Interview—Kozo Hattori: When Compassion Emerges from the Winter of the Soul

by Laura Babbitt

Could you find good in childhood physical abuse, unemployment and a failing marriage?

Kozo Hattori has. Under the stress of losing a job and a near fatally strained marriage, Hattori’s world was rocked when he found himself repeating the physical abuse he had experienced as a child against his own sons.

Once a successful filmmaker and college English professor, this triple shock catapulted Hattori onto a heart-centered path of compassion and fierce authenticity. He now spends his days as a counselor, blogger at, and “Manny” to his two sons. Hattori’s Compassionate Men Interview Series is his legacy to his sons and the next generation, that they may never want for role models of healthy, whole and loving men.

Hattori shares how he sees compassion at work in both personal and planetary healing in this interview for The Holy Universe newsletter.


How did you conceive of the Compassionate Men Interview series?

I’ve seen the effects of not having compassion, how it poisons parts of your life you couldn’t imagine it has anything to do with. It poisons your business, your relationships,  your being a father, and it’s obviously poisoning our world. The people who are doing the most damage lack compassion because they don’t see the suffering they’re causing the planet.

To tell the truth, I was so far away from being a compassionate man. I had a moment of clarity and saw that all the misery I’d caused, all the suffering I’d experienced, all of the failed businesses and business deals, and all the struggle in my life was due to a lack of compassion. I could see this tree of my life and all the broken limbs and the leaves that were decaying, and I saw the root of it, and I went, “Oh, my goodness, it’s a lack of compassion, all of it.”

At that point I knew I had to become a compassionate man. So I upped my meditation practice, I took the Cultivating Compassion class at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford. I started attending Greater Good conferences at U.C. Berkeley, meditation at Spirit Rock and doing all this compassion work.

So, whenever you want to accomplish something it’s always good to have a role model, right? Like if you want to play golf, you want to study the best golfer, their swing, what they do, how they act. So I thought I’d go find some compassionate male role models to copy. But there weren’t any in the media. If anything, you find a lot of people who aren’t very compassionate in the media. I’m lucky that I live near CCARE, Greater Good, and Spirit Rock so I can go to these places and find compassionate men. But I thought, “What if my sons want to find compassionate male role models, and they aren’t living in this area any more, what are they going to do?” I felt I had to supplement that gap, I had to leave a legacy of compassionate men role models for my sons. So I started interviewing compassionate men and putting the interviews up on YouTube.

I wanted to interview compassionate men who aren’t the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. They’re monks, they live a completely different life than the average man, in terms of intimate relationships with a woman, raising children, etc. I wanted to find men who were really compassionate, men who have families, men who work jobs, so you could have a model of that.

I’ve interviewed Scott Kriens, the CEO of Juniper Networks and Chade-Meng Tan, an original engineer at Google. They’re part of the workforce, they’re part of normal, everyday life, but they practice compassion. The men I interview all say, “Compassion is one of the most important things in my life, it defines my life, it defines who I am, what I think is important, and how I act in the world.”



It sounds like these men might have similar stories to Tom Shadyac, the Hollywood producer and director who had an epiphany and made the movie I Am. I hear stories of wealthy and powerful people finding compassion more and more often. Are you noticing that in your work?

Yeah, I interviewed an amazing man named Fr. Richard Rohr who wrote Falling Upward. He said there’s two halves of life. The first half of life you have to find out who you are, find out what you do in the world, build your ego, build your company and build your family. You build all this up, this container of who you are. That’s what Tom Shadyac did when he became a film-maker, right? “This is who I am, I’m a funny guy, I direct films, I make a lot of money”. Rohr says then you have to have what he calls a “falling upward,” where you take a fall. Shadyac in I AM  actually had a literal fall. He fell on his mountain bike and jarred his head so badly that he had a depression and had to rethink the meaning of his life. Other people have different types of falls.

Kriens said a major change in his life was when his father died and he really had to confront grief and loss and suffering. He points at that as something that redirected everything that he did, that made him ask what really matters. So we have this falling upwards that leads us to what Rohr calls the second half of life where you become the compassionate, loving, non-judgmental, wise soul that caretakes others, leads the world and serves others.

Another man I interviewed, Dr. James Doty, the director at CCARE, lost $70 million in the dotcom crash. When he later took a company public for about $2 billion dollars, he donated all of his shares, about $20 million worth, to charity. Something changed: his falling upward.

A lot of times when we’re falling we think, “Oh, my goodness! This is my life! Why have I done this? This is horrible!” But, in retrospect, when we look back on it, we say, “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you for that fall.”

And that’s the way I feel. I was very successful, I had all kinds of things going on in my life, but I wasn’t compassionate. I just had so much ego. I had to take a big fall: I was unemployed, I was on the verge of divorce, and I was spanking—hitting—my son. As a survivor of abuse, I had promised myself I would never do to my children what was done to me—and there I was hitting my son.

