Roots of Compassion: Brahma Viharas - 3

Talk 3 - Wednesday August 29th - Empathetic Joy - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2018

Talk 3 recording


Talk 3 notes 

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

The third of the divine abode practices is called mudita in Pali.

Mudita means taking pleasure in the goodness and accomplishments of others.

It's really interesting that we truly do not have an English word for this. It's often pointed out that the Germans have a word for it's opposite: taking pleasure in the suffering of others. Schadenfreude.

Mudita is most often translated as "sympathetic joy" - sympathy which means feeling something in connection to you but sympathy is most often associated with suffering, the first dictionary definition of sympathy is "feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune: they had great sympathy for the flood victims." So that's not quite right.

Sympathy, by the way, is actually 3/4 of compassion: being aware of the suffering of others, feeling badly about it, but it doesn't neccissarily include the intention to help.

For a translation of this third above of mudita, "empathetic joy" is better. Empathy has just a single simple dictionary definition as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."

Or maybe mudita is just simply empathy. You feel happy, I feel happy. I'm not just glad for you. Sometimes we say that when we don't 100% mean it right: "Oh I'm so happy for you. Good for you."

Mudita has this felt-sense connection to the other person's happiness and success. We should say "I'm happy with you."

The standard translation of our old Buddhist text from the 5th century on this stuff just uses "gladness" as the translation.

Practicing gladness as the happiness and joy and success of other beings, of all beings.

So take a minute now to think about how you respond to the joy and happiness of others.

Does it depend on who they are? Are you able to be happy about the success of, say a family member, but for people who aren't so fond of it's harder?

How about people that you might feel in competition with in some way. People in your same field.Colleagues at work. Are you happy when they get a promotion or an award or publish something really great?

And here we're talking not just about responding politely with something positive to say. "that's great, congratulations." But actually in our hearts feeling happy, feeling joyful. A deep taste of mudita makes our day just the same as our own success and happiness can make our day.

And of course this makes me think of Facebook.

If you're not on Facebook you can imagine I think.

So you're looking through your Facebook feed and in between the politcal rants and bits of news your actual acquantances are posting mostly about the things they want to celebrate (or a cynic might say show off about). It's a distorted view of human life. Wonderful. But distorted.

And it's becoming clear that for most of us after any sustained amount of time digging through that end up how? Happy and glad for all of these great accomplishments of people we know? Sometimes perhaps. But more often we end up feeling depressed, anxious, and feeling inadequate.

I have a Facebook friend whom I know a little bit in real life, an MBSR and Vipassana teacher named Bob Stahl. It seems that the time Bob is most often sitting there thinking of Facebook is when he's in the airport about to fly somewhere really interesting to teach a retreat.

I don't think he'd mind that I now share one of his posts verbatim: "Sitting here at SFO airport getting ready to go to Spain and Germany to teach week long retreats. May the wisdom of my teachers flow through... May all beings find the gateways into the heart..."

And I know his intention is not to show off in the least. You hustle to get packed up and out the door and then at the airport you stop moving and there's time to reflect on what you're doing and notice how grateful you are.

And then about a week later, more or less like clockwork, he posts a group photo and "Just finished a one week retreat near Girona, Spain. So beautiful to experience our hearts blossoming open. May we never underestimate the powers of love, wisdom and compassion. Love is stronger than hatred and fear. May we keep hope/love alive...Now off to Germany to teach another week long..."

And below that there are usually about a dozen happy and enthusiastic replies from the students in the course. Like "thank you are a very inspiring maestro..with a big heart" and "Once again, thank you so much Bob for your presence, your guidance and your generosity. It has been such a healing retreat that words aren't enough. Hope to see you soon"

So....why do I even notice these posts with such interest? More so than just "oh that's nice for Bob and the students." It's because I'm struggling with my mudita practice. Having trouble going straight to feeling in me the joy that Bob expresses in getting to fly to Spain and teach a retreat to these people who all fall in love with him and the practice (and yeah I know they don't all fall in love, probably a few of them didn't have a such a good time, probably one or two left because it wasn't working or had various issues arise, I mean people are complicated and no one thing helps everyone right? - but the way it looks on Facebook....yeah.).

I think you've already figured out what the far enemy of mudita, of empathetic joy, is: jealousy.

And jealousy is an ugly word for us. Embarassing.

And here's what's funny. If you pay attention you see how irrational it can be. How utterly insatiable.

I was in May sitting at the L.A. airport waiting for a flight to Costa Rica so I too could teach a retreat in a beautiful place. And I too had students who loved it and loved the practice and seemed pretty darn keen on me too.

So it's not rational stuff. It's deeper down. Down where the spirit meets the bone. I think at some point Oori quoted these great lines from Miller Williams which oddly enough I first learned of from Bob Stahl himself:

Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.

Miller Williams is the musician Lucinda William's dad and she arranged these lines to music so I can't not hear here singing them now "have compassion for everyone you meet...even if they don't wan't it...."

Mudita helps to daylight jealousy. Just like metta, loving-kindness, helps to daylight hatred impatience and anger. And with awareness we have some choices.

We can choose to avoid. I'm just going to let that one slide on by.

We can choose to justify our narrow feelings. We can choose to be snarky. All those adoring fans in Spain, puh-lease Bob! Do you have to go inviting all that and on a public forum like Facebook. Keep your fans to yourself please!

You know?

