Somewhat paradoxically, the contemplation on impermanence can also enhance our ability to touch joy. The Buddha thought the contemplation of impermanence so important he called it one of the three “Dharma Seals,” saying that without an understanding of
impermanence, one could not fully penetrate the Dharma, meaning both his teachings and the real nature of things.
The awareness of the impermanent nature of all phenomena – including oneself – can make us more sensitive to the effervescent nature of experience. When awake to impermanence, we do not take any one or anything for granted. We stay in touch with what’s happening, and feel the joy of simply being awake to life.
The Five Remembrances
1. All beings are of the nature to age; there is no way to avoid aging.
2. All beings are of the nature to experience illness; there is no way to avoid experiencing all illness.
3. All beings are of the nature to die; there is no way to avoid death.
4. All that we love and all that we hold dear is of the nature to change; there is no way to avoid being separated from them.
5. Our actions are the ground upon which we stand; there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.
As the mental obstacles to joy are so pernicious, it is important to stay alert to their presence as soon as they arise. When we are judgmental, the mind becomes rigidly attached to how it thinks things should be. If we are judgmental of ourselves, chances are we are also judgmental of others.Mudita, being nonjudgmental, accepts that others can find happiness in things that we would not. Can we accept that others may choose to live their lives differently from us and feel happy for them? Viveka, or discernment is still required, of course. Unfortunately, many people delude themselves as to what makes them happy, and in fact create unhappiness for themselves or others. But if people are genuinely happy and they are not harming themselves or others, mudita is the practice of sharing in their happiness.
Comparing mind is another major obstacle to feeling joy. Whether we compare ourselves to others as better, worse, or the same, we are falling into the trap of “conceit.” Comparing can never bring peace or joy because there is no end to the possibilities of things we can compare ourselves to! While it’s obvious that comparing ourselves as “better” or “worse” is painful, it may seem surprising that even comparing ourselves as “the same” or “equal” to others is considered “conceit.” The problem is, that all comparing is looking at others in order to define oneself. It is evaluating our self worth in reference to others, when the spirit of mudita and the other Brahma-Viharas affirms that we innately deserve to be happy. When we truly believe and understand that deep reality, we can take delight in the happiness of others instead of feeling threatened by it. Our relationship to the world becomes one of communion rather than competition.
The formal practice of mudita-bhavana (joy cultivation), celebrates the happiness of all beings – ourselves included! In fact, through the growing insight into the interdependent nature of the world, we see that the happiness of “others” is indeed our happiness.
To enter into the spirit of mudita-bhavana, it is helpful to recall your own innate goodness. Bring to mind a time when you said or did something that was kind, generous, caring or loving. If nothing comes to mind, turn your attention to a quality in yourself that you enjoy or like about yourself, some skill or talent perhaps that you can recognize and appreciate. If still nothing comes to mind, simply reflect on the basic “rightness” of your innate wish to be happy.
Then begin to offer yourself appreciative and encouraging phrases acknowledging the joy and happiness you’ve experienced in life.
“May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy I experience.”
“May the joy I experience continue and grow.”
“May I be filled with joy and gratitude.”
Of course, you are free to create any phrases that have an appreciative intention, and as you send these wishes to yourself, open yourself to whatever feelings arise in your body and mind. Notice what – if any – reactivity is provoked by the practice. Don’t expect to instantly feel great joy and appreciation. As a “purification practice,” sometimes all we see is our lack of appreciation and the mind’s judging reactivity. Simply note whatever arises, and return to the phrases, with as much friendliness and compassion you can muster.
After directing these phrases to yourself for a while, the traditional sequence moves on to a benefactor, defined as someone who has inspired you or offered you aid in any way.
“May you experience joy and may your happiness continue.”
“May you be filled with appreciation for your happiness and success.”
“May your happiness and good fortune continue.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”
Following a benefactor, the sequence moves on to a loved one or friend; then towards a neutral person, defined as someone you barely know – maybe even a stranger for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. Following the neutral person, we see if we can include sending these phrases and connecting to feeling joy and delight for the happiness and success of the “difficult” people in your life; perhaps someone you envy, but generally those whom you have shut out from your heart.
“May your happiness and joy increase.”
“May the joy in your life continue and grow.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”
If it becomes too difficult to send to a difficult person, acknowledge this with non-judgmental acceptance, and return to sending these phrases to a loved one or yourself. Trust that in time, your heart will expand to include even those for whom you now feel resentment and envy.
Finally, with the understanding that all beings wish to be met with appreciation, we send these phrases to all beings throughout the world. Imagine radiating these positive thoughts from your immediate environment, out in all directions, sending appreciative joy-filled wishes to all beings in existence. When you feel ready to end the meditation, take some time to simply sit with your feelings, and your breath, honoring whatever you experience.
In the Buddhist yoga tradition, the practice of “sharing merit” is another antidote to the idea that the happiness of others means there’s less for us. When we feel that there is a fixed amount of happiness in the world, we fall into an embittered, resentful state of competition with others. Yet, happiness, like love, increases when it is shared. Sharon Salzberg, the Buddhist meditation teacher, describes merit as a power that is born in and grows through acts of goodness. Sharing this merit itself is a powerful, wholesome action that generates its own power. When you give away your merit to others, your own merit increases! Happiness does not diminish in our hearts when we share it. It isn’t a commodity limited in such a way that it has to be rationed.
When we share merit, happiness, or love with all sentient beings, by the very nature of our own sentience, we are included! There is no real separation between “us” and “them.”
In this spirit, I would like to offer the version of “sharing merit” that I like to end all my classes with:
“Whatever merit we may have generated through our practice together
We now dedicate and offer all of it
to all sentient beings throughout the world, equally.
May our thoughts, our words, and our actions
Bring benefit to the world.”