Donations will be used to provide scholarships for people to attend Joanna's workshops.

Search Site
English Arabic French Hindi Italian Japanese Korean Portuguese Romanian Russian Spanish Latvian Ukrainian Turkish

Spiritual Practices for Activists

To heal our society, our psyches must heal as well. Haunted by the desperate needs of our time and beset by more commitments than we can easily carry, we may wonder how to find the time and energy for spiritual disciplines. Few of us feel free to take to the cloister or the meditation cushion to seek personal transformation.

We do not need to withdraw from the world or spend long hours in solitary prayer or meditation to begin to wake up to the spiritual power within us. The activities and encounters of our daily lives can serve as the occasion for that kind of discovery. I would like to share five simple exercises that can help in this.

The exercises--on death, loving-kindness, compassion, mutual power, and mutual recognition--happen to be adapted from the Buddhist tradition. As part of our planetary heritage, they belong to us all. No belief system is necessary, only a readiness to attend to the immediacy of your own experience. They will be most useful if read slowly with a quiet mind (a few deep breaths will help), and if put directly into practice in the presence of others. If you read them aloud for others or put them on tape, allow several seconds when three dots (...) are marked, and when more are marked (......), leave additional time, as appropriate.

Meditation on Death

Most spiritual paths begin by recognizing the transiency of human life. Medieval Christians honored this in the mystery play of

Everyman. Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer, taught that the enlightened warrior walks with death at his shoulder. To confront and accept the inevitability of our dying releases us from attachments and frees us to live boldly. An initial meditation on the Buddhist path involves reflection on the twofold fact that: "death is certain" and "the time of death is uncertain." In our world today, nuclear weaponry, serving in a sense as a spiritual teacher, does that meditation for us, for it tells us that we can die together at any moment, without warning. When we allow the reality of that possibility to become conscious, it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life's vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object, and each being.

As an occasional practice in daily life:

Look at the person you encounter (stranger or friend). Let the realization arise in you that this person lives on an endangered planet. He or she may die in a nuclear war; or from the poisons spreading through our world. Observe that face, unique, vulnerable...Those eyes still can see; they are not empty sockets...the skin is still intact...Become aware of your desire that this person be spared such suffering and horror, feel the strength of that desire...keep breathing...Also let the possibility arise in your consciousness that this may be the person you happen to be with when you die...that face the last you see...that hand the last you might reach out to help you then, to comfort, to give water...Open to the feelings for this person that surface in you with the awareness of this possibility... Open to the levels of caring and connection it reveals in you.


Loving kindness, or metta, is the first of the four "Abodes of the Buddha," also known as the Brahmaviharas. Meditation to arouse and sustain loving-kindness is a staple of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for community development in Sri Lanka, and is accorded minutes of silence at the outset of every meeting. Organizers and village workers find it useful in developing motivation for service and overcoming feelings of hostility or inadequacy in themselves and others.

I first received instruction in this meditation from a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Here is a version that I have adapted for use in the West.

Close your eyes and begin to relax, exhaling to expel tension. Now center in on the normal flow of the breath, letting go of all extraneous thoughts as you passively watch the breathing-in and breathing-out

Now call to mind someone you love very your mind's eye see the face of that beloved one...silently speak her or his name...Feel your love for this being, like a current of energy coming through you...Now let your-self experience how much you want this person to be free from fear; how in-tensely you desire that this person be released from greed and ill-will, from confusion and sorrow and the causes of suffering...That desire, in all its sincerity and strength, is
metta, the great loving kindness......

Continuing to feel that warm energy flow coming through the heart, see in your mind's eye those with whom you share your daily life, family members, close friends and colleagues, the people you live and work with...Let them appear now as in a circle around you. Behold them one by one, silently speaking their names...and direct to each in turn that same current of loving--kindness...Among these beings may be some with whom you are uncomfortable, in conflict, or tension. With those especially, experience your desire that each be free from fear, from hatred, free from greed and ignorance and the causes of suffering......

