So there you are, walking down the street and you see a toddler splashing joyfully in a puddle or pointing to a ‘boid’ with delight, and your own mood lifts. Your heart lightens. You are reminded of the beauty and wonder of life. That is mudita, sympathetic joy, the third of the Four Brahma Viharas. But maybe joy isn’t what you experience at all. Perhaps you don’t even notice the child because you are so caught up in ‘thinking, thinking’ that you are not present in the moment. Or perhaps you find children annoying so feel immune to childish delight. Or maybe the child is a symbol of something you wanted in your life or something you’ve lost, and the sight and sound of that little person’s delight opens painful wounds. As we practice metta (loving-kindness) and find a softening and a deepening sense of connection with all of life, even with difficult people, we develop authentic compassion (karuna), and this quality of sympathetic joy, mudita. These are some of the fruits of practice. For most of us, there are people we love so much — family and close friends — that to see them happy makes us happy. But we may not be so familiar with experiencing joy at the sight of a stranger’s happiness. In fact, we may have experienced quite the opposite, when at the sight of someone else’s happiness we felt envy or self-pity. As you meditate and become more aware of the nature of mind, you have probably come upon some difficult thought or emotion arising in your field of experience. Envy is just one of them. When we notice it, we might then experience some shame at its existence. Mudita is a mental state we can savor when it occurs, but mudita practice helps us to work with the difficulties that arise, especially around envy, feelings of failure, comparison and general disgruntlement. When we discover constricted, grumpy thoughts or feelings, we are in a position of awareness. We may be in the habit of beating ourselves up or finding an external distraction. What a lost opportunity! With practice we can face the fear and discomfort, and find joy in the process. What is envy? This emotion, that arises around the perception that other people have what we want for ourselves, is rooted in fear. Looked at with Wise View, we can see that this is the same old fear that is at the root of all difficult emotions: The fear of being separate. This fear manifests in worry about not being enough, in feeling we have something to prove. Whom do we have to prove it to? Someone we feel separate from, someone we long to be recognized by, someone we want to love us unconditionally and respect us for who we are, even the bits we are not proud of. Wise View lets us understand that we are not separate. We are in this amazing experience of being, briefly, seemingly separate, the way a drop of water soaring over a waterfall is temporarily separate from the cycles of water of which it is intrinsically a part. On a molecular level, we are not at all separate from the rest of life. Yet much of what we do in our lives is actively create a sense of separation, build a separate identity, make a mark, matter in the eyes of others. On one level that may be our purpose here, who knows? But how much richer is the experience if we also sense the deeper connection, the intrinsic nature of being! We can celebrate this gift of life, this brief sense of separate volition and identity without succumbing to the belief that it is all there is. The gift of life is not the accumulation of stuff or relationships or prestige or anything else. It is simply the gift of being fully present with whatever arises.
When we find we are experiencing envy or another related emotion, it doesn’t help to compound that misery by saying, ‘What a terrible person I must be to feel envy when I should feel mudita.’ Instead, we can use the awareness of mudita to shine a little light on our thoughts and emotions, ask a few questions, and find some spaciousness in our experience. We can ask, for example, if the envied person’s happiness is the cause of our own unhappiness. If that person lost what they have, would we gain it? Usually not. And in the rare circumstance that that would be true, would that gaining actually create our happiness? We can look to our own experiences of happiness to recognize that whatever joy comes from external circumstances is temporal. We think that purchase or experience or connection will make us happy, but we quickly absorb these new conditions into our lives. They become the new normal. External conditions are unreliable and cannot create true and lasting happiness. We may still want them, but we would be foolish to rely on them for happiness. We create happiness by taking the time to be present, to experience what is true in this moment. We create suffering (dukkha) by grasping and clinging and wanting things to be different from how they are. If we begrudge other people the things we wish we had, then we expand our suffering to include them as well. Not purposely probably but just out of the discomfort of being around people who have what we crave. It’s like a sugar addict sitting at a table where desserts are displayed but denied. Check in to see if you believe that the other person is responsible for your suffering. And if so, really take some time to quiet down, center in and question that belief. Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of someone’s inability to tolerate your happiness. From your perspective the person seems like a self-destructive razor-sharp tornado of misery. Any effort you make to reach out causes you pain. If you can see that it is your situation — the very existence of your success, your love life or your children — that aggravates them, then it’s easier not to take it personally. And there is no reason to feel guilty for your own situation, unless achieved in some unethical way. Just letting other people have their happiness without faulting them for it is a major step for some of us. It’s important to remember that this letting go is not a loss but an opening to joy, a joy not dependent on causes and conditions. We can’t know with any certainty another person’s suffering. Likewise we can’t assume they are happy simply because they have a nice house, or good health, or any other item or situation. There are happy and miserable people in every walk of life and profession. The person who wins the lottery may have a temporary thrill, but within a year studies show they return to their previous level of happiness. We are very adaptable, and we adapt to changes of circumstance, treating it as the new normal. So mudita is feeling happy for the happiness of others because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us. How do we find mudita? When we quiet down in meditation, anchor into physical sensation to stay present with whatever is arising in this very moment, tap into this infinite source, deeply know that all is one, then we find that joy is contagious and bountiful.