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sympathetic joy: learning to celebrate others' good fortune

You're probably familiar with the concepts of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha). When we wish, pray or chant, "May all beings be happy and free from suffering," we have a clear understanding of what is being offered. Even equanimity feels pretty clear: we wish that all beings be unbothered by the ups and downs of life. But what about mudita-- often translated as sympathetic joy? This one doesn't get as much press, and it may be because it's a little harder to understand-- and to practice.

what is sympathetic joy?

First, a little context: these four qualities together are known as the “four immeasurables,” because they are immeasurable in their quality (they’re also called “boundless”) and in the number of sentient beings they encompass. That is, when we pray or wish for others, there is no limit to the amount of love, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy we wish for them– and we wish it for all beings everywhere.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the practice of delighting in others’ good fortune. It’s the opposite of envy or jealousy (we might also call it "freudenfreude," according to this recent New York Times article). Theoretically, it’s a natural next step to wishing happiness for others. We want to celebrate the good things that happen to them! Sounds easy, right? In practice, things sometimes get a little muddy.

Pema Chödrön illustrates the problem by suggesting that we imagine our friend walks in eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake on a plate. Do we say, “How wonderful you’ve got this cake!”? No, she says, we’re more likely to say, “Where did you get the cake, and why didn’t you bring me any?”

…why is this so hard for us?

While I firmly believe that all beings have innate goodness, I also understand that each of us sees life through a very self-centered lens. I say that without judgment– literally, we are the center of our own world. We see through our own eyes, we taste with our own senses, we suffer or feel pleasure in our own bodies. To each of us, the world revolves around my body and my mind.

We’re also biologically designed to care for ourselves. This is a basic survival need, but we are also programmed to enjoy things that taste and feel good (sensory pleasures like chocolate cake), or societal status rewards, like a fancy car (which might make us feel like we are an important part of our group, or that we have some illusory control over our circumstances).

Sympathetic joy turns our natural self-centeredness inside out. Because it is not always our spontaneous reaction, it allows us to see just where we have work to do. This opens the door for a more genuine and authentic caring for others.

in finding our own needs met, we can wish the same for others

Many of us have untended emotional or psychological wounds that have left us feeling a sense of lack or fulfillment in our own lives. Perhaps our needs in childhood were not met as they should have been, or we are not getting our basic needs met now. Through no fault of our own, we may find ourselves feeling emotionally impoverished.

An important step toward practicing sympathetic joy can be found in healing our own past hurts and making sure that our needs are met. If we attempt to feel joy for others’ good fortune while we are still experiencing a sense of lack in our own lives, we can find our efforts thwarted by resentment and anger. Think of it this way: if you’re starving, it’s hard to be happy about someone else’s cake, isn’t it?

The good news is that working with sympathetic joy may be the nudge we need to do some deep personal work. If you find yourself pissed off and bitter about your neighbor’s new Mercedes (or partner/job/house/etc) , it might be interesting to explore why that is– through contemplation, journaling, meditation, or with the help of a good therapist.

Finding satisfaction in our own lives may require healing work, or a gratitude practice, or perhaps a drastic change. Interestingly, what often happens at this point is that we can recognize where others may be experiencing a lack of their own. We wish them happiness, and freedom from suffering, as we’ve found for ourselves. Then we really can celebrate the wonderful things that might happen to them– even the chocolate cake.

how do you practice sympathetic joy?

There are lots of ways to practice mudita, but one simple way is in formal meditation (that just means we’re sitting down to meditate, rather than thinking about it in passing). We can start by finding a comfortable seat. For a moment or two, let your mind rest– maybe you feel your body settling into the seat, or notice your breath– without feeling like you need to change anything. Now, call to mind someone that you love. See them in your mind’s eye, and allow yourself to feel any warm emotions that might arise, and recall that you naturally want them to be happy and free from suffering. This should be pretty easy– if not, you might try another loved one instead, perhaps someone with whom you share a less complicated relationship (I find animals work well for me when humans are challenging).

Now, imagine something really awesome happening for that person– maybe they win the lottery, or they’re on a vacation. Let yourself feel joy on their behalf– celebrating for them. Take a moment to really let yourself experience that sympathetic joy, and then let your mind rest again before you repeat this activity with another imagined piece of good fortune.

This is difficult work to sustain, so be patient and work in small doses. Don’t try to stay with it for too long, and rest your mind (perhaps with breath meditation) in between. A few minutes is great. It’s also okay to fake it a little bit at first. Remember that we’re practicing in order to get better at really feeling it, so if you notice that you’re struggling, that’s great! This practice was created for humans just like you and me so that we can become more truly loving. Just as our muscles grow stronger with repetitive training, our empathetic, compassionate and caring connection to others grows deeper and more authentic with practice.

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