Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mudita and the Fine Art of Enjoying Others Sermon

(Sermon delivered 10/23/11 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee)

There are only two kinds of people in the world...Those that say there are two kinds of people in the world and those that don’t. haha No, but seriously, I had a dear mentor growing up at a church in Orlando (who was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and I’m not just saying that to make this story sound more interesting) that would say that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that enter a room and say, “HERE I AM!!!” and those that come in to a room and say, “THERE YOU ARE!!!”.

Do you see the difference there? Can you think of examples? Tougher question: which are you? Here I am or there you are? Which do you think is more popular? Who do you think everyone wants to be around? Furthermore, which person do you think is happier?

But it isn’t just about being popular and happier. It’s also about bringing joy to a dark world. What do you think is the single greatest gift that you can give the vast majority of people that you bump in to? Your wife? Your husband? Your coworkers? Your friends? The cashier at Walmart? Certainly different relationships necessitate different approaches, but there’s a theme I’d like you to become fully aware of if you’re not already. Look around you. Look in the mirror. What’s the greatest unmet need in others lives? In your life? Let me give you some possible options, we’ll rule some out and then see what’s left. Ok, things that you can give to benefit the people around you with:

  1. Advice on how to run their life better or do their job more productively. 
  2. Some essential, saving knowledge that will transform their lives, prevent eternal damnation, help them lose 20 lbs, look ten years younger, become better parents, husbands, wives that are more productive, better looking, happier and in amazing health.
  3. The exalted privilege of being around you. 

I believe we’ll have to think of some better options...On this morning, I’d like to introduce you to, what I believe to be, the single greatest way you can love the people around you, serve their greatest unmet need and find the greatest means of fulfillment possible--enjoying others. We’ll look a little at Christianity, a little at evolution (O, how I do love that pairing :)) and a little at the teachings of Buddhism to gain some guidance and insight and at the end there will be a time for reflection and application.

And to start off I’d like for you to consider the relationships you seek out. I suggest that those people offer you something that you need. So, think of someone that you really, really enjoy, like gut, deep down enjoy--someone that feeds your soul, makes you more of a human, more of a man, more of a woman. Why? Why do you enjoy them? What is it that they offer you? And, maybe, in turn we can start to offer that to others. What deep longing within you are they able to touch? Why do you like them?

Is it because they’re funny? Or, is it because they think you’re absolutely hilarious.

Is it because they make you smile? Or, is it because when you’re around they can’t stop smiling.

Is it because you respect them? Look up to them? Or, is it because you’re their hero.

Is it because they’re interesting or because they’re interested?

Entertaining or entertained?

What’s sexier than feeling truly sexy?

Think, if you will, of the people (maybe a teacher, a friend, relative or mentor) that have made an impact on you. Was it just that they were cool that they made an impact on you? Or, was it that they thought you were the coolest. They believed in you. They thought you were the deal. You brought a smile to their face.

You were enjoyed.

Uber (and I mean uber) conservative theologian John Piper puts it eloquently with this hypothetical story which I think is quite telling.

Suppose on this day I bring home a dozen long-stemmed roses for Noel [who is his wife]. When she meets me at the door, I hold out the roses, and she says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful; thank you” and gives me a big hug. Then suppose I hold up my hand and say matter-of-factly, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.”

What happens? Is not the exercise of duty a noble thing? Do not we honor those we dutifully serve? Not much. Not if there’s no heart in it. Dutiful roses are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact, they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. All I can muster is a calculated expression of marital duty.

Here is the way Edward John Carnell puts it:

Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value.”

So, what’s the right way for that story to go? (wait for responses.) “I’m giving you these roses because there is no greater pleasure than for me to see you happy. I’m only happy when you’re happy. Your joy is my joy. Your pleasure, mine.

Meaning, she/he needs to be enjoyed. Relished. Adored. Cherished. Savored. Found to be captivating.

Piper further elaborates this mentality in a spiritual context by submitting that, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Translation: God is happy when we’re happy and we’re happy when we find our happiness by enjoying God.

