Dear Still Water Friends,
I recently spent time on retreat with a Sangha friend whom I haven’t seen in a few years. When we said goodbye, my friend expressed sympathetic joy in hearing about the unfolding of my new relationship over the last year. She shared that this was one of the first times she’d really experienced true, unconditional mudita (sympathetic joy) both for me and for another friend of ours also in a new relationship. Her words and heartfelt sharing touched me – I told her that I thought mudita was one of the easier Brahma Viharas (Four Abodes of Love) to understand but one that is challenging to feel whole-heartedly. I couldn’t explain why until I read this passage from A Heart as Wide as the World by Sharon Salzberg:
Sympathetic Joy, the third Brahma Vihara, is the practice of actively taking delight in the happiness of others, rather than feeling threatened or diminished, as if the happiness of another takes something away from us. When I began to practice this way of seeing, I found that my normal conditioned reaction was to feel as though there was a limited amount of happiness in the world, and the more someone else had, the less there was going to be for me. But, in reality, with strong sympathetic joy, we are able to feel happy when others are happy; we rejoice and take delight in their happiness.
I appreciate what Salzberg writes because I’ve felt that same tinge of anxiety, of reflexive clutching, when I read or hear about a friend’s successful project, award, or unique travel experience. Along with my joy for them, I notice the feeling of scarcity arises in me especially when a friend receives recognition for an activity like writing which I feel I do well. I want to feel sympathetic joy but my ego is deflated and sour; envy wriggles like a worm into my apple. Envy, jealousy, and fear are challenging emotions to feel and acknowledge. Shame usually arises for me along with these petty, unpleasant feelings. I just want them to go away and leave me to strengthen my intention to be a better, kinder Bodhisattva. They seem to separate me from my friend, rather than bringing me into closer connection. With practice, I’ve found that acknowledging and gently holding these difficult emotions like a baby, as Thich Nhat Hanh advises, allows them to diminish so that mudita has space to strengthen.
In her book, Salzberg goes on to say about all of the Brahma Viharas:
In doing these practices, we are not striving for artificial sentiments nor attempting to conform to an abstract ideal of a spiritual person. We are not squashing feelings of outrage that we might have, or repressing our healthy-minded fear. Love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity do not distort our ability to see clearly, but rather as we realize we are together with all beings, they transform the reasons we work to create change. Our motivation, or mental posture, becomes one of inclusion rather than separation. And as we grow stronger in the practice of the Brahma Viharas, we find that we can honestly and directly look at problems, and take strong action as we take care of ourselves and others. We find the ultimate healing truth of connection.
This Thursday night at Crossings, after our meditation period, we will explore sympathetic joy and how we encourage its growth in ourselves without striving to repress and squash our difficult feelings. You are warmly invited to join us!
A related excerpt on happiness and anxiety by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.
Happiness and Anxiety
From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
Happiness can be true happiness or deception, so we have to look into its substance and go beyond attachment. True happiness will be of benefit and nourish ourselves and others. Deceptive happiness brings temporary pleasure and helps us forget our suffering, but is not of lasting benefit and can actually be harmful, like a cigarette or a glass of wine. When something causes us to suffer, if we look deeply into it, we may see that it is exactly what we need to restore our happiness. In fact suffering is essential for happiness. We have to know the suffering of being too cold to enjoy and appreciate being warm. If we look deeply into the realm of joy, we can see whether it is authentic or whether it is just covering up our suffering and anxiety. Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.