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.


Every day, the world over, millions of people recite their dharma vows:
“I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.”

According to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to take refuge in the Buddha is to have an example to look toward. It is not to have a savior in whom you place your faith, hope, and trust. Rather, taking refuge in the Buddha means that you, like the Buddha did over 2500 years ago, acknowledge and abandon the fundamental groundlessness of religious systems that promise you salvation if you look outside of yourself for answers. Second, to take refuge in the dharma is to place your trust in a system of teachings that are not "gospel" but will spark a process of refinement in you, guiding you on a journey deep within yourself that has no visible end. And finally, to take refuge in the sangha is to embrace the fact that there are others on the same path as you, to affirm that all of you are in this process as a community and can support one another, and to acknowledge that each of you is nonetheless fundamentally alone in your own journey.

To take refuge is not to cozy up in the lap of false hope; it is to become a spiritual warrior. It is not a relief; it is a challenge. It is not an invitation to become soft in our compassion, but to temper ourselves in its flames. Taking refuge is a deeply personal choice that one makes for the benefit of all beings, not from selfish motivations or a desire to be coddled by anyone. It is a path of learning to walk on a trail that many have walked before, that many are walking right now, and that many will walk in the future, and yet to still be completely on your own. Refuge is about learning that you are both your own agent of inner solace, and your own strict teacher driving yourself along that path. It is not to pray for ease, but to acknowledge that ease, like struggle, is temporary, conditional, and illusory. Once you have taken refuge, you can no longer lie to yourself about the fantasy of spiritual practice. Instead, you must become aware of the reality of spiritual practice, and surrender to the mystery that it unlocks in your life.

From the article:

"If we adopt a prefabricated religion that tells us exactly the best way to do everything, it is as though that religion provides a complete home with wall-to-wall carpeting. We get completely spoiled. We don’t have to put out any effort or energy, so our dedication and devotion have no fiber. We wind up complaining because we didn’t get the deluxe toilet tissue that we used to get. So at this point, rather than walking into a nicely prepared hotel or luxurious house, we are starting from the primitive level. We have to figure out how we are going to build our city and how we are going to relate with our comrades who are doing the same thing."

Right now, at a very difficult moment in American history, so many hopes are dashed. So many people are feeling a loss of faith in government, in other people, in their own religions, in their gods, in the power of prayer, and in the possibility of a better future. Many people are only just now realizing the impermanent and ephemeral nature of everything they once believed firmly, and are feeling rootless, disappointed, and failed by ways of thinking they formerly held dear. Much of what is emerging in the current political landscape seems bleak at best, outright sinister at worst. In times of such outward disillusionment, a trend toward despondency, anxiety, and depression can take root, causing the conditions that heighten inward delusion and suffering. Times of trial like these can lead to nihilistic attitudes, hardening of hearts, and spiritual suffocation in the quicksand of fear.

There is an alternative view, of course. If you have chosen the path of being a spiritual warrior, times like these can be like a splash of freezing water that creates a moment of awakening. Are you ready to understand what it really, truly means to "be woke"?

During moments such as we are now experiencing, we must look through the eyes of refuge and see that the current circumstances are not the end of us; they are our work. The challenges we face as a national and global sangha are intimately related to the work we now must do within ourselves, for the benefit of others. Now is not the time to seek refuge by hiding under the blankets, numbing ourselves with addictive or compulsive behaviors, or cutting ourselves off from reality. None of these paths are refuge- they are escapism, which is different. These behaviors are understandable, but useless.

Now is the time to actively accept responsibility that each of us, even though we are fundamentally alone and may feel very afraid, must do our best to create circumstances of compassion, sanctuary, and liberation from delusion that will benefit others. We must courageously throw freezing water upon our tendencies to seek the warmth of privilege. We must awaken the parts of ourselves that have substituted feelings for facts all of these years, and curtail the tendency to choose empty platitudes over facing the truth. We must cut through our own delusions with the sharpest blade possible to sever the growth of selfishness and speed the healing of the whole being.

If you would seek refuge, do not seek self-gratification, which leads of ego-centric clinging and aversion. If you would seek refuge, do not deny any part of the ugliness of your own process. If you would seek refuge, forget bliss and reach deep into the discomfort. Though it may seem a paradox, when you do this you somehow become happier, more whole, more calm, stronger, more courageous, and more satisfied than you can possibly imagine amidst your current life of relative convenience in the pre-fabricated illusion of reality you had perhaps hoped would remain intact. Through that door of acceptance of what it means to become a spiritual refugee, which seems so frightening, the only lasting joy that is not contingent upon outside circumstances or delusion awaits you.

While you may not feel that it is appropriate for you to take ceremonial refuge to become a Buddhist in this life, please also remember that the first Buddha was not a Buddhist, either. He just started a protest march that is beyond time and labels, and he has no intention of stopping until all beings are free. You can take refuge in this idea of a never-ending journey toward collective wholeness, the cultivation of your own wholeness as a part of that, and the necessity of ultimately leaving no one behind. If nothing else, you can take heart in his example and the example of so many who have come before you, who have created profound comfort and support for others even in difficult circumstances.

By choosing to open your eyes and see reality for what it truly is, you can become limitless, and your capacity to lend help to others will increase. This is what is needed now.