Mudita – The Practice of Appreciative Joy
A wonderful and skilful practice that helps to gladden and uplift our mind is the simple act of rejoicing over our own and others’ blessings.
This is the practice of Mudita – Appreciative Joy – which the Buddha taught specifically for the overcoming of envy, jealousy and discontent.
Appreciative joy is the third of four sublime abidings (brahmavihara) which the Buddha encouraged us to develop to a heightened degree. The other three sublime abidings or beautiful mental qualities are lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and equanimity (upekkha).
The Buddha assured that if we strongly cultivate appreciative joy, it would not be possible for envy and discontent to overwhelm and obsess our hearts as mudita, he stressed, is the antidote for envy and discontent.
Mudita can be practised both formally in meditation and deliberately now and then as we go about our everyday life.
In formal meditation, we sit and keep mentally repeating the phrases: “I rejoice. I’m happy.” Skilful and supportive additions are the phrases: “I’m grateful. I’m content.”
As you mentally recite, “I rejoice. I’m happy. I’m grateful. I’m content,” think of something to rejoice over or feel happy about or be grateful for in your life.
It’s interesting and amazing how, when you apply your mind to think about something to rejoice over or be grateful for, lots of things and ideas will come to your mind, things that you normally would not think about or things that you have taken for granted.
What can we rejoice over? The simple fact of even being able to sit here upright in the meditation posture or on a chair is truly something to feel happy about or be grateful for. Just think how fortunate you are that you still have a certain degree of health that can enable you to go about your daily activities and enjoy a certain quality of life.
There is a saying: "I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." Think how fortunate you are if you do have feet, that you are not bedridden, that you still can sit up. The day might well come when we are not able any more to do even this simple act of sitting up.
Health is something to be greatly appreciated and not taken for granted. Think how difficult or miserable life could be if we were to be very sickly, lose a limb, lose our health. Very likely many people would be happy to exchange places with us and face our types of difficulties and challenges if they could just enjoy the health we have.
Thus, when we still have a certain modicum of health we should fully appreciate it and we truly can rejoice even on this account alone. You can, if you like, express a particular joy in words: “I rejoice that I can still sit up and am not as yet bedridden. I rejoice that I can still enjoy a certain modicum of health. I am grateful. I’m happy.”
The Buddha taught that we can be a wizard or master of the mind. We can know how to turn the mind around, how to think skilful thoughts to keep the mind in a good state, how to think the thoughts we want to think and not think those thoughts we don’t want to think.
Thus, even when we are sickly, bedridden or have suffered any loss of health we can still practise Mudita by trying to find a positive aspect to the situation and by counting any other blessings we can find in our lives. For example, even if we are sick and bedridden we rejoice that we can still meditate in the lying down posture. We can still radiate metta (lovingkindness) to fellow patients, doctors, nurses, visitors and the people around us in addition to the people we regularly send metta to, like our loved ones, family and friends. We can still be mindful of our body sensations and our mind states. We can still reflect wisely on the teachings of the Buddha and learn how to let go and be at peace with ourselves and the world.
Thus, even in times of illness, we can still practise the Dhamma and take good care of our mind in accordance with the Buddha’s exhortation: “Though the body may be sick, let not the mind be sick.” We can still keep our mind healthy. This is the challenge. It is wonderful that we have teachings like those of the Buddha. It is wonderful that we have been practising and applying these teachings. Thus we can rejoice and be happy particularly on this account of having and knowing the teachings. We can feel strengthened and resolved to take the sickness as a practice and challenge as regards to how we can still keep the mind in a good state and maintain our peacefulness and cheerfulness.
In the same spirit, in the face of all difficulties and challenges we can still find ways and means of rejoicing. That we have good teachings and values that can help to tide us over the suffering, is truly a reason to rejoice. We have strategies and skilful attitudes. We can take it all as a spiritual practice, as just more grist for the mill. We are determined to somehow find the lesson and blessing in the suffering. We can emerge stronger and wiser.
Aren't there many things we can rejoice over?
Do we have loved ones who love and care for us? It is easy to take their constant love, care and generosity for granted. When we reflect on how much we are loved and cared for, we feel happy, realizing how fortunate and blessed we have been all along.
We may have benefactors and friends who are kind and good to us. When we think of all the kindness and support we have received in our life from our benefactors, friends and even from strangers we can feel happy and grateful.
We can also reflect on our kindness to others and the good values and qualities which we embody and which we are continuing to cultivate and strengthen. This, too, is a cause for rejoicing and happiness.
We can reflect on our many blessings – that we have sufficient basic requisites of food, shelter, clothing and medicines which many people in the world have not enough of. We have education, intelligence, knowledge, talents, beauty, a good job or career, happy relationships and various conveniences, successes and happiness in life.
Think also of the many little things that make us happy and which we may often overlook or take for granted: a smile somebody flashed at us this morning, a flower we see blooming, the beauty of nature, the places we have been to and the lovely and breathtaking sights we have seen, the cup of delicious fragrant coffee or tea and favourite food we can still enjoy.
