Family Group: Mudita

This week for the family group, we stepped sideways from the list of the ten perfections to cover an important wholesome emotion that doesn’t always get so much press: Mudita. Mudita is described as the feeling of joy we get upon perceiving happiness in ourselves or others. This emotion is one of the four brahma-vihara’s, along with Mettā, Karunā, and Upekkhā, but isn’t included as one of the ten paramī. While the other three emotions are wonderful antidotes to ill-will and resentment, Mudita has a different function. It occurs when we let go of jealousy, envy, and competition.

We began with a guided meditation. Pick someone in the room, and imagine it is their birthday. You’ve been saving up and planning and have arranged to give them a very special gift. This gift can be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter if it is expensive or rare or even if it doesn’t really exist. Just imagine the person you chose receiving the gift and delighting in it. Imagine their face, and how they act, and picture them enjoying the gift. We can notice how easy it is to feel happy for them on their special day and just let go of any need to put ourselves in the scenario.

We can’t help it: we live in a very competitive society. There are rich people and poor people, popular people and unpopular, successful and unsuccessful. The games we play have winners and losers, and in every form of politics and business it feels like people are competing to get to the top of the pile. It’s understandable then that these feelings trickle down into our everyday life and interactions, and that from the youngest age we deal with questions of value and fairness. When we see something nice or delightful, we inevitably start wondering who is going to get to possess it, and for how long.

We played a short and very funny clip:

This video shows how some capuchin monkeys were rewarded with food for doing a basic task. When both monkeys are rewarded equally with simple cucumber there are no problems. But when one monkey is rewarded instead with tasty grapes, the other monkey rejects its cucumber reward and begins to throw a fit!

There’s a lot to see in this simple display. Humans are not so different from monkeys, and we have the same reaction when something seems unfair. But the solution is not to try to be sure everyone gets the same thing – that’s just not feasible on a world scale. Instead, Mudita is the source of happiness that is unlimited and inexhaustible. As the Dalai Lama said, “When you focus just on your own happiness, this provides limited opportunities. But when you get your happiness from seeing other people happy – sooo many more opportunities for happiness!” With some mudita, the cucumber-eating monkey could have delighted in his companion’s good fortune. And with mudita, the monkey who got the grapes might have realized how nice it would be to share with its friend!

We read a simple story from the book “Buddha at Bedtime”, about a wealthy man who taxed the villagers around him heavily and hoarded all his wealth. This miser lived this way for many years until one day he was caught on the road by some bandits and robbed of everything. He and his dog wandered cold and afraid through the countryside until they came upon a hut. There another man lived with his own dog, and though there was very little rice to share, the poor man shared it easily and happily. They spent the night together in the warmth of the hut, and by morning the miser realized that while he had amassed great wealth, what he had really been missing was the happiness the poor man had found in contentment. The four of them, dogs included, returned to the rich miser’s house the next day, and from then on were generous and supportive of all the villagers and a great source of happiness for their community.

When we look in the world we see sometimes that the poorest people are some of the happiest, and the people who have great wealth and opportunity are tremendously unhappy. While it doesn’t have to be this way, we see it time and again. The reason is how we use our mind. The poor person appreciates the things they do have, and that appreciation made a habit leads to satisfaction and contentment, even with the smallest things.

We finished up with a thought exercise. One of the reasons our games often end in arguments is because they are designed around a winner and loser. Both of our families actually have taken a lot of time to find board games that are cooperative rather than adversarial. But we don’t even have to invent a new game – sometimes we just have to change how we approach an old game. So we thought of a few games and how we might make them less about winning and losing and more about enjoying the playing together. One example was Scrabble. Imagine everyone playing working together to get the highest combined score? Or another is Monopoly – how long can you keep everyone in the game, by giving loans and leasing nice properties and holding fundraisers when players fall behind?

The big question – which is more like actual life? Does life have winners and losers, or is it more like the cooperative game?

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