From Harvard to Zen Temples: A Lesson in Heartfulness

A psychologist’s journey across cultures.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

A lot has been written about the mysteries of the space between, the silence between notes, the gap between thoughts. This seemingly empty pause between two separate coordinates is said to be all but empty. Even if the coordinates themselves are as noteworthy as Harvard University and Japanese Zen temples, as was the case with psychologist Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu. It’s in this space of reprieve and possibility where experience is milled into wisdom, and life is imbued with meaning.

Murphy-Shigematsu’s life reads like a Hollywood script. As the great-grandson of a samurai who was in charge of protecting the shogun’s daughter and the son of an Irish-American manual laborer, his journey between identities has been a rich tapestry of adventures. His wanderlust would lead him across the world. His intuition would steer him towards Chinese medicine, meditation, yoga, Buddhism, and later clinical psychology. His academic achievements would open doors for teaching and counseling.

Whether through his talks or his writing, whether with his students at Stanford or his patients at a hospice, he has remained true to his calling of helping others. In the space between his triumphs and trials, he’d acquire the compassion which he offers to those who tell him their stories. And to help him tell his own story to the world, the gnostic quote that guided him to discover his voice as an introverted youth is this: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.”

Here are 10 questions with Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu.

Image by Saffu CC0/Pixabay
Source: Image by Saffu CC0/Pixabay

1. What insights have you gained about human nature from having listened to so many different people from around the world? 

One insight that has guided my life and work has to do with our common humanity. Despite being so different from one another, my parents shared a common understanding about life that drew them to each other and helped them to overcome social barriers to be together. That understanding was that we may look different and act different, but we are all the same. That was a part of my upbringing.

Since then, I’ve felt that common humanity running through all my encounters, and it has enabled me to be in various environments without feeling out of my element. I have also pursued these differences to try to understand them. The fact that I looked different than all the white kids in my Massachusetts neighborhood had a huge impact on the way I was treated, and even the way I thought of myself and society. Yet, I was able to delve into those differences with a deep sense of comfort, because I grew up with the conviction that we are all the same in some basic way.

2. What do you think lies at the heart of healing? 

I have been practicing healing through a variety of ways: counseling, education, writing. What I’ve discovered is that when it comes to any form of healing, there are three vital connections that are important: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to a higher power. These insights came to me a number of years ago when I was forced to confront my own mortality. First of all, to heal, you need to be connected to your own individual strength and power of healing. You also need to be connected to others who care about you and who can give you some of their own energy.

Sometimes, they do that by simply listening to you; other times, their mere presence can be healing. Importantly, you also need to be somehow connected to a greater or higher power. Some people think of it as God, or Universe, or Spirit. Others think of it as Nature.

For example, Nature may be seen as not just something to enjoy outdoors, but also as a healing source. In Chinese medicine, the qi is the energy that flows not only through the Universe and Nature, but also through the living beings that are part of the Universe. Connecting to that sense of higher power is the third key part of healing. Fortunately, when I was in graduate school, there was a professor at Harvard who was open to studying healing in a much broader sense than was common in traditional academic circles. 

3. Is there something that happy people around the world have in common?

I no longer look at happiness in the narrow sense of pleasure. I think of happiness as being tied with meaning. Searching for meaning, in turn, is what brings humans satisfaction. If we can find meaning and purpose in what we have been given by our circumstances, both the fortunes and the misfortunes, and then do our best to get through these circumstances with the most grace, this seems to me to be a good life.

Moreover, happiness is expressed in many different ways around the world. Things that might not look anything like happiness to some might bring happiness to others. For example, for my Japanese grandmother, loyalty to the family was an important samurai virtue, and practicing it brought her the ultimate happiness. 

4. What is it about telling and listening to stories that can be so beneficial for our well-being?

After all these years, the healing power of storytelling still mystifies me. I grew up with stories. I knew how captivating and moving they were. They did something that academic writing and lectures didn’t do. In fact, stories came almost as close as music in how deeply they penetrated the soul. I kept wondering why stories moved the human spirit so much that other ways of communicating didn’t.

