100 Days of Lovingkindness

The “near enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation (Day 60)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We shouldn’t experience mudita, or joyful appreciation for happiness that arises in others through unskillful actions. If someone feels joy because they just swindled an old lady or robbed a bank, or because they’re high on cocaine, those would be forms of joy based on unskillful motivations and actions, and those therefore aren’t the kinds of things that we should, in our own turn, feel joyful about.

But here’s a trickier one. Someone asked me about joy that’s based on luck, or worldly gains: “I know too many folks (above all in the IT field) who stumbled into riches and others who worked themselves to the bone yet nonetheless are still struggling just to get by.” This question really got me thinking. Could we end up focusing on cultivating joy for people who are, perhaps, privileged? Could rejoicing in people’s good fortune lead to us ignoring the plight of people who are struggling against the odds?

After all, gains are often not fair. There is bias in the job market against people of color and against women. There is bias against people who are currently unemployed, who are less likely to receive a job offer than similarly (or even less) qualified people who already have jobs. There is bias against people with disabilities. Is mudita, to put it in extreme terms, elitist, siding with the most fortunate?

Let’s take a look at how Upatissa describes the practice of mudita in his Path of Liberation:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”. And again, when one sees or hears that a certain person does not follow demeritorious doctrines, or that he does not follow undesirable doctrines and that he follows desirable doctrines, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”.

So this account of mudita is entirely to do with good qualities and good choices, and with the joy and peace brought by having good qualities and making good choices. It’s nothing to do with “luck” in the sense of nice things happening for no apparent reason, or indeed about worldly gains or any sort. I think that responding to worldly good fortune — for example your friend gets a job — is in the same ballpark as mudita, and may even be a form of mudita, but it’s not what Upatissa seems to have imagined us celebrating or cultivating in our meditation practice.

In fact Buddhaghosa, in the 5th century Path of Purification, describes the near enemy of mudita (the near enemy being a quality that is similar enough to mudita that it can be confused with it) in terms that sound very like the luck or worldly gains that the original question raised:

“When a man either regards as gain the obtaining of visible objects cognizable by the eye that are sought … and associated with worldliness, or recalls those formerly obtained that are past, ceased, and changed, then joy arises in him.”

So Buddhaghosa seems to be suggesting that celebrating in worldly gains and luck is a distraction from mudita. I think that he’s right — if that’s the only thing we celebrate.

I don’t think mudita at all excludes rejoicing in people’s good luck but it’s not the main focus, which is celebrating good qualities and good choices and the peace and joy that follow from them. That’s the way I’ve consistently been talking and writing about mudita.

But I do think mudita can include celebrating people’s good luck. When a friend is looking for somewhere to live and finds a new apartment, it’s natural and proper for us to be happy for their gain (and although there can be a large component of hard work and initiative involved in that kind of gain, there’s also a large element of chance).

But such strokes of good fortune often come at others’ expense. There are inevitably losers in such a gain. Your friend was lucky and got the apartment, but there would have been even more people who were unlucky, since his or her signing a lease on the apartment necessarily excluded other from getting it. The world becomes a better place if your friend develops a skillful quality like courage, patience, or compassion. And although your friend’s world is improved is she or he gets a new apartment, the world as a whole isn’t really a better place.

How should we deal with all this? Well, I’d suggest that our mudita may celebrate our friend’s luck, and that compassion is there for those who were unlucky, if we happen to be aware of someone in that situation. I don’t think we have to go seeking the unlucky applicants for your friend’s apartment in order to “balance out” the mudita we’re feeling for our friend. I’d suggest that there is plenty of suffering in the world and therefore plenty of opportunity to cultivate compassion. When there’s something to celebrate, celebrate it. When there’s reason to be compassionate, be compassionate.

But in the practice I’d suggest focusing mainly on celebrating good qualities, good choices, and on the joy and peace that arise from them. Although we should celebrate worldly gains and good fortune when we come across them, that’s not the main point of the practice.

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Aversion: the far enemy of joyful appreciation (Day 59)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’m sure you can think of days when you’ve been driven crazy by someone else’s good mood. They’re happy, and smiling, and bopping around with a spring in their step, and you’re inwardly grumbling; “What’s he so happy about!” That’s what Buddhism calls arati.

Sometimes we’re resentful of others’ good fortune. I remember to my shame being with some friends when I was in my twenties, when they won the main prize in a raffle — a flight to Paris for the weekend, plus hotel accommodation. Susie, who was one of the people who won the prize, came dancing up to me with her eyes sparkling and a huge smile on her face. “I won a weekend in Paris!” she said, almost exploding with joy. I was so jealous and resentful I couldn’t even smile back. That’s also what Buddhism calls arati.

And there’s the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seems there’s always someone willing to criticize when you volunteer to do something that benefits others. That’s arati too.

