“We hate it when our friends are successful,” sang Morrissey, the mope-rock, singer songwriter and former leader of The Smiths. And while “hate” may be overstating the issue, a quick Google search of that song finds hundreds of articles and blogs quoting Morrissey, with people sharing the dark, not-so-secret fact, that rather than celebrating others’ successes and happiness, we often react with envy and jealousy. And the flip side of this human quirk is the guilty delight, or schadenfreude, we feel when others fail, as evidenced by so much of the popular reaction to celebrities’ foibles and misfortunes.
It’s as if we had internalized the notion that there’s only so much happiness, joy, or good fortune to go around, and that if others are happy, there must be less available for us! This must be an age-old problem, and certainly not one limited to contemporary society, because already, over 2,000 years ago, both the Buddha and later, Patanjali, taught the practice of mudita, the third of the Brahma-Viharas, the yogic teachings on love, as an antidote to this notion that we need feel threatened or diminished by the happiness of others by cultivating the ability to take active delight in others’ good fortune.
The Classical Yoga tradition warns that feeling envy is painful and disrupting of our own mental well-being. The tradition singles out cultivating delight in virtuous people. “Don’t envy them; don’t try to pull them down. Appreciate the virtuous qualities in them and try to cultivate them in your own life,” Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Patanjali.
Speaking from the Buddhist yoga tradition, where the Brahma-Viharas are also known as the “Four Immeasurables,” or “Limitless Ones” the Dalai Lama speaks for a kind of ‘enlightened self interest.’ As he puts it, there are so many people in this world it simply makes sense to make their happiness as important as our own, because then our chances of delight are increased. If we are only happy for ourselves, there are many fewer chances for happiness. But if we can be happy when good things happen to others, then our chances for delight are increased “six billion to one!”
I try to remember this myself when I find myself on a long line, like at the bank. Rather than fall into impatience or envy of the folks toward the front of the line, I imagine their relief when they are called to the teller’s window and feel happy for them. By the time it’s my turn, I’m feeling pretty darn happy myself!
The root of the word mudita means “to be pleased, to have a sense of gladness.” The Buddha called mudita “the mind-deliverance of gladness” because this joyful delight actually liberates our hearts and minds. While the mainstream Buddhist tradition tends to translate mudita as “empathetic or altruistic joy” to emphasize our over-coming of envy and jealousy by taking delight in the happiness of others, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, this is too limiting a definition because it discriminates between self and others. In Teachings On Love, he writes: “A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?”
So much of our unhappiness comes from the negativity we hold towards ourselves and toward others. Through our judgments, comparisons, and envy we suffer from a sense of aloneness and lack. Because there are so many constricting impediments to truly opening up to joy, mudita is often said to be the most difficult of the Brahma-Viharas to cultivate. Perhaps because of this very difficulty, mudita can be a powerful liberating force, freeing us from the sense of isolation and self-constriction. And, thankfully, there are many ways we can create the conditions for opening to joy, in asana practice, meditation, and throughout the day.
Whether in my own asana practice, or when teaching, when focusing on joy, I find it helpful to follow John Friend’s advice to “look for the good.” To counter-act the mind’s tendency to fixate on what’s “wrong” with a posture – or with any of life’s experiences – we can actively look for what is “right.” This is not a Pollyannaish denial of duhkha – the unsatisfactory and painful aspects of life. After all, mudita follows the first two Brahma-Viharas: metta, the friendly, non-judgmental accepting quality of what is, and karuna, the compassionate opening to whatever physical, emotional, energetic and mental ills you may be experiencing. We cannot open to real joy if we are caught in aversion or attachment. A psychotherapist I worked with once said that the most pain avoidant people have the least joy in their lives.
The Buddha said that all experiences can be categorized as being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When we cultivate joy, we focus more on the pleasant, but the neutral too can help grow more joy. Thich Nhat Hanh offers the example of the “non-toothache.” When you last had a toothache, you knew for sure that it was unpleasant and that to not have a toothache would be pleasant. But now, you overlook the joy of the non-toothache because it is “neutral.” By bringing attention to the fact that your teeth do not hurt, you may feel a gentle smile of appreciation arise. The neutral quality of experience, through mindfulness, can be the nourishment for greater joy.
A deep, and long relaxation is a must when cultivating joy in our asana practice. While lying in shavasana, you can “touch” various parts of your body with your loving attention. For instance, bringing attention to your eyes as you inhale, send an “inner smile” to your eyes, full of gratitude and appreciation for them as you exhale. Spend a few breaths, smiling to each part of your body. As you move your attention through your body, you do this for your limbs, your inner organs – even, and especially for those parts of the body you may be less than satisfied with – developing greater joy and deeper appreciation for what is.
This practice of cultivating appreciation and gratitude can be taken off the mat and practiced throughout the day. A student shared with me that she felt that life had lost its “flavor” and had become rather empty. As part of her practice, I asked her to spend some time at the end of each day, reviewing her day and making a list of five things that brought her some joy. I emphasized that these need not be “big” things; that perhaps seeing a child laugh while a puppy licked its face could bring her some joy. At the end of one week, she asked if she had to limit her list to five things. She said she found that there were many joy-filled experiences, even on her darkest days. Without denying her sadness and heavy spirit, she was finding that all was not dark. As Leonard Cohen says, “the joy kept breaking through.”
Somewhat paradoxically, the contemplation on impermanence can also enhance our ability to touch joy. The Buddha thought the contemplation of impermanence so important he called it one of the three “Dharma Seals,” saying that without an understanding of impermanence, one could not fully penetrate the Dharma, meaning both his teachings and the real nature of things. I know for myself that the awareness of the impermanent nature of all phenomena – including myself – makes me more sensitive to the effervescent nature of experience. When awake to impermanence, I do not take any one or anything for granted. I stay in touch with what’s happening, and feel the joy of simply being awake to life.
