Mudita: Guided Practice

Mudita is empathic joy and is considered the most challenging of the four Brahma Viharas or heart practices taught by the Buddha. After the first two weeks of my recent March retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I saw one of my favorite yogis standing by the manager’s office with his packed suitcase. I broke silence to ask, “Are you leaving the retreat early?” Gabe responded that over the course of six weeks, since the beginning of February, he and the woman who sat directly in front of him in the meditation hall had fallen deeply in love. Because they were finding it difficult to follow the precepts of maintaining Noble Silence and celibacy, they received permission from the Spirit Rock teachers to drive away together to do a “self-retreat” at Gabe’s cabin near Lake Tahoe. He said, “It’s like a beautiful dream coming true.” My Dharma buddy was so obviously delighted by this unexpected mutual infatuation that I hugged him and gave him heartfelt congratulations for his good fortune.   I enjoyed the pure Mudita that flowed through me spontaneously in that moment.

In situations when Mudita does not flow so easily, Dharma teacher Winnie Nazarka says that Metta practice is a good way to warm up the heart before practicing sympathetic joy. Like Metta, Mudita has the potential to expand and to become immeasurable. Gradually we cultivate the intention to include more and more in our good will. With Mudita, by sharing in other people’s good fortune, we appreciate wholesome joy, sensory pleasure, good health, successful work, and positive relationships. With mindfulness, we register their happiness and then celebrate it.

The Dalai Lama says, “There are 6 billion people in the world and 6 billion chances for happiness.”

Imagine cooking a delicious meal for someone’s birthday, witnessing a friend marry a good and loving partner, honoring a colleague for hard work well done, celebrating a friend’s good medical test results, or watching a former student excel as a teacher in his own right. Notice how you feel inside as you visualize or sense these scenarios.

A civil rights worker, Daisy Bates supported the integration of children of color in Little Rock, Arkansas schools. She herself had only an 8th grade education, and she was thrilled that the children she helped went on to graduate from universities.

Mudita transcends comparing mind and feels connected and generous. We can float in the wake of other’s happiness. As our sympathetic neurons fire away, we sense no separation.

Rapture and delight are part of Mudita. As a purification process, its opposites often arise during practice. Mudita’s “near enemy” is over-exuberance or ungrounded exhilaration, without equanimity. Far enemies of sympathetic joy are envy or jealousy, comparing mind, ill will, and craving.

As large mammals, we tend to compete for food, mates and status. Even on retreat, yogis compete to move the slowest in walking meditation or to stay up the latest sitting in the meditation hall. We have a tendency to rank ourselves as better or worse than others.

Winnie cautions about various hindrances that can prevent us from noticing or appreciating other’s happiness and wellbeing:

  1. We can judge what makes someone else happy: If a colleague tells you, “I can’t wait to race my motorcycle at a track in the Texas Hill Country this weekend,” it’s not skillful to reply, “That’s such a noisy, dangerous sport. I’d rather quietly observe the bluebonnet flowers.”
  2. Mana or comparing mind leads us to think, “What do they have what I don’t?” or “They already have too much stuff!”
  1. If we dislike the beneficiary of good fortune, we may lack sufficient Metta to want that person to be happy.
  1. We may resent or feel competitive with someone who is happy. If a colleague confides, “I just got promoted to my dream job,” you might have to resist the impulse to reply, “I think our co-worker is better qualified for that job.”
  1. Envy is one of the biggest hindrances to sympathetic joy. It recognizes that someone else has a privilege that you lack. Single or gay people who have not had the opportunity to marry may have a hard time participating in a friend’s wedding.
  1. Avarice or stinginess gets in the way of expressing Mudita. Notice when you don’t want someone to obtain what you don’t have yourself. Dogs often growl possessively if another animal approaches their special eating dish. In the meditation hall, we can guard our sitting spot in a similar way. Mudita requires moving beyond a scarcity mentality to recognize that “There is enough for all.”
  2. Disconnection with other’s happiness may occur when there is a lack of interest. A person may complain, “ The world is full of pain and violence. I don’t know anyone who is happy.” It helps to mindfully incline the mind towards noticing good fortune or positive aspects of situations. You might focus on a positive quality of someone’s personality, or on their good health, abundance, loving friendships, and successful work, etc.

Winnie cautions, “We don’t do Mudita for unskillful, unethical behaviors.” If a hedge fund manager grows rich from cheating his clients, we don’t celebrate his abundance.

In sequence, we direct Mudita to:

  1. an affectionate, positive friend
  2. a benefactor who has been successful
  3. a neutral person
  4. a difficult person
  5. all beings everywhere

Classically Mudita was not directed towards oneself, but gratitude practice was substituted, listing aspects of your own life for which you feel grateful.

The Buddha was known as “the happy one.” He prescribed Mudita practice especially for those who tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full and for those who need to learn to share their blessings.

To begin Mudita practice, we can sense or visualize a happy or successful friend, review the blessings in their life, and repeat the following phrases in silence:

I’m happy that you’re happy.

May your happiness continue.

May your happiness increase.

May your good fortune shine.

Pause after each phrase to let the words reverberate in your heart.