Responding to the good fortune of others with envy is a natural—if not particularly laudable—human characteristic. It’s as if we’re hardwired to believe that there’s only so much happiness to go around and that if someone else gets too big a chunk of it, there won’t be any left for us.
If we keep our eyes open, it’s not difficult to see this habit in action—in ourself and others. Fortunately, this competitive reflex is not an expression of our deepest nature but a conditioned habit that can yield to another, more satisfying way of being. Instead of envying others, we can cultivate our innate quality of mudita, or “joy”—a boundless capacity to savor life’s blessings, regardless of whether they’re showered on us or on other people.
In buddhist philosophy, mudita is the third of the four brahmaviharas, the inner “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity that are every human being’s true nature. The term mudita is often narrowly translated as “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy, the pleasure that comes when we delight in other people’s well-being rather than begrudge it. But since in practice, it’s all but impossible to experience happiness for others unless we first develop the capacity to taste it in our own lives, many Buddhist teachers interpret mudita more broadly as referring to the inner fountain of infinite joy that is available to each of us at all times, regardless of our circumstances. The more deeply we drink from this fountain, the more secure we become in our own abundant happiness, and the easier it then becomes for us to relish the joy of other people as well.
So how can we use our asana practice to tap into our own wellspring of joy? One simple way is by looking for the good—focusing not on what’s wrong in our yoga poses (and our lives) but on what’s right. We can let positive, pleasurable sensations move into the foreground of our awareness, allowing ourselves to savor the release in a tight psoas, the tingle in an arching spine, the throb of a sleepy thigh muscle coming to life. We can honor ourselves for our small accomplishments—even for the simple fact that we have shown up on our mats—rather than berating ourselves for the things we can’t do.
Looking for the good doesn’t mean that we deny an aching back or paste a happy face over a broken heart. We can’t cultivate mudita—either on or off the mat—without first softening into a compassionate awareness of what’s actually happening on all levels in my body, mind, and heart, including any fog of pain, jealousy, grief, anxiety, or anger. Only then can we invite to the forefront of my awareness the more joyful feelings—which may seem, at first, strangely less compelling than the difficult ones.
As we flow through our practice, notice how often our mind reverts into the well-worn groove of looking for what’s wrong—relentlessly pointing out the myriad ways in which we could improve our body and our practice (not to mention career and hair). It takes discipline, at first, to keep bringing our attention back to the joys we are actually experiencing in that very moment, not the imagined pleasures that would result if only we could whip my life and body into shape.
But the more we focus on mudita as we do asanas, the more the practice snowballs. The positive sensations become like a magnet, naturally drawing our awareness to them. Give ourself permission to revel in the simple joys of embodiment, to bow down in gratitude to life itself. And this grateful joy becomes a source of nourishment that continues to feed us when we get off my mat.
Mudita practice is not about denying darkness and sorrow. Rather, it works hand in hand with the practice of karuna, or “compassion,” in which we focus on opening our hearts to pain and suffering. Our joy is made all the brighter when we truly let ourselves feel how fleeting life is—how filled with loss and grief and terror. And that awareness of sorrow and impermanence helps sensitize us not only to our own joys but to the joys of others.
Through the practice of mudita, we will be able to celebrate the bright moments of joy that punctuate even the darkest days. The practice of mudita shifts us into a deeper experience of our own lives, so we stand in the center of the actual, simple joys that are unfolding for us moment by moment rather than comparing our experiences with the imagined ecstasies of others. And as we become more appreciative of our own blessings, the joys of other people, instead of being a threat, naturally start to feed our hearts as well.
It’s not that we won’t ever be visited by envy or Schadenfreude (that guilty pleasure in the misfortune of others that’s the polar opposite of mudita). But when we root ourselves in gratitude for our own blessings, we are more likely to be able to remember that there is enough happiness to go around, and that anything that truly enriches the store of human joy also inevitably enriches our own lives. And the profound relief and freedom we feel when we genuinely let go of envy and embrace sympathetic joy becomes a powerful incentive to continue the practice. Mudita breaks down the inner walls we tend to erect between ourselves and others, and as it does so, we experience the tremendous joy and comfort of realizing that we are not alone.
Through the practice of mudita, we find our hearts naturally lifting at the good fortune of others rather than contracting in envy. Sneaking a peek at a lithe yogi arching into a perfect backbend on the mat next to us, we might sense our spirits soaring at the sight of a human body exuberantly expressing its potential, instead of feeling upset because our own body can’t bend like that.