As the mental obstacles to joy are so pernicious, it is important to stay alert to their presence as soon as they arise. When we are judgmental, the mind becomes rigidly attached to how it thinks things should be. If we are judgmental of ourselves, chances are we are also judgmental of others. Mudita, being nonjudgmental, accepts that others can find happiness in things that we would not. Can we accept that others may choose to live their lives differently from us and feel happy for them? Viveka, or discernment is still required, of course. Unfortunately, many people delude themselves as to what makes them happy, and in fact create unhappiness for themselves or others. But if people are genuinely happy and they are not harming themselves or others, mudita is the practice of sharing in their happiness.
Comparing mind is another major obstacle to feeling joy. Whether we compare ourselves to others as better, worse, or the same, we are falling into the trap of “conceit.” Comparing can never bring peace or joy because there is no end to the possibilities of things we can compare ourselves to! While it’s obvious that comparing ourselves as “better” or “worse” is painful, it may seem surprising that even comparing ourselves as “the same” or “equal” to others is considered “conceit.” The problem is, that all comparing is looking at others in order to define oneself. It is evaluating our self worth in reference to others, when the spirit of mudita and the other Brahma-Viharas affirms that we innately deserve to be happy. When we truly believe and understand that deep reality, we can take delight in the happiness of others instead of feeling threatened by it. Our relationship to the world becomes one of communion rather than competition.
The formal practice of mudita-bhavana (joy cultivation), celebrates the happiness of all beings – ourselves included! In fact, through the growing insight into the interdependent nature of the world, we see that the happiness of “others” is indeed our happiness.
To enter into the spirit of mudita-bhavana, it is helpful to recall your own innate goodness. Bring to mind a time when you said or did something that was kind, generous, caring or loving. If nothing comes to mind, turn your attention to a quality in yourself that you enjoy or like about yourself, some skill or talent perhaps that you can recognize and appreciate. If still nothing comes to mind, simply reflect on the basic “rightness” of your innate wish to be happy.
Then begin to offer yourself appreciative and encouraging phrases acknowledging the joy and happiness you’ve experienced in life.
“May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy I experience.”
“May the joy I experience continue and grow.”
“May I be filled with joy and gratitude.”
Of course, you are free to create any phrases that have an appreciative intention, and as you send these wishes to yourself, open yourself to whatever feelings arise in your body and mind. Notice what – if any – reactivity is provoked by the practice. Don’t expect to instantly feel great joy and appreciation. As a “purification practice,” sometimes all we see is our lack of appreciation and the mind’s judging reactivity. Simply note whatever arises, and return to the phrases, with as much friendliness and compassion you can muster.
After directing these phrases to yourself for a while, the traditional sequence moves on to a benefactor, defined as someone who has inspired you or offered you aid in any way.
“May you experience joy and may your happiness continue.”
“May you be filled with appreciation for your happiness and success.”
“May your happiness and good fortune continue.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”
Following a benefactor, the sequence moves on to a loved one or friend; then towards a neutral person, defined as someone you barely know – maybe even a stranger for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. Following the neutral person, we see if we can include sending these phrases and connecting to feeling joy and delight for the happiness and success of the “difficult” people in your life; perhaps someone you envy, but generally those whom you have shut out from your heart.
“May your happiness and joy increase.”
“May the joy in your life continue and grow.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”
If it becomes too difficult to send to a difficult person, acknowledge this with non-judgmental acceptance, and return to sending these phrases to a loved one or yourself. Trust that in time, your heart will expand to include even those for whom you now feel resentment and envy.
Finally, with the understanding that all beings wish to be met with appreciation, we send these phrases to all beings throughout the world. Imagine radiating these positive thoughts from your immediate environment, out in all directions, sending appreciative joy-filled wishes to all beings in existence. When you feel ready to end the meditation, take some time to simply sit with your feelings, and your breath, honoring whatever you experience.
In the Buddhist yoga tradition, the practice of “sharing merit” is another antidote to the idea that the happiness of others means there’s less for us. When we feel that there is a fixed amount of happiness in the world, we fall into an embittered, resentful state of competition with others. Yet, happiness, like love, increases when it is shared. Sharon Salzberg, the Buddhist meditation teacher, describes merit as a power that is born in and grows through acts of goodness. Sharing this merit itself is a powerful, wholesome action that generates its own power. When you give away your merit to others, your own merit increases! Happiness does not diminish in our hearts when we share it. It isn’t a commodity limited in such a way that it has to be rationed.
When we share merit, happiness, or love with all sentient beings, by the very nature of our own sentience, we are included! There is no real separation between “us” and “them.”
In this spirit, I would like to offer the version of “sharing merit” that I like to end all my classes with:
“Whatever merit we may have generated through our practice together
We now dedicate and offer all of it
to all sentient beings throughout the world, equally.
May our thoughts, our words, and our actions
Bring benefit to the world.”
The salient characteristic of joy is a gladness that celebrates the happiness of others. It is the opposite of envy and jealousy. Ultimately, through the insight of no-separation, the happiness of “others” is our happiness.
Preliminary Practice: Bring to mind the image of a benefactor whose happiness you share in. Begin with the following phrases:
May your happiness and good fortune continue.
May your success and prosperity continue.
The Phrases: The two above and/or other appropriate statements.
The Traditional Sequence of Mudita Bhavana:
1. To a benefactor and then a loved one or friend.
2. To someone you envy.
3. To other individuals.
4. To groups of people.
5. All beings, known and unknown to you.