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31. The Dalai Lama's Doctor, Barry Kerzin MD




"Compassion is the wish and the action, when we're able, to reduce or even eliminate pain and suffering."
-Barry Kerzin, MD



A discussion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s personal physician Barry Kerzin, MD on: how he came to his unique job, why compassion might be better than empathy in healthcare, simple ways to develop compassion towards both others and yourself, the cure for jealousy, lessening the impact of errors, and a prescription for longevity in medicine and life.


Guest Bio: Barry Kerzin, MD is a US born and trained family physician who for the past several decades has resided a monk in Dharamshala, India -- home of the Tibetan community in exile. In addition to serving as H.H. the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, Dr. Kerzin is the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, whose mission is to increase compassion and resilience among healthcare professionals and extended professional groups, such as police officers, first responders, teachers and leaders.


Self described as “...a doctor, a monk, a teacher, a lazy man. All of these things, yet none of these things,” you can follow Dr. Kerzin on Facebook, Youtube, Instagram or learn more about his story here.




Listen on:


We discuss:


How Barry Kerzin got the job of being the Dalai Lama’s personal physician [07:15];

  • It started with a request from His Holiness for a cholera vaccination so that he could safely travel to Brazil for an international environmental conference.


Why allopathic medical providers shouldn’t discount traditional health care systems [18:20];

  • Traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine and Ayurvedic medicine have a lot to offer. While we don’t have to accept these practices, we must be open and educate ourselves about them.


“Traditional health care systems are rich. They are almost always complementary with allopathic modern medicine.”

Advice Dr. Kerzin would give to his younger self upon graduation from family medicine residency in the late 1980s [24:25];

  • He would tell himself: “Open your mind and open your heart”.


The dangers of too much empathy [27:00];

  • Empathy is standing in the other person’s shoes. But you can become too close emotionally. You can inadvertently end up taking on or owning the pain of the person that you're trying to take care of.

  • If you adopt a patient’s suffering and you don’t know how to clear it, the consequence can be a full-blown burnout syndrome.


“We're much more prone to go along the path to burnout if we practice empathy rather than compassion.”

Compassion, which is just about a half step back from empathy [29:15];

  • Kerzin teaches the importance of moving beyond empathy to compassion.

  • By taking a half step back, it allows us to see more because we're less emotionally involved. It allows us to make better decisions on how to reduce the suffering for that patient and how to be more effective with our treatment,

  • Compassion is the wish and the action, when we're able, to reduce or even eliminate pain and suffering.


“The feeling tone when we're practicing compassion is joy, because we're trying to help somebody. It's tinged with sadness because we feel their pain, though we're not overwhelmed by it.”

Methods of teaching compassion on a curricular level [33:20];

  • Kerzin founded the Altruism in Medicine Institute whose vision statement includes the aim to “transform medical education to incorporate curricula of self-compassion, compassion for others, mindfulness, and resilience as essential as anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology.”

  • Studies have shown that compassion improves health in the fields of immunity, neurology, and cardiology. Additionally, it helps health professionals remain sane.

  • Compassion is taught in a lecture-based format, small group setting, videos, and then applied in one’s daily routine.

  • Kerzin recommends this mantra to cultivate compassion: “Just like I only want to be happy and not have pain, so does the other person just want happiness and not want to hurt.” If we recognize this commonality, it connects us.


The Buddhist practice of unconditional compassion [39:45];

  • Buddhism teaches that you should be equally compassionate to those you love as to those who might be torturing you. To reach this state is not easy.


The importance of mutual respect, even in the face of difference [43:35];

  • Compassion can be used as a tool to reduce divisiveness. If we can develop some respect for others, even if we don't agree, we can begin to bring back trust.


Replacing jealousy with rejoicing [46:00];

  • The first step is realizing the benefits of rejoicing and appreciating the deficits of jealousy. Jealousy robs you of your inner-peace. If you’re able to rejoice and appreciate the other’s success, you’ll feel much better.

  • The second step is recognition of what you’re thinking and feeling, and being aware when jealousy is at play.

  • The third step is learning how to replace (not suppress) jealousy with appreciation.

  • This process takes practice.


“You're not suppressing jealousy, because we know that suppressing your negative emotions never works since they still are there.”


The pillars of self-compassion [49:48];

  • Spend more time in the present moment and observe your inner life/thoughts/feelings (this is Mindfulness with a capital “M”). When you’re undercutting, criticizing or doubting yourself, you’re remembering something from our past or fearing for the future. We can train ourselves to drop into the present moment through regular, daily mindfulness exercises. Tools include meditation, art, music, being in nature.

  • Have concern for the welfare of others.

  • Be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack.

  • Forgive yourself and then forgive others. Start with forgiving yourself of the small things. This is a solo activity which allows you to open your heart and to be a more happy person.


Lessening the impact of an error [56:15];

  • All humans will make mistakes. Acknowledging that fact (and your mistake) is an important step forward.


Bodhisattvas -- people who have universal compassion that excludes no one [56:15];

  • People who have universal compassion relish difficult situations or being with difficult people because it gives them an opportunity to work on their negative reactions to transform them into positive ones.


What it’s like to live in Dharamshala and to be the Dalai Lama’s physician for the past 15 years [59:20];

  • Kerzin shares that His Holiness is, in many ways, beyond human. His mind is incredibly deep and profound. As a patient, he puts you at ease.

  • As we should with every patient interaction, Kerzin does his best to inform the Dalai Lama of his medical options so that he can make his own decisions.


Dr. Kerzin’s prescription for longevity in medicine [01:07:45];

  • Compassion


And more.



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Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD




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