Arati is what’s called the “far enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation. The “far enemy” is a term meaning “the quality that is the direct opposite of the quality being considered.”

I’ve been referring to from time to time to a first century meditation manual called the Path of Liberation (the Vimuttimagga) as we explore lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joyful appreciation (mudita) — the first three of the so-called “immeasurables” or “divine abodes” (the fourth being equanimity, which we haven’t reached yet).

The Path of Liberation, which may be Buddhism’s most ancient meditation manual, says that the manifestation of joyful appreciation is “destruction of dislike.” So dislike (arati) is the opposite of joyful appreciation.

A later commentarial text, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) says something similar, namely that aversion (arati) is joyful appreciation’s far enemy. Aversion is an enemy in that it destroys joyful appreciation. And therefore joyful appreciation destroys aversion.

Arati is a Pāli word with a gramatically negative construction: it combines the negative prefix a- (not, or un-, or dis-) with the word “rati” which means love, attachment, pleasure, liking for, fondness, or even delight. (The Pāli expression “ratiṃ karoti” means “to make love”!) So we’re talking about the lack of all those qualities.

The far enemy of joyful appreciation isn’t as strong an emotion as ill will or hatred, which is the far enemy of lovingkindness. Arati is milder. It’s more like discontent, or even just a lack of engagement. It’s an inability to take pleasure in something wholesome, a lack of interest in it, or a turning away from it.

This becomes clear in a comment that the Path of Purification makes about arati:

So gladness should be practiced free from fear of [aversion]; for it is not possible to practice gladness [joyful appreciation] and be discontented with remote abodes and things connected with the higher profitableness simultaneously.

What the Path of Purification is getting at here is that we can’t have joyful appreciation if we can’t enjoy simple things (“remote abodes”) and if we don’t value and appreciate the good (“things connected with the higher profitableness”).

But arati can be more subtle than this. It can be any kind of resistance or aversion to beneficial things. When you can’t be bothered meditating, even though you know it’s good for you and makes your life better, that’s arati.

When we’re in a state of arati beneficial things are perceived as dull, or as an annoyance, or as a source of painful boredom. The Path of Purification talks of an inability to enjoy “remote abodes”; our modern-day equivalent might be a day retreat at our local Dharma center, which seems like a great idea when you reserve your place in advance, but as the day approaches your heart sinks. Going on retreat now seems like a dull chore. And yet, if you overcome your resistance and go to the event, you find that a day hanging out with cool, interesting, emotionally positive people is a delight. You find that practicing and talking about the Dharma is engaging and inspiring.

One thing you can do to overcome aversion is simply experience the resistance with mindfulness, letting go of and choosing not to believe all the stories you generate about why you’re tired, and it’s going to be boring, and you really need to catch up on your laundry, and you just do the good thing you know is best for you; feel the aversion and do it anyway!

Arati is a state of suffering, so you can notice this suffering, being aware of where it’s located in the body, and send it thoughts of compassion: “May you be well, may you be happy.” This can help soften and dissolve the closed off tight feeling that comes with arati, and open us up to feeling genuine joy for the other person.

Or you can reconnect with gratitude and appreciation in order to counteract your disengagment. You can consciously call to mind the positive. I’ve talked of various ways we can do this. We can name the positive qualities of other people and wish that those qualities, and the happiness that comes from them, grow and develop. We can count our blessings, saying an inward “Thank you” for all the things we normally take for granted, ignore, or even grumble about. We can bear in mind people with positive qualities and allow ourselves to be inspired by their example. Even just wishing ourselves well, reminding ourselves that we want to be happy and want to avoid suffering can help.

This is all work that we need to do to overcome the mind’s negativity bias. But it’s noble work. And it’s necessary if we’re to live joyfully.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Flooding the body with gratitude (Day 58)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The other day I suggested the practice of noticing our everyday blessings — things like having electricity, running water, shelter, a relatively law-abiding culture — and saying “thank you” for these things. I stressed the importance of actually articulating these words in our minds (although saying them out loud could be even more effective) in order to overcome the mind’s negativity bias, where we tend to pay attention to that which we think is going wrong and take for granted and ignore that which is going right.

Today I want to turn that inward, by reiterating a favorite practice of mine, which is of giving thanks to our bodies for the service they give us.

We have an odd relationship with our bodies. On the one hand we identify with them strongly. We tend to despair when they become sick, suffer agonies over how others perceive our appearance, take it personally when they show signs of aging, and sometimes spend large amounts of time and money trying to beautify them in order to look our best. On the other hand we neglect them, fill them full of unhealthy foods, and use them in ways that cause them long-term damage. Often, in fact, people resent their bodies, and get angry with them when they experience pain or illness.

