(Revised version by Molly Brown and Joanna Macy)
(or Accepting the Challenges and Gifts of This Lifetime)
Using and growing our moral imagination, this process focuses on our own lives and helps us see how their basic features and conditions prepare us to take part in the healing of the world. Like climbing a mountain and looking back on the landscape below, this practice provides a vantage point that lets us see new things. From that overarching perspective, we can see unsuspected connections and goodness; we can see how our responses to suffering and limitations have strengthened us for the work we have come to do.
We call this practice “The Bodhisattva Check-in” because it is inspired by the hero figure of Buddhist tradition. Embodying our motivation to serve, the bodhisattva does not seek enlightenment in order to exit from this world, but turns back from the gates of nirvana, having vowed to return again and again to be of help to all beings. It is important to note that this process is effective even if we don’t believe in rebirth. The bodhisattva archetype is present in all religions and even all social movements, be it in the guise of suffering servant, worker-priest, shaman, prophet, idealistic revolutionary, or community organizer.
Spiritual traditions affirm that true liberation arises when we can fully accept the particulars of our lives, seeing all that has shaped who we are now. In other words, we are taking a bodhisattva perspective on our lives. (Bill Johnson’s poem)
Three introductory stages precede the main body of the exercise:
First, tell about the bodhisattvas and their vow to keep returning to the world to relieve suffering. Invite participants to mention how this archetype shows up in their traditions.
Secondly, invite the group to contemplate the long panoramic journey we have made as life on Earth. (Draw from Evolutionary Remembering in Chapter 9.)
Third, invite everyone to imagine that we are all together somewhere in the larger body of Earth, in a timeless moment preceding our birth in this life. Information now reaches us about the dangers to all life on Earth that have been arising through the twentieth century and reaching a crisis point at the start of the third millennium.
The challenges take many forms – from nuclear weapons and climate chaos, to mass extinctions, to systemic racism and oppression, with billions of people sinking into poverty. Now one thing is clear, however: A quantum leap in consciousness is required if life is to continue on Earth.
Hearing this forces us to consider whether or not to return and take birth as humans, bringing everything we’ve ever learned about courage and community. This is a major decision. And it is a hard decision because there is no guarantee that we will remember why we came back, or that we won’t regret it at moments, or that we will succeed in our mission. Furthermore, we will feel alone because we’ll be arriving at different times, different places, in different colors and circumstances, and we probably won’t even recognize each other.
Now the key moment in the process: Imagine you are at the moment of conception, when you take the step of incarnation in this life. When you sense that moment has come, stand up.
When you are confident that everyone who has made this decision is standing, acknowledge that: You didn’t take birth as a generic human, but only as a unique human shaped by particular circumstances. Step into these circumstances now, with awareness of how they have helped prepare you for the mission you came to perform.
People begin slowly walking around the room, progressively noticing the main circumstances of their present life. Take care to convey that each step relates to their actual life and not to any fantasized alternative to it. Here follows some words describing each step. Remember to allow ample time for reflection after each one.
Step into the year of your birth. Your life has a particular historical context.
Step into the place of your birth. In what country were you born? Were you born in a town or a city, or in a rural area? Which parts of the Earth’s body first greeted your eyes?
What skin color and ethnicity were you given for this lifetime? The privileges and privations resulting from these circumstances helped prepare you for the work you have come to do.
And what socio-economic conditions were you born and raised in? How did scarcity or affluence, or periods of both, affect you and the people around you?
Into what faith tradition — or lack of same — were you born? Religious stories and images from childhood — or the very lack of these — can influence how you see your purpose and carry it out.
Which gender is yours for this lifetime? And what sexual orientation? How have these identities—and society’s response to them—contributed to who you are today?
And step into your family. What man is your father? What woman your mother? For some of you, this means your adoptive parents or foster parents or other caregivers, as well as your birth parents. If you received mostly loving care from them, how did that shape you? If you received mostly abuse or neglect, what strengths did you develop in order to survive?
Are you an only child or do you have siblings in this life? The companionship, competition, loneliness, or autonomy that you knew in your family fostered the unique blend of strengths you bring to your world.
What disabilities came with this life of yours? Challenges of body or mind bring their own strengths and resilience.
What personal gifts and talents came with this life? How have they supported your work in life?
And lastly, imagining that you can for a moment see it clearly, what particular mission did you come to perform?
Now look around you. You did not expect to recognize each other in new and different bodies, but here we are! Sit down now with one other person. Take turns telling each other about the life that is yours this time. This is the bodhisattva check-in.
To guide this check-in, a list of the circumstances mentioned can be posted, e.g. time of birth, place of birth, etc.
As you become familiar with this practice, you may wish to add topics for the bodhisattvas’ report, such as educational choices, spiritual journeys, central relationships, and vocational explorations and commitments. An evocative question is: “How did you first let your heart be broken?”