Now allow to appear, in wider concentric circles your relations, and your acquaintances...Let the beam of loving-kindness play on them as well, pausing on the faces that appear randomly in your mind's eye. With them as well, experience how much you want their freedom from greed, fear; hatred and confusion, how much you want all beings to be happy

Beyond them, in concentric circles that are wider yet, appear now all beings with whom you share this planet-time. Though you have not met, your lives are interconnected in ways beyond knowing. To these beings as well, direct the same powerful current of loving-kindness. Experience your desire and your intention that each awaken from fear and hatred, from greed and confusion...that all beings be released from suffering

As in the ancient Buddhist meditation, we direct the loving-kindness now to all the "hungry ghosts," the restless spirits that roam in suffering, still prey to fear and confusion. May they find rest...may they rest in the great loving kindness and in the deep peace it brings......

By the power of our imagination let us move out now beyond our planet, out into the universe, into other solar systems, other galaxies, other Buddha-fields. The current of loving-kindness is not affected by physical distances, and we direct it now, as if aiming a beam of light, to all centers of conscious life...And to all sentient beings everywhere we direct our heartfelt wish that they, too, be free of fear and greed, of hatred and confusion and the causes of suffering...May all beings be happy......

Now, as if from out there in the interstellar distances, we turn and behold our own planet, our home...We see it suspended there in the blackness of space, blue and white jewel planet turning in the light of its sun
......Slowly we approach it, drawing nearer, nearer, returning to this part of it, this region, this place...And as you approach this place, let yourself see the being you know best of all...the person it has been given you to be in this lifetime...You know this person better than anyone else does, know its pain and its hopes, know its need for love, know how hard it tries...Let the face of this being, your own face, appear before you...speak the name you are called in love...And experience, with that same strong energy-current of loving-kindness, how deeply you desire that this being be free from fear, released from greed and hatred, liberated from ignorance and confusion and the causes of suffering...The great loving-kindness linking you to all beings is now directed to your own self...know now the fullness of it.


Basic to most spiritual traditions, as well as to the systems view of the world, is the recognition that we are not separate, isolated entities, but integral and organic parts of the vast web of life. As such, we are like neurons in a neural net, through which flow currents of awareness of what is happening to us, as a species and as a planet. In that context, the pain we feel for our world is a living testimony to our interconnectedness with it. If we deny this pain, we become like blocked and atrophied neurons, deprived of life's flow and weakening the larger body in which we take being. But if we let it move through us, we affirm our belonging; our collective awareness increases. We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vaster web of knowing.

Because we have been conditioned to view ourselves as separate, competitive and thus fragile entities, it takes practice to relearn this kind of resilience. A good way to begin is by practicing simple openness, as in the exercise of "breathing through," adapted from an ancient Buddhist meditation for the development of compassion.

Closing your eyes, focus attention on your breathing. Don't try to breathe any special way, slow or long. Just watch the breathing as it happens in and out. Note the accompanying sensations at the nostrils or upper lip, in the chest or abdomen. Stay passive and alert, like a cat by a mouse hole......

As you watch the breath, you note that it happens by itself; without your will, without your deciding each time to inhale or exhale...It's as though you're being breathed--being breathed by life...Just as everyone in this room, in this city, in this planet now, is being breathed, sustained in a vast, breathing web of life

Now visualize your breath as a stream or ribbon of air passing through you. See it flow up through your nose, down through your windpipe and into your lungs. Now from your lungs take it through your heart. Picture it flowing through your heart and out through an opening there to recon-nect with the larger web of life. Let the breath-stream, as it passes through you, appear as one loop within that vast web, connecting you with it

Now open your awareness to the suffering that is present in the world. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can...concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and isolation, in prisons, hospitals, tenements, hunger need to strain for these images, they are present to you by virtue of our interexistence. Relax and just let them surface...the vast and countless hardships of our fellow humans, and of our animal brothers and sisters as well, as they swim the seas and fly the air of this ailing planet...Now breathe in the pain like dark granules on the stream of air; up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart, and out again into the world net...You are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart......Be sure that stream flows through and out again; don't hang on to the pain...surrender it for now to the healing resources of life's vast web......

With Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, we can say, "Let all sorrows ripen in me." We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts...making good rich compost out of all that we can learn from it, enhancing our larger, collective knowing

If no images or feelings arise and there is only blankness, grey and numb, breathe that through. The numbness itself is a very real part of our world...

And if what surfaces for you is not the pain of other beings so much as your own personal suffering, breathe that through, too. Your own anguish is an integral part of the grief of our world, and arises with it

Should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the rib cage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break...But if it were, they say the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing......

