Jewish doctor – Buddhist monk – travels to Pittsburgh to help stem burnout

The peak holiday season calls for introspection, and for one visitor to Pittsburgh, the process means helping others, regardless of their faith.

Dr. Barry Kerzin, a board-trained family physician and personal physician to the 14th Dalai Lama, told the Chronicle that helping people turn inward to effect change reflects the mission of Altruism. in Medicine Institute.

Founded by Kerzin, AIMI is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization committed to reducing burnout and depression among healthcare professionals. The Institute works with UPMC’s 18,000 nurses as well as government officials, educators and neighborhood groups, Kerzin said. AIMI’s philosophies are disseminated through Kerzin’s writings, lectures, and compassion.
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In 2021, former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto thanked Kerzin for establishing AIMI’s headquarters in Pittsburgh and enabling the city to work toward “creating a compassionate and selfless Pittsburgh for all”. The institute’s work, Peduto said in a statement, will provide those working in “public-facing fields” with the tools to avoid burnout.

Today’s professionals live in a catastrophic state, according to several national and international authorities.

In May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory, writing, “The pandemic has accelerated the mental health and burnout crisis that now affects not just health workers, but the communities they serve” .

The World Health Organization shared an equally alarming finding and noted that “among health workers, burnout was a major trigger for suicidal thoughts”.

The pandemic has generated “a lot of resetting in people’s psychology,” Kerzin said.

Where AIMI comes in, he explained, is that it seeks to improve people’s happiness, tolerance, and understanding through several mechanisms, including exercising “emotional hygiene.”

As it implies, by “cleaning up our trash,” people can learn to turn anger into tolerance, jealousy into appreciation, and pride or arrogance into humility. Similarly, individuals can achieve improvement and “healthy self-confidence,” Kerzin said, by recognizing and reducing personally demeaning behavior.

The 14th Dalai Lama and Dr Barry Kerzin in Dharamsala, India. Photo courtesy of Dr. Barry Kerzin

Kerzin’s understanding and approach reflect years of travel and study.

He grew up in Southern California in what he described as “a very open-minded liberal Reform Jewish family.”

Within the Kerzin family, the ritual was not accentuated. Instead, “it was more important to be a good human being,” he said.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Kerzin earned her medical degree from the University of Southern California. He completed his residency at Ventura County Medical Center and practiced in Ojai, California before joining the faculty at the University of Washington.

Thirty-three years ago, Kerzin went to India to help Tibetan doctors with their research. A year later, he was not ready to leave.

“I started studying Buddhism more and doing meditation,” he said. “I found that the philosophy and psychology of Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhism, somehow resonated with a deeper core of my being.”

Kerzin’s attraction to Buddhism eventually led him to become a Tibetan monk. Even so, Kerzin maintains his Jewish connections.

“I feel culturally Jewish but, at the same time, my philosophical and psychological outlook has been deeply influenced by Buddhism,” he said. “I consider myself a Buddhist, but culturally I still consider myself a Jew.”

When asked if he identifies as both a Buddhist Jew and a cultural Jew, Kerzin said he doesn’t feel much tension from his approach to silence.

“There is incredible joy there,” he said of practicing silence. “I’m a Buddhist monk and I’ve done a three-year silent meditation retreat, a one-year silent meditation retreat, and I’ve done many two- to four-month silent meditation retreats.”

When Kerzin speaks of silence, it is not a simple absence of words: “It is also a silence of the mind”, he says. “When you are not only verbally silent, but also mentally silent, you can be in a non-judgmental observation mode. It can be extremely transformative and healing.

Since 2015, Kerzin has been coming to Pittsburgh once or twice a year. Each visit lasts about a month, he said.

Although his current stay in Pittsburgh is coming to an end, he hopes to continue reaching people online, through his teachings and AIMI.

Collectively, these efforts should remind medical professionals and others of the importance of “unconditional compassion and love,” he said. “It’s an attitude that, when practiced, excludes no one… We all want to be happy, and none of us want to suffer.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be contacted at [email protected]

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