Mudita: Cultivating Joy

I.33
Maitri-karuna-mudita-upeksanam sukha-duhka-punya-apunya-visayanam bhavanatas-chitta-prasadanam.

"The cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity toward all situations positive or painful, successful or failures, serve to quiet the mind." 
–Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by Nicholai Bachman

“In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.” 
–Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by TKV Desikachar

This sutra is a teaching on the four brahma viharas or divine abodes or states of being and addresses the yoga of relationship. It sets a guideline for how we can relate to the fluctuating states of those we encounter. Within the Buddha dharma there is a practice associated with each of these four states aimed at nurturing these innate aspects of our being involving the repetition of phrases meant to reconnect us to these states. Recently I sat a retreat with Bay area insight teacher James Baraz on the subject of mudita or sympathetic joy. Mudita is the joy that arises when we witness the happiness or good fortune of others. Mudita is the antidote to envy, jealousy, or resentment. Often when we encounter someone who is doing well we immediately feel deficient forgetting our own good fortune. The development of mudita asks that we meditate on the good fortune of others and sympathize with them, imagining what it feels like to experience their joy and notice how it then arises in ourselves.

Mudita can also been viewed as the practice of appreciation; using our practice to note and open to the smallest joys or blessings in our own lives. This joy is distinct from exuberance or excitement, which is passing and dependent on a particular situation or object. Mudita is an inherent joyful state. Pema Chodron shares this passage on joy in her book The Wisdom of No Escape:

"...each of us has in our heart a joy that's accessible to us; by connecting to it and letting it flower, we allow ourselves to celebrate our practice and our lives. Joy is like a soft spring rain that allows us to lighten up, to enjoy ourselves, and therefore it's a whole new way of looking at suffering... Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are. Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses when you go for a morning walk, or like being so blind that you don't see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you're sitting under. Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting.... Acknowledging the preciousness of each day is a good way to live, a good way to reconnect with our basic joy." (pgs. 24-26)

We can relate mudita to daily asana practice: often our asana practice can stagnate after the excitement and rapid transformation common in the initial phases of yoga, wears off. Yoga teachers immersed in the asanas daily can become struck or jaded in their home practice. Choose mudita as a way to enliven your sadhana. When you come to the mat take a familiar practice such as surya namaskara or sun salutations. As you move, investigate small sensations such as the lift of the soft palate at the end of the exhalation or the peripheral vision that occurs when you employ a non-grasping drishti or field of focus. Sense the core of your body awaken when you lift the inner arches of your feet.

Often I move through an entire back arching sequence including Virabhadrasana I, Eka Pada Virasana, Bhujangasana, and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, while working to lift my top lumbar vertebra (L1) and releasing all strain around my tailbone. Working with these subtleties integrates the mind/body and brings enormous appreciative joy for my body and perceptive ability.

At times, when I lack inspiration in general, I form a relationship with a particular poem or passage, carrying it with me and watching it's hidden meanings emerge. I appreciate the insight required to create poetry and how poets offer their work, relating with us on what it means to be human. Barbara Kingsolver shares this passage on appreciative joy as a process of fully noting the beauty in some ordinary aspect of life such as a geranium:

"In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again(15)." —High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

The wisdom teachings of the Yoga Sutras and the Buddha dharma offer infinite ways to become more intimate with our lives and to find harmony in our relationships. The cultivation of mudita is a treasure on the path.