Joy in the joy of others

"May I be a brimming vessel of joy in this world and all worlds, delighting in the happiness of others as their suffering is alleviated."

Daily, I recite this phrase as part of my devotional practice. In the dharma, joy in the joy of others is one of the Four Immeasurables, that is, one of the four qualities that is needed by immeasurable numbers of people, that can generate immeasurable amounts of benefit, and that is immeasurable in its vast and timeless nature. The other three Immeasurables are lovingkindness, compassion, and equanimity.

To take joy in the joy of others is a profound practice. It's fun, but not frivolous. It is a way of life more than a once-per-day meditation. In order to accomplish this practice successfully, we must be willing to a) recognize the true cause of joy, which is the alleviation of suffering, b) actively seek to alleviate suffering in the lives of others, regardless of whether we like them or not, c) analyze our motivations when we feel someone else's joy is somehow unwarranted, or when we are judging it, and d) allow ourselves to fully experience joy in the moments where suffering is alleviated, with full awareness that all emotional states and circumstances are fleeting.

To recognize the true of cause of joy is to first acknowledge that everyone, without exception, experiences suffering in their lives. Some may experience more suffering than others, but there is no hierarchy of pain here. Rather, when we acknowledge that all beings suffer, and that all suffering is difficult for the one experiencing it, we are then freer to truly have compassion for all beings who are suffering, and we are motivated to help. The true cause of joy is in that moment when suffering is lifted and a person can breathe a sigh of relief, have a belly laugh, smile a secret smile in their heart, or otherwise experience upliftment.

When we actively seek to alleviate suffering in the lives of others, we must transcend the definition of suffering as mere emotional or physical discomfort or pain in order to assess the best course of action. As I mentioned last week, seizing power from a dictator will certainly make him and his followers feel unhappy, but will ultimately alleviate the suffering that he is experiencing from his creation of negative karma, and that he is causing to many other people with his overbearing actions. Similarly, having a frank and direct conversation with an addict about their harmful behavior might not immediately feel happy-making, but it is an action taken toward generating lasting happiness by ending the suffering of addiction. Taking your child to get a cavity filled is not an immediate joy at all, but will create lasting joy when the painful tooth is repaired. We need to be aware that while balloon animals, jokes, gifts, and hugs help to alleviate suffering, so can boundaries, difficult conversations, the accomplishment of challenging tasks, and resistance to harmful patterns.

One of the most difficult steps in this practice is to learn to take joy in the joy of even people you do not like. One of the most instructive aspects of this process is to look at how you respond to the success of those you think are undeserving, and to analyze the ways in which you compare your joy to the joy of others as if there was a cosmic scale out of balance. Do you worry that you are somehow not getting your fair share? The ability to release judgment and genuinely celebrate the joy of others, whether you like them or not, and even when you are facing your own suffering, is a sign of a certain level of spiritual mastery.

Finally, when amidst suffering, human beings experience constriction. We tend to clamp down around negative feelings. We pull inward and become small, tight, and fearful. Sometimes we over-identify with our suffering, making it a stubborn source of pride or self-abasement or social status. Suffering can become competitive, with people vying for the position of "who has it worse." In order to accomplish the practice of joy in the joy of others, we must learn to fully observe the moment of joy, wherever it arises, and for whom. We can all, then, share in one another's good fortune. We can allow ourselves to open to joy, to surrender to it, and to experience the innocence of it entirely, regardless of our constrictive tendencies or our fear of the inevitability that suffering will arise again. It surely will, yet it should not block our joy in a child's giggle, in the smile on the face of an Elder after a good turn, or in a pure moment of heart connection between friends. Indeed, only by fully opening to the joy of each possible moment can we cultivate the skills that will help us when we also must accept the realities of suffering. Joy and suffering are not a double-sided coin; rather, they bracket a spectrum of experience, each with their own lessons to teach us.