At first glance, and maybe at the second or third glances as well, it might seem odd that in the mudita bhavana meditation, where we’re developing joyful appreciation, we’re asked to rejoice in the good qualities of a “neutral person,” who is usually someone we don’t really know. Mostly my neutral people are people who work in shops or post offices, so I have very limited contact with them and don’t know them personally. Yours may have similar roles in your life. So how can we rejoice in qualities when we don’t know the person and may not know what their good qualities are?
Well, one approach to this is just to bear in mind that your neutral person is certain to have good qualities, by which we mean ethically skillful qualities that lead to the arising of peace and joy. These include qualities like patience, kindness, courage, ordinary life wisdom, mindfulness, generosity, gratitude, humor, admiration, and curiosity. All of these qualities are the basis for the arising of happiness and peace. Now I think it’s safe to assume that your neutral person has all of those qualities to at least some extent, and they may even have some of them well developed. So you can just bear in mind that this person has some of the qualities, and wish that those qualities grow and develop, and that the happiness and peace that arise from those qualities grow and develop too.
But you might actually have a clearer impression of the neutral person than you think. Research shows that we automatically form impressions of people within the first tenth of a second or so of seeing them. As soon as we glance at someone we make evaluations about their social status, their personality, their friendliness, approachability, their trustworthiness, etc. Those impressions aren’t always very accurate, but the fact is that we make them, so you have some impression of your neutral person.
Probably, in fact, you’ve had repeated opportunities to see your neutral person in action, and so there’s a lot of information stored in your mental data banks to draw on. These memories are a resource that you can tap into. One of the reasons why our neutral people are neutral is that we simply haven’t taken the time to think about them. Often we see them as having a role — the person who swipes my groceries over the scanner, the person who takes my checks and gives me cash at the bank, the person who drives the bus. We take them for granted because we don’t think of them much beyond what they do for us.
But when we pay attention to our experience of these so-called neutral people, or to our memories of them, we have an opportunity to pay more attention to their good qualities — good qualities that that we’ve been taking for granted. So you might notice that the woman who serves you at the post office is cheerful, or is engaged and energetic in her work. Perhaps there’s a sense of this person being honest, of having a good sense of humor, or being patient, or of being able to cope with difficult circumstances.
If you don’t have much of a sense of the people you call to mind in the neutral person stage of the practice, it may be that you just need to practice! I’ve noticed that I’m not particularly good at noticing the skillful in people. I’m often impressed when other people remark on a positive quality or skillful action they’ve noticed in someone else. My thought is usually, “Oh yeah, why didn’t I see that?” and I really appreciate these little lessons on mudita. So you can just practice allowing the positive in when you meet this person.
Often I think I don’t notice other people because I’m already thinking about the next thing I’m going to do. I don’t take my encounter with them seriously, and see it as an interruption to real life. So I’ll be busy thinking about something else. I find if I drop those thoughts, be mindful of my breathing, and allow myself to really see the other person, I can start to notice good qualities that I’d missed. There’s a sense of the heart opening, and of the other person coming to life, although of course they’ve been fully alive the whole time — it’s just that I haven’t been paying attention. So in this way we can let in the good.
But if all else fails, just go on the assumption that your neutral person does in fact have many of the good qualities I’ve mentioned above to at least some extent. You don’t have to wait until someone has perfected a good quality before you rejoice in it! You can assume that they have at least a little patience, kindness, courage, wisdom, etc., — and then your joyful appreciation practice becomes wishing that those qualities grow, so that the person you’re wishing well will experience the peace and joy that comes from them.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.