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.

Cultivating Awareness

Last week, I asked you if you were really and truly ready to understand what it means to "be woke." Have you been thinking about it? There is no better time than now to wake up from the dreams of delusion that govern the majority of our day to day lives.

Awareness is not automatic. It is not reflexive. It requires attention and cultivation, and a willingness to engage with discomfort as your brain begins to process what it might mean to accept reality. Otherwise, in the name of "self-care", a very broad term that occasionally thinly veils abject self-centeredness, we might be cultivating avoidance instead of awareness. Psychologists report that avoidance is related to anxiety, and that it is quite common. In finance, aversion to reality among investors is known as the "Ostrich effect." Our daily avoidance often amounts to simply numbing out by playing pretend, eating, drinking, rationalization, addiction to work, and refusal to engage with facts over feelings.

Putting things off, assuaging one's own fears with half-truths and platitudes,spiritual bypassing, and related phenomena might seem easier than making the decision to stay alert, pay attention, watch keenly, speak up, and be present for what is happening. Our world is not really set up to encourage us in our awareness. In the age of the Internet, when attachment, aversion, and indifference are merely a click away, we can follow our whims regardless of where they lead us. Our knee-jerk reactions can swiftly lead us down the path of obsession, down the path or avoidance, down the path of rage, or, with awareness, we can step off the intensity express and start walking down the path to enlightenment. 

Cultivating awareness of how, why, and to what we are reacting and responding in stress situations is one step in cultivating overall awareness. Enlightenment is the individual's capacity for total, limitless awareness, which perceives everything exactly as it is. The ability to see what is, and accept the reality of it, does not mean that we should allow oppression and persecution to stand while we bliss out listening to mantras on our headphones and congratulating ourselves on clear seeing; it means that we know what is happening, we know where we stand, and we know that we are ready to take compassionate action as needed to alleviate suffering.

In a universe made of suffering, where we are each veritably soaking in the suffering of our own lives and others, to truly "be woke" is to refuse to turn away from suffering in any form. It is easy to start cultivating your awareness of suffering among people with whom you agree. It is much harder to cultivate awareness of the suffering of the people with whom you rigorously disagree. Plus, when you work to cultivate that particularly difficult awareness, it is possible that you may engage in spiritual bypassing by removing your focus from the reality of their suffering and instead focusing on your own tepid, temporary version of "love and light." That's not the same thing as incisive awareness of the reality of their situation.

When we cultivate awareness, truly, we begin to see that our opinions aren't actually very reliable. We begin to confront the stories we have been told, and the stories we have been telling ourselves. The fact is, lack of education begets suffering, but education itself can also force you to confront unpleasantries and therefore cause suffering. Poverty begets suffering, but so does wealth in that it ripens one for paranoia and greed over time. Loss begets suffering, but so does an overabundance when one is unprepared for it. Pain and stress cause suffering, but so do ennui and boredom and cynicism.

The key to acknowledging the reality of suffering is to acknowledge that all beings, regardless of their circumstances and privileges, experience suffering and wish for that suffering to end. From this point of acknowledgement, we are free to then address the causes of suffering. We can address the suffering of the oppressed, and we can also address the suffering that caused people to become oppressors. We can address the needs of victims, and we can also address the needs of perpetrators, who may be mentally ill, or might have been victims of abuse themselves. We can address the suffering of the poor who constantly experience fear and pain over their basic survival, and we can also address the suffering of those who, burdened with more than their fair share, have become cold-hearted and callous, effectively limiting their ability to participate in the act of being human.

Not all methods of addressing suffering are gentle, and this is why we must assiduously avoid spiritual bypassing, because the alleviation of suffering is not merely about how we address emotions and feelings, but rather is about how we address the causes of suffering. Seizing power from a dictator will certainly make him and his followers feel unhappy, but it will ultimately alleviate his suffering, and the suffering of many others. Sometimes, compassion is a splash of freezing cold water upon the cosy warmth of privilege.