Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sympathetic Joy

Hello again! I apologize for the delay in getting this post online. As I stated in a comment following my previous post, the holidays, a meditation retreat, and a persistent (albeit minor) respiratory ailment all combined to knock my writing routine off track. All is well, however; I hope it is so with all of you.

The previous post introduced those states of mind that comprise the brahma-viharas, the “Four Sublime Abodes” of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness (Sangharakshita, 1980). According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), these are the states of mind that should be cultivated in order to aid in the liberation of others. Recall, however, that each of these states of mind – these “sublime attitudes”, as Thanissaro (2011) referred to them – has a near enemy or imposter, which, while appearing in the guise of spiritual advancement, is merely a more base karmic tendency dressed up in its Sunday finest. And so we have pity masquerading as compassion (the near enemy that I spoke of in the previous post); indifference dressed up as equanimity; attachment passing itself off as loving-kindness; and, the topic of this week’s post, comparison lurking behind a veneer of sympathetic joy (see Kornfield, 1993).

Okay, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves as we contemplate the following questions: How often do we truly share in the joy of another’s good fortune or achievement as completely as if that good fortune or achievement were our own? When we come to experience the joy of another ringing out into the world like a bell do we resonate that joy as if we were the very same bell, or is there some crack or chink or thick spot somewhere inside of us that issues forth a disharmonious undertone – perhaps inaudible to all but ourselves – perhaps inaudible even to ourselves? And if we (bravely) admit to giving off such disharmonious undertones, then is it not also easy enough to see that the crack or chink or thick spot giving rise to them is that part of us that seems to always be at the ready to compare the good fortune and achievements of others with those of our own?

Alright, but let’s not rush to harshly judge ourselves for this very human shortcoming. It is our shared human karma after all – a survival-oriented tendency rooted deeply in our genes. As I posited in Unconditioned Peace:

[T]he one who lags behind becomes the prey. The one who fails to make a straight enough spear loses the meat. The one with the smallest cache of food risks not having quite enough. So keeping an eye on what others have and how we measure up to them is a way for us to ascertain our own prospects for survival. It’s a way for us to feel assured that we’re doing enough.

And so it is that we remain vigilant for that which others have but we do not. The mind’s propensity for comparing self and other seems to be equipped with a hair-trigger activation switch in that regard, doesn’t it? Now, just in case you are judging yourself harshly for this tendency…, might I point out that you just might be comparing your spiritual practice to that of others and finding yours lacking! Oh, what a slippery place the realm of spiritual practice can be!

Notwithstanding my admitted karmic propensity for getting pulled into a comparing frame of mind, I also know that I have the capability to experience sympathetic joy in its purest form. I know this because I’ve experienced it intermittently throughout my life during so-called peak experiences – experiences that have subsequently served as touchstones for my practice of cultivating a mind in which sympathetic joy might arise with greater ease and increased frequency. Perhaps I need to step back and explain what I mean when I speak of sympathetic joy arising within the context of peak experience. For that I will need to delve into the work of Abraham Maslow and certain researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology.

You may recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the process wherein the individual (simplifying the theory greatly) works his or her way up through lower order, survival oriented needs, then general well-being oriented needs, and, finally, self-actualization needs. Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals were likely to describe what he termed peak experiences, experiences that some might be inclined to refer to as mystical but which he considered to be natural and “well within the jurisdiction of science.” Maslow (1987) notes the similarity between what he calls peak experience and what others might define as mystical saying:

There were the same feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in daily life by such experiences.

