“How many of you have known burnout?” asked the gentle and smiling Buddhist monk in the red robe. Who hasn’t? Nearly every hand in the room shot up from the group of UPMC nurses.

“How many practice meditation?” he asked. Only a few hands went up.

You might think Dr. Barry Kerzin had his work cut out for him with this group, but he’s used to this. The physician for the Dalai Lama, who was born in California but is based in India, travels the world preaching the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

This two-hour training session for nurses he was leading is an innovative choice for UPMC, as they attempt what could be an effective new plan to support their nurses in managing stress. But it was just another mindful day for the smiling monk, who arrived with a PowerPoint titled “Mindfulness, resilience, compassion and meaning: preventing burnout.”

Founder and president of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, Dr. Kerzin is also author of the new book, “No Fear, No Death: The Transformative Power of Compassion.”

During his two-week visit to Pittsburgh, hosted by UPMC Health Plan, Dr. Kerzin signed books, appeared at a business event, sat for several media interviews including with NEXTpittsburgh, and spoke to 1,000 nurses, the first cohort in the goal to reach 7,000 nurses at UPMC.

That’s every nurse at UPMC.

Look at it this way: If you were a patient, would you prefer a calm and focused nurse who was intent on “kind” patient care, or a nurse who is stressed?

UPMC is banking on the former and investing in training to make it happen. In fact, if UPMC Chief Nurse Executive Holly Lorenz had her way, mindfulness would be the fifth vital sign, she says.

Hence, Dr. Kerzin’s series of two-hour sessions. His message to the nurses that day at Shadyside Hospital was to take care of themselves so they’ll be better with everyone else.

Burnout is common with this group, and to begin battling it nurses need to “speak up and reach out,” he said. It’s not just taking care of yourself. We’re all embedded, he added. The cancer patient who just got the bad news. The family and friends of that patient trying to cope with it. And the nurse who can end up dealing with it all.

The key, he says, is being aware so you recognize negative emotions early. When you start feeling frustrated or irritable, make note of the feelings as well as the sensation in your body — that’s mindfulness. The goal is to stop the negative emotion in its track, and aim for its opposite — not to suppress the emotion, but to transform it.

It’s what he calls emotional hygiene, a good phrase to bandy about with nurses working in sterile environments. “We all have negative emotions,” he said, “and we all have the precious opportunity to work on them.”

“You need to aim for the opposite emotion. The opposite of anger is patience or tolerance. The opposite of jealousy is appreciation. Arrogance? Humility,” he said. “You have a choice. If you recognize and tell yourself that, it works.”

It’s all doable: “You’re strong,” he told the group. “You wouldn’t be in nursing if you weren’t.”

Backing it up

Dr. Kerzin showed how science backs up how beneficial meditation can be. One study shows that long-term meditators have larger and more active prefrontal cortexes — the part of the brain that acts as the executive network, controlling the highest levels of thinking such as reasoning, creativity, sense of self, compassion.

Other studies find that in only six weeks of meditation, there’s evidence of change in the body. The more meditation, the healthier the immune system.

And a growing body of evidence reviewed at Stanford shows that “kind” medical care focused on listening and caring for human needs as well as medical needs can lead to faster wound healing and reduced pain, anxiety and blood pressure.

Caring for human needs as well as medical needs is good medicine, said the doctor. Listening intently to patients, being present, builds trust. At Henry Ford Hospital, nurses start the shift by asking, What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?

The audience seemed very receptive to Dr. Kerzin’s message. As the first part of the session ended, one nurse asked, “Can I take him home?”