Compersion, a word invented fewer than fifty years ago by a polyamorous community in San Francisco, has found its way into mainstream media. It is possible to believe that this rapid adoption, as with any neologism, has something to do with the ability of the word to tap into a fundamentally human experience — our capacity to resonate with others’ joy. Indeed, before compersion there was mudita.
So long as you were attuned to what he wanted to share. So long as it was his choice to share what he shared about his life.
I don’t remember the teacher’s name, now, several years later, a Western white man with a lifetime of experience in Buddhist practice, but I did appreciate his point and it stayed with me. The teacher was helping a Zen Hospice Project volunteer caregiver learn to be deeply with someone who was dying, to listen softly, wholly to a man’s expressions about the meaning of his life. The teacher was encouraging the volunteer above all to be guided by this man’s agency and choice. It was an important lesson. He was calling us all home to mindfulness. Mindfulness of another’s beingness, of another’s total experience, and of the whole context facing this man — a uniquely self-sovereign transition — in his present life path.
We were in the room of an old and airy house with high ceilings and about thirty volunteers, staff, and other attendees interested in learning more about the world and the wisdom and the grace of zen hospice work. I came with a friend who was a regular volunteer. I came because she invited me to visit this place where she volunteered and in that way know her more deeply, and I came because the discussion topic sounded interesting to me. But I was surprised when I found a familiar part of myself there.
That part of me showed up right before the teacher reassured this volunteer that attuning to the resident’s choice was core to her volunteer work. Right before that my eyes lit up listening to the volunteer share her story.
So I have been visiting with a resident regularly for a few weeks now, and listening to and being present with him. And every time we meet he tells me stories about his life. He has these wild fabulous and sometimes hard stories. He has done so much with his life. And the way he tells his stories. Well. It’s like the room turns into a movie set and I can see the whole thing going on like a beautiful film. And he laughs and he sighs and then wags his head low and sometimes he cries. And then he lifts his head up and laughs again. And all the while I know he’s dying.
The whole room was tuned in to her story about this dying man with the many stories.
He knows he’s dying, too.
And I just wonder if I’m doing it wrong.
She paused again.
I wonder if it’s ok to be laughing so much with him, to be enjoying him so much.
And that’s when I lit up. Sitting there on my pillow, my whole body rose up a bit and my shoulders rolled back.
These years later, I still appreciate the teacher’s response. It certainly mattered that this dying man make his own choices about how to spend his final days.
And yet I noticed something that the teacher seemed to miss. The volunteer caregiver appeared to me to be particularly concerned with the question of whether it was appropriate for her to feel enjoyment — to laugh and feel joy when she visited with this resident.
In that moment, my head was abuzz, wondering how joy was important for this man, how his stories brought him joy, again, how his whole life was a mix of great joy and sorrow, and how important it was for him to be with all of himself at the end. And I recognized this volunteer’s natural gift. To me it seemed a great power of hers to be able to follow both his joy and his sorrow. She did not stop his laughter, did not turn a stern or baleful face toward him, overly burdened by her own sorrow for his current circumstance. She joined with him, fully. She laughed with him when he needed to laugh.
This is mudita. One of the four Brahma-viharas, or “sublime states,” mudita is an other-oriented joy, a joy that wells up and resonates with another’s joy when witnessing their good fortune. There are yet other names for this human process . . . firgun, symhedonia, and celebratory love.
The volunteer was witnessing the man’s good fortune, the richness of a life well lived and well enjoyed, even in the end. She was resonating with parts of him that were deep and meaningful to him, with his ease and flow and laughter.
I wanted to speak out and tell her that what she was doing was not just attuning to him and his choice, but was affirming him in a way that so often in challenging times can get overlooked — the part of him that could still feel joy and still needed to feel his joy.
I wanted to speak out, but I was listening to the teacher say many wise things about choice and the depth of listening to residents’ agency, things that volunteers needed to hear and to bring to bear in their work. I listened until the time was up. We all got up and quietly smiled around to each other. I was grateful for what I had learned.
And as I left that beautiful old Victorian house with my friend, I was thinking deeply about choice. I was thinking deeply about that volunteer making contact with that man through the startling energy of pure joy. And I was thinking deeply about how to choose to bring more attention in my own life — and in my work as a counselor and psychotherapist supporting others — to the rightness of joy resonance.
This blog post is part of a series, Exploring Joy Resonance in Psychotherapy Practice. What happens when a psychotherapist makes a conscious decision to include and attend to "the joy in the room”? What Barbara Fredrickson calls “celebratory love” is a personal and professional aspect of any psychotherapy with process outcomes, consultation considerations, and ethical imperatives. Through each anecdotal process encounter, the author’s writing journey reveals greater understanding of joy resonance in psychotherapy practice than can be attained by an analytical discourse alone.
Artwork by Anna D. Hirsch.