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A good few years ago I remember watching a film on TV with my sister. We generally don’t like the same type of films - and this one was a dance movie, not my favourite genre - so my attention was phasing in and out. But somewhere in the midst of the seeming silliness of the plot (a middle aged lawyer, played by Richard Gere, finds a dance teacher, Jennifer Lopez, and his life turns around for the better) something caught my attention. Our protagonist, who has hidden his newfound delight from everyone, finally tells his now suspicious wife - who’s been convinced he is having an affair - and in the course of that conversation confesses his sense of guilt for “wanting more when he already has so much”. I’m probably paraphrasing - but that idea, of feeling bad because you want more than you have, really struck me at the time.
The memory of that film came to me as I was reflecting on Mudita, or sympathetic joy or gladness. Ratnavandana talks about Mudita being a “joyful resonance” and something natural. All those moments when the heart opens. Of course, things often get in the way of that joy. And by things, really, it’s mostly our own stories. So for Richard Gere’s character in that film, there was the feeling that he wasn’t allowed have too much happiness. But I’ve been realising there’s been an ongoing question for me around is it okay to be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world right now? How can I be enjoying the sunlight in the garden when there are unseen ten of thousands dying in hospitals and nursing homes across the world and of course, millions, like some of those in India, to whom the simple fact of a lockdown is not an inconvenience or an endurance test but is itself causing severe hardship. A friend told me yesterday about someone feeling ‘indecently happy’ at the moment. Can happiness be indecent?
Of course, when I think in those ways my heart shuts down and that makes connection more difficult. Listening to a talk by Maitrisiddhi about Mudita I found her helpfully reminding us that sometimes we can focus on suffering to the exclusion of joy - but both are there and one is no less real than the other. Joy is real too and it is not a denial of suffering. Another friend of mine, when I talked to her about this at the weekend, asked me to reflect on all the people I know who I’d consider wise. All those people, while alive to suffering and not denying it in any way, have a lightness about them, an ease, an inner joy. I remember meeting Sunny Jacobs a few years ago. She was wrongfully imprisoned in the US for about seventeen years (several of which were spent in solitary confinement), during which time she was separated from her children, her partner was executed and her parents died in a tragic airplane accident. Despite that tremendous amount of suffering she was an incredibly joyful, open-hearted woman - “Sunny” was definitely a fitting name for her.
Ratnavandana reminds us that these little moments of joyful resonance are natural but sometimes we don’t notice - and we do need to actively cultivate them. We can do that by rejoicing in things, situations and people. It’s quite simply a practice. We can practice grumbling or dwelling on the negative or we can practice rejoicing and expressing appreciation for what we do have. And we can also cultivate Mudita by paying attention to when we experience those moments when our hearts open. Mudita can often arise in the simplest of situations. I’m reminded of the poem “Gift” by Czeslaw Milosz:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
This poem reads to me like a description of Mudita. The lack of envy, the delight in what is actually present, rather than the dwelling on what is not and the sense of the world being a simpler place to live in. Interestingly enough, Ratnavandana makes the connection between Mudita and Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha, “unobstructed success”, because he is able to transform the poison of envy.
So taking the advice of paying attention to moments when the heart open: I’ve started to pay attention to when I feel delight, no matter how small, or how trivial it seems. Yesterday I found myself delighting when I listened (yet again) to the album “Queen: Live at Wembley”, not just because I like their music, but because I could hear the audience cheering and singing along. I found myself imagining that audience, imagining their happiness - and it made me feel happy. It’s a strange one - going back in time like that to a concert that happened when I was three years old - but somehow that felt irrelevant; it wasn’t about me. It just made me feel glad, for all those simple things in life, that are just as real as challenges: it made me feel delight that there is joy in this world too.
Listen to Ratnavandana’s introduction to Mudita
Guided Mudita Bhavana