Mudita Bhāvanā

Mudita, one of the four Brahmavihāras (divine abidings), one of the mind-states of an enlightened being. Mudita is the state of rejoicing in the happiness of others, the state of sympathetic joy. It can also been see as the recognition of an inner joy we always have access to which helps us to appreciate our lives.

Bhāvanā is Sanskrit for ‘development’, ‘producing’, or ‘cultivation’.

Mudita Bhāvanā is the cultivation of the mind-states of joy and appreciation or gratitude.

I recently invited a group of people, not necessarily Buddhist practitioners or mediators, to join me in looking at a mindfulness exercise based on one Chozen Roshi sent out last year.

Part of her mindfulness task included the following: “We want to engage in Mudita practice as an investigation of what we can or are appreciating in this moment rather than as a way of suppressing or ignoring negative mind states. We want to broaden our awareness to consciously include and embrace what we appreciate and notice what effect that has. Do negative mind states drop away by themselves when we focus on what we appreciate? Does our habit or conditioning to notice and become obsessed with the negative change with Mudita practice?

We would spend a week spent dedicated to the practice of Mudita Bhāvanā. At the end of the week each participant would write a little bit about their experience and share it with another participant in a letter. In the end, nine people participated. Right away people commented on how just anticipating the dates to start the experiment brought mindfulness to their daily life. I was thrilled to receive this feedback and have made it part of my own practice. It has been an opportunity for me to gratefully receive positive feedback and fully, truly enjoy the excitement of others.

I’ve been making a practice around appreciation for all of Ango. I continue to note something I appreciated about my day each night before bed. On the nights I forgot, I merely note it and write something in the morning. I stay mindful of my vow to be gentle with myself and do not let my Inner Critic beat me up too much about not doing this task exactly when I “should have“.

This past week of really staying mindful to gratitude and sympathetic joy has been far more challenging than I expected. On the 5th I was given the opportunity to take a severance package at my job of 7.5 years. I wasn’t actually on the list to be laid off, however, if I volunteered it would mean upper management wouldn’t look at having to lay off someone with only a few years left to retirement with pension intact.

The truth is, I am grateful for my job. I appreciate the illusion of security and comfort it provides me. Some of the people I work with, particularly my boss, have become real friends over the years I’ve known them. However, most of the time my job has been unsatisfying, frustrating, and stagnant. Upper management has denied me a promotion for a few years now. Bearing all that in mind I said I’d volunteer to be laid off. My boss and I discussed early May as a potential target for me to leave and I was very appreciative of this time to wrap up loose ends.

Tuesday morning I was told that my volunteer offer had been accepted. However, despite my careful planning, the separation date would need to be the end of this month. I would have less than two weeks to wrap up the most demanding of the loose ends. I also am forbidden from sharing the news with my teammates until Monday; they will get 5 days warning.

I’ve spent the past two days in “triage mode” trying to determine what is critical to be changed starting Monday, once the people who will assume my responsibilities are informed. This morning I had to lie during a team call as to why I couldn’t pick up a new project. It felt awful.

In that moment, on the verge of tears and feeling nauseated, what could I feel grateful for? Could I turn toward the positive things about that moment instead of feeling crushed by the negative mind-states rapidly manifesting? Having been focused on this practice I found that a long list came to mind very quickly.

  • I felt grateful that I was working at home and not having to be face-to-face with people.
  • I was appreciative of the sun breaking up the clouds and beginning to brighten my home office.
  • At hearing nervous discussion about job cuts happening in my department I felt grateful knowing that having volunteered to go it meant some of those nervous people would keep their jobs for the time being.
  • I deeply appreciated the encouraging words from CK via instant message.
  • I was/am profoundly grateful to have a partner who is glad I’m being laid off and reassures me that she’s got my back.
  • I’m so grateful that she doesn’t mind reassuring me a lot these past few days.
  • I was appreciative of the cup of very good tea I was drinking.
  • I was happy to be at home where I could go out to the garden or enjoy the company of the cats.

After directing my thoughts toward all the positives in the present moment I did feel better. The tears subsided as did the tightness in my throat and chest. I was able to focus and come back fully into the present moment, including the challenging team meeting.

In the past week I have found that each time I mindfully direct my thoughts towards sympathetic joy and gratitude there is a noticeable sensation of feeling lighter. Whereas my anxiety manifests itself in a tight, crushing sensation, Mudita feels as though weight has been removed. I feel anxiety as a terrible weight, a tearing at my heart center, but when I mindfully cultivate joy and gratitude, I feel my heart pulse with life and open to the present moment.

