Monday, January 5, 2015

Interview with Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

by Olivia Clementine

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel is a student, teacher, and practitioner in the Longchen Nyingtik lineage. She has studied under the direction of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, her teacher and husband. She is also an author and a mother, as well as the retreat master at Longchen Jigme Samten Ling retreat center in Colorado. Her knowledge and wisdom come out of her thirty years of personal study and practice and her schooling in both anthropology and Buddhism.

I am so grateful that we have the opportunity to be ignited with inspiration from Elizabeth. Finding Elizabeth’s teachings and hearing her point of view, especially from a Western female practitioner, has been very helpful in my own journey.What I appreciate most about Elizabeth’s presence and offerings is her impeccability, her devotion, and curiousity. Thank you Elizabeth for continually offering your insight and knowledge so big heartedly. Let us begin . . .

Olivia Clementine: What is your definition of spiritual? What is your definition of liberation?

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel: I try not to use the word spiritual too much because it often seems to refer to that which is not worldly—it often seems to imply a separation between our notion of the divine and the grittiness and earthiness of life that we experience each moment. I see my “spiritual” path as being extremely practical in that the practices I engage in—the Buddhist practices—require a deep and direct investigation of all aspects of my life in a subtler way.

However, just as a raw experience, as far back as I can remember, I have had moments where I experience a sense of awe. I don’t see this as anything special, but rather something we all do or can experience by virtue of being human. I suppose you can describe this kind of experience as a spiritual one . . . but you can also call it an experience of liberation too. Perhaps spirituality just refers to an interest or path of allegiance to a more authentic experience of clear seeing and liberation describes the clear seeing itself.

People describe these moments of clarity in so many beautiful ways. Sometimes someone will say they feel infinitely connected to everything around them or use words such as ineffable or fathomless. One might describe liberation as stepping out of delusion—a respite from ordinary reactive mind and neurotic attachment. There is a famous Buddhist text, the Uttaratantra Shastra, that describes liberation as seeing the nature of things directly. It is written that when one sees the nature of things without confusion, one sees that “there is nothing to add or nothing to remove.” In other words, there is no divine as opposed to ordinary, just gratitude, appreciation, and a sense of humility present right there. So this implies that these deeper encounters of mind with its world is not something outside of us but how we understand who we are in relationship to experience.

Learning to cultivate this kind of clarity and make it practical is the path. On the path we may have moments of liberation. For instance, when we can directly experience loving kindness for others, we are liberated from self-clinging. When we have the wherewithal not to react to things in an ordinary way, we experience the liberation of profound patience. When, for even a moment, we are able to see that the world around us is not limited to what we think about it—that we are not so “right” after all—we may have a moment of seeing the fathomless nature of things. This sense of awe liberates the mind into openness and humility. When we have an unconditional acceptance of things as they are, we find liberation from our own preferences. The great teacher Patrul Rinpoche calls this “The ability to bear the profound truth.” When this is where someone lives, we call that enlightenment, which is extremely rare.

OC: Why can meditation bring peace and lightness to the mind?

Elizabeth: When left in its habitual state the mind is often disturbed and unsettled. My friend sent me a study that showed that most people would rather than do anything than sit alone with their mind! We don’t know what to do with all our disturbing thoughts and powerful emotions and all those uncomfortable physical sensations, attachments, and aversions. We generally don’t have a way to process them. I have always wondered why being human in this way does not come naturally to us.

In our tradition the texts describe the untamed mind as a limbless, blind person sitting on a wild horse. In other words, we have no way to reign in the mind. Meditation gives us the infrastructure to work with the mind. It gives us the support and strength we need to bring sanity to our lives. We begin to see the possibility of even enjoying the rich energy of our experience.

Sometimes when I teach meditation I peek out at all the participants sitting in the room. They often look so beautiful, peaceful, and elegant.

OC: For someone to integrate a daily meditation practice into their life, do you have any suggestions on how to begin? Would you suggest a particular practice or point of focus?