You’ll notice the contrast this way of viewing Christianity has standing next to other ascetic forms of spirituality. Life isn’t about how much suffering you can endure, it’s about enjoyment--gluttonous, hedonistic enjoyment...of the right thing--God. And in the same way that Piper could see God as most loved when we most enjoy him, so are people most loved when they’re most enjoyed.

And I think this is insight is absolutely backed up and proved true (if you will) by the pragmatic logic of evolution.

In my reading of evolution this logic of life--symbiosis, synergy, win-win, non-zero sum interaction--this mutually beneficial, mutual enjoyment is written on nearly every helices of our DNA. From the very beginning our success and survival has been deeply enmeshed and entangled in our ability to cooperate and seek a mutualistic outcomes.

For just one example one could look to a study done in 1964 by Whechkin and Masserman. One way of stating the point of the study was to see if animals care about each other. They used Rhesus monkeys who were trained to receive food by pulling a chain. Once habitualized, the food delivery system was modified by connecting it to an adjacent cage that had another rhesus monkey in it that had electrodes fixed to its body. When the chain was pulled food still dropped down, but the neighboring monkey was also severely shocked. It didn’t take long for the food receiving monkey to realize the connection and lose all taste for food. One noble rhesus monkey starved itself for 12 days to avoid hurting its friend.

We’re all connected.

“No man is an island.”

Interdependent web of existence.

We have porous emotional states. What I feel, you feel. What you feel, I feel. Don’t you feel tense around tense people? Aren’t you uplifted by an ebullient friend? Aren’t *YAWNS* contagious? We feel what others feel. So, why not try to make others joyful so that we’re joyful?

Much of the idea for this sermon came as a response to several key conversations with Amy Menard, our former music minister here. It started as debate between we two logophiles about the best antonym for the word schadenfreude--or the enjoyment of an other person’s pain. The word we landed on was the Buddhist term ‘mudita’ (at her suggestion).

Let me tell you about ‘mudita’. Mudita is part of the Brahmaviharas which can be translated as the “heavenly dwellings” or the “abodes of Brahma”. They are four virtues accompanied by meditation practices to cultivate them. Mudita, a part of this set, can be translated as vicarious or sympathetic joy. It is the highest form of enjoying another person--the enjoyment of an other person’s joy.

Most of what I found in my research on this topic of Mudita centered around combating the opposite of this reciprocal joy--fighting envy, fighting bitterness, fighting anger, fighting fighting! But, in the same way that, “Look forward,” is better advice for a tightrope walker than, “Don’t look down,” so I’ll try to give you a couple ideas to focus on building this skill up rather than tearing down its opposite. Let me give you three character traits of someone that embodies this philosophy of mudita. People that really understand how to love others by meeting their greatest unmet need--to be enjoyed--are good at...

1. Being playful.

Have you ever stopped to appreciate that humans are THE most playful of all the animal kingdom? None other even comes close--no otter, no puppy, no kitten. It’s what we do. At every age, those that stay connected to this deeply human aspect of ourselves, challenge, laugh, have inside jokes, flirt. They enjoy the dance and repartee of relationships.

2. They’re curious.

They genuinely want to know more about a person. They’re fascinateable. I remember asking my youth minister growing up how a person knows that they’ve “met the one”--while I was in teenage star struck love. His response for when he knew he wanted to ask his wife to marry him was when he thought that his wife was the most interesting person in the world--that he couldn’t stop thinking about her, talking to her, talking about her, learning more about her. He truly enjoyed her.

3. They’re capable of adoration.

Which is something not everyone is. People that exemplify mudita have heroes, people that they look up to. They have mentors, even if those those mentors are completely unaware of it. They aspire to be like other humans that are living life darn well. They can step aside and let others enjoy the spot light, the throne, the pedestal. They live the Bible verse, “In humility consider others better than yourselves.”

They’re able to celebrate other’s victories and successes.

They love it when the other guy wins.

