Empathetic Joy for Today’s Times

News headlines of late do actually contain good news, but the balance is certainly heavily tilted towards one devastating or at least discouraging event after another. We tend to be drawn in by these reports, and can easily be under the delusion that they represent an accurate account of what goes on in the world. In truth, they represent a small portion of the daily events, activities and interactions between individuals and groups throughout the world. This is not to minimize the harm that does take place or avoid in any way dealing with it. But to succumb to the delusion that this is a full picture of humanity today or to be drawn in by their seductive messages can lead many of us to a place that fosters both thoughts and emotions that are neither healthy nor beneficial. For every account in the news of a business scandal, how many businesses are involved in truly working to make the world a better place, serve their customers with honesty and conduct their business dealings with virtue? For every account of child abuse, how many parents and adults every day show children generous kindness and heartfelt support for their well-being and growth? To be able see and remember and even rejoice in the goodness found in our world is an essential part of living mindfully. As William James said so astutely, “Our view of the world is truly shaped by what we decide to hear.” Or as others have said, what we attend to becomes your reality.

We all experience thoughts and mental and emotional states like an ongoing flow of water in a river throughout our day. Much if not most of these arise unintentionally, and occur out of habit and conditioning and in response to our environment, seen clearly or with delusion. As John Bruna writes in his book “The Wisdom of a Meaningful Life: The Essence of Mindfulness,” “the good news is that we can change our conditioning. We can develop and strengthen the mental and emotional states we find beneficial. There are specific mental states that are extremely healthy and are direct antidotes to harmful ones. They include: equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and empathetic joy. In Buddhism these healthy states are referred to as the four immeasurable attitudes.”

Choosing, with wisdom and intention, to cultivate these attitudes supports us in watering healthy thoughts and emotions, leaving much less room for harmful or unhealthy ones. As in your garden, when the lettuce and carrots are thriving, the weeds are not able to take hold as easily. When we tend to the vegetables, fertilizing and watering them, we have less need to fuss with the weeds.  

Empathetic joy is the attitude of rejoicing in the virtuous activities and rewards of others. When we are able to first mindfully notice the kindnesses going on around us, the care of parents for their children, the virtuous actions of businesses, the wonderful successes of groups creating positive changes in our community, country or internationally, we take the first step. When we rejoice with appreciation, whether quiet and inward or by offering gratitude or sharing the good news, we water the seeds of empathetic joy. Practicing this daily, noting the good, the kind, the virtuous and generous, we create the habit of seeing more clearly and rejoicing more often. When others do well, and do good, we all benefit. The more love, kindness, compassion and joy there is in others, the better off we all are. The emphasis here is virtuous, not just hollow success or worldly activities. Empathetic joy is the antidote to jealousy and envy, but also serves to counter the hopelessness, the gloom, the weight of seeing the world only through skewed headlines. Discernment is key, as empathetic joy can be misconstrued as advice to put on rose colored glasses. The illusory facsimile of empathetic joy is the Pollyanna syndrome, a superficial kind of positive thinking that is not discerning. Empathetic joy helps us recognize and rejoice in those things that are truly beneficial, and the practice of empathetic joy starts with seeing the good in our world.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Henry David Thoreau

Taking Action, Practicing Change

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

At times, we can find ourselves absorbed in thinking about making change in our lives. This can be particularly true at certain times such as the new year or a significant birthday. Events such as a sudden loss or news can also cause us to consider change. We may be influenced by a book or article, seeing an inspiring example in another, or just by hearing a good idea. However, how many times in our lives have we set good intentions and not been able to follow through, or had great epiphanies and decided to implement them in our lives only to see them fall to the wayside? There is an old piece of wisdom that says that you cannot think yourself into right living, but you can live yourself into right thinking. Living mindfully, we learn to live with attention and intention, guided by our values, and develop the ability to consciously bring awareness into our daily activities. As we do this, we also become aware of habits, tendencies and beliefs within ourselves that prevent us from doing so. This is the beginning of true wisdom, identifying within ourselves that which prevents us from being who we really want to be. What are the habits, tendencies and misperceptions that, in the guise of finding pleasure and acceptance, actually bring about suffering and isolation? The only way to remove these is to recognize and understand them. In order to recognize and understand them, we need to be conscious of how they arise and prevent us from living the life we find valuable and meaningful. By practicing intentional living through transformative action, we can discover some of the habits and tendencies that support us as well as the ones that hinder us.

