Compassion and empathetic joy—are expressions of goodwill. Compassion is what goodwill feels when encountering suffering; empathetic joy is what goodwill feels when encountering those who are happy.
We tend to think of these attitudes as being very easy. Of course we feel sorry for people or animals who are suffering. Of course we feel happy when we see other people being happy. But these attitudes are easy only some of the time.
In fact, like goodwill, our human level of compassion and empathetic joy tends to be partial. It’s easy to feel these attitudes around innocent people who we feel are suffering unjustly or around people we think deserve to be happy.
But for compassion and empathetic joy to become true brahmavihāras, you have to be able to feel them in all situations.
When someone who has harmed you or your loved ones and is now being punished for his or her wrongdoing, you still have to feel compassion for that person, even if you feel the punishment is precisely what that person deserves.
When people who are enjoying good fortune abuse that good fortune—say, using their power to create war and mayhem in the world—you can’t wish for them to lose their good fortune. A more skillful attitude would be to wish that they would see the error of their ways and then use their good fortune for greater good.
It’s cases like these that test the discernment and truth of your determination on goodwill: You say you want all beings to be happy, but are you willing to extend the same wish to people like these? Can you see why it’s the wise thing to do? And that it’s good for you?
The best way to strengthen your discernment and truth in developing these two brahmavihāras is to think about the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and rebirth. These teachings provide a context that makes it easier to feel compassion and empathetic joy in difficult situations. They do this by helping you to see why these attitudes are appropriate and actually good for you.
In this way, these two brahmavihāras not only test your discernment, truth, generosity, and calm, but they also make these qualities stronger.”
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Retreats book, Sublime Determinations—A Retreat on the Brahmavihāras, “”Friday — Compassion & Empathetic Joy.”