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Bodhisattva Check-In (or Accepting the Challenges and Gifts of This Lifetime)
from chapter 8 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Inspired by the exercise “Fantasy on Choosing Your Life” by Dr. Carol Wolman; further developed by Joanna Macy. Revised by Molly Brown and Joanna Macy. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.
Time: 60 minutes
By inviting us to engage our moral imaginations, this practice helps us see how the basic features and conditions of our own lives 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 from which we can see our lives anew. We can see unsuspected connections and goodness; we can also 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. The bodhisattva does not seek enlightenment in order to exit from this world, escaping the cycle of rebirth, but turns back from the gates of nirvana, vowing to return to be of help to all beings. The bodhisattva, an embodiment of our motivation to serve, knows that our human journey toward enlightenment is a journey we must all make together.
We don’t need to believe in rebirth for this process to be effective. The bodhisattva archetype is present in all religions and even in all social movements, be it in the guise of worker-priest/nun, shaman, prophet, idealistic revolutionary, or community organizer.
This practice may be challenging, especially for people with trauma, abuse, and other extreme circumstances in their lives, whether now, or as younger adults or children. Acknowledge at the beginning that this process might bring up pain. Suggest that participants hold themselves with gentleness; use trauma-release methods if needed; keep breathing.
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.
Second, invite the group to contemplate the long panoramic journey we have made as life on Earth. (Draw from The Evolutionary Gifts of the Animals in Chapter 9 of Coming Back to Life.)
Third, invite everyone to imagine that we are all together somewhere outside of space and time, in the moment preceding our birth in this life. Information now reaches us about the dangers to all life on Earth that have been accumulating through many centuries, if not millenia, and have reached a critical point.
The challenges take many forms — from nuclear weapons and climate chaos, to mass extinctions, to colonization, 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 human life is to continue on Earth.
Hearing this, we are forced to ask ourselves: will we, or will we not, 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 circumstances, and we probably won’t even recognize each other.
Now the key moment in the process: (the guide’s words are in italics)
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 moving 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 are 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 did you step into? 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 culture or faith tradition were you born? Rituals and practices from childhood — or the very lack of these — can influence how you see your purpose and carry it out.
What 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. Were you in a separate “nuclear family,” or embedded in an extended family, or in a combination of family structures? Who are the people who cared for you as an infant and young child — your birth parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, foster parents or other caregivers? 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 challenges of body or mind came with this life of yours? These challenges 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? What task has called you to Earth?
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. Remind participants to listen actively without responding verbally. Let them know how long each person will have (perhaps 10 minutes), and that you will let them know when it’s time to switch. You may also give dyads the option to choose to have some back-and-forth during their time, if that would feel more supportive.
If any workshop participants chose not to participate, invite them to join your co-facilitator for a support circle during this time.
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?”