Right now I’m lying down because my back’s sore. I strained my back a little over a week ago, and after a couple of days of apparently having returned to health it suddenly “goes” again. The truth is, I don’t take good enough care of it. I don’t exercise or stretch enough, and I’m not careful enough in how I use my body. I just take it for granted. I know I should exercise and stretch, but time always seems to be short, and there’s always much to do.

Having a sore back, though, gives me a good excuse to practice what I’m about to explain to you, which is the cultivation of gratitude toward the body. It’s similar to the practice of noticing everyday blessings that I mentioned above, since our bodies are likewise taken for granted. And in fact I often do this practice of gratitude toward the body as an extension of that practice, flowing seamlessly from one to the other.

So the practice is simple. It’s a body scan practice, where we become aware of the body, part by part, and notice the sensations arising there. The addition is that we say “Thank you” to each part of the body as we become aware of it. By saying “Thank you” we develop gratitude for that part of the body.

So we notice the feet, and say “Thank you.” It’s important to articulate the words clearly in your mind. We can allow into awareness the fact that we are, in fact, fortunate to have feet. Not everyone does. And your feet are probably functional, and capable of getting you around. Again, not everyone has this. And if your feet are damaged or in pain, recollect that your feet are doing their best. They’re trying to heal themselves. They do their best to function for you. Even if your feet are in pain, they still try to work for you and benefit you.

I think of this as like having a friend who shows up to help you even through they’re feeling below par. That’s a sign of a true friend. It’s the kind of thing only the best of friends would do. Regarding any damaged or painful part of the body like this — like a good friend who tries to help you even though they are in pain — helps me to feel extra gratitude, and to let go of resentment. My gratitude becomes a form of love and appreciation. As I experience these emotions I feel the body soften. It’s as if the body likes being loved (surprise, surprise!).

So I do this for other parts of the body: not just the feet, but the ankles, the lower legs, the knees, the thighs … all the way up to the crown of the head and even the hair. Notice any sensations that are arising as you focus on each part of the body in turn. Say “Thank you.” And allow yourself to feel that you are blessed by even having that body part. And feel extra gratitude if the part of the body you’re focusing on is struggling with pain or illness even as it tries to help you.

I notice the body’s functions: the heart beating, like a faithful old friend; the lungs pumping away, day and night. I notice the senses. How fortunate I am to have functioning eyes, ears, a sense of taste, smell, touch, balance! I notice the act of being aware — may ability to think, reflect, remember. Even the ability to pay attention in the way I am doing at that moment.

My experience of doing this practice is delightful. Gratitude is joy. It also feels like a deeply healing practice, as I let go of any resentment toward the body. Flooded with gratitude, my body itself becomes grateful, seemingly relieved to be appreciated.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Accepting compliments as a spiritual practice (Day 57)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Are you able to see your own good qualities? Many of us, apparently, have difficulty doing this.

What happens when someone offers you praise for something you’ve done, or pays you a compliment? What’s your response? Obviously this is sometimes very welcome, but lot of people find this to be a rather uncomfortable experience. They mentally or even physically squirm, and offer up self-deprecating rebuttals, saying it wasn’t such a big deal, or that someone else could have done it better, or pointing out flaws in what they did. Sometimes people feel like they need to pay a compliment back when they’ve been given one, as if a burden has been placed on them which must be discharged as soon as possible. Often people are in such emotional turmoil when paid a compliment that they don’t do the most obvious thing, which is to say “Thank you.”

One woman wrote in a discussion forum, “I won some academic awards a few years back and got lots of positive attention around it, and my response was to fall into a depression – some part of me couldn’t accept that I deserved any of the congratulations or compliments.”

We sometimes won’t allow other people to praise our good qualities because we’re not willing to see them ourselves. We think, like this woman, that we are undeserving. So having a negative self-view is one reason why we might not be able to see our good qualities or rejoice in our achievements. This lack of self-confidence can be helped by cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — but it also makes cultivating mudita more difficult!

Another reason can be distrusting others. Another woman said she felt like running and hiding when she was paid a compliment, and commented, “I think its because I don’t believe the person saying the compliment, and I feel like they have some ulterior motive.” This is doubly unhelpful, since not only are we refusing to accept that we have a good quality, but we’re discounting someone else’s good actions, and treating them with suspicion for doing something skillful.

As it happens, the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which I’m a part, makes a practice of “rejoicing in merits,” which is a translation of a traditional term, anumodana, which is in fact hard to translate. “Merits” here means “good qualities.” Often after a period of spending time with people on a retreat, there will be an opportunity to rejoice in the good qualities of each person on the retreat, or for each person in a smaller group — for example if people have spent time in study groups. So each person has a turn of being rejoiced in, and each other person will share something that they found admirable in this person.

