Episode 61: Scott Tusa on Meditation and Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Scott Tusa, meditation and mindfulness teacher, former Tibetan Buddhist monk

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Today we’re sharing a conversation Stephen Butler and I had with Scott Tusa, mindfulness and Buddhist meditation teacher. In the interview, Scott talks with us about balancing a committed life of a Buddhist practitioner with the everyday life of work, friends, and family. He also shares some of the common challenges people face in meditation, and constructive, compassionate ways that we can work with these challenges.

Scott Tusa spent nine years as a Buddhist Monk after being ordained by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. During his time as a monk, Scott spent much of his time engaged in meditation retreat and study in the United States, India, and Nepal. 

Scott has trained in Buddhist philosophy and meditation with some of the greatest living masters including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Tulku Sangak Rinpoche. He now teaches meditation and Buddhist psychology internationally in group and one-to-one settings, and supports Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Pundarika Sangha as a practice advisor. 

Scott teaches regularly at Tibet House, Nalanda Institute, InsightLA, and in retreats with Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Pundarika sangha. Scott also regularly appears at Ocean of Compassion Buddhist Center, Vajrapani Institute, New York Insight and Shantideva Meditation Center, and many other meditation organizations and communities.

Scott Snibbe: Scott Tusa, it’s a pleasure to have you here on the podcast. You and I got into Buddhism around the same time. I met you in Boston, through my brother who got me into Buddhism. And now I understand from your podcast reviews that you’ve become the Van Halen of Dharma talks.

Scott Tusa: That was like the most flattering podcast review anyone can give, because I know the person who gave it. Yeah, he’s joking. He’s having fun.

Scott Snibbe: Anyway, we’re excited to hear what that means. I know you studied music for a while. But maybe we could start out just talking a little bit about how you got started. You you got seriously interested in Buddhism in your early twenties when a lot of people are more absorbed in other things, social life, concerts, clubs, dating. I know obviously you’re into music, performing music and making music. How did you manage to balance your interest in meditation and Buddhism at that time, that partying time of your life?

Scott Tusa: It kind of started when I just about to turn 16 and my mom, she suffered from a long battle with cancer and then died. And I kind of had this wakeup call that I don’t really know how to describe. Because it wasn’t so intellectual at that point, I think it was just very emotional and visceral. And I spent a year just quite pissed off and then just decided to do something about it.

But it was really a very natural seeking that came out of that of wanting to understand what the hell’s going on here? You know? It wasn’t like I wanted to figure out why she died or where we go when we die. It was just a larger existential question that eventually led me to Buddhism.

And it wasn’t until I went to college in Boston where I met your brother at Kurukulla Center, where I really found the Dharma. I think up until that point, music was my Dharma, since I was 10 years old. My dad’s a musician and I grew up in a musical family. So going to music school wasn’t just like a career path, it was sort of my passion for life. I actually met a Western teacher who I studied some Zen Buddhism with, some Vedanta slash Indic tantric traditions, and then some Tibetan Buddhism.

And I remember just picking up the lamrim and being like, “Holy crap, wow! It’s so clear. it’s giving me all the info I’ve been longing for to understand.” And then I called up Kurukulla Center and Nicholas Ribush messaged me back and left a message. And he said, “Our teacher’s not here, but you can come waste some time with me.” And I was like, okay.

And so I went in to some classes with Nick and then Geshe Tsulga came back from India. I think, at first, I was pretty sure this was going to be very serious for me. And so I think the balance was a crisis of my passion for music versus what the Dharma meant to me and where I wanted to go with that.

Just balancing that was interesting, because I wanted to become a monk right away. Some of us meet the dharma and we just become very enthusiastic about monasticism and that was how I felt. And so after meeting Lama Zopa Rinpoche, you know, a teacher we have in common, he was like, “Yeah, you could do it.”

But I had this conflict of, well, I’m in music school. You know, we have a vow as monastics not to engage in music out of attachment. So it was like, I don’t know how I’m going to navigate that one. And I’m pretty attached to playing music.

And so at that point I also wasn’t quite ready to not have romantic relationships anymore. So I waited a little bit. But I think at the beginning it was very much, as I’m sure you guys can relate to, just navigating what renunciation meant to me, renunciation mind, and how to cultivate that while still having a lot of passions in the world.

And at a young age kind of struggling with even my identity of who I am?