One of the most fascinating aspects of life is the difficulty that most of us have actually putting into action the things we know will improve our lives. All of us are capable of taking a little time and identifying habits, tendencies, and attitudes that we know would significantly improve our lives. Yet, even after identifying them, we are frequently unable to integrate them into our lives. I’m sure we have all had this experience. We may start off with the best of intentions and be highly motivated, only to find that we gradually fall back into our old patterns. Of course, there are also many things that we know would be beneficial in our lives that we don’t even attempt to implement. We tell ourselves that when our lives are less busy, then we will find some balance and take up those healthy activities. We also, upon reflection, may find that we are able to give wonderful advice to others that we ourselves are unable to take. In all such cases, the essential question is, why do we resist the very things we know will improve our lives?

When we look deeply, we will find different reasons for the resistance that arises in us when we try to adopt healthier habits and activities into our lives. Across the board though, one of the most common reasons is that we simply don’t take the time to reflect upon how beneficial they would be for our lives and notice how many of our old habits prevent us from fully engaging in our lives. Our lives can be busy and full without much time built in for reflection and wise intentional living. Unless we consciously make the time to observe and evaluate our habitual patterns and tendencies, it will be very difficult to let go of the ones that no longer serve us and adopt new ones that will help us cultivate our highest potentials. If we do take some time and identify the ideals we would like our lives to embody, the quote from Gandhi reminds us that it is critical to try to put them into practice, even if only small bits of the time. Talking about change in our lives doesn’t change our lives. Deep, interesting philosophical conversations do not change our lives. We can only make the changes we find meaningful in our lives through action. Imagine how much better our lives would be if we only practiced what we preached.

We invite you to put into practice something that you feel will be beneficial in your life. Whether it’s a habit, an attitude, an ideal, or some good advice you give frequently, it doesn’t matter. Pick something meaningful and each day do your best to put it into practice.



Five Tools for Living Mindfully – John Bruna

“Our habitual patterns are, of course, well established, seductive, and comforting. Just wishing for them to be ventilated isn’t enough. Mindfulness and awareness are key. Do we see the stories that we’re telling ourselves and question their validity? When we are distracted by a strong emotion, do we remember that it is part of our path? Can we feel the emotion and breathe it into our hearts for ourselves and everyone else? If we can remember to experiment like this even occasionally, we are training as a warrior. And when we can’t practice when distracted but know that we can’t, we are still training well. Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what’s going on.” – Pema Chodron

“Change only takes place through action, not through meditation and prayer alone.” -14th Dalai Lama

It is inspiring to know that by living mindfully we can make the changes in our lives that allow us to engage in our lives more skillfully, with wisdom and purpose, eliminating unhealthy habits and tendencies that prevent us from being fully present and attentive in our lives. However, it is also important to remember that these changes take time and require a steady, consistent practice of living mindfully.

While it is critical to develop a meditation practice to develop our attention and mindfulness, our practice will be limited if we leave it on our meditation cushion when we start our day. Meditation is but one aspect of mindfulness, one method to help us cultivate it. Mindfulness is much more than present moment awareness as mindfulness includes and facilitates the cultivation of concentration, wisdom, and the ability to make healthy choices that foster genuine happiness and a meaningful life. 

Drawing from my book, The Wisdom of a Meaningful Life, these five tools can help you become successful in developing a consistent practice throughout your day to complement your meditation. You will find that each on its own is beneficial. Together, they are transformative. Developing and strengthening these tools in your life will significantly increase your ability to establish and sustain a mindful, and in turn, meaningful life.