Image by AnnieSpratt CC0/Pixabay
Source: Image by AnnieSpratt CC0/Pixabay

A few years ago, I did a monologue called the Celtic Samurai, where I told stories about my family to live audiences around the world. The comments that I received from people made me realize that my stories resonated with them. I discovered firsthand what psychologist Carl Rogers asserted: What is most personal is most universal.

That’s where the healing power of storytelling is; it makes us feel like we are not alone. When we share our stories and are open and vulnerable, it can move and touch others. Our stories can help others recognize something that they have felt in their own lives. “Yes, that’s me too,” they might feel, “Even though the particulars are your story, that’s also my story.”

5. What is your secret to connecting to other human beings?

To no credit to myself, I have benefited immensely from being raised with great kindness. As a child, I was taught that everybody should be treated as equals, no matter their background. My father connected to everyone we met wherever we went. He found a way to make conversation.

I learned that if you are open, you see the divine in another person, and you respect them; then there is always something that you could use to connect with them. No matter how they appear on the outside, underneath, it’s just another human being in front of you, just like you. Listen more than you talk. Ask questions. Show interest and curiosity. Then, you’ll often find that the others will look back at you and say, “I see you, too.” 

6. How can heartfulness lead to a more meaningful life? 

A few years ago, I met Zen monks in Japan who invited me to come to their temple and to teach them about compassion. Apparently, while the monks knew a lot about the traditional elements of mindfulness, which include the practice of focusing on the present moment, having a sense of a beginner’s mind, being attentive and appreciative of what is right here in front of us, they were missing something about how to best serve society. In short, they wanted to know how to use what they learned through their meditation practices for the good of others.

To me, that’s what heartfulness is. It’s mindfulness that also includes compassion for self and others, as well as a sense of responsibility for service. It’s a way of practice that’s not just isolated to a meditation room, but also something that one could bring out into action in the world. That in itself can make life meaningful. I’ve heard from my students that through practicing heartfulness, they are able to find meaning in life. 

7. Is there a word in Japanese that packs a lot of wisdom that you wish more people knew about? 

My new favorite word is yasashisa. The character for this word, which literally translates to kindness, includes the symbols for “person,” “heart,” and “melancholy.” It’s as if humans and sorrow merge together to create kindness. Yasashisa portrays a sense of gentleness for yourself and others while receiving what life gives us, which is often bitter.

8. What is one practice that you would recommend for people to do to improve their well-being?

As a basic practice, simply pausing and focusing on your breath, even for a few in-breaths and out-breaths, can have a calming effect. It can also transform your consciousness by making you more present in the moment.

Amy Shamblen/Unsplash/Rawpixel Image ID 488249
Source: Amy Shamblen/Unsplash/Rawpixel Image ID 488249

9. What is our superpower as human beings? 

I think our superpower lies in our ability to feel love, compassion, and empathy. Most of the time, we don’t even realize how much we are capable of love and how connected we are to other living creatures. Once in a while, we get to go beyond ourselves to a place of connection that transcends the limits of this human existence.

It happened to me when I was spending the last hours of my beloved dog’s life together with him, as he was dying. In my incredible pain, I realized that we were not that different — we were both creatures in this strange existence who are dying, and my task now is to be fully present with this other creature. 

10. What is a key ingredient in the formula of a good life?

I like the Japanese philosophy of ichi-go ichi-e, which points to the once-in-a-lifetime nature of each new moment and each new encounter. As much as possible, we should try to be present and appreciative of every breath, every encounter, every cup of tea. After all, that’s all we really have, since we don’t know what awaits us next. Gratitude is one of the biggest lessons I have learned in my life.  

Many thanks to Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu for his time and insights. Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu is a psychologist at Stanford University in the School of Medicine and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, where he designs "heartfulness" education programs. He was a professor at the University of Tokyo and is the author of multiple books in English and Japanese, including his latest From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: Transforming Self and Society Through Compassion.