Scientific studies have come out in the last ten years that show we form strong opinions about people in milliseconds. These opinions are very difficult to change and sometimes wrong. We have all had the experience of not liking someone until we got to know them better. Yet we make lots of decisions based on this primal, habitual brain function. This kind of process of judgment is coloring our view, preventing us from experiencing the world authentically. But the good news is that we can learn to relax this habit of making quick judgments through cultivating loving-kindness and compassion during meditation, as well as learning to celebrate the good fortune of others.
I was asked to give meditation classes in a minimum-security prison in California. One of the guys in class who was most enthusiastic about the subject was also quite a character. For this story I’ll call him Bill.
Bill was a fisherman who found he could make a lot more money smuggling weed from Thailand than by fishing. When he started out, he was a peace-and-love guy, but as the smuggling became more and more successful he started becoming quite paranoid and reckless, and he also started carrying guns. Now, though, he felt that prison likely saved him from a much worse fate. Nevertheless, as you might imagine, a few pesky thoughts still gnawed at Bill.
When we did the Experiencing and Sharing Joy practice together with the group of inmates who were attending the class, Bill was all-in. That is, until we got to the sharing with enemies part. He really lost it. He got over-the-top upset, and we had to stop the practice. It turns out that while Bill was taking a six-year timeout, his former partner, who ratted on him, was sitting on the French Riviera with several million of Bill’s bills. “How can I invite him into my field of joy!” shouted Bill.
Many of those in the class were sharing cells, and they hung out a lot together and knew each other’s stories quite well. One of them asked Bill if he was happy when he had all that money. Bill shot back, “You know I wasn’t. I was walking around with a gun worried all the time that someone was out to get me.”
Another inmate dared to suggest that Bill’s partner took the money in order to be happy. He went on to point out that when Bill had the money it didn’t make him happy. The other guys piled on, teasing and laughing at Bill, “He took the money to be happy, yet he was looking in the wrong place for happiness.” Bill tried gamely to suggest that it’s better to have the money than not, but you could already see he was losing steam. Another guy yelled, “Just remember how bad you felt when you had all that money. Why are you still dwelling on that stuff, man?” It might be hard to understand how the brutality of prison humor helps anyone shake something like that off, but on that day I witnessed it.
It wasn’t that Bill just dropped it then and there completely. But he did start laughing a bit with all the teasing going on. He later said it was the first time in six years he could begin to start letting go of his anger and hurt. He kept trying to share joy with his former business partner who ratted him out. And he eventually found a way out of the psychological prison he had put himself in.
Excerpt from Radically Happy: A User's Guide to the Mind Copyright 2018 Shambhala Publications
How to do the "Sharing Happiness and Joy" exercise
• Begin by creating space.
• After a few minutes, recall a time when you were a child (or later if need be) when you felt truly carefree and happy. Remember everything about this time: where you were, the room you were in, or, if it was outside, the details of the setting. Recall any distinctive sights, sounds, or smells. But most of all remember how it felt to be so carefree and full of joy. Really get into it; make it as vivid as possible.
• Feel your heart open. Then consider that any tension in your body subsides and you allow yourself to fully reexperience this carefree joy from years ago.
• Imagine the joy is also manifesting as a soft light that surrounds you. Rest in the sensation of the soft light of delight for a time.
• Now imagine that the person you feel closest to is right in front of you. Share this feeling of carefree happiness with her. Invite her to share this feeling of joy that you experienced before and are re-experiencing again. Allow the soft light of happiness to wash over her, completely. As the delightful feeling of carefree joy opens her heart, all the tension and pain in her body is dissolved and she relaxes. Her face breaks into a sweet simple smile as she enjoys this carefree feeling. Rest together with her in this vivid state of joy, bathed in soft light, for a little while.
• Next, imagine a few people who are extremely close to you appearing in front of you. As before, share this feeling of happiness and wellbeing that you experienced before and are experiencing again right now. Watch as the soft light of happiness enters their body, and all the tension and pain is released. As they relax, a gentle grin alights on each of their faces. Rest together with your closest loved ones, all enjoying this joyful feeling. Imagine a gentle orb of light envelops you all.
• You can expand this field of joy even further. Imagine inviting a group of people you really like. Maybe they are colleagues at work or from your social network. Share the light of happiness as before. Invite them to experience the same joy you are experiencing. Let it dissolve all the tension and pain. And then rest with them.
• Now recall a person you saw on the street or the person you get a coffee from in the morning, or anyone you don’t know well, at all, or else feel neutral about. Invite as many neutral people as you can think of into the orb of light. Their bodies relax as any tension or pain is released, and they smile.
• After doing that for a time, try including people who annoy you. Invite them into your field of joy. Allow the gentle orb of light to wash over them and relieve them of their tension and pain. Watch as they relax and grin with delight. Laugh with them. Welcome them and share the incredible gift of carefree happiness. In this state, there is no annoyance, no judging, no problems of any kind—just the soft, gentle light of delight filled with all your friends and acquaintances and maybe even a few people who generally annoy you.
• After you become used to sharing with people who annoy you, try inviting into the circle people who have done you real harm, your enemies. Or it could be really bad people you learn about on the news. But no matter how bad they are, invite them in. Share as you did before. Allow the light of delight to heal them and grin together with all of them. Then rest in the soft light of carefree joy.
Sharing joy with enemies can be very challenging, and it takes practice. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly or beating yourself up if a bunch of turbulent emotions arise. Be gentle and patient with yourself. Eventually, you will be able to invite the entire world into your field of joy. And as you do so, you will relax the judging even more.