Resolve: Develop a firm resolution to live a meaningful life. This is done by continually calling to mind the incredible opportunities and resources you have and remembering that you won’t have them forever. Your life, like all things, is impermanent. This day is truly precious for it will never come again. Every day brings you opportunity and brings you closer to your inevitable death. Remembering this, resolve to live each day with attention and intention, for it will never come again. You are worth it. Don’t allow another day, yet alone another year, go by without resolving to do your best to become the person you want to be.

Habit: Develop supportive rituals and routines. What we water grows. Whatever we do consistently becomes easier and more natural to us. You can develop healthy habits that support and sustain the life you want. This does not happen quickly, as our old habits are often well entrenched. We need to make a conscious effort to create and sustain new habits. Over time, with sustained effort, they can become as effortless as the habits we already have. Creating the habit of a structured daily meditation and mindfulness practice will truly transform your life.

Develop Positive Potentials: Learn how to transform every event and interaction in your life into a cause for genuine happiness. Every moment of our lives, especially the difficult ones, are meaningful, offering us the opportunity to grow, learn, and develop our highest potentials. In all things that happen, we can continually ask this most important question: What is the most beneficial thing I can do? How can I respond in a way that is in alignment with my values and serves the greater good? Whether you break your leg, win an award, get married, get a flat tire, have a flight delay, or lose a dear friend, you have the opportunity to cultivate happiness.

Selflessness: Abandon the misperception of being the center of the universe. In truth, we are but one among many trying to find their way and have some happiness. Let go of the persistent delusion that you are an independent being and that the world should bend to our will. In fact, let go of the myth that your life would be wonderful if it did. Remember that your genuine happiness comes from how you live your life and that all life, including yours, is interdependent. Everything we have, know, and are able to do is dependent on others, as are all of the causes and conditions that gave rise to the life we have. Also remember that, however you perceive yourself, you are changing all the time. You can continually grow and cultivate the qualities in your life that you find beneficial and meaningful.

Meaningful Attitudes: Consciously cultivate your values, motivation, and beneficial mental states such as the four immeasurable attitudes. Instead of allowing your mind to unconsciously drag you from one thought to another, consciously bring to mind the person you want to be and the life you want to live. Set reminders around the house and at work to help you. Engage in meditations and envision aspirations that you find meaningful and that help you bring your mind to healthy and altruistic states. When your mind is on virtuous thoughts, it is not on unhealthy ones such as anger, resentments, worries, or jealousy. By continuously bringing your mind to such meaningful attitudes, you develop them and they eventually become present on their own.

I hope that you find these tools helpful and are able to integrate them, either individually or together, in part or in whole, into your mindfulness practice. I have found them to be essential and empowering in my personal practice.

Healthy Relationships- Bringing Mindfulness to Others

One of the biggest values of a daily mindfulness practice is the ability to remember what’s important to you, what gives life meaning, and stay focused on that. It’s the same when we apply mindfulness to our relationships and interactions with others. Asking what’s important to you, and how do you want to show up each day with others you come in contact with is key. We seek to have healthy relationships and want to have healthy responses to events and experiences in life, though we often either notice we’re not quite who we’d like with others, or we may outright struggle with certain relationships in our life. How many of us have found ourselves reacting in a way we instantly regret, notice we’ve developed a habit of responding to someone in our life with a subtly unhealthy attitude, or perhaps we find that we barely acknowledged the cashier, the waiter, or the bus driver and wish we had?

When we are mindful, we are able to bear in mind, even in a momentary interaction, what we value and how we’d like to show up, so that we can respond in healthier ways. Bringing to mind our values, developing our attentional skills so we can attend to all of our relationships and interactions, being able to choose to respond rather than react when we are triggered, being able to see how we mislabel, use projection and exaggeration and otherwise misperceive reality, and cultivating an open heart, so that we can extend ourselves, our kindness and compassion, to all that we come into contact with, these are skills we can develop and nurture with a mindfulness practice.

