Muditā: Happiness and Contentment

Brahmaviharas Part 4

Muditā, or sympathetic joy, is a curious concept. Of all the Brahmaviharas it gets the least attention, and in some ways it is the hardest to translate. As a quality I might also suggest it can feel like the hardest of the Brahmaviharas covered so far to cultivate, and yet once we dig beneath the surface it has the potential to develop some of the most important transformational components of the path.

It is a word that has no direct equivalent in English but means something like sharing in the happiness that others feel. I also note that we don’t have a single word that denotes its opposite, for which we often borrow the German word Schadenfreude – delight at the misfortune of another.

Indeed much of what little has been written about muditā tends to focus on this element of it, this miserly attitude to others happiness and success. On the few occasions when muditā is given centre stage there is often a lot of focus on Schadenfreude and noodling about why we find it so easy to be happy when others fail, and why we often feel that this delight is justified by the other person somehow deserving it or receiving their comeuppance. This I feel is often counterproductive and has a tendency to stray into navel gazing and hand wringing, which is a distraction from the real business of understanding what muditā means within the context of the practice and what we need to do to develop it.

Generally muditā is translated as something like sympathetic joy, empathetic or empathic joy, or altruistic joy. All of these  point to the same idea – being happy at the happiness experienced by others. But when we unpack this idea even a little we very quickly come across a problem – where is the liberatory value in being happy for other people’s often superficial successes? If the aim of the practice is to let go of chasing after the ephemeral pleasures of the world then how can we genuinely be happy for others when they celebrate in grasping onto one of these empty delights? Are we just focussing on the wrong kind of happiness or is there something more to muditā than this?

It is very easy to understand that our lack of happiness for others is problematic because the meanness sits heavily on us and we know it is fundamentally the wrong attitude to have. But to understand how cultivating the opposite response can have a liberatory action needs a bit of digging. The angle that I think helps to make the most sense of how the practice of muditā can help us to develop comes from recognising what the outcome of the practice is aiming at.

As I have said of the previous two Brahmaviharas, mettā and karuna, each Brahmavihara is a practice that is designed to cultivate a particular type of intention ad mind state. Mettā develops intentions and mind states of good will, karuna develops intentions and mind states of harmlessness, and muditā also has a specific aim too. The state that muditā is aiming to remove is sensual desire – desire for any kind of pleasure that comes through the senses – so the intended outcome of muditā practice is to cultivate intentions and mind states of renunciation.

Renunciation has a much clearer connection to what we need to make progress on the path than being happy because your neighbour bought a new car, but to understand how it relates to the practice of muditā also needs a bit of unravelling too.

Bhikkhu Analāyo writes about muditā being related to discontent, and this is a way that we can make sense of what renunciation has got to do with it. [1]

To have thoughts of renunciation doesn’t mean thinking about eating dry bread and sleeping on the floor, or living like a monastic,  it fundamentally means learning to be content with whatever you have – it means thinking that whatever you have is enough.

It was when I looked at my experiences from this perspective that I understood why I sometimes struggled to feel happy for other people’s happiness – I wasn’t content with what I had. If I am happy with what I have got  then I don’t need anything else, and it therefore doesn’t matter what anyone else has got because it makes no impact on my happiness.

But if I’m not content, if I feel there is something missing from my life and someone else has got it then I am going to really struggle to feel happy for them. When I see their success I will only be reminded of my lack. When we can be content with what we have then it opens us up to being  able to be happy when others get what they want.

