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Thuy Nguyen: Heal Yourself, Heal the Community
Thuy Nguyen: Heal Yourself, Heal The World
What do you do with a broken heart?
Imagine if a ninety year-old man asked you that question. How would you answer him? When Thuy Nguyen was asked this question she immediately understood the depths of its origin and took a pause. After scrambling for a response, she looked into this man’s eyes and said, “I let it break. I allow it to be broken and I rebuild it by focusing on the positive.”
Thuy wondered throughout the day if she could have done or said more. At the end of the day she received an email from this man, thanking her for helping him. Thuy remembers reading this email and thinking, “Wow, what do you do with a broken heart? You share it.” This was earth shattering for Thuy to realize. We are always so protected and here was this ninety year-old man with a broken heart and that very act of sharing is what you do with it.
Thuy is a healer. Through practicing Chinese medicine for 15 years, she has developed a simple but profound understanding of medicine and healing:
"Health is our birth right. It is not something to achieve and there is no need for technologies, strategies and complexities about it. It is what is discovered when we listen to our heart and follow our true calling while understanding our inseparable connection to the people and world around us.”
An unwavering truth seeker, Thuy stumbled into Chinese medicine the summer before beginning a graduate program in international relations. On our Global Awakin Call, her thoughtful openness and quiet authenticity in this search for truth felt deeply healing for all of us.
Begin by Healing the Roots
As a practitioner at Berkeley Community Acupuncture, a common conversation that Thuy might have with one of her patients follows as:
“I haven’t been able to sleep. I have insomnia and it’s driving me crazy. I’m only getting three to four hours of sleep a night so I have to drink coffee throughout the day. Can you please give me herbs to help me sleep?”
“Why can’t you sleep?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there more stress in your life these days?”
“Well there is more job stress but that’s normal.”
“Are you happy with your job?”
“No but I have to work at this job because of various reasons.”
Thuy explains that our usual response to a problem is to find a way to make it go away. We don’t use discomfort as information to learn about ourselves and as something that can be directed towards living a fuller life.
“The deepest level of healing occurs when we are able to see what is happening in the present moment as it is. Our instinct toward discomfort is to turn away but that discomfort is often the door to help us walk towards who we actually want to be. So with my patient I take a pause and we look together at what is happening right now.”
According to Thuy, sleep is that time when we are the most vulnerable, when we can completely let go. But in the stress of modern day, it’s difficult for people to let go because there are so many demands and then there is the stress of sleep itself. We tell ourselves that because we have a full day tomorrow, we need to get X hours of sleep and then when it’s 4:00 am in the morning and we still can’t fall asleep, we become even more stressed! So there are layers of stress on top of the actual problem.
In addition to giving an herb that she believes will be only a temporary solution, Thuy tries to engage her patients in the root of the problem to understand why they can’t sleep. Even though herbs and acupuncture are natural remedies, they’re not addressing the root. Why is it difficult for the patient to relax and let go? What is the constant vigilance that’s happening?
“I feel that I’m not doing a service to my patient if I don’t raise these questions. As a healer, if I’m not helping the patient to address the root of their problem, does anything else I do really help? If I’m just prescribing an herb, am I really supporting the patient or enabling an illness?”
Another common symptom that people walk into her clinic with is depression.
“I’m depressed. Can you give me something to help me feel less depressed?”
“What do you mean by that? What does that feeling mean? Do you feel unmotivated? Do you feel without joy in your life? Are you tired? Why do you think you have these feelings? Are you in relationships that you feel open and trusting with?”
There are so many reasons why we have emotional discomfort but as Thuy explained, it’s hard for us to ask the simple questions. Once those questions are asked, there is more space and more opportunities for true healing because we can see exactly what’s going on.
Seeing Everything as Whole and Self-Healing
Where does one even begin to peel off the layers in order to get to the core? Perhaps it’s not a question of where but more a question of how. Rather than seeing something as a static and broken problem that needs to be fixed, Chinese medicine sees everything as whole. By focusing on relationships, the relationship inside of our bodies as well as our relationship to one another, to our families and to our environments, practitioners understand how everything is connected, ultimately affecting the way our bodies function. With this understanding, they can begin to see where in the relationship an imbalance has occurred and how to correct that.
“Who we are now is a culmination of everything up to this point. We carry that inside of us and we interact with the world based on that. Because Chinese medicine is based on relationships, how I am feeling and the work that I have done on myself will impact how I am able to heal the patient. The more healed I am, the more deep listening that I am capable of.”
Through her own healing, Thuy has been able to point herself more and more towards asking the right questions to help figure out where the imbalance exists with a patient. But what does self-healing really mean?
Thuy believes that anything that gets in the way of being in the present moment is something that needs healing. She elaborated by explaining that many times, we are caught up in the inability to see what’s actually in front of us because of our mental, physical, or emotional anguish. For example, if we are experiencing physical or emotional pain most of us are unable to see outside of that pain, it becomes all-consuming and to a certain extent, we become tunnel-visioned. Self-healing is coming to that awareness of what is keeping us from wholeness and being our true selves and address that. This process involves confronting things and this is on us. This is the work that we need to do.
“I like to say heal yourself, heal your community. So many of us are broken, yet we are trying to heal others. How is that possible? Healing is something that each of us holds deep inside of us and it is something that is revealed rather than attained.”
Thuy believes that illness happens when we do not recognize that and this striving towards a state of health is a misunderstanding that only creates more illness. For example, with her children, she just tries to be out of their way!
