Sympathetic Joy is one of the Brahma Viharas, or heart practices, in Buddhism. Sympathetic joy is the practice of finding joy in all beings. In sympathetic joy practice, we rejoice in the happiness of others and of ourselves. When others find joy, we find equal joy. We look out for envy and judgement. It is also important that we look at our own joys and are able to rejoice rather than judge or be held back.
In sympathetic joy, we are able to have boundless joy. In a similar way to gratitude, sympathetic joy is often as simple as recognizing the little things we have to be grateful for in our lives. When we experience something pleasant such as a sun rising, we may wish for all beings to experience the joy of watching the sun rise. Similarly, we hear people say at the end of a meditation, “May our practice here benefit all beings.”
Sympathetic joy is one of the most forgotten of the Buddhist practices. However, it is crucial to our practice. When we practice sympathetic joy, we open our hearts up to truly experience unconditional joy. Without practice, much of our joy is conditional, and depends upon the circumstances around us. As we practice sympathetic joy, we are able let our joy be independent of conditions, experience true joy for others, and let go of envy and judgement. We may cultivate sympathetic joy through daily living, or by practicing a sympathetic joy meditation.
Sympathetic Joy Meditation
To begin this meditation, sit in a comfortable position where you may be still for 20 minutes or so. You should keep your back straight, but do not be too rigid, as this is a heart practice, not a concentration practice.
Begin by taking a few deep breaths and allowing your eyes to close naturally. Fill your lungs to their capacity, and slowly exhale completely.
Begin by bringing up your own desire to be happy. You may think about some time that you were happy in the recent past, and how this felt. As you bring this feeling up, focus on how your body behaves. You may feel a lightness in your chest, a release of tension in your shoulders, or a smile come across your face. There is no need to force any reaction; simply note how it feels to feel the happiness that you long for. You may sit with this feeling for a few minutes, bringing it back up when it dissipates.
Now bring somebody into your mind who is a beneficiary. This should be somebody who has benefited you, such as a mentor or a loved one. Think of his or her desire to be happy, just like your desire to be happy.
As you bring them into mind, think specifically of some happiness they have achieved recently. This should be a skillful happiness to some degree. As you think of the happiness they are experiencing, bring forth the feeling of joy in yourself. As you bring up the feeling of joy in yourself, you may wish for this person to experience the same level of joy. Sitting with the feeling of joy in your own body, pass it on to the beneficiary.
When you are ready, move on to a neutral person in your life. This may be a checkout clerk, your mailman, or somebody you saw walking down the street today. Again, bringing up your own longing to be happy, remind yourself that this person similarly wants to be happy. Imagine them experiencing some great joy. Maybe they are playing with their children or enjoying a scenic walk. Whatever it is, bring up the feeling you feel when you experience joy. Wish for this same joy for this person. Wish for them to experience their joy in its fullness, without any barriers.
When the time is right, move on to somebody that you find difficult. Sometimes we refer to this person as an enemy. This may be somebody that has caused you pain, or someone toward whom you feel resentment. However difficult it may be, bring up your own longing to be happy and remind yourself that this person similarly wants to be happy. Think about some joy they may have experience recently. If you don’t know for sure, you may imagine it. Wish for them to experience the happiness they wish for, and to have the joyous feelings you have come to known.
Finally, turn your focus on yourself. Think of another recent joy you have experienced. As the happiness arises, look for barriers to your happiness. You may have judgment, which tells you that you don’t deserve it or that it won’t last forever so you shouldn’t even enjoy it in the first place. Let these judgements go. Focus on the true feeling of joy, and nothing else.
When you are ready, open your eyes.
In your sympathetic joy meditation, watch out for envy. Envy is the far enemy of sympathetic joy, and it is arises often as we look at the joys of others. Let the envy go. There is enough happiness to go around.
Some phrases you may use in this meditation include:
“May you be happy.”
“May you experience the full power of your joy.”
“May you always be full of joy.”
“May your joy continue.”
“May you have a light heart.”
“May you remove barriers within yourself to your happiness.”
“Learning to feel joy for others can help transform our own suffering and self-centeredness into joy. “
-joan halifax roshi