This guided meditation serves to introduce the process of breathing through, which, once familiar, becomes useful in daily life in the many situations that confront us with painful information. By breathing through the bad news, rather than bracing ourselves against it, we can let it strengthen our sense of belonging in the larger web of being. It helps us remain alert and open, whether reading the newspaper, receiving criticism, or simply being present to a person who suffers.

For activists working for peace and justice, and those dealing most directly with the griefs of our time, the practice helps prevent burnout. Reminding us of the collective nature of both our prob-lems and our power, it offers a healing measure of humility. It can save us from self-righteousness. For when we can take in our world's pain, accepting it as the price of our caring, we let it inform our acts without needing to inflict it as a punishment on others who are, at the present moment, less involved.


Compassion, which is grief in the grief of others is but one side of the coin. The other side is joy in the joy of others--which in Buddhism is called mudita. To the extent that we allow ourselves to identify with the sufferings of other beings, we can identify with their strengths as well. This is very important for a sense of adequacy and resilience, because we face a time of great challenge that demands of us more commitment, endurance and courage than we can dredge up out of our individual supply. We can learn to draw on the other neurons in the neural net, and view them in a grateful and celebratory fashion, as so much "money in the bank."

This practice is adapted from the Meditation of Jubilation and Transformation, taught in a Buddhist text written two thousand years ago at the outset of the Mahayana tradition. You can find the original version in chapter six of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines. I find it very useful today in two forms. The one closer to the ancient practice is this:

Relax and close your eyes. Open your awareness to the fellow beings who share with you this this this country...and in other lands......See their multitudes in your mind's eye......Now let your awareness open wider yet, to encompass all beings who ever lived...of all races and creeds and walks of life, rich, poor, kings and beggars, saints and sinners...see the vast vistas of these fellow beings stretching into the distance, like successive mountain ranges......Now consider the fact that in each of these innumerable lives some act of merit was performed. No matter how stunted or deprived the life, there was a gesture of generosity, a gift of love, an act of valor or self-sacrifice? on the battlefield or workplace, hospital or home...From these beings in their endless multitudes arose actions of courage, kindness, of teaching and healing. Let yourself see these manifold and immeasurable acts of merit......

Now imagine you can sweep together these acts of merit...sweep them into a pile in front of you...use your hands...pile them up...pile them into a heap viewing it with gladness and gratitude...Now pat them into a ball. It is the Great Ball of Merit...hold it now and weigh it in your hands...rejoice in it, knowing that no act of goodness is ever lost. It remains ever and always a present resource...a means for the transformation of life...So now, with jubilation and gratitude, you turn that great ball...turn it over...over...into the healing of our world.

As we can learn from contemporary science and visualize in the holographic model of reality, our lives interpenetrate. In the fluid tapestry of space-time, there is at root no distinction between self and other. The acts and intentions of others are like seeds that can germinate and bear fruit through our own lives, as we take them into awareness and dedicate, or "turn over," that awareness to our own empowerment. Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and countless nameless heroes and heroines of our own day, all can be part of our Ball of Merit, from which we can draw inspiration and endurance. Other traditions feature notions simi-lar to this, such as the "cloud of witnesses" of which St. Paul spoke, or the Treasury of Merit in the Catholic tradition.

The second, more workaday, version of the Ball of Merit meditation helps us open to the powers in people around us. It is in direct contrast to the commonly accepted, hierarichal notion of power as something personally owned and exerted over others. The exercise prepares us to bring expectant attention to our encounters with other beings, to view them with fresh openness and curiosity as to how they can enhance our Ball of Merit. We can play this silent game as we view someone opposite us on the bus or across the bargaining table. It is especially useful when dealing with a person with whom we may be in conflict.

What does this person add to my Great Ball of Merit? What gifts of intellect can enrich our common store? What reserves of stubborn endurance can she or he offer? What flights of fancy or powers of love lurk behind those eyes? What kindness or courage hides in those lips, what healing in those hands?

Then, as with the breathing-through exercise, we open ourselves to the presence of these strengths, inhaling our awareness of them. As our awareness grows, we experience our gratitude for them and our capacity to partake...

