Tag Archives: Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel



Question: How does one stop making the story real? Sometimes I feel the story, my narrative is so crystalized and I can watch a pattern happen again and again and it’s frustrating to continue repeating the same hurtful patterns. I am interested in learning to keep my heart open, even though it’s scary.

Dear Friend,

That is a question I bet everyone can relate to! But first, let’s take a moment to rejoice in your ability to recognize a pattern that does not serve you, because that marks the beginning of the possibility for change. Furthermore, it is remarkable that you have an aspiration to open your heart and face it even though it is scary. That’s brave.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about how crucial it is to identify where we have “agency” in our lives, and why we sometimes forfeit our agency either knowingly or unknowingly to make choices that don’t support our own or other’s wellbeing. By “agency” I am referring to our ability to make sane and conscious choices that allow us to bring our actions together with our intention to lead a sane and healthy life. I thought I would take your question as an opportunity to see if I could identify some choices in the context of a stuck and painful narrative—kind of like a helpful game.

Yes, it can be painfully hard to change our narrative—the way we see the world and who we are in it. I think it is important to begin by recognizing that there are many things we cannot control: old age, sickness, death, loss, a traumatic event, the pervasiveness of suffering in the world. We live downstream from infinite causes and conditions, and inherit both helpful and unhelpful narratives from our parents and culture. And so we will never know why we see the world as we do in any given moment. There is no singular cause for it, although I’m sure we can connect some of the dots and identify patterns and situations that have influenced the way we experience things. And it seems important to recognize that there is something quite innocent in our noble search for happiness. Being human is all very humbling, isn’t it?

In our pursuit of genuine wellbeing, if we are lucky, we will run into a quiet but potent irony:  genuine happiness demands that we allow ourselves to feel “profound disappointment” in life. What I mean is that life doesn’t necessarily lend itself to our preferences. We are not in total command. Of course, the Buddha pointed this out from the very beginning…but it just seems very hard for most people to accept, doesn’t it? However, to accept how things as they are is a powerful and freeing CHOICE. We might consider this choice seriously. In the buddhadharma, we call this choice “taking refuge”.

Given the state of the human condition, let’s now look at some choices we can make:

Choice #1: Accepting

I will define choice #1 as our choice to place our unhelpful narratives into a bigger context. What is this context? Seeing that everything that comes to be does so due to limitless causes and conditions. For instance, the way we see ourselves and the world is not due to a singular linear cause. Two children growing up in the same household who go to the same school will see the world in completely different ways. One child might be introspective, while the other one might be gregarious. They will have different relationships with their parents, and from a young age they will begin to develop their own narratives and strategies for dealing with life: one might  take on the responsibility for keeping everyone else’s emotional life together, the other may push people away, or find unhealthy ways to distract herself. Of course we have healthy narratives as well. But the point is, there is no singular truth about how things are, and that the way individuals view the world is based on limitless contingencies, most of which we can’t even identify.

So when we place our story into the bigger context of infinite contingencies, its truth is challenged, and it begins to fall apart a bit. To look at the nature of causes and conditions allows just a little bit of air into our hermetically sealed narrative. We begin to see that, yes, we can read patterns, but in a bigger way, we only ever see a piece of things. We might begin to doubt our story a little: “Maybe it is not so seamless after all.” To recognize that our story finds its place in the natural play of contingent relationships, is a very kind thing to do for ourselves because it protects us from being a “knower” who tries to justify her story by simply laying blame on another person or situation. How can we free ourselves from our narrative when we are always looking for a logic to reinforce it? What is it they say?: “While holding a hammer everything looks like a nail.” When we disrupt the logic of our story through placing it in a bigger context, all of a sudden the mind becomes humble, curious, and poised for seeing things in a fresh way.

Choice #2: Owning It

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Faith and Doubt: Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

elizabeth 1The path begins with an investigation of the unreliability of things. Sometimes when we contemplate impermanence and the unreliability of things we feel afraid or insecure.


Question: In my mind my primary deity, Guru Rinpoche, is the only reliable refuge. Is there any difference between Guru Rinpoche and the outer refuge you describe in your talks? Thank you so much for your talks I found them empowering in many ways.


