Learning to feel joy for others can help transform our own suffering and self-centeredness into joy.

The third boundless abode is sympathetic joy.  Sympathetic joy is joy in the basic goodness of all beings, and joy in the fundamental well being of ourselves and others.  Sympathetic joy is essentially unconditional.  However, there are important supports to joy that allow us to realize basic goodness, such as having a good home life and livelihood, encountering good friends and teachers, and living in the outer world according to strong inner virtues.  These supports help us learn to realize and rest in basic goodness without being swayed by external conditions.

Regarding conditional joy, it is usually easier for us to experience joy for ourselves than it is to experience it for others.  One of the hardest things for many of us to do is to feel happy when something good happens to another person.  Judgment and envy, the tendency to compare and demean, and greed and prejudice narrow our world and make sympathetic joy nearly impossible to experience.  But learning to feel joy for others can help transform our own suffering and self-centeredness into joy.

How can we nourish sympathetic joy in our lives?  One of the ways that Buddhists share sympathetic joy is to dedicate the merit of whatever good has arisen in their lives to the well being of others.  At the end of a session of meditation, we say “May the merit of this practice penetrate into each thing in all realms and benefit all beings.”  This same sentiment is reflected in the Native American prayer, “All my relations.”

Sending sympathetic joy to someone who is sick or to yourself when your life seems bereft of peace is a treasure of a practice.  In sitting with a dying person, rejoicing over the simplest things of her life may help bring great peace.  Look for a little light anywhere in the field of darkness and ask that it may increase.  It is important to let go of guilt and regret.  Let the mind dwell on the positive and nourishing aspects of the past and pray that this happiness may be realized even more deeply in the present and future.

We can also rejoice in what is present now.  For example, as I sat with Keith in his little room watching the curtain light up from the afternoon sun, I listened as he repeated the phrase, “May I come home to this light.  May all beings come home to this light.  May all beings know the joy of this light.”

All Articles in this Series:

Intro: Boundless Qualities of the Mind
Part 1: Lovingkindness: The FirstAbode 
Part 2: Compassion:  The Second Abode
Part 3: Sympathetic Joy: The Third Abode 
Part 4  Equanimity: The Fourth Abode
Feature photo by Jin Neoh Malaysia

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Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax

About the author

Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D.is a Buddhist teacher, Founder and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a social activist, author, and in her early years was an anthropologist at Columbia University (1964-68) and University of Miami School of Medicine (1970-72). She is a pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. Her books include: The Human Encounter with Death (with Stanislav Grof); The Fruitful Darkness, A Journey Through Buddhist PracticeSimplicity in the ComplexA Buddhist Life in AmericaBeing with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of DeathStanding at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet; and Sophie Learns to Be Brave.