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.

2 thoughts on “Bodhisattvas and Boundaries

  1. tmc says:

    I was going to do a response post over on mine but hopefully being too wordy here is ok.

    So there are two sides to it… the intention of offering help, and the action of helping. Intention is important, and offering help is a practice in itself. It’s like water bowls on an altar. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas don’t need water; it’s a generosity drill so that unattached generosity becomes your default. The attachment is the pestle that pastes you. I reckon the teacher who suggested that a true Bodhisattva wouldn’t burn out was speaking from that perspective. A Bodhisattva who’s realized emptiness wouldn’t have the attachment to the offering of help (or to an ego, or to an outcome) & therefore wouldn’t experience those feelings of despair or defeat that we feel when we see someone in a bad way. No despair, no attachment, no burn out.


    Alternate perspective in which the person you’re trying to help is a Bodhisattva there to teach you something you need to learn. Seeing their suffering, ignorance, poor decisions, what have you… somewhere in all that there’s going to be some reflection of your own ignorance that’s being pointed out and needs work.

    (These are super simplified examples conjured off the top of my ignorant mind; please pardon any glaring philosophical errors!)

    • Tanya McGinnity says:

      Oh gosh this is good. So freaking helpful. And so complicated. Lots to chew on.

      It opens up a lot of stuff- some of which I was thinking when I was watching my neighbor flattened by alcohol, lying in our courtyard unable to get up.
      It brought me back to seeing people I loved who were dying – and the powerlessness I felt in those moments. Mine and theirs. And sometimes that powerlessness was me projecting powerlessness onto them.

      Then that takes me to the question of what can a Bodhisattva do. In those times it was to sit and sometimes say nothing. To be present with my pain and theirs and not go back to my old habits of running from scary shit or freaking out when it became overwhelming.

      I think the intention for me is always there – I guess it’s seeing the immediate ‘positive’ result. Less of an expectation of a reward or payoff but more of a “I saved someone/ I helped allieviate suffering/ I saw a tangible result to this action.” kind of thing. Even that – the failure to see a positive result has some kind of hook caught up with that given that I could have a good intention in saving someone from drowning but end up filling their lungs up even faster due to faulty lifesaving techniques.


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