I had to hit rock bottom to say, “Oh, my goodness, I need to change, it’s me. It’s not my wife who I think is the cause of all the problems in our marriage. It’s not the work of my colleagues who are against me. It’s not the changing marketplace. It’s not my son for being highly sensitive. It’s me, I need to change. There’s something inside that has to change, has to become more empathetic, more compassionate and more loving, because when I look back at my life, I can see that a lack of compassion poisoned everything.”

That was a rough time: unemployment, pending divorce, and being a bad father. But I look back and think, “Oh, thank you. Thank you for making me fall flat on my face, because that’s the only way, with my big ego, that I could say, ‘Something is wrong with me. It’s me, I need to change.’”


How does compassion come into your writing and counseling?

I want to help others, but I can’t really be of service the way I want to be until I heal myself. I focus on healing myself by being as authentic as possible, as honest as possible, and I do that on my blog. When I first reveal something—like going through physical abuse as a kid, or some of the huge mistakes I’ve made as a parent—people respond with love. They say, “Thank you so much for being honest. Thank you for sharing that. I thought I was the only one who treated my kids like that when I got upset.” So I get this love back that’s healing.

I also heal through awareness that comes with writing out and narrating events in my life. I heal through self-awareness and acceptance of the ups and downs of life.

In the counseling I do, you don’t try to fix anything with the other person, you just empathize, you’re present with them. A lot of us do counseling even though we don’t call it counseling. We see a friend who is suffering, and we try to help them. The way we’ve been taught to do this is to give advice, tell them it’s not as bad as they thought it was, try to remind them of the positive things that are going on in their lives. I’ve learned that doesn’t work. If somebody is suffering and you tell them, “But you have a great job!”, they know that, but they’re still suffering. If you give them advice, they’re still suffering, and you telling them what to do is not going to help their suffering. I’ve found the best thing I can do for people is what Dr. Dan Siegel calls “letting people feel that they’re being felt” as deeply as possible, to be completely present with them, to empathize with them, and to just be with them.

Remember those old movies where someone would get deathly sick in the night with no doctors around, and the person who loved them would just sit with them? Maybe they’d put a towel on their head and change the towel every now and then. But they would just sit with them through the whole night, and then the person would be healed. They didn’t do any medicine, they would just be with them with love, presence and empathy and hold their hand. When people are suffering, they are experiencing that, you can’t take it away from them, but you can definitely be there with them and be an ally, somebody who is with them, so they know, “I’m not doing this alone.” That’s what I try to do in my counseling practice, is just empathize, be present, be loving, no judgement whatsoever, and just be an ally.


So how do you deal with the heartbreak that comes from our culture’s broken relationship with the world? How do you respond with compassion to the Sixth Mass Extinction and the destructiveness of climate change?

That’s a big question, and I grapple with it. What I’ve found is that the best way—and for me the only way—that I can be of service in regards to something as big as climate change, is to do exactly what I said, to heal myself as deeply as possible, and then heal others, and then let that healing spread out through ripples that can heal the planet.

When you truly cultivate compassion, when you feel that interconnectedness, it’s not just compassion for your loved ones, not just compassion for humanity, not just compassion for even enemies, it’s actually compassion for everything in existence. It’s compassion for Mother Earth, it’s compassion for animals that are dying, it’s compassion for air that is holding particles it’s not used to holding, it’s compassion for everything. The deeper we go into compassion, the more compassionate we become, the more that compassion spreads out, and the more we make a larger movement that creates global change.

But I can’t just go out there and make global change. I have to change myself with my practice of meditation and cultivating compassion, and let that ripple out. Research shows that compassion is contagious. When somebody sees someone do something compassionate, they feel like being compassionate. I believe if I can be as compassionate as possible, other people will feel that and they’ll become compassionate. When you’re compassionate, the last thing you want to do is hurt others or hurt the planet.

That’s how I’m trying to do this, through my own agency of cultivating compassion. It takes a lot of faith in universal consciousness, that if I can tap into universal consciousness, then I can help others tap into it, and that universal consciousness can make huge change.

Can you share a story from your own experience that informs your faith in universal consciousness, that if we practice compassion in this way it will indeed have a ripple effect and help us change, help up save our planet?

The best example that I can give you is my 6-year-old son. He’s what they call a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). He’s very sensitive to his environment, to things, sounds, etc. For example, if you put on his sock and the seam is on the bottom, he’ll start freaking out and rip it off. He won’t want to wear it, he can feel it. A 6-year-old has trouble dealing with that sensitivity, and he often reacts with tantrums.

At first, because I was a survivor of physical abuse, his crying and whining would make me really angry, because it triggered my shame of crying. When my stepfather heard me crying in my room, he would pound on my door and say, “Shut up, before I come in there and give you something to really cry about!” My son triggered that in me.