Elizabeth: Yes, I would begin with what we call calm abiding meditation. With this practice one would focus on the breath. It works with the strongest emotions and thoughts—the grossest or strongest experiences. Therefore, the practice is simple and structured. One simply uses the breath as a focus and when the mind wanders you bring it back to the breath.

When taken seriously and practiced, it is the stubborn refusal to go in the direction of ordinary, discursive, habitual mind. You need to bring a bit of fierceness to it sometimes when your thoughts are strong . . . when you see yourself spinning out . . . when you are laying in bed at night worrying about things. It’s all about strength.

As you stabilize the mind—train it—you begin to experience a profound peace and clarity. Your body will begin to feel at ease and your breath will become relaxed and deep without any effort. Your mind will become content.

There is a traditional analogy for this practice in the Tibetan system. They say that if you have a candle and the flame is not protected by the wind, it will flicker and not be very bright. But if you put a glass container around it, the flame will be stable, bright, and clear. This is what calm abiding does with the activity of mind.

Often people engage advanced practices without this kind of training. I would not recommend that. You can’t build a house without a good foundation. You have to find the densest and grossest material you can for that—cement. This is a very, very kind practice because it creates sanity in the mind. There is not sanity when the mind is untamed. We think of letting the mind go as some kind of freedom, but where is the freedom of being blind and limbless while sitting on a wild horse? Calm abiding is the foundation for all other meditations because it is hard to do anything else until our awareness is still and present and our bodies are relaxed.

I have great respect for this practice, as you can see! I use it when I need to and I enjoy it immensely!

OC: Could you talk about how your meditation practice has changed since your first year of solitary retreat to your seventh year, or most recent?

Elizabeth: I remember I went into retreat with so much longing. That longing sustained me throughout the retreat. It is not so easy to be in retreat sometimes. There is the idea of retreat and then there is a continuous stream of experience to work with. How to bring those two together?

You think when you are looking out the window at the same trees each day it will be quite boring . . . but at the end of each day I used to think, “what more could I possibly experience?” Sometime my experience was peaceful and I had blissful experiences and when my body and mind felt at ease. Sometimes I encountered really rough unwanted experiences that I could hardly bear. Day after day there was just so much experience. After a while you just start to let it happen—unfold. It all just becomes “experience” that arises and dissolves. You begin to give up all your preferences—what you want\don’t want—all that kind of attitude that comes with your own self-importance. You begin to exhaust that. It is profound and humbling. You become more accustomed to that kind of humility and see more of the ridiculousness of your self-concern.

Eventually, you start to appreciate your life more. In the beginning you feel like you can barely take in 10 percent of your experience without tightening and wishing it were different. Then you begin to enjoy much more of it . . . 20 percent . . . 30 percent . . . 50 percent…sometimes you love it all and appreciate everything. You start to feel touched by the world around you. You begin to notice the different stages of the pinecones . . . the birds . . . you always know where the moon and when the sun will rise. You feel such deep gratitude that you have the sun and moon in your life . . . you start to notice even the ants and what they are doing. Not because you are bored but because everything is so alive inside you and outside of you. You emerge from not noticing.

This is not to say there is no more struggle after a retreat ends . . . but there is more perspective, appreciation, and less naiveté about the mind. I can say that what I feel is less intimidated by the continuous flow of experience. But that doesn’t mean I no longer need to practice formally. I feel more humbled in the face of life now than ever. I can say that this increase of humility was a product of my retreat and also a sense of aliveness because I am not so afraid of my world. In fact, the best thing about retreat is that I began to see practice as synonymous with feeling alive.

OC: If not surrounded by sangha, or a community to practice with, or an environment with a common investment in understanding the mind and heart, how can one remain flooded with a truer perception and an inquisitive open mind?

Elizabeth: Honestly, I would encourage anyone to hook up with some kind of community because the commitment to bursting through delusion is not supported in our culture. I suppose though, if one just has an allegiance or longing one will find a way to connect. I think a daily commitment is important and perhaps reading and just asking yourself questions in a very open way. When you do this, somehow the world responds. Also, there is so much online now. You can do a whole weekend retreat!

