A Joyful Soul

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With a dedication to ending suffering and an uncommon compassion for others, psychologist and Buddhist priest Flint Sparks inspires others with his vast knowledge and uncompromisingly jubilant spirit.

Sure, Flint Sparks is a happy guy. But he’s far more than a simple optimist. Sparks is of a rare breed, a man who utilizes his blissful character and positivism in a manner that truly changes the lives of those around him. This serene joviality and spiritedness stem from Sparks’ desire to better himself and the world around him.

“Every single circumstance presents an opportunity to learn something. It’s one more chance to keep growing,” says Sparks, a longtime psychologist, teacher, speaker, healer, scientist and, oh yeah, Zen Buddhist priest.

As he discusses the unusual but fulfilling path his life has followed, sunlight cascades into the small bungalow off East 38th Street, the afternoon glow creating a comfortable, soothing mood in the home that acts as Sparks’ therapy office and spiritual sanctuary. Sparks’ presence is simultaneously tranquil and powerful, a force of beauty and purity. He tucks his bare feet under his body, and a smile widens across his face as he recalls the many turns of fate that led him to his life’s calling.

3-1Born in the early 1950s in Brownwood to Baptist, school-teacher parents, Sparks and his younger sister Cathy were raised in a loving home in which they were encouraged to be curious, to explore the mysteries of life. After a time living in Luling, his mother’s hometown – a place that provided Sparks with a sense of community – his father went to work for an oil company, a job that required the family to move all across Texas every few years. The experience helped to further expanded Sparks’ outlook on life, and, like many children, he was greatly influenced by the determination and ambition of his parents.

After about a decade, Sparks’ father, who always longed to work in the psychology field, moved the family to the South Texas town of Kingsville, where he began his studies at the Texas College of Arts and Industries (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). Once Sparks’ father received his master’s degree in psychology, the family uprooted again, this time for Austin, where they lived for only about a year.

Though the family’s time spent in the Capital City was brief, Sparks made some compelling connections. As a seventh-grader at O. Henry Middle School, Sparks shared an English class with the son of football coaching legend Darrell Royal, and Ben Crenshaw, who would later become a well-loved professional golfer, as well as Mark Connally, son of Texas Governor John Connally.

Back in Kingsville for high school, Sparks continued to form some friendships that would last him a lifetime. In another English class, he met Austin businessman and philanthropist Lew Aldridge, with whom Sparks still shares a close bond. Also attending his English class was a young woman named Linda, who Sparks fell in love with. The two had much in common – both had professor fathers teaching in Kingsville – and they remained devoted, eventually becoming high school sweethearts.

After graduating from high school, the exuberant 19- year-old Sparks married Linda, and began pursuing his collegiate career at his father’s alma mater, Texas A&I. With a flair for the intellectual, Sparks, a lover of the life sciences, studied biology in college, and eventually graduated with honors. After receiving his bachelor of science degree in 1974, this aspiring scientist was accepted to the elite Johns Hopkins University, where he would study cell and molecular biology.

The move to Baltimore, Md., to attend Johns Hopkins opened Sparks’ eyes to many new worlds, and after a short time, Sparks and his bride began to drift apart. By the time he was 23 years old the two were divorced.

“It was a really odd time for me,” Sparks says thoughtfully. Living as a young, single college man, Sparks was suddenly thrust in to a new world and was no doubt seeking to reconnect with himself. He found the answers to some of his more metaphysical queries in a somewhat unusual fashion. Only about two weeks after he and Linda had split, Sparks snuck away from his lab class to attend a speech given by renowned researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The topic: homosexuality. “That opened up a whole other world. It was a bit of an awakening and I thought it was something I needed to really explore for myself.”

The realization that his life’s path was not necessarily already set in stone got Sparks further questioning other elements of his life, including his field of study.

“I love studying science,” he says, “but I don’t like doing it. I knew that I liked people better than test tubes. And everybody I knew kept coming to me for advice about various situations. So I told my advisor at Johns Hopkins that I wanted to do something else.”

Though he left the science program at Johns Hopkins, Sparks was awarded a master’s degree in cell biology in 1976, and set his mind to becoming a therapist. He returned to Texas A&I, picked up a double minor in chemistry and math, and began delving in to the complex world of psychology. Soon, he was accepted to the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., and eventually received both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

“I’ve got as many degrees as both of my parents,” Sparks laughs. “I guess I just really like to learn.”

2-2While still in graduate school, Sparks began working with cancer patients, a grueling but gratifying job that Sparks calls “a huge benefit for me.” Before long, he was recruited by Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver.

“I really loved it because I got to work with people. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with people,” Sparks asserts. “I think part of the reason I am compassionate and kind is because I have been so loved by others.”

