What is your first response when a friend is elated about something and wants to share it with you?
What about a distant relative whom you hear has just become wildly successful – in your field?
How about when you’re at a party, watching someone joyfully eating up all of your favorite food – when you’re on a diet?
Or when you’re in yoga class, struggling with a difficult and painfully uncomfortable pose, and you see someone across the room gracefully, blissfullly flowing into and out of it?
In the Yoga Sutras, chapter 1 verse 33 guides us how to respond to various situations in life. Yoga philosophy isn’t just about attaining deep states of meditation or to mastering invisibility (yep, the sutras do talk about invisibility, among other unusual things – but that’s another topic). The deeper practice of Yoga brings our attention to all aspects of life, including how we respond to others and how we treat ourselves. This sutra gives us four keys to maintain inner peace and serenity when faced with four different relational situations.
Swami Satchidananda, in his translation and commentary on the Sutras, advises that, even if you have no ambition to reach enlightenment or even to practice yoga at all, “remember at least this one sutra.” Why? Because it has the most practical advice for living in the world.
Maitri Karuna Muditopekshanam Sukhaduhka Punyaapunya vishayanam
Bhavanatah Citta Prasadanam
The first part of this sutra poses the situation of encountering someone who is happy. Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, asserts that when we encounter someone who is happy, we should have the inner attitude of Maitri. Maitri translates as “friendliness”, but has also been interpreted as love, or being pleased.
Many times, we are truly able to feel happy for other people’s joy or success. This is fairly easy to do with people we know and love – friends, family. It’s a no-brainer with those that we admire and like: politicians that we favor, leaders we believe in, people we determine have merited their success by hard work or goodness in their heart. We feel those folks are deserving, and it brings us joy to see them happy.
The difficulty arises when jealousy, judgment, or envy rear their heads.
Jealousy arises when someone else achieves the success that we desire, or envy when a neighbor is able to afford a brand new, gorgeous car when we are barely getting by on our old clunker. We may find ourselves becoming a little un-friendly towards that neighbor, distancing ourselves, becoming uncomfortable when they share their happiness with us.
Additionally, we may become judgmental of another’s happiness. If the CEO of a corporation that is accused of corruption receives a huge bonus, we think, “They’re a crook – they don’t deserve it!” Or we believe that we’re more qualified than the person who got the promotion. We cringe when an ex, who dumped us ruthlessly, immediately found a gorgeous new girlfriend. We think they shouldn’t have such happiness after what they did. How are we supposed to feel happy for someone who has been cruel, deceptive, or harmful?
Chances are good that when we’re unable to feel Maitri towards others, it reflects something happening within ourselves. Why would we not feel happy for the neighbor who has a beautiful new car? Perhaps because we believe we can’t have it – it’s out of reach. We have the perception that we couldn’t earn the money to buy it, or a deeper insecurity about being undeserving. Our own worst critics, if we are heavily judgmental about another’s worthiness of happiness, you can bet we’re just as judgmental of ourselves.
Further, we may have a block to feeling Maitri for someone else because we believe that our happiness comes from objects; in this case a car. If we are invested in a new car being the source of our happiness, it can be disturbing when someone else has that and we don’t.
The practice of Maitri washes away the envy, jealousy, and judgment by embracing all others with love, appreciation, and friendliness. This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming their pal, but having the kind of encouraging, pleased, supportive feeling towards those that are happy that we would have to a dear friend who is experiencing that joy.
How do we do that, you say, when you’re judging or jealous of someone else? Begin by recognizing that we become envious or judgmental when we view someone as separate or outside of ourselves. We create a barrier between ourselves and others of “yours” and “mine”. This is the source of our feelings of disconnection, lack, and unworthiness, and it is the antithesis of Yoga.
Yoga is the attainment of Oneness, or Union with everything. In the ultimate state of Yoga, we no longer feel separate or disconnected from others, the world, or Spirit. When we allow ourselves to adopt this perception – to begin to see ourselves in the other, and as one with another – then their happiness becomes ours.
We can relish in their joy with them. We can see their success as a part of our own achievement, not to puff up our ego but to feel that potential within ourselves. And in the process, we recognize that our happiness comes not from things outside us, but from feeling the Oneness, the connectedness within us. Then, practicing Maitri becomes doable and delightful.
But surprisingly, we may find it most difficult to feel Maitri, friendliness and love, towards ourselves when we’re happy. What do we often do when something good happens? We wonder when the “other shoe will drop.” We don’t allow our good in. Instead, we tend to focus on our fear of when we’ll lose this happy moment, which undermines our experience of happiness. Or we question whether we deserve it.
The critical mind can also block our ability to feel our happiness. Imagine yourself in a yoga pose, and you’re doing it pretty well. But you’re just not satisfied – it’s not good enough for you, you “should” do it better. Add in the tendency to compare ourselves to others, and you can really pull the rug out from under a beautiful experience. In order to fully experience the enjoyable moments in life, we also need to practice Maitri towards ourselves.
When you are feeling happy or something good happens in your life, be in the moment. Let yourself feel the pleasant feelings, appreciate them. Be unattached to how long it lasts… just enjoy. Yes, these feelings do change, but don’t try to cling to the happiness, nor reject it. A good friend is open, receptive, supportive, and happy to see you happy. Be receptive and present to your own joy – be friendly towards yourself.
The next time you encounter someone in a state of elation, pause. Are you friendly? Awaken Maitri within yourself. Hold that person with love, appreciation, receptivity, and celebrate their good fortune – and even your own.