I have found it interesting to compare the practice I do with Metta, Loving-Kindness (another of the Brahmavihāras), and Mudita. When I practice Metta for myself I feel comforted, protected. I don’t feel an openness in my heart until I turn my Metta practice toward others. It is almost as if my self-directed Metta is more about nurturing my hurt than about becoming more open. Mudita is entirely different in that I feel that opening in my heart when I practice for myself.

I’ve really found it useful to first do Metta practice for myself, comforting the hurt my heart/mind feels, and then cultivating Mudita from that safe, nurtured space. Using the two practices together this way has felt very powerful. Although it isn’t easy yet, I have found that the more I practice Metta and/or Mudita, the faster my mind shifts. Even if this shift is small and I am not entirely lifted out of the negative mind-state I’ve found myself in, these practices still create space, light, and ease.

Appreciate Your Life

Ango starts up this week and I’m entering it with four commitments.

  • I vow to appreciate my life.
  • I vow to sit twice a day.
  • I vow to incorporate bowing practice into each day, at least 9 bows.
  • I vow to be gentle with myself.

That first one is a biggie and a repeat addition to the list. It is what Hogen gave me two years ago and I’m still milling about this one. I came up again at Great Vow on Sunday during Sanzen with Hogen.

How do I work with the shame I suddenly see so clearly after all that acupuncture. Horrible gripping stuff. Feeling like the abuse I experienced was my fault. Particularly the sexual abuse, all of the times that happened in my lifetime.

The answer I got was to continue to do Metta practice for myself. Hogen was glad I’ve returned to his suggestion to do this practice while facing a mirror, looking at myself. I find it far easier to stay with this practice for myself now and am finding that watching myself in the mirror isn’t as panic inducing as it once was.

The rest of the answer was to appreciate my whole life. To be mindful of the present moment and appreciate it fully. Appreciate the whole of my life. Yes, the abuse happened but I lived and thrived in spite of it. I watched the disordered ways around me and without support chose peace health. It shaped me into the person I am now, the person CK loves, the person who teaches others yoga, and is passionate about cultivating more Love in this world.

It may have been awful. The grief and anger will always be a part of me. I’ll always have times when my memories are triggered and a flood of fear, pain and shame will rush in. When it happens I just need to hang on, breathe and not shove it away. I need to acknowledge that it is reasonable for those emotions to arise and to comfort them. It is way easier said than done.

All of it serves to make me very present and compassionate when another person tells me that they too were abused as a child. I can offer sympathy, reassurance and humor when someone tells me that they had an emotional breakdown, after all that happens to me several times a year. It softens my heart and opens my ears to the cries of the world so that I may offer my compassion outward.

Aside from all those really big, grand statements I have been taking time to stop and just really feel how much I appreciate the life I have now. When I’m not feeling overwhelmed by the shame and fear I am very mindful of the amazing happiness I feel. Just working, studying yoga, making meals and sitting zazen surrounded by insistent cats – it is a wonderful life.

Appreciation

The 2007 Fall Ango Zen Community of Oregon reflected upon a teisho from my teachers’ teacher, Maezumi Roshi. The particular teaching we studied was entitled, “Close the Gap Between Yourself and Yourself“. Hogen suggested that I really look at how to cultivate pride and appreciation for my accomplishments.

It struck me as “pretty un-Zen” at the time. When I talked with GM about it during that Ango she said she wasn’t surprised I didn’t get it. One of the things she notes is an area that could use some improvement is my ability to really appreciate my accomplishments. I downplay my achievements all the time.

Really most of the time it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything extraordinary. It just feels like I’m chugging along, humming & drumming through each moment.

So I struggled with this topic and a few weeks into Ango I went back to Hogen and asked for help. It struck me as somewhat comical that I was asking my Zen teacher just how one goes about cultivating pride. He suggested that I consider the task of digging a 100 foot ditch, irrigation or some such thing. He said that when one is digging a really big ditch it is necessary to turn around after the first 5 feet and recognize the effort that has gone into that work. Not to just keep feeling overwhelmed by the 95 feet yet to be dug.

Uh-huh.

GW agreed that I spend most of my time worrying about the other 95 feet. CK, after she got to know me weighed in with her agreement of this assessment.