Response: Thank you for your question Danny. I’m trying to recall how I spoke about outer refuge…and I can’t remember. But maybe I can take this opportunity to talk about refuge and we can look at different ways we do take refuge and how it does or does not support us. I will try to address your question. It seems to me that we all take refuge in our attempt to find a resting place…a place of ease…something we can trust. In an ordinary way we often take refuge in relationships, in our work, in our beliefs about how we think things are, in material wealth and so on. But because the nature of things is that they change, we often experience a lot of heartbreak.

This is why the path begins with an investigation of the unreliability of things. Sometimes when we contemplate impermanence and the unreliability of things we feel afraid or insecure. But there is nothing more scary than relying on something that is not dependable. So to begin understanding refuge we need to look at our ordinary ways of taking refuge and how it doesn’t serve us. When we free ourselves from the fantasy that we can find ease in worldly things, we naturally begin looking deeper. The Buddha suggested we look into the causes and conditions for happiness and suffering. It is noble and reasonable to want happiness…but if we just follow our impulses rather than deeply investigating these causes and conditions, our actions won’t meet our intention for happiness. It is all quite practical…if it were not practical, what would be the purpose of following a path?

So when we start to question cause and effect we ask: what happens when we practice patience vs. aggression, generosity vs. selfishness, compassion vs. fear? When we practice compassion or patience we observe freedom in the mind. Freedom from discord and fear is a sense of wellbeing and clarity…a place of ease. This is what we want. So finding this kind of freedom, wellbeing and refuge is really the purpose of the dharma. So we can use the Buddha (as an example) the dharma (as a path) and the sangha (as our companions on the path) as a support of refuge.

I am in the middle of reading a very touching and profound book by Fleet Maull called “Dharma in Hell.” He talks about practicing the dharma in prison. He says that in prison he decided to take some Buddhist precepts, not because they were morally ‘right’ but because he had to find a way to support his mind not to fall into the darkness and confusion of the prison environment. One of those vows was to engage in what is called, “right livelihood.” In other words, he decided not participate in the smuggling and black marketing that goes on in prison. He got involved in hospice work and was there for the passing of many prisoners…In such a place where the odds are so against anything positive taking place, this man found creative ways to support his wakefulness. These positive supports are refuges.

There are infinite ways to support wakefulness. Extending loving-kindness to others supports our wakefulness. Structuring our lives in a wholesome way, supports wakefulness. Not acting out aggressively or blaming others, supports wakefulness…even recognizing the goodness in others supports wakefulness.

Relying on these kinds of supports is taking ‘outer’ refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. This has nothing to do with deification. Deification is looking toward something outward to save you and perpetuate your fantasies. Taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha is seeing how there is something we can rely upon to support an inner wellbeing. It is the alternative to relying upon our fantasy that the outer world can save us.

In the 3rd series of teachings the Buddha gave (the third turning) we find an interesting explanation of the outer refuge that begins to move us to an even deeper way of seeing things. In a very famous text called “Uttaratantra Shastra”, rather than speaking about the Buddha as an external being or historical person, it describes the Buddha as: that which is inseparable from our own true nature – the mind that is completely blossomed and clear of defilements.” Then it describes the dharma as the mind of natural intelligence. This is an intelligence we all posses…but it is obscured by ignorance. According to the text, the dharma of realization (not the dharma of letters) is the ultimate refuge. There is no higher refuge than the realization of the nature of things. The sangha refers to the unbroken line of realization.

So we see in the later teachings of the Buddha how the refuge changes. This text is said to bridge the notion of ‘outer’ refuge with the Vajrayana refuge. It is seeing the ‘inner’ aspect of refuge. The objects of refuge are not personified but rather seen as qualities innate in all beings.

Now in the tradition of the Vajrayana we practice deity yoga. So for instance, we take on a support like, Guru Rinpoche, and develop a relationship. When I think of GR, I think of him as completely awake and fearless…just based on the qualities I read about him and what I understand from practicing his sadhana. But this fearlessness and wakefulness is not separate from our own nature. We can recognize it more and more in ourselves as we practice. So the relationship with the teacher or deity is meant to connect us to a way of being that goes far beyond ourselves or the teacher as a person.

It seems like people approach this relationship in different ways. In a place like Tibet it is just natural to love Guru Rinpoche. In modern cultures people often question whether the Guru is real or unreal…or worry about blind faith. But in Tibet to simply say his name or mantra, to simply honor his qualities is the support or skillful means for awakening. I have spent a lot of time in Tibetan culture and I can see elderly people who just recite his name…and they have this incredible sparkle in their eyes…and you see they are not afraid to die. You see they are so open and beautiful…and that everything is simple for them.

