Mudita is a Pali word that means “sympathetic joy” or “happiness at another’s success in life.”
In Buddhist teachings, mudita is one of the four Brahma-viharas, or “highest emotions,” alongside love, compassion, and equanimity. I first learned of the word during a terrific retreat with Buddhist meditation teacher Leigh Brasington.
I hold no reverence for exotic terms, and I rarely favor a foreign word when an English one will do.
But in this case, there is no English word. We have many words with an opposite meaning — envy, jealousy, compassion, pity — but none for feelings of happiness or even approval at another’s success. The nearest word might be “pride,” but this is usually restricted to one’s self.
The omission is reflected in modern culture. You can hardly scan the headlines of a newspaper without reading about designs to “soak the rich,” but you almost never see a story about how wonderful it is that some people succeed in achieving their financial dreams. We are taught to pursue our dreams, but to resent those who achieve them.
Mudita is an antidote to this mentality, and it reaches far beyond matters of material success.
In the outstanding book The Art of Living Consciously, psychologist Nathaniel Branden explains that “Whoever continually strives to achieve a clearer and clearer vision of reality and our place in it — whoever is pulled forward by a passion for such clarity — is, to that extent, leading a spiritual life.”
Part of understanding one’s “place in reality” is identifying what we admire, what we support, and what makes us happy. In this respect, mudita is an essential component of the spiritual life.
Certain elements of mudita are captured in what Branden calls “psychological visibility” — the positive feelings that result from having one’s true nature understood, from seeing one’s self mirrored in another. Think about how it feels to talk with someone who understands you, who might be pursuing goals similar to your own. Or how it feels even to look at a healthy plant, thriving on sun and soil.
These connections to the rest of the world ground us not only in healthy relationships, but in a healthy life. Without them, we are a plant without soil ourselves.
Note that, while the word “mudita” has an Eastern lineage, its full realization lies as much in the tradition of Western individualism, of seeing each person as an end in him- or herself. The term provides an interesting bridge between Eastern and Western values, which I’ll explore more as time permits. Stay tuned.