A visit with the dharma teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel.
Part of what Namgyel was doing in retreat, she jokes, was “avoiding teaching”: “Every year after the first three years, Rinpoche would say, ‘O.K., you could stay on one more year, or you could come out and teach.’ I’d say, ‘One more year,’ and then, after a year, ‘One more year,’ until I’d stretched it out to three more years.”
“Sometimes people feel that one should teach if one’s had instructions and practice,” she continues. “But I always wondered, Haven’t all the accomplished practitioners sought spiritual development through intensive practice? People often think that retreat practice is a withdrawal from worldly life, and I suppose it can be. But as I watched myself running around, distracted, thinking only of myself, I wondered if going into retreat wouldn’t just be the bravest and most meaningful thing I could do. I can’t express the joy I felt in retreat. I knew I was making the best use of my life when I was there. At times I felt isolated, but this loneliness stirred my heart and in the end I never felt so engaged and connected to the world. Somehow that has never left me.”
Namgyel’s first book, “The Power of an Open Question: Venturing Beyond Conclusions,” will be published in September, and, despite her love of retreat, she’s begun teaching.
But what of the initial question she pondered when she was a child, the question she traveled to Nepal to answer: Where does happiness come from?
“When I left Boulder to move here,” she says, “my life was so tightly scheduled and busy.” (Before moving to Crestone in 1987, Namgyel got a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies at Naropa University, and would wake up every morning at 3 a.m. to do her ngondro [preliminary practices] before the baby stirred.) “But then I moved here, and there was so much openness and space. And I got really depressed. Not like a lethargic, purposeless feeling; it was like a buzzy kind of depression, like ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ Really, deeply painful and sharp. This went on for weeks.
“But at about four o’clock every day—like around this time, when the light gets a little lower—” she looks out the big picture window at the endless desolate desert below, and says, “I completely relaxed, and my mind would get very open and peaceful. I thought, ‘How could I be depressed?’ But then every morning I woke up at three in the morning and it was like I was hit with this thing.” Her hands fall to her sides, palms up and limp, and she kind of crumbles in her seat.
“I tried to manipulate it; I tried to reason it; I tried to figure out why it came. Nothing. I couldn’t fix it. So I would just lie back in my chair like this”—she sinks some more, but this time the tension leaves her body—“and would just relax. I just let it be. It was the only thing I could do: nothing.”
She sits up straight again, and says, “And, after a while, rather than seeing the intensity of this energy as a problem, I started to enjoy it. I discovered that that’s really what practice is about: to be able to be big enough to include all of your experience—the pain, and the things we think we can’t hold, the things we think we can’t bear witness to.”
She gets up and fixes a plate of chocolates, brought to her as a house gift. She puts them on the table and then doesn’t touch them because they are for a guest—a little Tibetan tradition.
“So the beauty of my depression was that it wouldn’t let up. I couldn’t go around it. It wouldn’t let me get away. This place doesn’t let me get away,” she says, smiling. “That’s why I stay here as much as possible—because I don’t want to get away.”
Image: Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel in her kitchen in Crestone, Colorado. Photograph by Sasha Dorje Meyerowitz