From elephant journal’s Autumn 2005 Issue
The below is excerpted and adapted from our Summer book-review-of-the-issue, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life. For more: compassionatelife.com
The 16th century Tibetan meditation master Wangchuk Dorje recommended a practice he called “the Activity of Being in Crowds.” Walking through a throng, he said, is a “good opportunity to examine the delusions, attachments, and aversions that arise.” I find the bustle of a mall an especially good place. It’s not just the plenitude of people, but of everything under that fluorescent sun that pushes our buttons. With everything beckoning with come-ons for instant gratification, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere (it is all about me, after all!), I go into a mall trance. The mind itself gets into the spirit of things; my finicky responses to the goods on display merge with my reactions to the people I pass—little covetous twinges, subtle flickers of attitude, petty judgments on how people walk, talk, dress, and chew gum. And here a surge of superiority, there a deflating thought of inadequacy; here a lurch of desire for a sleek, well turned-out woman, there a picador’s lance of envy at her undeserving boyfriend in the slobby polo shirt.
I return from these shopping expeditions with those feelings the spiritual traditions agree most occlude compassion. The Koran describes jealousy as a “veil” that beclouds the eye of the heart. Jealousy turns other people into sources of resentment: if I had what you have then I would be happy. Jealousy tints everyone in bilious green shades of envy. It presents a perfect paradigm of insufficiency: I am less because you are more. It’s a zero-sum game. Jealousy’s only hope is that the other person will be diminished, imagining that would free up proportionately more for itself. (It extends all the way to that uniquely German coinage, schadenfreude, gloating over another’s misfortune.)
But just as there are emotional toxins, there are also antidotes, remedies, what the apothecaries of yore called specifics. In Buddhism, the supreme medicine for envy is said to be mudita, or “sympathetic joy,” which calls on us to feel happy about another’s success. Easy enough when it comes to rejoicing for those we really care about: every parent kvells over their kid’s triumphs; a teacher exults when her favorite student aces the math exam. But to expand this feeling to a wider arena is like pulling wisdom teeth.
I once witnessed an exchange between a Tibetan lama and a questioner on this subject. “Rinpoche,” inquired a pleasant middle-aged man in a checked sport shirt, “I adore my son. He’s a linebacker for his high school football team. I find myself rooting for him to just cream the opposing quarterback. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“Of course not,” the lama replied. “You love your son, and you want his happiness, and he’s happy when he beats the other team. This is only natural.” There was an audible sigh of relief in the room. The spiritual path may be challenging, but it wasn’t unreasonable. “Thank you, Rinpoche,” the man said, making a brisk little folding gesture with his hands.
The lama laughed sharply. “I was only joking! Actually, this is not at all the right attitude. In fact,” he said, glancing at the man mischievously, “a good practice for you would be to root for the other team. See them winning, see them happy, see their parents overjoyed. That is the bodhisattva way.” The man thanked him again, this time with an ironic groan at a homework
assignment that stretched past football season.
I have a wildly successful acquaintance. I’ve seen him on magazine covers, a self-satisfied, cock-of-the-walk, airbrushed grin on his face. Even worse, he’s in my field, though he does ever so much better (sell-out!). I’ve been training myself, as an antidote to a fulminating case of green-eye, that whenever I feel that little twitch of envy, I wish for more bluebirds of happiness to come sit on his eaves. “Don’t you mean,” asks a cynical friend, “come shit on his sleeves?” But the fact is my good wishes provide an unexpected sense of relief. It’s an unknotting, expansive feeling, as if what’s his and what’s mine suddenly, metaphysically, belong to both of us and to neither. I recently came across a line from Yoko Ono: “Transform jealousy to admiration/ And what you admire/ Will become part of your life.” Maybe she did break up the Beatles, but I think she’s onto something.
Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. Root for the other team. Visualize someone who makes you envious—someone who squats smug as a toad in what is surely your rightful place in the world. Think of them in all their irritating splendor, enjoying the perks and accolades you no doubt deserve. Then…wish sincerely that they get even more goodies.
Isn’t this the mortal sin of “low self-esteem”? Well, not exactly. In rooting for someone else’s happiness, we feel more beneficent, less deprived, more capable of giving. The focus on another person’s satisfaction paradoxically draws us closer to our own. Seeing the world through another’s eyes (you in me, me in you) makes it feel there’s at least twice as much to go around; not more money or fame or square footage, but what underlies the whole pursuit: more love.