So this is quite a practice! If one person paying you a compliment makes you squirm, how would you feel about a whole room full of people doing this?

Well, the good thing is that this practice of rejoicing in merits helps us to drop all the defensive habits we have around receiving compliments. It’s made quite explicit in the practice of rejoicing in merits that we need to learn how to accept compliments graciously, and when we let go of our defensive strategies we find that we actually let the compliments in.

So here are a few pointers to help you accept a compliment:

  • Don’t squirm or deflect. If you feel uncomfortable, just allow that discomfort to be there. Don’t do or say anything (screwing up your face, turning away, putting yourself down) that discounts the praise. Breathe!
  • Smile. It’s discounting to the other person if you screw up your face or shrug. Look them in the face and smile.
  • Take it in. Mindfully listen to the other person, and realize that the most important thing is to receive the message you’re being given. Someone is doing you a favor, and the skillful thing to do is to give them your attention wholeheartedly.
  • If you blush, you blush. It’s a physiological phenomenon that’s outside your control. Don’t see blushing as a sign of weakness.
  • Receive in order to give. Rather than feel that you have to give a compliment back (which discounts the compliment you’ve been given) recognize that graciously accepting the compliment with a “Thank you” and a smile is the best repayment that you can offer. But complimenting the compliment is fine! If you say something like “Thank you. That was a lovely thing to say” then you’re acknowledging that the compliment-giver did a good thing rather than discounting it.
  • Share the credit only after you’ve accepted it. If you’ve been praised for something you’ve done, but you know Susie (or whoever) should share the credit, make sure you accept the compliment before saying “Actually, a lot of the credit should go to Susie.” If you jump straight in with passing the compliment on to Susie, then you’ve refused to accept it.
  • Accept that the message may be true. You may not want it to be true that you’re good at doing a certain thing, but if it’s true it’s true, and it’s wiser to accept that as a fact. And having a good quality pointed out to you can help you to develop that good quality. And that’s a good thing, right? Your view of yourself can substantially change in very positive ways if a compliment is pointing out something about you that you hadn’t recognized before.
  • But don’t take credit where credit’s not due. If you genuinely had nothing to do with the thing you’re being praised for and the praise is therefore based on a misunderstanding, you can still thank the person giving the compliment (after all they are acting with kind intentions) but let them know that it was someone else who deserved the credit. It’s dishonest to accept praise that doesn’t belong to you. But I stress that this should only done when you genuinely didn’t do the thing that’s being praised.

To expand on that last point, after having attended one Buddhist center for several years, I started to visit another one some distance away. Several of the people there complimented me on being kind and friendly. Now this was a complete surprise to me, because in the group I’d been practicing in before, I had a reputation for being prickly and unfriendly. It turned out that I’d been changing, but that the people I’d been hanging out with for years had failed to appreciate those changes. Seeing me afresh, my new community could see me as I was, not in terms of a personality I’d outgrown years before.

Now having my own kindness and friendliness reflected back at me was a big deal. Not only did it allow me to see myself better, and allow me to feel better about myself (believe me, it’s much nicer to have the people around you think you’re kind and friendly than to think you’re defensive and unfriendly), but it encouraged me to deepen those qualities. It’s hard to deepen a quality that you don’t realize you have. So this was a real turning point in my life.

Receiving genuine compliments can be a deep practice that brings about profound changes.

Now for the sake of completeness, let’s say that someone is trying to manipulate you by paying you a compliment. (It happens. My daughter started trying to do this with me when she was about four years old: “Daddy, I love you!” — pause “Can I use the iPad?” Fortunately she’s outgrown this.)

But sincerely accepting a compliment actually makes it harder for you to be manipulated. If someone is paying you a compliment so that you’ll pay them one back, then simply accepting the compliment and saying “It was kind of you to say that” isn’t playing that game. If they’re paying you a compliment so that you’ll then do them a favor, then once again the confidence you get from accepting the compliment gives you the freedom not to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to “repay” them. You can accept the compliment and decline the invitation to “help.”

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Seven qualities that science says make us happy (Day 56)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe practice of mudita, or appreciative joy, is summed up in these words from the first century:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!”

We’re focusing on the good qualities that people have, as well as the peace and joy that those good qualities bring. I want to focus today on those good qualities, so that we may more readily detect them in ourselves and others. We can’t rejoice in what we do not see.

Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College and author of the Pursuit of Happiness, identified a number of qualities shared by many people who tend to be happy. From his research, several characteristics of happy people have become clear:

Happy people have self-esteem. They like themselves. They are more likely to agree with statements like “I’m fun to be with” or “I have good ideas.” They appreciate their own good qualities. Of course some people over-estimate their good qualities, but Myers points out that healthy self esteem is “positive yet realistic.” Anxious self-praise is fragile, and doesn’t promote long-term happiness. This kind of confidence is called saddha in Buddhism. Saddha is often translated as “faith,” but it’s not “blind faith” — it’s confidence based on experience, and on self-awareness. This kind of confidence in ourselves leads to happiness.