In our Mindful Life Program Foundations course, we bring a strong emphasis to the four keys of mindfulness – attention, values, wisdom and practices of an open heart, and how they relate to having healthy relationships. Developing these areas, participants find that they are able to be more mindful in their relationship with themselves. This in turn, allows them to turn their attention and intentions more clearly towards relationships with family, friends and coworkers, and extend it to those they meet and interact with. We look at ways we can respond that are aligned with our values, that are meaningful to us, and we feel good about in the moment and afterwards, and how we get caught in reacting in ways that we don’t feel good about.

During the course, we spend time identifying and exploring some of the unhealthy habits we can fall into in relating to others and their causes. Through journaling and small group discussions, participants have a chance to look at how some of these ways of relating have affected friendships in their lives. Bringing wisdom from ancient traditions and western psychology, we investigate, for example, how our misperceptions, expectations and attachments, and our emotional triggers affect our interactions with others. It is so easy to get attached to another’s behavior being a certain way, or expecting one’s actions to cause a certain outcome in others, and suffer as a result. Our misperception in such an instance is one of the reasons we may end up having a regrettable emotional event! Having clarity about unrealistic expectations and attachments to an outcome can reduce much stress in our lives and interactions. As we develop our ability to have attention and presence of mind, we are much more able to bring this wisdom into our days. More obvious unhealthy behaviors such as criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are highlighted in one of the videos used in the course, and illuminate these as red flags in any relationship.

What we easily conclude, and investigate more deeply, is that how we respond in any interaction has an impact on others. Whether it is smiling at the cashier, genuinely thanking a coworker, or how we respond in a more intimate relationship such as in marriage or parenting, our words and actions have an impact. One kind gesture may save someone from despair, or at least lighten his or her day. Attending to a conversation with a child, or with a spouse, allows them to feel cared for and heard. Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy.” Alternately, our behavior can be harmful. For example, studies have shown that contempt, that behavior showing disapproval tinged with disgust, done from a place of superiority, over a period of time in a relationship, can have an impact on the recipients’ immune system for up to four years and impact the number of infectious diseases they have. Also, research has shown that how parents argue in the third trimester has a measurable impact on the baby’s neurological system in the first three years of life.

As we identify our real values, our desire to act with more kindness, more compassion, more attention, we ask, how can we create healthier relationships? While improving relationships is obviously an extensive topic, bringing the tools of mindfulness with a focus on the four keys areas of mindfulness help get to the core of improving our relationships. Starting with cultivating our attention, our ability to attend closely to those around us, we bring care and concern to others. John Bruna has pointed out that, “Truly listening, attentively, and with care, is one simplest and most kind gifts we can give anyone.” Through attending to the moment, ourselves and others, we are more present and aware. By creating more awareness, we create more choice in how we respond, rather than unconsciously reacting. Viktor Frankl’s quote illustrates this well. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As we move into looking at our deepest values, cultivating wisdom, and planting the seeds of an open heart, we find our relationships improving day by day.

The Habit of Attention

Last evening I caught up with one of my dear friends, Gary. In the course of our conversation he told me about an eight week mindfulness program he is undertaking at work. He proudly told me he was up to week three. Gary told me that so far it was OK, but he was longing for some practical application of this mindfulness stuff. “Just show me how to use it”, he said. I responded to him by quoting the famous line from the Karate Kid film- “patience, grasshopper”.

This conversation sparked me to sit down and pen this article. I could hear the impatience in Gary’s tone. I suspected, as a mindfulness teacher, I could do more to help guide my students in the practice.

For many people, just noticing whether they are present, fully attentive, to what they are doing can be a challenge. Why is this a challenge for some many? The way we currently understand how our perceptual and sensory systems creates our reality is by taking a series of sensory snapshots of our environment and constructing our reality of experience. These snapshots are not necessarily how the environment is, but more about how we see it and experience it. Snapshots are necessary, as we could not take in every detailed aspect of our environment in every moment.