Ironically one of the most useful articles I found about muditā was actually a story about how envy is bad for your career published in the Harvard Business Review by Menon and Thompson. What the authors understood about muditā was that our inability to be happy for others didn’t derive from emotional stinginess or a lack of empathy, it came from envy that others had gained something that we wanted. [2]

We can sometimes internalise a sense of what a ‘good Buddhist’, ‘good yogi’, or ‘good person’ should be like and try to force a sense of happiness for others out of ourselves because anything other than this would be wrong. But this is disingenuous at the least:

 “To stimulate feelings of pleasure when, in fact, one feels none, would be the grossest of hypocrisy.” [3]

This approach leads us to repress our thoughts instead of engaging with them, and, as I talked about for the previous Brahmaviharas., repressing unwholesome mind states won’t make them go away:

“Envy is difficult to manage, in part because it’s hard to admit that we harbor such a socially unacceptable emotion. Our discomfort causes us to conceal and deny our feelings, and that makes things worse. Repressed envy inevitably resurfaces, stronger than ever.” [2]

This is, I think, a major contributory factor to why so little is written about muditā and why we struggle to get much out of it as a practice. We wrestle with uncomfortable feelings like envy, jealousy, resentment, and distain for other’s achievements so much that when we try to generate happiness for others all we really get out of it is a sense of our own shortcomings.

What helps us to work through this stage is the preparatory work that the previous two Brahmaviharas have done. At the very least we need to have established our mettā practice to work on muditā. With the attitude of goodwill that mettā  puts into place we accept ourselves as we are and we don’t try to suppress our feelings or censor out our thoughts. This allows us to see our jealousy as it is, and to investigate it, rather than just push it away all the time and deny it.

Mettā is also the practice for cultivating good will towards others, and without this we struggle to raise any kind of joy at anything that happens to others. To be happy for other people we have to actually care about them to some degree:

“Not only does genuine joy in the prosperity of others require some element of affection; it requires this to be of a quite high order.”[4]

So we simply can’t have any muditā for anyone if we don’t have our mettā sorted out, because we just wouldn’t care about what happened to them otherwise.

Compassion practice, by developing a wish that others do not suffer, can also help us to temper our jealousy because we can recognise that although we might want the thing that they have got, we wouldn’t want them to suffer by having it taken away from them.

Like the other Brahmaviharas, to cultivate muditā we have to start by reflecting on ourselves, and our own happiness before we can make a heartfelt connection to feeling the happiness of others. But when we look deeply into ourselves what we might find is that we ourselves don’t feel like we have enough happiness in our lives to take delight in other people having it.

This is what the cultivation of renunciation is about, it is about establishing that internal sense of happiness, that contentment with what we have got, so that we don’t feel jealousy at what others have got.

Perhaps our tendency to focus the happiness in muditā to material goods, or worldly successes like relationships, also obscures how renunciation relates to building up an internal sense of happiness. When we focus on all of the sources of our happiness, right down to the bare sensation of pleasant feeling, then we can really get to the liberating potential of muditā practice because it is our reactions at this level that create our suffering.

Renunciation isn’t just about  big-ticket intentions like giving up alcohol or being celibate, it is something we can apply to every moment that a source of pleasant feeling comes into view. I find when I am spooning out my dinner and the thought of having a bit more comes to mind, when I bring a mind state of renunciation up I can see that I don’t need more because I already have enough. Or when I have watched something interesting on YouTube and the habitual thought ‘now what can I watch?’ comes up I can remember the practice of renunciation and recognise that I have seen enough, I don’t need to watch more.

This might not seem obviously connected to being happy for others, but if your inability to be happy at someone else’s joy is being blocked out by you wanting or not wanting a particular kind of sensory experience – such as not being able to accept the success of a rival football team because the jealousy it brings up creates a physical experience of discomfort – then this is exactly the reason why you are not feeling muditā.

Perhaps this aspect of muditā practice could even go as far as helping us to let go of the worst of our tendencies – the tendency to cling to pleasant feeling. After all, renunciation is about recognising that we don’t need any more than we have, that we have enough of anything, that we are content with or without. When we have contentment then we don’t need to look for or to grasp onto anything, not even the faintest of pleasant feelings that comes in response to the most basic sensory experiences, and we don’t have to push away unpleasant feelings either.

This is again where we find a direct interrelation between the practice of the Brahmaviharas and gaining an understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Last week I explained how the self-reflection we do to cultivate compassion leads us to see the first Noble Truth, that there is suffering. This then leads us on to see that suffering has a cause, which is clinging to pleasant feeling.

We cannot renounce sensual pleasures without a full understanding that they are the source of our suffering, so the insight that compassion practice puts into place is crucial for allowing us to then develop muditā. When we see that clinging to pleasant sensory experience causes us suffering, that gives us the motivation to let go of the things that previously we thought would make us happy.

Not only does muditā practice lead to lessening our tendency to cling, it also works to target other unhelpful underlying tendencies. Much of our jealousy and resentment towards others comes from comparing ourselves to others, and this is called the tendency to conceit. [5] Conceit, the idea that ‘I am’, is one of the three ingredients that help to take a simple sensory contact and whip it up into a full-on torrent of papañca [6]. Papañca, obsessive thinking,  isn’t just a distraction when we meditate, it is also an extremely uncomfortable experience and creates a lot of suffering in our lives.

Menon and Thompson present us with real world examples of how comparing yourself to others leads to this kind of unhealthy line of thinking:

“When others’ successes in the workplace bother you, you become ruminative. You obsess over interactions with rivals, compare your rewards, and overanalyze even the fleeting praise the boss bestows on others. Your least-generous self surfaces as you try to boost your fragile ego at your rivals’ expense…. Some people become so fixated on a rival that they lose their focus on their own performance.” [2]

Muditā, like karuna, can also be seen to interplay with the precepts and again help us to loosen up our unhelpful tendencies. The practice of muditā helps us to reduce mind states of greed and it finds a direct correspondence in the 2nd precept – not taking that which is not given. If we are happy with what we have got, and we can sit with the discomfort of not having what we want, then we are much less likely to want or need to steal anything. The 3rd precept could also be seen as an expression of this, the refraining from inappropriate sexual relations, as again it is counteracting the tendency towards mind states of greed and desire, which should make it easier for us to walk away from any situations that put us at risk of ending up in the wrong bed.

I’d even go as far as to say that muditā has the potential to drive  right into the heart of the practice, right to the khandhas. Clinging to the khandhas is the very source of our suffering, and the contentment we generate through muditā practice perhaps even contributes to us learning to let go of cling to the khandhas which goes right to the source of how we can be released from our suffering.

But to really get something out of muditā practice we need to find a way to deal with our negativity first. If we are honest with ourselves we will probably admit that genuinely, spontaneously and consistently responding with happiness at the successes and good fortune of others does not come easily. 

Our habitual response is often negative, finding reasons why the person didn’t really deserve it, why they were just lucky, why they won’t be so lucky next time, why what they got isn’t as good as they think it is, and so on.

We often see our lack of generosity towards others successes and happiness as being indicative of our selfish and self-centred culture, and we imagine that if we grew up in more communally minded societies then we would find it easier to feel happiness for others.

 I do think that there is something about our Western cultures that curtails our ability to have muditā, but I don’t think it is selfishness or egotism, I think it is more to do with the all-pervading sense of lack that is found woven all through consumerist culture. How can we be happy for anyone else when we are endlessly being told by advertisers that we have problems, that we aren’t good enough the way we are, and that there is something missing from our lives?  

This niggling sense of lack that is pervasive in Western societies is something I have written about before, [7] and it is so deep rooted that it goes beyond any personal tendency – the whole consumerist machine is built around persuading us that we are lacking and offering us material goods that will somehow fill that void.

 I’d argue that people who grow up in consumerist societies like the ones in the West desperately need muditā practice because it will target this gnawing sense that we don’t have everything we need, that there is always something missing.

When we think about muditā practice in the usual way, as just being about sharing in other’s joy, this puts too much emphasis on projecting outwards instead of looking inwards. Clearly muditā practice has an element that supports our relationships with other people, and this is something that I found in the two previous articles about mettā and karuna too, but it seems like when we put the focus of most of our attempts to practice it only on that element, it doesn’t seem to have bear much fruit.