Often we let our perceptions of the powers of others make us feel inadequate. Alongside an eloquent colleague, we can feel inarticulate; in the presence of an athlete we can feel weak and clumsy; and we can come to resent both ourself and the other person. In the light of the Great Ball of Merit, however, the gifts and good fortunes of others appear not as competing challenges, but as resources we can honor and take pleasure in. We can learn to play detective, spying out treasures for the enhancement of life from even the unlikeliest material. Like air, and sun, and water, they form part of our common good.

In addition to releasing us from the mental cramp of envy, this spiritual offers two other rewards. One is pleasure in our own acuity, as our merit-detecting ability improves. The second is the response of others who, though ignorant of the game we are playing, sense something in our manner that invites them to disclose more of the person they can be.



This exercise is derived from the Buddhist practice of the Brahma-viharas, also known as the Four Abodes of the Buddha, which are loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. Adapted for use interactively in a social context, it helps us to see each other more truly and experience the depths of our interconnections.

In workshops I offer this as a guided meditation with participants sitting face to face in pairs or pausing to meet each other silently as they move about the room. At its close, I encourage them to proceed to use all or any portion of it, as they go about their daily lives. It is an excellent antidote to boredom, when our eye falls on another person, say on the subway or in a check-out line. It charges that moment with beauty and discovery. It also is useful when dealing with people whom we are tempted to disregard or dislike; it breaks open our accustomed ways of viewing them. When used like this, as a meditation-in-action, one does not, of course, gaze long and deeply into the other's eyes, as in the guided exercise. A seemingly casual glance is enough.

The guided group form goes like this:

Behold each other silently and relax. Take a couple of deep breaths, centering yourself and releasing any tension...If you feel discomfort or an urge to laugh or look away, just note that gently with patience, and return your attention, when you can, to the living presence of this being. He or she is unique, different from anyone who has ever lived, or will live…

As you behold this person, open your awareness to the powers that are their gifts and strengths and the potentialities. In this being are unmeasurable reserves of courage and intelligence...of patience, endurance, wit and wisdom...There are gifts there, of which this person her/ himself may be as yet unaware...Consider what these powers could do for the healing of our planet, if they were to be believed and acted on. As you consider that, feel your desire that this person be free from fear...Experience how much you want her/him to be free from greed, released from hatred and from sorrow and from the causes of suffering… Know that what you are now experiencing is the great loving-kindness…

Now, as you behold this person, open your awareness to the pain they have known… Here, as in all human lives, there are sorrows, disappointments, failures and losses, loneliness, abuse... There are hurts this person may never have told to another living being… As you open to their suffering, you know that you cannot remove it. You are not that powerful. But you can be with it. As you experience your readiness to be with the pain of another, know that what you are experiencing is the great compassion... It is excellent for the healing of our world…

Now, as you take in the presence of this person, consider how good it would be to work together--on a joint project, toward a common goal... Imagine what it would be like…planning, conspiring, taking risks together... each helping the other find their strength and creativity, celebrating the successes, consoling each other over the setbacks, forgiving each other when you make mistakes...and simply being there for each other… As you open to that possibility, what you open to is the great wealth: the pleasure in each other's powers, the joy in each other's joy…

Lastly, let your awareness drop deep within you like a stone, sinking below the level of what words can express, to the vast currents of relationship that underlie all experience. It is the web of life that supports and interweaves our lives through all space and time...See the being before you as if seeing the face of one who, at another time, another place, was your lover or your enemy, your parent or your child… And now you meet again on this brink of time...And you know your lives are as inextricably interwoven as nerve cells in the mind of a great being… Out of that vast net you cannot fall. No stupidity or failure or cowardice can ever sever you from that living web, because, you see, that is what you are… Rest in that knowing. That is the Great Peace. Out of it you can act, you can risk anything...and let every encounter be a homecoming to your true nature...Indeed it is so.


Purpose and background

As we go forth for the healing of our world, there are forces and institutions which we will and must challenge. The men and women who serve these structures will appear as our opponents. Here is a formal group practice which helps to free us from fear and illwill toward such persons, and to ground us in an all-embracing compassion.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his students to express their respect, gratitude, and goodwill by the act of bowing. Because some Westerners are uncomfortable with notion of bowing, he calls it "Touching the Earth"--for their elders and teachers, the Buddha Dharma and the spiritual community, their original faith traditions, their ancestors, their homeplace on the planet. This particular practice for honoring our adversaries was composed by an ordained senior member of his Order of Interbeing, Caitriona Reed.