Sometimes when we recollect all these blessings, the thought might suddenly arise in us that even if we were to die today we would die satisfied. We are content. Life has been good to us. We are happy for everything we have and which we consider as already quite a lot or enough for us. Or as one might say: "This is as good as it gets."
It seems there is a tendency in the mind to focus on what’s going wrong in our life. However, when we start to think of the many things that are going right, we may find ourselves surprised to discover that the things that are going right far outnumber or outweigh the things that are going wrong.
It is, therefore, important to change the habit of dwelling in the negative. Instead we should cultivate positivity by focusing on the many things that are going right in our life. Even when things are going wrong, we could tell ourselves it is still not so bad as things could, in fact, have been much worse.
How we perceive something can make a world of difference. While we definitely don't deny all the suffering, setbacks and difficulties in life, we are determined to take them all in our stride. We can cultivate a positive and constructive outlook and an attitude that is determined to find the blessing in everything, to see possibilities and opportunities - other doors that are open and just awaiting us to walk through. It lies within our own powers to reduce much of our suffering and create a lot of happiness and peace through our skilful response and positive attitudes.
Now we come back again to the recitation of the phrases. As you keep mentally repeating, “I rejoice, I’m happy,” you bring to mind all those things that you can rejoice over, as mentioned above. This simple act of recollection will uplift and gladden the mind.
We can always add the phrases: “I’m grateful. I’m content.” There is a logical sequence to the arrangement of these phrases. When you rejoice, you feel happy. You also feel grateful for these blessings. The feeling of gratitude further promotes a feeling of appreciative joy. Being joyful, you feel content. Contentment is a key to happiness. When you feel content, you don’t feel your life is lacking, you don’t feel deprived. Rather you think, “It is not bad, it is good. Life has been good and kind to me. I just mustn't forget and instead be mindful of all the blessings in my life.”
These simple phrases, continuously and frequently repeated, are very powerful. We should not underestimate their ability to arouse joy and keep the mind in a buoyant state.
You can also keep repeating the phrases while thinking of the same blessing again and again. Having thought about your blessings, you can also just keep repeating the phrases without thinking about them.
Repetition itself has various benefits:
1. It acts like a mantra, concentrating and tranquilising the mind by keeping out extraneous thoughts, especially those of a negative nature.
2. It arouses joy as you become more aware and appreciative of the many blessings in your life.
3. It conditions the mind to focus on the positive in your life and keeps away depression. Brain studies have shown that meditation brings about beneficial changes in the brain that promote peacefulness, cheerfulness and happiness.
You can repeat the phrases for your entire meditation session, even the whole hour, and experience for yourself what a mind in this state of appreciative joy is like. There are concentration and absorption which gives rise to a pleasant state of mental wellbeing and ease.
The meditation can be done for a shorter or longer period of time – anything ranging from five minutes to an hour or more. You can also practice mudita within metta (lovingkindness) and vipassana (insight) meditation). This means you can switch from metta to mudita or from vipassana to mudita and metta.
There is, in other words, no hard and fast rule – you can switch meditation objects if you find it useful at the time or if your mind is inclined towards a change of meditation object. Naturally you can also apply yourself to all the four brahmaviharas and vipassana in one sitting.
Practising Appreciative Joy in Everyday Life
Of course, your practice is not confined to your meditation seat. Thus, as you go about your daily activities you can now and then repeat your mudita mantra: “I rejoice. I’m happy. I’m grateful. I’m content.” This is good practice, skilful and supportive, for it arouses joy and positivity in you while reminding you of the blessings in your life even as you go about your everyday routine.
You can also repeat the phrases whenever you experience something that makes you happy and for which you feel grateful. This can make you appreciate the experience more deeply, soaking it in and making it more memorable so that you can recollect it even a long time after the event.
Gratitude itself is a great practice which makes us happier and much more appreciative of our life. The great German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Studies have shown that those who kept a gratitude journal, recording the good things that happened to them in the day, experienced increased happiness in their life.
Remember - every wholesome mind moment counts and every time you arouse mudita you are keeping the mind in a wholesome state. Besides mudita you also practise the other sublime abidings of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and equanimity (upekkha). Underlying all this is your practice of mindfulness of your body and mind states, your focus on cultivating wholesome mental factors and the exercising of wise reflection to see things in perspective and understand the true nature of existence. In this way you keep the mind buoyant and wholesome the whole day through. With practice you find your mind becoming steadier, stronger and wiser.
Arousing Appreciative Joy for Others
During your sitting meditation, perhaps after you have aroused joy for your own blessings, you can similarly rejoice for the blessings, success and good fortune of others.
Think of those who are enjoying some form of well-being and mentally repeat, “I rejoice. I am happy for you.” If you like you can add: “May what you have not be lost. May you continue to prosper and flourish.”