Scott Snibbe: Could you talk specifically, maybe just one or two examples, about how you manage that kind of serious commitment to Buddhism and the idea of renunciation with enjoying your life, making music, having friends, dating? I think a lot of people would love to hear how you navigated that time of your life.

Scott Tusa: I think I navigated it very poorly! But I think that’s the process. When I look back and also how I work in my life now with renunciation having given back my monastic vows, it’s with some sense of just throwing myself into it. And now, having more insight and wisdom, being able to ask more questions and have open inquiry into exploring my mind in relationship to the world and my emotions and others.

At that time, I think I was struggling a lot with low self-confidence. And I think I just threw myself into the Dharma. And I don’t know if I knew how to balance it. So what I kind of found was I ended up in more extremes, where there was the extreme of sort of longing to be, a good practitioner and to be seen by my teachers as a good practitioner; a longing to be like a perfect practitioner. You know, for those on the podcast I’m putting in quotes “perfect” practitioner, to model some of the biographies I read like Milarepa and these kinds of things.

And later realizing I’m not Milarepa. You know, maybe that’s not going to be my path, this life, to the extent he lived his life in Dharma. So I think it was a lot of hardship in that sense and a lot of confusion. So I don’t know if I have any immediate advice other than that I think we just have to use the practice, used the awareness, growing the capacity of the aware capacity of the mind to know itself, to be able to navigate those ups and downs and extremes and not be so caught in them.

So for me, in my early twenties, I think I was just very caught by them. But I don’t know if there was another option. I had to go through that as a process of learning. That’s how I look back on it, at least.

Scott Snibbe: When you were trying to be that so-called “perfect” practitioner. Were there also any doubts you had about aspects of Buddhist philosophy and this path? At that time in your early twenties?

Scott Tusa: I just was really extreme. I just became a full-on believer. And I think some of that was a dogmatic approach. I think now looking back again, I don’t really know what was going on, but trying to take some stock of it. I just think when some of us have really strong karma for this kind of path or a really strong potential or propensity, some of us just go full on into it. And I think I didn’t even really look back.

And it wasn’t until I went into longer retreat, later on when I was a monk, that I had to deconstruct that. But beginning, I think I just believed everything whether I knew it or not. I remember being in a teaching with Lama Zopa Rinpoche and just not understanding anything, like literally I couldn’t understand what he saying. And definitely I couldn’t understand the teachings on emptiness yet, but I had a big longing for it.

And then, like I said, I kind of had to deconstruct that later: meaning deconstruct the beliefs to really look at the Dharma objectively or try to have my own experience with them.

Scott Snibbe: You were a Tibetan Buddhist monk for nine years of your life. I have a really specific question about that: Can you tell us what you thought it was going to be like as a monk? And then once you became a monk, what it was really like.

Scott Tusa: I mean, there’s a lot of aspects in there. Again, I think I went into a monk really with a lot of fantasies. But I had a lot of good mentors, elder monastics in the FPMT, The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, the organization where I initially came to contact with the Dharma. And that was a container for me for a lot of years.

So they helped me to break some of those fantasies by giving the advice to really look at your fantasies here, talk to as many elder monastics as you can to really see what this is really going to be like. That really helped.

But despite that, I still had these fantasies that were my own emotional fantasies about being a great yogi or, you know, going into the mountains. You know, I really became a monk to practice, I think is really what I did. And those idealizing Milarepa kind of fantasies carried into being a monk.

And quite, I just remember, one of my main teachers, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, when I became a monk, I gave him a lot of options.

What should I do? Should I go study in the monastery? Should I go here? And he said, “Go to retreat.” So I went to this place called Land of Calm Abiding on the central coast of California. And he said, “Go do retreat there. Don’t do retreat the whole year, just do periods of retreat and come out and go back in like that, like a balance.”

But I remember just that first two weeks of my first 300-day retreat there, basically just hitting this massive wall of what I expected to accomplish and who I expected to be and where my mind actually was.

And that also included, frankly, working with sexuality. For me, one of the biggest things as a monk was, was facing, you know, how I’m inhabiting my sexuality, what that is, how I act it out. And, as a monk, you’re making the choice in the vow not to act it out physically. And just hitting a wall with that.

