Mudita: Empathetic Joy



So still. How can she sit so still? Here I am on a meditation retreat, supposedly cultivating peace of mind, but instead I’m agitated, spinning unhappy thoughts. And there she is, a beacon of peace and light. She’s the picture of enlightenment. If only she’d fidget a little. Oh well, at least I’m not moving around as much as the person behind me.

This script, with many frustrating elaborations, played in my head many times a day in the first few weeks of a long meditation retreat I attended some years ago. The feeling beneath the chatter was quite familiar—the restless gripping of envy and self-doubt, a combination that feeds on itself. The more I compared myself unfavorably to others, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I compared myself unfavorably.

It was hard to miss the irony of a meditator dwelling on comparisons of his/her sitting practice to that of another. Yet in the careful observance of the contracted, restless agitation of the comparing mind I began to understand this as a pattern that I had nurtured. How much do I do this in my life, I wondered. How often do I feel threatened by another person’s success? How would it feel to be happy for the peaceful person sitting in front of me instead of wishing for her to feel discomfort? Do I really believe that her success and happiness diminish my own? Is it true that her discomfort will somehow elevate me?

I remembered growing up in a family with two sisters—one known for her talent and intelligence, the other loved for her beauty and effervescent personality. I remembered the relentless comparisons by relatives and teachers. Which one is the smartest? Which one has the best personality? Which one is the most musical and which is the most artistic? While it’s easy to recognize the frustrating unquantifiability of these traits and the futility in relying on them as a way to define onesself, nonetheless I had developed a profound habit of self-evaluation based on comparisons with others. And I suspected that this habit is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of Western culture. Sitting on a meditation retreat with no distractions, the suffering inherent in this kind of thinking was undeniable. We all have talents and life callings that are unique unto ourselves. Comparison is not only futile but painful.

We live in a society that believes in winners and losers. We spend many hours watching competitive sports. We are happy when our team wins, and we hate the other team when they win. We compare our own successes with those of our peers. We often envy and resent the success and happiness of peers as if they are taking something away from us, as if there is a little stockpile of success and happiness somewhere and they have taken more than their share, leaving less for us. The other person’s success is a reflection of our lack thereof. Or is it? Is it possible that the amount of love, happiness and success available to worldly beings is not finite? How would it feel to rejoice in the happiness of our fellow humans?

The Buddha said, “In a battle, the winners and losers both lose.” It is easy to understand the loss of the losers, but the winners? The winners lose because those around them envy them and become resentful of them. Eventually their position is challenged until their power is lost. The cycle of winning and losing is continuously changing and appears not to be a reflection of one’s absolute superiority or inferiority.

In Buddhist psychology, the third of the four brahma viharas (divine abodes, or god-like qualities that exist within us) is a state called mudita, or sympathetic joy. Mudita is defined as a rejoicing in the happiness of others. (It is interesting to note that there is no word for this concept in our language.) The Buddha called mudita a “rare and beautiful quality.” It is a boundless state that responds to others’ successes not with withdrawal or envy, but with active delight. Cultivating the quality of mudita helps uproot the unhappy states of envy, judgment and comparison. It is also said to be the most difficult of the brahma viharas to develop.

If mudita is such a beautiful state, why is it so difficult to cultivate? Hindrances to sympathetic joy are many and powerful—comparing, judgment, envy and avarice—and connect directly to a lack of understanding of our interdependence with the world around us. Maybe, instead of diminishing the supply of happiness in the world, another person’s happiness contributes to the well of happiness available to all of us. And just maybe, our own joy in response creates even more.

The tendency of human beings to judge others according to our own preferences is a quality that hinders our ability to generate mudita. Again, this is a way of defining others in reference to ourselves. When a person makes a choice that we would not make and it brings them happiness, how do we react? Do you have a friend who has chosen to live an austere lifestyle, while you enjoy living lavishly? Maybe someone you know enjoys the glitz of Las Vegas, while you would rather spend time in the silence of the Escalante. Maybe you have a friend who has chosen to have children, while you have chosen to remain childless. Or maybe someone you know loves a type of music, film or art you can’t stand.

There is a tendency to discount someone’s happiness when it is derived from an activity or lifestyle choice that is not our preference. Do others’ choices really threaten the validity of our own? Or are their unique tastes and choices simply a complementary color that makes the fabric of humanity even more magnificent? When we begin to see others without self-referential judgment, we can learn to celebrate their happiness and respect their choices—as long as those choices are not causing harm—without judging them. Our negative judgments of others do not elevate us. Instead, they serve only to create unhappiness for ourselves and those around us.

How can we begin to unhook ourselves from the tendency to judge or to cultivate comparisons and envy? Like the other brahma viharas (see “Lovingkindness” in the November 2001 Catalyst and “Compassion” in the January 2002 Catalyst), mudita can be practiced.

In 1994 I attended a 30-day vipassana retreat during which I began to understand the infinite nature of all the brahma vihara states. In each of the four weeks we practiced a different quality—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. A profound shift in understanding came when I began to experience the infinite quality of these states.

The traditional practice is to extend the brahma viharas to ourselves first and then to others. In the weeks of intensive practice I observed that sending lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy to others did not diminish my supply. In fact, I was able to see that the more I shared, the more these states began to fill me until I could not contain them. They had to be shared. I realized that love and happiness are self-generating and self-replenishing. They are not qualities you need to acquire from somewhere else. They do not increase when we keep them to ourselves. Rather they are qualities that are strengthened and multiplied in the sharing.

You can begin practicing mudita by bringing to mind someone you care about who is experiencing success and happiness. Bring your focus to this person’s current source of happiness. Reflect on their joy and success, and say to yourself, “May your happiness continue forever,” or “May your happiness not diminish,” or “May your good fortune continue.” As you begin to feel connection with the person’s happiness you can extend well wishes to others you know. You may even want to extend mudita to someone you know who is currently suffering. Here, you can focus on whatever part of this person’s life is happy.

You can also practice mudita by celebrating the success of someone you don’t like. It is common for people to wish for the unhappiness of those we don’t like, and to be especially frustrated when we observe that they are happy. Here is where an understanding of compassion and the suffering that visits everyone’s life is useful. Observe your mind state when you want to deny the happiness of someone you don’t like. Do you really wish for this person to experience only suffering? How does it feel to wish for someone only to suffer? What kind of environment are we creating in our own minds? In contrast, how does it feel to allow for someone’s current success, knowing that at other times in their lives they—like we—sometimes experience pain and difficulty?
It is helpful to remember to be patient with yourself in this and any other meditation practice. Sympathetic joy can be a challenging practice, especially if the habit of comparing or judging is one you have cultivated over time. I have found though, that the rewards easily surpass the challenges.

Mudita is a pure, profound and liberating state. Developing mudita unhooks us from envy, avarice, comparisons and judgment, which underlie the unhappiness of the human condition. In the celebration of the happiness of those around us we create a brightness of mind and heart that benefits ourselves and everyone whose lives we touch.