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Mudita and the Angry Itch

It's a real burden to want to be happy all the time.  In fact, it's such a burden that we often think others should help us to shoulder it - we look to others to "make" us happy, which is a Sisyphean task (at best). Not only that, but it's a thankless task, because we feel so entitled to be happy that when others "make" us happy, we take it for granted.  It can easily be the case that we only tell others about it when they're not making us happy - this is our angry itch.

With this mindset of expecting others to make us happy and punishing them when we're unhappy, it's no surprise that it's such a burden and that repeated scratching doesn't really ease the itch.  We become the cruel taskmasters of others' impossible tasks.

The real shame is that others can make us happy easily, without our micro-management or prodding.  All we need to do is cultivate mudita, sometimes translated as empathetic joy.  It is the opposite of schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others' suffering).  Instead, we take pleasure in others' successes, happiness, good fortune, and enjoyment.  

Parents may understand this perhaps more easily than non-parents, because we have so many opportunities to witness our child's joy in something in a way that cuts through our frustrations.  I may want to leave the park and get on with what I think I should be doing, but seeing my daughter's delight at finding a rock in the sand cuts through my preoccupations and shows me the joy in each moment.

It is significant that the four divine abodes (lovingkindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) are considered to be antidotes to three poisons (plus one).  Cultivating lovingkindness toward others counteracts irritation and aggression. Cultivating compassion toward others counteracts indifference.  Cultivating empathetic joy counteracts greediness and jealousy.  Cultivating equanimity counteracts worry about the past and future.

At some points in our path, we can have a very selfish attitude toward the four divine abodes.  "Why should I spend so much energy trying to feel good about others when I have so much work to do on myself first?"   This attitude is misplaced selfishness - it's trying to scratch the angry itch that we can't really reach.  If we truly wanted to be successfully selfish, meditating on lovingkindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity will help us to feel better about ourselves.  Specific to mudita, if we learn to feel and share in others' joys, we then have many people helping us to feel happy, and they are doing it without our making them feel they should!  It's like the students who park outside my house to "share" my wireless internet connection (because I don't password protect it).  They get what they want just by being near someone who has it.  You can be happy just by sharing in the happiness that is going on all around you all day.  Finally, that itch can be scratched, and no one has to work to reach it!

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I get this.

I had a recent experience in Havana where I was what any tourist guide would tell you 'scammed' except that's not how I looked at it.

There's this reaction we so often have when we know someone wants something from us that we become defensive and guard ourselves without even examining if maybe it's something we can offer freely.

The way I look at it, it's only a scam if one party is dissatisfied with the exchange. I suspected I was being deceived but it felt so much better to just let that go and enjoy the moment, the conversation and the company. Why call them on it and attack their dignity? The money meant a lot less to me than the milk it bought did to them.

I hugged and kissed them both as we parted and I wished them well from the bottom of my heart.

I think I got the better deal.

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