My first exposure to dharma was during my undergraduate studies majoring in Philosophy/Asian Studies. However, this didn’t translate to a personal practice until a few years later when I lost two friends to suicide in a six-month period. The bereavement related to their deaths was so overwhelming that it forced me to seek out additional community and support. Around that time I was also reading a book by a person who found healing through meditation and was miserable enough to be willing to try it out. I initially started meditating hoping that I would learn how to stop thinking, stop feeling and disconnect from other people- aversion at it’s finest! However, the first time I fully knew impermanence, on the cushion, I experienced a huge sense of relief- relief from the burden of self, relief from the need to control, relief from the need to know and be certain about everything. When I started a meditation practice, I was in early recovery from substance abuse. Now, with over 12 years of practice and almost 17 years of sobriety I can’t imagine my life without the hope and support provided by the dharma.
My professional life is built around bodhisattva vows. I work as a trauma therapist in private practice- my office is at the meditation center, am enrolled as a full-time student in a psychiatric nurse practitioner program at Vanderbilt University and also manage the daily operations of the meditation center. Helping people heal, find freedom from the wounds of the past, and befriend their internal experience is at the heart of what I do. One of the primary therapy modalities I use in my practice is called sandplay therapy- the client and I use miniatures/symbolic small toys to work through internal conflicts; I pair this with meditation in sessions. The miniatures represent all of the unknown parts of the experience as well as all of the possibilities available when we grow our awareness. I have about 500 miniatures in the office, some arrangement of them would probably make an interesting photograph.
In addition to professional work, I feel most grounded, connected and effortlessly mindful when I’m in nature. I often meditate on my back deck and take great pleasure in gardening.
OK, yeah, so starting out with how I discovered the Dharma, it’s been a circuitous route, had a meditation practice for most of my life, starting as a teenager, not not in a Buddhist tradition, though. And then my bachelor’s degree is in philosophy and Asian studies. And so I studied primarily Chinese history, Chinese language. I studied abroad in China and at the University of Hawaii as an undergrad. And so that was all academic, though so no personal practice there. My spiritual practice at that point was not Buddhist, but academically. I mean, I took four semesters of Chinese language and spent the summer in China and was kind of gearing up for this professional career. I really wanted to go into a doctorate program in comparative philosophy, and so I wanted to be a philosophy professor. The problem, though, was that when I was in college, in my twenties, I was also kind of in the depths of my active addiction. So I’m a person in recovery and I got sober right after I graduated from college in 2002 and so started working on a recovery program immediately at that point. And it’s a twelve step recovery program and a big part of a recovery program is this is a spiritual component, and spirituality is something that’s been difficult for me in my twenties and as a teenager. And so that was a long discovery process. And so what did it up happening was after I’d been sober about four years, it was 2006. I was two. My friends committed suicide. That was really hard for me. And the therapist that I was seeing at the time, so concurrently I was reading all the vines dharma punks book and I was like, Oh, this dude is totally messed up, and meditation helped him a lot. Maybe I should check this out. And then my therapist was like, Yeah, maybe you should check out out. Probably help you with all of this complicated bereavement that you’re trying to work through personally. And I had a meditation practice personally and then as part of my recovery practice. And at that point in Nashville, really, the the meditation group that I was able to find a go to is at the bottom of some Buddhist center here. So Tibetan Buddhist group, they’re still around, so have a lovely center here. And so I started sitting with them, and it’s so funny when I look back on my practice because here’s why I wanted to learn, to meditate, to stop thinking and stop feeling and disconnect from people. And so like the great irony there, of course, is like that. That’s not meditation doesn’t help you with any of that, right? It helps you learn to get a better relationship to your thoughts, better relationship to your emotions and to become much more connected to people. So lovely people at Parliament’s ABOVA. I told them all that and they were like, Yeah, you’re in the right place. We’re not going to help you with any of that, but just keep coming every week and bless them. I would leave up out of there crying like on a regular basis, and they were so kind. And so they really I pretty immediately saw the benefits of a meditation practice as it related to my grieving process around the deaths of my two friends. So I sat with them for a number of years. And so it’s so funny. Sometimes I talk about like the myths about mindfulness, like people, just my family. When I go sit meditation retreats, they’re like, it must be so relaxing. Did not have to think for a week. And I’m like, Yeah, no, that is not what is happening for a week when I’m with my mind, but I have a very different relationship to it. So anyways, it’s like the great irony of the universe that, like my initial meditation practice was like strictly out of a desire to like be like in avoidance and aversion reaction. So anyways, I always think that’s funny. But after I’ve been sitting for a few years, I met at a professional training the person who would then be my teacher for the next couple of years, Dave Smith. He lives in Colorado now, but he was a person that I related to a lot. He framed the Dharma really from this mental health perspective, which was new to me or working in the mental health field. So it felt good and it felt natural and then also kind of had a flavor of recovery to it as well . And so my practice shifted for the next few years sitting with Dave and what would eventually become against the stream Nashville.
