A typical desire for most therapists (at least at some point in their training or career) is “to save people;” because let’s face it: the majority of us are in this business because we care a great deal about others. There comes a moment, however, when almost all therapists eventually learn that trying to save people is exhausting. Actually, even trying to help others gain small amounts of awareness on a daily basis can be difficult and draining. Therapists are not the only group of helpers who can become worn out attempting to expand the consciousness of others, though. Religions of the world have provided us with many illustrations of how wearying an altruistic path can be.

In Buddhism, for example, Bodhisattvas are those who have reached the ultimate state of enlightment, but have renounced that state out of compassion for the many who have not yet awakened. Bodhisattvas choose to put aside their own needs and patiently set out to help others. Throughout the world, perhaps the most venerated of all Bodhisattvas is Avalokiteshvara. Within his story are keys to how we, as therapists, can find incredible strength and inspiration for what we do every day.

Bodhisattva of Compassion
When Avalokiteshvara was in his last incarnation, he was no ordinary person. He had spent years in meditation, action, and reflection. He exuded a level of compassion toward all creatures unlike anything ever seen in the history of beings. In his final life, by his awakening, he transcended the perpetual cycles of birth and death, and was headed straightway for the ultimate realm of connection with the Divine.

Legend has it that in the final instant before he reached the entrance of Nirvana, another awakening occurred, and it was in that moment in which he halted his passage through the gates and swore a vow: He would not enter the ultimate realm until he had helped all beings achieve awakening. Now a spiritual Bodhisattva, he turned, sat arms outstretched in a meditative stance with his back to the ingress of paradise, and began to radiate a beam of compassion to every living being in every corner of the infinite universe.

His work was magnificent. The awesome task he undertook freed countless inhabitants from suffering in the deepest layers of Hell. Being after being benefitted from the overwhelming compassion of Avalokiteshvara until the entirety of Hell was freed from the everlasting cycles of birth and death. His work was complete. Suffering had ended.

Avalokiteshvara turned with a sense of relief that his hard work had paid off and his meaning fulfilled. Only the imaginary, non-being tempter Mara remained. Myriads of every kind of being had been awakened and the underworld of pain emptied—but as the great Bodhisattva glanced back, his moment of relief changed so rapidly into a moment of terror that what he saw and experienced would not only transform him, but all life as well. You see, when Avalokiteshvara looked back, he saw uncountable legions of new beings entering Hell. The thought that his work of countless eons was still inadequate to relieve the ever-occurring suffering of the world struck his very core, and he shattered into many pieces.

Suffering continued. While the darkest regions of Hell filled and expanded, Avalokiteshvara lay broken. But just as light can pierce even the darkest corners of the world, it was out of this darkness the great Buddha approached the fragmented Bodhisattva. Buddha put Avalokiteshvara back together—stronger this time than before. He gave him a thousand eyes and arms to see and reach the multitudes. Buddha stayed as guru until he taught Avalokiteshvara the final knowledge of meaning: that any why can overcome every how.

Reborn in the highest realm, remade from the ultimate reality, and prepared with a meaning that gave him more than Sisyphean strength, Avalokiteshvara rose from the darkness, outstretched his many arms, opened his many eyes, and emanated an ineffable compassion that could be seen and felt then, now, and always. To this day, it is likely that more prayers per second go to Avalokiteshvara than any other deity. Om mani padme hum (“The jewel is in the lotus”) is chanted repeatedly with great hope of eliciting the help and beautiful compassion of the divine, thousand-armed Bodhisattva.

Avalokiteshvara and Modern Therapists
As therapists, we might not be able to comprehend what it means to vow to save every living being, but we certainly have chosen a career path that leads us toward helping others. We might not know the exact pain that shattered Avalokiteshvara into countless pieces, but we can most likely all identify with the feeling of being shattered from believing that things were “supposed to be” one way in our lives, only to find out that they were not as we “expected” them to be. We might not know what it is like to have a thousand eyes and arms, but who among us has not wished to be able to help more than one person at a time?

The story of Avalokiteshvara can be an encouraging tale for every therapist who gets worn out from time to time. Whether the quest to help others achieve peace is laid out on a small scale or a grandiose one, the pursuit is the same. When we find ourselves shattered, lost, and overwhelmed, we can rely on each other. After all, even Avalokiteshvara had the Buddha for support. For each of us individually, we have no more than two eyes and two arms; collectively, however, we have more than a thousand eyes and arms. As a unit, we can rely on each other for strength and inspiration.

When we turn to resources like psychotherapy.net, professional organizations, and libraries, we are able to draw on the knowledge of our fellow practitioners. By the wisdom we gain in books and videos, we can approach our clients with the strength of a thousand outstretched arms of our colleagues, past and present. Through constant learning, experience, insight, and support, we can extend loving-kindness to meet our clients where they are, and help them expand their consciousness on their own paths to peace. In short, we can let the “why” for what we do overcome the seemingly insurmountable “how.”

Regardless of how many clients we may have helped along the way, as long as our doors remain open, there will always be new people who walk through them. No matter how strong our desire, we cannot save everyone, but that is because we cannot save anyone. All we can do is extend compassion to others, offer some insight along the way, and observe. We cannot live life nor even make a single choice for anyone but ourselves. What we can do, however, is continue to pursue the path of helping others. We can choose to not give up no matter how difficult that path turns out to be. We can turn to each other for support when we need it. In the end, we can choose to be thousand-armed therapists by recognizing the limits, possibilities, and realities of our own two arms.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy