BV-Mudita-A Joyful Mind

Tonight, I will speak about sympathetic joy, known in the Pali language as Mudita. One of the four brahma viharas or divine abodes that were practiced by the Buddha and his disciples, Mudita is still an invaluable practice for transcending emotions of envy or jealousy.

For this dharma talk, I am drawing on a chapter titled “A Joyful Mind” in Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle’s book, Aging With Wisdom. The author describes a life-changing encounter with a devout Hindu named Mahadev. Due to muscular dystrophy, which was degenerating his body, he was confined to a wheelchair. When Olivia first met him, Mahadev was concentrating on peeling piles of garlic for the noonday meal in an Indian ashram. After introducing herself and receiving his warm, welcoming smile, Olivia joined him in his humble, mindful task. She observed his limited physical movements, how he used one arm to lift the opposite hand, and how immobilized the rest of his body was. The most animated part of him was his face, which radiated kindness. She describes his loving attention as “easy, all-embracing, [and] altogether magnetizing.” She sensed an immediate bond between them, as if they had known each other forever.

Over their many years of cherished friendship, Olivia was in awe of Mahadev’s capacity to cope with almost total physical limitation. Gracefully, he accepted the help of a devoted personal attendant and the assistance that people willingly offered, because he was like a quietly joyful magnet, pulling others towards him.

Several years after they met, Mahadev and Olivia decided to go on a pilgrimage to various sacred sites in rural India. They were accompanied by Mahadev’s aide and Olivia’s daughter Laura. Even though the women felt daunted by the seemingly insurmountable challenges of traveling with a man who was wheelchair bound, Mahadev assured them that help always seemed to arrive when he needed it.

Indeed, that proved to be true. As they were preparing to depart before dawn, several men materialized out of the darkness to help lift Mahadev’s body onto the bus. Laboriously, his three companions took turns pushing his wheelchair over unpaved, bumpy pathways and carrying him up temple steps. Once they met four strangers who offered to carry him on a palanquin to a remote temple. Throughout the pilgrimage, Mahadev nonverbally conveyed gratitude and warm-heartedness to helpers who did not share his language. It was the first time that people in rural India had ever seen someone riding a wheelchair. They were delighted by the radiantly joyful rider and welcomed him into their communities. Mahadev never exhibited impatience or dismay about his physical difficulties. It was his inner state of contentment and peace that attracted people to him. His strong heart and mind were an inspiration to all around him.

Olivia reflected about the contrast between Mahadev’s attitude and the afflictive thoughts that often invade the minds of most of us. Without concerted meditative practice, we can become lost in fear, anger, worry, anxiety, and depression. She suggests that the moment we recognize that we are entangled in a strong emotion, we can ask ourselves what she calls a “vertical question.” This kind of question breaks into the continuity of thoughts and startles us into a new perspective. For example, amidst a chain of worries, we might ask ourselves, “Where is happiness in this moment?”

Aspiration, or acting “as if” a positive outcome is possible, is part of the Buddhist tradition. Just thinking about joy and equanimity invites a shift in feeling, a sense that all is well no matter what is transpiring externally. By noticing our negative thoughts and intentionally disrupting them, we can “turn the moment around.” Remembering a positive phrase can tip us towards gratitude, to appreciate how in reality the blessings in our lives outweigh our momentary pessimistic moods.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are 59 short Lojong mind-training exercises. One of the aphorisms is “Always keep a joyful mind.” Composed by a 12th century Tibetan master, these short and memorable aphorisms aim to refine the mind by counteracting negative mental habits that affect our moods and drive our actions.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a venerable Tibetan Buddhist master who teaches regularly in the West, has his own phrase, “happiness for no reason.” He invites practitioners to rest in a natural state of mind that does not depend on outer circumstances, an ultimate form of freedom.

To turn the mind towards joy, Olivia lists a summary of what she calls “wisdom treasures:” “Seek happiness in this moment” “Always keep a joyful mind.” “Happiness for no reason.” She asks, “Why should we care about these mental states and their impact?” Buddhist teachings make clear that we do not practice mind training and meditation for ourselves alone, but for the benefit of all sentient beings. These teachings are based on the truth that we live in an infinitely interconnected world. As wise ones say, everything we think, say, or do matters in the larger context of which we are all a part. Mahadev’s life exemplified this truth. His joy touched and uplifted countless lives.

