Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel in her kitchen in Crestone, Colorado. Photograph by Sasha Dorje Meyerowitz
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel in her kitchen in Crestone, Colorado. Photograph by Sasha Dorje Meyerowitz

When she was young, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel spent a lot of time pondering where happiness came from. So after she grew up and graduated from World College West, in San Francisco, she journeyed to Nepal to look for a teacher. Shortly after, she went to meet with the great Tibetan master Tulku Urgyen, to seek help with her question. That’s when she met Dzigar Kongtrul, the young lama who would turn out to be her root teacher and her husband. He was twenty-one at the time, she twenty-three. On break at a teaching given by Tulku Urgyen, in October of 1985, he approached her.

Namgyel sits in her bright kitchen in Crestone, Colorado (population 600)—a remote, 160-acre land development with few paved roads and no streetlights, populated for the most part by a Zen center, a Carmelite monastery, and several Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers, including Kongtrul Rinpoche’s Samten Ling. There are two things right outside the front door of the house, which is spacious, with an adobe feel: a cat named Señor Don Julio, whom Namgyel rescued from the side of the road (a good deed), and who is now killing animals (how does one know, in the end, what’s really a good deed?); and a black plastic bag of garbage, which, once it’s in the one can that far-flung residents use for trash, will be pawed through by a sedan-sized bear who has lumbered down from the Sangre de Christo mountains for a meal.

Namgyel, who is forty-seven, is wearing jeans and T-shirt and drinking a glass of water. She is small, athletic-looking, and light, giving the impression, in some moments, of being just slightly less than earthbound. This also has to do with her demeanor, which is very warm and cordial, and yet distant. She is in no way hooked into trying to please anybody. She explains that, since her retreat, she is content to spend time alone and doesn’t feel a need to seek out social activity. On the other hand, she’s really up for talking about the dharma. None of this comes off as obnoxious. Renunciation is at the heart of the path, and Namgyel is one of the very few American born and raised dharma teachers who is actively working on realization (not her words) by way of long solitary retreats.

“When I first saw him,” she says, going back to her first meeting with Kongtrul Rinpoche, “I noticed a lightness, and his eyes were very clear.” The picture window beside her is filled with bright, white afternoon sunlight. “I started telling him what my questions were,” she says “and he spoke to me in a way that helped me understand what I needed to do. I thought to myself, ‘If only I could find a teacher just like that.’”

Then a friend said to her, “Do you know who that is? That’s Kongtrul Rinpoche.” His name didn’t mean anything to her. Her friend explained that Kongtrul Rinpoche was the son of the renowned Neten Chokling Rinpoche, and that he was trained in the Nyingma tradition to be a great master. So Namgyel’s teacher had found her, rather than the other way around. She remembers the words he used when speaking to her that first day: “Uncreated” and “Natural.”

“What he meant,” Namgyel says now, “was, ‘Stop trying to manipulate your experience and just be natural.’ These are still my main instructions to myself.”

Theirs was an unconventional marriage: Kongtrul Rinpoche’s life was, and is, about practice and teaching all over the world, and Namgyel’s soon became, and remains, about practice, contemplation, and serving the dharma. Namgyel began her first long retreat in 1997, when their son, Jampal—born in Nepal three years after they met—was nine. It was supposed to be a three-year retreat—with stretches at home, but mostly up at Samten Ling—but ended up lasting six years.

“I saw Jampal every day,” she says, “I had a bed for him in my cabin; and although Rinpoche often traveled, I received continuous instruction from him. As a family, we spent many hours walking the mountains above my cabin.” (Jampal, who is now twenty-one, left home when he was fifteen to go to prep school, and is currently studying Tibetan with his father, at the Guna Institute, Kongtrul Rinpoche’s school in Bir, India.)

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.”

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