I do have to say, if someone is really on fire, one finds a way. Throughout history, practitioners have gone to great lengths to find a teacher, receive a teaching, or engage a community. Now, more than ever, such things are accessible.

OC: On a daily basis how do we take in our complex world without trying to simplify and box it in?

Elizabeth: It’s true we really do try to control things, but actually the world does not really lend itself to being boxed in. Things continue to change and are continually influenced by infinite causes and conditions. If you don’t pay attention you see things in a gross way—at face value. But when you slow down and observe, no one moment is the same. Sometimes people seem bored with their life as if every day is the same. But if this is your truth you are certainly not paying attention.

If you sit quietly you will see that your thoughts, your emotions, and your physical sensations change moment to moment. We talk about the pain in our back but when we really look, can you say it is static or has a static location. Really look! This is a fascinating thing. When we practice we pause to notice the world around us, what is happening in our own mind. This can really bring you to life. You could call practice: “coming to life!” or some people call it “waking up.”

Again though, just to notice without any infrastructure, would be difficult. That is why we have the support of particular practices, such as calm abiding. When the mind is wild, we just come back to the breath. Once the mind is trained, there are many other ways of practicing.

OC: We see a lot of deities and seemingly exotic imagery in Buddhism. Can you talk about the origin and purpose of these elaborative and evocative images and how they are of benefit to the practitioner or viewer?

Elizabeth: This is a deep question but in a simple way I can say that we all need supports. We need forms and words and teachers. We have all kinds of symbols in our lives that remind us to do things, or remember things. We have stop signs and green lights and flags. We have friends and relationships that support us. Certain ideas or poems remind us of important things. Alarm clocks wake us up every morning. These symbols and references are quite functional.

The imagery we have in this tradition, or in other traditions, serve to remind us of our allegiance to something bigger. Sometimes the Buddhist images seem a bit exotic, but when we study what these images represent we can connect to them. That doesn’t mean we have to cling to them as some kind of dogma or truth; we can even enjoy images from other traditions. I love St. Francis of Assisi. I love looking at images of animals, and so many other things. Hopefully, we can learn to appreciate and learn from everything. That is the real point.

I will attach an image of a deity I commissioned of Prajnaparamita or Transcendent Wisdom. She represents the kind of knowing that doesn’t cling to truths or rightness. You might say she represents the mind of an open question.

OC: You have a delicious book, The Power of an Open Question. I wanted to reflect on so much of what you discuss but for now I have chosen two parts. I adore when you say: “Focusing on the happiness of others is the purest form of happiness.” This feels so good to simply read this, as if the bells of freedom have been rung and we are now unleashed from the exhausting cycle of self-absorption. And then you go on to talk about generosity being the string that ties us to being conscious, to waking up. Can you talk more about this generosity?

Elizabeth: Oh I agree. I’m glad you like that too! I think my teacher said that! It sounds like him. I will try to channel my teacher here. I just wrote something about that on my blog.

OC: The point is that healing doesn’t promise us that things will work out the way we initially want them to. It doesn’t promise us a cure for old age, sickness, and death. It doesn’t promise a pain-free life. But it does promise a fundamental wellness, a wellness found within. Can you talk about this wellness and how to find it? What does it feel like to you and how do you know if you’re moving towards wellness, not away?

Elizabeth: The wellness has to do with our ability to include life rather than shrink from it. You could phrase that as letting life touch you. That may seem overwhelming at first, so we can do it slowly. They way we do it on this path is to listen to the teachings, such as the teachings on impermanence, because we live so much of our lives in a fantasy and don’t accept the fullness of life. The Buddha encouraged us to look into the nature of suffering. This is profound and evokes deep compassion and courage.

Then we can take these teachings into our own experience and make them our own through contemplation. We can see how much we reject life by trying to fix it. I am not saying we should not respond in the best possible way or that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies or an illness. But we need to accept that the body gets ill, that we have to die, that there will be loss and so on. This is sanity and wellness found within. I think we all see people who end up bitter because they are unable to include life. There is little courage or wisdom in this. To accept things as they are is the foundation of freedom.