I think  that the solution might be, especially for those of us who have been brought up in societies that instil a fundamental feeling of lack in us, to switch our focus away from looking outwards, and instead to do the work on the inside to target the discontent that provokes our envy.

Menon and Thompson actually offer  some practical solutions to help deal with our envy that I think are just as relevant to practice as they are to the workplace. The first thing they suggest is to identify what triggers our feelings of envy, and to ask ourselves what that reveals to us about what we feel we are most lacking in. [2]

It was taking an approach like this that helped me to really understand what it was that was blocking me off from feeling happy for other people. What I realised was that a lot of the time I had an idea that I didn’t have enough of my own happiness to be happy for anyone else. Connected to that was the idea that if I am lacking in the thing that brings me happiness, then it must be a finite resource, therefore if someone else has it then they are reducing the opportunity for me to have it, which again hinders the possibility of being happy for that other person.

Menon and Thompson also suggest that you combat your envy by focusing on yourself and not on others. They mean this as not measuring your performance against others performance but against your own, such as comparing your sales figures to your own last year instead of comparing them to the person who has made the most sales. Now obviously in a practice context we don’t think in such improvement and goal focused terms, but stopping comparing yourself to others is always sound Buddhist advice. [2]

The third piece of advice they offer is to recognise your own strengths and successes because this makes us more agreeable to others’ ideas and achievements. This is quite interesting because it echoes the advice that the Buddha gives us to recollect our own virtues and generosity. The suttas tell us that these are suitable topics for reflection because whenever we think of them our mind is not overcome with passion, not overcome with aversion, and not overcome with delusion.[8] So recognising our own good qualities seems to prevent unwholesome mind states from coming up, which makes it less likely that we will react to others’ good news with jealousy or resentment.

When I decided to write about the Brahmaviharas several weeks ago I admit that muditā was the one I thought I was  really going to struggle to find something interesting to say about, not least because it gets so little airtime compared to mettā and compassion. But in the process of understanding the previous two Brahmaviharas, the purpose of muditā and how mettā and karuna build a foundation that makes muditā practice possible became clearer to me.

Like the previous two Brahmaviharas, muditā isn’t a sentimental exercise in being nice or trying behave as a good Buddhist ‘should’, it is a much more profoundly transformative practice that again takes us right to the heart of the teachings. By cultivating renunciation, muditā practice develops the sense of inner contentment we need to take everything as it is and neither cling to nor push away any experience. This contentment is what we need to gain freedom from suffering  and reach the end of the path, so muditā isn’t just vicarious pleasure at others’ happiness, it is real happiness at being happy with whatever you have got.

Image by Dominic Alberts from Pixabay

References

1.      Bhikkhu Analayo. Compassion and emptiness in early Buddhist meditation. 2015. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/compassionemptiness.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2021.

2.     Tanya Menon, Leigh Thompson. Envy at Work. Harvard Business Review. 2010;April. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tanya-Menon-2/publication/43199516_Envy_at_work/links/02e7e53bb003de71e3000000/Envy-at-work.pdf

3.     Natasha Jackson. Mudita: The Buddha’s Teaching on Unselfish Joy. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel170.html#neglected. Accessed 9 Aug 2021.

4.     LR Oates. Mudita: The Buddha’s Teaching on Unselfish Joy. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel170.html#implications. Accessed 9 Aug 2021.

5.     Kalyana Mitta. More Than Less Than Same. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/06/27/more-than-less-than-same/.

6.     Kalyana Mitta. Imagination or Just Papanca. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/06/20/imagination-or-just-papanca/.

7.     Kalyana Mitta. Insufficiency and Self. https://kalyanamitta.blog/2021/05/09/insufficiency-and-self/.

8.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Mahanama Sutta: To Mahanama (2). 05/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an11/an11.013.than.html. Accessed 9 Aug 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s