Envy makes us feel like we’re on the outside looking in, that we don’t belong, that there’s something wrong with us because we don’t have what someone else has. When we notice it, we may feel shame. So we push it away, shove it down and try not to listen when it continues to whisper its ugly messages undeterred.
As we practice cultivating mindfulness, we develop a more compassionate awareness of all that arises in our experience, including unpleasant emotions. We don’t celebrate these emotions or condone the plots they hatch. Instead we acknowledge them, just as a skillful parent acknowledges a ranting child: with kindness but not indulgence.
Developing such a skill is part of our practice. We learn how to hold an arising emotion safely and see what’s really going on. We don’t make an enemy of it, succumb to its lure, buy into its argument or get entangled with it. If we do, we notice that too, and cultivate more spaciousness and compassion.
Envy and all difficult emotions can be useful when we notice them arising. We can see them as an opportunity for investigation into the causes of our own suffering. Noticing them is the first important step. Allowing them to exist without acting upon them, we use own natural compassionate curiosity to discover what’s really going on.
You might think of these tight tangles of emotion (and the oft-unquestioned stories we tell ourselves that support the emotion) as a pile of sea kelp washed up on the beach in a clump. Can our mindfulness be the powerful incoming tide that let’s the tangle loosen?
In this way we can see the individual strands more clearly from all angles. With this kind of awareness practice, over time those thoughts, emotions and inner stories can untangle, drift off, soften, and even sometimes dissolve. This is a great gift of insight meditation practice.
In the last blog post, I talked about compassion, and in previous posts I have talked about infinite loving-kindness. These are part of an inspiring body of teachings called the Four Brahma-viharas. Brahma means expansiveness of spirit and vihara means abode, so we might say they are states where we can dwell in expansive awareness. But they are also practices, in that we can actively cultivate each one: Metta, infinite lovingkindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy; and upekkha, equanimity. For this post, we are focusing on mudita.
Mudita – Sympathetic Joy
Think of someone in your life who is happy. Does their happiness make you happy? If so, you know how delightful mudita is. It activates joy. It’s contagious. It’s life-enhancing.
Most of us feel happy when someone we love is happy, especially a child. Most of us, to one degree or another, are pushovers for happy playful puppies and other animals. Even in a moment of misery, the sight of such innocent joy may give us a moment’s respite and a bit of laughter in the midst of our tears.
But most of us have also experienced the opposite: Someone’s happiness brings up negative emotions for us. Pause for a moment and think of someone in the present or past whose happiness causes or caused you to feel unhappy. If someone comes readily to mind, then consider taking a few minutes to do the following investigative practice. If not, then you might follow along as a way to be prepared for such an experience — no one is immune — and also to cultivate compassion for someone who may find your happiness annoying. 😉
After at least a few minutes of mindfulness practice, bring to mind a person whom you envy. Then ask yourself these questions:
Is that person’s happiness the cause of my unhappiness?
Maybe you can see right away that it isn’t, that it’s just a reminder of what you are lacking. But maybe there is some sense of direct causation that you can explore more fully. If they, for example, got the very job, award, mate, home, etc. that you very much wanted, it might seem reasonable to be upset with them. But unless they stole it from you directly and on purpose to upset you, they are not the direct cause of your feeling of loss. Many factors went into their getting it and your not getting it. If there is anything to learn from an honest assessment of why things happened the way they did, it could be useful information to have for any future endeavor. Given that in most cases, the person we envy is not the direct cause of our unhappiness, then can we be happy for them?
Too soon? Okay, moving right along.
If I am feeling envy, is there anything I can learn from it? Is there useful information here?
Noticing what activates envy can create a road map to show us where we might focus our energies in our lives. Getting out that vision board is a lot more useful than writing poison pen letters in our minds!
The visioning process might include an investigation:
Do I truly want what it is I’m envisioning?
Or do I actually want the qualities it represents: Simplicity? Respect? Self-empowerment? Freedom? Creativity? Sense of purpose? Security? Beauty? Other quality that would bring balance into my life?
If I definitely do want it, what are the steps needed to get there?
Who do I know that knows the way there? (Contact them!)
What skills will I need to learn? (Learn them!)
Unless the vision is made concrete, it’s just a dream to get lost in when the going gets rough, a dream that becomes more unfeasible the more we get entangled in envy.
Am I comparing my insides to the other person’s outsides?
It’s useful to remember that everyone suffers in some way, but we tend to show only our polished surfaces to others. Assuming another person’s life is perfect is a sure path to misery. Assume everyone is carrying a great burden that we can’t see, and we will naturally be kinder, more compassionate and less prone to envy.
Am I assuming material possessions, status and achievement are causes of happiness?
Once basic needs are met (food security, shelter, health care, sense of safety) studies show that increase in wealth does not cause an increase in happiness. In fact, that person may be envying someone with a simpler life, with less stuff to manage. You never know.
Do I believe myself to be an envious person?
Anytime we come upon a destructive emotion, it’s important to remember that it is not who we are. It is just an emotion arising, a common emotion that everyone has experienced at times. This allows us to avoid falling into the pit of shame and self-hatred that makes it impossible to see clearly.
Noticing envy when it arises in our experience can be used as a clue to what we want to cultivate in our lives. We can also see more clearly how, left to their own devices, envy and jealousy erode relationships, causing ever more unhappiness. They can be crippling. They dis-empower us. They blind us to the gifts we have to offer that connect us with the world. Can we step back, broaden our perspective and see all that is arising in this moment? Can we let in the light? Can we let in the joy? Can we let other people’s joy activate our own?
Each of the four brahma-viharas, practiced in order, helps us cultivate the next. As we send infinite loving-kindness — first to ourselves and then out to widening circles, ultimately to all beings — we find it more natural to practice acts of compassion — first to ourselves and then out to widening circles, ultimately to all beings. As our circle grows to include all beings, then their happiness becomes our happiness too!
So begin where you are, begin with yourself, then widen your circle and you will greatly increase your capacity for joy. That’s mudita!
I appreciate your post. I find that as much as I am uncomfortable with feeling envious, I appreciate it because I can learn from it. I feel that envy teaches us what our hearts truly desire (in addition to where we may need to change our perspectives in terms of others).
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