appreciation

Mudita is not “sympathetic joy”

Person kneeling in front of a giant Buddha statue in a temple

This is an extract from the introduction to my current course on Mudita, which is part of a longer series of teachings on the brahma-viharas — also known as the “immeasurables.”


The third of the Brahmaviharas, after lovingkindness and compassion, is mudita. Mudita is usually translated as sympathetic or empathetic joy, and is described as “feeling happy because others are happy.”

This is an interpretation I profoundly disagree with.

A first century text called the Path to Freedom describes the cultivation of mudita like this:

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!”

(Sādhu, by the way, means something like “Yay!” or “Alright!” or “Great!”)

The records we have of the Buddha’s teachings don’t define mudita, and the text above is the earliest I know of that gives us an indication of what mudita is and how it’s to be cultivated. There are several things that are significant here.

  • We’re asked to call to mind someone whose skillful qualities are developed to the point where others esteem them. Having mudita involves recognizing what’s skillful.
  • We’re not just being asked to call to mind someone who is happy, but someone who is happy (and at peace) as a result of having those skillful qualities. So when we have mudita we see the connection between skillful actions and their beneficial results.
  • Appreciation is involved. We appreciate skillful qualities, and the peace and joy they bring, as being good things.
  • Love is involved. Because we want what is good for them, we encourage this person’s future joy and happiness, by supporting, rejoicing in, and encouraging their skillfulness.
  • By valuing this other person’s skillfulness, and the peace and joy that come from it, we ourselves become joyful. So we’re cultivating a state of appreciation that’s joyful.

This all goes far, far beyond “being happy because someone is happy.” That much more mundane experience is actually fraught with spiritual difficulties, because a lot of the apparent happiness we see around us arises on the basis of unskillful actions. We shouldn’t be glad that someone is happy because they’ve just defrauded an old lady of her life savings, for example.

In summary, when we practice mudita we appreciate skillful attributes, speech, and actions, and this brings joy. And so mudita is “joyful appreciation.”

A Progression

There is a progression in the first three brahma-viharas.

Metta is kindness. We want what is best for others’ long-term happiness and well-being. We want them to be happy. We want them to feel supported and to know that they matter. We speak and act kindly, and think about others kindly as well.

Karuna, or compassion, is what happens when we want beings to be happy but are aware that they are suffering. In order for them to be happy we want to remove their suffering, or at least support them while the suffering persists.

When we have mudita we want others to be happy, but now we recognize that happiness is not something that happens randomly. The happiness we’re interested in is the kind that comes from having skillful qualities. And so, wanting beings to be happy, we recognize the skillful qualities within them that give rise to happiness, and we appreciate, rejoice in, and encourage the development of those qualities.

To have mudita we have to be able to recognize conditionality, which is the way in which certain conditions and actions give rise to suffering, while others free us from suffering. Mudita is therefore at least in part a wisdom practice.

Just as we can define compassion as metta meeting suffering, we can define mudita as metta meeting skillfulness. This meeting is a joyful experience, or at least is capable of arousing joy.

The Stages of the Mudita Practice

As with the lovingkindness and compassion practices, there are five stages in joyful appreciation meditation.

  1. We start with cultivating appreciation of ourselves, or at least establish kindness towards ourselves. This stage is not found in the earliest description of the practice, but is a healthy place to begin, given that many of us often lack appreciation of our own skillful qualities.
  2. We then call to mind a person who embodies skillful qualities and experiences peace and joy as a result.
  3. Then we do this for a relative stranger (“neutral person”).
  4. Then for person we have difficulty with.
  5. And then finally we wish that all beings develop skillful qualities and experience calm and joy as a result.

As with the compassion practice, there is no “friend” stage. The person with skillful qualities in the second stage may be a friend, or we can include friends in the final stage.

For the first few days, we’re going to focus on self-appreciation.

Today I’ve chosen an exercise from “Living With Appreciation.” It’s on “Taking time to savor the positive..” The guidance begins with a short talk and is 10 minutes long in total.

Meditation Isn’t Enough

Although mudita bhavana is a meditation practice, developing joyful appreciation is something we can and should do in daily life as well. We can recognize skillful words and actions that we encounter, and we can also be more generally appreciative — recognizing and being glad for anything whatsoever that bring benefits to us or others.