Interestingly, the way we take snapshots and make representations of how our environment becomes habitualized over time. With this habit comes speed of observation, understanding and in some cases – an action or response. It also allows us to skim over the details of things that are familiar to us. Through this process our brains create faster, more automated and responsive neural networks. “Neurons that fire together- wire together”. Hence, whatever we regularly practice, whether it is intended or unintended, becomes our habit. What marvelous adaptive perceptual/sensory systems we have! Evolution has clearly set us up to adapt to many varying environments and situations.

When things change in our world, sometimes our minds still feel as though things shouldn’t or haven’t changed. An example of this is the feeling of unreality you can get when someone close to you dies or when the road intersection traffic light sequence changes for the first time in 10 years. We have difficulty accepting and managing the change. We expect things to be as they were. It’s like our attention has been captured in someway.

A way of describing our attention is like a torch or flashlight for those in the US. It shines a beam of attention on objects in our life. Like a torch, we can switch our attention “ON” and we can switch it “OFF”. We can FOCUS it on one object or we can focus it on many different objects in a short period of time. We can change the DIRECTION of our attention and even vary the INTENSITY of it. Often we focus our attention on objects outside of ourselves. As human beings we also have the capacity to focus our attention in TIME -in the PAST, in the PRESENT and in the unrealized FUTURE.

So, Attention= ON/OFF, FOCUS, INTENSITY, DIRECTION, PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE. How many of these do you use on a daily basis and which ones do you have active conscious control over? If I had a magic attention tracking machine and attached it to you- what would I see about your day to day attentional practices?

Is your attention captured by worries or concerns? Are you able to focus your attention on an object and hold it there without your attention wandering off? How frequently is your attention distracted by technologies, the environment, people or random thoughts that come up? How scattered is your attention when you multi-task or juggle tasks? How busy are you? Do you find yourself often rushing and getting stressed? Does your attention get regularly hijacked by your emotions?

The problem of all of these considerations above is that they regularly occur in our lives. Yet we are unaware of the repetitive impact they are having on our awareness, our attention, our intentions and our actions in the world. They contribute to wiring our brains to become more mindless. Even when we stop and rest, our minds are still thinking, planning, worrying, jumping from the past to the future without our conscious direction. We can even have difficulty switching our light of attention OFF- even when tired and trying to sleep.

You can only imagine what the impact of these attentional afflictions have on how we experience our life- moment to precious moment. In the words of William James, founder of modern psychology, “what we attend to becomes our reality”. This attentional affliction does not allow us to focus on the ingredients of our lives that genuinely make us happy.

This is the “WHY” in practicing mindfulness. John Bruna defines mindfulness as, literally, “presence of mind”. In other words, it is the ability to maintain a level of awareness of what is happening within us and around us without elaboration. The practice of mindfulness is much more than present moment awareness, it includes and facilitates the cultivation of concentration, wisdom and the ability to make healthy choices that foster genuine happiness and a meaningful life.” You can notice from this definition the focus of awareness of what is happening to us and around us in our lives.

To assist us all in this mindful awareness, we have developed an online community of practice called “The Mindful Life Community”. This community provides a practice community in the application and practice of the four foundations, or keys, of mindfulness.
In the Mindful Life Community, we undertake a daily attentional and intentional practice based on the four foundations of mindfulness – Attention, Wisdom, Values and an Open heart. One way members of the community receive support in this practice is by a daily mindfulness support email. In each daily email, they are invited to focus and reflect on one of the four foundations of mindfulness, reflect on how this relates to their life and how they could incorporate mindfulness practice into their day. This is supported by a daily activity and a weekly exercise that community members can use to build their mindfulness every single day.
If you haven’t joined the Mindful Life Community, I would encourage you to do so. It’s a great way to gain support in becoming more mindful in your life. You also might gain better control of your attention ——-ON, FOCUSED, BRIGHT, PRESENT.

-Mark Molony