On Empathetic Joy…
A reflection on practice by Winnie Nazarko
I recently watched a video of my grandniece. Genny was sitting in some kind of floor vehicle, which she could scoot around the kitchen. This ride was musical, too. When she pushed a button on the handlebars, a Beatles tune
would play. When “Eight Days A Week” sounded, she danced with abandon, moving her head from side to side and rhythmically bouncing up and down. She slapped her hands in time with the beat, movin’ and groovin’ with the music.
Watching her joy, I was filled with happiness. My nearly ninety-year-old mother watched and laughed. I saw my mother’s pleasure and laughed too. My sister saw us both, saw our grandniece grooving to the music and sang along. Unlike the main dancer, we didn’t have a tray to slap, but if we did we would have. We were happy because Genny was happy. We were experiencing mudita.
This state of mind, mudita, is translated into English in a variety of ways. The most resonant for me is “empathetic joy”, or happiness experiencing the joy, happiness, and well being of another. In order to reliably experience mudita, we need to have a basic attitude of goodwill, or metta towards others as a foundation. If we sincerely wish others well, when we see their happiness we naturally wish for it to continue and grow.
But the development of mudita as a universal attitude can be surprisingly challenging, because we ourselves sometimes feel unhappy and lacking. Seeing the happiness of others, under some circumstances, can actually result in our unhappiness. Comparing ourselves to others who seem to have more, we may experience the painful states of envy, jealousy and resentment.
It is part of the genius of Buddhism that it teaches clear practices and methods empowering us to overcome these difficult states and the contracted view they reflect. We can learn how to strengthen the mind’s access togoodwill and empathetic joy. If we do, the beautiful state of mudita will arise more and more often in the mind, and we will be happier. As the Dalai Lama once said about mudita: “Six billion people, six billion chances for (my) happiness!’ “
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