In nearly every facet of Western society, competition acts as the fuel that pushes individuals toward reaching ever-heightening levels of success. The billion-dollar entertainment industries of sports, music, and film illuminate a culture that is built upon the premise of achieving at all costs, even if it means undermining and hurting others. Yet, oftentimes when others achieve the things that we desire, feelings of resentment and envy conjure up inside.
Similarly, if a person that we hold bitterness towards fails or loses a bit of their good fortune, we often feel an unwholesome satisfaction towards their undoings. Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s into the world’s most successful fast-food restaurant, dramatized the unfortunate competitive reality in the West when he told us:
If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water. It is ridiculous to call this an industry. This is not. This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ‘em, and I’m going to kill ‘em before they kill me. You’re talking about the American way – of survival of the fittest.”
The sad truth about competition in the West is that while individuals are taught to pursue excellence and success at all costs, the results that come from this way of living aren’t what individuals are actually striving for. Ironically enough, in the religion of Buddhism, there is a practice that goes completely against the Western dog-eat-dog mentality and produces what it is that we crave at the deepest level of our beings. By practicing Mudita, and celebrating the good fortunes of all, we can assuredly move closer to achieving our ultimate dream.
The Purpose of Our Lives:
On the surface level, it is easy to assume that individuals share little in common in regard to their desires and purpose in life. While one individual may set out to amass a fortune by becoming a stock broker, another will become a social worker hoping to obtain intrinsic rewards. Yet still, these two individuals are actually chasing the exact same thing: happiness and fulfillment.
Regardless of an individual’s race, ethnicity, status, or class, each and every person shares the exact desire to find fulfillment in life. While there are many different ways we strive to increase our levels of life satisfaction, every action, of every individual, is in some way meant to bring about more joy. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhist, the 14th Dalai Lama, understands this truth and simply tells us:
The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
In the worlds of spirituality and psychology, there are a number of pieces to life’s happiness puzzle that are agreed upon by all. Both celebrated spiritual gurus and renowned self-help leaders will tell us that one of the most important steps individuals can take to increase their levels of life satisfaction is to develop and cultivate meaningful relationships. In the Western world, however, this truth often gets neglected due to errors in our ways of thinking.
Problems with the Western Way of Thinking:
Until one takes the time to critically analyze the numerous problems that arise from the Western way of thinking, one will continue to subject themselves to the suffering that comes as a byproduct of it. While individuals in the West don’t have the wrong objective in life, they remain ignorant of a number of universal truths that are incapable of being undone.
When examining the lives of Western citizens, it is clear to see how all too many people associate happiness and fulfillment with the wrong things. When individuals believe that material possessions, social status, and financial wealth are the things that will supply them with the lasting joy they seek, they undeniably set themselves up for massive disappointment. Due to the impermanent nature of reality, it would be impossible to find happiness by acquiring any or all of these things. Just as new material toys inevitably break down, causing us to search for replacements, so does the feeling of immediate joy we experience upon achieving a goal.
Additionally, when we think that fulfillment is found through impermanent and unsatisfactory external successes, we act as if happiness is a rare and scarce commodity. This single belief is why Western societies remain fiercely competitive, and can largely be credited with creating the massive amounts of greed, envy, and anger found in our societies. At a nominal level, the Western mindset of competition causes us to feel separated from others, and even worse, at the most detrimental level, the feelings that arise from thinking this way are the cause of much hatred and many ill-willed crimes.
There isn’t much debating the fact that happiness and fulfillment are what we are after, but by living with these ignorant beliefs, we actually move further away from obtaining what we seek. The truth is that the levels of life satisfaction we crave can only be created internally.
Mudita – The Practice of Sympathetic Joy:
By realizing the universal truths of ignorance, suffering, and impermanence, the Buddha discovered that one can not obtain bliss by searching outside of themselves. The feelings of envy, jealousy, disconnect, and hatred that result from pursuing external successes as a means of happiness largely result from our failure to recognize that happiness is an internally created state. By developing an understanding of this universal truth, we can begin replacing our negative resentments towards others, who have good fortune, with feelings of joy. This, in fact, is exactly what Mudita is.
