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

Seeing with New Eyes
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 reviewed all the major choices in my life, and celebrated them for bringing me to this time and place.”