I suppose it says something about me that when I first heard about mudita, I felt suspicious. I was in my twenties in New York City, sitting on a colorful cushion, smitten with the spare decor of the meditation hall, and I wanted everything to go quickly (the dharma talk, for one, my awakening, for another), but the Buddhist teacher was stuck. At least that is what I thought. He was explaining how mudita was one of the brahma-viharas, or divine abodes, along with lovingkindness, compassion, and equanimity. These were practices that could soften the heart. It all sounded reasonable until he translated mudita as “taking joy in the joy of others.”
It’s true that I probably frowned at him. Hopefully I didn’t shake my head. I had grown up with Spanish at home and English at school, and I expected translations to be direct and also nuanced, the way the word crazy in English translates to loca in Spanish but my Cuban father can also say, in lieu of loca, that I’m “tostada,” or toasted, when he thinks that I’m crazy for wanting so much out of life. Crazy, loca, toasted—these terms spoke to the creativity of languages, but mudita, when brought into English, stumbled until it became “taking joy in the joy of others.”
What did it say about us in English that we did not have a word for relishing the good fortune of our dearest friends?
Later teachers introduced me to other translations for mudita: “sympathetic joy,” “appreciative joy.” This only deepened my distrust. What did it say about a word that it could only be found in English by awkwardly pinning adjectives to it? What did it say about us in English that we did not have a word for relishing the good fortune of our dearest friends and our so-called frenemies?
The Buddhist teacher Jill Shepherd has pointed out how few dharma talks have been recorded on the subject of mudita. I followed her lead and checked the archives at dharmaseed.org, a website stocked with Insight Meditation dharma talks. Out of more than thirty thousand recordings, it was easy to find ones on lovingkindness and compassion, but much fewer were devoted to mudita. As Shepherd explained in one talk, we live in a world that values productivity, not joy. “Mudita is kind of the poor cousin,” she said.
I suspected it had to do with the failure of translation too.
“Sympathetic joy” made me think of the pastel balloons and teddy bears sold in hospital gift stores. “Appreciative joy” brought out the grammar nerd in me: isn’t all joy inherently appreciative? Both translations suggested that joy was being forced to do other work: sympathize, appreciate.
The complicated relationship we have with joy came to mind last year when so many people were dying from COVID-19 and when so many Black lives were lost to police brutality. Friends repeatedly said a variation of the following: “I’m good. I feel so guilty saying that. I know everything is awful, but I’m well.” Their voices would drop in volume by the end of the sentence as if to say I don’t deserve to have you take joy in my joy. I might even be a terrible person for enjoying my life in the midst of so much pain.
Jill Shepherd, though, insisted that mudita was necessary right now. “It’s precisely because there’s so much suffering in the world that I’ve needed to make the effort to turn toward non-suffering, toward gladness or joy, in order to restore myself so that I can face life’s challenges.” She was right. Joy can be restorative. It can be akin to a good meal: nourishing and necessary. This made me reconsider what I knew about mudita.
A recovered alcoholic taught me how to work with mudita. This was some years ago, and she did not call it mudita. In fact, we were not talking about joy of any kind. We were discussing how pissed off I was. I had actually been pissed off for more than a year with a friend I had once adored. I had done everything I could to forgive my friend for all the ways, both real and imagined (mostly the latter, frankly), in which she had hurt me, but nothing was working. The resentment would not budge.
My recovery friend pointed me to the Big Book, the nickname for the main text used in Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically directing me to a passage that basically says one way to let go of a resentment is to pray that anything you want in your own life be given to the person who offended. You don’t have to mean a word of it, but you are supposed to do this prayer every day for two weeks. The book did not call it mudita, but that’s basically what it sounded like to me. Take joy in the joy of the other person.
I thought it was a ridiculous premise, but I was desperate to restore my friendship and to be free of the bitterness, so I began praying in my own Buddhist way. I started by thinking about what I wanted in my life at the time: a committed relationship, work I loved, a house near the water. I wrote all these down on a sheet of paper, and then began: “May my friend have. . . .” Almost immediately I stopped. My friend already had all these big-ticket items. Instead of delivering me into a state of joy, the practice had dumped me in the valley of self-pity.
The words on the paper mocked me. Why had I thought this would work? I crossed out the list and thought let’s start smaller. I wished for my friend to have a good cup of coffee. Yes, I knew she hated coffee, but I wanted a good cup of coffee so I wished it for her too, and although it might sound like I wanted to take joy in her anti-joy, here is what happened: I started to feel room in my heart for her. The next items on the list were ones that I wanted and that I knew she did too: a mug in her kitchen that pleased her, an easy commute to work, friendly interactions with coworkers.
The book recommended praying like this for fourteen days. I did it for twenty-one. The joys varied. Some days they included an open window and sunshine. Other days they were centered around experiencing love and connection with family members. Slowly, I began to forget myself and to feel joy in what I wished for my friend, and at the end of those three weeks, I was free of the resentment. I even phoned her and apologized for an awful comment I had made. She said, “Thank you,” and a little later, she told me about a big joy in her life. I was genuinely happy for her. I even felt a part of it. Yes, it helped that it was nothing I wanted for myself, but still. I was happy for her.