Or we can choose to practice. How?

First, always, you know this: mindfulness.

By feeling what we're feeling with honesty and acceptance. Ooh, I'm a little reactive to Bob's happiness and success here. Ooh that's painful in me. And it's not anyone's fault. Not mine, not Bob's. There's a great phrase I first heard from my Zen teacher ages ago which pops up in MSC class attributed to the English pscyhologist Paul Gilbert, "it not your fault, but it is your responsibility."

The feelings in me are deeply rooted in so many things. My history. Our culture. My parent's attitudes. My friends.

My place in the heirarchies of privledge is a factor too. My son was telling my wife the other night that he's realized his attitudes are affected by his status as a "cisgender het white male" - 16 years old! Also our first ever confirmation of his sexual orientation, "het" I had to figure out meaning "heterosexual" - which is an interesting milestone. I've been using his stayings and doings a bit lately in my talks. Hopefully 20 years from now he won't be going through the archives and get mad at me. Maybe I'll be gone by then.

So anyway when jealousy arises instead of joy in respond to the well being, happiness and accomplishments of others it's not your fault. You're a part of the equation to me sure. Whatever you think "you" is. But the arising of these things is deeply conditioned for the rest of the universe across space and time.

It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Sometimes we do social bonding by complaining with peers about the success of others - oh puhleeze - but what are we doing then? We're rigidifying jealousy. We're diminishing the possibiity of the joyful exchange of energy and love that is mudita. This is not taking responsibiity.

Mindfulness. We feel our jealousy as it is. And it's a bit painful. Or a lot painful.

Then a little Common Humanity is so helpful. I don't think Oori mentioned by favorite common humanity practice: the phrase "just like me." As he said with 8 billion people on the planet it's pretty certain that it's not just you who feels that way. Either in general or even very specifically.

Just like me many others feel a little jealous sometimes.

Just like me, many other mindfulness teachers feel envious of another teacher's junket to Spain.

This takes some of the pressure off.

Then kindness. It's painful to feel jealousy instead of mudita. Let me just take a minute to breathe with that. May I be kind with the narrow minded parts of myself. My I love them, and love myself, just as I am - flaws and all.

And that paves the way for opening more directly to mudita but it's really key to not try to bypass the suffering. Because there's suffering in me I practice self-compassion. And out of that self-compassion new possibilities open up.

This is very different from just trying to talk yourself out of it.

With this particular example: I actually have decided NOT to do an international retreat next year I think. It's so tempting but I think it's just too much while our son's at home and with everything else I'm doing. I have invitations to go to Portugal and to Panama actually and I could do just what I did in Costa Rica all over again. So this work isn't exactly about what makes sense in the practical world.

It's about your deep conditioning and your suffering and clinging and fear. For me I think it's about a deep underlying basic fear that I'm not good enough, not cool enough, a big imposter. This idea of "fraud syndrome" is huge.

[something about hungry ghosts - our anti-mudita helps us understand our hungry ghost nature]

So it's not just me seeing Bob's posts and saying, well I'm a little reactive to this but hey I could go to Portugal but I'm not gonna nyah nyah nyah. That would be a kind of bypassing and skipping the real feelings and the real possibility of practice here.

True change, truly entering the divine abodes is only through the gateway of our real feelings. It sounds a little grim to say it this way but the doorway in is pretty much our own suffering.

The door of jealousy the gate into the hall of empathetic joy.

The door of not wanting to help a suffering being is the doorway into the hall of compassion.

The door of hatred, annoyance, or dismissal of another is the doorway into the hall of loving-kindness.

Maybe opportunities to practice all three of these great practices will arise at this very retreat. This is likely.

The near enemy of mudita, empathetic joy, by the way is a little weird because the framing of these teachings was so different from our situation. The Buddha was speaking to monastics and wanting to encourage them to go beyond their upbringing in everyday life into a deeply spiritual life.

So he called the near enemy of mudita a kind of joy or exhiliaration at success that it's solely material. So if I was just thrilled by Bob's success as just a cool thing he gets to do and he gets to be a cool guy in the world I might be actually practicing the near enemy of mudita. For true mudita we need to get more to the essence of it. To the deep beauty of practicing with suffering human beings in this case.

We could also adapt things a bit and say distraction or maybe boredom is the near enemy of mudita. But we have plenty to work with just around the far enemy of je

alousy so maybe it's not so important.

So to review - and these talks will be posted on the website and perhaps I'll even get a white board out in the dining hall later for these main points

mental factor translation far enemy near enemy

metta loving-kindness hatred (and it's variants) greed

karuna compassion cruelty pity

mudita empathetic joy jealousy excitement at material success only(for us: boredom or distraction)

And tomorrow we'll start exploring a 4th factor which is not so much a mind state like these but more like a cultivation of the mind ground that's needed for the first three to function well.

upekkha equanimity resentment apathy

[end with]

Back to Bob Stahls usual postings before and after he teaches internationally. After this recent Spain trip he posted this - it's another poem that pops up in MSC class actually.

Admit Something

By, Hafiz

Everyone you see, you say to them,

Love me.

Of course you do not do this out loud;


Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,

This great pull in us

To connect.

Why not become the one

Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,

With that sweet moon language,

What every other eye in this world

Is dying to Hear.

[if time lead a mudita practice: visualizing a good friends' success, then visualizing the success of someone you feel in competition with]

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