Category Archives: envy

Envy can be a useful clarifying tool

envyEnvy 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. 😉

EXERCISE
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!

Mudita – The Antidote to Envy

So there you are, walking down the street and you see a toddler splashing joyfully in a puddle or pointing to a ‘boid’ with delight, and your own mood lifts. Your heart lightens. You are reminded of the beauty and wonder of life. That is mudita, sympathetic joy, the third of the Four Brahma Viharas. But maybe joy isn’t what you experience at all. Perhaps you don’t even notice the child because you are so caught up in ‘thinking, thinking’ that you are not present in the moment. Or perhaps you find children annoying so feel immune to childish delight. Or maybe the child is a symbol of something you wanted in your life or something you’ve lost, and the sight and sound of that little person’s delight opens painful wounds. As we practice metta (loving-kindness) and find a softening and a deepening sense of connection with all of life, even with difficult people, we develop authentic compassion (karuna), and this quality of sympathetic joy, mudita. These are some of the fruits of practice. For most of us, there are people we love so much — family and close friends — that to see them happy makes us happy. But we may not be so familiar with experiencing joy at the sight of a stranger’s happiness. In fact, we may have experienced quite the opposite, when at the sight of someone else’s happiness we felt envy or self-pity. As you meditate and become more aware of the nature of mind, you have probably come upon some difficult thought or emotion arising in your field of experience. Envy is just one of them. When we notice it, we might then experience some shame at its existence. Mudita is a mental state we can savor when it occurs, but mudita practice helps us to work with the difficulties that arise, especially around envy, feelings of failure, comparison and general disgruntlement. When we discover constricted, grumpy thoughts or feelings, we are in a position of awareness. We may be in the habit of beating ourselves up or finding an external distraction. What a lost opportunity! With practice we can face the fear and discomfort, and find joy in the process. What is envy? This emotion, that arises around the perception that other people have what we want for ourselves, is rooted in fear. Looked at with Wise View, we can see that this is the same old fear that is at the root of all difficult emotions: The fear of being separate. This fear manifests in worry about not being enough, in feeling we have something to prove. Whom do we have to prove it to? Someone we feel separate from, someone we long to be recognized by, someone we want to love us unconditionally and respect us for who we are, even the bits we are not proud of. Wise View lets us understand that we are not separate. We are in this amazing experience of being, briefly, seemingly separate, the way a drop of water soaring over a waterfall is temporarily separate from the cycles of water of which it is intrinsically a part. On a molecular level, we are not at all separate from the rest of life. Yet much of what we do in our lives is actively create a sense of separation, build a separate identity, make a mark, matter in the eyes of others. On one level that may be our purpose here, who knows? But how much richer is the experience if we also sense the deeper connection, the intrinsic nature of being! We can celebrate this gift of life, this brief sense of separate volition and identity without succumbing to the belief that it is all there is. The gift of life is not the accumulation of stuff or relationships or prestige or anything else. It is simply the gift of being fully present with whatever arises.
When we find we are experiencing envy or another related emotion, it doesn’t help to compound that misery by saying, ‘What a terrible person I must be to feel envy when I should feel mudita.’ Instead, we can use the awareness of mudita to shine a little light on our thoughts and emotions, ask a few questions, and find some spaciousness in our experience. We can ask, for example, if the envied person’s happiness is the cause of our own unhappiness. If that person lost what they have, would we gain it? Usually not. And in the rare circumstance that that would be true, would that gaining actually create our happiness? We can look to our own experiences of happiness to recognize that whatever joy comes from external circumstances is temporal. We think that purchase or experience or connection will make us happy, but we quickly absorb these new conditions into our lives. They become the new normal. External conditions are unreliable and cannot create true and lasting happiness. We may still want them, but we would be foolish to rely on them for happiness. We create happiness by taking the time to be present, to experience what is true in this moment. We create suffering (dukkha) by grasping and clinging and wanting things to be different from how they are. If we begrudge other people the things we wish we had, then we expand our suffering to include them as well. Not purposely probably but just out of the discomfort of being around people who have what we crave. It’s like a sugar addict sitting at a table where desserts are displayed but denied. Check in to see if you believe that the other person is responsible for your suffering. And if so, really take some time to quiet down, center in and question that belief. Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of someone’s inability to tolerate your happiness. From your perspective the person seems like a self-destructive razor-sharp tornado of misery. Any effort you make to reach out causes you pain. If you can see that it is your situation — the very existence of your success, your love life or your children — that aggravates them, then it’s easier not to take it personally. And there is no reason to feel guilty for your own situation, unless achieved in some unethical way. Just letting other people have their happiness without faulting them for it is a major step for some of us. It’s important to remember that this letting go is not a loss but an opening to joy, a joy not dependent on causes and conditions. We can’t know with any certainty another person’s suffering. Likewise we can’t assume they are happy simply because they have a nice house, or good health, or any other item or situation. There are happy and miserable people in every walk of life and profession. The person who wins the lottery may have a temporary thrill, but within a year studies show they return to their previous level of happiness. We are very adaptable, and we adapt to changes of circumstance, treating it as the new normal. So mudita is feeling happy for the happiness of others because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us. How do we find mudita? When we quiet down in meditation, anchor into physical sensation to stay present with whatever is arising in this very moment, tap into this infinite source, deeply know that all is one, then we find that joy is contagious and bountiful.