“Children are the closest to being whole and healthy and their bodies, minds, and souls know how to be vital in the world. As parents, when we feel like we have to mold them or make them better, that’s what starts to dim their spirits and their vitality. It’s my practice to stay out of their way. They are doing it themselves. They are given health and my gift is not to stay in their way.”
Her own practice is to reveal the good health she already has through things are not striving based. For example, she loves to play with her kids, she loves to laugh, and she loves to connect with people without any agenda.
“It’s about experiencing the joy in the moment, in my body, and my thoughts. That is my primary practice for self-healing, for revealing the health that already exists deep inside of me.”
Thuy’s story of how she stumbled into Chinese medicine is one of self-healing. In college, she chose to study international relations because she thought that she could figure out and fix some of the world’s problems from the outside. As a child of the Vietnam War Thuy wanted to understand what happened and why, but the more she studied, the more depressed she became by all the violence that she read about. The depression led her to engage in self-destructive behaviors to deal with the stress. She was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, she was angry, and she was in her head a lot.
“It was an unhealthy enjoyment of being in rage and I knew something was wrong and I really wanted to figure it out.”
Thuy was on her way to study international relations in graduate school when the summer before she found part-time work as a receptionist at the acupuncture school.
I said, “Ok, I’m just going to do this.” I’ve always been a truth seeker, even in my desire to learn about the world, I wanted to know the truth of things. There was this truth of Chinese medicine that seemed so profound and so far beyond what I was doing. It was like jumping off a cliff and just trusting.”
Freely versus Free
Berkeley Community Acupuncture is partly a donation-based model, which means there are shifts throughout the week when a patient can make an appointment with Thuy and pay what they wish. After one such acupuncture session, a patient asked Thuy, “Why are you giving away such amazing treatments for free? Don’t you value what you have to offer? Don’t you value your own skills?”
The common sentiment is that if you don’t charge a certain amount for your services, then the customer will not value them. If you think about it, it sort of makes sense. So then why was Thuy moved to offer her services on a donation basis?
"I do what I do and there is no amount of money that anyone could give me to make me feel that it is an adequate match to what I have to offer. Not $5, not $5000. Because what I have to offer is not quantifiable. What I have to offer is myself and it not only reflects in my practice of Chinese Medicine but how I run my business. It is what has evolved over my 16 years of thinking about medicine and health and how I would like to affect and be affected by the world I live in. It is a reflection of my understanding of health and our connections with one another.
My practice reflects my faith in abundance, trust, and connection that is possible in the world that we live in and my faith in the profound healing capabilities of Chinese Medicine. I am taken by its simplicity, its gentleness, its humbleness, its accessibility, its profound depth, its quiet healing. I am heartened (especially in this day and age) to be able provide an environment where 5 complete strangers can lie down side by side to nap, relax and heal together, no strings attached. And I am amazed that day after day, people do come to do just that. That is trust. That is healing.
From this understanding, value and worth take on very different perspectives. It is only because of my understanding of the profound value of what I do that I offer it up freely. Not for free, freely. I am not doing this to fix a broken world or to give to people in need. The world is not broken, what people may or may not need is beyond my comprehension. I am simply doing this because it is the most natural expression of who I’ve become and of who I am."
Thuy saw a community that she wanted to have more access to Chinese medicine and she assumed that money was the only thing standing in the way of that access. Why shouldn’t this medicine be available if it could so easily help so many people?
Perhaps something that influenced Thuy’s genuine and honorable desire to make this form of healing more accessible was her own upbringing. A child of the Vietnam War, she described how she was adrift in a boat for five days with her family after they fled their country and everything they knew. Growing up in the United States as a refugee with scarce financial resources and community, Thuy was driven not only to create community but also to heal herself and others.
But as she experimented with a donation-based model in her clinic, Thuy realized that only 30% of the patients that were coming in during the donation-based shifts were coming from the population that she was trying to reach. Where were the other 70% and why weren’t they taking advantage of this incredible offering?
“There is so much psychology around our worth based on money. Because I grew up poor, I realized that there is this feeling that you have to prove yourself somehow when you’re poor. You don’t want to be poor. You don’t want to be seen as poor. So when you’re poor and something is for donation, you give more. But when you have money, you have nothing to prove.”
Therefore, this concept of whether something should be donation based or not is not as simple as we make it. Thuy explains that we can’t assume that if we offer something on a donation basis that will necessarily be more accessible for the population we are trying to target.
Even framing a service as a gift instead of a donation is difficult because the problem lies in the ability to receive. Thuy shared a beautiful and touching story with us from her first Awakin sit in order to illustrate her point:
“When I came to the first Awakin circle, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was a nice meditation and nice conversations that followed, but since I was away from my kids and it was getting late, I thought I didn’t need to stay for the dinner. I went to find Dinesh and Harshida and said, “Thank you I have to run because of my kids.” Dinesh responded, “You can’t go yet.” He took me by the hand and walked me to the food and I was served this beautiful plate of food. I just looked at the plate and it brought me to tears because I realized that it was almost like I couldn’t accept it. Here I am in the world thinking I have this handle on giving and receiving but I couldn’t accept this food because there were no strings attached. Someone had done such a wonderful thing for me and it was just given to me. I wanted to escape. I thought, “I don’t need to partake in this dinner. The real work is the meditation.” I remember sitting there and I could feel inside myself where I had barriers to receiving. I realized if I had those barriers to receiving, I had the same barriers to giving and I wouldn’t have known unless I encountered this experience on that day. You can give and give but if people do not feel worthy to receive, how do we heal ourselves from that? It’s still a question that I’m asking in terms of how I can serve the clinic and the patients that come for help.”
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