Everyone stands with enough room in front of them to kneel and touch the ground with hands and forehead. If there is an altar or emblem, like an Earth flag, they can be facing it. The guide reads the text aloud, pausing after each paragraph, at which point everyone (guide included) "touches the Earth"--putting knees, hands, and then head to the floor. Ten paragraphs, ten bows. Some may prefer to do a full prostration; others may choose to abstain from the practice and just listen from the sidelines. Be sure they feel comfortable in doing so. Maintain a slow, unhurried pace throughout.


Touching the Earth for Our Adversaries
By Caitriona Reed

You, who deliberately engage in the destruction of the environment for your own profit, you show me how much I value what is honest, what is generous, what has been clearly thought through, what is expressive of love for this planet home and our human and nonhuman fellow beings. So I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

You bring forth in me the passion and love I feel for this life-bearing land, its soil, air and waters, and the beings they nurture; the passion I feel for integrity and strong, sustainable community. Because of the strength with which I resist your actions, I have seen how strong my love and passion really are. I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

Because the pain I feel when I allow myself to witness the pain of the world is no less than your pain--you, who perpetuate destruction and cut yourselves off from needs of the present and the generations of the future, I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

Because the pain of greed, alienation and fear are no less than the pain of sorrow and mourning for what is lost, I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

For the power of my anger, transforming itself into love for the beauty and integrity of all life-forms, and for the bright energy of my passion for justice and the health of all beings, I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

Because we all want to be happy, to feel ourselves intact and part of a single whole, for that shared longing, I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

Because you challenge me by your actions, demanding that I release my attachment to the belief that my view, my understanding, is the only correct one, I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

For you who teach me that the mind is a limitless source, a miracle capable of manifesting as love, as greed, as fear, capable of clarity or delusion, blind to the consequence of action or open to the boundless coherence of all that we do and experience in life. For you who show me what I myself am capable of when I let my life be governed by fear and greed, great awesome teachers, I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

In awe of the mind's capability for delusion and alienation that calls me so insistently to understanding and joy, I bow to you and touch the Earth.

With the understanding that all this will pass and with love in my heart, I bow to you and touch the Earth.

(Download a text file of this practice here.)


Mara Exercise: 1 hour.

Strengthening Our Resolve by Dialoguing with Mara

This exercise can be done on the penultimate day of an intensive.

It takes about 45 mins, plus 15 mins for large group discussion/reflection.

An introduction by Joanna :

“In Buddhism, there are two mudras, or hand gestures, that I cherish. Statues and paintings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas often show them. One is the Fear Not or abhaya mudra--right hand raised at chest level, palm outward. It says, "I will not be afraid of the fear. I will not close down, I stay fully present." It's strikingly similar to the gesture of greeting associated with American Indians. "How!" they said, as I saw in the movies, and later I learned the meaning of that raised empty hand: "See, I carry no weapon, don't be afraid."

The second hand gesture I give you tonight is the Earth-touching one, the bhumisparsa mudra. Its other name is Calling the Earth to Witness, and it connects with the story of when Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, sat down under the bodhi tree. I picture him saying, in effect, "I am not going to get up until I have broken through to the secret of the suffering we cause ourselves and others. Until I wake up to that, I am not going to move." Well, this infuriated Mara, the embodiment of sin and death. Mara sent demons to frighten Gautama and dancing girls to distract him; but the Buddha-to-be didn't waver. Finally, Mara challenged him outright. "By what right and authority do you think you can solve the mystery of suffering? Just who do you think you are?"

And Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn't say, "I'm the son of a king. I graduated summa cum laude from the Yoga Institute or went to Harvard Business School." He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of Earth that he sought liberation from suffering. “This is my right to be here; this is my right to seek freedom from endless suffering and inflicting of suffering.” The scriptures say that when he did that the earth roared.

So we can make that gesture too. We can touch the Earth. That act, even if only mental, reminds us of who we are and what we are about, as we confront the collapse of our oil-based economy and our oil-damaged climate. We are here for the sake of life. By the authority of our belonging to Earth from the beginning of space and time, we are here.”