So it was just, man! It was just really tough the first three years; with not only that, but also just my own psychological obstacles coming up. So yeah, I think what I expected—to go back to your question—I expected this kind of yogi fantasy. And what I got was actually the process of deconstructing habits, behaviors, and essentially how I viewed my self.

“I remember those first two weeks of my first 300-day retreat, basically just hitting this massive wall of what I expected to accomplish and who I expected to be and where my mind actually was. And that also included, frankly, working with sexuality. For me, one of the biggest things as a monk was, was facing how I’m inhabiting my sexuality, what that is, how I act it out. And, as a monk, you’re making the choice in the vow not to act it out physically. And just hitting a wall with that.”

Scott Snibbe: And over time, was that successful to you? Once you got through that purification period, did some of your fantasies come true?

Scott Tusa: Like my yogi fantasies? I’m still waiting for them to come throughI still got a little hope in there. I think my relationship to the Dharma really just, I don’t know— Definitely that period of being among for nine years, I’m just sort of thankful for that time. And it was just so precious.

It was a very difficult decision to return the vows because I found it so precious, even to the last day I was a monk. And I still find it precious. And yet, I really needed a shift. I really needed to do Dharma in my life and integrate it outside of the monastic precepts and lifestyle.

I can only see it from where I am now as just this massive process of deconstructing all of these concepts and ideas and stagnation, tension on an embodied level, the the knots we create for ourselves. So I think it’s just hard to see that when you’re in it, because you’re in the constriction—that’s the word I was looking for—the constriction. You’re in the constriction and then the process opens up and then you see from a different vantage point.

So I think it just shifted. Now I just look at the Dharma in that way of like, as opposed to me being one way and becoming this other person, it’s more just deconstructing this whole idea of what I think reality is, including myself.

And that’s just been, God. I mean, it makes me fall in love with the Dharma. The more and more I reflect on that and more and more, I think of it that way.

Scott Snibbe: It sounds like maybe some of your yogi fantasies are slightly coming true.

When you stop being a monk in this tradition, they say it’s giving back your vows. And my understanding is, there isn’t a stigma with that, right? I think it might be nice for people to hear a little bit better about that, how you take vows and it’s also possible to give back vows.

Scott Tusa: I’ve found that there can be a stigma. But I find it does shift from teacher to teacher, tradition to tradition, maybe sangha to sangha, or maybe even monastery to monastery that can shift. I found a lot of warmth, generally, which I was surprised because I had so much fear.

I mean, this is something I really struggle with to this day, is fear of how others view me? You know, basically part of the eight worldly dharmas. And I had a lot of fear, like I’m going to disappoint people. People are going to think I’m this awful practitioner.

And, what I found is a lot of warmth, especially from monks who had been in it a long time. And they really understood. I actually returned my vows to a monk, who’s a Bhutanese monk in the Kagyu tradition. I was living in Crestone, Colorado at the time, and he’s the head of one of the centers there.

And he could see I was really sad, when I was giving them back. Because it’s a lot like a marriage ending. And you know, a lot of people when they end up marriage, it’s not like they, they cease being in love with the person. It’s just not working out anymore. They need to shift something.

So he could see I was really sad. And he said, “You did a lot of good work in these nine years. You kept it well, you practiced.” He said, “Just rejoice in that. And then don’t look back, just keep going forward.” I was really surprised.

Some of my other teachers, because they were encouraging me to keep the vows. They weren’t rejoicing so quickly in it. Yet, they weren’t shaming me. They just left it to me. They were like, this is your decision. And I think that was also comforting in a way, where at a certain point, when we have close relationships with our teachers, it’s not their job to coddle us. It’s their job to give us the tools to discern what we need to do, and then let us make our own decisions, even if they’re mistakes.

Scott Snibbe: Since then, Stephen’s told me a lot about your unique approach to Dharma. And I’d love to hear you two talk a little bit about some of those topics. Because I know you’ve had some conversations to prepare for this, so I’ll hand it off to Stephen.

Stephen Butler: So glad you’re here, Scott Tusa, the two Scotts. I’m so appreciative of your openness in sharing this. If we could go back to those moments where you talked about the struggle and about confronting what you called fantasies and hopes and dreams. What hooked you? What kept you staying on this path of meditation and self-reflection? Instead of running away.

Scott Tusa: Currently, my own challenges and what I’m working with, internally and externally, I think it’s the same thing, which goes back to when I originally came across the dharma, and I think the Lamrim Chenmo was the first traditional Dharma text I studied.