Now I will guide us in a Mudita meditation to cultivate sympathetic joy for the benefit of ourselves and of all with whom we come in contact. I’m using an adapted version from the Appendix of Noah Levine’s book, Against the Stream:

Sit comfortably with closed eyes. Settle into the present-time experience of the body. Relax any physical tension, softening the belly, jaw, and eyes. Let the shoulders lower naturally.

Reflect upon your longing for happiness or freedom from suffering. With each breath, breathe into the heart’s center, acknowledging and appreciating moments of joy and happiness that you have experienced in your life.

Begin to offer yourself appreciative and encouraging phrases to uncover any gratitude that might be hidden in your heart:

May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy that I experience.

May the joy I experience continue and grow.

May I be filled with gratitude.

Notice when the mind becomes distracted by other thoughts, and gently bring the attention back to the phrases. Feel the breath and the body’s response to each phrase. Allow the mind and body to relax into the reverberations of each phrase. 

Simply repeat the phrases like a kind of mantra or statement of positive intention:

May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy that I experience.

May the joy I experience continue and grow.

May I be filled with gratitude.

Don’t expect to feel instantly grateful through this practice. Sometimes we notice instead our lack of appreciation and the resistance of a judging mind. Simply bow to whatever is arising and continue to repeat the phrases, being as friendly and merciful as possible. After a few minutes of sending phrases of appreciation to yourself, bring your attention back to the body and breath, again consciously relaxing the posture.

Now bring to mind someone whom you know or know of who has inspired you or who has brought joy to your life. Recognize that just as you wish to be happy and successful, that benefactor shares the human desire to be met with encouragement, support, and appreciation. Repeat the phrases of Mudita, directing them towards your benefactor.

Just as I wish to learn to appreciate happiness and joy in life, may you too experience joy.

May you be full of appreciation for your happiness and success.

May your happiness and joy increase.

May you be successful and be met with appreciation.

Whenever the mind becomes lost in a story, memory, or fantasy, simply return to offering appreciation and gratitude to the benefactor. After a few minutes of this practice, let go of the image or felt sense of the benefactor, and return to directly experiencing the body and breath. Pay extra attention to your heart or emotional experience.

Then bring to mind someone whom you do not know well, someone who is neutral—someone you neither love nor hate. For this category, you might choose someone you don’t know, a person you passed on the street or in a store. With the understanding that humans share a universal wish to experience joy, start offering the neutral person appreciative phrases:

May your happiness and joy increase.

May the joy in your life continue and grow.

May you be successful and be met with appreciation.

After a few moments of sending appreciation to the neutral person, bring your attention back to your body and breath. Now expand the practice to include family and friends towards whom you may have mixed feelings—some loving and some judgmental:

May your happiness and joy increase.

May the joy in your life continue and grow.

May you be successful and be met with appreciation.

After practicing this category for a while, shift your attention to your body and breath. Then expand the practice to include difficult people in your life and in the world—anyone you resent or are excluding from your heart. Recall that all beings wish to be met with appreciation and to experience joy—even those who are annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and unkind. With a clear intention to free yourself from jealousy, fear, and ill will, choose as the recipient for Mudita phrases someone who is a source of difficulty in your heart or mind. As you meet this person with the same appreciative phrases, pay close attention to your emotional responses:

May your happiness and joy increase.

May the joy in your life continue and grow.

May you be successful and be met with appreciation.

After a few minutes of sending the phrases to a difficult person, expand the field of appreciation to include all those who are in your immediate vicinity. Gradually, expand the field to include everyone in our city and beyond, allowing the positive intention of meeting everyone with appreciation to spread out in all directions.

Imagine covering the whole world with these positive thoughts. Radiate gratitude to all beings in existence, including those being born and those who are dying. With a boundless, friendly intention, repeat the phrases of appreciative joy:

May your happiness and joy increase.

May the joy in your life continue and grow.

May you be successful and be met with appreciation.

After a few moments of sending Mudita to all beings everywhere, let go of the phrases and the imagery. As you return to sensing your body and breath, be aware of whatever sensations and emotions are now present. Whenever you are ready, let your eyes open and allow your attention to return to your surroundings.