An Exercise

Today, carry around an attitude of appreciation as best you can. As you encounter others, or even just think of them, be aware that they contain the seeds of goodness. When good things happen to you, however minor they seem dwell on them appreciatively.

Bodhipaksa

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Reflections on the death of my mother

Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

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How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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The mind knows its own way home

cat looking through hole in wooden door

When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.

We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.

At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.

We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.

It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.

We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.

But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.

We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”

Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!

Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.

Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.

Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?

Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.

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A day without complaining

Man placing finger over lips.

In Buddhist practice, we cultivate something called “mudita.” Mudita is most commonly translated as “sympathetic joy,” which can sound a bit odd since nowadays we think of sympathy as being concern about someone’s suffering. Being sympathetic about happiness might seem peculiar.

But in earlier days the word sympathy meant more like the current use of our word “empathy.” And in fact, you’ll often see mudita translated these days as “empathetic joy,” meaning that we feel happy when others are happy.

But I don’t think that’s what empathy is really about. In a very early meditation text, called the Vimuttimagga (Path to Liberation), we’re asked to cultivate mudita 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!'”

Sadhu means something like “Hurray!” The crucial thing here is the link between having good qualities and — as a consequence — experiencing peace and joy.

See also:

Mudita is the third of a series of practices that begin with metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion). Kindness is wanting others to be happy, and behaving accordingly. Compassion is wanting beings to be happy, but recognizing that they’re often afflicted with suffering. Because we want beings to be happy, we therefore want them to be free of suffering, and (again) act accordingly. The “acting accordingly” thing is important. Kindness and compassion are not things that we simply feel, but that we do. They’re actions. They’re ways of relating to and interacting with the world.

Mudita recognizes that if we value beings’ happiness, and if we therefore want beings to be happy, then we must want them to have the causes of happiness.

So what are the causes of happiness? Lots of money, a beautiful/handsome partner, and a nice job, obviously. Just joking! Psychologists have put a lot of effort into studying what factors lead to happiness, and material wealth is pretty far down the list. Far more important are things like being involved in loving and supportive relationships, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, doing things for other people, expressing gratitude, being mindful, forgiveness, and optimism. So, mudita is: valuing, appreciating, and encouraging what is positive in others, and leads them to experience peace and joy. Since mudita is appreciation, and since practicing it is joyful, I translate it as “joyful appreciation.”

Mudita is appreciation; complaining is its opposite. The Vimuttimagga says that the “non-fulfillment” of mudita is both “resentment” (internal complaining) and “derisive action” (complaining that we do out loud).

Today I’m suggesting that we become more mindful of complaining, in particular. If you focus on noticing the “out-loud” complaining you do, that’s a good start. It’ll help you to become more aware of the internal complaining—resentment.

It’s been interesting, over the last week or two, to pay more attention to my tendency to complain. I can be a bit snarky about things that frustrate me, like computer programs or mobile apps that often don’t function as advertised (I’m talking about you, Siri!). And we have a running joke in the office about the amount of noise made by the trash and recycling trucks that visit not just our building but several adjacent ones, too. But one thing I’ve realized is that I don’t complain as much as I assumed I did, which is good news!

Mostly this complaining is pretty good-humored, which actually makes it hard to know sometimes whether I’m complaining or not! Commenting that the recycling truck is particularly noisy today — is that a simple observation, or is it a complaint? I guess it depends on the tone of voice, motivation, etc. This may not be an easy practice!

In the past, trying not to complain would have been challenging in another way — I used to do so much of it! When I was younger, I complained all the time. I guess I thought it made me look smart. I remember when I was at university, my girlfriend’s best friend once gave me a ride back to their home town. Afterward she commented to my girlfriend that I kept up a constant stream of complaints about one thing or another for the entire 90 minute journey. When my girlfriend told me of this, I was mystified. Apparently, complaining was something I did so habitually that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it! That’s a completely different kind of difficulty from what I face today.