I read a little bit of the Dhammapada and things before that, but the Lamrim Chenmo was really what spoke to me. And I think it was just the intuition that there was truth here, you know, really direct truth. And that’s been my guiding posts in general. And, of course, that shifts from understanding to experience as we practice more. And whether it’s coming through understanding or it’s coming through direct experience as that grows, I think that’s just been my guiding post. Where, if I’m not uncovering truth in my life, what am I doing?

And definitely I have all of my ways to avoid truth. And, of course, there’s a lot of my shadow I still don’t see that I hope to bring into the conscious and hope to become more aware of. But nonetheless, I can’t know what I can’t know right now. So I’m just moving forward.

But I think it’s that truth, that originally came through understanding, intellectual understanding. But the more I practice you get to taste that a little bit. I don’t think I’ve tasted it very much. But even just tasting the Dharma a little bit in experience is very powerful.

I mean, it’s really what shifts us. Because then we see, Wow, there is the potential here to become a Buddha. And I think when we fully feel that, the Dharma becomes irreversible. Whether we’re accessing that through a traditional path of the Dharma or something else, it just becomes irreversible. Because we see the power of mind and what the mind can do.

For instance, this is what for me, I’m always reflecting on the Buddhist teachings on Tathagatagarbha or Buddha nature. A lot of people ask me for advice on things. And of course, in secular context there’s advice I would give that is more relatable to that.

For people who want to go into the Buddhist path, I recommend try to taste your Buddha nature. Try to experience that. Even if you experience a little bit of it. And usually it’s due to the kindness of a really profound teacher; that can become one of the conditions to connect with that.

And once you do, even if it’s just as a small moment, it’s irreversible, you see this potential. I think for me, that’s been the guiding line, whether it’s just a taste of, Oh, I’m not my thoughts. You know, if we do enough mindfulness practice, we just start to see, Oh yeah, I’m not my thoughts. And then, okay, there’s the potential there. And then that just deepens.

And I think the way our mind can be aware and know itself, in the depths and levels of that, and the layers we can connect with, that that makes me want to keep practicing, nowadays. I think I had different drives early on like I shared more fantasies, but now I just want to know my mind, and I want to be able to bring the qualities of Buddha nature out more.

And that’s not an easy thing, at least not easy for me. and I struggle with that. But nonetheless, I have the longing for that. And that keeps me going through the struggles.

Stephen Butler: You spoke about being with your thoughts and meditation is a big part of your practice and what you share with the world around us. Being with thoughts and mindfulness is something that’s entered kind of the common parlance. Can you talk a little bit about what mindfulness means in the context of Tibetan Buddhism?

Scott Tusa: Mindfulness if we just take the word, and usually I use the word awareness. But of course, mindfulness is the popular term to represent that awareness of mind, that aware of quality.

And so. So I’ll, I’ll use them interchangeably now. Mindfulness to me is the practice of becoming aware. It’s the practice of, like I was alluding to, these layers of awareness. I don’t want to use jargon and textual language right now. But to me it very much feels like a muscle strengthening.

And so every time I sit and flex that awareness and do my reps, I guess you could say, it grows. And when I don’t sit in practice, it doesn’t grow. And I could say, not just sit in practice, but bringing it into the world, you know, bringing into every moment I can. There’s just so many gifts there because we’re seeing more clearly. We don’t have to flex the awareness, it’s just like the muscle is there. We can be more relaxed with that muscle.

And yet at the same time, that awareness has, I don’t want to say levels, but it has layers. And so it has the layer of presence, right. Which is the first layer we work with in shamatha practice, our calm, abiding practice.

And then it has layers in vipassana. And I don’t think the awareness changes. It’s just the awareness, kind of the capacity to see more of our experience and how we’re perceiving reality starts to come about, obviously through more vipassana practice or insight meditation. But it’s the same awareness, you know, and that little aha moment for me was very powerful.

And again, I don’t want to allude to any big experience here. I consider myself a beginner. But I think just that capacity, seeing that capacity of mind and how to grow that. And it’s just a very natural part of our mind. Where I think initially when I started practicing mindfulness and meditation, it felt like I’m doing this technique to get this.

