mudita bhavana

Appreciation is contagious (Day 63)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWhen you practice joyful appreciation (mudita) or any of the related attitudes such as kindness (metta) or compassion (mudita), you become happier.

Your friends become measurably happier because you’re happy.

Your friends’ friends become measurably happier.

And your friends’ friends’ friends’ become measurably happier.

Happiness spreads outward into the world through your social network like a virus — although a rather beneficial one.

This may all seem rather incredible, but I stress the word “measurably” above because the evidence for this is solid, and is based on a huge study carried out by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego.

Professor of Medical Genetics James H. Fowler (he’s the San Diego guy) and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, (from Harvard) have been studying social networks for several years, using data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health, behaviors, and attitudes of tens of thousands of people since 1948.

The study measures many aspects of health, including happiness. Participants have been asked how likely they are to agree with questions like “I feel hopeful about the future” and “I feel happy.” And the study also tracks social networks, allowing the researchers to see how attitudes and behaviors spread.

Fowler and Christakis have found that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. If you have friends who don’t smoke, you’ll find it easier to give up smoking. If your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy yourself. And, as we’ve seen, if you’re happy your friends are more likely to be happy, and if your friends are happy you’re more likely to be happy.

help support wildmind

If you benefit from this work, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

In fact, if you’re happy you increase the changes of an immediate social contact becoming happy by 15%. And this effect ripples out into your friend’s friend’s relationships. The effect becomes weaker as it does so, but it’s still measurable in your friends’ friends’ friends’.

There’s a rather lovely image from the Buddhist tradition that ties in with this. On a traditional Buddhist altar there are always three offerings: Candles, which represent the light of the Buddha illuminating our own lives; flowers, which represent the teachings unfolding within us; and incense, which represents the way the skillful attitudes we develop in our practice percolate into the world around us. Just as the incese we burn doesn’t confine itself to the room in which we’re meditating, but ripples endlessly out into the world, so the changes we bring about in ourselves don’t stop with us, but affect those around us, and those around them, and so on and so on, flowing out into the world, with no limit.

There are a couple of important points you can take away from all this.

First, you can be confident that as you meditate and as you practice lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative joy in daily life, you’re transforming the world around you. Feel the power! It’s real!

Second, you might want to be careful who you hang out with. If you suffer from depression and some of your friends and colleagues are miserable and some are happy, you might want to try spending a bit more time with your more upbeat crowd.

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

Read More

The power of gratitude (day 62)

100 Days of LovingkindnessRobert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, and so he’s written a lot about the benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude is, of course, an important aspect of joyful appreciation, or mudita, which is the practice that we’re exploring at the moment as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness. So here are a few ways that Dr. Emmons has shown gratitude can enhance our lives.

  • Gratitude enhances positive emotions. Emmons points out, as I have elsewhere, that we quickly habituate to pleasant circumstances, and that our positive emotions tend to wear off quickly. We’re wired as novelty seekers, and while we may celebrate some new development in our lives — a nice spell of weather, returning to health after an illness — the enjoyment quickly wears off, and we’re left with the existential “meh” that is so familiar to many of us. In fact we generally start seeking things to be discontented with. But when we consciously practice gratitude, we appreciate life’s benefits and are less likely to take them for granted. We find that we celebrate the many ways that goodness is woven into the fabric of life, and we feel more joyful and engaged.
  • “Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret — emotions that can destroy our happiness,” Emmons says, using language almost identical to Buddhist teachers of the last 2,500 years. He points to research suggesting that gratitude reduces the frequency and duration of periods of depression, and that people who are more grateful are less prone to envy and resentment. And this is exactly what we’d expect; resentment and envy are the direct emotional opposites of joyful appreciation. If you’re experiencing appreciation and gratitude, it’s impossible to feel envious or resentful at the same time.
  • Gratitude protects against stress. People who tend to be grateful bounce back more quickly from adverse circumstances, loss, suffering, and injury. They’re more emotionally resilient. Their ability to seek the good prevents them from focusing too much on the negative in situations. Someone who’s of a grateful disposition who suffers a disability is more likely to focus on the things they can do rather than to dwell on the things they can no longer do.
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When we lack gratitude, we’re more likely to think that the world is against us and that nothing is going right in our lives. Therefore we think that we’re not worth much. Gratitude makes those kinds of cognitive distortions less likely. When we’re grateful we value what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. We may feel grateful just for being, for having air to breathe. We recognize that even when some things are not going the way we want them to, the vast majority of circumstances are conspiring to support us. When we look at ourselves, we appreciate our own qualities, and see someone who is basically loved and supported by the universe.

I’d add to Dr. Emmons’ thoughts by pointing out that gratitude is a powerful reinforcer of social connections. People love to be appreciated and rejoiced in. When we expression our gratitude and appreciation of others, we cement powerful bonds, and feel connected. Those social connections are not only of practical benefit — people who like us are more likely to help us, but those people are more likely to be there for us emotionally. And feeling that we’re a part of a rich social network, which is more likely if we’re grateful to others, helps us to feel less alone with our problems. Studies have shown that feelings of isolation are actually as damaging for our health as cigarette smoking, so feeling connected to others provides valuable benefits to our physical and mental health.

