Of all the teachings given by the Buddha that I encountered, his teaching on bodhicitta had the greatest impact on me when I first heard it in my early adulthood. This great resolve for an awakened heart and mind, I learned, was not for me alone but for the benefit of all.
Like many practitioners, I come from a culture and family that emphasized individual efforts and achievement. I gathered early in life that it would be up to me to do something worthwhile. While the subtext of this directive was to try to do something relevant to what people would need and enjoy, I nevertheless felt that the primary emphasis was on my individual experience. So this teaching of bodhicitta—the wish to be fully enlightened for the benefit of all—was a powerful and poignant challenge to the narcissism that had influenced my upbringing. It reminded me that efforts to secure my own happiness while forgetting the similar efforts of others might actually cause distress. The teaching posed an intriguing Buddhist riddle: What do you get when you try to be happy? The answer: something along the lines of Freud’s “common unhappiness,” or the Buddha’s dukkha.
Like many American Buddhists, I didn’t fully believe that I’d be unhappy if I sought my own happiness. Why not? I thought. Wasn’t I being responsible in seeking my own happiness, doing what I could to decrease suffering and have the good and meaningful life I wanted? Conceptually, this seemed right. But I had to admit that the more I focused on my own well-being without feeling that it was intimately tied to the well-being of others, the more I noticed chronic feelings of isolation, the subtle stress of competitive yearnings, and the emotional seesaw of feeling good when life was going well and crummy when it was not.
I also began to notice examples of people in my spiritual community and elsewhere who seemed primed to be on friendly terms with life and its many twists and turns. They seemed aware of both the suffering and the well-being of others, and they responded readily and with ease. I noticed that such people had a certain ready cheer about them, a noteworthy contentment. They had problems, too—we all do. But their problems, alongside their personal joys and accomplishments, didn’t seem to blind them to the reality of others. In short, they seemed to be turning toward reality and all it holds. This was how I’d come to understand enlightenment: a well-practiced ability to stay curious about whatever is unfolding and—through this receptive stance—respond skillfully and nonreactively, and to watch things change as they invariably will.
With my teacher’s encouragement, I began to let the teachings on bodhicitta inform my spiritual practice. Each morning I prayed to become fully awake for the benefit of all, dedicated every moment of my well-being to the well-being of all, and rejoiced in the spiritual efforts of so many people throughout this globe. With intention, I tried to link my spiritual practice to that of ever-expanding numbers of people. Slowly, over time, something shifted. I began to feel relatively freed from the gnawing concern about my own welfare. I wasn’t disinterested or negligent, simply less tethered to my own personal experience and outcomes. The practice seemed to dissolve the feeling of being fundamentally on my own, and this was a profound relief.
All other virtues, like the plantain tree,
Produce their fruit, but then their force is spent.
Alone the marvelous tree of bodhicitta
Constantly bears fruit and grows unceasingly
—The Way of the Bodhisattva
Years later I began to give dharma talks on bodhicitta. Initially, my students seemed touched by this poignant teaching, struck by the Buddha’s wisdom in presciently suggesting more than 2,500 years ago that there was a way to challenge and even uproot the solipsism so many of us had grown up with. We could forge ahead spiritually; make every effort to allow life to unfold with its many challenges, losses, and opportunities; stay open and curious; turn toward reality nonreactively, and practice with all beings in mind. Students seemed relieved to know that there was integrity in syncing up one’s own spiritual efforts with the experience of all. The dog-eat-dog ideal that many of us had internalized could be directly challenged through bodhicitta practice, allowing the ego-driven perspective that puts oneself at the center to take a much-needed rest.
However, invariably a few students—usually women—would ask about “compassion fatigue.” Where do you draw the line? they asked. I could hear an important subtext in that question: for women who have been raised to feel and believe that their primary value is in taking care of others, it can be exhausting and frustrating to imagine that you must be available for everyone’s needs at all times, or that you must find some way to relinquish any personal need that is at odds with the needs of others.
In our conversations, we discussed the difference between bodhicitta and obligatory caregiving. Bodhicitta doesn’t mean that you are always available for everyone else’s needs. Feeling compelled or expected to care for children, elders, one’s partner, one’s supervisor, and others at one’s own expense is very different from bodhicitta, which is a heart and mind primed to stay open for the benefit of all.
I remembered how, early on in my friendship with my teacher Khenpo Pema Wangdak, I had asked him if he could be a guest presenter in a class I was teaching. He was normally very receptive to helping in any way he could, especially when it involved offering spiritual teachings that would help others. But on this occasion he said only that he would try his best. A few days later he called to tell me: “I would love to be able to come to your class, but I cannot do it.” He went on to tell me why, and I felt in his response both the truth of his intention and the truth of the limits on his time. It was a great teaching for me: it affirmed that it is possible to genuinely want to help all beings, to bring one’s insights and skillful means to every encounter, and to let this aspiration become a state of mind that infuses each moment, while simultaneously having limits and needed boundaries.
I realize that this may seem like a conundrum. So many of us—whether we were encouraged to be too self-focused or too other-focused—struggle to imagine what it would be like to feel capable of ushering in well-being for others while simultaneously honoring our own limits, time, and energy. Here, our feelings can be a trustworthy guide. With enlightenment mind, one feels motivated to awaken fully and begins to do so through increasingly hearing and responding to the experience of all, including ourselves, until we all feel freed up and on board with reality. Bodhicitta creates a sense of abundance, of having great capacity to open up, tap into deeper internal resources, and trust that these are shared resources of compassion, insight, and wisdom. Chronic sublimation and compulsive caretaking, in contrast, usually cause feelings of impingement and stress, or the fear that if you don’t offer care, the other person’s affection or respect will be withdrawn.
It is important to know the difference between these two projects. Preserving yourself and knowing your boundaries is not the same thing as exclusively seeking your own happiness. It’s about the healing process of learning to skillfully discern what will and will not serve all beings, yourself included. This balance is beautifully illustrated by the image of Green Tara, sometimes called the Mother of all Buddhas. With regal humility, she sits with one leg extended, symbolizing her wish to join you in your efforts to establish and share well-being. Her other leg is tucked inward, symbolizing her continued commitment to containing and developing her own mind and body energies that offer sustenance in these efforts. So too, her hands symbolize both her generosity and her need for support from teachers, spiritual methods, and community. This image offers an inspiring symbol of enlightenment mind, letting us see what it looks like to be devoted to our collective well-being. Green Tara reminds us that bodhicitta doesn’t involve a minimization of our subjective experience, or require that our own needs be eclipsed; rather, it invites us to locate our spiritual efforts within a larger frame. Bodhicitta nurtures our sense of agency.
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