The more I practice the Dharma and study Buddhism, it’s very obvious that, yes, we have methods and all that, but when we de-instrumentalize it, actually what’s happening is we’re just pointing out the capacity of our mind. And it’s so beautiful. And we all have this. We all have this potential. And again, when that connects in with compassion and interdependence and interconnectedness, it’s a way we can love each other in a different capacity.

It’s not like this becomes a dry awareness. You know, I struggled with that for a long time. Where shamatha sometimes can be, or concentration practice can be quite dry. But when we infuse it with the capacity of awareness, not just to be present, but to know. And that knowing is interconnected and it’s warm and I don’t know how to say, like, it we can be soft or gentle with each other.

There’s some aspect of appreciation that happens with others where, you know, I still, I get pissed off at people, but I don’t really think anyone’s a bad person. We do harmful things, but I think, you know, it’s out of confusion. Because sometimes we think we have to be somebody to enact that compassion. What I’m saying is I think that can be a natural response coming out of the awareness as it expands and deepens.

Stephen Butler: It’s a pith instruction we hear a lot is this notion of you’re not doing it, but you’re being with it. What is the nature of the mind being rested and being in a relaxed state? How does that play in? Because we have this notion that you don’t fall asleep while you’re meditating. So in some ways, maybe it hyper-energizes us to the point where we may not penetrate completely with any sort of relaxation or rest. Is that quality needed at the level of mindfulness or cultivating basic awareness?

Scott Tusa: That’s a great question and I think it’s multifaceted because I think it also depends on the approach we’re taking, or the trail up the mountain towards awakening. I guess we can say. What I found really helpful is just for my body, which is usually quite activated and anxious, you know, it’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life.

And what, what I found was trying to push my mind to do something. Again, I don’t think any of my teachers were saying that, but it’s an interpretation we can get some time sometimes from traditional material of pushing my mind to be concentrated or be focused or be single-pointed or whatever.

For me, at least initially, it was creating more stress. Because what was happening was the body that was activated, my body that was activated, anxious. You know, we use this term from Tibetan medicine called lung, which basically refers to the wind energy in the body, which is the energy of movement in the subtle body. You know, a lot of us have lung that is activated, the upward-moving lung is activated in the modern world, through over thinking, through fast-paced lifestyles, through other kinds of behavior. The upward moving lung gets sort of out of alignment.

And this can create all kinds of emotional issues, physical issues. I’ve struggled with that my whole life. But just relating it to emotions and anxiety, I think, instead of pushing. When I was finally given permission to relax into the mind, which again took some adjustment and still, I mean, I have days that waffle between that. So it’s still a practice for me.

But when I was given the permission to do that, it really shifted it for me. Instead of trying to become aware, let the body relax a little bit and there’s awareness. So again, just using language in a different way. I think what helped me is language that was like, discover awareness, rather than try to push to find it, locate it. You know what I mean?

Stephen Butler: Yeah, our culture is so much like that. Right? Well, you gotta do this. This is your to-do list. So everything, then we take our spiritual path and we cram our session into a to-do list. Some traditional kind of Buddhist meditation techniques talk about this open awareness and it’s something I know you shared before. And a lot of, well-known teachers will speak to this. Could you just briefly share a little bit about this notion of open awareness? You’ve spoken so nicely on that before.

Scott Tusa: No promises right now, but thank you. In, the languages of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, we can have shamatha or calm abiding practice with a support or an object. Or we can have shamatha or calm abiding practice without an object, without a support.

And when they’re referring to, without a support, they’re usually referring to taking mind as the object. So the mind’s clarity and knowing aspect become more or less what we rest on or what we’re aware of. But it’s without an object, cause there’s not a specific one, like the breath or a visualization or staring at something or the body.

So within shamatha without support, there’s also an emphasis in some lineages of really letting an aspect of rest take place in the body, especially. and then letting an aspect of not blocking the senses.

So I think for a long time I was practicing shamatha with support, which is excellent practice, for most of us is a necessary part of training. But for me, at the beginning, when I tried shamatha with support, it was like trying to squeeze it because I’m trying to block the other senses in order to just be with the object, let’s say the breath or whatever it was.

And without support just gave me permission to allow phenomena to arise and fall. You know, sound can come and sound can fall. And I’m not saying that isn’t the case in shamatha with support. It can be. It’s just, I really got the message when I started accessing teachings and receiving teachings on shamatha without an object or without support. And just allowing sound, allowing sight, especially starting to practice with the eyes open.

