“We hate it when our friends are successful,” sang Morrissey, the songwriter and former lead singer of The Smiths. Although “hate” may be overstating the issue, the dark and not-so-secret fact remains that, rather than rejoice in a friend’s good fortune, we often feel envy and jealousy. We even take guilty delight in another’s misfortune however this isn’t a modern phenomenon. More than two thousand years ago, both Patanjali and the Buddha taught the practice of mudita as an antidote to the feeling that your happiness is threatened or diminished by the happiness of others. Mudita, the third of the brahmaviharas, or yogic teachings on love, is the ability to take active delight in others’ good fortune or good deeds.
In Yoga Sutra I.33, Patanjali advises us to take delight in the virtue of others as a way to develop and maintain calmness of mind. You’ve probably experienced how painful envy can be, and how much it affects your mental well-being. Your feelings of envy don’t diminish the happiness of those you are jealous of, but they do diminish your own serenity.
The Dalai Lama speaks of mudita as a kind of “enlightened self-interest.” As he puts it, there are so many people in this world that it’s simply reasonable to make their happiness as important as your own; if you can be happy when good things happen to others, your opportunities for delight are increased six billion to one!
The root of the Sanskrit word mudita means to be pleased, to have a sense of gladness, or, as Patanjali is often translated, “to be delighted.” Although mudita is often discussed as “empathetic or altruistic joy” in the context of overcoming envy at the good fortune of others, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, points out that there is a broader way to think of mudita—one that doesn’t depend on defining the Self as separate from others. In Teachings on Love, he writes: “A deeper definition of the word mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?” Feeling joy for ourselves, however, is not always easy to do.
The fact is, the biggest obstacle to feeling joy is the negativity we hold toward ourselves and others. When you judge yourself, compare yourself to others, and envy others, you perpetuate a sense of aloneness and deficiency. Joy, whether for yourself or for someone else, can be difficult to truly open to and accept because it is so tied to issues of self-worth. You can really like someone, maybe even feel compassion for their suffering, but still feel envious of their success. Then, of course, you feel bad about feeling envious, and the spiral continues. This psychic dance is what makes mudita so difficult. You have to really feel and connect with your own inner wealth in order to overcome that sense of deficiency and to truly open yourself to joy. Perhaps because of this very difficulty, mudita can be a powerful liberating force, freeing you from judgment and envy and lifting the sense of isolation and self-constriction they create.
Because the mental obstacles to joy are so pernicious, it is important to be alert to their presence as they arise. If you have judgmental thoughts about yourself, for example, chances are that you are extending those thoughts to others. Judgmental thoughts cause the mind to become rigidly attached to how it thinks things should be—a sure obstacle to appreciative joy. Mudita is nonjudgmental and allows that others can find happiness in things that you might not. Can you accept that others might choose to live their lives differently from you, and still feel happy for them? If people are genuinely happy and they are not harming themselves or others, mudita is the practice of sharing in their happiness.
Another major obstacle to feeling joy is comparing yourself to others, whether you deem yourself better, worse, or equal. By the act of comparing, you are looking to others in order to define yourself. The spirit of mudita, and of the other brahmaviharas, affirms that you deserve to be happy simply because you are, not because you’re the same as others or because you are smarter, richer, nicer, or “better” than anyone else. When you believe and understand this truth, you can take delight in the happiness of others instead of feeling threatened by it. Your relationship to the world becomes one of communion rather than competition.
You can create the conditions for opening to this kind of joy in your asana practice, in seated meditation, and throughout the day. When focusing on mudita in my own asana practice or in my teaching, I find it helpful to “look for the good.” By actively looking for what is right, whether it’s with a posture or with any of life’s experiences, you can counteract the mind’s tendency to fixate on what’s “wrong.” This is not to deny that there are unsatisfactory and painful experiences in life. After all, mudita is the third brahmavihara, meant to be cultivated after metta, which can be thought of as the nonjudgmental acceptance of what is, and karuna, which entails the compassionate opening to whatever physical, emotional, energetic, and mental ills you might be experiencing. This order is not arbitrary; you cannot open to real joy if you are caught in aversion or attachment. But once you can accept things as they are, whether on the mat or off, you can begin to place your attention on the pleasurable aspects of your experience: the flow of energy moving through your body as you come out of Handstand, the fresh scent of a rain-drenched breeze, the trill of a songbird outside your window.
Experiences and sensations don’t necessarily have to be positive in order to bring us joy; neutral experiences, too, can help grow more joy. Thich Nhat Hanh uses 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 nontoothache, because it is neutral. By bringing your attention to the fact that your teeth do not hurt (or indeed, to any part of you that doesn’t hurt!), you may feel a gentle smile of appreciation arise.
A deep and long relaxation is an important part of cultivating joy in your asana practice. While lying in Savasana (Corpse Pose), you can “touch” various parts of your body with your loving attention. For instance, bring attention to your eyes as you inhale, send them an inner smile, and feel gratitude and appreciation for them as you exhale. Spend a few breaths smiling to each part of your body in this manner, especially to those parts you might be less than satisfied with, developing greater joy and deeper appreciation for what is.
Contemplating impermanence can also enhance your ability to touch joy. Both Patanjali and the Buddha emphasize that much of our duhkha (suffering or discontent) arises because we live as if the current conditions were permanent. When things are going well, we attempt to live as if they always will, and we are disappointed when they change. And when things are going poorly, we imagine that this will always be the case, forgetting that bad times too will pass. The awareness of the impermanent nature of all things, including yourself, makes you more sensitive to the effervescent, joyful nature of experience. When you are awake to impermanence, you do not take anyone or anything for granted. You stay in touch with what’s happening, feeling the joy of simply being awake to life. You can appreciate the good without clinging to it, and you are generally more resilient in the face of setbacks because you remember that, truly, all things are impermanent.
The Power of Happiness
If you live your life as though there is a fixed amount of happiness in the world, it’s easy to fall into an embittered, resentful state of competition with others. But happiness isn’t a limited commodity that has to be rationed or hoarded. It’s not like those fresh eggs I just missed: There’s no chance that someone will get the last of it. Happiness, like love, increases when it is shared. When you feel truly happy for others, your own happiness increases, along with, as Patanjali reminds us, your peace of mind. What’s more, when you share happiness or love with all sentient beings, by the very nature of your own sentience, you are included! Cultivating mudita is a way of gaining a truer understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings, and it allows you to increase your own joy, exponentially.