“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. But we short-change our own joy by falling into such bitterness. We can increase our joy by learning to delight in the joy of others.
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!”
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 my experience, this is something I've noticed in parenting. When my daughter is happy, I'm not "happy for her," I'm genuinely happy! Her happiness IS my happiness.
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 “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 Pollyanna-like 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 cultivate 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 suggested she might 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.”