No, I’m not sure that it officially qualifies as a mudita practice, but over the years I have found that this technique brings me the closest to the quality of sympathetic joy.
Yes, sometimes it is hard. Mostly it is hard when I want to hold onto my self-pity, my hurts and revenge fantasies. Other times it works like magic. I have learned that I cannot hold two opposing thoughts about the same person for too long and that after fourteen or, more often, twenty-one days of wishing love and good experiences for another person, my mind shifts into the habit of joy. I suppose I have discovered that joy, like everything else, is a habit that can be cultivated.
Still, it nagged at me that we didn’t have a single word in English for mudita.
I spent last summer like many people: sheltering in place, wiping down bottles of orange juice from the grocery store with all-purpose cleansers, reading about Breonna Taylor’s life and murder and also George Floyd’s, and helping my college with reopening plans. It was in those painful months that I turned to The Book of Delights by the poet Ross Gay. The premise for his book is loving in its simplicity: every day, he decided, he would write an essay about a delight. And so he did. Not every day, but many days. He delighted in spotting a praying mantis on a pint of beer someone had left behind at a café—and also in writing by hand and high-fiving with strangers (pre-COVID) and spotting a paw-paw grove. He found delight when another black man, a flight attendant, handed him a seltzer, tapped him on the arm and said, “There you go, man,” because, as Gay observes, the “official American policy” toward black men is a “terrible touching of some of us, or trying to, always figuring out ways to keep touching us.” Here was a black man reminding him “how else we might be touched.”
It was a terrible summer, and Gay’s book was a good book. I found myself feeling happier when I read a chapter. I began to use the word delight more often too. There was delight when my partner returned from our new garden with tomatoes and peppers in hand and delight when a friend told me about her hike in the woods and delight to hear my sister’s gratitude that she and her husband could be home with their baby. In short, once I began looking, the world turned out to be awash in delights. There was the loquacious little dog on the neighbor’s front porch and the chalk drawings on the sidewalk and the long-distance sound of my mother’s Colombian Spanish on the phone.
In this Western world, we are strangers to delight.
I realized with a jolt how rarely I heard the word delight. We speak of joy and happiness and, yes, of a meal being delicious, but “delight” somehow does not turn up very often in conversations. Maybe it sounds too formal. Maybe it feels too sexy. Maybe it invokes too much the tune of ad copy (“gifts to delight”).
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of my delights, and I turned to it and found that the word comes from Latin delectare, derived from delicere, “to lure or entice away.” It was not the definition that I expected, and yet the longer I sat with it, the more I began to consider that I could see mudita as a practice of being enticed away from the ego. The definition reminded me of what I had started to hear Buddhist teachers like Jill Shepherd say, which is that in this Western world, we are strangers to delight. We are more familiar with being hard on ourselves (and then indulging in brownies), and so sometimes we have to start a mudita practice by calling to mind our own delights before moving on to contemplating the delights of others.
Knowledge is useful, but it’s not a substitute for practice, and so I failed miserably during a mudita practice at my first virtual meditation retreat. Yes, I tried taking delight in the fact that more than a hundred people of color were gathered online and I could see their glorious faces along with their backgrounds (blue skies in some, lamps and sofas in others). But it did not work. Called on to cultivate joy, all that came up for me was the reminder that I could not see my niece because of the pandemic and that so many people in my community were losing their jobs while a good number of other people were risking their health to protest police brutality. The more I tried to think of delight, the more I thought of how the world was falling apart.
I closed my eyes. The dog snored. The neighbors outside started up their barbecue. The teacher urged us again to think of joy—any joy in our lives—and the only thing that came to mind was the novel The Appointment by Herta Müller. The novel chronicles the plight of a young woman who is interrogated by the secret police in Romania during Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Müller, herself from a German family, had grown up in Romania and had faced such interrogations. She had written a number of novels about totalitarian states and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Needless to say, it felt awkward to think of Müller’s novel during a mudita practice. She did not write about joy. She wrote about a broken world. But the more that I contemplated her novel— the imagistic prose, the wordplay in her native German, the wonderful English translation—the more I felt an incredible sense of delight. She had survived that fascist regime and gone on to write these books. There was joy in the fact of this novel, in its resistance to the lies the official record would tell about that country during that time. It was a complicated delight that Ross Gay noted in his book:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
It occurred to me that I had thought mudita existed apart from sorrow and fear and despair. Mudita had been, in my mind, aspirational rather than the nitty-gritty of the here and now. But mudita was here in how I felt toward this novel about totalitarianism and terror. There is delight in hearing others name things what they are. There is delight in turning the corner and seeing that parents have brought children to march and chant for Black Lives Matter, and there is delight in showing up for early voting in Ohio to find the polling workers smiling at all of us.
What I’m saying is this: the poet Ross Gay was on to something.
I’m saying: What if this is joy?
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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