In the past I’d shout, “Stop crying!” I’d get upset, he’d freak out more and we’d both blow up. Then one time I suddenly recognized how this didn’t serve either of us. I thought, “Hey, I’m doing the same thing to my son that my stepfather did to me, and that’s the last thing I want to do.” So I picked up my son as he was having a tantrum. He pounded his fists on me. I held him heart to heart with my chest on his chest. He struggled and I just held him there. I opened my heart and softened my chest and then his body just melted, it just softened. He was in my arms, and we were just hugging each other. He put his arms around my neck, and I said, “I love you son.” He said, “I love you, Daddy.”

Something changed then, something changed in our relationship, something changed in the story we told each other of who we were, and who my father is, and who my son is, and what our relationship is. That change has led to a trust, a peace, a different way of experiencing the world.

I can see the change in him. The way he treats his younger brother has changed. He is more willing to hug his brother, and he is more willing to be tolerant and forgiving. He’ll say things to me, like, “You know, Dad, we shouldn’t really get mad at other people, because they’re God, too.”

If there’s litter on the ground, I’ll say, “Hey, pick that up.” He’ll say, “But I didn’t put that there.” And I’ll say, “Hey, this is all our planet, we all have to share in the maintenance.” He’ll recognize that and throw the trash away.

Because I see how my son’s compassion spreads, I can imagine how it’s going to change his life and how it’s hopefully going to change his whole generation’s view of success, happiness and care of the planet. I can’t think of a better place to put my energy than in the generation that’s going to inherit the mess we made. If we can arm them with compassion, arm them with loving-kindness and forgiveness, then they’ll be ready to take on that challenge.


Once you thought of interviewing other compassionate men, did it just flow smoothly, or did you have to overcome obstacles?

Oh, no, it didn’t go smoothly. I go to conferences at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley,and I’m a nobody. I have a master’s degree, but it’s in English Lit. I’d approach people, make contact, and hit a closed door. People would say, “That project sounds great, but I’m really busy.” Or I’d email people and they wouldn’t email back. I’d get anxious, and I’d think, “What am I doing? What am I thinking?”

I’ve found that when you make a commitment to something that is for the greater good, that is not ego driven or to make a lot of money, pieces fall into place. Gifts come out of the blue.

For example, at a Spirit Rock seminar with Rick Hanson I asked one question about men and compassion. After the talk, a woman approached and told me look into Richard Rohr’s books and YouTube videos about men and compassion. I asked, “Oh, is he a Spirit Rock guy?” And she said, “No, he’s a Franciscan friar.”

She was just a random person that suggested a name. But when I followed through and put Fr. Rohr’s interview up, it got 1700 hits and all these people sharing it on Facebook.

Once you make a commitment to do something for the greater good, it’s like the Universe conspires to help you. It’s this wonderful feeling of being cradled by a Higher Power. I don’t worry anymore. I know if I need something or if I don’t know something that some angel is going to come and say, “Hey, I heard you need help with this.” It’s great. It’s wonderful to watch it unfold.

What advice would you give to anyone that wanted to make a commitment to do something new for the greater good?

I’d tell them the same thing you’re told when starting a business: the first two years are tough; they’re gonna suck. People are going to doubt you. They will question you. They’re not going to believe you. The people you thought would support you might not. It’s like the Universe has to test you to make sure your commitment is true. So if you keep pushing at it for two years, then the Universe goes, “Oh, OK. Kozo’s really committed. Now we know it’s an authentic, true commitment, so let’s send him the goods.” But they won’t send you the goods after the first month, because you’ve only just started. Which is why you have to make that commitment.

For me, there was no turning back. When a door closed on me, I didn’t think “Oh, that’s the end of that, that was a good try, I’ll try something else.” I thought, “I’m going to be the most compassionate man I can be, or I’m going to die trying. I don’t care if I’m going to end up a homeless man on the street, I’m going to be a compassionate, homeless man on the street.” When I hit a closed door, I’d look for a crack to go through instead.

When you commit to the greater good, things open up, and the Universe unfolds its true immensity and connectedness to you. That’s so beautiful, so wonderful to behold and to experience.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of The Holy Universe?

I’d just like to share gratitude for anyone who is committed and walking a path of healing the Earth, healing relationships, healing others, and embodying the interconnectedness we share with each other. I have immense gratitude to anyone working along those lines because it makes a difference in ways you cannot possibly imagine. You may not see how what you do changes other people, but it makes a difference. I want to be one person to say, “Thank you.”

Laura Babbitt is an independent editor and communications manager, a climate activist and a grateful reader of The Holy Universe. She works and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two cats, redwood tree, and an unreckoned number of California Towhees, salamanders, sow bugs and earwigs.