December 2, 2012

Mudita: Cultivating Joy. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

Photo: MichaelKuhn_pics

The Buddha was known as “The Happy One,” someone who seemed to always be joyful. He encouraged us to cultivate joy (mudita).

Our first thought may be, “Why do I need to try to be joyful? Isn’t joy something that just arises naturally, spontaneously?” Unfortunately, for most of us, most of the time, this simply isn’t true.

What can we do? What does it mean to “cultivate” joy? Webster’s dictionary gives three related definitions for cultivate:

(i) to encourage;
(ii) to foster the growth of; and
(iii) to prepare or prepare and use for the raising of crops.

Let’s use the last of these definitions as an analogy of right effort, the sixth step in the Noble 8 Fold Path.

Step 1 of right effort: prevent and dispose of unwholesome states of mind.

To prepare a field to grow things, we first have to take out the big stones and pull out the weeds. This is like the first part of right effort, which is to prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising and to get rid of unwholesome states that have already arisen.

We’d like to think that we are always naturally joyful, but actually the opposite is more often true. Part of our non-joyful disposition is purely biological. Our basic instinct for self-preservation has us always on the lookout for trouble; is there something close by that is coming to kill me, to eat me, or to steal my mate or my children? We always have our guard up. The mind simply tends towards fear and aversion.

The other part of our non-joyful disposition can be attributed to our current culture of negative advertising and bad news, which only reinforces our fearful instincts. Every ad we see tells us that we aren’t good enough and that we can’t be complete without product X. The news media wallows in the negative and unpleasant by painting a grim picture of a dangerous, undependable world.

To cultivate joy we first have to understand that we are going against the current. We have to look at the deeply ingrained habits of the mind that tend towards the negative and the unwholesome. We have to dig out the rocks and pull out the weeds. This takes a lot of effort.

Step 2 of right effort: prepare and maintain wholesome states of mind.

The second part of right effort can be applied by creating the conditions where wholesome mind states can arise and to preserve these mind states once they have arisen. Going back to our analogy about preparing the field, we have to turn the soil, add fertilizer, plant the seeds and water the plants when they sprout. This is the practice of mudita. 

Photo: Ira Gelb

We have to realize that what we normally look for to bring us happiness doesn’t work that well. No matter how much we acquire, no matter how much praise we receive, no matter how much status we gain, it is never enough. Mudita is different. You don’t have to “get” anything.

The Pali word “mudita” is usually translated as “sympathetic joy,” that is, joy that arises from seeing others happy. You simply have to be open to what is arising all around you: children playing, a dog being taken for a walk, someone sitting on a bench sunning themselves, or a blissful couple walking hand in hand.

Mudita has to be a conscious choice, otherwise we will be caught in envy, the opposite of sympathetic joy. Instead of feeling happy by seeing other beings happy, we will complain about the noisy children, worry that the dog owner won’t pick up the poop, think the person on the bench is lazy, or that the couple is foolish by thinking, “It won’t last.” Let yourself be happy by seeing all the good and happiness in the world and all around you. Cultivate joy.

In Theravaden Buddhism, there is also a specific meditative form that can be practiced to cultivate joy. We can practice mudita meditation by choosing an individual, holding them clearly in your mind, visualizing them at a time you knew they were happy, acknowledging all the good things in their life, and then repeating the phrase, “May your happiness continue, may it increase.”

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes both concentration and vigilance to prevent unwholesome mind states from arising. We may end up thinking, “It’s not fair, they are so lucky, how come I’m not so happy?” We might think, “If they are so happy there’s no way I can be,” as if there were some limit on joy, only so much to go around. We may even start thinking that they don’t deserve to be happy. In other words, it is easy to start focusing on the opposite of their wholesome qualities.

However, with practice, we can overcome our unwholesome tendencies and start to see the joy in the world. We just need to consciously tend our mental field and cultivate joy. Only then will we become more joyful ourselves. The more joy we personally experience, the more joy we naturally spread around to others. Happiness is contagious.


Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. After taking a combined Ashtanga and Vipassana retreat with Richard Freeman and Wendy Zerin in 1999, he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practices by sitting in many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. He teaches meditation from a pure desire to share what he has learned with others. On Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, he will be teaching a daylong Mudita retreat at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO.


Ed: Alisha Bull

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