Yesterday I wrote about how mudita — joyful appreciation — can help us overcome our inherited tendency to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive.
This is important because in the karuna bhavana meditation (developing compassion) we’re inherently focusing on things that are, for want of a better word, “wrong” in life. We’re focusing on pain and suffering, and the difficult side of life, and this can feed in to our negativity bias. We can, in consciously cultivating compassion, end up over-emphasizing the suffering that’s in the world. Now there’s no shortage of suffering in the world, but it’s not all that there is to existence. In any given day, much goes right. Sure, bad things happen, but so do good things as well. People do things that hurt others, but actually many more people do things that help others.
Mudita — joyful appreciation — helps remind us of all this.
With mudita we’re focusing on the good and on the joy that comes from the good. We let the good in, and we bathe our minds in it.
The Path of Liberation puts it this way:
When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! [Good! Good!] may he continue joyful for a long time!”
So it’s not just any happiness that we’re rejoicing in. When someone is gleeful because they’ve just pulled off a scam, this isn’t the kind of quality that meant here as being “esteemed by others.” It’s the happiness that comes from the development and practice of skillful qualities that’s meant.
In the practice of mudita bhavana we’re generally rejoicing in skillful qualities and in the peace and happiness that come from those qualities. And we do so in a structured way.
- We begin with wishing ourselves well. This can be a simple practice of self-metta, or it could have more of a quality of frankly acknowledging our positive qualities and rejoicing in them. (Although I know this is tricky — even painful — for many people.) We can wish something like, “May my good qualities increase”; may my happiness continue and increase.” The exact words don’t matter too much, and you can change them to something else that’s meaningful for you.
- We call to mind someone like the person just mentioned, whose qualities are esteemed by other and who has peace and joy. And we can repeat something like “May you continue to be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.” This leads, all going well, to a greater sense of “emotional elevation” which is accompanied by stimulation of the vagal nerve, and a sense of spreading liquid warmth around the heart.
- We call to mind a “neutral person,” who is someone we don’t regard as a friend and who we also don’t have problems with; perhaps we just don’t really know them. And although we don’t know them, the gladness that we’ve developed in the first two stages can be transferred to this person. Everyone has positive qualities, so we can say “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
- And then we can do the same for someone we have difficulties with. It’s perhaps getting a little harder now, but if there’s some emotional momentum to our mudita then this can be carried over even into our thoughts and feelings about people we’re in conflict with. And even if there’s not much overt emotion happening, that’s fine: we can simply have the intention to wish this person well. This person has skillful qualities, like every other person. Or at least they have the capacity to develop skillful qualities. So once again we wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
- And I’ve written before about the final stage of these “immeasurable” meditations; in fact this is the point at which they become “immeasurable” or “boundariless” (which is how I would translate “appamaññā”). This is where we simply imbue our awareness with appreciation and joyfulness. Our mind is a field of awareness, and now instead of relating with appreciation one-to-one, we simply have an appreciative mind that meets beings with the wish, “May you be skillful; may your happiness continue and increase.”
I’ll be writing about each of these stages in various ways over the next few weeks, but this should give you plenty to be getting on with in terms of developing appreciative joy.