Mudita: Cultivate Empathetic Joy
Article At A Glance
A number of years ago, I was listening to “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR while driving to work. Diane’s guest was a woman who had recently published a book on happiness. When Diane asked about simple everyday ways for listeners to be happy, the author’s first response was, “Stay off social media.” It’s true that social media can be a tremendous waste of time. Political discussions on social media can be frustrating and pointless. But these were not the reasons for the author’s recommendation. Instead, she claimed that seeing our friends enjoying exotic vacations; celebrating friendships, kids, and grandkids; and listing accomplishments can make us feel bad. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I’ll admit that her assessment disturbed me. After decades of practicing mudita, my understanding of happiness was 180 degrees from the author’s.
Mudita is the third of the four brahma viharas (divine abodes). The brahma viharas are qualities of the heart that bring happiness to ourselves and others. We can practice these qualities so that over time, they they become our “abodes,” the places where we come from in our relationships with ourselves and with others. The other three brahma viharas are metta (kindness), karuna (compassion) and upekha (equanimity).
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali mention the brahma viharas in sutra 1.33. Here’s Alistair Shearer’s translation of the sutra. “The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness towards the joyful, compassion towards their suffering, happiness towards the pure, and impartiality towards the impure.”
What is Mudita?
Mudita is empathetic joy, or happiness in response to the success and happiness of others. Not surprisingly, there is no word for this concept in our language. In hyper-competitive Western culture, the concept of being happy for someone else’s success is quite foreign. Feeling mudita goes against the grain of our concept of success and happiness.
It’s as if we think there’s a little cache of happiness available, and when someone else partakes of it, there’s less for us. But that’s not how it works. In decades of mudita practice, I’ve realized that the more happiness I feel for another person’s success, the happier I am. In contrast to the dank, claustrophobic feeling that envy engenders, empathetic joy feels bright and boundless.
The Buddha called mudita a “rare and beautiful state.” It is a boundless state that responds to others’ successes not with withdrawal or envy, but with active delight. Cultivating the quality of mudita helps uproot the unhappy states of envy, judgment and comparison.
Hindrances to Empathetic Joy
The Buddha also claimed that mudita is the hardest to develop of all the brahma viharas. Hindrances to empathetic joy are many and powerful—comparing, judgment, envy and avarice. These qualities spring from a lack of understanding of our interdependence with the world around us. The truth is, the joy we cultivate contributes to the well of joy available to all of us.
Mudita can be especially challenging to feel for people who have harmed us or others we love. It can also be challenging to offer to those who have made life choices different from our own. For example, can you be happy for a person who chooses to live lavishly when you’ve chosen to live simply—or vice versa? Cultivating mudita for others with whom we have difficulty can help uproot resentment, and can lead us to deeper happiness.
There are several ways to practice mudita. The first, and simplest, is to reflect on your own blessings. We’ve all been recipients of countless acts of generosity and kindness in our lives. We all have dear friends and family members—human and otherwise. We can feel grateful for simple pleasures in our lives. Taking time to reflect on the blessings we enjoy can help to lessen feelings of envy or comparison.
You can also do a formal mudita practice. In this post, I’ll offer simple instructions.
How to Practice Mudita
- Find a comfortable seat. Feel free to use a meditation cushion or bench, or sit in a comfortable chair.
- Let your awareness rest in the area around your heart. You can place your right palm over your heart if you like.
- Invite into your heart space a friend or family member whose life seems relatively happy. This can be a person who enjoys a generally easeful life. Or you can invite someone who has recently enjoyed a moment of success or happiness.
- Reflect on what you appreciate about this person. This might be a particularly beautiful quality, or perhaps an act of generosity or kindness for which you feel grateful.
- Now pick a phrase or two among these choices to send from your heart to theirs. Or feel free to make up your own phrases. Here are a few examples:
- As you repeat a phrase or phrases, picture the person and imagine them being happy. Note any feelings that arise.
- Continue for 5 minutes or longer:
- As you repeat a phrase or phrases, picture the person and imagine them being happy. Note any feelings that arise
- Continue for 5 minutes or longer.
Happiness is Available
Practicing the Brahma Viharas is a wonderful way to cultivate happiness. You can do a specific practice dedicated to mudita or weave it into your regular meditation practice. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Happiness is available. Please help yourself to it.” We will all live through happy times and difficult times, but we can cultivate the ability to live with a higher baseline of ease. Practicing mudita is a wonderful way to grow our happiness.