The untranslatable opposite of schadenfreude
This week's article is the third in a series on four heart-opening practices, known variously as the Brahmaviharas, Four Immeasurables, or the 'heart's limitless release'. (The first two parts are here and here.)
This week is the turn of perhaps the most easily overlooked and misunderstood of the practices, mudita. We'll take a look at what it is and how to work with it, then take a step back and look at the benefits of heart-opening practices more generally. Finally, I'll offer another suggestion that builds on last week's article, working with an extended visualisation to help us to make these wholesome emotions truly boundless.
What is mudita?
Mudita is a tricky word to translate, because we don't actually have a directly equivalent concept in the English language. It's sometimes translated as 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', but those terms are generally pretty cryptic, so we might as well stick with mudita for now.
The simplest way to describe mudita is that it's the movement of an open heart in response to good fortune, success or happiness. If you've ever seen a small child laughing, or a baby animal playing, and felt a kind of immediate upwelling of positive emotion in your heart, that's mudita right there. So there's a joyous quality to it, but it's a joy that comes about through a recognition of something that inspires joy through a kind of resonance - hence 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy'.
It's tricky to pin down at first. Stephen Batchelor sometimes jokingly defines it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - which is, of course, another word that doesn't have a direct equivalent in English, but means something like 'taking pleasure is another's misfortune'. Another way to look at it is that mudita is the flip side of compassion - compassion is the open heart's natural response to misfortune, while mudita is the corresponding response to good fortune.
It can also help to define mudita by what it isn't. For starters, mudita practice isn't simply about wishing that others be happy - that's metta (loving kindness/goodwill), the first of the Brahmaviharas. It's about recognising the good fortune that is already present, and rejoicing in that good fortune.
(What if there's no good fortune to be found? Here, it can help to look more closely. If something difficult is going on in our lives, it can be easy to feel that everything is universally bleak. But if we look more closely, we can find small moments of pleasure, peace, contentment or happiness even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. Recognising and honouring those moments can be a profound asset when things are tough. This is particularly helpful when it comes to cultivating mudita for ourselves.)
The 'far enemy' of mudita is traditionally said to be envy and/or jealousy. These terms can be understood in a few different ways, but I tend to see envy as wanting something that someone else has, while jealousy is about feeling negatively toward someone who has something we want - so, in Buddhist language, envy is a manifestation of greed, while jealousy is a manifestation of aversion. However you want to use those terms, though, it's clear that they're a million miles away from mudita.
The 'near enemy' of mudita - a quality which is similar, but missing the point in a vital way - is insincere praise or flattery. Pretending to take pleasure in someone else's good fortune in order to get on their good side might externally look like mudita, but from the first-person perspective it feels totally different. If there's a sense of agenda, of wanting to gain some advantage for oneself through the other person's good fortune, then things are most likely going astray.
One final point - although mudita is usually translated as sympathetic or appreciative joy, really any positive emotional tone will do, even quite a subtle form of happiness. It doesn't have to be fireworks-and-brass-band levels of amazingly wonderful joy, and indeed if your typical emotional range is a little more constrained, a practice that seems to require you to step outside your comfort zone may not be particularly welcome. So, rather than feeling disappointed if all you get is a mildly positive glow rather than the world's greatest experience of joy, you can regard the practice as working just fine if you feel any kind of positivity at all,
So how do we do it?
Whereas loving kindness and compassion are very well known practices with a bazillion books, videos, talks and guided meditations, mudita is comparatively less studied. Even the traditional Buddhist texts like the Visuddhimagga are not terribly helpful in this regard - the entire instruction is as follows:
[O]n seeing or hearing about a dear person being happy, cheerful and glad, gladness can be aroused thus: 'This being is indeed glad. How good, how excellent!'
So, get right on that.
In keeping with the practices I've offered for the previous two, we can approach mudita either through the feeling itself (simply conjuring up a sense of delight in another's good fortune and staying with it), through a visualisation, or through phrases.
One visualisation I like to use is to imagine a golden light pulsing in the other person's heart, and as their light pulses, a golden light in my own heart begins to pulse in harmony with it. Another approach is simply to see the other person smiling with joy in response to some good fortune, and allowing their happiness to wash over me too.
If you're not so visual, here are some phrases which may help to evoke mudita:
(Note that 'May you be happy' is not in the list - that's a metta phrase, not mudita.)
The second of the three is the most traditional, but also the most awkward to my ears. Play around and see what works for you.
