Category Archives: low self-esteem

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

Mudita, Sympathetic Joy: Yet Another Gift of Meditation Practice

This exploration of freedoms we have been doing for the past couple of months has much in common with the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes.’ These are states that are the gift of the practice, just as our freedoms we’ve been discussing are gifts of the practice. They are states that can’t be achieved by goal setting, by trying to be ‘good,’ or by pretending to be kind, compassionate, happy or wise. They arise out of the practice of being present, and in that being present, guided by the wisdom of the Eightfold Path, we may find ourselves in these states of connected authentic generosity of spirit: happy, kind, truly compassionate and well-balanced.

We have explored two of these Brahmaviharas in this class: Metta, loving-kindness and Karuna, compassion. Now we turn to Mudita which means sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy is feeling happy for the happiness of others. Not because we think we should feel it in order to be a nice person, but 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.

The other day I was driving home from Spirit Rock and was descending White’s Hill into Fairfax behind two cyclists. Usually bicycle riders stay to the side of the road in their designated lane, but these two rode in the middle of the car lane, and since they were descending at a pretty rapid rate, they weren’t causing me to slow down.

I was coming home from a lovely morning of yoga, meditation and dharma, more relaxed and connected than I might have been, so it felt quite natural to purposely keep my car at enough of a distance so they would not feel I wanted them to get out of my way.

In fact, I wanted them to feel that they truly had the road to themselves, as a reward for all their uphill exertions. Then I enjoyed watching them and I relaxed into feeling in my body the sympathetic sensation of their hunkering down to be aero-dynamic, their leaning left or right on the curves. I relished the whole rich sensate experience of speed and freedom.

And that is a form of mudita: Letting go of any sense that the cyclists were obstructing my ability to get home to eat lunch, I allowed myself to share in the pleasure they were experiencing, to be truly happy for them having this lovely ride on a beautiful autumn day.

But sometimes we are faced with situations that don’t easily inspire mudita. Even in that fairly benign situation, I could just as easily have fallen into a story of personal loss, since I love bike riding, a childhood joy I had to give up many years ago as it is too hard on my knees. I could have felt envy, sadness, depression. I could have mourned the feel of the wind in my face, instead of enjoying it through sharing in their experience. And maybe on another day, in a different situation, my thoughts might have gone there. But on this day, they didn’t. On this day, I was delighted to find myself in the state of mudita.

Each of us has our personal losses and unfulfilled dreams that have the capacity to haunt us whenever we are confronted with someone who seems to be living that dream or still has what we have lost. Perhaps we weren’t able to have a child, or lost a child, and when we see someone with children or a pregnant woman, we may not feel sympathetic joy at all. The sight only stirs up our story, causing emotions and thoughts that unsettle us. If we weren’t caught up in the story, we could enjoy all the children we meet, delight in the sight of babies in strollers or trick-or-treaters in their costumes. But because they aren’t ours, because we can’t tuck them into bed at night, because they don’t call us mommy, we can’t appreciate them. Maybe we can see that it would make sense to reach out to other people’s children as teachers, care givers or aunts, but we just can’t do it. The story seems to be so tightly woven that it feels solid, impermeable, and we are caught in the middle of it, as if a spider had wrapped us up for dinner.

Most of us at some time have been in a position of hoping for a job, a promotion, a relationship, acceptance in a program or a competition of some kind. And most of us know what it is like to be denied the prize we sought. What happens then when we meet the person or persons who received whatever prize it was we wanted. How does that feel? Maybe we want to feel happy for them because we don’t want to be a sore loser. Maybe we feel embarrassed by the strength of our aspirations and the way we feel sucked out to sea by the undertow of that great wave of hope we had been surfing.

We have all experienced this to some degree at some time in our lives. We can all remember how it feels. Maybe we don’t even have to remember, maybe we have some experience of it in our current situation. Whatever it is, we need to be present with it, noticing the arising thoughts, emotions and sensations; noticing any harsh judgments that arise; holding ourselves with compassion, remembering that we are only human, vessels through which these kinds of emotions, thoughts and sensations flow.

Because it is so normal to feel envy, it comes as a surprise when mudita arises within us. What a delight is this unexpected gift of feeling joy at the sight of a child not our own! How sweet to truly feel happy for the person who receives recognition, knowing that that person too was hungry for acknowledgment, worked hard, suffered, feared failure – just as we did, and we are the same in that way. And many other ways as well. So the joy is simply joy, simply happiness, simply a celebration we can attend without feeling we weren’t invited.

If sympathetic joy seems unachievable it’s because it is. Totally unachievable! Like all the freedoms we’ve been discussing and the other three Brahmaviharas, this sympathetic joy for the happiness of others is a gift, not a goal. Mudita is not a practice so much as a fruit of metta and awareness practice. If we try to treat it as a goal or try to don it like a garment, draping ourselves in the pretend glow of happiness for others, we fail in our true practice: to be present for whatever arises.