Over the years I’ve been practicing, I’ve worked on complaining less. This is the result of applying the Buddhist speech precepts—ethical guidelines that encourage us not to 1) be untruthful, 2) speak harshly, 3) indulge in trivial and distracting conversation (still working on that one!), or 4) sow disharmony. I’ve gotten better at training myself not to lie, not to exaggerate others’ faults, not to present a skewed and misleading picture when I’m talking about others, not to gossip maliciously, not to indulge in blame, and so forth. All of this was a big challenge when I was going through a divorce just a couple of years back! But it’s a good practice!

While appreciation makes us happier, complaining makes us unhappy. While appreciation makes us feel open and free, complaining makes us feel kind of bitter and tight inside. Look and see for yourself!

Of course, wanting to complain but restraining yourself feels unpleasant, like trying to hold in a fart at a dinner party. It’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a comfortable feeling! It can be a relief when you give up the effort and just let out your snarky comment. But that relief is temporary. Complaining really doesn’t makes us feel good. And the discomfort of holding in our complaints is temporary too. As we get used to complaining less, we’ll start to experience the benefits. And so will those around us!

So I suggest that you give this a go. See if you can become more aware of your complaining. The point is not to notice how often other people complain! (Strangely, this is often an early response to practicing ethics.) Nor is the point to give yourself a hard time when you catch yourself in the middle of a rant. When you do notice that you’ve been complaining, or are about to complain, just take a breath and let go. Maybe you’ll think of something skillful to say, maybe not. But each time you do this at least you’ll be taking a small but important step toward living with joy and appreciation.

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To motivate yourself to meditate, celebrate!

Although I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, I have to confess (and have done so often) that for most of that time my regularity was erratic. It’s only the last few years that I’ve been a rock-solid daily meditator. Unfortunately I don’t think any advice I was given (or gave, in classes I taught!) on meditating daily was of any use at all, and I had to figure out my motivation for myself.

Maybe that’s true for all of us, although it seems a lot of people have found my “I meditate every day” mantra useful.

A friend wrote to me and talked about a “good” meditation he’d had, and contrasted it with “bad” meditations. He himself put the words “good” and “bad” in scare quotes, which I think is great. It’s good not to take those labels seriously, and I think he was being appropriately skeptical about the validity of those terms.

But this prompted me to reflect (again) on how the whole vocabulary of “good” meditations is flawed. Don’t these labels largely come down to how we feel about what unfolded in our practice? Judgements like “good” and “bad” are largely just a reflection of what we feel.

My friend’s “good” meditation was one in which he experienced an unusual (for him) amount of continuity of awareness, without the mind zooming off into distractedness.

In terms of feelings, he was something like surprised, delighted, and excited because his meditation practice was unusually focused. I know that’s more verbose than saying it was a “good” meditation, but it’s accurate and descriptive. Saying the practice was “good” doesn’t strike me as a very useful adjective. What does it add? (I’m not criticizing my friend’s choice of vocabulary, incidentally. As I pointed how he was very clear that he was using “good” as a “quick and dirty” way of evaluating his practice).

By contrast, my own meditation this morning, because I was sleep-deprived, was mostly dreamy, with lots of distracted thinking. I may even have been asleep at times! But I felt pleased about my meditation, simply because I did it. Was that a “good” meditation? Not by most people’s evaluation, nor when weighed against my average experience. But does it matter? No. The meditation was what it was, and how I feel about it doesn’t make any difference to that fact.

However, that labels I apply to my meditation practice might make a difference to my future inclination to meditate. If I’d labelled it a “bad” meditation—which would mean, presumably, something like “I felt disappointed because my experience wasn’t what I wanted it to be”—then I’d be less inclined to continue meditating in the future.

Let’s say my friend had had exactly the same objective experience, with continuity of awareness for most of his meditation, but had felt neutral or even displeased by those events. It would be the same meditation, but he wouldn’t regard it as “good” and instead would see it as “so-so” or even “disappointing.” Seeing the practice in that way would away from the motivation to keep practicing in the future.

In a way I’ve chosen to be pleased at the very fact of having done my daily practice, and that encourages me to keep doing it daily. and in a way, having being pleased about my meditation as my default means that my daily meditation is always “good.” And so I want to keep doing it. What actually happens in my practice is secondary and doesn’t affect me being please by the fact of having done it. The length of time I’ve meditated is also secondary, and also doesn’t affect me feeling happy about having meditated.