Peak experience, for me, involves a profound recognition that everything is alright just as it is, that my life (and life in general), even with all of its perceived imperfection and unfulfilled possibility, has unfolded (is unfolding) precisely as it should. In the midst of peak experience there is absolutely no fear and no regret. In fact, one of the most distinct qualities of peak experience that I can convey is one of feeling that I could die at that very moment and everything would be absolutely as it should be, without any unfinished business; the world will go on, life will continue, the gloriousness of being will proceed. Now, if you are inclined to place this experience into some sort of metaphysical context, you might realize that what continues to live on after “you” are gone is that which you were always a part of and which, in turn, you helped to perpetuate/create. In that way “you” live on. Thus, if you tend to think in terms of reincarnation, you might note that, to the extent that your actions helped to create a more or less peaceful or just world, you have created the conditions of “your” next rebirth. But the reason I am even exploring peak experience within a post related to sympathetic joy is the fact that a major attribute of peak experience for me is one of feeling great joy for what will continue to be even after I am gone: children will continue to play, flowers will continue to bloom, lovers will continue to stroll in the park, dogs will continue romping in a world of abundant scents, mountains will continue rising and falling, people will continue working and playing and creating, the sun and moon will continue to rise and set, and beneath them both the vast expanse of everything it means to be alive will continue.

It should be noted that Maslow’s work with respect to self-actualization is now being viewed within a broader context in the field of transpersonal psychology. Hamel, Leclerc & Lefrancois (2003) note that:

[P]eak experiences as described by Maslow… are the best moments of ecstasy, rapture, benediction, and great joy. Because these peak-experiences are isolated and ephemeral, lasting only a few minutes or possibly several hours (but rarely longer), they do not, by themselves, lead the individual to transcendent actualization…. It [transcendent actualization] depends on the will and the ability of individuals to keep on developing their psychospiritual potential (p. 5).  

The transcendent actualization spoken of here in psychological terms is the very same transcendence of the small self that I have repeatedly referred to in this blog. In fact, regular readers here will almost certainly recognize aspects of the four components of transcendent actualization enumerated by Hamel, Leclerc & Lefrancois (2003): 1) “a perception of realities that ordinary consciousness cannot perceive but that are common in contemplation”; 2) “a globally integrative vision of the essential core of beings and events, and a perception of the reality independent of fears, desires, and beliefs”; 3) “a congruence between being… and acting”; 4) “a sense of belonging to a greater whole than oneself, which generates feelings of humanity, the sacred, gratitude, humility, admiration, faith, and hope” (pp. 12,13). In short, these four components of transcendent actualization are referred to, respectively, as “in-depth perception”, “holistic perception”, “presence of being”, and “beyond ego-orientation” (pp. 12,13).

Let me close this post by bringing things back down from the theoretical to the very experiential level. Oftentimes after the breakup of my marriage (in the course of wandering the Bardo Realm of Grief that I’ve already spoken of) I would find myself alternating between those most base emotions and some of the most transcendent ones spoken of here – at times in rapid succession, and always with great intensity. In that regard, grief can serve as a powerful magnifying glass with which to study our states of mind – raw and throbbing as they might be. Anyway, it was frequently the case that I’d be walking in the park or sitting in a sidewalk café somewhere, incongruously seeking respite from the pain while at the same time remaining open to the lessons that it was searing into my being. Of course, I would frequently have occasion to look on like a ghost at lovers engaged in intimate conversation over dinner or families enjoying a beautiful weekend in the park. Comparing mind would hold sway for a time – angry at others for that which had been taken from me, mystified by the unfairness of it all, regretful and self-recriminating for my having missed so many opportunities, aching with sadness for that which was lost, and jealous that others seemed to hold on to it so easily. It was at times such as those that I would try to bring into my awareness those touchstone moments of peak experience past. Yes, those emotions rooted in small-self views were real, but they weren’t ultimate reality. The pain of my grief was real, but it wasn’t all that I was. There was much, much more. I was much, much more. There was joy all around me – lovers strolling, families playing, dogs romping, trees swaying, sunlight glistening… Yes, everything is still okay. Everything is still perfect just as it is. Just sit with it for a while until you begin to resonate with it once again – like a bell. Can you feel the vibrations beginning to hum within your heart? Yes.



Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011,


Image Credits

Temple Bell at Toshogu:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Tomwsulcer:

Children of Nivali by Stig Nygaard:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

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