Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy
Mudita is the third of the Four Brahma Viharas, or heart practices. Often translated as sympathetic joy or appreciative joy, mudita is a quality of rejoicing in the joys of others. Much as compassion is a kindness toward suffering, mudita is a kindness toward the joy of others.
A lot of focus on heart practices centers around the practices of compassion and loving kindness. The practice of mudita is generally less-discussed, but it’s an important quality to cultivate in our journey. Mudita meditation allows us to show up for others, appreciate their happiness, and work with feelings of envy.
The Quality of Mudita
One of the tricky parts about mudita is that it lacks a perfect English equivalent. We don’t really have a single word that encompasses what mudita is about. The commonly used term “sympathetic joy” is about as close as we can get. Most simply, mudita is the quality of vicarious or sympathetic joy when somebody else is experiencing happiness.
You can think of mudita in a few ways. First, it is the quality of showing up with presence and tenderness for joy around you. When somebody else is happy, mudita is a quality of heart that allows us to truly rejoice as if we were experiencing the joy ourselves. Try thinking of a time in your life in which somebody close to you experienced some success or happiness. Take a moment to pause and really notice the joy with an open and present heart, seeing if you can find some joy of your own in their happiness.
Another way to think about sympathetic joy is through the lens of loving-kindness, or metta. Metta is the quality of caring for the wellbeing of others and ourselves. When metta comes into contact with pain or suffering, it becomes compassion. When metta comes into contact with joy, it becomes mudita. When you open your heart to care for the wellbeing of another, it is natural that you will rejoice in the happiness they experience.
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The Benefits of Sympathetic Joy Practice
In the Buddha’s techings, all of the heart practices have a far enemy, or an opposite quality. When you work to cultivate mudita in your life, you will be moving away from these far enemies.
The first and most common far enemy of mudita is envy. Envy is a common quality that can get in the way of exepriencing joy for others. Especially when dealing with a difficult person in our lives, we struggle to really appreciate their joy. Instead, we judge, fall into envy, or ignore their successes. With sympathetic joy practice, you can train the heart to appreciate these moments and free yourself from the grips of jealousy.
Another quality commonly cited as a far enemy of sympathetic joy is greed. Greed is one of the Three Unwholesome Roots or basic causes of suffering in Buddhism. The practice of mudita can help us really appreciate the moments of joy we experience and that others experience. Rather than allowing the joys to come and go without appreciation, we become fulfilled by the moments of joy.
There’s also the enemy that is often described using the German word schadenfreude. Schadenfreude does not have an equivalent word in the English language, but it describes the experience of finding joy in the failures or pains of others. As much as we know this is not wholesome, we’ve all experienced this. Somebody we dislike or find difficult experiences some sort of problem, and we feel a slight joy or uplifting. With mudita practice, we can free ourselves from this experience.
Another important benefit we receive from the practice of sympathetic joy is a collected and calm mind. Mudita is a samatha practice, or a technique for building concentration. Mudita practice can serve as a way to focus, build concentration, and calm the mind. This helps us both in other meditation practices and in our daily lives.
To cultivate mudita, you can use a mudita meditation practice. There are many ways to practice, and we’re going to offer a few methos that work for us. It’s also important to investigate mudita practice in daily life, and showing up for others. Like other practices of the heart, sympathetic joy requires mindfulness and awareness. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says:
Mudita is the joy and happiness experienced for oneself and others. This joy is born into everyone, but is not limited to the innocence afforded in childhood. It is alive in all of us, and mindfulness is the gateway. Meditation allows us to be present for ourselves, each other, and for the wonder and beauty of our mysterious incarnation.
There are many different types of meditation, and mudita is one you can incorporate into your regular practice. Although there are many different ways you can cultivate sympathetic joy, we’re going to cover the traditional practice and how it’s done. Below is a guided mudita meditation if you’d prefer to learn with audio guidance!
To start a period of mudita meditation, I recommend sitting upright if possible. As you settle into your practice, connect with your heart right away. Sit in a way that feels kind and gentle. Allow the body to relax, and invite in a sense of ease. You can spend a few minutes focusing on the body or the breath if you’d like to help yourself settle.
You can start the mudita practice by bringing to mind somebody in your life that falls under the category of “good friend.” This can be a loved one, a family member, a friend, or maybe a teacher. The point is to find someone who it is naturally easy to care for and appreciate.
As this person comes to mind, see if you can picture them experiencing happiness. Maybe you know a time recently in which they experienced some joy. If not, try to picture the person smiling with contentment. With the intention of caring for their happiness and showing up for it, begin offering some phrases of sympathetic joy:
-May you be happy.
-May your happiness continue.
-May you appreciate your joy.
-I’m happy for you.
You can offer the phrases with the simple intention of opening the heart. If you can, find some rhythm, perhaps offering a phrase with each exhale. Make the phrases the object of your awareness, bringing the mind back over and over again when it wanders.
You can continue for a few minutes before switching to the other traditional categories of a neutral person, a difficult person, and ending with yourself if you’d like. Remember that this doesn’t need to be emotional in order to be working. Sometimes working with the heart practices can be dry. As long as you’re working to cultivate this open heart, you’re doing well!
Sympathetic Joy Guided Meditation
This is a sympathetic joy practice to help cultivate this quality of heart. This mudita guided meditation is from our YouTube channel and our podcast Buddhist Guided Meditations.
Mudita in Daily Life
You can also make an effort to practice sympathetic joy in your daily life. Meditation is just a tool to cultivate a quality, as we cover in our post Mindfulness vs. Meditation: What’s the Difference? You can continue to cultivate this quality of mudita in your daily life by making a little effort to approach joy in a new way.
First, be mindful of joy as it arises. It doesn’t have to be somebody you know well or are close to. If you see somebody smiling at work, while getting your coffee in the morning, or on the bus, take a moment to really appreciate the joy. You can even offer a few phrases silently in your head. By continuing to show up for the joy, you can train the mind and heart to rest in appreciation.
Another practice that I have found helpful in the cultivation of mudita in daily life is the simple practice of pausing to appreciate the joy you experience personally. Be on the lookout for things that make you happy. They don’t have to be big things. Maybe you see a pretty flower, accomplish a task, or get to see a loved one. As this experience arises, pause and pay attention to the bodily and mental experience.
As Rick Hanson shares in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, this can actually help rewire the brain. You are training the mind to see importance in the moments of joy, and give them more weight when they arise in the future. As you do this repeatedly, you will naturally notice joy more frequently in your life.
Remember that sympathetic joy practice is just that: a practice. It takes time, and you may run into some difficulties. Judgement, aversion, or envy may arise. You may have periods where it feels like you’re getting nowhere. It is a slow opening, and we must be patient. With some effort, we see the benefits of this practice in our meditation periods and in daily life.
If you’re interested in starting a practice but don’t know where to begin, you can reach out to one of our mindfulness coaches to get some help!
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