Happy people are optimistic. Optimists are more cheerful and upbeat. They expect to do well, and they expect good things to happen. They’re physically healthier, and they are actually more successful, because our expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Pessimists see set-backs as signs that they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. Optimists see set-backs as anomalies — stumbling blocks on the road to success. This is another form of saddha, but this time it’s confidence in life itself that enables happiness.

Happy people feel a sense of personal control. The happiest people are the 15% of the population who feel in control of their lives and who like themselves. People are happier when they make conscious choices about what they do with their lives — including basic things like their leisure time. The Buddhist term for this kind of engagement is viriya, often translated as “energy.” Viriya is our active engagement with life — our willingness to shape our own destinies.

Happy people are extroverted. No disrespect intended to introverts (I’m an introvert myself), but extroverted people are on average much more cheerful. They’re more likely to find satisfaction in life through rewarding jobs and relationships. As an introvert I’ve had to work at becoming more outgoing, and making progress in that regard has been rewarding. Introverts can be friendly too. In fact I’m going to suggest that it’s overt friendlinessmetta — that’s the key thing.

Happy people have close, supportive relationships. “Those supported by intimate friendships or a committed marriage are much likelier to declare themselves ‘very happy,'” Myers says. And indeed, recent research has shown that feelings of isolation and loneliness are as bad for our health as smoking. So the qualities that support close relationships — the ability to be open, to be kind and nurturing, to take an interest in another person — all help us to be happier. Many of these qualities come be summed up in the term anukampa, which is often rendered as sympathy, but which literally means the ability to “resonate with” or “vibrate with” others.

Happy people have a spiritual orientation. Happy people have a sense that their lives have purpose and meaning beyond accumulating wealth and spending their leisure time in enjoyable ways. People who have a spiritual foundation to their lives are twice as likely to report being “very happy” as people who don’t. This quality of having a spiritual orientation is what the Buddha called “right view” (samma-ditthi), although this doesn’t imply taking on board a collection of second-hand spiritual ideas, but having a basic openness to life and its possibilities.

Happy people experience flow in their work and play. When people perform ordinary tasks in a mindful way, they become un-selfconsciously absorbed, lose their sense of separateness, and cease ruminating. And ruminating is one of the things that makes us most unhappy. “Flow experiences boost our sense of self-esteem, competence, and well-being,” says Myers. Mindfulness and the ability to pay sustained attention (samadhi, or concentration) are essential for entering a flow state.

This list is by no means complete, and it’s very much a broad-brush outline of the qualities that lead to happiness. (Wildmind’s most popular article, read to date by more than a quarter of a million people is on 10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy, and is rather different.) But it gives us an idea of some of the things we can look for in others when we’re appreciating their goog qualities. It can also, however, give us an idea of what we need to work on if we wish to have joy-filled lives.

When you’re doing the mudita meditation practice, you might find it useful, when you can, to actually name some of the qualities that you admire in yourself or others. I’ve previously suggested using phrases such as “May my/your good qualities increase”; may my/your happiness continue and increase.” But “good qualities is rather vague! If you’ve picked someone like the Dalai Lama as your “admirable person” (this is the second stage, the way I’m teaching the practice here) then you could perhaps name the qualities you admire in him: “May your compassion increase”; may your happiness continue and increase; may your good humor increase; may your happiness continue and increase. may your curiosity increase; may your happiness continue and increase.” You could name several qualities, but don’t worry if it gets repetitive. Repetition is what makes the practice work.

This approach could be more difficult for the neutral person, if it’s someone you really don’t know. But there’s often something that strikes you about a person when you meet them, and when I think of the cashier at the post office, I recall her friendliness and good humor, and I esteem those qualities and imagine they lead to happiness for her. So I could say “May your friendliness increase,” etc.

This could be even harder for the difficult person, depending on who you’re focusing on. I often choose a person that I basically like, but who may have some habits that are abrasive. So I’m well aware of their positive qualities, and can name and rejoice in those. And the benefit of doing this is that it balances out the focus I tend to have on the few things they do that rub me the wrong way, and makes those things less conspicuous in my mind. But if there’s someone you really can’t stand, this could be more difficult, and it would be fine to stick with the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all “May your good qualities increase”; may your happiness continue and increase.”

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There’s a crack in everything (Day 55)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

This morning I was heading to work and I became aware that I wasn’t letting the world in.

