This article is the third of a four-part series on Chapter 1, Verse 33 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
We all love to feel joyful – it is one of the sweet experiences of life. Moments of joy and delight are usually our strongest, fondest memories. The birth of your first child. A wedding day. Your high school graduation. Recovering from cancer. Finishing your first marathon. Or, as my daughter has recently discovered, something as simple as seeing the first sprouts appear in the vegetable garden.
People can awaken joy within us, too. It’s easy to feel joyful when we feel adorable, loved, recognized as special. We’re delighted when someone acknowledges what we’ve done well, or when we’ve been “good”. It fills the ego with pleasure and pride.
Outside of ourselves, we also delight in those who inspire us. Heroes, saints, and even a grandmother who never forgets to share some of her meal with her disabled next door neighbor. Virtuous people open our hearts and uplift us.
But, not always. Sometimes, we react to others’ selfless actions. For a variety of reasons, we may find it difficult to appreciate the good deeds others do. And that’s what this third attitude is about – how to maintain inner serenity when faced with a virtuous person.
Maitri Karuna Muditopekshanam Sukhaduhka Punyaapunya vishayanam
Bhavanatah Citta Prasadanam
Patanjali, the father of yoga philosophy, tells us in this sutra what attitude to maintain when we encounter someone we deem to be virtuous – embodying good qualities and doing good deeds. An upright citizen, cleaning up the trash along the highway. Someone who has achieved great success and is now giving back. A selfless servant of the greater good. Even a bit of a saint, tirelessly caring for the sick, homeless, destitute – like Mother Teresa, for example. He says that when we meet such a person, we should cultivate the attitude of Mudita – delight, or joyfulness.
Much as we’d all like to think that we already do that – of course I’m happy when people are doing good things! – if we look a little deeper, we may find other reactions under the surface. Resentment. Jealousy. Anger. Resistance. Inadequacy. Yes, our fragile ego even has some difficulty, from time to time, delighting in the good works of others.
Each one of us wants to feel worthy and of value in this world. We long to make a contribution in some way. And under that, we also long to be acknowledged for this. It can be difficult to see someone else receiving that acknowledgement that we desire, doing something that we wish we could have done ourselves.
Yet, sometimes we feel incapable. We compare ourselves to someone extraordinary, and feel that we come up tremendously short. We undermine our own gifts by comparing them to someone else.
Because of our jealousy or feeling of inadequacy, we may even try to take them down a peg or two. We find something wrong with them, become critical, look for something that we can say “see, they’re really not so great after all.” So that the ego can feel better about not living up to its own expectations.
Instead, we should cultivate Mudita – to be joyful for those doing good, and let them motivate us to do good. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, the co-authors of many translations of yogic texts, note that “the virtue of others is apt to irritate us, because we take it as a reflection upon our own shortcomings. We tend to sneer at it and suggest it is only hypocrisy. On the contrary, we should delight in it and see it as an inspiration to ourselves to do better.”
These reactions may not even be conscious, but subtly cause us to resist opportunities for ourselves to do good, because we don’t feel like enough. Swami J, one of my favorite modern-day yoga philosophers, reminds us of the desire we all have to be of service, and that “often we privately feel there is more we could do, but that we are just not doing it. Jealously and other negative emotions can easily creep in when somebody else is sincerely acting in virtuous or benevolent ways.”
So, to remain connected to our inner peace, we practice Mudita. We learn to feel the joy within that comes from doing good, from helping the planet. We celebrate it. This delight can overcome our anger and feeling of inadequacy, and actually can help fuel our own innate ability to offer something virtuous to the world.
You don’t need to be “jumping for joy” to practice Mudita. In fact, in Teachings on Love, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that Mudita is more than just a sense of elation. “A deeper definition of the word Mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment.”
This is the key to why delight will maintain our inner peace in the face of a beneficent being. When we develop Mudita within us, we are seeing that virtuous part of our True Self reflected to us in the actions of another. We feel that deep inner peace, knowing that, if they can do good, so can I. I have that ability within me. I can appreciate and celebrate that in the other, and know that it lies within my own Self as well.
Having this kind of joyful attitude takes an additional step, as Swami J suggests – becoming a “neutral witness”. By developing the ability within you to observe your thoughts and emotions, rather than being caught up in them (or unconscious of them), we can see the root of our reactions: the belief that we aren’t good enough.
Through the witness, we can understand that these beliefs and emotions aren’t who we truly are, but rather phenomena that happen repetitively in our minds, based on past experiences. The more we indulge in these thoughts, the more we become jealous, angry, or push away those who could be our best mentors and examples for virtuous living.
Instead, recognize that you aren’t those thoughts… and feel the deep inner peace that comes from joyfully celebrating all that is good and virtuous. Know that is within you, and you can allow it to flow from you. Do not compare yourself, but feel the contentment of Mudita – delighting in all the kindness, thoughtfulness, selflessness in others, and within yourself.