Traditionally there are eleven benefits for the one who practices gratitude: “Happily he sleeps; happily he awakes; he does not see bad dreams; he is dear to humans; he is dear to non-humans; deities protect him; fire, poison, sword and stick come not near him; he concentrates his mind quickly; the colour of his face is pleasingly bright; at the time of death he is not bewildered; if he attains not the sublime state, he is reborn in the world of Brahma.”

I can’t vouch for your having a good rebirth in the next life as a result of practicing gratitude, but I do know that it will help you be healthier and happier in this life.

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

Read More

Learning to see the good in others (Day 61)

100 Days of LovingkindnessHow open are we to the good qualities of others?

Twenty years ago today, I was in the middle of a four-month retreat in the mountains inland from Alicante, in Spain. This was the retreat in which I, along with 25 other men, became members of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

It was an amazing experience to be on retreat for so long, and to be studying and practicing the Dharma so intensely. We were living in a valley in simple huts, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and rugged rock formations that jutted above the gorse-covered earth. We ate outdoors, and meditated in a simple hall which was filled with incense and the singing of nightingales.

At this point in the retreat, one person was being ordained each night. The ordinations took place in a small building some distance from the meditation hall, and we gave a special send-off each evening to the person being ordained. Part of the send-off included a “rejoicing in merits” carried out by Suvajra, our retreat leader. Suvajra would give a beautiful account of the fine qualities of the man who was being ordained. Suvajra had this amazing ability to recognize the good in people, and so these rejoicings would often go on for some time.

Now of the 25 other men being ordained, most I loved dearly, but there were a couple who irritated me for one reason or another. I tended to find fault with their behavior, and didn’t enjoy being around them. And when the time came for their ordination, I found myself wondering, “What on earth is Suvajra going to say tonight? How can he possibly find anything of merit in this guy?”

But you know what? Not only did Suvajra find plenty to say about the people I disliked, when he rejoiced in their merits I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s true. And so’s that. And that.”

There was often an odd sense that I’d both noticed and not noticed the qualities he was describing. The qualities he was rejoicing in weren’t hidden or in any way hard to find, but I’d not allowed myself to resonate with them. I hadn’t allowed the good in.

Later, one of the other men on the retreat commented on Suvajra’s ability to see the good in others, and his own difficulty in doing so with certain individuals, and he said he’d wondered what was stopping him from seeing the good. He said he’d realized it was himself. As soon as he said this I realized that this was the case for me as well. I’d erected filters that stopped me from acknowledging others’ good qualities. Having decided that I didn’t like someone, I wasn’t willing to see anything in them that I did like. There’s a certain sense of security that comes from having people we dislike.

Sometimes when we filter out others’ good qualities we just don’t register them. They don’t fit our preconceived pattern of what that person’s like, and so those perceptions just don’t register. In more extreme cases we’ll take good qualities and imagine them to be signs of something darker: someone’s generosity is seen as them trying to curry favor, for example. We come to believe we have special insight into this person’s thoughts and opinions. So we may need to ask this person a favor, but we don’t because we “know” that they’re going to say no. Or we assume that they don’t like us and are thinking critical thoughts about us.

So how can we become more open to the good qualities of others — especially those we have difficulty with?

  • Start with the assumption that this person has positive character traits that you’re just not seeing, rather than assuming that they have no redeeming qualities. If you assume that there’s a filter you’ve erected that’s stopping you seeing what’s there, you create a gap in your filters through which reality can begin to penetrate. Unless another person is a complete sociopath, they will have some kindness, some patience, some honesty, some positive ambition.
  • And stop bad-mouthing the other person. The first thing to do, if you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. You won’t see the positive if you’re constantly seeking the negative.
  • Ditto for thoughts. Now you can’t just switch off your critical thinking, but whenever you realize that you’re indulging in an inner rant, just let go of those thoughts, and then with the other person well.
  • If you’re lucky, you’ll have an experience like mine, and hear a third party say something kind or complimentary about someone you have difficulty with. And if you do, don’t discount what’s said. Let it in.
  • Sometimes you’ll not like someone but another person you do respect sees something positive in them. I noticed this last year. There’s someone I sometimes work with who I find a bit wearing because he talks a lot, and I find this exhausting and keep trying to avoid him. But there’s a third colleague who I really like and admire, and I found myself surprised by the fact that she liked hanging out with this guy. That created a sense of openness in me, which helped me to feel more tolerant.
  • Remember that this person that we tend to judge is, at a very deep level, just like us. They want to be happy. They find happiness elusive. They don’t want to suffer. They suffer all too often. Recognizing this opens us to our own vulnerability, and this sense of tenderness helps us not to judge others.
  • Based on that, recognize that others’ intentions are often good, even if the execution doesn’t agree with you. The person who talks too much is perhaps seeking a sense of connection, a sense of security, an escape from loneliness. Try to see past the behaviors you don’t like and allow yourself to resonate with those intentions to seek happiness.

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

Read More

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

100 Days of LovingkindnessAs I’ve pointed out before, 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).

If you benefit from the work I do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

If you benefit from the work I do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

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.

Read More

Flooding the body with gratitude (Day 58)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe 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.

Read More

Accepting compliments as a spiritual practice (Day 57)

100 Days of LovingkindnessAre 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.”

Read More

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.”

Read More

There’s a crack in everything (Day 55)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThis 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.

Read More