Bodhisattvas and Boundaries

Someone around me is drinking himself to death. It’s not anyone in my immediate family or a friend – but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to watch. It’s made me keenly aware of the sense of powerless that comes when addiction grabs hold of a person and won’t let go. It’s also made me keenly aware of the boundaries that exist between people. There is also an acknowledgment of letting go.

I remember back to a few years ago – I submitted a question to a teacher who was a guest on the Buddhist Geeks podcast related to the concept of “bodhisattva burnout” and what to do if you felt exhausted from running around trying to save the world. She replied something to the effect of ‘if you’re a true bodhisattva, you won’t burn out.”


That didn’t really help. I felt like I did when I first discovered Wonder Woman as a child. I dressed up as her one Halloween and then decided that I would adopt a superheroine ethos and truly embody her full time. I’d run around our neighborhood asking people if they needed help with anything. Usually I’d be helping people hang laundry up, or sometimes they’d need help with eating the extra cookies they made. That part wasn’t so bad.

Discovering Buddhism led me to some pretty great new ways of living in the world and relating to others – all while exploring myself. The drawback though was that I found Buddhism at a time where let’s say my self-esteem and self-concept wasn’t fully realized. I think for a good chunk of my ‘Buddhist career’ we can say this has been the case. Without a solid grip and solid instructions on what it means to be a bodhisattva, it’s easy to see how I could feel much like that kid in the costume, running from house to house, breathlessly trying to save the world.

Now I have a sense of my own self-preservation. I am consciously checking in to see when I start to feel that burnout and know to engage in self-care and chillaxation.

I’m also aware of the boundaries that exist for another ‘self.’ I’ve become more attuned to how individuals are – the forces that come about in their lives to help them become who they are and make the decisions they make. The self-work I’ve done has helped me gain a deeper perspective into this kind of stuff. It’s mind-blowing and life changing really.

I now see that not everyone is going to take the help a bodhisattva offers. I no longer take this personally or think that I’ve failed and need to grind myself to a paste to force what I want to happen. The ideal ending for the story sometimes doesn’t get written.

I practice letting go of the outcome I have in mind and working with the outcome that is. I generate compassion for myself in knowing that I tried my best to save the world – even if those actions seem so small and meaningless.

I no longer feel like I’m burning out because there’s always an opportunity to practice loving-kindness and compassion. There’s always a living being that is in need of aid. True change can only come through the relationship that that other being has in taking the help offered. I’m in no way in any sense of the word someone who understands karma, but I see that some outcomes are beyond what I can influence. There is both a sense of freedom in seeing this as well as a complete sense of powerlessness. I’m learning to dwell in both areas and stay with the discomfort.