The Great Ball of Merit – Practicing Sympathetic Joy
Tonight we will be practicing Sympathetic Joy or Mudita, one of the Divine Abodes or Brahma Viharas taught by the Buddha as a practice for opening and softening the heart. In addition to practicing Loving kindness (Metta) towards ourselves and others and Compassion (Karuna) for the suffering that all human beings face, we can develop joy for the contentment that other people are experiencing. This capacity is called Sympathetic Joy (Mudita).
Joanna Macy has a creative way to move beyond comparing mind, which blocks our capacity to take joy in someone else’s happiness and success. When we compare our own amount of satisfaction and accomplishment to that of anyone else, we often feel diminished or jealous, which creates inner suffering. In order to confront the immensity of problems in the world, it is essential to feel that we are connected to more resources than just our own individual ones.
To encourage that sense of connection, I’ll guide you through Joanna’s imagery exercise called “The Great Ball of Merit,” adapted from The Meditation of Joy and Transformation, written 2000 years ago, when the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism was starting.
Sit in a relaxed posture and close your eyes.
Sense your connection to all beings with who you are sharing this moment on our planet—everyone in this room, this city, this country, and all around the globe.
Extend your consciousness to think about all the beings that have ever lived, the rich and the poor, of every race and religion.
Consider that in each of these innumerable lives there was an act of merit. No matter how difficult or challenging their lives were, there was a gesture of generosity, a gift of love, or an act of courage. From these numerous people came acts of kindness, wise teachings and healings. Now imagine sweeping all these immeasurable acts of merit into an enormous pile, and contemplate it with happiness and gratitude.
Transform the pile into a huge Ball of Merit that you can hold in your hands.
Remember that no act of kindness is ever lost. It lasts forever and is a resource for transformation in the world.
We can use the Great Ball of Merit for healing our hearts and for celebrating what is good in life. In this Ball, we are touching the goodness and bravery of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, and every hero or heroine who has ever lived. We can sense their enormous inspiration resonating within ourselves. This idea is similar to the Treasury of Merit in the Catholic religion or the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned by Saint Paul in the Bible.
We can use this image of the Great Ball of Merit to open to the power of people around us in a non-hierarchical way: When you pass someone in the street or you meet someone with whom you have had a conflict, you can play a silent game, asking yourself:
“What could this person add to my Great Ball of Merit?
What talents do they have that could enrich our common reserves?
What kind of imagination or compassion is inside this person?”
(EX: Now visualize someone in this circle of meditation, in our sangha or meditation community. Appreciate one of the attributes that this person contributes to the lives of others. Imagine all the strengths that each person in this room are bringing to the world. With gratitude, inhale these resources that we all share. )
So often we feel inadequate when we perceive the abilities of others. When we use the Great Ball of Merit, we can move beyond rivalry or jealousy to enjoy the good fortune and talent of other people. We become like detectives, finding in the people around us hidden treasures that are of common benefit.
As we feel the pleasure of perceiving other’s good qualities, we can view their attributes as shared resources like air, water and sunshine.
People who are unaware of our secret game, can sense something positive in our attitude towards them that invites them to show their gifts more openly.
(EX: Now give yourself honest appreciation for one of your own attributes.)