Episode 34: Sympathetic Joy: Opening Your Heart to the Happiness of Others

joyful young Black woman with head made of paint swirls

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Sympathetic joy is an easy-to-understand meditation practice that expands our love and compassion by rejoicing in all the good things that others did today. It counteracts greed, jealousy, and envy, and can be done kicking back on the couch at the end of a hard day.

Sometimes when the day is over we’re completely spent and wipe out on the couch or with Netflix or Instagram or some other form of distraction. We just want to get outside ourselves for a little while. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Distraction works to relax us because it takes us away—at least for a little while—from our inner dialogue of stress and worry and craving and anger.

However, there’s another activity we can try from time to time that’s also effective when we’re tired, and that also takes us out of our inner dialogue and stream of worries and problems and desires. It’s a meditation technique called sympathetic joy.

The Sanskrit term for this practice is mudita. It’s considered as equally powerful and advanced as three other mind training practices we did together over the last two months: loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity. These four meditations are often practiced together in a form called The Four Immeasurables, which is a beautiful practice that we’ll later do an entire episode on.

Over time, these mind training techniques reliably open our hearts to produce a joyful attitude toward life that cultivates the best in ourselves and recognizes the best in others. 

I’m Scott Snibbe, and on this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment I’m excited to share with you this technique of sympathetic joy. The episode includes a brief guided meditation at the end that can be done on or off the cushion.

Sympathetic joy is simple to understand, difficult to practice

A number of teachers have taught me that this practice of sympathetic joy is simple and easy. And I like to pass on that message: that this practice is so simple it’s useful even in the moments that we’re lazy or tired, when we least feel like meditating.

When you’re tired and worn out after a hard day, instead of forcing yourself to sit straight up on a cushion to meditate on the breath or compassion or the nature of the mind, you simply kick back on the couch and think through all the wonderful things that others did today. That’s the practice in a nutshell.

However, there’s another point of view that sympathetic joy isn’t an easy practice at all; that it’s actually the most advanced of the Four Immeasurables. And that’s because sympathetic joy requires us to find genuine happiness in the success of others, even for people we envy or despise, even when our own life feels like a mess.

When someone else gets the promotion, gets the wonderful partner, or a great job, or a sudden inheritance, or seems to have the perfect life, that’s our chance to practice sympathetic joy. But often other feelings arise.

The obstacles to rejoicing in the good fortune of others

I’m sure you’re as familiar as I am with these feelings: when you hear the good news from a friend or colleague or family member and then you feel envy flooding your mind instead of happiness at their good fortune. 

Of course, I congratulate them, and I’m sure you do too. And I think I do a pretty good job hiding these feelings so that they’re not obvious. But inside, that jealousy and competitiveness is still there. In some instances, it’s lasted weeks or even years: a lingering feeling that it should have been me; that person didn’t deserve it; or, if they did, still, I wish it had been me instead.

Greed

When we name these obstacles to sympathetic joy, we call them greed and envy. Greed is synonymous with attachment, one of three root delusions or three poisons. It stems from an exaggerated sense of self and self-importance that then exaggerates that coveted object or person or achievement, wishing to obtain it for ourselves.

Most of us know the downward spiral of this feeling of greed. We go beyond appreciating the value of an object, a person, or an achievement to feeling that we must exclusively obtain that thing, person, or achievement in order to be happy.

But when we look at our experience when do obtained our object of greed or attachment, we realize that greed can never be satisfied. We feel a certain relief when we obtain our object. But if we look closely at our minds, we can see that that pleasant feeling is only due to the momentary release from the attached state of mind. It’s being free from attachment that feels good, not obtaining the object of attachment.

Envy

Just like greed, envy or jealousy is rooted in the state of mind where the mind of attachment is greatly agitated in its craving to obtain wealth or reputation or people. But in addition to that craving, when others achieve such things, the mind of envy is also unable to bear the good fortune and achievements of others.

Envy is the direct enemy of sympathetic joy. And sympathetic joy is the antidote to envy. Sympathetic joy cultivates a positive sense of generosity and connection as the direct antidote to feelings of envy and greed.

Support for sympathetic joy

The mental attitudes that support sympathetic joy are fortunately more numerous that those that oppose it. And they’re not too hard to cultivate. 

Gratitude

Since envy and greed are tied up with feelings of not having what we need to be happy, the practice of gratitude is a natural antidote. So, one part of the meditation we can do in cultivating sympathetic joy, is to first find gratitude for all that we already have. We did this gratitude practice in our guided sleep meditation, using gratitude as a wonderful way to find peace with yourself before going to bed.

Equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion

Then, of course, there are the prior three mind training practices that we did together on equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion. All of these are grounds for supporting a joyful attitude toward others. And that’s why we practiced them first, before moving on to sympathetic joy. 

If you find sympathetic joy difficult to practice, you can practice any of these three other meditations instead, until your heart opens enough to be able to rejoice in the good fortune and good qualities of others.

How to practice sympathetic joy (mudita)

The method for practicing sympathetic joy, as I mentioned, is simple to explain. We’ll do the meditation together in a moment. But the basic idea is simply to think about everyone you know, and all the good things they experienced today, and try to feel that it’s so great they could enjoy these wonderful things today.

