Jun 22, 2013
An antidote to fear (Day 71)
I remember precisely the first moment I noticed this in the context of cultivating lovingkindness, which is of course related to joyful appreciation, since both qualities are part of the “four immeasurables.”
At the time, I was having the New York Times delivered to my house every morning. It was one of my great pleasures to have a leisurely breakfast with a cup of tea, toast, and some intelligent analysis from the Op-Ed pages. But first I had to get the newspaper, which was tossed onto the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.
It was always an awkward moment for me walking out onto the porch in my bathrobe and slippers, with my hairy legs and knobbly ankles exposed to the world. I somehow felt judged by the passing drivers, even though I’m sure they never noticed me. And so I’d get a bit grouchy as I retrieved my rolled-up copy of the Times.
This was fear, really. It was the fear of what people thought of me, whether they judged me, whether they disliked me or laughed at me. You can tell yourself that all this is silly: that the drivers are too busy driving to notice you, that they’ll probably never see you again, that they’re probably not petty enough to care about how you look. You can tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; even if people have unkind thoughts about you, that’s their stuff, not yours. But still, there’s fear.
Sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, and it can take me a while to realize that I’m suffering. So it probably took a few weeks of grumpily retrieving the Times before I noticed what was going on. And my first response, once I did notice that I was suffering, was to wish the passers-by well. As drivers swished by, or as neighbors walked their dogs past the house, I’d slip into saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.”
And the fear vanished. Instantly. There was no more worrying what people thought about me. There was no grumpiness. There was just me, picking up my paper, feeling joy as I wished others well.
The thing is that there’s no room in the mind for both well-wishing and worrying. If you fill the mind with well-wishing, there’s no mental bandwidth left for worrying what people think about you.
And you can’t appreciate people and also think the worst about them at the same time. You can see people in a positive light — they’re beings who want to be happy, trying to be happy as best they can — or you can see them in a negative light, where you assume that they’re obsessed about you and your bony ankles. But you can’t do both at the same time.
And mudita — joyful appreciation — works just the same way. We can’t appreciate and rejoice in the good qualities of others and also think the worst of them. Mudita protects against fear.
And a spirit of appreciation affects not just how we see others, but how we see ourselves. So rather than focusing on our imagined deficiencies (I may obsess about my hairy calves but I’m sure no one else does) we just don’t notice those things, and instead focus on what’s positive in ourselves. Mudita is joyful, and when you’re happy you just don’t obsess about your faults.
Mudita connects us with everything positive in life. It opens us up to our full potential, and to others’ full potential. Rather than relating to our own or others’ faults, real or imagined, we see them as capable of boundless kindness, compassion, and wisdom. When we see the world with joyful appreciation, we see life as something to be lived, not feared.
PS. You can see a full list of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.