Image by Gerd Altmann
If you can’t find joy in the path you are on
and what you are working toward now,
how do you expect to find joy once you get there?
I remember visiting a friend whose baby was on the cusp of that miraculous transition from crawling and rolling around on the floor to taking her first wobbly, tentative steps. It was hard to know who to be happier for: Davina, the eleven-month-old blond-haired toddler, or her parents, who were beaming with pride and joy.
There was a lot of laughter as we watched Davina be helped up on her legs by her proud dad, stumble a couple of steps toward the outstretched arms of her radiant mother, and then fall back on her bottom to a fit of giggles and laughter. It was a momentous day in her little world, as this was the first time she had successfully taken more than one blessed step.
In that moment I was very aware of how joy is infectious. It reminded me of the sympathetic joy meditation in which one rejoices in the happiness of others. This beautiful quality significantly increases our opportunities for experiencing delight.
Celebrating The Happiness and Achievements of Others
By appreciating the happiness of others, we do tend to improve our chances of joy by about seven billion to one! I don’t gamble, but I do know those are good odds. Sympathetic joy means the heart is like kindling, ready for sparks of happiness wherever gladness and success are found.
The other upside to this lovely quality is that it cuts through feelings of jealousy. Envy is a painful domain of the heart, so anything that helps undermine it is a welcome guest. The contraction we feel when others are doing well or enjoying good fortune is a common way the ego self keeps us in poverty. Not celebrating the happiness and achievements of others robs us of our own well-being.
Often, the root of jealousy is fear and anxiety about the lack or scarcity of our own circumstances. For example, I remember nearing the end of my four-year, meditation teacher–training program with Jack Kornfield. It was 2006, and finding sufficient teaching opportunities was not easy, so all of us were anxiously contemplating our next steps.
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Then one of my dearest friends in the program announced that she had been offered a full-time position with a six-figure salary leading a meditation research center in a prestigious university. This was an amazing position and fantastic news for her. My friend had been trying to pull herself out of ongoing money struggles, and this job would allow her to flourish and become economically stable. Further, not only would she be teaching mindfulness, but her new role had the potential to have a significant impact in the nascent mindfulness movement.
I had to admit: while I was certainly happy for her, I was in equal measures jealous! Hearing the news triggered a sense of envy. I also desired to be on a more secure financial footing. I similarly aspired to have work with a high impact. In truth, I didn’t really want this particular job, which required relocating to Minnesota, a place that didn’t interest me, but my friend’s success triggered a sense of scarcity and insecurity about money and my own work.
The logic behind this egoist reaction is that if someone gets what we want, then there will be less or nothing for us. This distorted belief assumes joy and success are limited, and if someone else succeeds or flourishes, then we become impoverished by default. Fortunately, I was aware of the nature of my mixed reaction, and I laughed about it to myself and with my friend. I was simply being human and getting caught up in my own anxiety, which expressed itself as jealousy.
This experience is universal. It can arise when a friend tells us they have met their perfect “soul mate” and are off to Hawaii for a romantic getaway. Or when a colleague receives a windfall in their end-of-year bonus. We can feel it when looking at people’s seemingly ideal lives on Facebook or Instagram. We become both simultaneously happy and jealous, experiencing a twinge of contraction or fear that our lives are not enough. Or we may judge others, feeling they don’t deserve their good fortune and we would be more worthy recipients.
How To To Increase One’s Own Well-Being
Paradoxically, delighting in the joy of others is a potent way to increase one’s own well-being. I discovered this in my twenties during a meditation course in New England. As soon as I heard about it, it made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t we want to rejoice in the happiness of others, particularly if this fosters happiness in our own heart? This simple practice is a win/win with no downside. It requires present-moment awareness, an open heart, and the intention to cultivate such things.
To practice sympathetic joy, simply turn your attention to others when things go well for them, whenever others are touched with joy or success. It is as simple as feeling happy for your partner’s successful day at work. Or celebrating the accolades your child received at school. Or delighting when Olympic athletes dance with ecstasy as they receive a medal. Or appreciating a bumblebee who nuzzles its way into a foxglove and comes out soaked in pollen. Examples of joy and success are everywhere, including insects as they find their pots of powdered gold.
Appreciative joy frees the heart from the unnecessary burden of envy, comparison, and scarcity. To live without those qualities clouding the freedom of our being is liberating indeed. What would it look like to turn your attention to friends, family, colleagues, and strangers and delight in their successes, accomplishments, joys, and ordinary delights? How would it feel for you to simply enjoy their happiness and to hope it would only grow? To transform the heart from its prison of envy by delighting in the well-being of others is to live in an enchanted land.
PRACTICE: Celebrating the Joy of Others
Cultivating sympathetic joy can be an uplifting practice because you focus on the happiness, success, and good fortune of others. Start by sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, and sensing your body and your breath.
Call to mind a good friend. Choose someone who is currently happy and doing well, whether in relationships, at work, or generally in their lives. Take time to appreciate this person’s joy, success, and good fortune. Visualize and sense their happiness or contentment.
The conduit for sympathetic joy is saying phrases that express your delight in their happiness. First, express this appreciation by saying,
I’m happy for you, or I delight in your happiness.
Next, offer them this wish:
May your happiness and good fortune (or success) continue to grow.
You may alter these words to fit the person or your particular wish for them, but keep the general spirit of these sentiments. As you hold this person in your heart or mind’s eye, repeat the phrases slowly and meaningfully. Take time to genuinely feel this wish for them in your heart.
Next, call to mind someone else, a loved one or a colleague, and repeat the process for some minutes. If you wish to stretch your capacity, extend this wish to someone you don’t know well, even a stranger, or call to mind someone you are in conflict with or are particularly envious of. Genuinely wish each person you call to mind, as much as you are able, continued joy and success.
While this is a delightful practice — and often the heart blooms with a sense of celebrating the well-being of others — it is not unusual for the opposite feelings to arise. The practice can trigger jealousy, envy, or a contracted state where we feel self-judgment for not having similar success or happiness. This is natural.
In fact, this meditation is considered a purification practice, in that it can stir up whatever negative reactions get in the way of our being able to rejoice in the joy of others. As it does, we get to see the ways that our heart is not yet open fully, and continuing this practice is a way of working with that and of growing and stretching our heart’s capacity to love.
If this happens, and you find certain people trigger too much reactivity, put them aside and focus on others. Go back to people with whom you can access this quality of sympathetic joy. Over time you will find that the heart is able to expand and move through the world genuinely wishing for the well-being of all others without the need to compare or judge. In this way, you significantly increase your own inner joy and happiness.
©2019 by Mark Coleman. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission from the book:
From Suffering to Peace, published by
New World Library. http://www.newworldlibrary.com
From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness
by Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman, who has studied and taught mindfulness meditation for decades, draws on his knowledge to not only clarify what mindfulness truly means but also reveal the depth and potential of this ancient discipline. Weaving together contemporary applications with practices in use for millennia, his approach empowers us to engage with and transform the inevitable stress and pain of life, so we can discover genuine peace — in the body, heart, mind, and wider world. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, an executive coach, and the founder of the Mindfulness Institute, which brings mindfulness training to organizations worldwide. He's led Insight Meditation retreats since 1997, both at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, where he's based, and throughout the United States, Europe, and India. He also teaches contemplative retreats for environmental leaders. He is currently developing a wilderness counseling program and a yearlong training in wilderness meditation work. He can be reached at http://www.markcoleman.org.