Friday, February 24, 2006

Joy in the midst of suffering

The practice of mudita - sympathetic joy - can truly help us transcend whatever suffering besets us through difficult circumstances. I want to share with you an article from Yoga Journal entitled, "The Wellspring of Joy". Here's part of what it says:

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.

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.

Now there's another excerpt that I really want you to see as well because it lets us know we really can cultivate this quality:
The mind can be systematically trained to generate joyful states. In a New York Times article published early last year, 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 let us go to work on that set point. Consciously, deliberately, cultivating sympathetic joy - the ability to take pleasure in other people's good fortune and well-being (and that of animals too!) - develops the habitual tendency in us to experience joy. Just thinking about mudita makes me happy. I commend this practice to you!

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