There are many forms of well-being, success and happiness that others may enjoy. Some examples:
1. Doing well or being successful in their career or business;
2. Enjoying happy and loving relationships;
3. Enjoying material wealth and comforts;
4. Having health, beauty, talents, intelligence, knowledge, a good social standing, etc;
5. Having virtue, integrity, generosity, kindness, wisdom and other admirable spiritual qualities.
When you start to think along the line: “Now what is it about this person that I can rejoice over or be happy for?” you’ll find something that is pertinent or applicable to the person for you to rejoice over.
Even if a person is having some form of suffering, you may still be able to find some positive aspect over which you can rejoice. For example, a person may be seriously ill but he may be coping very well, being mentally strong and cheerful. He may be receiving great loving care and support from his loved ones and friends. You can still find cause for rejoicing on this account. Of course you can alternate with the practice of compassion by wishing that the person may be healed, that his suffering may be alleviated, that he may cope well, receive the best treatment, and so on.
A question may be asked whether you could rejoice if you don’t, say, approve of the type of business the person is doing or you know or suspect the success, wealth, good fortune or happiness may have been obtained in an unethical manner. If that is the case, then, of course, you don’t have to pick this person for your mudita object. If you choose to do it, then maybe you know of some wholesome qualities or deeds of the person over which you can rejoice.
Mudita is a wonderful practice because in rejoicing for others, you yourself also feel happy. Their happiness, success or good fortune becomes a cause for you to arouse happiness in yourself.
Mudita is a wholesome state of mind which is the opposite of envy and jealousy. In fact, it is recommended by the Buddha as an antidote to envy, jealousy and discontent. Instead of being envious or jealous we skilfully turn the mind around by cultivating mudita.
In the German language there is the word Schadenfreude which means to gloat over or rejoice in the suffering of others. It is interesting to note that in the Pali language we find mudita which is the opposite of Schadenfreude – one delights in others’ happiness and not in their suffering. In the case of suffering, the appropriate quality to develop is compassion for the one who is suffering, be it another or oneself.
Each of the brahmaviharas is meant to counter its respective opposing unwholesome quality. Thus lovingkindness (metta) counters hatred and anger; compassion (karuna) counters cruelty and indifference; equanimity (upekkha) counters mental agitation and anxiety; and appreciative joy (mudita), as already mentioned, counters envy and jealousy, as well as ingratitude and dissatisfaction.
Another point to note is that when you have mudita for yourself, i.e., you rejoice over your own blessings, success, happiness and good fortune, it is easy for you to rejoice over the blessings of others. This is because you don’t feel a sense of lack in yourself and in your life. You know you, too, have your own blessings and good fortune and, therefore, need not envy others theirs but instead can feel happy for them.
In a competitive and materialistic society, an undiscerning person may be all too easily conditioned to envy the success or possessions of others. In such circumstances, mudita is a very apt quality to cultivate as an antidote to envy and discontent.
Cultivating Appreciative Joy in Everyday Life
Again, the practice of mudita is not confined to the time when we do formal meditation. As you go about your everyday life you can rejoice whenever you hear or see somebody in happy circumstances. You mentally think “I rejoice. I am happy for you.”
1. You see people happy, laughing and smiling and having a good time. You rejoice. You are happy for them and you wish they will have lots of such happy times.
2. You see a happy loving couple walking hand in hand, being affectionate towards each other, sitting on a bench in a park or in various other settings, you rejoice for them and you wish they will have a long lasting and happy relationship.
3. You see a flashy sports car parked along the roadside or driving past you and you rejoice for the owner, “I’m happy for you. That’s a great car.” You don’t envy him because you are content with your own modest car or you are happy to go about on foot or on your bicycle.
4. You see somebody having a grand house, wealth, fame, success, etc., and you are happy for them because you are content with your own lot and you derive your happiness from living a value oriented life.
As you practise mudita you will find that your mind is naturally inclined towards rejoicing and being happy for others. Whenever some feelings of unhappiness, aversion, resentment, envy or jealousy towards others’ success and wellbeing arise, you will be quick to notice it and you will know how to turn the mind around and put it back on the rejoicing mode.
May you find a rich store of blessings in yourself, being content and happy with your own good fortune and happiness. And may you equally rejoice for the blessings of others, knowing no envy or jealousy but wishing for their continued happiness and well-being.
"It is impossible that discontent can still obsess the mind of one who has strongly cultivated appreciative joy. For this is precisely the escape from discontent, namely, the liberation of the mind through appreciative joy."
Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya 6.13
“Monks, this is how you should train yourselves: ‘We will be grateful and thankful and we will not forget even the least thing that has been done for us by others.”
Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya
"If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Knowing she would be reporting each night on what she was grateful for gave Jane the extra impetus to notice people, things, and events that she appreciated. Before long, her gratitude emails flowed with an abundance of appreciations. As we cultivate the habit of being grateful, the mind naturally comes to rest on the goodness in our lives. As Jane found, if you have the intention to awaken gratitude, over time it will gradually become the natural rhythm of your heart, strong enough to hold even suffering."
From the book, "Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness" by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander