mudita bhavana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The conscious evolution of appreciation (Day 53)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And electricity. Say, “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“To believe in the heroic makes heroes” Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin_Disraeli_by_Cornelius_Jabez_Hughes,_1878In the Path of Freedom, a 1st century meditation manual that I’ve mentioned a few times because it’s the earliest source I know of for the cultivation of lovingkindness etc. in stages, we’re asked first of all to connect with mudita (appreciation) in the following way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cultivating appreciative joy (Day 51)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe third of the Brahmaviharas, or “immeasurables,” after lovingkindness and compassion, is muditā. Muditā is sometimes translated as sympathetic joy, or empathetic joy, or as appreciative joy.

Our old friend, the first century text, the Path to Freedom, describes it like this:

As parents, who, on seeing the happiness of their dear and only child are glad, and say, “sadhu!” so, one develops appreciative joy for all beings. Thus should appreciative joy be known. The undisturbed dwelling of the mind in appreciative joy — this is called the practising of it. Gladness is its salient characteristic. Non-fear is its function. Destruction of dislike is its manifestation. Its benefits are equal to those of loving-kindness.

So again, this quality of appreciation, like lovingkindness and compassion, is something intrinsic to us that needs to be developed and extended, and not some amazing mystical experience that we’re striving to attain some day. We already have experience of muditā! (Sādhu, by the way, means something like “yay” or “alright!” or “great!”)

But this description of seeing happiness and being glad sounds rather like metta, or lovingkindness. Compassion is the desire that beings be free from suffering — so that, at least, is quite clearly different from appreciative joy. Mettā is the desire that beings be happy. But what’s the difference between mettā and muditā?

Upatissa, the author of the Path to Freedom, actually is a bit more specific when he explains how to cultivate appreciative joy:

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

So in both examples — “seeing the happiness of their dear and only child” and “seeing and hearing that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others” — we have two things going on:

  1. The person is already happy. Mettā wishes that beings be happy. Muditā is our response to knowing that beings actually are experiencing happiness.
  2. Appreciative joy is not just about happiness — it’s about valuing and appreciating the good qualities people have that bring them happiness. So appreciative joy is appreciation. In fact I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t just translate muditā as “appreciation,” and I’ll probably use that term a lot. “Gladness” is a good Anglo-Saxon alternative, but perhaps a bit less precise, since there isn’t much in the word “gladness” that suggests it’s a response to the happiness or meritorious qualities of others.

So there’s more here than just recognizing happiness and being glad that people are happy. We’re recognizing ethically skillful behaviors and character traits, and the peace and joy they bring.

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

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The pursuit of happiness (Day 50)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe all want happiness, but much joy do you experience in your life? And I mean real “heart welling up,” “spring in the step,” “full of the joys of spring joy,” “happy for no reason” joy, rather than the dull sense of pleasure that we often experience.

Most people, when they’re asked this question, will say “not much.” Many may go entire days, or even weeks, without any significant joy. Life can often seem like an endless round of chasing deadlines and striving to stay on top of an ever-growing to-do list, and so be imbued with a sense of stress.

Do we even expect to be happy? It strikes me that many of us have low expectations for how happy we will be. We don’t expect our lives to produce much joy.

How do we look for happiness? By vegging out in front of the TV, or by eating, or shopping, or Facebook, or through alcohol? But these pursuits often lead, at best, to that sense of dull pleasure I mentioned earlier, rather than genuine joy.

Maybe we think that happiness is just around the corner, but we haven’t got there yet. Or maybe it’s a ways off; perhaps we’ll be happy after we get a new job, or more pay, or once we lose some weight, or when we’re on vacation, or after we get past this busy spell.

The trouble is, that we create unhappiness for ourselves through our thoughts and attitudes, and then expect to consume our way out of unhappiness. And that just doesn’t work.

There’s a piece of “cowboy wisdom” I heard many years ago that goes, “When you find you’re in a hole, the first thing you gotta do is stop diggin’.” And I think that’s absolutely true. To live happily, we have to drop the mental habits that make us unhappy. Often that’s all we have to do — stop making ourselves unhappy, since joy is something we actively suppress. Joy is our natural way of being, but most of our “doing” cuts us off from our natural happiness.

So what are those mental habits that suppress our happiness? Basically, they are anything we do that resists the present moment. The “usual suspects” are things like responding with clinging rather than letting go, resisting rather than accepting, anger rather than kindness, complaining rather than celebrating, worrying rather than being optimistic, and trying to escape our experience rather than being mindful.

Being joyful is a skill, and most people lack skill in creating joy. Just look at people driving or walking past you; what percentage of people are actually smiling? The things we do that suppress our joy are called “unskillful” activities in Buddhism. Conversely, when we act in ways that allow joy to emerge, we’re acting skillfully.

As soon as we drop any of these unskillful, joy-suppressing activities, we feel happier. We may not go straight to a deep sense of joy the moment we drop an angry thought, but at least when we do that we’re heading in the right direction. If we keep letting go of unskillful thoughts, and refrain from unskillful words and actions, we are creating a space for joy to emerge. And if we cultivate skillful habits of thought, speech, and action, joy will emerge. It’s guaranteed.

So just watch your mind. Notice your thoughts, and notice whether they’re contributing to a sense of joy, or a sense of disharmony. And if you’re creating suffering for yourself, let go of or change those thoughts or replace them with more skillful ones. And you can do the same with your speech, as well.

So this is what we’re going to be working on in the next phase of 100 Days of Lovingkindness. We’ll be cultivating skillful habits that allow joy to emerge naturally. We’ll be practicing mindfulness, kindness, celebration, appreciation, and other joy-enabling habits. And we’ll see what happens!

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

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