I know a lot of modern people have trouble with this approach. To adapt this foreign image and then just chant the mantra can feel quite artificial for them. I really understand this too. I am also a Western practitioner. So, it is important to look deeper into the nature of this relationship. It challenges a lot of our cultural concepts. But if we are willing to try it, it can be really powerful and amazing to open up into such a world.

So in short, I suppose the difference between the outer refuge (which is seeing the Buddha as the historical Buddha), the dharma (which often refers to the dharma of letters\texts) and the sangha (our community) and the practice of guru yoga (for example taking refuge in GR) is that in the Vajrayana there is more emphasis on seeing the qualities of the guru as inseparable from the nature of our own mind. I suppose if we see Guru Rinpoche as a person, that is also an outer refuge. If we see him as the embodiment of our own nature, then he is the ‘inner’ guru. It seems like both can be powerful.

For example, when we are studying a text (the dharma of letters), it can really give us a great deal of confidence and clarity. In this way we can take refuge in\trust the information the text imparts…but ultimately, the greatest dharma (as it says in the Uttaratantra) is the dharma of realization.

This article published with the kind permission of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

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My question is about practice & how, when doing one’s ngondro for example, many difficult things can come up. Recently I remembered your description of being on retreat, and not being able to move because of depression (how something was expressing itself at the time). How possible is it to lead a daily life of work etc. and go though this process? When something difficult comes up (like depression), it is very difficult to cope with the everyday needs/activities of life. Any advice appreciated!

Related Question:

So many mornings when I wake I feel desolate. I’m surprised when I don’t! Yet very soon I get on with the day and all is fine. I am just wondering where it comes from and if there is some way of dealing with it…..or if I need to! I would really appreciate your thoughts.



What is Depression exactly?

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for your honest questioning and giving everyone an opportunity to work with this rich and provocative topic. What we call “depression” can be the catalyst for tremendous learning and spiritual insight if we can bring it into the light of spiritual practice. I do think it is important to mention before I begin, that I am not suggesting a cure for deep clinical depression or giving any kind of medical advice. Whatever I have to offer has come from investigating my own mind through practice and things I have learned from others, including my teachers. So I hope this will be of value to you, whether or not you use it in conjunction with other therapies or not.

I have thought a lot about depression. What is it exactly? It seems that people describe it in different ways. You may feel like your nervous system is over firing. You may feel petrified with fear. You may sometimes get caught in a cycle where everything seems to arise as your enemy – things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother you seem to haunt and disturb you. Depression can also express itself as a feeling of heaviness and a lack of motivation or direction. It is interesting that, as you mentioned in your question, depression can arise at specific times of the day. I have had the experience myself, of feeling stirred up in morning. Many do. Others feel anxious all day, and calm down when the sun gets low and soft. Others begin to feel anxious or lonely at dusk. I’m not sure why.

But whatever its expression, depression seems to have a strong physical component. Something gets stirred up physically. It would be hard to say if the depression began with a physical ailment, or that some kind of outer circumstantial stress instigated a physical imbalance. I don’t think you can separate your state of mind from your physical body. When the body relaxes, the mind will also relax, and also the other way around. In the system of Tibetan medicine they talk about lhung disturbance, which basically means that the flow of the breath and energy is blocked in the subtle body or energy channels. You don’t have to know exactly what that means, but you can feel it.

The Practice of Looking Deeply at Depression

I would recommend allowing yourself to feel the sensation of depression without labeling it or deciding you know what it is. Please don’t judge it or treat it harshly. The minute “it” becomes a solid “thing” in your mind, it stops the flow of moving energy. But if you take a closer look, you will find nothing you can call “depression” but a flurry of changing sensation. To observe things more closely without trying to block anything or judge them takes a little curiosity and courage. To not simply react is counter intuitive to the tendencies you have to contract and try to protect yourself. But it is this kind of reactivity that creates so much pain.

In the morning, or whenever the depression seems to arise, you can sit (or even lay down in a relaxed way or even sit in nature) and bring your awareness to your body. You can start at the top of your head and really let yourself experience the sensation of each part of your body. Let yourself experience the movement of sensation even in your eyelids, the pores of your skin, your ears…keep moving your awareness down all the way to your feel and then back up, and so on. Notice where you contract, how you stop breathing, and where you block sensation.

