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Lately I have been working on the Buddhist practice of mudita — cultivating joy in the joy of others. It sounds nice. It sounds very beautiful and I-am-one-with-the-univese-y. And it is beautiful . . . when you are cultivating joy in the joy of someone you love. Or even like. However, it can get can get slightly messy when practicing mudita with a total stranger.
For example, I love running. L-O-V-E love. I can’t run anymore because of fibromyalgia and plantar fasciitis in both feet (what my doctor calls a “medical unlikelihood”). Sometimes I have trouble walking. And occasionally, it’s agonizing to even touch my feet to the floor. When I used to see a runner lithely prancing by, my mind would go through the whole life-isn’t-fair and I-have-been-struck-down-by-a-chronic-illness thing. It made me feel dark and muddy inside. Like something had clogged up my heart.
Then I started trying mudita. At first it was a “fake it ’till you make it” kind of thing. “Look at that runner! Look how the sun is shining on her shoulders and her body is strong! Joy to you, runner-I-have-never-seen-before-and-never-will-again, joy to you! Have a good run!” Translation: I’m jealous of you and your running and I sort of wish you would get a leg cramp and have to sit on that bench so I didn’t have you watch you doing something I miss so terribly much. Also, I wish you didn’t look quite so good in your sports bra.
But I practiced and practiced. The things, the good things, I was saying began to be true. I found joy in watching someone else run. I re-experienced my own joy of running. I remembered running strong, running beautiful, and, um, running slow. (Just keepin’ it real.) My heart began to unclog. Mudita as Drano.
I hubristically (is that a word?) dusted off my hands, threw back my head — my hair streaming out behind me like beautiful, non-gray, ribbons, (obvs.) — and said to the universe, “I CAN cultivate joy in the joy of others! Bring. It. On.”
And then the universe did. Because practicing mudita with a stranger is hard, but practicing it with someone you dislike severely and who has hurt you deeply, is, well, VERY messy. One might even refer to it as a “shit show.”
The other day I was on Amazon, trying to decide if I should buy “Frozen” or “It’s Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends” for my five year old. I got distracted by the Best Sellers List. And there, in the top 20, was a book by FFWHM, Former Friend Who Hurt Me. A YA bestselling book. The exact kind of book I am currently writing and trying to sell. A book by someone who I helped start his writing career, who then hurt me, and then acted like I no longer existed.
Tears pricked at my eyes. I thought about how it REALLY isn’t fair. And how he REALLY doesn’t deserve it. I mean, FFWHM is not kind to small, furry animals or children. He once ran over a squirrel on purpose. He tips poorly. Also, he wears sandals with socks. Black socks. He doesn’t hold the door open for people behind him. He doesn’t share his fries. And he doesn’t like ice cream. COME ON. Who doesn’t like ice cream?!
As I saw his book (it even had a cool cover), I wished him a lot of things. Bodily harm. Baldness. Plantar fasciitis. None of them were joy. I took a breath. Then I took many more. I shut my laptop and walked away. I meditated for 25 minutes. I focused on my breathing, on the sun glinting through the window, the new chutes of green in our yard promising flowers.
But really, I thought about him. I thought about how FFWHM was successful where I was not. I thought about how FFWHM was making me feel small and unimportant and not enough of anything. HOW COULD HE DO THIS TO ME? AGAIN?
When I was done meditating, I stalked around the house slamming drawers and doors saying, “I (slam) wish (slam) you (slam) JOY (slam slam).” I tried again, “Your ****** joy is my ******* joy.” But, of course, none of it was joy. I was slinging fear and hate and jealously. And the thing I really didn’t want to admit was this: I had brought it all upon myself. I was deep in the messiness of life, the messiness of mudita, and I knew it.
I meditated again on self compassion. I ate several chocolates. I went for a walk. I ate several chocolates. I went to the gym. I ate a brownie. I kept trying for joy. I kept trying when I picked my daughter up from school. I kept trying as I chopped vegtables for dinner. Joy joy joy. I kept trying as I curled up under the covers to cry. But all I kept getting and giving was jealous jealous jealous. Meanness meanness meanness. The messy, muddy cloginess getting wider and deeper inside me. I kept trying for two days. When I walked the dog. As I caught up on email. As I bought fresh baked bread from the store. But it was a no go: jealous jealous jealous. Mean mean mean.
But then, when I wasn’t even trying, I felt a tiny bit of joy echo in the clogged up chamber of my heart. I felt joy for FFWHM resonate inside of me. For that second (or maybe half a second) I cultivated my joy through his joy. And just like that, DRANO. My heart was clear and beautiful.
Full confession: I didn’t buy his book. I have other things to read, to look at. Besides, I like to keep my head held high when I travel that well-worn path between the messy and the beautiful. I like to see all the good stuff that’s coming.
When is the last time you got joy from someone else?