Enjoy others because it’s good for them, but also because it’s good for you. A 1976 study by Langer and Rodin on elderly patients in a nursing home who (among other things) were given a plant to care for were half as likely to die in a year and half’s time and showed marked improvements in mental and physical well being in as little as three weeks. Caring for others is caring for yourself (within boundaries).

You know, one of my favorite things about being UU is feeling freed to enjoy people as they are. I can give up on my power trip of trying to convert everyone, change their mind, change their way of thinking, prevent their eternal damnation. And as of right now I’m thoroughly convinced that if you really want to change someone, then sometimes not tyring to change them but instead loving and accepting and -enjoying- them exactly as they are right now may be the most effective way to actually change them for the better.

I think of the significance of enjoyment often with teaching and working at a school. I work at a local school for kids with emotional/behavioral problems that are unable to make it in a mainstream school. What’s the most important thing I offer the kids? Is it knowledge? Just another fact they’ll forget after a test? Critical thinking skills? While those are definitely important and I can’t reduce my job to one thing, I do think that the most fundamental gift I give my kids--as people, rather than just students-- is to enjoy them, enjoy their learning process, enjoy asking and answering important questions, enjoy their brilliance. I’d like to ask you, what’s the most important thing you offer your friends, lover, coworkers, children?

But, enjoying people can, at times, be really, really, really, really difficult. And even that’s kind of an understatement. That’s kind of one of the ways you know that it’s the right thing to do--it’s hard. Getting the focus off yourself and on to enjoying another person can, in addition to helping with nervousness and social anxiety (I totally focused on this to deal with my nervousness today) can be the greatest means of loving another person by meeting their greatest unmet need and let you tap into the deepest well of joy possible in your life. After one song we’ll focus on fostering this practice through mudita meditation.


Gratitude is the key to happiness. If you want to be happy, you absolutely have to be grateful. And enjoyment is active gratitude. Enjoyment is active gratitude. It’s gratitude in the moment, NOW, viscerally experiencing the object of gratitude.

To foster what we’ve spoken of today I’d like to give you several meditation practices. The reason that they’re called ‘practices’ is that we’re practicing having these emotional states until they’re second nature, automatic, sincere and deeply held.

The highest form of enjoyment that we can foster is the enjotment of another’s joy--mudita. In order to work this emotional muscle I’m going to give you several phrases to repeat as a part of mudita meditation and I challenge you to consider four categories of people for each mantra phrase--someone you already enjoy dearly, a neutral person (an acquaintance, someone you don’t have strong feelings about one way or another), someone who it’s very difficult to enjoy, and lastly all beings, everywhere. And I’d just like to remind you that if something is difficult then often you know you’re doing the right thing. :) If you’re having too much difficult focusing directly on the image of the difficult person, imagine that they’re beside you and that you’re wishing the below phrases for “us/we”.

Focus on feeling sincerely the emotion and not just repeating the words. Let it seep deep within you. Open the expanses on your heart. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Let yourself feel again.
Bring to your mind the image of the person you easily enjoy. Repeat in your heart:
May your life be free from suffering, worry, futility, loneliness, pain, loss.

Bring to your mind the neutral person:

May your life be free from suffering, worry, futility, loneliness, pain, loss.

Bring to mind the difficult person.

May your life be free from suffering, worry, futility, loneliness, pain, loss.

Connect yourself to all beings, everywhere. Sense the room expanding to infinity reducing the distance of all beings to zero.

May your life be free from suffering, worry, futility, loneliness, pain, loss.

Bring to mind the person you enjoy.
May your good fortune continue and increase. May you be happy. May your life be filled with joy, hope, success, love, fulfillment. May you be happy.

Bring to mind the neutral person.

May your good fortune continue and increase. May you be happy. May your life be filled with joy, hope, success, love, fulfillment. May you be happy.

Now the difficult person.

May your good fortune continue and increase. May you be happy. May your life be filled with joy, hope, success, love, fulfillment. May you be happy.

Now all beings, everywhere--known and unknown.

Lastly, I want you to take out your phone while the next song is playing and I challenge you to text the person you truly enjoy and tell them one thing you truly enjoy about them.

To quote the very quotable Winston Churchill, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."

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