Giving yourself permission to rejoice in what’s good…

In the Discovering Buddhism (FPMT) program it’s often repeated that we should regret our bad actions, words and thoughts, but that we can also rejoice in what’s good.

Rejoicing is not a part of our Western Culture, especially Dutch culture. The Dutch are very good at complaining, my mom even suspects that this is one of the reasons why the Dutch are so happy: they get the negative out of their system.

However that may be, it is a bit weird that it’s so easier to focus on what’s bad, than on what’s good. I’m sure that’s partly because the good doesn’t need fixing, so why spend energy on it?

On the other hand: one sure way of ruining relationships is to focus only on the bad. A naughty child will usually do a chore as well as a ‘good’ child and in being productive they will feel good about themselves and behave (usually only a bit) better in class. A child that thinks that it can only do things wrong will never try and rectify the situation or try and please the teacher or parent.

From a karmic perspective rejoicing really is the opposite of miserliness. If we’re able to rejoice in the good that someone like Oprah Winfrey does, we won’t have as much energy left over to envy her. It’s pretty obvious that it’s a better use of our energy to do the first than the second.

In fact, rejoicing is said to be the lazy man’s route to good karma: you don’t have to meditate all day to get merit, you can just rejoice in someone else’s meditation practice. You don’t have to give to charity yourself, you can just rejoice in how well other people are doing.

You’ll find though that this is not easy: rejoicing in something someone else is doing well that you might have done is very hard. Instead you’ll find yourself resenting that person, which is your psychological defense mechanism against feeling guilty that you’re NOT doing that.

In that sense it’s much easier to just rejoice in Oprah’s good works and good intentions: she does things with her money most of us simply aren’t able to do. We don’t have her wealth, nor her connections, so we don’t have to feel guilty for not joining in.

Still, even in that case it’s apparently not self-evident that we rejoice. When I was in the Chicago area a few years ago I was told that in fact many people did NOT like Oprah or admire her. Perhaps it had something to do with people realizing the folly of making a show like hers: I met some people who knew people who’d been on it. They’d shared just how puffed up everything was, how they’d been forced to tell their story in a way that was out of proportion to how it really was.

Partly that’s simply how the media work: they tell a story and when any of us make the headlines we become part of the story they wish to tell. It’s only the really PR savvy celebrity who manages to make sure the media tell those aspects of the story that they WANT to have told. And even in that case it’s about making sure it’s a story that the media CAN tell their audience. I think the Dalai Lama succeeds pretty well at that, for instance.

Let us rejoice at that!

Similarly in Tibetan Buddhism we have permission to rejoice in the things we do well. Did you just give some money to charity? Good – rejoice! You don’t have to be proud, you don’t have to puff yourself up thinking you’re so great, but you don’t have to pull yourself down either. Just rejoice in having done something positive.

Though this post is not written on Christmas Day I’m publishing it on that day, for the few of you who aren’t spending this day with family.

Perhaps because it is Christmas Day we can share things we rejoice at. It can be personal things, or people we admire, or things in our lives we’re thankful for…

9 thoughts on “Giving yourself permission to rejoice in what’s good…”

  1. Envy doesn’t sit well at all, but it can be very annoying to watch someone else succeed where you have tried and yet not succeeded. In those moments, I imagine it is more of a commingling of celebrating and envying. Eating your own disappointment can be a very disagreeable meal, so you are probably better off going into an acceptance mode which can free you up to celebrate.

  2. I find that when I see others doing well, be it success at school, a project, or an important discovery, it makes me feel good. Partly because their contribution will help others and as a precedent – if they can do it so can I.

    Recently I found that what I thought was my idea was actually proposed many years ago and several versions of the idea exist, though it isn’t yet realized. I was a bit disappointed I wasn’t the first, but I was on the right track, and great minds think alike. It gave me hope that other people are smart and we can eventually solve great problems together.

  3. Rejoicing in another’s meditation practice or their charitable giving is like getting a whiff of the fine cuisine that someone else will be tasting; there is no comparison to the real thing.

    There is no personal benefit, aside from positive good feelings, from rejoicing in the someone else’s meditation practice. One would be slighting oneself not to reap all the benefits of the practice of meditation for oneself.

    Likewise, there is more joy for the giver who donates than there is for someone who feels good about the fact that another person donated. Vicarious joy, like vicarious living, is no where near equal to personal joy in one’s own life.