Right now in New Hampshire, where I live, it’s late spring or early summer, and the trees, of which there are many on my route to work, are resplendent. Last night’s rains have left the greens and purples of the leaves rich and saturated, and the world is alive and vibrant. And yet for a few minutes it was as if I was seeing this through a filter that stripped out all the beauty. And in a way I was; the filter was my mind, clouded by preoccupations. With this filter of self in place, I saw the world, but didn’t allow myself to resonate with its aliveness and beauty.

Some part of me recognized that I was impoverishing my experience, and my thinking dropped away and the world’s beauty came flooding in. It was a deeply enriching and satisfying experience, just noticing and appreciating all this beauty as I moved through it. Everything was beautiful. Everything.

I’ve been noticing, since starting to practice the mudita bhavana (the meditation in cultivating joyful appreciation) that I’m becoming much more appreciative.

Yesterday I was walking to my local cafe, and saw Larry sitting on a doorstep, having a cigarette. And I was struck by how much I liked the style of his baseball boots. They were attractive in themselves, but the shape and color of them perfectly complemented the rest of his clothing. So I commented on this, and we got into a conversation about them; he said they’re cheap shoes, but that he really loves them. It seemed like he was pleased to have permission to like his shoes.

In the cafe, there was a new display of five paintings by a local artist. They were all good, but three in particular were really excellent. And the way that the paintings had been displayed was beautiful, and I couldn’t help thinking that those particular artworks belonged in that space. So I shared that with Michelle, the cafe’s owner. It’s good to share what we appreciate.

And Michelle herself is a lovely person, and I noticed that there was a touching vulnerability about her, like she was perhaps feeling a bit down, but was dealing with it in her usual patient and kind way, staying calm and graceful while under pressure.

The filter of “selfing” seems to be dropping away, and beauty is being allowed in. “Unselfing” allows esthetic appreciation to take place. It allows the heart to resonate.

So I’d suggest, from time to time, just dropping your “selfing” activities; drop those filters of self-preoccupation and let the world’s beauty in.

I wonder if beauty is simply the meeting of the world and an appreciative mind? There can’t really be an experience of beauty without a complementary experience of appreciative awareness. I didn’t experience the trees as beautiful until I dropped my filters and appreciated them. And in some sense there seems to be no such thing as “objective” beauty. When we have an appreciative mind, it can seem as if everything is beautiful. It’s not just the obviously beautiful things (trees, flowers) that you can resonate with. Even cracks in concrete, a crumpled Coke can that a car’s run over, a pair of cheap baseball boots, a pile of dirty dishes can be received with appreciation and so have their own beauty. True, there are some things it’s easier to appreciate, and therefore to see as beautiful; for example we’ve evolved to have positive responses to nature. And there are some things it’s hard to appreciate; it’s hard to see a facial deformity without wincing. But it seems anything can be seen as beautiful if we look the right way.

Even brokenness can be beautiful. A few weeks ago I dropped my iPad mini and the screen cracked right across, diagonally. Perhaps because I’d been doing lots of lovingkindness meditation, this didn’t bother me at all. When I look at the screen I find I like my iPad more, not less. Mine is the only iPad that’s cracked in that particular way. It’s unique, and lovely. Interestingly, when other people see the crack they’re aghast. They react as if I have broken every limb in my body. But to me, there’s something lovely about this crack.

The Japanese have an art called kintsugi. When some ceramic household object, like a favorite teapot, breaks, it’s repaired with gold resin, so that the cracks are highlighted. Objects repaired in this way are seen as more precious and beautiful than undamaged items.

This makes me think that everything is cracked. As Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything.” And appreciation seems to have the ability to make things whole again, to fill the cracks with gold.

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“May good qualities and happiness continue and increase” (Day 54)

Yesterday I wrote about how mudita — joyful appreciation — can help us overcome our inherited tendency to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive.

This is important because in the karuna bhavana meditation (developing compassion) we’re inherently focusing on things that are, for want of a better word, “wrong” in life. We’re focusing on pain and suffering, and the difficult side of life, and this can feed in to our negativity bias. We can, in consciously cultivating compassion, end up over-emphasizing the suffering that’s in the world. Now there’s no shortage of suffering in the world, but it’s not all that there is to existence. In any given day, much goes right. Sure, bad things happen, but so do good things as well. People do things that hurt others, but actually many more people do things that help others.

Mudita — joyful appreciation — helps remind us of all this.

With mudita we’re focusing on the good and on the joy that comes from the good. We let the good in, and we bathe our minds in it.

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe Path of Liberation puts it this way:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! [Good! Good!] may he continue joyful for a long time!”

So it’s not just any happiness that we’re rejoicing in. When someone is gleeful because they’ve just pulled off a scam, this isn’t the kind of quality that meant here as being “esteemed by others.” It’s the happiness that comes from the development and practice of skillful qualities that’s meant.