Mudita, Sympathetic Joy: Yet Another Gift of Meditation Practice

This exploration of freedoms we have been doing for the past couple of months has much in common with the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes.’ These are states that are the gift of the practice, just as our freedoms we’ve been discussing are gifts of the practice. They are states that can’t be achieved by goal setting, by trying to be ‘good,’ or by pretending to be kind, compassionate, happy or wise. They arise out of the practice of being present, and in that being present, guided by the wisdom of the Eightfold Path, we may find ourselves in these states of connected authentic generosity of spirit: happy, kind, truly compassionate and well-balanced.

We have explored two of these Brahmaviharas in this class: Metta, loving-kindness and Karuna, compassion. Now we turn to Mudita which means sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy is feeling happy for the happiness of others. Not because we think we should feel it in order to be a nice person, but because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness.

The other day I was driving home from Spirit Rock and was descending White’s Hill into Fairfax behind two cyclists. Usually bicycle riders stay to the side of the road in their designated lane, but these two rode in the middle of the car lane, and since they were descending at a pretty rapid rate, they weren’t causing me to slow down.

I was coming home from a lovely morning of yoga, meditation and dharma, more relaxed and connected than I might have been, so it felt quite natural to purposely keep my car at enough of a distance so they would not feel I wanted them to get out of my way.

In fact, I wanted them to feel that they truly had the road to themselves, as a reward for all their uphill exertions. Then I enjoyed watching them and I relaxed into feeling in my body the sympathetic sensation of their hunkering down to be aero-dynamic, their leaning left or right on the curves. I relished the whole rich sensate experience of speed and freedom.

And that is a form of mudita: Letting go of any sense that the cyclists were obstructing my ability to get home to eat lunch, I allowed myself to share in the pleasure they were experiencing, to be truly happy for them having this lovely ride on a beautiful autumn day.

But sometimes we are faced with situations that don’t easily inspire mudita. Even in that fairly benign situation, I could just as easily have fallen into a story of personal loss, since I love bike riding, a childhood joy I had to give up many years ago as it is too hard on my knees. I could have felt envy, sadness, depression. I could have mourned the feel of the wind in my face, instead of enjoying it through sharing in their experience. And maybe on another day, in a different situation, my thoughts might have gone there. But on this day, they didn’t. On this day, I was delighted to find myself in the state of mudita.

Each of us has our personal losses and unfulfilled dreams that have the capacity to haunt us whenever we are confronted with someone who seems to be living that dream or still has what we have lost. Perhaps we weren’t able to have a child, or lost a child, and when we see someone with children or a pregnant woman, we may not feel sympathetic joy at all. The sight only stirs up our story, causing emotions and thoughts that unsettle us. If we weren’t caught up in the story, we could enjoy all the children we meet, delight in the sight of babies in strollers or trick-or-treaters in their costumes. But because they aren’t ours, because we can’t tuck them into bed at night, because they don’t call us mommy, we can’t appreciate them. Maybe we can see that it would make sense to reach out to other people’s children as teachers, care givers or aunts, but we just can’t do it. The story seems to be so tightly woven that it feels solid, impermeable, and we are caught in the middle of it, as if a spider had wrapped us up for dinner.

Most of us at some time have been in a position of hoping for a job, a promotion, a relationship, acceptance in a program or a competition of some kind. And most of us know what it is like to be denied the prize we sought. What happens then when we meet the person or persons who received whatever prize it was we wanted. How does that feel? Maybe we want to feel happy for them because we don’t want to be a sore loser. Maybe we feel embarrassed by the strength of our aspirations and the way we feel sucked out to sea by the undertow of that great wave of hope we had been surfing.

We have all experienced this to some degree at some time in our lives. We can all remember how it feels. Maybe we don’t even have to remember, maybe we have some experience of it in our current situation. Whatever it is, we need to be present with it, noticing the arising thoughts, emotions and sensations; noticing any harsh judgments that arise; holding ourselves with compassion, remembering that we are only human, vessels through which these kinds of emotions, thoughts and sensations flow.

Because it is so normal to feel envy, it comes as a surprise when mudita arises within us. What a delight is this unexpected gift of feeling joy at the sight of a child not our own! How sweet to truly feel happy for the person who receives recognition, knowing that that person too was hungry for acknowledgment, worked hard, suffered, feared failure – just as we did, and we are the same in that way. And many other ways as well. So the joy is simply joy, simply happiness, simply a celebration we can attend without feeling we weren’t invited.

If sympathetic joy seems unachievable it’s because it is. Totally unachievable! Like all the freedoms we’ve been discussing and the other three Brahmaviharas, this sympathetic joy for the happiness of others is a gift, not a goal. Mudita is not a practice so much as a fruit of metta and awareness practice. If we try to treat it as a goal or try to don it like a garment, draping ourselves in the pretend glow of happiness for others, we fail in our true practice: to be present for whatever arises.

