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The Wellspring of Joy

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Flipping through the San Francisco Chronicle not long ago, I came across a glowing review of a collection of short stories called Yoga Hotel, which recounts the fictional adventures of expatriates traveling in India. As a writer and yoga student who has traveled extensively through the sacred sites of India myself, I’m embarrassed to report that my immediate, wholly unenlightened reaction was, Damn! Why didn’t I write that book?

Responding to the good fortune of others with envy is a natural—if not particularly laudable—human characteristic. It’s as if we’re hardwired to believe that there’s only so much happiness to go around and that if someone else gets too big a chunk of it, there won’t be any left for us.

Recognize Moments of Envy

If you keep your eyes open, it’s not difficult to see this habit in action—in yourself and others. When your lover has just dumped you, probably the last thing you want to do is go to a wedding. A good friend of mine—a yogi who has been practicing for more than 20 years—recently told me how hard he finds it to look around a yoga class and see younger practitioners melting effortlessly into poses that elude him. And writer Anne Lamott describes how difficult it is to deal with the triumphs of other writers, particularly if one of them happens to be a friend. “It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small, bad things to happen to this friend,” she says, “for, say, her head to blow up.”

Fortunately, this competitive reflex is not an expression of our deepest nature but a conditioned habit that can yield to another, more satisfying way of being. Instead of envying others, we can cultivate our innate quality of mudita, or “joy”—a boundless capacity to savor life’s blessings, regardless of whether they’re showered on us or on other people.

During a rainy retreat in Dharamsala, India, I heard the Dalai Lama—someone who radiates joy, despite the horrors he has lived through—explain the benefits of cultivating mudita. “It’s only logical,” he said with an infectious giggle, looking out at the maroon-robed monks huddled under umbrellas in the temple courtyard. “If I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”

Embrace Joy, regardless of circumstance

In buddhist philosophy, mudita is the third of the four brahmaviharas, the inner “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity that are every human being’s true nature. The term mudita is often narrowly translated as “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy, the pleasure that comes when we delight in other people’s well-being rather than begrudge it. But since in practice, it’s all but impossible to experience happiness for others unless we first develop the capacity to taste it in our own lives, many Buddhist teachers interpret mudita more broadly as referring to the inner fountain of infinite joy that is available to each of us at all times, regardless of our circumstances. The more deeply we drink from this fountain, the more secure we become in our own abundant happiness, and the easier it then becomes for us to relish the joy of other people as well.

See also Love in Full Bloom: A three-part series on the Brahmaviharas

We’ve probably all had moments that have shown us that happiness has virtually nothing to do with the external circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the state of our minds and hearts. We can be drinking margaritas on a Caribbean beach, totally miserable; we can be late for work and stuck in freezing sleet in a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, overflowing with bliss.

Remember Our Brains can Change

Lately, scientists have shown interest in just these kinds of phenomena, and they have confirmed what yogis have known for centuries: The mind can be systematically trained to generate joyful states. In a New York Times article, Daniel Goleman reported that people who were taught mindfulness meditation and did it regularly became dramatically happier, more energized, and less anxious than subjects in a control group—a change that was reflected in distinctive patterns of brain activity that were detected through MRIs and EEGs. Each of us seems to have what Goleman calls an emotional “set point”—a distinctive pattern of brain activity (and a corresponding mood) that we chronically tend toward and that is not affected much by external circumstances. Fortunately, science now confirms, regular contemplative practice can shift this emotional set point.

So how can we use our asana practice to tap into our own wellspring of joy? One simple way is by what yoga teacher John Friend calls “looking for the good”—focusing not on what’s wrong in our yoga poses (and our lives) but on what’s right. We can let positive, pleasurable sensations move into the foreground of our awareness, allowing ourselves to savor the release in a tight psoas, the tingle in an arching spine, the throb of a sleepy thigh muscle coming to life. We can honor ourselves for our small accomplishments—even for the simple fact that we have shown up on our mats—rather than berating ourselves for the things we can’t do.

Acknowledge What is Aching

Looking for the good doesn’t mean that we deny an aching back or paste a happy face over a broken heart. Personally, I find I can’t cultivate mudita—either on or off the mat—without first softening into a compassionate awareness of what’s actually happening on all levels in my body, mind, and heart, including any fog of pain, jealousy, grief, anxiety, or anger. Only then can I invite to the forefront of my awareness the more joyful feelings—which may seem, at first, strangely less compelling than the difficult ones.

As Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points out, even neutral experiences (the touch of the air on our skin, the fact that we have teeth to chew our food with and do not currently have a toothache) can be transformed into pleasant ones simply through the power of our attention. To encourage this transformation, I often begin my mudita practice by formally “counting my blessings,” as my mother used to call it. In a silent inner litany, I say “thank you” for the magnificent gifts of a healthy body: lungs that breathe the cool, foggy air; a nose that smells eucalyptus leaves and banana muffins; eyes that see hummingbirds swooping outside my window; a tongue that has just savored a golden, juicy peach. I express gratitude for my friends, my family, my son riding his tricycle up and down my deck, the doe and fawn that wander through my yard, nibbling on the lower branches of a plum tree. I give thanks that bombs aren’t falling on my city, that tanks aren’t smashing through the walls of my house.

This little ritual sets the tone for an asana practice in which I am tuned in to countless blessings that I might otherwise have overlooked: the complex, effortless coordination of muscles in the simplest forward bend; the peace that comes in the pause after a full exhalation; the release of the knot in my spine just behind my heart as I twist. Instead of looking for what feels wrong in a posture, I seek out what feels right and invite that action to expand.

As I flow through my practice, I am amazed at how often my mind reverts into the well-worn groove of looking for what’s wrong—relentlessly pointing out the myriad ways in which I could improve my body and my practice (not to mention my career and my hair). It takes discipline, at first, to keep bringing my attention back to the joys I am actually experiencing in that very moment, not the imagined pleasures that would result if only I could whip my life and body into shape.

But the more I focus on mudita as I do asanas, the more the practice snowballs. The positive sensations become like a magnet, naturally drawing my awareness to them. I give myself permission to revel in the simple joys of embodiment, to bow down in gratitude to life itself. And this grateful joy becomes a source of nourishment that continues to feed me when I get off my mat.

Find Little Blessings Everywhere

After a session of mudita practice, I find I naturally have a heightened ability to find joy everywhere. Walking to the park with my son, I am more likely to savor the warm touch of his hand in mine and the deep purple of the morning glories twining over a neighbor’s gate, and less likely to fret about whether I’m going to be late for our play date because my little boy is dawdling to drop pebbles down the drainage grate. Pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket, I’m more likely to appreciate the jewel-like piles of crimson beets and yellow sunburst squash, and less likely to get irritated by a new cashier who’s taking too long to locate the price of cherry tomatoes.

Mudita practice is not about denying darkness and sorrow. Rather, it works hand in hand with the practice of karuna, or “compassion,” in which we focus on opening our hearts to pain and suffering. Our joy is made all the brighter when we truly let ourselves feel how fleeting life is—how filled with loss and grief and terror. And that awareness of sorrow and impermanence helps sensitize us not only to our own joys but to the joys of others.

Celebrate What is Right in Your Life

Through the practice of mudita, I have been able to celebrate the bright moments of joy that punctuate even the darkest days. In the long, bleak months after my baby daughter passed away, I found small refuges of peace and joy—a quail family rustling through the tall grass, the scent of a lavender bush. And these moments of happiness—a garden planted at the edge of the chasm of death—are what helped mend my heart.

The practice of mudita shifts us into a deeper experience of our own lives, so we stand in the center of the actual, simple joys that are unfolding for us moment by moment rather than comparing our experiences with the imagined ecstasies of others. And as we become more appreciative of our own blessings, the joys of other people, instead of being a threat, naturally start to feed our hearts as well.

It’s easiest to resonate at first with the joys of those we love—our children, our dearest friends. But as we become more sensitive to our own joys and sorrows, the barrier between the self and others begins to break down. “Mudita is boundless,” writes vipassana teacher Sharon Salzberg. “As it develops in us, we are able to rejoice in the happiness and well-being of others, whether we like them or not. Remembering the truth of the vast potential for suffering in this world, we can feel happy that someone, anyone, also experiences some happiness.”

It’s not that we won’t ever be visited by envy or Schadenfreude (that guilty pleasure in the misfortune of others that’s the polar opposite of mudita). But when we root ourselves in gratitude for our own blessings, we are more likely to be able to remember that there is enough happiness to go around, and that anything that truly enriches the store of human joy also inevitably enriches our own lives. And the profound relief and freedom we feel when we genuinely let go of envy and embrace sympathetic joy becomes a powerful incentive to continue the practice. Mudita breaks down the inner walls we tend to erect between ourselves and others, and as it does so, we experience the tremendous joy and comfort of realizing that we are not alone.

Through the practice of mudita, we find our hearts naturally lifting at the good fortune of others rather than contracting in envy. We might feel uplifted by a coworker’s promotion or delighted by the sight of two lovers holding hands on a park bench. Sneaking a peek at a lithe yogi arching into a perfect backbend on the mat next to us, we might sense our spirits soaring at the sight of a human body exuberantly expressing its potential, instead of feeling upset because our own body can’t bend like that.

And who knows? After a long, blissful yoga practice, snuggling my son in my arms, I might even glance at the review of Yoga Hotel and think, with genuine delight, “Hey, that sounds wonderful! I’m so glad someone wrote it.”