create magic that is neither an illusion nor a card trick.
Conclusion of “Into the Magic Shop”
This autobiographical and scientific book immerses us in a captivating and wonderful real-life account of hope; which demonstrates how, regardless of one’s childhood, family situation, mistakes, or challenges, anything is possible.
Anything is possible
Indeed, by realizing his dreams one after the other, even when all indications were that he would not succeed; the author helps us to reassess our own lives. The scientific elements and the 4 exercise sheets that are scattered throughout the book enable us to familiarize ourselves with the functioning of the brain and to reveal the magic shop that is within each of us.
Listening to your heart
James R. Doty is honest and generous in sharing his experience and encourages us to make sure that the choices we make come from our heart. As he himself did not initially understand what this meant, and it was only after losing his entire fortune that he finally felt and incorporated this principle; this book is also, in some respects, an initiatory journey allowing us to fully understand the subtleties between the ego and the heart.
Lastly, the many trials that the author goes through (poverty, alcoholism, evictions, drugs, the death of his sister, his father, the hurricane, etc.) reveal how resilience is a tremendous springboard to true happiness.
My two cents
This book, Into the Magic Shop, moved me as much in the telling of the story as in the way it fell into my hands. In fact, during a personal development trip that I was organizing, one of my clients, a doctor himself, had taken Into the Magic Shop along with him. When the trip came to a close, I asked him what he thought of the book, and, as a response and with love in his eyes, he offered it to me!
I had to read Into the Magic Shop a second time to realize that by giving me this gift, he had passed on the magic of Ruth to me, just as Dr. James R. Doty has passed it on and just as I am passing it on to you in a small way through this review. The best part is that the trip my client was on was called “Exploring Myself” (‘À l’exploration de moi-m’aime’).
The hardest part for me was reading the introduction in which the author talks about the brain tumor surgery he performs on a little boy. Having lost my 9-year-old daughter to this terrible disease, some of the details were chilling.
As a fan of initiation novels like those of Laurent Gounelle, I rank this one at the top of my list; because in addition to the story in which I identify myself, Into the Magic Shop introduces us in a pragmatic way to the intelligence of the heart and invites us to broaden our perspective on the field of possibilities that life offers. Moreover, the explanations and exercises proposed are addressed with an educational and chronological approach; which makes it all much easier to remember.
Virginie from the blog “Happiness Seeker” (‘Chercheuse de Bonheur‘)
Strong points :
- A true-life narrative told with a generosity of spirit and profoundness.
- The scientific contributions.
- The possibility to learn about CCARE research via this site.
- The limited details that the author gives when he talks about the operations he performs.
- The lack of information on what happened to some of the characters in the book (Jim’s mom, brother, daughter, new wife and son).
- Some words out of the medical dictionary that are a bit complex for those who are not doctors.
My rating :
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A handy little guide to the book Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty
The 3 main parts of Into the Magic Shop:
- Into the Magic Shop
- The Mysteries of the Brain
- The Secrets of the Heart
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) concerning Into the Magic Shop.
1. How has the public received the book Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty?
Published on February 22, 2017 by Flammarion, Into the Magic Shop is a magnificent autobiography for the purpose of learning that has been a public success to the point of becoming an international best-seller and being translated into 31 languages.
2. What has been the impact of Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty?
This inspiring and heartwarming demonstration of one’s pursuit of happiness gives readers a wealth of insight into how anyone can use their brains and hearts to create the life of their dreams, regardless of their past or challenges.
3. For whom is Into the MagicShop intended?
This book is for a general audience and especially for all those who are going through difficulties on their road to success.
4. What is compassion according to James R. Doty?
For James R. Doty, compassion is the form that altruism takes when confronted with the suffering of others and the determination to do everything possible to prevent others from suffering.
5. Why does James R. Doty believe that music has the power to affect patients?
According to James R. Doty, listening to music makes patients less anxious and requires less pain medication and sedation.
The requirements to succeed with Ruth’s Magic versus the tricks to Ruth’s magic
|Requirements to succeed with Ruth’s Magic||Tricks to Ruth’s Magic|
|Practice||Relaxing the body|
|Repetition||Taming the mind|
|Consistency||Opening the heart|
Who is James R. Doty?
Born on December 1, 1955, James R. Doty is a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE); which studies the relationship between meditation and relaxation on the heart and brain. He also serves on the board of the Dalai Lama Foundation. Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, he is the author of the book “Into the Magic Shop”; which is a magnificent autobiography and scientific book in which he demonstrates how everyone has the ability to change their course of life; linking the powers of the heart to that of the mind.