So yet what is deepening the practice look like, given that you have like had a practice for a while? And so my my professional life is really tied up with my personal values like I really understand my professional, my work as an expression of my spiritual values and and so how that is shifting recently. So I’m 40 years old and I quit my really awesome full time job that I love to go back to school for two years to try to become a nurse practitioner. Now try. I will be a nurse practitioner in two years, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, so I’ll be able to prescribe psychiatric medications. And so I’ve been working as a therapist at a trauma treatment center for the past five years, and I’ve had six clients die in the past five years, and part of my job as the director was to receive their parents when they came after the deaths, and that really had a profound impact on me. For parents, four sets of parents who came to receive copies of their kid’s medical records and it was my job to to be with these parents whose children had died of unintentional overdoses or suicides. And I don’t know how to describe it other than that that really had a profound impact on me. And we have a huge opioid epidemic happening in the Southeast. Substance abuse wise. And so we have a very high rate of opiate related overdoses in this state. So there’s a lot of death happening that’s needless, completely unnecessary. And it’s just part and the sorrow. Going back to school to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner because I want to increase people’s availability and access to psychiatric services, I think there are really a lot of great therapists available to folks, but there are very few psychiatric providers available to folks, and I do feel like psychiatric services save people’s lives and so, so professionally. I just feel really like there’s an urgency about what I’m doing professionally, just because of just all of the deaths and one that stuck with me. His mom was so ashamed of the way that he died that they didn’t share it with anybody else, and she was so bereaved and ashamed of the way that her son died alone in his apartment building of an opiate overdose so she had nobody to grieve with. And you know what we were able to do at the treatment center was hold a service for the person with the other clients that knew him and so that they could share about the goodness in his life and the goodness that they knew in him with his mom. And I just felt like it was this really important, you know, healing ritual that we were able to do with folks. Was at the funeral of a former client and coworker, right? It was about a week before I got accepted into nursing school. But, you know, also just being with his mother. And, you know, she came to me and she came to the therapist that worked with him and she said, you gave us our son back for four years and we wouldn’t have had that part of him if he had not been able to get get help and services through your agency. And so I just feel a lot of urgency around the need to increase people’s access to high quality mental health care services, particularly psychiatric medicine services. So my personal I see that as an extension of my practice kind of in a more traditional way, what a deepening looks like. I just feel like the more solid I am in my practice, the more able I am able, the more able I am to deeply connect with people who are in a lot of pain and to not be really consumed by it personally. And so I just I want to be able to do that more and in a deeper way. I’ve been practicing for the past, gosh, eight or nine years, really in a tier modern tradition, pretty traditional sense. And I feel like there’s a shift happening for me personally. Also, just as I have an increased sense of ease and well-being, which is not traditionally been an easy thing for me to, to experience what I am interested in doing is learning how to grow that. I also, I think some of the fruits of my practice are that, like my mind, is not an unfriendly place anymore. For the most part, like I have a pretty friendly relationship with my mind these days. I mean, on average, which not always true in the past, but it’s a fruit of the practice. And so what I’m interested in is more of a body based somatic practice. When I first started practicing with the Tibetan group long time ago, I was not so interested in the rituals and kind of the religious parts of things. Which I think is part of why I was attracted to some of the terrible practices that have been doing, but I don’t know if it’s like middle age or I don’t know why, but I’m feeling like a little bit more of a religious Buddhist these days. And so anyways, recently started some mentoring with somebody who teaches out of the Tibetan tradition and let we just as I feel less constricted and like, have less suffering in my life. Like, I just want to be able to connect with joy and ease more more readily. And that’s that’s neck down, that’s not up here. So just working with my mentor around some specific practices to to access the, you know, the somatic sense of joy and ease and well-being and connectedness.
Infiltrated the rest of my life, right, because it’s not just about on the cushion. You know, that’s like what, a couple of hours a week, it’s not the point. The question is the practice. And so the immediate benefits of my initial practice were mental health related and recovery related. I mean, I was able to work through some pretty significant grief. My twelve step recovery practice had been very, very helpful in helping me rework my mind like the stories I had was telling myself about it, but they really didn’t help me get in touch with anything like neck down. And so what I learned when I started sitting with Dave was I had been doing like tranquility, meditation and concentration practice primarily. And Dave did and still does focus a lot on hard practice. So Brahma be the horror practice, and it was very, very hard for me, those practices for like probably three years, you know, I would be like, maybe safe, may be at ease, may be happy in the internal response immediately would be like, no, that’s not possible. And so, you know, as I was able to work through all of that kind of internal confusion, I mean, it is clear and evident impact on the rest of my life as well. So um yeah, I mean, happy, joyous and free. It’s just the promise of recovery. I think it’s also the fruits of a meditation practice. And so I traditionally have been fairly anxious, high strung up type person in meditation practice help me just relax quite a bit. Also, just as I came to be more at ease in my own physical body, that ease and well-being just, I mean, it was more present in my life and my relationships with other people as well. So.