If you find an area of blockage or pain look at that area and see if there is any singular “thing” there you can call “depression.” Again, if you investigate you will just find a flurry of sensation. Don’t judge anything…let “it” express itself. To not want “it” to be there is the biggest impediment to finding ease. I call this ‘blocking.’ It is aggression to the natural vitality of the mind and body. Something is expressing itself through causes and conditions …can you let it work itself out? All things – joy, despair, boredom, clarity – arise based on causes and conditions. You may not even know what all of these causes and conditions are. But the point is to try not to hold such a narrow ideal of what you consider good or comfortable. The point of practice is to let them arise and dissipate and give this room to move. Respond with non-violence, which means, “don’t block.”
You may find that that blocked morning energy opens up into a deep sense of ease and insight.

How Do We Work with the Rich Energy of the Mind?

I realize it is sometimes really hard to go to work and interact with others or make decisions when there is a lot of energetic disturbance. But I don’t know if I could say that practice instigates depression. It seems to me that when you give yourself the time to practice, whatever you have been trying to avoid or distract yourself from, surfaces. Practice itself is a willingness to look at the mind directly. Many things will arise, but those things are not essentially a problem. In practice, the question is: “how do I work with the rich energy of the mind?” When you begin to ask this question you have arrived at the starting point of practice. Genuine practice requires humility and openness to experience.

It is important to understand that practice is about freedom and learning to enjoy the mind. I often have talked about how, when I was in a long retreat, at times I was only able to bear about 10% of the activity of my mind. I wanted to feel good and familiar with things and felt challenged when difficulties arose, such as loneliness, depression or physical pain. When I experienced relaxation or joy I tried to hold on to it. So there was a lot of grasping and rejection in my meditation.

In my retreat cabin I have a big window looking out at a vast valley. To the North I can see a range of snow-mountains. But when I look to the South there is a vast and open landscape, always covered in a thin layer of mist or fog. I remember how lonely that made me feel. It was like a deep primordial loneliness – a sense of despair. For many months I only looked toward the North. After a while, I became interested in the Southern part of the valley. I didn’t want to block or avoid that loneliness anymore. I became curious. I began to see that that loneliness was deeply profound. It had its own subtle aliveness to it. I began to deeply enjoy this loneliness. My ability to admit that into my experience was empowering and all of a sudden I started to notice that I enjoyed not only 10% of my experience but sometimes 20%, 40%…sometimes 100%. Sometimes I thought: “Bring it on!” I think this is the point of practice – not to keep grasping at what we want and rejecting things we find uncomfortable. “Depression” gives us that opportunity.

My teacher always says that bliss is the result of not grasping and rejecting. When I say ‘bliss’ I don’t mean it in an acid-trippy or new-age-y sort of way. I am just referring to the physical and emotional pleasure that results from our ability to accept our experience. If this is not spiritual progress, what is?

Genuine practice is not limited to the cushion but it is cultivated and strengthened on the cushion. You can watch your mind at work or at home while feeding the kids. If you feel the edge or depression, sit and practice for a few minutes. Just be kind and soft with whatever arises. There is really nothing substantial there but a dynamic display of energy. See it as an opportunity to do something other than reject, block or grasp at wanting to feel different. Lean into it just a little.

The basic attitude or spirit of practice is to make everything an opportunity. If we remember that insight comes from including life, everything that arises serves to increase our confidence, growth, and compassion. This is not a conventional attitude or approach, but it frees the mind, which is the outcome of genuine practice.

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This article published with the kind permission of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

The Sangha: Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel


Looking for a Spiritual Community

Elizabeth responds to a friend who is looking for a practice community or “sangha.” She suggests that searching for a spiritual community is similar to looking for romance: you can’t avoid the challenges, and yet there has to be chemistry too.


Question: Dear Elizabeth,

I have been involved with Buddhism for the last 5 years. I have tried many different traditions, Theravada, Tibetan, Shambhala, plain meditation without being linked to any of those however I reached a point or I think I reached a point that my heart is asking maybe to choose one and stick with it. I’ve gone to many centers and more and more, unfortunately, I see a lot of power struggles and unfortunately people who are not so enlightened. I don’t know if it’s just me or if I haven’t found yet my place, my people in a certain tradition. So I feel and ask myself: am I alone in this path? Do I have to go through this path alone? What advice do you have?

