Dr. Kolkin shares lessons on life balance and compassion

On Friday, March 8, the San Juan Island Museum of Art opened one of its three spring show exhibitions, “Shades of Compassion,” with a talk given by internationally recognized photographer, physician and educator, Dr. Jon Kolkin. His presentation, “Practical Strategies for Living a Balanced Life: Guided by Compassion and Wisdom,” perfectly aligned with the exhibit’s scope, which displays compelling photographs from 41 international photographers to invite introspection and create compassionate connections with people and places around the world.

Who better to speak on compassion and life balance than Dr. Kolkin, who has never stifled his variety of interests outside of his career of providing care as a physician for over 30 years?

“One of the things I’ve been very fortunate about throughout my life is following my passions and not trying to be pigeonholed into one category or another,” said Dr. Kolkin. “I’ve always been interested in music, athletics and science, and have been fortunate enough to continue all those passions, trying to balance them throughout my life.”

Growing up, Dr. Kolkin participated in sports and music, playing in the clarinet in the American Youth Symphony in high school. The group went on a ten-country European concert tour, opening him up to international travel which would later become an important facet of his life. He attended Emory University and Emory University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in general surgery and orthopedic surgery, specializing in treating issues in the hand and forearm. However, Dr. Kolkin is careful with his word choice as he prefers to call himself a physician, emphasizing his role in providing care.

“If I call myself or introduce myself as a surgeon, or if someone [labels me as] a surgeon, then that implies to me that my job is to do surgery. In the medical field, I view myself as a physician: I’m there to help people,” said Dr. Kolkin.

In addition to his practice, Dr. Kolkin has volunteered internationally for 20 years with Health Volunteers Overseas, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit in which volunteers are embedded in hospital systems of under-resourced countries, developing long-term relationships and exchanging ideas and mentorship. Dr. Kolkin explained that the program does not overwhelm health facilities with volunteers trying to “save the day” and take over their operations, but rather integrates just one volunteer for a month or two at a time and collaborates with local healthcare providers. Through his volunteering, Dr. Kolkin has lived in South America, Africa, Eastern Europe and primarily Asia. While volunteering and living abroad, he dedicated much of his time to one of his other passions: photography.

Being dyslexic, Dr. Kolkin told the Journal that he has always been more of a visual person, preferring visuals over the written word. Growing up, he always carried around his instamatic camera on family trips and liked to peek into his father’s darkroom, later taking evening darkroom classes during his residency. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when Dr. Kolkin and his family went on a National Geographic photography trip in Italy, where one of the instructors asked to see more of his photos and suggested he pursue photography more seriously. Inspired by this advice, Dr. Kolkin put together his gallery exhibition in 2006, and later would have his photos exhibited in galleries around the world.

Further down the road in Dr. Kolkin’s photography career, the Dalai Lama foundation learned of Dr. Kolkin’s photography and began sponsoring his exhibitions, eventually leading to a delegation to bring the Dalai Lama to North Carolina, where Dr. Kolkin was living at the time. In 2017, Dr. Kolkin had a private audience with His Holiness and was called into action.

“We were sitting, holding hands, and he knew something about my background – he’s considered the reincarnated Buddha of compassion – and he calls me ‘Dr. Jon.’ He said, ‘Dr. John, will you join me in promoting compassion worldwide?’ It’s hard to say no to the Dalai Lama,” recounted Dr. Kolkin.

He was requested by the Dalai Lama’s representatives to hold a summit on compassion in India, and during this experience, Dr. Kolkin came up with the idea of a traveling photography exhibition on compassion.

Dr. Kolkin formed the Shades of Compassion Foundation in 2017 and conducted a national search for a curator, finding Barbara Cox, SJIMA exhibition committee member and owner of Photokunst, an international art curator that specializes in marketing cause-oriented photography to galleries and museums worldwide. With his background in medicine, Dr. Kolkin wanted the exhibit to be based on the science of what effectively motivates people to be more compassionate and how to incorporate it into their lives.