In the languages of Sanskrit and Pali, the word Mudita is defined as “sympathetic, vicarious joy; happiness rather than resentment at someone else’s well-being or good fortune; the opposite of schadenfreude.” In the English language, there isn’t a word that translates to mean the same. The word schadenfreude, which is of German origin and the opposite of Mudita, translates to mean taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.
By consciously making an effort to develop the neglected virtue of Mudita, we can increase our own happiness and the happiness of everyone we cross paths with. When we truly understand that our main objective in life is to be happy and that connecting with others helps us move in this direction, the decision to rejoice in others’ successes becomes quite simple. Being that our main objective is to feel joyous, wouldn’t we be silly not to rejoice in the good fortune of others? Celebrated Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes in her 2011 book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:
The Dalai Lama point 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.'”
By making a conscious effort to practice Mudita, we can access a wellspring of joy that is available to us at all times and enjoy a seemingly endless amount of opportunities to feel happy. Through consistent practice, we will naturally begin feeling more joyful and connected to all.
How to Develop & Cultivate Mudita:
There are numerous ways that we can practice Mudita in our daily lives, and with enough practice, we can begin living with increasing levels of joy. It is important to point out that if we are to experience complete harmony with all, we should similarly parallel our Mudita practice with the practices of compassion and loving-kindness. It can be helpful to think about Mudita as being an equally beneficial opposite of compassion. Whereas we offer sympathy to those who are suffering with compassion, we rejoice in the good fortunes of others with Mudita.
Before we explore four ways that you can begin practicing Mudita in daily life, two words of caution should be mentioned. First, when practicing Mudita, it is important to remember to not celebrate the material acquisitions or possession another receives, but rather only the feelings of joy they experience. Because external objects, social status, and financial wealth are impermanent in nature, it is vital that we do not attach ourselves to their obtainment. Secondly, it is also important to express Mudita with internal equanimity and avoid over-exuberance, as this signals a deprivation from moments of happiness. Now, let’s look at four ways we can practice Mudita in our daily lives:
- Using intention and attention to develop Mudita: One of the best strategies that we can use to develop and cultivate any personal quality is through the power of intention and attention. After deciding that the practice of Mudita is something we want to start utilizing, we can take five to ten minutes each day to focus on the benefits others and ourselves will obtain from our practice. Similarly, we can use this time to focus on the negatives that come from living with envy, hatred, and resentment.
- Cultivating Mudita while using social media: Social media websites and Apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are oftentimes used by individuals who want to celebrate the good things happening in their lives. Over the past decade, scientific research has shown how individuals often experience feelings of jealousy when seeing or reading about the good fortune of others. However, we can use social media to first become aware of the feelings that arise when others post or tweet about their success and/or happiness. If we have negative or envious feelings, we can consciously make the effort to replace them with feelings of joy.
- Practicing Mudita in everyday encounters: There are particular times throughout each of our lives when we see individuals living expressively happily. Due to cultural conditioning and society’s overtly negative outlook on life, it is easy to get annoyed when individuals openly express joy. We may judgmentally ask ourselves, ‘Why are these people so happy?’ before giving them a look of scorn. If we are able to consciously be aware of our resentful reactions to others who exhibit happiness in our everyday encounters, we can begin to purposefully replace our negative feelings with Mudita.
- Cultivating Mudita in Meditation: There are a number of Buddhist meditation practices that focus directly on the cultivation of Mudita. One such practice tells us to cultivate Mudita inside of ourselves and visualize a number of people we can send positive feelings to. In sequential order, we may want to send feelings of Mudita towards an affectionate friend, a successful benefactor, a neutral person, and a person we dislike, before sending it to all beings. Moreover, we can use a number of mantra-based sayings after we sent joyful feelings toward one individual and once again when we have completed the practice. For example, you may want to say: I’m happy that you’re happy. May your happiness continue. May your happiness increase. May your good fortune shine.
By feeling joyful and celebrating the happiness of others, we have the ability to positively affect the entire universe. It is important to remember that just like any other personal quality or practice, the development and cultivation of Mudita is something that takes time. We shouldn’t try to rush feeling joyful towards those who experience good fortune and we shouldn’t judge the feelings of resentment or envy that we are conditioned to feel. We can now end this article on Mudita with a quote from the Buddha himself:
Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will.”