In the practice of mudita bhavana we’re generally rejoicing in skillful qualities and in the peace and happiness that come from those qualities. And we do so in a structured way.

  1. We begin with wishing ourselves well. This can be a simple practice of self-metta, or it could have more of a quality of frankly acknowledging our positive qualities and rejoicing in them. (Although I know this is tricky — even painful — for many people.) We can wish something like, “May my good qualities increase”; may my happiness continue and increase.” The exact words don’t matter too much, and you can change them to something else that’s meaningful for you.
  2. We call to mind someone like the person just mentioned, whose qualities are esteemed by other and who has peace and joy. And we can repeat something like “May you continue to be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.” This leads, all going well, to a greater sense of “emotional elevation” which is accompanied by stimulation of the vagal nerve, and a sense of spreading liquid warmth around the heart.
  3. We call to mind a “neutral person,” who is someone we don’t regard as a friend and who we also don’t have problems with; perhaps we just don’t really know them. And although we don’t know them, the gladness that we’ve developed in the first two stages can be transferred to this person. Everyone has positive qualities, so we can say “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
  4. And then we can do the same for someone we have difficulties with. It’s perhaps getting a little harder now, but if there’s some emotional momentum to our mudita then this can be carried over even into our thoughts and feelings about people we’re in conflict with. And even if there’s not much overt emotion happening, that’s fine: we can simply have the intention to wish this person well. This person has skillful qualities, like every other person. Or at least they have the capacity to develop skillful qualities. So once again we wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
  5. And I’ve written before about the final stage of these “immeasurable” meditations; in fact this is the point at which they become “immeasurable” or “boundariless” (which is how I would translate “appamaññā”). This is where we simply imbue our awareness with appreciation and joyfulness. Our mind is a field of awareness, and now instead of relating with appreciation one-to-one, we simply have an appreciative mind that meets beings with the wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”

I’ll be writing about each of these stages in various ways over the next few weeks, but this should give you plenty to be getting on with in terms of developing appreciative joy.

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The conscious evolution of appreciation (Day 53)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The neuropsychologist (and Wildmind contributor) Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is very good at pointing out that our brains have a negativity bias. Our brains, as he puts it, are like velcro for painful experiences and teflon for pleasant experiences. And this bias has arisen because of our evolutionary history: hominins and early humans who ignored potential threats didn’t leave many ancestors, and so we’re descended from rather “twitchy” forebears who were good at thinking about things that might go wrong.

But now that, for most of us reading this article, our basic needs are largely covered, and so we find ourselves in the situation not of struggling to live, but of trying to live happily and meaningfully. And our inherited negativity bias — in the forms of anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. — doesn’t generally help us to live well. We find ourselves the richest and safest people who have ever lived, and finding life to be unpleasant much of the time. As the comedian Louis C.K. put it, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

“…a guy on an airplane was pissed off because the plane’s internet wasn’t working – how quickly the world owes him something he didn’t even know existed 10 seconds earlier….”

We’re flying around the world in metal tubes, six miles above the ground, entertaining ourselves with electronic devices that seemed like science fiction when I was a child, and we’re not very happy.

Well, we can still evolve, although in saying those words I’m not referring to our genes but to our minds. Sangharakshita points out that biological evolution has brought us to the point were we can start wondering about the point, and that from here on it’s up to us.

If you view our mental states as a population, you can see mindfulness and wisdom as a selection pressure. When we start to see that anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. impoverish our lives, there’s an incentive for us to drop those habits. It’s just like a selection pressure in biology acting to weed out certain maladaptive genes. We can consciously encourage the development of more skillful states of mind — that is, states that lead to the emotional and spiritual enrichment of our lives.

One practice I encourage is to rejoice in what’s going right in our lives, and to say “Thank you.” At this point some people will be thinking “There’s nothing going right in my life.” We’ve all had thoughts like that. But those thoughts are never true.

Are you alive? If so, say, “Thank you.”

(Say the words “Thank you” in your mind at least, clearly articulated and consciously generated.)

Do you have air to breathe? It took countless billions of beings to manufacture the atmosphere that sustains you. Say, “Thank you.”

A few thousand years ago, your chances of dying violently were about one in three. You’re currently living in one of the safest periods in our species’ history. Say, “Thank you.”

The chances are that you’re living in a relatively democratic country. Say, “Thank you.”

You’re probably inside a building, sheltered from the elements. Say, “Thank you.”

You’re reading this online, so you have internet service. Say, “Thank you.”

And electricity. Say, “Thank you.”

Probably clean water as well. Say, “Thank you.”

The building you’re in is probably covered by all kinds of building codes designed to keep you safe. Countless thousands of people have labored to make this a safe world for you to live in. Say, “Thank you.”

Outside, there are roads and bridges. Say, “Thank you.”

