A conversation with one of the West's only female lamas, Christie McNally.
In late 2010, in the sun scorched highlands of Arizona's Chirakawa Mountains, some 50 Buddhist students will embark on a retreat. For three years, three months, and three days, they will have no contact with the outside world, and they will not speak a word. The retreat will be lead by Lama Christie McNally, one of the only women in the world to carry the title of "lama" (or teacher), and Geshe Michael Roach. (The Buddhist degree of geshe is comparable to a doctorate in the United States.) McNally and Roach are the founders of Diamond Mountain, a school some 100 miles from Tucson which is modeled after Buddhist monastic tradition, and which is not far from where the retreat will take place. Earlier this month, while Lama McNally was visiting the Asian Classics Institute of Los Angeles's Mahasuka Center to teach from and talk about her book, The Tibetan Book of Meditation, she spoke to GOOD about what would move someone to take a vow of silence for three years, and what it's like when those three years are up.GOOD:A lot of people might be surprised to learn of retreats like this in the United States. You've spoken before about how, in this country, mastery of a craft or practice isn't widely pursued. This sort of retreat seems, to me at least, like an attempt to achieve mastery of meditation. Could you speak to that?CHRISTIE McNALLY: In cultures like India or in previous times, people had traditions of apprenticeship. They'd want to be a blacksmith, so they'd spend 12 years at the feet of a master. By the time they were done, they became a master themselves. That's how people learned things in the old days, they would fully master them.G:Which sounds quite different than, say, a semester long internship.CM: Or even college in general. You see a teacher for a semester? And then you never see them again? In this culture, we dabble and we educate our children to be dabblers. That's what I did in college. I'd take this psychology class or that philosophy class, but there was no emphasis on going to your full potential. There's so much potential in everybody, but nobody is living up to it. But, when I was in the three-year retreat, meditating, and when I got to single-pointed concentration, finally, after many months of really pushing myself and really trying to master something-I didn't do anything else-I got to a certain level of meditation, a level of mastery. It was like feeling alive for the first time, like I had been half asleep this whole time, and finally, all of these synapses woke up, and I could really see the world. I think anybody could get to that level with a certain amount of effort. But in this society, we are anti-concentration: we surf the web all the time and our minds are going from this object to that object in a nanosecond. There's no tradition for just sitting down and keeping the mind on a single object. Maybe musicians. That can be a kind of mastery.G:With music, though, people get hung up on the idea of talent, as if it's-CM: Natural?G:Yes, like if they're not instantly good they might never try.CM: Yeah, they give up.G:What about with meditation. Does talent factor in?CM: Well, certain people will be naturally better than others, just like certain people will be naturally better at basketball. But the people with passion who really want to meditate will quickly and far surpass the people with natural talent who don't practice. The key to meditation is to do it every day.G:Do people experience fear or doubt while they're going through the retreat?CM: Sure, of course. Before they go into retreat, I think, is a major step. Trying to explain to all your family members that you're going to leave for three years, and not talk to them, and basically be dead to the world. They're like, why? Why would you leave me? But that's a good thing, because if you're not really sure in it, I don't think the three year retreat would be very useful.G:Is there any sort of communication among people at retreat?CM: It depends. When I did mine, I didn't have any communication to anyone at all, except for the caretakers. That was very limited. It was like "Get me more toilet paper." [laughs] We asked them not to send us any letters from anyone. We asked them not to send us any news. We didn't know about 9/11. It happened during our retreat and we found out a couple years later. They didn't tell us. I think we were the only ones on the planet who didn't know about it.G:That's astounding. What was it like coming out of retreat?CM: When you're in retreat, you're doing the same exact thing every day, in the same exact place every day. It's really freeing because your mind doesn't ever have to process any new data. Everything becomes really really subtle, and your inside world gets really huge. We weren't talking for three years. During the last month or so, people would come talk to us, because we had to learn how to talk again. The first time somebody came, we talked to them for a half an hour, and I went home and I slept for 11 hours straight; it was so exhausting. Later, when I first got out of retreat, it was like I could see everything about people by the way they carried themselves and the way they moved. I could tell all the things they were thinking-don't worry, I can't do that now. But, it was very difficult getting so much input, and it took me a while to learn how be with people again. In a way it was great, because I could look at someone and help them immediately. Still, today, I can see certain karmas that people need to work on, and that's the blessing of the retreat. But it's not as strong as it was when I first got out.G:Did it change the way you communicated with people?CM: Sure. Now, I can always tell when people are not telling the truth, and I always call them on it. I don't think I could say that before. It's very helpful as a teacher and have that capacity, for your students.G:What about with your family?CM: There was a little bit of distance at first. I felt almost like I was a new person, so much had changed. But we have so much love that transcends all that, and very quickly, my dad and I got to the place where we are now. At one point, at a book-signing in New York, he said to me, "I just realized that you're helping more people than everyone else I know combined will ever help in their lives." He was so proud, and that was so touching that he saw that in me.Diamond Mountain photos courtesty of ACI-LA.