Opening the heart to delight in the good fortune of others

This week we reach the third of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abiding meditations. To summarise what we have covered so far Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives the following clear and succinct description of the first three meditations in this set of four. We’ll cover the last one, equanimity, in another blog.

The brahma-viharas, or “sublime attitudes,” are the Buddha’s primary heart teachings — the ones that connect most directly with our desire for true happiness.

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. Goodwill was the underlying motivation that led the Buddha to search for awakening and to teach the path to awakening to others after he had found it.

The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: it wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: it wants the happiness to continue.

Empathetic Joy (or sympathetic joy, altruistic joy) as a meditation is allowing our heart to take pleasure in the happiness of another and to wish that it may continue and deepen. It is the antidote to jealousy or envy.

Looking at the photo at the top of this email which emotion comes up? Joy for the person and the wish that their experience may continue? A frantic sense that one should book a flight right away so that one might be there? Or a secret hope that a storm is about to blow in and the rest of their holiday will be spent shut up in the hotel!

These different potential responses show the range of our emotional response. We may feel sympathetic joy – delight in their happiness and the wish that it may continue. But if we do not feel this it may go to the near or far enemy. The near enemy of sympathetic joy (an emotion which appears to be what we wish to cultivate but is not as wholesome) is exuberance, which is defined as ” grasping at pleasant experience out of a sense of insufficiency or lack.” Rather than simply delighting in the happiness of another or a situation there is grasping at it in an attempt to avoid the feeling of lack or emptiness in one’s life.

I know someone who has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. She was always very bubbly and laughing – so much so that other people used to say she was a bit too much and they felt exhausted by her. After years of battling her condition alone and trying to hide it she sought help and was given a diagnosis and her behaviour changed. She was no longer trying to show everyone how happy she was and instead was able to be more authentic, letting us know when she didn’t feel so great, saying that she struggled with leaving work and having to check the windows and doors were locked five times. She changed her work and became a dog groomer, something she could do at home, and by managing the things that caused her stress she was able to settle and now is in a much more centred and grounded place where she can express happiness but not as a mask or act to convince others she is well.

In this Facebook world where we look around and see others showing their happy face all the time it can feel hard to be authentic and express our struggle. We are like Eleanor Rigby who “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?” but now our window is the internet.

The far enemy of each meditation in this set is the opposite emotion to the one we wish to cultivate. For sympathetic joy the far enemy is resentment. Seeing someone else feeling happy and having good fortune when we are unhappy or struggling it can be hard to feel happiness for them. It is the hatred of an Iago for Othello and the plotting of his down fall, the snide remark that seeks to puncture another’s happiness or the secret hope that it will all end in tears. We can find it hard to acknowledge we are feeling such a toxic emotion and may seek to justify it: “they are so up themselves they need to be brought down a peg or two”, “I’m just saying the truth” or whatever we need to hear to justify being the rain cloud on someone’s parade!

The Buddha compared empathetic joy to a mother seeing her child doing well and feeling joy for and with the child. This shows the simplicity of the emotion. We feel happy for the other person as a separate individual, not because it benefits us or we get anything from the situation. It is the thought “I am happy that you are happy. May it continue and deepen”

We’ll explore this meditation in this Monday’s class. Looking forward to seeing you there.