The dialogue with Mara strengthens the resolve of Buddha. So often we try to be solely positive in our strength, and push down those voices which throw us off track – the voice of fears and doubts as well as the voice which seduces us into pleasant distractions, away from our clear resolve. But adversaries can help us on our path. This exercise gives a chance to voice all that fearful seduction, criticism, undermining of confidence, and this in turn gives the chance to stand up to Mara, to find our ground. In this way we are grateful to Mara.


Split into groups of 3 people.

Each person takes it in turn to become the ‘focus’ person for 15 minutes, while the other two people are listening allies in this dialogue with Mara.

The focus person has two cushions, which s/he sits on alternately.

Cushion 1 is the place of resolve/determination/confidence.

Cushion 2 is Mara.

The focus person starts in the place of resolve, telling her/his two witnesses of something s/he intends to put into action on returning home. This could be a very small plan, or a much larger project. It is probably something the focus person feels a little fearful of doing, as it is close to their heart and important work. The focus person may need to start by taking a few moments of silence to centre him/herself. Ground yourself in your body and in the earth. Feel the support of the earth and the whole earth community. Trust in your life experience. Don’t hide your dreams – some of the greatest things people have done have grown from seeds of ideas that might have seemed mad at the time.

After stating their intention, the focus person moves onto cushion 2, and becomes Mara voicing fears, doubts and criticisms (eg who are YOU to think you can stand up and do this, you haven’t got time, you don’t know enough, etc)

Move back to cushion 1 and respond to Mara.

Be aware that you may need to re-centre yourself on cushion 1, you don’t need to respond to Mara immediately. It’s easy to panic in the face of Mara, and feel you have to justify yourself with grand ideas. Find your ground quietly.

Continue the dialogue for about 10 minutes.

The two listening allies who are witnesses to this process can help in two ways:

1) At some points the focus person may wish one of the listening allies to become Mara.

2) At other times, especially if the focus person is finding it difficult to respond to Mara, one of the listening allies may gently move behind the focus person, put their hand on their shoulder, and speak on behalf of the focus person to Mara.

Finish with Mara saying to Focus person: “By what authority are you doing this?” and reply with all resolve you can muster, touching the earth, “By the authority of the earth……and so on”.

Take a few minutes to talk over the exercise together.

Then move on to the next focus person.

After all three people have had a chance to be focus person, come back into the large group and share reflections on the exercise.

Things to be aware of in the process and to bring to the attention of the group in your instructions:

  • Notice how much energy Mara holds
  • As you go further with the dialogue, both Mara and the place of resolve will change.
  • A word of warning: this is a powerful exercise. Some people have very strong inner critics. The Mara voice may remind the focus person of a critical parent. This can feel particularly upsetting if the focus person is unable to stand up to Mara. It is here that the two allies can be of help, supporting the focus person in their place of resolve. The facilitator(s) can be on hand for anyone who gets stuck in this process.
  • For this reason it’s helpful if the facilitator(s) are available during the process to help any focus person (and their allies) who feels stuck or upset.



The Bodhisattva Check-in or "My Choices for This Life" (current form)

60 minutes


This process focuses on our individual lives and helps us see how their basic features and conditions and conditions can serve the healing of the world – almost as if we had chosen them for that purpose. It brings fresh appreciation for the chance to be alive in this planet-time. Like climbing a mountain and looking back on the landscape below, this exercise provides a vantage point that lets us see new things. From that overarching perspective, we can see unsuspected connections and goodness; even our suffering and limitations reveal their value for the work we have come to do.

Another name for this exercise is “The Bodhisattva Check-in,” because it is inspired by the Buddhist teaching of the bodhisattva. Embodying ourmotivation 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 equally useful whether or not we 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.


Three introductory stages precede the main body of the exercise. First, the group is invited to contemplate the long panoramic journey of life on Earth. Along with words from the guide, a recording of tonal sound helps open the mind to that journey’s vast expanses of time.