Lastly, when we sit and practice we let things be. We learn to stay present without pushing away or trying to control things. This is extremely healing and sane. This comes from meditation.

OC: How do you identify wellness?

Elizabeth: I think it comes from noticing. We enter a path because most likely, we see that there is something “not well.” As we begin to open things up we may see a fundamental problem in the way we lead our lives. This path helps us identify and work with these challenges. We begin to examine the causes and conditions for suffering and happiness. For instance, when we are caught in self-concern we suffer more. When we are generous and loving toward others, we feel a sense of meaning and joy. There are many methods for cultivating altruism on this path. We cannot get into them all here. But the point is, when we begin to look deeply, utilizing the infrastructure of the path, we begin to identify a world of choice.

Then we will start to see the difference between wellbeing and confusion. If we can identify pain, we certainly will know freedom when we encounter it.

OC: Do you have any typical meals when you are on retreat?

Elizabeth: I learned in retreat about not eating too many high glycemic carbs because they put you to sleep—especially in the third session. I eat veggies, fruit, protein, and lots of good oils. I learned how to make many one-pot meals, like soup. Just throw it all in and cook it while you practice. I still think someone should come out with a retreat cookbook!

OC: Are there one or two books that are always close by?

Elizabeth: Yes! Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva (Padmakara’s translation), Longchenpa’s The Basic Space of Dharmadhatu (this one is given by a teacher—not simply purchased), and Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

OC: Are you working on any koans that you’d like to share?

Elizabeth: I have this ongoing koan that will probably never exhaust itself: “How can I make myself bigger to include the pain and beauty of life; all the suffering I see in myself and others; all the things I don’t understand?” This koan will always be there for anyone who takes the bodhisattva vow, those who aspire to follow this path in order to bring all beings to liberation. There are limitless beings, so there is limitless suffering, therefore we need to cultivate limitless loving-kindness. How to do this is a daily, living koan for me.

OC: Anything else you’d like to include?

Elizabeth: Thank you Olivia, for your thoughtful and deep questions. I hope, due to your questions, I have been able to respond in a way that inspires others to practice and contemplate so that compassion, wisdom, and courage awakens in their hearts and minds.

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel has studied and practiced the Buddhadharma for thirty years under the guidance of her teacher and husband, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. After meeting Rinpoche in Nepal, she became his first Western student. She has been intimately involved with Rinpoche’s work in bringing Buddhist wisdom to the West, in particular to the development of Mangala Shri Bhuti, an organization dedicated to the study and practice of the Longchen Nyingthik lineage.

Elizabeth has an academic backround in both anthropology and Buddhist studies, but her learning is also grounded in practice. After many years of solitary retreat, Rinpoche appointed Elizabeth as Retreat Master at Longchen Jigme Samten Ling, Mangala Shri Bhuti’s retreat center in southern Colorado. Elizabeth is the author of The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom and is currently writing her next book, tentatively titled, The Logic of Faith, about faith and the Middle Way teachings. She has edited Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s two books, It’s Up to You and Light Comes Through and teaches the Buddhadharma in the United States and Europe. She is an avid rock climber and enjoys horseback riding, long walks, and the contemplative life of Crestone, Colorado. Elizabeth delights in wrestling with difficult and juicy koans that tend to plague modern day practitioners, while maintaining a deep respect for the tradition she comes from. 

Olivia Clementine Kirby

Olivia Clementine Kirby is grateful to be included in this wonderful community's writings. Each day brings new curiosities to light, but most days Olivia is curious about living symbiotic paradigm shifts, and being free from within, through presence, relationship, and the sunlit world. Olivia co-tends a farm in the Hudson Valley and has wild and cultivated offerings and musings all to be found at oliviaclementine.com. 

Interview by Olivia Clementine originally published at http://www.oliviaclementine.com/interview-elizabeth-mattis-namgyel/ 

For more information, please visit: www.elizabethmattisnamgyel.com and sangha: www.mangalashribhuti.org

Photo 1,5,6 and profile photo courtesy of Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

Photo 2 Araleya via Compfight cc
Photo 3 GViciano via Compfight cc
Photo 5: www.thepowerofanopenquestion.com

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