The artistic team spent years creating the exhibit, collaborating with some of the world’s leading experts in compassion, along with professionals from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and renowned photographers from around the world. The exhibition is set to travel for the next five to ten years, and all proceeds of the exhibit will go towards one of the many initiatives that are supported by the foundation, including supporting young women with breast cancer, finding temporary shelter for animals of people who are in domestic abuse situations, presenting microgrants to disadvantaged women for starting businesses, leading vocational classes for children with disabilities, and many more.

In addition to the foundation’s two traveling photography exhibits, including “Shades of Compassion,” the foundation also receives proceeds from sales of Dr. Kolkin’s book, “Inner Harmony: Living in Balance.” Dr. Kolin never imagined that he would publish a book until he was put in touch with publisher Lance Heidi. Heidi helped publish 15 books of Ansel Adam’s photography, one of the most prolific American photographers in history. Dr. Kolkin and Heidi partnered to design the book, which featured photos that Dr. Kolkin took while living abroad and volunteering.

“All the photographs are intimate photographs of Buddhists from throughout Asia… as a medical volunteer, I [was] embedded into the community and also given introductions and had access to environments that others would have a challenge getting into,” said Dr. Kolkin.

The book is divided into 18 chapters, each chapter relating to one of the building blocks of living a balanced life and achieving true happiness, including poetry by Dr. Paula Arai, a Buddhist scholar, and a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Those who make a tax-deductible donation to the Shades of Compassion Foundation can receive a signed copy of the book and its wisdom.

Dr. Kolkin has been presenting on life balance and compassion for the last fifteen years, lecturing for physicians at Harvard, Tufts and Duke universities. He opened the “Shades of Compassion” exhibit at SJIMA with a 40-minute presentation on the true meaning of compassion, the external factors that contribute to a balanced, happy life, and the things that get us off track, including destructive emotions and ego. One of the important points that Dr. Kolkin stressed was the misconception relating to the term’s meaning.

“If you go to the dictionary, it will say compassion is helping those who are suffering. That is very dangerous, and not what the original intent was,” said Dr. Kolkin

He explained that even though the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists use the term suffering when talking about compassion, they are trying to use a term that Westerners can understand. Suffering is a translation of the Sanskrit term ‘dukkha,’ meaning ‘out of balance’ or ‘unease.’ Dr. Kolkin believes this term has a more positive implication than ‘suffering.’

“I don’t want someone to look at me and be nice to me out of pity, [because] I’m suffering. That’s a very depressing psychological way of navigating through life,” said Dr. Kolkin. “And also feeling that I have to take on the suffering of others, to take on their burden and shoulder it is extremely unhealthy, physically and emotionally.”

He went on to acknowledge that it is natural to want to help someone who is hurting, and this compulsion is affective empathy. However, compassion requires action, not just a desire to help. This is why Dr. Kolkin plans to have a list of local, compassion-related nonprofits at the end of the “Shades of Compassion” exhibit for people to get involved if they feel inspired to do so after visiting the exhibit. The exhibit also incorporates a writing station to jot down compassionate acts, as well as a take-home object to remind visitors of compassion or gratitude when they look at it.

The exhibit is divided into three sections: humanity, environment and spirituality. According to Dr. Kolkin, the photographs leave room for viewers to interpret how they relate to compassion, with each piece inviting viewers to delve into the concept of compassion. There are six pause stations spread throughout the exhibit as well, which walk viewers through a photograph and its different elements, encouraging deeper reflection on the photo’s connection to compassion.

In addition to the exhibit, the Shades of Compassion Symposium will be held on April 27 which will feature conversation by a unique mix of photographers, a psychologist and a member of the clergy. Visitors can enjoy the Shades of Compassion exhibit at SJIMA and learn more by visiting https://www.sjima.org/shadesofcompassion.