Sympathetic Joy and the Olympics

When Alexandre Bilodeau won that first Canadian gold medal at the Olympics last week I jumped right of my chair and started cheering. When he hugged his brother Frédéric—their joy ran right out of the TV screen like electric current and right into my veins—it was almost too much! So many people I spoke to were also so happy be watching that moment.  And then more joyous moments happened again with another athlete, then another. Sometimes you felt it more, sometimes less: but it was always this wonderful feeling of “second-hand joy.”

How does this work? How could this affect us at such a distance? There we were in our homes watching the Olympics on TV, thousands of miles away from Vancouver, most of these athletes were unknown to us, many of their disciplines were unknown to us, we had no idea of how much training and sacrifice they made to get to this point—and yet we were all so moved, so uplifted.

Why were we so moved? I don’t want to say it was the gold medals, because we were in fact moved by way more than just the winning athletes.  Many of the stories that moved us were not gold medal stories but stories that conveyed the enormity of an athlete’s commitment and effort and passion. For example, Melissa Hollingsworth, the Canadian skeleton racer who placed 5th—hers was a hugely moving story (although hers was not a joyous story, it was nonetheless moving; evoking empathy in anyone whose heart is not granite).

But when there was joy for the athletes, it infected us, the spectators, too. Personally, I found the joy expressed by Heather Moyse and Kaillie Humphries more moving than the joy of the men’s hockey team. Why’s that?

I think it’s because these women’s bobsledders wore their Olympic victory so lightly. There was no getting puffed-up, nor was there the other extreme of false humility (“oh it was nothing”).  There were no false notes.  When they got on the podium to recieve their gold medals they showed genuine appreciation for each other. Then they danced —how wonderful was that?!  Their genuineness opened the door for all of us to share in their joy with them.

What we experienced was the feeling of mudita—a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “sympathetic joy”. (There is no English word for this emotion…maybe there ought to be?)Mudita is the word for the joy we feel when someone else is victorious or happy. (Envy is the 180 degree opposite of mudita.)

Sympathetic joy has a range from loud demonstrative expression, like our reactions triggered by athletes’ winning at the Olympics, to the oh-so-subtle uplift we can experience alone by a lake in a forest, or watching a beautiful sunset… inexplicable feeling of just being glad to be alive.  It’s this more subtle kind, the kind without a “trigger”, that seems less explainable, it seems to come from no where, which explains why a near meaning in the (Sanskrit) dictionary to mudita is “to be tongue-tied or speechless.”

As one journalist wrote about the Olympics, “It makes me glad to be alive.”  That’s it in a nutshell. Joie de vivre.

The Sympathetic Joy “Spectrum”

The sympathetic joy “scale” ranges from that joy which we can see the ‘cause’ of, (caused joy) to causeless joy, a more subtle feeling of pervasive happiness, an inner exhilaration, the type of thing we often experience out in nature.

When you put a vibrating tuning fork next to another tuning fork, the second one will begin to hum at the same frequency as the first.  This is the secret to the power of sympathetic joy.   Using sympathetic joy in daily life means that we are alert to opportunities where happiness and success and growth can transmit from others to us and from us to others.  It means we have to take up the discipline of paying attention to the joy and success of others around us. Mudita is about actively strengthening positive events and connections and transmitting them on.

One of the most natural ways to do this is smiling.  Smiling at a stranger in passing on a street often will cause them to smile.  This is mudita too.

Mudita is one of four meditations called the Brahma Viharas (“Divine Abodes”, or “Boundless States”); the other three are: loving kindness (metta), compassion, (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha).

If cheering and celebrating represents ten on the mudita dial, it also represents the most physical expression of sympathetic joy, and one that is entirely dependent on causation.  Unfortunately, for this extreme of mudita, you’re gonna need your team to win in order for you to feel happy.  This acute and intense experience of mudita is like a sudden spike on a chart, or like the geyser at Yosemite Park in the USA.  But the opposite end of the spectrum is not a smaller expression of sympathetic joy, bu t a wider one. It’s less like a geyser and more like dew.

This wider feeling of mudita is the unprompted feeling of subtle joy for all beings, for all rocks, for all trees and plants, insects, animals.  Being on a mountain top, or next to a lake, or by the ocean, or watching a sunrise or sunset and feeling the extremely subtle, widely dispersed happiness that seems to have no reason for being there.  You don’t have to “do” anything to experience it or deserve it—just like you don’t have to do anything about the dew; it’s just there every morning.

How to Meditate on Sympathetic Joy

In terms of meditation practice, it’s best to start somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.  The gross celebratory expressions are too difficult to use on the meditation cushion (but they’re great in daily life!), but at the other extreme, we can’t always run around seeking the perfect sunset before we meditate.  Somewhere in the middle are a whole range of approachable mudita experiences that allow us to access this emotion.

Here are some examples; examples of experiences that you can draw on and recollect to spark your meditation on sympathetic joy: things like recalling (or imagining) grandparents watching their grandchildren play….or recall the feeling of appreciating the joy of your dog in the park as she chases a stick….. or imagining the joy of a child skipping down the street. In general, you start the meditation by visualizing or recollecting examples of other people in joyous happy states, but not  experiences that make you get all clingy, or resentful or envious.

Sympathetic joy is best evoked by the types of circumstances that bring a slight smile to your face when you reflect on them.  Meditate on those, then expand that pleasant feeling through your body, then imagine it permeating the bodies of others (particularly those who are unwell), imagine this feeling permeating trees, rocks, water and animals in your immediate area.  Over time, as you keep practicing, you’ll notice that you can expand this mudita into circumstances that perhaps only made you envious before.

“Positive Gossip”

Perhaps the last time many of us experienced the ability to initiate joyous feelings in others was childhood when we brought home a good report card, say, and we saw our mother and father beaming.  Adults allow themselves to feel mudita in relation to children.  We generally don’t get envious or jealous or worked up negatively by the joy of a child, but once we are all adults, the game changes.  One of the painful things in life is when I am not able to share my joy and success with others because I anticipate they will grumble or be envious or upset.  Mudita is like food.  It’s nourishment.  We need to be able to share our joy and see that it makes others happy (not miserable).  And the way to get there is for each of us to grow and expand our ability to notice and appreciate good in others. One of the most successful ways to advance your mudita is what I call ‘positive gossip’.  Note when someone is good at something or has good news or success and tell other people about it.

Make this a practice:  gossip about the good (and leave the bad alone).


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