Secondly, the guide tells people they will imagine that they remember how they chose to take birth as a human in this moment of history. (Joanna tells of bodhisattvas and their vow to keep returning to the world to relieve suffering.) Participants are invited to imagine that they are all together somewhere in a time immediately preceding this present life. In this moment, information reaches them about the dangers to 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 – the making and using of nuclear weapons, industrial technologies that poison and waste whole ecosystems, billions of people sinking into poverty – but one thing is clear. A quantum leap in consciousness is required if life is to prevail on Earth. Hearing this, we decide to renew our commitment to life (our bodhisattva vow) and reenter the fray – to birth as humans in the twentieth century, 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 will succeed in our mission. Furthermore, we will feel alone, because we probably won't even recognize each other.

Participants now reflect on their willingness to take a human birth in so challenging a planet-time. They are directed to stand up one by one, when and if they decide they are willing to come back. The guide acknowledges that there may be some who, understandably enough, choose not to get born in so harsh a time. When the guide is confident that everyone who has made this decision is standing, he invites them to start slowly walking around the room. This is the kind of verbal guidance given to people as they are walking.

Every human life is by necessity a particular life. You can't take birth as a generic human, but only as a unique human shaped by particular circumstances. Step into these circumstances now. Imagine that you choose them in awareness of how they will help prepare you for the mission you are coming to perform.

Step into the year of your birth. The timing of your birth allows you to be affected by particular conditions and events…

Step into the place of your birth. What country did you choose? Were you born in a town or a city, or on the land? Which parts of the Earth's body first greeted your eyes?…

Which skin color and ethnicity did you select? And what socio-economic conditions? Both the privileges and the privations resulting from these choices help prepare you for the work you are coming to do…

Into what faith tradition -- or lack of same -- were you born this time? Religious stories and images from childhood -- or the very lack of these -- influence how you see your purpose…

Now here's an important choice: which gender did you adopt this time around? And which sexual preference?…

And now as to your parents: what man did you choose to be your father? What woman your mother? For some of you, this means your adoptive parents as well as your birth parents. Both the strengths and the weaknesses of your parents, both the loving care you received and the hurts you experienced help prepare you for the work you are coming to do…

Are you an only child or do you have siblings in this life? The companionship, the competition or the loneliness that ensued from that choice will foster the unique blend of strengths you bring to your world…

What disabilities did you choose to take on this time? Challenges of body or mind help you to understand and connect with other beings and with our planet…

Certain strengths and passions characterize this life of yours too. Which mental, physical, spiritual appetites did you choose for yourself in this planet-time?…

And lastly, imagining that you can for a moment see it clearly, what particular mission are you coming to perform?…

In this fashion, as people are quietly walking around the room, the guide helps them to use their walking to mark the specific conditions of their birth in this lifetime. Take care to convey that each choice relates to their actual life and not to any fantasized alternative to it. Now invite them to sit in pairs to report to each other, giving each person ten to fifteen minutes.

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 you chose this time. This is the bodhisattva check-in.

If possible, schedule this exercise before a break; participants are usually so stimulated by the perspective they have gained that they are eager to keep talking, with their partners and with others, too.


1. Once in a while it happens that one or more individuals do not choose to take birth and do not stand up. In that case, simply proceed as described above, and when it is time for people to "check in," invite them to share as well, either with each other or with you.

2. The notion of having chosen one’s life conditions may be problematic for some people. The idea of taking responsibility for situations that have oppressed them can smack of “blaming the victim.” You as guide may acknowledge this at the outset. Point out that we are not using the verb in its ordinary sense, as in choosing a car or a job, but in the larger or even metaphysical sense, in which we let ourselves accept and see the value of all that has befallen us. Spiritual traditions affirm that true liberation arises when we can embrace the particulars of our lives, and see that they are as right for us as if we had indeed chosen them. In other words, we move in this exercise to a higher level of logical type or discourse.

Variations and further topics

As you become familiar with this exercise, you may wish to add or subtract topics for the bodhisattvas' report. Additional themes can also be addressed in a separate session after the basic choices listed above.

A follow-on session can reflect choices we made in the course of this lifetime, relating for example to educational endeavors, spiritual practices, central relationships, and vocational explorations and commitments.

A beautiful question for a bodhisattva check-in is: "How did you first let your heart be broken?" It is moving to discover how much that query evokes about our lives, our mindsets, our goals.

A recent participant wrote: “I have been thinking a lot about ‘The Bodhisattva’s Choices for this Life.’ I found it very empowering. I consider myself an accountable person. I think of my life in terms of choices I’ve made. Yet I’d never before systematically revie