In 1980, during Sparks’ four-year spell living in Denver, he met a 20- year-old man named Erin Curtis at a dinner party. Though the two had little time to talk that night, they made an instant and powerful connection.

“Two weeks later, he threw me a party for my 29th birthday, and we’ve been together ever since,” Sparks says, donning a huge grin.

Despite their age and background differences, Sparks and Curtis are so well suited for each other that one cannot imagine either man with another partner. And the more than 27 years they’ve spent together have certainly further solidified that notion.

“We don’t have many friends with long-term relationships like that, and I think people look to us as role models,” Curtis says. “I think that’s a place where we can make a positive difference in people’s lives. We want others to know that relationships can be long-lasting and don’t have to go stale.”

In the early 1980s, Sparks and Curtis moved to Austin, where Sparks set his mind to opening a therapy practice. Never one to dismiss previous acquaintances, Sparks went in to business with the woman who had been his wife Linda’s debate partner in high school, Linda McCarley. While the two operated the Westlake Psychotherapy Center, Sparks worked with many clients whose psychological issues relating to death and dying went far beyond the effects of traditional therapy.

“I wanted to be able to address that,” Sparks says. “I didn’t have a spiritual practice myself at the time, and I didn’t have so much of a spiritual life as a grounding. I had studied alternative states of healing, and was naturally drawn to Eastern spirituality. So then it became a question of adding a spiritual element to my therapy practice.”

So once again, Sparks immersed himself in another field of study. But this time the world of science, with its precise, statistical nature, had little bearing on Sparks’ research. His newest academic pursuit was Buddhism, a philosophy that rang true with Sparks and that held much significance in terms of how he could better treat his patients.

“When I began to study Buddhism, I became very interested in it pretty quickly,” Sparks remembers. “Buddhism teaches one key thing: suffering, and the end of suffering. That’s exactly what I was trying to do in my practice, so I connected with that idea.”

Soon, Sparks was off to California to study the many facets of Zen Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center. Studying under Zenkei Blanche Hartman, and even traveling with her to Japan, Sparks became exposed to a whole new world of healing, spirituality and serenity. By 2001, Sparks had become an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

5-1Back home in Austin, a friend asked Sparks to teach him how to meditate. The two met once a week, and the ritual soon attracted others. Seeing a need for Zen Buddhist education and services in Austin, he opened the Austin Zen Center, which gives Central Texans access to Zen Buddhist material, classes, training and meditation practices.

Shortly after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Peg Syverson, a University of Texas professor and a student of Zen Buddhism herself, met Sparks at the Austin Zen Center, and before long, the two were discussing their idea for teaching together in a way that drew from their experiences in both Buddhist practices and psychotherapy.

At that time, “the world seemed hopelessly bleak and self-destructive,” Syverson says. “At Austin Zen Center, I saw a small, kindly gesture Flint offered a newcomer who was confused. It released what seemed intractable, as I had the realization that just this – taking care of someone in a moment of small, present kindness – was the very medicine the world needed to begin the work of restoring our dangerously fractured relationships.”

These days, Sparks spends much of his time traveling, hosting workshops and retreats, and tending to therapy patients in Austin. He’s also an adjunct faculty member at Seton Cove Spirituality Center, is working on writing a couple of books, and he’s since picked up post-doctoral certifications in group therapy and Hakomi therapy, a style that applies Buddhism to psychology.

One of the distinctions between Sparks’ field of practice and that of a traditional psychologists, he says, has to do with the state of mindfulness. “It’s a reflective way of thinking, a non-judgmental way of thinking,” he says. “When you don’t intellectualize, you begin to open your awareness to what’s automatic and habitual. That points to your conditioning. So it’s definitely a shift. I’m less interested in the story than the storyteller. … It’s a very holistic approach; I want to heal the whole person.”

Many of the people Sparks has worked with in his therapy practice have nothing but glowing things to say about him, in part, because of his tremendous willingness to help positively change their lives. But, as Syverson says, there are many qualities of wisdom and compassion that Sparks has developed and honed with rigor and diligence throughout the years. And it is unlikely that those around him wouldn’t be influenced by those qualities.

“He is probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever known, and one of the kindest,” Syverson says. “He never stops learning, even though his education and training have been vast. But I think it is his capacity to be completely present with each person, wholeheartedly and wisely and compassionately attending, with friendly curiosity and a willingness to be open to whatever is moving that marks his unique contribution to the world.”

Undeniably, Sparks’ compassion has made him a successful therapist and Buddhist priest, but Curtis says much of the beauty of Sparks’ personality comes from his contentment with life.

“Flint is very genuinely happy,” Curtis says. “He doesn’t stay down. Sure, he has his moments, just like we all do. But he processes what’s going on and just moves on. His nature is that of a gen- uinely happy, positive person and a wonderful teacher. He always comes from a very positive place. I think that’s such an inspiration for a lot of people.”

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