What tips the scales from a situation being motivating and inspiring to being discouraging and deflating? Is it the atmosphere and culture of the environment? Is it the people you are surrounded by? Is it something in your own personality?
We’ve all experienced these situations. We’ve all felt inspired by someone or something and that inspiration has motivated us to improve ourselves in some way. Conversely, we’ve all felt intimidated by the greatness that we feel is out of our league and makes us feel small and unworthy. Is it simply the magnitude of greatness we are faced with that tips the scales? If so, who is determining the level of greatness that inspires or causes intimidation? And can those levels be changed?
Undoubtedly, there are numerous factors involved in answering these questions. Each situation comes with its own set of variables and factors that go into resulting in either inspiration or deflation.
But upon closer inspection, it likely boils down to two things:
- A perception of abundance or
- A perception of scarcity.
When the feeling of abundance arises, we feel empowered, encouraged, and motivated. We feel like there’s enough room for us to expand and grow. We are safe and secure in spreading our wings.
When scarcity is perceived, we feel fearful, insecure, and discouraged. We feel like there’s only a limited space for success. If someone else has it, there isn’t room for us to have it.
So how do we cultivate an atmosphere of abundance?
I have been experimenting with a traditional Buddhist practice that has been helping me perceive more abundance in my life. The practice is called Mudita or loosely translated as sympathetic joy.
Mudita is one of the four Brahma Viharas in the Buddha’s teachings, which are the heart practices. The word Mudita does not have a perfect English translation but it is most closely described as finding joy in someone else’s good fortune. One Mind Dharma describes it in this way,
“First, it is the quality of showing up with presence and tenderness for joy around you. When somebody else is happy, mudita is a quality of heart that allows us to truly rejoice as if we were experiencing the joy ourselves.”
Sympathetic joy is a nice counter to the helplessness that sometimes accompanies compassion or feeling sympathy for other’s suffering. For most of us, it’s easy to feel compassion when others are suffering, especially our loved ones. Alternatively, it can feel wonderful to envision someone you love in a happy moment and open your heart to that joy. Think of the genuine happiness that comes from seeing a child laugh or two puppies playing together. It is such a simple practice yet has the power to be truly transformative. It can help spark joy in an otherwise joyless day. Rather than focusing on misfortune, we focus on the good happening to those around us. It is a way of zooming out the lens and seeing the larger picture. We are not isolated and separate but rather we are connected and united.
The Benefits of Mudita
There are many benefits to practicing Mudita. It serves as the precursor to compassion and Metta or loving-kindness. Without the appreciation of others and sincere joy in their happiness, we cannot genuinely wish them well or sympathize with their struggles. Mudita fosters connection which is one of the main sources of happiness in our lives.
Another benefit of Mudita practice is reducing feelings of envy and jealousy. These feelings come up when there is perceived scarcity. We feel like there’s not enough good to go around. But these feelings come from seeking happiness in external sources contingent on circumstances. Mudita helps us to see that joy comes from within and when we can cultivate happiness from other people’s happiness we see that joy is infinite.
In addition to reducing envy and jealousy, Mudita also fuels inclusion and teamwork. When people feel included and safe, they are more creative and innovative. This idea runs contrary to our competitive culture, which produces feelings of separateness and a “me against you” attitude. Consciously conjuring feelings of joy in other’s good fortunes turns us towards the internal joy that is satisfying and promises fulfillment with lasting effects.
“The Dalai Lama points out that there are so many other people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness equivalent to our own because then, he says, our chance of delight ‘are enhanced six billion to one. Those are very good odds.’”
Hard to argue with that logic.
How to Practice Sympathetic Joy
I took an interest in this practice as I have been noticing myself floundering between feelings of abundance and scarcity in different aspects of my life. In my job, I have the pleasure of working alongside two talented editors. Most days I am inspired by their talents and find it motivates me to improve my skills and step up my game. But on some days, I cower back with insecurity; like I’m not good enough and don’t belong in the job.
The same is true for my athletic training. After taking a year off of triathlon training due to health issues, I see the impact it has had on my performance. It is easy to get sucked into self-pity and discouragement as I see my friends improving and my own performance so drastically reduced. There are days when I can’t get out of that narrow lens focus.
But I had a glimpse of widening that lens during a recent bike ride with friends. We were climbing a hill I had climbed before but it was my first time back on it since my health issues. My friend, Emily was having a fantastic climb. She was soaring ahead with a speed I hadn’t seen from her before. Even from a distance, I could see she was feeling great. Her legs pedaled effortlessly with no sign of fatigue.
I felt a smile curl up on the corners of my mouth. I thought about all the training she’d been doing and I was witnessing the fruits of her labor. Rather than feeling bad that I was behind, I felt a deep appreciation for her accomplishments. I felt connected. Her achievements brought me joy as she represented what hard work and training produce.
This spontaneous feeling of sympathetic joy inspired me to begin a more conscious practice of it. Now on my rides, before my mind goes to the self-critical place, I zoom out the lens and look at my friends' performances. I see how they are hitting their stride and breaking through to new levels. I see their confidence lift and the joy they feel.
I make a point of telling them how great they are doing. Their success does not preclude my own. We build each other up and support one another. Finding joy in their success gives me the strength to continue my own training and helps me find acceptance in where I am now.
I try this same practice at my job. I look at the work of the other editors and I appreciate their skills. I find joy in the different approaches we each take in putting stories together. I zoom out the lens and learn from their work not by comparing but by recognizing we all have talents to offer. Through recognition and sharing, we can cultivate an atmosphere of growth and creativity.
This practice also serves to show the similarities in our experiences as human beings. It has illuminated the reality that we all experience the same self-doubt and insecurities in whatever it is we are doing. When I saw Emily hitting her stride, I realized that when I was excelling in my own training, I never really knew it. I was too busy trying to get better that I didn’t notice I had actually become better. And when I appreciated my colleagues work, I realized they probably feel the same insecurities I feel. Instead of hiding them or pretending like they don’t exist, why not acknowledge that we feel scared and unsure and then support each other for working hard and doing our best?
We are all victims of the stories in our own heads. We build other people up inside our heads by what they can do better than us. But we all feel unsure and inadequate in some way. By appreciating other’s strengths, we uncover the sameness of our experiences thereby increasing our connection. There is strength in numbers and there is enough joy for all of us. It is cumulative and in fact, exponential.
Practicing Sympathetic Joy
Next time you find yourself feeling envious of someone in your life, try to zoom out the lens and appreciate what they have. Don’t look at it from a place of scarcity. See it through the lens of abundance and see if that illuminates some similarities in your experience. What you envy in that person may be something they feel insecure about. Giving recognition for their strengths will be the bond that creates an atmosphere of abundance.
Another way to practice Mudita is during meditation. It is similar to a loving-kindness or Metta practice, where you systematically send wishes of goodwill out to yourself, someone you love, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally to all beings everywhere.
To practice sympathetic joy in this way, you would sit comfortably with your eyes closed and repeat some phrases such as:
I’m happy you’re happy.
May your happiness continue.
May your happiness increase.
Send these wishes to yourself, someone you love, a neutral person and a difficult person.
End the meditation with a global wish of:
May the happiness and good fortune of all increase further and further.
You can make this the focus of an entire meditation session or you can add it to the last few minutes of your meditation. Doing a formal practice will awaken the feelings of sympathetic joy inside of you making it easier to add to your daily life. With consistency, you will notice a tendency towards happiness in the face of other’s success instead of jealousy or envy.
Sympathetic joy is one of the lesser known Brahma Vihara’s, but in my experience, one of the more powerful ones to practice. It can be difficult to cultivate and can bring up a lot of self-judgment and self-criticism. It is human nature to feel jealousy and we should not be harsh with ourselves if we find ourselves feeling that way. I still have days where I feel insecure and cower in the face of greatness. I have days when I think I’ll never be as good as some of my peers. But I now have a practice I can go to in order to reduce these feelings and zoom out the lens to perceive abundance instead of scarcity. And abundance is freedom.