Sympathetic Joy is almost always taught as the ability to be happy for others. This is a small part of it, but this actually only scratches the surface of an incredibly rich and helpful way of opening to the world.
Firstly, we need to distinguish it from compassion.
Compassion is the ability to feel along with others. We usually talk about it in the context of difficult emotions, but this is also true of positive emotions. When something good happens to someone we love, we can feel that happiness along with them. It is an incredibly simple and wholesome way of being with our emotions and other people’s.
Sympathetic Joy has a slightly different flavour and mechanism to it.
Our sympathetic nervous system is our fight and flight nervous system – the part that comes online when we are most separate from the world. When we are in opposition to our experience.
When we feel sympathy for someone, rather than compassion, we retain a sense of separation; we’re sorry that someone feels like that, but we aren’t willing or able to go there with them.
‘Sympathetic’ is pointing to this sense of separation between us and the world. The difference between how we’d like things to be and how they are.
Sympathetic joy is the way that we can find joy in a situation, even when we feel the fundamental pain of separation. Even when we are in a situation where we are in opposition to what is around us – we can find something about the situation that feels joyful.
This could be feeling happy for the other person, but lots of people really struggle with this and there are other versions of this that are more likely to be able to open this up for other people.
Separation can be a great source of pain for us but there are two ways to experience our separateness from the world and differences from the people around us.
One way is to judge everything as better or worse, which will always motivate us to try and be in the better camp and make us feel bad when we are in the worse. The other way is just to experience everything as different, which will motivate us to find joy and opportunity in these differences.
Even when there are explicit ‘winners and losers’, it is possible to find joy for all parties. There are lessons to be learned, jokes to be had, life experiences to be felt, benefits to the system as a whole to be appreciated.
You are taking that gap between how things are and how you want them to be and rather than focusing on how life isn’t exactly as you want it to be, you are using the space to allow for a creative response to arise.
Joy comes from a sense of connection and openness. Sympathetic joy comes from a sense of connection and openness even when we feel disconnected or separate.
We access this by seeing the bigger picture. Rather than being caught up in our own perspectives and our own lives, if we can open up to seeing the entire eco-system, we can see that even when we lose out as individuals, we can still feel a connection with the system as a whole.
This allows us to feel happy to see others succeeding and to laugh at ourselves when we fail. The key is that we’re not laughing at ourselves or others to be cruel – we’re laughing at the situation as a whole. We are connecting in to a sense of something bigger than us. Even though things are hard, we can see the absurdity of life itself and we’re sharing the joke.
With this in mind I’d like to offer up a new script for practicing sympathetic joy…
‘May we all experience enough joy to make the shit-show of living a human life worthwhile’