When my mind becomes concentrated during a sit, or when joy or love arises, then I can be pleased by those occurrences as well. But they’re an added bonus, since I’ve already decided to feel pleased simply because I’ve meditated.

Keeping going is the most important thing, because meditation is practice. It’s the doing of it that’s important. You might not see any calmness or concentration or love manifesting in any given sit, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not benefitting.

Although I said that none of the advice I received about establishing a rock-solid daily meditation practice really helped, I hope the advice that we can choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating does help.

How how can we make the choice to be pleased about having meditated? To feel pleased about meditating, celebrate meditating.

  • Simply choose to pat yourself on the back for having sat. No matter how short the sit was, or what actually happened during the meditation, tell yourself you’ve done a good job for having sat. Use congratulatory language: “Yay, me! Good job! Well done! It’s great that I sat today!” Smile! Or you can simply thank yourself: “Thank you for meditating. I really appreciate you doing that.”
  • Although some of us have conditioning that makes us feel bad about self-congratulation, I think that nevertheless, even if our cultural conditioning makes us want to go, “Oh, really, it was nothing. I’ve had much better sits. I really should meditate for longer,” we do on some level also feel pleased when we hear deserved praise.
  • If your meditation practice is unusually calm, or concentrated, or loving, or compassionate, or joyful, or anything else that’s affirming and delightful, then allow yourself to be pleased about that too. But don’t let that take the place of being pleased about the fact of having meditated.
  • When we do something skillful we should allow ourselves to feel pleased by it, and we should choose to ignore the voices that downplay what we did.

In short: If you have pleasing experiences in meditation, then enjoy them. But choose to be pleased about the very fact of having meditated. This will help motivate you to keep on practicing.

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Gratitude promotes patience

Woman pressing hands together in gesture of thanks.

I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.

Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).

Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.

The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.

Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.

To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.

The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.

Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.

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What do you give?

A monkey handing something to a person

Giving — to others, to the world, to oneself — is deep in our nature as human beings.

When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.

When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).

Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities.

This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together.

Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.

Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines.

Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.

When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
How?

Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.

Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.

Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.

Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.

Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.

Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.

Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.

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Appreciation and impermanence (Day 73)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Jack Kornfield, in his lovely Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says “The trouble is, you think you have time.” He doesn’t say what we don’t have time for, but presumably he means that we put off important things because we assume that we can do them later. The trouble is, there may not be any “later.”

Recognizing that our time here is short can help us appreciate life more. I opened my book, Living as a River, by discussing how an awareness of impermanence can enhance our appreciation of our loved ones. When married people were asked to reflect on the death of their (still living) spouse, they found that they could more easily overlook their partner’s flaws — those socks on the bedroom floor seemed less significant — and found it easier to appreciate their good qualities. You might think that reflecting on death would be a downer, but in fact an awareness of impermanence enhances appreciation.

This applies to everything in life, including our lives themselves. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. And in the light of that we reflect that we’re responsible for our own lives and our own actions. He was saying, in essence, life is short, make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But that’s a rather alienated view, I think. If you really take on board how short life is, you’re forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable in your life. And for most of us that’s experiencing and giving as much love as possible, and doing things that are meaningful. “Fun” comes pretty far down the list, if it’s there at all.

Being aware that each breath you take is impermanent makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention. Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, notice how each moment is unique. That moment and that moment and that moment — each one is there so fleetingly. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

But let’s think again about those around us, about those close to us, about those we’re connected to with ties of blood or love, about those who barely register as feeling beings, about those we don’t like or can’t stand to be around. You’re going to die. They’re all going to die.

Life is unpredictable. You have no idea if you’ll ever see them again, or if they’ll ever see you again. The people you see today — this may be the last time you see them. And maybe you should behave as if this was indeed the last time you were going to see them. What last words would you like them to remember you having said to them, should you die tomorrow? What last words would you like to remember having said, should they die tomorrow?

Look at those people, as if you’re never going to see them again. Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. And let yourself feel affection for them. Let yourself appreciate their basic goodness. Let your judgements and your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to be happy. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love — now.

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

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