Mudita is one of the ‘Four Keys to Happiness,’ also known as the Brahmaviharas, in the Yoga Sutras. The word comes from the root Mud, and sometimes gets translated as “delighted,” or “joyful.” But there’s another element to it – it’s not just about being delighted for the heck of it or even being joyful for yourself. It’s actually all about taking pleasure in the virtue or good fortune of another person. It’s this experience of feeling happiness through another that it’s all about. And this, whether we like to admit it or not, is very hard for many of us to do.
“The word is often translated as Friendliness or Joy,” says Cora Wen, the owner of Yoga Bloom Therapeutics and Yoga Bloom LAB in Cupertino, CA. “But even joy is not an adequate expressions, because joy can be manic, and feel uncontained. And Mudita is much more about a continued experience – and it’s much more for others than the self. “Joy” by itself can be read as ‘for me.’ So I like to translate it ‘Appreciative Joy.’”
Wen hits on the important point that there’s no totally accurate English translation for Mudita. We have lots of words for the opposite types of feeling – envy, jealousy, bitterness – which all imply that a feeling is being experienced through another. But because there’s no English equivalent of Mudita, the term becomes a two-part phrase: Appreciative Joy, or Vicarious Joy.
Of course, it can be hard to get to a place of pure Mudita, since although you can be happy for a friend’s new achievement on some level, jealousy or bitterness can often override it. So you have to learn to work that out.
“Mutida is the one I have the hardest time with,” says Wen. “Can I be joyful for another? There’s always bit of envy, when you see a friend achieve something that you haven’t – a bit of ‘why not me?’” But she says that the appreciative joy feelings are usually there, too, even if they’re buried underneath.
To get to Mudita, Wen says, “I sit with the envy, and let it arise. I remember that it’s just the experience of emotion. But if I smile and think I should be happy, it doesn’t work.” Because “shoulding” is another way of stamping out feelings, rather than dealing with them. “They say, ‘everything that follows “should” is act of violence.’ But if instead, you hold envy as singular experience, and don’t overcome it with another – then it will pass. So I sit with the envy – why is it there? Did I want what my fried got? Am I wishing it were me?”
In other words, when you try to stamp out the negative feelings, the positive feelings can get lost too. But if you can figure out exactly why the envy is popping up, then those underlying feelings of vicarious joy – which are much more pleasant and productive to experience – will, hopefully, be all that’s left. With this kind of mindful attention to what’s coming up, emotion-wise, you can describe those feelings and then allow them to dissipate, Wen says.
She says she recently experienced a similar feeling when her boyfriend suddenly bought a new truck. “I got really angry,” says Wen. “My mind just went, ‘Should-should-should-should-should!!’ I felt no joy. What was arising was my judgments. As I did ‘the shoulds,’ I wasn’t allowing him to experience the joy either.” Wen says that she finally realized that in the truck she felt her own security was at stake, she stopped the “shoulding,” and just let him experience the joy. And then she herself could also experience it through him.
“My heart widens when I can fasten into these feelings,” says Wen. “These moments of appreciative joy are so necessary. They’re all so elusive. But they let us live in the hearts of others. We need more of these experiences.”
She adds that part of the trick is to remember that aside from joy being fleeting, life is also pretty short. So why not experience joy through other people a little more? “Can we just for a moment share the joy,” asks Wen, “because time is so fleeting, and joy so elusive? Can we share that part for a minute? It makes my heart expand when I do.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.