(When I’m driving and I’m a bit bored or frustrated I remind myself that there is actually a road to drive on and suddenly driving changes from being stressful to being a miracle.

Almost all of us have access to grocery stores containing a bewildering variety of foods. Say, “Thank you.”

This isn’t to deny that there are things wrong with the world, or that things couldn’t be better. But often we’ll focus on the negative (there’s a pothole at the end of my street) rather than the positive (I live on a paved street). And it’s not to deny that life is genuinely hard for many people. But count your blessings.

So this is a practice I encourage. Focus more on what’s going right, and less on what’s less than ideal. Consciously say “Thank you.” Even if this seems a little weird or artificial, it can have an amazing effect on our lives. This is an excellent way to get into mudita, or joyous appreciation.

Everything’s amazing. And if you keep reminding yourself of that, you won’t be unhappy.

Click here to see all the posts from our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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“To believe in the heroic makes heroes” Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

In the Path of Freedom, a 1st century meditation manual that I’ve mentioned a few times because it’s the earliest source I know of for cultivating lovingkindness and compassions in stages, we’re asked first of all to connect with mudita (appreciation) in the following way:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!”

So this brings up the question of who we know (or know of) who is like that. And it also brings up the question of whether we actually want there to be people like that. But let’s deal with those one at a time…

Upatissa, the author of the Path to Freedom, doesn’t say that we have to personally know this exemplary person. In fact it’s clear that we might only know them from reputation. But it may also be someone we are fortunate enough to know personally. So who do we know (personally or at a remove) who has qualities that are esteemed by others, and who is at peace and joyful?

I’m fortunate to have personal experience of a number of people who fit the bill, some of whom I have lived with and who I therefore know quite well. These are people who are scrupulously ethical, and very careful in how they talk about others. I would often find myself complaining about someone, and one of my more skillful friends would respond by saying something that, for example, put the other person’s actions into a broader context and made those actions seem more forgivable. I can think of a couple of people who I have never known to do or say anything unkind. Whenever they have problems they always approach them from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings. And these are people who are often joyful, dignified, and at peace.

Perhaps I’m fortunate in this — I just don’t know. Or perhaps you know many such people.

What about those we know only by reputation? I think of people like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, and Maya Angelou. These people are giants in their own ways, and demonstrated personality traits that are highly “esteemed.” The Dalai Lama is the most obviously joyful, while the others seem to exhibit more of a sense of peace and dignity. I feel ennobled simply by calling them to mind.

Psychologists call this feeling of emotional uplift “elevation.” Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, studies elevation, which stimulates the vagus nerve (also involved in compassion) and leads to “a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, has written, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Feelings of inspiration also lead to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with love and bonding.

Now there’s the second question. Do you want there to be heroes? Some people don’t. What’s your reaction when you hear that someone is admired and is joyful and at peace? Does your cynicism kick in and start doubting? Do you imagine the Dalai Lama’s smile leaving his face as soon as he leaves the stage, and him yelling at his attendants? Do you cast around for some negative fact from the life of Eleanor Roosevelt that “balances” or negates the inspiring role she played in the civil rights movement?

If you do this kind of thing, you’re not alone. We’ve got used to heroes being exposed as having feet of clay. It’s still common to hear Mother Theresa held up as a paragon of compassion, but it’s also more common to hear that she was actually a very unkind person who seemed to take joy in watching people suffer.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t investigate such things and write honest biographies. If the truth is that Mother Theresa was a monster, then let that come out. But I do suggest that you don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that there must be some dark undercurrent to the lives of heroic people. Because I think one of the reasons we sometimes don’t want there to be heroes is pride. One of the ways we seek a sense of security and wellbeing is through the “worldly wind” of status, which often involves thinking that we’re better than others, or at least thinking that others are not better than us. And so it can be tempting to find fault in order to drag others down to our level.

However, I suggest that it’s unwise to expect perfection in anyone. Everyone makes mistakes, and causes others harm. It’s always possible to find fault. I can know that Nelson Mandela had an affair and hurt his family, but still regard him as someone to admire. I can know that Maya Angelou worked as a prostitute and pimp, and still have immense respect for the person she evolved into. These flaws and mistakes actually help me to have greater respect for my heroes, not less. Their humanness, as shown by their difficulties and vulnerability, makes them easier to relate to — if I respond with compassion rather than judgement.

And they don’t have to be perfect examples of joy or peace. I’m sure Roosevelt’s life was troubled. I don’t have personal insight into Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou’s day-to-day states of mind, but I doubt that they’re happy or at peace all the time. But they’re still admirable.

So let’s think about heroes. Let’s allow ourself to have heroes, without either being cynical or denying their flaws. It’ll help make us better people, and will help us help others. As Disraeli said, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

PS. You can see all of the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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