    1. In the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism the good karma of rejoicing in someone else’s success or practice is actually thought to be quite large – not, as you rightly suggest – as a replacement of meditation, of course. However, it CAN help purify your karma apparently, which in turn makes your own meditation practice more fruitful.

      In Buddhism meditation is only one aspect of a path that includes gathering merit (good karma), purifying the bad karma of the past as well as preparing for deeper practices (usually tantra) in future. Rejoicing in the good others do is part of the gathering of merit as well as purifying our own past neglects and evils.

  4. Hi Katrinka, I just serendipitously discovered your blog a couple days ago and love what you write.

    However, in reading this post, I cringed when I read this sentence: “it’s often repeated that we should regret our bad actions, words and thoughts, but that we can also rejoice in what’s good”.

    I am no organized Buddhist or anything else…am too busy recovering from a strict Irish Catholic upbringing to get on that ship right now…Well, thats a bit of an exaggeration…by grace, drugs, and self-love and forgiveness at different times in life, I have moved beyond the torment of most of my past.

    And I am a fellow-traveler Buddhist…kind of a Zorba Buddhist (thanks for that term, Osho).

    But back to the sentence that troubles me. I see no value in spending an iota of time in regret. My personal path has shown me that acceptance of everything, yes, everything, is the better path.

    In the process, I find certain actions which don’t give me the peace and joy that I want will naturally fall away. Excessive drug and sex indulgences which I thought were giving me peace and joy have shown themselves to be less fulfilling than I thought.

    But I see no value in regretting their use. It was my path (which I chose) and they brought me to the moment of peace and joy I feel today. And the peace and joy I share as I walk through life.

    Osho believed we should never repress, belittle ourselves or regret any actions or indulgences. But he also said that if these things don’t kill us, they will usually, in time, reveal themselves to be only temporary or artificial stimulants….and we will eventually recognize that and make other decisions.

    I have found this to be true in my life….Just my thoughts…and thanks again for your beautiful blog…I’ll be coming back.


    1. I get what you’re saying. My path has been full of ups and downs as well. I agree that on the whole there is no use spending too much energy regretting mistakes. However, those mistakes that had a powerful impact on other people are the ones where I do think it’s necessary to regret. Not as in dwelling on it, but as in fully facing up to the responsibility of having made that mistake and promising yourself not to repeat it.

      It’s no use, for instance, regretting the fact that I never got a masters in Chemistry, as was the plan at one point. However, I certainly do regret harsh words that hurt my parents, for instance. I am glad to have changed that pattern. That’s where the balance between regret and rejoicing comes in, I think.

      In your case: regretting actions done under the influence of drugs can be balanced by rejoicing at having been clean for however long it’s been. The drug use itself can be regretted as time you did not spend fully awake to life as it is. I do think I would regret that, personally. I don’t see that as belittling yourself, but as taking full responsibility for all the consequences of your actions on yourself and others.

      I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary to meditate on those mistakes again and again, though perhaps some of my teachers WOULD recommend that. I’m not sure, I’ve not been in this tradition long enough to be able to tell.

      Personally I think it’s a fine balance between fully working through an issue and dwelling on it too much. Only you can tell what issues in your life are most urgent for you to focus on improving, cleaning up and working through.

      And of course, if you don’t want to clean up your life, that’s your prerogative as well. Do walk Osho’s path, if you insist. Osho never appealed to me, personally, precisely because I do think he ignored issues of responsibility.

      Buddhism is, definitely in the tradition I’m studying, definitely a moralistic religion. Not as in a priest telling you what to do and not do in the name of an all powerful God, but as in teachers reminding us of our best selves and how we can become more like our best selves in daily life: in every moment.

      For us, with a Christian background (whether culturally or actually experienced) it’s easy to interpret the tradition through Christian lenses. The main difference is, I think, that Tibetans (like Catholics, but unlike Protestants in general – and yes, that’s a generalization) seem fully able to enjoy life.

      Did any priest ever tell you that you had permission to enjoy the things you’d done well? That was the main point of this post you know 😉

    2. Btw: one of the results of regretting negative actions, from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, is that the karma of those actions will be less severe in future. I guess that’s back at square one: personal responsibility and karma, with motive right in the middle.

      Regret and rejoicing are like motive turned backwards.

  5. Nice article. I know for me, I work hard to have equanimity. I think the hardest is when someone flatters me. I want to, as you say, puff myself up. Learning to let it flow through me, appreciate it, and let it go is what life is all about!

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