Noting whatever feelings arise – envy, jealousy, anger, then noticing the disappointment we feel at discovering them in ourselves, then noticing any shame or sense of failure: That’s the practice. We begin to see the previously unconscious habitual patterns of thought and the reactive behavior they trigger. Making the patterns conscious starts to dissolve the tightly wrapped threads, so that there seems to be more time and space to see and make wise choices.

Instead of battling our thoughts and trying to change them, we just bring full awareness to them. We see them for what they are and begin to feel less threatened by them. We see that they are not us. We are not defined by them.

These thoughts and emotions are simply a part of the universal human condition, and conditioning. When we are able to be compassionate with our feelings we are less likely to feel the need to express these emotions through our words or actions. We might share our noticing of feelings arising, but we do so in a conscious way that doesn’t make the other person responsible for them.

As children our parents were made responsible for all these unacceptable situations and emotions. My mother saved a note I wrote when I was eleven in which I described everything that had gone wrong that day and how it was ‘ALL YOUR FAULT!’ Why did she save it? Years later I found myself saving a similar note from one of my own children. Strangely mothers often find these rants endearing.

But they are really only endearing in children, these tantrums. In adults not so much. Archie Bunker used to say, ‘Stifle!’ to his wife Edith whenever she was expressing her emotions. But that’s not what we are going for in our practice. Instead, when we discover these volatile emotions throwing a tantrum inside ourselves, we want to bring the compassionate bemusement of a mother whose child is ranting. The mother knows she is not really responsible for all the awful things that happened in her child’s school day, so there’s no reason to get caught up in defending herself. She can recognize the humanness, and the dearness of this loved one, struggling with her emotions.

So we don’t stifle our emotions. Instead we create a place for them to play within our spacious mind. We watch with loving curiosity, noticing, listening, even asking questions, but not scolding or trying to shut the process down. (When we notice we are scolding or trying to shut down the process, we simply note that as well.) We feel as much compassion and understanding as we are capable of feeling, but, just like my mother and mothers around the world when dealing with an exhausted child on a rant, we don’t succumb to the story that’s being told. We don’t need to react, or bring it out in the world, making others responsible for the internal chaos we are experiencing. We don’t have to be harsh or indulgent. We simply sit with the experience until the tantrum passes.

If we slip into unskillfulness and do act upon these feelings, we acknowledge them as soon as we recognize them, and apologize for our behavior to whomever we may have hurt in the process. We silently send metta to those we have harmed and to ourselves. Ultimately this metta practice has the capacity to bring the experience of sympathetic joy for all beings, as we become attuned to the bountiful nature of the universe and see that another person’s good fortune does not deplete our own.

On a very practical level, we can bring into question the very idea that what the prize-winner has is actually the source of happiness that we imagined it to be. Does any event, possession or relationship truly have the ability to make a person permanently happy? We know from our own lives that that is not the case. And knowing so, we can see if we are making the mistake of projecting happiness onto these ‘winners’ when, in fact, they are suffering in ways we might not have imagined. We dehumanize them by making assumptions that they should be happy because of what they have. They should be happy, damn it, because they are now holding the stuff of our dreams and they better appreciate it! If they were to complain about anything, we would get out our air violins and play a few notes for them, the universal sign of, “I am SO not sorry for you, you little whiner.” But with just a little sensing in to the nature of things, we can see that they are still beings deserving of our compassion. And seeing that the prize they have is not happiness incarnate helps to put our loss in perspective.

Feelings of envy or schadenfreude, the German word meaning enjoyment of the misfortune of others, sometimes especially those we may have envied, since now they have been brought low (where we apparently feel we are,) offer us the opportunity to explore strong emotions. We can ask questions of them as if they are messengers with important information to share. We can personify them if that makes it easier to do inner dialog work, giving them a recognizable personality and nickname so that we will easily recognize them in the future. With curiosity and compassion, we can ask, ‘What do you really want?’ ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ “What are you afraid of?” ‘What do I need to know?’ Taking a little quiet time for this kind of inner exploration helps to release the tight threads that are making us a spider’s dinner instead of aware beings.

We can also use the good fortune of others to clarify a path we ourselves would like to embark upon. Perhaps we are surprised to feel a spark of envy at someone’s receiving an award for something we had no idea we were interested in. Perhaps a path is illuminated by their experience, and we recognize that if it is possible for them, it is more likely to be possible for us as well. And if we feel otherwise, we can question in to see why we don’t believe this to be true. If we do want to pursue the path they are on, we can take the bold step of asking them how they did it, find others who also did it and learn from their inspiring stories as well. Throughout the process, we continue asking in to see if it is the direction itself that is of interest or craving similar acknowledgment in another area, perhaps one we can’t even bring ourselves to name, so unworthy do we feel to have these aspirations.

Whenever we are experiencing any distressing emotion, we can send ourselves metta, loving-kindness. And from this practice, when we least expect it, mudita surprises and delights us, as it did for me that beautiful autumn day, feeling the thrust and lean of those cyclists on a joyous downhill run.