Noting whatever feelings arise – envy, jealousy, anger, then noticing the disappointment we feel at discovering them in ourselves, then noticing any shame or sense of failure: That’s the practice. We begin to see the previously unconscious habitual patterns of thought and the reactive behavior they trigger. Making the patterns conscious starts to dissolve the tightly wrapped threads, so that there seems to be more time and space to see and make wise choices.

Instead of battling our thoughts and trying to change them, we just bring full awareness to them. We see them for what they are and begin to feel less threatened by them. We see that they are not us. We are not defined by them.

These thoughts and emotions are simply a part of the universal human condition, and conditioning. When we are able to be compassionate with our feelings we are less likely to feel the need to express these emotions through our words or actions. We might share our noticing of feelings arising, but we do so in a conscious way that doesn’t make the other person responsible for them.

As children our parents were made responsible for all these unacceptable situations and emotions. My mother saved a note I wrote when I was eleven in which I described everything that had gone wrong that day and how it was ‘ALL YOUR FAULT!’ Why did she save it? Years later I found myself saving a similar note from one of my own children. Strangely mothers often find these rants endearing.

But they are really only endearing in children, these tantrums. In adults not so much. Archie Bunker used to say, ‘Stifle!’ to his wife Edith whenever she was expressing her emotions. But that’s not what we are going for in our practice. Instead, when we discover these volatile emotions throwing a tantrum inside ourselves, we want to bring the compassionate bemusement of a mother whose child is ranting. The mother knows she is not really responsible for all the awful things that happened in her child’s school day, so there’s no reason to get caught up in defending herself. She can recognize the humanness, and the dearness of this loved one, struggling with her emotions.

So we don’t stifle our emotions. Instead we create a place for them to play within our spacious mind. We watch with loving curiosity, noticing, listening, even asking questions, but not scolding or trying to shut the process down. (When we notice we are scolding or trying to shut down the process, we simply note that as well.) We feel as much compassion and understanding as we are capable of feeling, but, just like my mother and mothers around the world when dealing with an exhausted child on a rant, we don’t succumb to the story that’s being told. We don’t need to react, or bring it out in the world, making others responsible for the internal chaos we are experiencing. We don’t have to be harsh or indulgent. We simply sit with the experience until the tantrum passes.

If we slip into unskillfulness and do act upon these feelings, we acknowledge them as soon as we recognize them, and apologize for our behavior to whomever we may have hurt in the process. We silently send metta to those we have harmed and to ourselves. Ultimately this metta practice has the capacity to bring the experience of sympathetic joy for all beings, as we become attuned to the bountiful nature of the universe and see that another person’s good fortune does not deplete our own.

On a very practical level, we can bring into question the very idea that what the prize-winner has is actually the source of happiness that we imagined it to be. Does any event, possession or relationship truly have the ability to make a person permanently happy? We know from our own lives that that is not the case. And knowing so, we can see if we are making the mistake of projecting happiness onto these ‘winners’ when, in fact, they are suffering in ways we might not have imagined. We dehumanize them by making assumptions that they should be happy because of what they have. They should be happy, damn it, because they are now holding the stuff of our dreams and they better appreciate it! If they were to complain about anything, we would get out our air violins and play a few notes for them, the universal sign of, “I am SO not sorry for you, you little whiner.” But with just a little sensing in to the nature of things, we can see that they are still beings deserving of our compassion. And seeing that the prize they have is not happiness incarnate helps to put our loss in perspective.

Feelings of envy or schadenfreude, the German word meaning enjoyment of the misfortune of others, sometimes especially those we may have envied, since now they have been brought low (where we apparently feel we are,) offer us the opportunity to explore strong emotions. We can ask questions of them as if they are messengers with important information to share. We can personify them if that makes it easier to do inner dialog work, giving them a recognizable personality and nickname so that we will easily recognize them in the future. With curiosity and compassion, we can ask, ‘What do you really want?’ ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ “What are you afraid of?” ‘What do I need to know?’ Taking a little quiet time for this kind of inner exploration helps to release the tight threads that are making us a spider’s dinner instead of aware beings.

We can also use the good fortune of others to clarify a path we ourselves would like to embark upon. Perhaps we are surprised to feel a spark of envy at someone’s receiving an award for something we had no idea we were interested in. Perhaps a path is illuminated by their experience, and we recognize that if it is possible for them, it is more likely to be possible for us as well. And if we feel otherwise, we can question in to see why we don’t believe this to be true. If we do want to pursue the path they are on, we can take the bold step of asking them how they did it, find others who also did it and learn from their inspiring stories as well. Throughout the process, we continue asking in to see if it is the direction itself that is of interest or craving similar acknowledgment in another area, perhaps one we can’t even bring ourselves to name, so unworthy do we feel to have these aspirations.

Whenever we are experiencing any distressing emotion, we can send ourselves metta, loving-kindness. And from this practice, when we least expect it, mudita surprises and delights us, as it did for me that beautiful autumn day, feeling the thrust and lean of those cyclists on a joyous downhill run.