Spiritual Directors International

The Home of Spiritual Companionship

The Power of an Open Question

by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2010
160 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen

The title of this book drew my attention, giving rise to my own thoughts about how the use of open questions might further deepen my abilities as a spiritual director. Author Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has studied and practiced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for twenty-five years with her husband, a Tibetan Buddhist master, as her teacher. She brings this long experience to her writing, along with many years spent in solitary retreat, as she addresses how to find peace in a world of change and suffering.

Mattis-Namgyel explores the use of personal koans, or questions, stating that to ask a question is to reach “the height of our intelligence” with a mind “wide open, alert, and ready for possibility” (36). She follows the Middle Way of Buddha through an understanding of the body, the mind, and indeed all things as being “thingless, boundaryless” (19), “emptiness (“the ‘E’ word”)” (43), and “signifying possibility, a concept central to awakening” (44). As a person moves from objectifying to understanding the “profound fullness and limitless nature of all things,” he or she experiences liberation, according to this tradition (37). The goal of her meditation practice is “openness” (30), and she focuses on her breath, her body, and her connection to other beings, and then she “returns to the present moment with a quiet mind” (27), responding to anything that arises with “respect and gratitude” (29). Her koan for this is “What would happen if we habituated ourselves to staying open?” (31).

Other questions this author asks deal with the nature of reality: “Are things real and are we real” (74–75)? To experience something doesn’t mean it has “even a trace of realness” (81), Mattis-Namgyel argues, because no realness exists in a world where all is “boundaryless” (82). She espouses a path to freedom through ridding the self of “such confusions” as preferences between “wants and not-wants” (84).

Questions may arise for spiritual directors who come from traditions that value paying attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, wants, and desires, to all of life’s experiences, and to the natural world, “finding God in all things,” as St. Ignatius expressed it. As I read this well-written presentation of Tibetan Buddhist thought, I see that there are ways in which the two traditions intersect and ways in which they conflict.

Mattis-Namgyel articulately invites us to bring our own natural intelligence, our instinct for happiness, and our sense of wonderment to seek contentment and trust, loving-kindness and freedom, and to “walk by faith” in a way that is “like a prayer” (113). She leaves us with questions such as these: Can I stay present to limitless possibility? Can I relax with wonderment? Can I live my life as an open question? The invitation of these questions will be familiar to spiritual directors of all spiritual paths and to those with whom they serve and work.

Jacqueline Leksen offers spiritual direction in Seattle, Washington, USA, where it is her joy to be a spiritual companion with people from all walks of life and to provide spiritual nurture for those involved in issues of social justice, within the church or without. She has a master’s degree in transforming spirituality from Seattle University.


Two for the Price of None

Learn. For. Free. Discover and Listen. One signup, two great resources. Free.

Help Us Serve More People

Become an SDI member. Great benefits, discounts, and networking. Learn more...