Mudita (Altruistic Joy)
When you see that yoga student on his mat, effortlessly melting into the one pose that has eluded you for years, do you light up with joy and appreciation at his power and grace? When you hear of your close friend’s wedding announcement while you’re still reeling from a painful breakup, does your heart expand with the recognition of universal love being expressed so sweetly? Does the promotion of your coworker elicit immediate elation for his or her well-being and delight for his continued financial success? Errr, not so much? I’m with you.
Responding to the good fortune of others with envy is a human characteristic that we’d rather not advertise, but this is just what many of us experience. It’s as if we believe that there is a limited supply of happiness in this world and if someone else gets some, there is less available for me. This is a competitive reflex that seems to be culturally conditioned. When we are not feeling particularly joyous or open-hearted toward another’s success, it can feel inauthentic to acknowledge their joy. There is a bit of internal closing down that happens within as this occurs. A separation from others becomes a habit as the illusion of division rubber stamps its mark in the psyche. However, ancient wisdom teachings emphasize that all humans have naturally occurring divine qualities that arise within one’s own mind state if given the opportunity. There are four primary qualities, of which mudita or altruistic joy is one. The other three are metta or loving-kindness, karuna or compassion and upekkha or equanimity. We are all born with these spiritual attributes; they are potential seeds enfolded in our consciousness waiting for the right conditions and care to spark them into life where they can take root and grow to full bloom.
How can we use our yoga practice to nurture the seeds of joy that are waiting within? Look for what’s working well. Do more of what works. When my Asperger’s son was between the ages of 2 and 4, I was stuck in a pattern of constantly addressing his negative behavior, envious of other families who didn’t seem to struggle with parenting and desperate to find any positive in the situation. My husband and I began to employ the strategy of ignoring his negative behavior, unless it was harmful to himself or another, and look for what was going well, such as staying seated for 20 seconds or speaking respectfully instead of demanding. It worked. As we highlighted his small accomplishments, his need for attention through negative behavior subsided. He felt heard and validated and we felt as if we were better parents.
Look for the good. Have you shown up for yoga? That works. Were you mindfully breathing as you waited in line at the airport or in a seemingly endless line of stalled traffic? That works. If there is anxiety, agitation and a mind plagued by tight emotions, it may be difficult to appreciate our own good efforts or breathe with compassion toward a delay of unknown origin. Here is where yoga really shines. Mudita can be thought of as a twofold practice. First, the recognition of joy in others as we begin to recognize it in ourself and second, setting the intention to open to the joy within ourself while intending that others uncover the same inner joy.
To make this practice tangible, sit with the image of an artisan spring, where the water table is so high that its pressure causes water to spring up out of the ground wherever there is an opening in the earth’s surface, creating a deep pond with ground water flowing up from below. Repeat the phrase, May I open to the joy that is within me and be happy. Say it slowly and begin to feel that your body is like the pond, with an upwelling of natural, clear joy arising from the depths of consciousness. Allow a gentle smile to spread throughout your internal landscape, just as the upwelling of an artisan spring causes a gentle current to rise to its surface and glimmer in the light. Gradually shift the attention from the words to the feeling. Experience the “joy of letting go” flowing up from below and expressing itself as a smile. Focus on the pleasant sensations in your body and notice how those sensations nudge that little joy seed into action.
Mudita dismantles the wall of illusion that has been built up between ourselves and others, and as we slowly dismantle, we begin to experience tremendous freedom of joy that is undivided. The Dalai Lama, a spiritual teacher who radiates boundless joy despite tremendous challenges, explains the unlimited potential of mudita. He spoke in the middle of a rainstorm with a delightful giggle to many huddled, umbrella covered listeners, “It’s only logical….if I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”
By Margaret Kirschner