March 27, 2014

Expressing Sympathetic Joy. ~ Karine Hugentobler


I wonder a lot lately about how many times I withhold praise from another person. And, in particular, from other women.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of empathetic or sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is the virtue of celebration of another sentient being (ourselves or another) in their joy, happiness, accomplishments and virtues. In other words, sympathetic joy is what allows us to celebrate what is wonderful about another person, or what is wonderful in the lives of others.

It seems simple to understand on the surface, and I think most of us would like to think of ourselves as being able to see and celebrate virtue and accomplishment in other people. Sometimes we can see clearly that we don’t want to for some reason—maybe we don’t like the person. But what about the myriad little ways that we stifle sympathetic joy in our interactions with others. Withholding of praise comes to mind as one such suffocation of sympathetic joy, and it’s one that I know I sometimes do.

As I said, we aren’t always happy for another person, and we may know clearly the reasons why. But I recently had the experience of becoming aware in a moment of something that I thought was special or unique about the person I was interacting with, but out of fear I stifled the desire to express to this person what I thought was special about them. I didn’t want to boost them up in that moment.

Perhaps we withhold a compliment to another person about a change they’ve made to their appearance. Maybe the thought occurs to us that we admire something about this person, but we don’t tell them. And this is where our examination of those moments can become really helpful lessons about where we find ourselves stuck, unable to acknowledge what’s good in the world around us because it is lacking in our own lives.

What stifles sympathetic joy? Jealousy, envy, low self-worth. All of which must be some manifestation of an unconscious (or conscious!) fear. As one of my favorite teachers, Caroline Myss, has said, “We don’t want to make other people the berries.” After all, praising another person for their accomplishments, success (in love, family, relationships, career, etc) and uniqueness takes something away from us, doesn’t it?

I mean, that seems to be what is implied by our inability to share their joy. Withholding of expressions of joy for someone’s success, or acknowledgment of their positive qualities serves to deny them something. We have this little nugget of praise that perhaps would serve to validate them in some way, boost confidence, or shed light on some entrenched perception of themselves that they have.

Something wonderful might have happened in their lives (that is not happening in mine), but I’m going to deny them validation of this success through my withholding.

I mean, it makes me feel better to diminish the brightness of their light. Or does it? Now, before whoever might read this thinks that I cruelly deny praise to others, I’d ask you to consider how you might also deny the expression of this particular virtue of sympathetic joy in your everyday experiences.

Key to understanding this for me has been to examine those moments where I feel this desire to withhold or not express joy for another person. It always directly relates to how I am feeling about myself, and my life, in those moments. It’s the whole scarcity and abundance idea.

When I lack joy, motivation, purpose, and self-worth, the world becomes a place of denial. In that mode, I’m being denied opportunity, acceptance, and kindness from others. When another person experiences whatever it is that I feel I am lacking in my life, the sting of jealousy sets in. This way of being sees the world as a place of limited resources (not the fossil fuel kind). There’s only so much success and happiness to go around, and so your achievement means less for me.

From personal experience, I know that this tendency crops up more in me when the other person (friend or not) is also withholding. This mutual withholding says a lot about where we derive our sense of wellness. We play with this withholding like a pawn piece on a chess board; expressing it when it doesn’t diminish our own light, stifling it when we feel it does. Either way, our ‘power’ and sense of well-being is external to us, so we manipulate our environment as needed to feel ok.

But there are other ways of being in this world. What happens when we have a solid internal compass from which to navigate, a touchstone within, on which we can always lean, always feel safe and embraced in the acceptance and understanding we crave from others.

In yet another mode, and when I am engaged in practices that nourish and nurture me from the inside out, the world becomes an infinitely more dynamic place. One where the praise and love and kindness and acceptance we seek from others external to us only complements what we already give ourselves. We are no longer living in lack, but abundance. When the source is the well within us, it’s limitless. We just need to remove the obstacles that block it and tap in.

From this place, the expression of joy for others’ joy becomes a source of joy for us too. It’s pretty awesome.

I was driving home recently when this topic occurred to me. I mean, I’d known about sympathetic joy, but I hadn’t thought of it in relation to how and where I don’t express it. I had just come from meeting a friend, which had triggered these thoughts.

In my mind, I began to tell her what I would have said, were I to have said what was in my heart, what I stifled out of fear. And in that moment, my face and body became warm, I felt an expansion in my sense of the word, and a true sense of inner joy took rest in me.

I promised myself then to intercede more when I become aware of the urge to diminish or not acknowledge another person’s joy or light, friend or otherwise, and do what is my heart’s natural inclination to do: express it!

So I’d just like to say for the record that, even when I have trouble expressing it for one reason or another, I think you’re the berries…and so am I!


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Karine Hugentobler