Other People’s Joy

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My friend Edith got tickets to a totally sold out show in New York because she happened to be in line when a customer angrily returned two tickets he had bought. Good for her, right? But when Edith told a friend what had happened, the friend reacted angrily because she wanted to see the show herself. The friend could have been happy for her, but chose misery by rejecting mudita.

Lack of mudita injures love relationships, especially monogamous ones. For the last five years, I’ve been hanging around with some people who identify as “polyamorous.” That means having more than one lover and being honest about it with everyone in the relationship. It’s a lot of work, a lot of communication, but these folks seem loving and comfortable with each other.They also appear friendly and affectionate with other people in their lives.

Polyamory is not cheating. There’s a huge focus on honesty and openness, and people who try to skip that part don’t last in their community.  It’s not all about sex, either. Just partly about sex. Poly people seem to love relationships and enjoy the effort and challenge of making these more complicated unions work. It’s definitely not for everyone.

Not right for everyone

A limited form of mudita is critical to successful polyamory. They call it “compersion,” which means happiness over a lover’s connection with other lovers. Does that sound impossible? Here’s one compersion story:

“My partner and I just returned from the airport,” wrote a blogger named Naima.  “We picked up my partner’s lover who just arrived on a red-eye from California.  We had a lovely breakfast and walk on the beach. They have not seen each other in 5 months. When we arrived home they quickly made their way to the bedroom.  They are making love in our bed as I write my blog. Sounds of pleasure emanate throughout the house.  I am happy they are enjoying each other.”

I don’t think I would have reacted that way, but Naima is not alone in enjoying her compersion.  A woman named Shara told the web site polyamorous NYC, “I love to watch his face light up when she calls because I know how much he cares about her.” Shara doesn’t view other partners as competition. “Every relationship is unique and nobody can replace me, because they are not me.”

What a sense of security! It sounds like the key to “compersion” or to all mudita is feeling secure that there is enough for you.  This is why mudita has such powerful potential for good.  According to Buddhist teacher Natasha Jackson, those who practice mudita develop “a quiet stream of sympathy and understanding flowing within them all the time.”

Imagine the difference it would make if people had more mudita in their lives! Think how much of economics and politics is based on jealousy. You’ve got millions of struggling nonunion workers repeating their bosses’ story about union workers “making too much money.” Why not be happy for them and seek their help to improve your own situation?

Think how many native-born workers attack immigrant workers for coming here seeking a better life.  Why is their initiative a bad thing?  Only because our system is set up to render everyone insecure and deprived, competitive and unsatisfied. If we felt secure, we could be happy for each other. What that would do to the economy, I don’t know.

Achieving Mudita

In Buddhism. mudita is one of the brahmavihara or “four divine abidings.” I think of them as the four really cool ways to be. The others are metta or loving kindness, karuna or compassion, and upekkha or “equanimity,” staying calm whatever comes.

Of the four, mudita seems hardest to achieve.  Natasha Jackson writes, “It is indeed a depressing fact that people are much more ready to sympathize with the misfortunes of others than to rejoice with them.” There is even a German word for this tendency: schadenfreude, meaning pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

It is possible to reverse this attitude. We are born with the capacity for mudita, but life can rapidly bury it, as it has for my child friends Leona and Lisa. But people can climb out of the debris. We have both tendencies within us. Buddhist practitioner Nyanaponika Thera wrote of children, “Though they can be quite jealous and envious, they also can visibly enjoy it when they have made a playmate happy by a little gift, and they are then quite pleased with themselves.”

How to get there?  It seems you have to deal with your own feelings of deprivation and loss. I know from experience that it is occasionally possible to feel the vast fountain of resources we have been given. Meditation helps. Meditating on mudita is a good start. If you can be happy for other people’s good fortune, you will have an endless supply of things to be happy about.

Other teachers suggest meditating on phrases like, “All my needs are being attended to,” “I have everything I need,” or the wonderful Biblical line “My cup runneth over.” It’s like continually counting your blessings without having to think about them or actually count anything.

According to Wikipedia, “Buddhist teachers interpret mudita broadly as an inner spring of joy that is available to everyone at all times, regardless of circumstances. The more deeply one drinks of this spring, the more secure one becomes in one’s own abundant happiness, the more bountiful it becomes to relish the joy of other people.” Of the millions of Wikipedia entries, that’s my favorite. It’s a virtuous circle of increasing happiness and fulfillment.

Imagine a world where everyone has that inner spring running most of the time. Wouldn’t things go better? Try it. It’s not easy, but I think you’ll like both the process and the results.

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2 Responses to Other People’s Joy

  1. Tammy says:

    Okay you lost me a little on this one. I totally relate to the concept of how hard it is to feel happy for others to the detriment of our own happiness. When a coworker I like quite a a bit beat me out for a promotion. I hated her. She became my boss and despite doing a good job as such, I’ve had a hard time slapping her on the back and congratulating her. But I did work hard on my own attitude to not make myself miserable. Where you lost me is using the analogy of polyamory. Perhaps I’m a prude, or perhaps I draw from my own life experience where I saw a couple’s professed “open” relationship completely self-destruct. Relationships need to be nurtured and honored. I’m sure some folks may have worked this out, but without any science to back me up, that sticks in my craw.

    • Anna Marie says:

      “Mudita” is an overarching concept that relates to “compersion,” which is a term used in the polyamorous community. It’s specifically about being happy for your partner’s happiness with another love/lover, while mudita is about being happy for others happiness or good fortune in general.

      Personally, I think compersion is something healthy that should be found in any relationship, poly or not. I love feeling happy for my partner, and won’t settle for being with someone who does not naturally feel joy for my happiness.

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