And then the next big turning of my meditation practice was when my son was born four years ago, so became parents a little later in life. He’d been married for a long time and it’s kind of an interesting story. We when I’m 40 now, but when I turn 30, we we thought, OK, it’s time to do this. We want to have a kid. And then I think, like a lot of women, find out it’s hard to get pregnant in your thirties. And so did went through quite a bit of fertility treatment, unsuccessful and couldn’t really afford any more fertility treatment. And so. Started what I thought was a grieving process around the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to be a parent and witness a week weeklong retreat out in Joshua Tree, I was like, I need to get some perspective on this. And when I was out there decided I needed to change jobs and I needed to focus more on the community here, and I was needed to find some ways to create meaning in my life. Apart from being bereaved about not being able to be a mom. And so I changed jobs place. I was working before and within three months I was pregnant. Was kind of like an H.R. personnel disaster, I’m sure. But anyway, so yeah, my son was born in 2015. He’s four now and that was a huge change to my practice, not only my formal sitting practice, but, you know, having a child and my biology was your brain to have an unconditional love for somebody. You can’t really escape it. And so it drastically changed my sitting practice because what had been typically difficult and require quite a bit of effort on my part to access that like, you know, maternal like just, you know, that was not hard to access at all anymore because I had this little person in my life that as soon as I saw him , like it was completely present. And so that was a really healing experience for me, emotionally and physically and kind of cognitively as well. So definitely a big change to my internal experience. With that also changed kind of the logistics of my sitting quite a bit. You know, when you have a kid, you don’t just do whatever you want anymore. Somebody else always comes first. And so I started sitting here at the center more often, you know, I would sit in my kids’ room after he went to sleep and sit in the morning because he was awake. And, you know, I had to sit when he was asleep at night. So a lot more like sitting in random locations like my front porch or my back porch or my kid’s room or, you know, at work on my lunch break or just kind of wherever, wherever it had to happen. So the logistics of that changed the experience of it changed like hard practice just is not difficult for me anymore. It’s very relieving, you know, and I’m 40 now. So, you know, kind of late in my thirties and just my whole experiences, and I don’t know if it’s a function of middle age or like a long term practice or long term recovery practice or, you know, I don’t. It’s some combination of those factors. But yeah, things just seem a lot easier now. You know, I’ve just I feel a lot more at ease in myself and in my body. And that just permeates, I hope, the rest of my relationships. I don’t feel neurotic like I used to in my twenties. So that’s a good closer. I’m not neurotic anymore. Thanks, Dharma.
So how’s my dorm practice like in addition to the secular mindfulness piece? And for my clinical practice, I will say the link between the two got much clearer when I started doing trauma work. So I initially started my career working in substance use and I’m a person in recovery. And so it was important to me to do that work clinically. But about five years, six years into my clinical practice, I shifted into doing like trauma work. So people who had sexual abuse survivors, trafficking survivors like really people who had survived the worst parts of what people do to each other and in working with that exposure to that level of darkness and suffering. It just really kind of forced me to get a bigger perspective because it’s easy. I see a lot of folks who do trauma work. They get burnout and cynical, very quick because it’s it’s hard and I didn’t want to do that. I want to be a therapist for the rest of my career, and I had this set of spiritual beliefs already happening in my life and was teaching secular mindfulness in my clinical practice. And so it was really about like, I need to bring those spiritual beliefs much more into my work space. And one of the therapeutic interventions I do is called it’s a trauma intervention. It’s called EMDR eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. And it is to me it is. It is a it is right in line with Dharma practice. It’s a way to help people be free, really free from the bondage in the stories associated with the horrific things that have happened to them. I mean, it is breaking the links of the chain. I mean, apart in a very specific way, and folks don’t have to be Buddhist. Most people aren’t who are on of the receiving participatory end of that clinical intervention. But I will just say that as my exposure to increasingly difficult clinical cases happened, it just became much more important for me to rely on the Dharma as a source of compassion. As there’s a lot of talk in clinical circles about burnout and compassion fatigue. And I don’t actually really think that compassion is a fatigue able resource. I think that empathy is, but it is my compassion practice and my heart practice become much, much more important. And I’m very committed to the field of mental health services. I mean, I plan to do it for the rest of my career. And so for me, burnout prevention is it’s really a moral kind of imperative that I do that kind of work.
Scott Tusa, Dave Smith
Vipassana style meditation 3-4 days per week, facilitating groups at the meditation center bi weekly, teaching mindfulness to clients in my therapy practice, biweekly mentoring sessions with my teacher, interpersonal mindfulness in close relationships.
Wild Heart Meditation Center
Mental health counselor.
Twelve years of practice has helped me thrive in spite of numerous deaths of clients, friends and family members from mental health and substance abuse problems. More importantly, thought, it’s given me freedom from my doubting mind, making it possible to be present for the full range of emotions including joy.
© 2021 Jack Huynh | Orange Photography
Annual update on progress of project.