Mudita Bhavana: Cultivating Happiness through the Joy of Others
In 1950, Albert Einstein wrote the following in a letter to Rabbi Robert Marcus who was grieving the loss of his son to polio.
“A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
In Buddhism, the delusion of separateness that Einstein describes is considered to be the very root of our discontent and suffering. From this delusion grows grasping and hate as we try to maintain what we think should last while protecting ourselves from what we think will destabilize our delicate reality.
Yet, the thing that we identify with the most, our body, cannot even be described in words like “mine” or “me.” In actuality, a body is made up of billions of tiny parts that we have no control over. When you factor in the trillions of bacteria that outnumber our cells 10 to one, can we actually say that most of what is considered “me” is me at all? A human is probably less an individual organism and more akin to an ecosystem.
Dissolving the illusion of separateness is a core aspect of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s ministry. In his talks with children, he describes his tea in this way: “You look into the sky and see a beautiful cloud. The cloud has become the rain, and when you drink your tea, you can see your cloud.”
When we break it down like this, the illusion of separation starts to make sense. And yet…
Especially in U.S. culture, we doggedly emphasize individuality and exceptionalism — “I” am unique and different from “you.” This is fueled by the misunderstanding that my needs are in conflict with yours. If you gain, then I lose.
When we fail to see our fundamental connection, we reinforce behaviors that further our separation. We wall off our heart, not understanding that when we shut people out or when we lash out in anger we are hurting ourselves.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy for Others
The Buddha offered four practices to dissolve the illusion of separation. Collectively called The Brahmaviharas, or Four Immeasurables, they include teachings and practices that cultivate loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha).
To help us overcome an us versus them attitude, we can look for guidance from the teachings on mudita, sympathetic joy. It’s a very rare quality to feel truly happy for others, especially for people who are not part of our immediate family or close circle of friends. But it’s a really important part of our emotional and spiritual development.
Imagine a time that you have had good news to share, perhaps a new job that you are really excited for. When people rejoice in our fortunes, it feels good and we appreciate their well-wishes. But when someone doesn’t seem happy for us, we tend to feel insecure about the relationship with that person. Their negative energy can also dampen the spirit of our happy moment.
We know that when we celebrate the achievements of others, we are showing them that we care for them, that we are bonded to them through our love and friendship. Reaching out to others in this way cements our connections and erodes our separation.
The Enemies of Joy
There are many “enemies” of mudita, mental tendencies that make it very difficult for us to feel joy for others. The primary obstacles are greed and envy.
Greed is not only our desire to have more than others, but it has the added flavor of insisting on having the exclusive rights to our desirable qualities, to our achievements, and to our possessions. Greed spawns guardedness at best and suspicion at worse as we try to protect the things we have gained and prevent others from having those things. Think Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
Envy is our inability to be happy for someone else’s good fortune. In fact, when envy is present, we can’t even endure others’ happiness. Envy is not only rooted in a deep scarcity mentality, but it is also fueled by not believing in ourselves. It also causes us to dwell endlessly on all the things we don’t have, which further erodes our happiness and could lead to very unskillful behaviors that cause harm.
In her book “Lovingkindness,” Sharon Salzberg highlights a few more tendencies that move us further away from one another including: being judgmental, demeaning others, endlessly comparing ourselves to others, and prejudice.
Many of these tendencies are reinforced by our culture. Not only do we sow our own seeds of discontent when we indulge in these mental impulses, but those around us, especially those in our “tribes,” tend to water those seeds by piling on and reinforcing our views. We see this all over social media. The result is that no matter how much we dig into our camps, we never seem to feel any better. There is always an enemy to fight against, and we never feel secure in ourselves.
The Allies of Joy
Thankfully, there are ways to overcome the enemies of mudita, to transform our negative thought patterns into positive and beneficial ones. Fortunately, daily life offers us many opportunities to put these practices into action.
Both envy and greed are tangled up in feelings that we don’t have what we need to be happy. To overcome feelings of lack, we recognize and appreciate what is right there in front of us just waiting for us to notice. Over time, we see that the conditions of happiness aren’t bound to feeling recognized for our contributions or having demonstrable wealth. Instead, our happiness is connected with our ability to delight in the ordinary miracles all around us.
My teacher Ty Powers recently shared a very accessible gratitude practice that doesn’t require you to keep a journal or do anything other than something you’re already doing every day: going to bed. After you’ve turned off the light and are waiting to fall asleep, walk your mind through your day and take note of the things that happened that you’re grateful for. Start with the simple miracle that you woke up and go from there. You’ll find that your life is brimming with things to be thankful for and that you already have everything you need to be happy.
Loving Kindness & Compassion
The Buddha taught that our individual happiness is tied to the happiness of others. We can experience this directly in offering heartfelt kindness to others regardless of their relationship to us.
Try this practice and see if your heart doesn’t open bit by bit. Whenever you walk past another person, no matter who they are, say to yourself, “May you be happy.” You can even take the extra step of looking at them and smiling as you do.
Compassion is loving kindness in action, taking an extra step to help alleviate the suffering of others. In the previous example, the smile you share when you encounter another human is a form of compassion because we know that smiles make others feel good. They make the giver feel good too.
Both loving kindness and compassion fuel mudita by bringing to light our shared struggles and humanity. Mudita, in turn, also bolsters loving kindness and compassion by breaking down tribalism. Together, these practices help us to overcome the delusion of separation and bring us together in peace.
In our everyday life, we can cultivate mudita by becoming aware of the times when we feel jealous about someone else’s good fortune or happiness. This is not meant to be a practice that makes you feel guilty or ashamed. Instead, awareness is the first step to changing the way the mind is habituated.
Once you realize that jealousy or greed is present, then you can replace the thought with a more beneficial one such as “I’m happy that you are happy.” Try not to get yourself in trouble and reflect on this phrase in a scolding sort of way. Just let it roll through your mind like a loving whisper.
You can also practice mudita in formal meditation. Before you begin, take note of three different people in your life: a beloved person, a neutral person, and a difficult person.
The beloved is someone that it is effortless for you to love and care for. A neutral person is just that. This person may be someone that you see in passing and probably don’t know very well. The difficult person is someone with whom you have a conflict or a troubled history. If you are new to this practice, I suggest choosing someone that you find only mildly challenging so that you are able to conjure up some goodwill.
I find it helpful to start a practice like this with simple breath awareness to stabilize your attention and help the body relax.
Then bring up the image of the first person, and repeat each of the following phrases several times. Take your time and let yourself really feel the sentiment behind the slogans. Let yourself marinate in those feelings before you move on.
Once you have repeated the phrases with the first person, then switch to the next person until you have practiced with all three people individually.
The last step is to go through the phrases one more time while envisioning all beings everywhere.
I’m happy that you’re happy.
May your happiness last.
May your happiness grow.
May your happiness and good fortune radiate.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, Internal Family Systems, functional anatomy, and a bit of this and that about living a wakeful life. Based in the Washington, DC area, I share gentle yoga, Buddhist mindfulness, and facilitated IFS Parts work in person and online. Find me at www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.