Response: Dear Friend,

Thank you for your question…I had to mull over this one for a while!

It is true that when you enter into a community or sangha you see a lot of neurosis…and if you don’t at first, you will eventually! On one hand, we are looking for sanity in any situation we get involved with, but it’s kind of like a romance (or life in general), you can’t avoid the challenges.

I just read this humorous book called, “10% Happier” where the author – a green practitioner (Dan Harris) – goes on his first (silent, 10 day-day long) retreat.
As you would expect he faces a lot of challenges. Throughout the retreat he refers to the other retreatants as zombies. And he has a lot to say about the teachers too. He makes all kinds of judgments about them…but after the retreat comes to a close he gets a chance to talk with them individually and realizes that he really likes them. Overall, his retreat experience has a deep impact on him and he is now a dharma enthusiast, writing books encouraging others to practice.

So, I guess I am trying to say that we bring our own judgments and skepticism to these situations. We also bring our own ideas of ‘perfect’ or ‘enlightenment’ that often don’t leave much room for people to be human. In fact, we should be suspicious of any notion of enlightenment that looks outwardly for peace or perfection. That’s just the ego wanting the world to conform to its preferences.
It’s not a realistic way of look at life or spirituality.

Now I am not suggesting that you should join just any community. That is like saying: “oh, just marry anyone – it doesn’t really matter.” There has to be some chemistry there. But you are the only one who can discern whether you are being critical in a way that prevents you from finding a “good fit”… or, if you just haven’t found your place… yet.

I would ask you to reconsider any conclusion that there are no good dharma communities out there. I just got back from a three week teaching tour where I taught at five different centers and felt deeply impressed and moved by what they were doing. I thought, “The dharma might survive here in the West after all!” It got me thinking about the value of the spiritual community and how important it is. I was struck by how many people were willing to take the time out of their busy lives to listen to the dharma with such deep longing and genuine openness. In truth, most people spend their lives distracting themselves without any curiosity at all. So to meet like-minded people in this way is rare. Furthermore, it is not easy to keep a center running. It is basically a time-consuming labor of love where no one gets paid. So we have to at least appreciate this level of commitment.

I remember the challenges we faced in the growing stages of our community. I don’t think we knew exactly what we were doing, or even what it meant to “practice.” The relationship with the teacher was also new and bewildering and we had a lot to work out. This is not to say that after over twenty years of being together we have “arrived” at some state of perfection (I don’t even look at things in that way anymore) but we do know how to value and utilize the challenges that arise to deepen our practice. We support each other and love each other. I have found in our community that people have become less reactive and more patient and much, much more socialized and refined! This aspect of the sangha – having to work it out together – is very powerful if people are committed.

To enter a community is to ask for feedback, and I don’t even necessarily mean direct feedback, as in constantly hearing what they feel about us. What I mean is that the world continually responds to us based on how we relate to it…whether we like it or not. It’s easy to feel “spiritual” when there is no one to provoke you. Again, I’m not suggesting you throw yourself into a chaotic situation that doesn’t attract you. Best if you can find a place where you can see at least some qualities of practice in the senior students, some humility and graciousness in the situation. But the commitment to a sangha means we have decided to utilize the situation to grow…rather than react or simply bail.

We are social beings and need community. In a sense, everyone we encounter in our life is part of our community…and we can learn to be skillful and flexible enough to create harmony in the world we move about in. It’s really up to us, individually.

I think it is truly wonderful that you have the aspiration to find a community to practice with. And you may have to do more investigation into what you are searching for, your expectations, and whom you feel comfortable with. Please don’t give up!!

Best of luck!


namgyel Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is known for her willingness to question the spiritual path in order to reach a place of genuine practice and awakening. Using the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness as lens, she asks us to take a fresh look at all the assumptions and beliefs we have about reality and liberation.


Republished with the kind permission of Elzabeth Mattis-Namgyel

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DHARMA IN THE WEST by Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel



When we recognize how lost we get in the habitual momentum of our thoughts and emotions, we realize how little strength we have to move in the direction of sanity. This can inspire us to understand and appreciate the power of prayer. Prayer cuts through the wild and discursiveness activity of the mind, giving us direction and providing a means to bring our actions together with our intentions.

Because Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, we tend to dismiss prayer as dualistic. Continue reading