Once you've got a general sense of the practice, the idea is then to move through a sequence of people, from the easiest to the most difficult, until we can ultimately make our mudita universal and boundless. As with metta, we start with a mentor, teacher or other 'boon companion' (someone who has helped us in some way), then move to ourselves (more on this in just a moment), followed by a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person, before opening gradually wider and wider, ultimately encompassing all beings. At the end of this article I'll discuss another way to do this, but first let's take a moment to look at why we're doing all this anyway.
In last week's article I mentioned that one of the ways to work with difficult people in heart-opening practice is to reflect on the benefits of the practice. So what are those benefits?
Traditionally, many benefits are enumerated. It's said that one falls asleep and wakes peacefully, having pleasant dreams in between. Through the cultivation of these qualities, you will develop a radiant countenance and a serene mind, and as a result both people and animals will love you. Finally, at the end of your life, you will die unconfused.
If that all sounds a bit abstract or fanciful, we can also look at it in terms of mind-training. Modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are very adaptable, and whatever states of mind we routinely cultivate will be more likely to arise again in the future. Essentially, we have emotional habits. If we repeatedly experience and indulge anger in response to difficulties, we will become much more likely over time to experience anger as our default response to similar situations. Conversely, if we actively cultivate qualities like compassion and mudita, it's more likely that those will arise naturally in the course of our daily lives. In the long run, we can let go of our negative, unhelpful emotional habits and replace them with more beneficial responses.
It's also worth saying that these heart qualities are simply pleasant to experience in their own right. Sitting in meditation with a heart full of kindness, compassion, joy or peace is a beautiful experience. Sometimes we can be a little reluctant to do things that simply make us feel good, perhaps because it feels selfish or like it's just a way of avoiding dealing with our problems, but the Buddha was clear that joy and pleasure which come from wholesome sources are not just assets on the spiritual path but actually essential. So give yourself a break - it's OK to feel good in meditation, at least sometimes!
Another approach to cultivating boundlessness
What I'm about to present is not a traditional technique, but rather a mash-up of techniques I've learnt from other teachers. Personally I find it works well enough for me that I think it might be worth sharing, but see what you make of it. The approach combines my Zen teacher Daizan's spin on the Brahmaviharas with a mandala visualisation taught by Michael Taft. It works with any of the heart-opening practices, but since this article is focused on mudita I'll give the instructions with that particular quality in mind.
As before, we're going to work with a sequence of people, but this time we have a couple of twists.
We start by imagining our teacher, mentor or other strongly positive person, visualising them standing in front of us, and cultivating mudita toward them in whatever way we prefer (using the phrases, adding the golden light to the visualisation, seeing the smile, or simply contacting the emotion).
Then, when we're ready to move on to ourselves, we do so, but we keep the first person there too. So we focus primarily on ourselves, but we continue to experience mudita toward the first person at the same time. Our challenge now is to keep both streams of mudita going simultaneously, and work with them until they're balanced - so that we rejoice just as much in our own good fortune as in the good fortune of the other person. (Remember that these qualities are supposed to be boundless - without preference, not stronger for some people and weaker for others.)
But wait, we're not done yet. Next we move on to a friend. As we do this, the teacher/mentor figure slides around to our left-hand side, while the friend appears in front of us. Now we cultivate mudita for the friend, and ourselves, and the teacher/mentor, all at the same time - and, again, we stay with it until we've balanced all three, so that no-one has more or less mudita than any other.
Next, we move on to a neutral person. As we bring them to mind in front of us, our friend slides around to our left, and our teacher/mentor figure slides around behind us. Now we have four people in the mix and four streams of mudita, all of which must be evenly balanced.
Next is the turn of the difficult person. Once again, the new person appears in front of us, and everyone else slides around anti-clockwise. So we end up with the difficult person in front of us, the neutral person to the left, the friend behind us, and the teacher/mentor to the right, with ourselves in the centre. And, again, we stay here until all five people have the same level and quality of mudita going.
(From here, you can expand outward in all directions as usual.)
There's a lot going on in this practice! Some people will find that maintaining a visualisation this complex is extremely helpful for settling and focusing the mind onto the practice, while others may simply find it overwhelming. Give it a go and see how you get on! (And if it does seem a bit too much, fear not - next week we'll be going deep into the peace of equanimity, which is both beautiful in its own right and has a stabilising quality on all the heart-opening practices, allowing us to go deeper into more difficult territory with greater ease. Hang in there!)
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.