You can start by thinking about the people close to you—friends, family, co-workers—and bring to mind the pleasures and joys and satisfactions you saw them experience; or those that you know or imagine they experienced. For each good experience they had, you rejoice and think, “that’s so wonderful for them!”

You can then move on to not just the pleasures and good fortune of others to the good deeds that others did. This is the even more powerful form of sympathetic joy, since it goes beyond everyday pleasure to the altruistic pleasure of doing good for others that reinforces our best nature.

This is the part of practice that teachers say is easy. Because it’s said, from both the Buddhist and neurological standpoints, as Dr. Rick Hanson notes, that reinforcing our positive qualities comes about by bringing to mind past positive mental states and actions; feeling good about them; and then holding them for some time in our minds instead of moving on. 

This “dwelling on the good” is the opposite of unproductive rumination on the bad. Rejoicing like this makes our minds more prone to happiness and more able to make joyful connections with others.

In this stage of rejoicing in the good deeds of others, it can be useful to expand our thoughts to the kindest, most generous people in the world: people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or the more prosaic people that we all know, like kind mothers, nurses and doctors, social workers, counselors, activists.

Even if you would never consider doing the kinds of heroic actions these people do every day, we make the small effort to empathetically rejoice in how wonderful it is that they made such efforts. And through this sympathetic joy, the joy of their generosity and their selflessness begins to rub off on us.

Finally, it can be nice to circle back to yourself and rejoice in all the good things that you did today. Often teachers suggest that we begin the meditation with rejoicing in our own good qualities like this. But I’ve found for myself and for other western students, that instead of it being easiest to rejoice in my own good deeds, it can sometimes be the hardest. 

Guided meditation on sympathetic joy

Now, we’ll go into the meditation on sympathetic joy.

This meditation doesn’t require any modification to your posture. If you feel like it, you can settle into meditation posture on a cushion or chair. But this practice can be done lying on the couch, in bed, kicking back in an easy chair, or sitting on the beach or the grass or in a hammock under a shady tree.

Before fully relaxing, do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable. Grab a drink, get a blanket if you’re cold, or turn on a fan if you’re hot.

And then settle down into stillness and move your mind through your day—through everyone you encountered—and focus only on the good that they did.

These can be simple things, like the person who made your sandwich for lunch or who brewed your morning coffee. 

(Pause to reflect)

Rejoice in your family, and all the good that they did. Try, if you can, to completely ignore any annoyance or conflict, and focus only on the good deeds.

(Pause to reflect)

Think of the people who you work with, the good work they accomplished, whatever benefit their efforts had on the world; even just the basics like making enough money to feed and house themselves and the ones they love.

(Pause to reflect)

Think of the basic kindness and nonviolence that most people demonstrated today. “Society is kindness” as the Dalai Lama says, through cooperation and mutual respect and kindnesses as simple as opening a door or stopping at a stoplight.

(Pause to reflect)

Then expand your mind to greater kindnesses. You may know people with great degrees of kindness and joy like selfless mothers; children who offer their unbridled joy to their parents and teachers and friends; the altruistic risks that nurses and doctors take in caring for those they could catch diseases from.

(Pause to reflect)

And then if you know any beings on earth who wholly dedicate themselves to others, if you feel some kinship with those on the far spectrum of kindness like great spiritual leaders or peace activists or maybe a politician or a philanthropist or a writer or some other public figure who wholly dedicates their life to others; imagine what they did today. 

How, from the moment they woke to the moment they went to sleep they thought only of others and helped them through their problems. How, often, their very presence and smile were enough to transform another person’s day or life for the better. And how some of their greater projects might have brought happiness or improved or even saved the lives of hundreds or thousands or even millions of people.

Do this for some time. Let your mind wander across anyone who comes to mind and rejoice in all the good that they did today.

(Pause to reflect)

And then bring your mind to the ones you have the hardest time with, the ones you left out. The people you’re jealous of, who you may hold a grudge toward just because of their happiness or good fortune. And work to feel sympathetic joy for them too. Use your imagination to rejoice in the good that they experienced today too; and also recognize the good that they did today as well, and their continued potential for good inside them.

(Pause to reflect)

And then come back to your family and friends, the positive things that they did today. This should be comfortable, rejoicing again in all of their good.

(Pause to reflect)

And now zero in on yourself. Let go of any judgment or shame or guilt. And think only of the good that you did today. Catalog the simple joys you experienced: like your shower or breakfast or cup of coffee; the joy of moving and being alive in exercise or walking through the world; the joys of doing your work, and the joy of relaxing right now.

(Pause to reflect)

And then go through the good that you did today: simple things like the benefit of your smile, or an affectionate touch. Perhaps you did even more to help others today in your work or your family or through some accident that gave you a chance to help someone else: helping someone by listening to their pain, by giving a little money to the homeless, by supporting a good cause.

Rest in all your goodness.

(Pause to reflect)

Rejoice in having rejoiced, at steering your mind and brain toward its best instincts, its natural state of calm and contentment. 

(Pause to reflect)

Gradually come out of this meditation when you like. But you may find that it’s quite pleasant in this state of rejoicing. 

Then, when you’re finally done, you may feel filled, even overflowing with the goodness that was always there; that all you had to do was recognize and catalog all the good around you in order to have it color your mood.

(Pause to reflect)

And when you are ready you can get up and finish out your day by sharing your joy with others, or, if you’re alone, by simply resting in contentedly in that joy.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

SHARe

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