That really shifted things for me, allowing the senses to come and go. And then slowly it’s almost like a snow globe, the fake snow can settle to the bottom. Or if we have a glass of muddy water, the dirt can start to settle to the bottom.

And so for shamatha practice, it was really helpful because it allowed the lung or the wind energy to also settle. And then when the wind energy settles, the mind can settle. And then over time, as His Holiness speaks about in his mahamudra teachings, we sense this aspect of the mind, the mind’s clarity, which is not the clarity of thought. It’s literally it’s light, osel in Tibetan. And not the emptiness of mind. We’re just talking about the relative mind here.

And then we can sense that. And then the mind can just rest open, clear, present, and training in non-distraction, that way. And that really just changed it for me. And it actually made shamatha with support more accessible. Just to point that out, for me personally.

Stephen Butler: I find it really helpful to hear you describe that notion that with support quite often propels us into a tightness in practice, which is counterintuitive and counterproductive for what we’re trying to achieve. so that’s really, really helpful.

Scott Tusa: Just to emphasize, I think that’s a very personal thing. And this is what also I love about the Dharmic traditions and we can just focus on Buddhism. Cause that’s what I mostly focused on. There are so many ways. And this is where we do need to approach, you know, I think it’s very difficult for in the beginning where we’re trying to find that line between accessing a tradition and the wisdom that we don’t really, that we have an embodied yet. So we’re kind of listening to mentors and teachers and people who just know more than us. And it’s important to be humble with that. But it’s also important to explore and see what’s working for us and what’s not working.

And I think that that experiment or that process, it’s really good to put emphasis on that. Trusting, Hey, this has been practiced and modified and trained in for 2,600 years is not at fault. It’s an amazing thing. I call it 2,600 years of R and D, research and development. And no offense to anyone, it’s a little bit arrogant and quite stupid not to acknowledge that and respect that.

Yet we have to put study in and into the Dharma of course, and understanding and practice to then be able to explore it on our own and understand how to navigate the tools and then understanding there’s so many tools in the Dharma and it’s quite beautiful in that way. We can follow a teacher in a lineage and yet there’s room to explore as well. So just pointing that out.

Stephen Butler: Can you just share some of the benefits of taking a steady meditation practice off the cushion and taking it into a busy life?

Scott Tusa: With taking it off the cushion into life? I mean, the mind is beginningless and endless, right? I mean, maybe your skeptics have to ponder that for a little while. You don’t have to believe what I’m saying. So it’s just like, once we see that the mind is a stream moving—I mean on a relative level moving—and we can experience ourselves as one long meditation; not in the sense of practicing meditation, but in a sense of once there’s that capacity of awareness that I was describing earlier, where we’ve practiced enough formally to then, when we go into life, we can have this capacity to know pr knowing or this capacity to be aware or watchful of our thoughts, emotions, phenomena around us, the environment around us.

There’s just so much benefit. Because initially, if we take it seriously, you know, combined with studying ethical conduct and how to conduct ourselves, what are things that are going to make us more happy? What are ways of being that are going to make us less happy? Then we have choice. So I think initially, one of the benefits is it brings us more choice.

That’s not so easy all the time. I mean, the emotions might come very strongly, whether it’s anger or craving or whatever it is. And we get caught up in that. But each time we get to learn when we’re being aware. And each time we come closer to allowing that experience to dissolve in and of itself. Because we see its essence as not solid, not permanent, not true as it appears. And that can come experientially.

And I think that’s one of the biggest benefits. I think for a secular practice, they’re very similar, but I would create some delineations here for a secular practice. There can be this benefit of just having a choice, you know, how we want to interact with our emotions and thoughts. And this is massive, massive benefit. And that can go further.

And maybe making a delineation isn’t that skillful. It could happen on a secular and or spiritual level of deconstructing itself. You know, really seeing like, Oh, who am I? What is this? What, how am I relating to the world? And what parts of me and how I’m relating to myself and others are serving me and what are not. And we start to shed and let go with those more and more.

And so it becomes quite actionable in that way, but we also see more and more, there’s really nothing to do. I’m not at that level, just to be clear, I’m just saying that is possible, and I mean that in like a very embodied experiential way, there’s nothing to do. Everything’s okay.

