The Alphabet of the Heart
Start your week right with this list by James R. Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
The list, a mnemonic for the things that open the heart, CDEFGHIJKL, is from Doty's excellent book Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.
As Doty explains it in the book, he recites this "alphabet of the heart" as part of his meditation practice each morning, choosing one of the qualities as his intention for the day.
When I first read it, it immediately seemed like a great addition to my own practice. And well, let’s just say I’m still working on it. Tomorrow’s a new day, though. And this one’s not escaped me yet, either.
It seems at least a little unethical to share such a lengthy excerpt from someone’s book. And this bothers me. But I also think there’s too much value in the list to keep it to myself. So if you, too, find value in it, maybe buy the book. And then we’ll all be even-steven.
C: Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another with a desire to alleviate that suffering. Yet to be compassionate to another, you must be compassionate to yourself. Many people beat themselves up by being hypercritical, not allowing themselves to enjoy the same kindness that they would offer to others. And until one is truly kind to oneself, giving love and kindness to others is often impossible.
D: Dignity is something innate in every person. It deserves to be acknowledged and recognized. So often we make judgments about someone because of how they look, or talk, or behave. And many times such judgments are negative and wrong. We have to look at another person and think, “They are just like me. They want what I want—to be happy.” When we look at others and see ourselves, we want to connect and help.
E: Equanimity is to have an evenness of temperament even during difficult times. Equanimity is for the good times and the bad times because even during good times there is a tendency to try to maintain or hold that feeling of elation. But trying to hold on to the good distracts us from being present in the moment just as trying to flee from the bad does. Grasping at that feeling of elation is not realistic, not possible, and only leads to disappointment. All such ups and downs are transient. Keeping an evenness of temperament allows for clarity of mind and intention.
F: Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts one can give to another. It is also one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. Many have used the analogy that holding anger or hostility against another you feel has wronged you is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other person. It doesn’t work. It poisons you. It poisons your interactions with others. It poisons your outlook on the world. Ultimately, it makes you the prisoner in a jail where you hold the key yet won’t unlock the door. The reality is that each of us in our lives has wronged others. We are frail, fragile beings who at various times in our lives have not lived up to our ideal and have injured or hurt another.
G: Gratitude is the recognition of the blessing that your life is—even with all its pain and suffering. It takes little effort to see how so many in the world are suffering and in pain. People whose circumstances allow little hope of a better life. Too often, especially in Western society, we look at each other and feel jealous or envious. Simply taking a few moments to have gratitude has a huge effect on your mental attitude. . . . You suddenly recognize how blessed you are.
H: Humility is an attribute that for many is hard to practice. We have pride about who we are or what we have accomplished. We want to tell and show others how important we are. How much better we are than someone else. The reality is that such feelings are actually a statement of our own insecurity. We are searching for acknowledgment of worth outside of ourselves. Yet doing so separates us from others. It’s like being put in solitary confinement, and it’s a lonely place to be. It is only when we recognize that, like us, every person has positive and negative attributes, and only when we look at one another as equals, that we can truly connect. It is that connection of common humanity that frees us to open our heart and care unconditionally. To look at another as an equal.
I: Integrity requires intention. It requires defining those values that are most important to you. It means consistently practicing those values in regard to your interaction with others. Our values can easily disintegrate, and the disintegration can at first be imperceptible. If we compromise our integrity once, it becomes that much easier to do it again. Few start out with such intent. Be vigilant and diligent.
J: Justice is a recognition that within each of us there lives a desire to see that right be done. It is easier when we have resources and privilege to have justice. Yet, we need to guard justice for the weak and the vulnerable. It is our responsibility to seek justice for the vulnerable, to care for the weak, to give to the poor. That is what defines our society and our humanity and gives meaning to one’s life.
K: Kindness is a concern for others and is often thought of as the active component of compassion. A desire to see others cared for with no desire for personal benefit or recognition. The extraordinary thing is that research is now finding that your act of kindness not only benefits those who receive your kindness but benefits you as well. The act of kindness ripples out and makes it more likely that your friends and those around you will be kinder. It is a social contagion that puts our society right. And ultimately kindness returns back to us, in the good feelings it generates and in how others treat us . . . with kindness.
L: Love when given freely changes everyone and everything. It is love that contains all virtues. It is love that heals all wounds. Ultimately, it is not our technology or our medicine but our love that heals. And it is love that holds our humanity.
James R. Doty, MD, Into the Magic Shop