This spring for some reason I’m finally starting to get it. In most things in my life I’ve been a quick learner, adapting with speed to new things. Sometimes Zen makes me feel like a rather poky student.

My doctor, the same physician I’ve had for over 15 years, called me “skinny” when he saw me last month. He checked out my blood pressure & pulse statistics, shook his head and smiled. Maybe it is that his reactions are so candid, so human that it is finally sinking in that my weight loss is something unusual. There have also been friends and teachers who have been telling me again and again that the changes I’ve made in my life, have maintained in my life, are unique.

This takes me to the berry patch at Great Vow Zen Monastery. Last week at sesshin my work duty was out in the gardens. In particular, the berry patch where another retreatant and I had been asked to remove pepper cress. There was a lot of pepper cress, it is very successful at sending seeds spraying out in all directions. It seemed like an enormous task.

The first work period I just sat down at the far corner and started pulling pepper cress. By Friday I realized I’d cleared nearly half the berry patch! I stood up looking at the ground, cleared of the invasive weed (although it is edible). I nearly started to laugh as I stood there feeling a great deal of pride in what I’d finished. On Saturday my silent partner and I finished the last 3 feet in a great flurry of weed-pulling after the clean up bell had rung. We closed the gate, laughed together merrily, and I performed a small celebratory dance, waving my 5 gallon bucket in the air. We grinned at each other and continued to chuckle while emptying our buckets before heading back in for more zazen.

I still feel a little uncomfortable with this new sensation. But I can feel the way pride is good. That it is OK to look at something I finished and really let myself feel the accomplishment, the appreciation.

Shossan

Last night it felt like the words were still percolating down through the layers to be able to write about them. Tonight it seems like there is more space between them and writing.

Shossan was done last night after zazen. Like sanzen, it is a chance to get to ask the teacher a question about your practice. Unlike sanzen, which is done in a room, privately with only your teacher and you, shossan is done in the zendo, standing, in front of the entire sangha. It provides the opportunity for everyone to share in the teaching being given.

First of all, I tried very hard to not practice questions in my head while sitting zazen. “Just be in the body, feeling the breath in the body.”, I reminded myself when I found myself rehearsing. And it didn’t go too bad. I felt some of the stillness of zazen settle around me like a blanket.

When shossan started I tried to be attentive to the sangha members, the questions they asked, Hogen’s responses. When the row I was sitting in was given the indication that anyone with questions could get in line, I got up with a question in mind.

Even now it is gone. I stood a few steps behind the teacher’s bowing mat, tried to be attentive to the person in front of me. That’s gone now too. I moved forward when it was my turn, bowed to Hogen and went blank. The nice, safe, un-revealing question I had in mind was gone.

So I went back to a question I’ve had for a few weeks. I’ve not asked it in the past two sanzens I’ve had because I’ve been focused on the immediate change occurring in my life, but this question is what came out of the quiet anxiety I felt at realizing my question was gone.

When I talked to Hogen about the shame I felt coming up, what to do with it when I had checked out and knew I was making an ethical choice. This shame feels like some awful echo again. When it and some of the fear come up I tell myself again and again that it is nothing but old emotions, feelings that were unsafe for me to experience during the events that created them, ghosts. I try to send myself compassion, loving-kindness, and stay in the present.

These things feel like they get between myself. Last year’s Ango was around the theme from a Teisho from Maezumi, “Close the gap between yourself and yourself.Hogen also had me practice with learning to have more pride for my achievements.

This Ango arrived and I felt like I was still working on the gaps. I try to assimilate what happened during my childhood, acknowledge that I had been so afraid and hurt. When I try to think of some of the things as part of who I am my mind just stops. It doesn’t want to move into those spaces. It stops cold at the precipice and says, “Everything but this.”

Hogen told me to be patient with myself. To stop expecting myself to be done with this already and feeling like I’m not making progress. There isn’t a time line for my way on the path. He focused on one of the other of the Paramitas for me, shaki which translates to peace, patience.

It isn’t that I’m judging these things unfairly. There’s no way they can be looked at without expressing sorrow that I experienced them. I try to picture myself as that child and recall as much love for her as I can. It is reasonable that I judge what hurt me as a child as bad.

To be patient with letting the scope of my childhood fear surface and be acknowledged, that feels like the practice Hogen was talking about. To not rush these emotions off and want to be done with them already. To treat them with loving-kindness, again and again if necessary, until those emotions feel comforted and quiet down.