The more and more we can relax into that and trust that, and the more and more our behavior aligns with that. Right. But that takes work obviously, at least for me most of the time. It’s a lot of hard work, and process, and miserably failing. Or miserably making mistakes all the time. And having compassion for those mistakes and trying to make amends if those mistakes are in relation to other people. And trying to not do that again the same way.

There’s a quote by Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, where he says, “Mistake after mistake, I traveled the unmistaken path.” And when I read that quote, I thought, wow! It just allowed so much compassion for myself within that quote.

And so I think bringing it into life is, in a way there’s these huge benefits, but also not expecting immediate results, and also not expecting it to be pleasurable necessarily all the time. And that drives the practice rather than pleasure. Even though pleasure is fine. It’s fine to enjoy it if it comes in meditation.

“Mistake after mistake, I traveled the unmistaken path.”

—Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

Stephen Butler: In a sense, the benefits and the challenges are all very much intermingled and that’s the neural re-wiring that we’ve talked about is rewiring ourselves, reorienting ourselves to what is difficulty and what’s a challenge. And in fact it may be part of this path to development.

So, Scott, thank you so much. I’ll turn it over to Scott Snibbe.

Scott Snibbe: I enjoyed listening to you two have that conversation. So you’ve been, traveling the world having conversations like this. You’re in South America right now. Right. So I’m curious as you travel, what are, what are people thirsting for when they take up an interest in meditation practice like this?

Scott Tusa: I see all kinds of different things, you know, that they’re thirsting for. Not to generalize it too much, but yeah, I think we want to know like how to work with our suffering. And we want to know why we’re experiencing a certain aspect of pain or displeasure, whatever that is on a mind level, or on an emotional level.

And I think now, because mindfulness is so popular, people think, Oh, meditation can cure me, you know? And so, so some people I think come for that. So, yeah, personally, I see a lot of that. I don’t want to generalize it so much, but to me I don’t see anything but that sometimes.

When we’re relating to each other in the teaching role, it’s sort of like, it’s an artificial role that gets set up and structure, where someone’s coming to me incredibly vulnerable usually. And that’s a huge responsibility. I’m just now realizing.

I’m going to say something that’s maybe a little controversial. In my field, in the field you guys are doing a similar thing. Everyone wants to be a meditation teacher these days. I get it. We all want meaningful work. And that’s awesome. And I think we all want to help. You know, and we see the benefit of it.

And when we practice, we see our minds change, and then we want to share that with others. But the responsibility of teaching this stuff is huge. I think I’ve definitely made some mistakes and underestimating what that responsibility is, and trying to rectify those mistakes. I’m still in a process of doing these kinds of roles and working with people around the world in one-to-one and group sessions is, you know, I don’t even know if I’m the right person to do this.

It’s a very challenging thing that takes a lot of wisdom on our part. And it’s a big responsibility. Because like I was saying, people come vulnerable. And not just vulnerable, but we, if we’re doing this work, have to have the skill and knowledge to really help a vast amount of different proclivities and ways people suffer.

But for me, I think what I see is mostly just people suffering and wanting some end to that. And usually confused, thinking that there can be an end in a dualistic conceptual way. Like you can just come and do a method or a thing and then it’s going to go away. So I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t really view myself as a Dharma teacher.

I don’t know how I view myself these days to be honest. But if I can share some Dharma with people and help them, that’s great. Mostly I’m just on my path trying to figure this out, you know, trying to deal with my own confusion. But nonetheless, one thing I’ve found helpful in sharing with people from the Buddhist path is that you can get some relief, you can do a method to help release anxiety or help ease that a little bit or ease excessive thinking or whatever it is.

Scott Snibbe: Thanks for being so honest about struggling, even as a teacher. I got asked to start leading meditation 15 years ago and I asked my teachers very carefully and in long conversations about if that was a good idea and how to do it.

Sujatha Baliga, I think you might know her, she’s a friend of ours. She uses meditation in restorative justice. But something she said to me recently is, “You don’t have to be perfect to be of benefit.”

Scott Tusa: I totally agree with that. I think that’s true. And then I think there’s this other level of when we’re trying to go beyond problem-solution. And when people are maybe interested in that, woof! It’s like another level of responsibility. But again, this is just my struggle right now.I definitely don’t want to project that on anyone else.

Scott Snibbe: It’s interesting too, your talking about making mistakes. The thing in our tradition is we do have this very strong relationship to our teachers. So I assume that’s one of the nice benefits you have, right? You can go to a very highly realized teacher and talk to them about whatever mistakes you feel that you’ve made?

Scott Tusa: And they sometimes ignore me when I come to them, which is the teaching.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I’ve noticed that a lot too. A lot of the advice I get from the highly realized teachers is, it doesn’t matter or go figure it out yourself.

Scott Tusa: I mean, I don’t know where they’re coming from necessarily because obviously, I can’t see their mind. But one thing I’ve thought about is that I think my questions usually, basically can be solved if I just keep practicing. You know? And so they’re just kind of like, just keep going.

I think one thing in the West that I often see as we really want to know the answer. We want someone to tell us how it is before we’ve experienced it. And in the Dharma that does a disservice to us. So I think a lot of the times all the skillful teacher can do is just point us back to the practice.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And even, even the Buddha refused to answer a lot of the juiciest questions on the nature of the universe and so on.

You agreed to lead us in a guided meditation, about open inquiry. Can you say a little bit about what open inquiry is and why you chose this practice for our listeners?

Scott Tusa: Sure. What I think we decided on was it was specifically something on an open embodied inquiry. I think about this in a lot of different ways. As you all know, and you cover a lot on this podcast, we have ways of inquiry that are very specific using a certain set of reasonings and logic, especially in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition; and ways of shedding a view or a certain perspective via introspection analytically, as a certain type of inquiry. And I found that incredibly helpful.

And then what I’ve also found really helpful is just keeping an open— It has to do with awareness, but it’s just sort of like an open platform that’s allowing everything to arise as it’s arising. And we’re knowing it, whether it’s a feeling of the body, a sensation in the body or a thought or whatever it is. But we’re also simultaneously leaving room not to fixate on that and make that into something. And so what happens is, through that process, I call it inquiry because it can still be a process of a light kind of inquiry or a knowing or an understanding that’s coming through it.

And yet, on a preliminary level, for me, these kinds of inquiries in the body, just allowing awareness to happen in the body, but we’re not looking for necessarily relaxation. We’re applying an insight or a watchfulness to the body. And that can only that not only allows the body to come to rest, but it allows a process of intuitive wisdom or understanding to develop, through the open inquiry. Because I’m not trying to make it anything, you know, it just is what it is.

And so we start to see what we see, or know what we know, even if that’s painful, even if that’s not what we want to know or see, and we grow that way.

I’ll say one more thing. So it’s basically why I think it’s useful. I also think it’s useful as a preliminary to analytical inquiry. I’ve done a lot of analytical meditation over my practice, and I think I found it so difficult for a long time, because in the beginning, I just thought I just have to sit down and think for hours, you know? Until I realized and got the advice of no, you have to take time to rest with what’s produced via that rubbing.

And as you all know, analytical meditation is not just thinking, it’s actually taking one specific premise and rubbing it against the other. And we’re wearing down our preconceived ideas through that. But then if we don’t rest in the wearing down; personally, if I wasn’t resting in it, I found, there’s no space and it just becomes very tight and stressed.

So these open inquiries help me to hold more specific analytical inquiries in a more open spacious environment in my body that’s more relaxed. And so it can be a preliminary for that too.

Scott Snibbe: Well, I’m looking forward to doing the meditation with you. Thanks. We get to, we get to do it right now and our listeners will hear it next week. Thank you so much, Scott Tusa for joining us and being so honest, especially about your own life and practice and struggles. I got a lot out of our conversation today. I really appreciate it.

Scott Tusa: Oh, you’re welcome Thanks for having me. You guys are old Dharma buddies, so it’s really nice to be here with you. It just feels really familiar and probably you can get a lot of things out of me for that reason that I probably shouldn’t say on a podcast!

Stephen Butler: It’s all beneficial, Scott Tusa. Thank you so much for being here, Scott really.

Scott Tusa: I really appreciate it.

Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Scott Tusa. If you’re interested to learn or about Scott or attend his classes or retreats, you can learn more at scotttusa.com.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization. All our content is free and ad-free thanks to our generous donors. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.

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Thanks to Stephen Butler for producing this episode and Russel Marsden for audio editing and mastering.

We wish you a wonderful day.

Credits

Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Edited & mastered by Russell Marsden
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

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