If malice and envy had a tangible shape, it would be the shape of a boomerang. ~Charlie Reese
Ten years ago I had a stormy falling out with a friend. Over the years, occasional news of his difficulties would find its way to me and, until recently, I felt a secret thrill at the thought of his suffering. In German this “rush of glee in response to someone else’s misfortune” is referred to as schadenfreude, a common emotion that people seldom discuss openly.
Psychology shows that rivalry has the potential to boost our motivation, yet it can also “disrupt rational thinking, bias memories and encourage unethical behavior.” We can derive a sort of pleasure from the difficulties of those we dislike or with whom we are competing. Basking in the light of their failing, we feel momentarily superior and our fragile egos are elated. Compassion becomes an indulgence of the naïve, and our sense of separation deepens. Subconsciously we feel justified applying our superiority to an individual, and then groups similar to that individual, then perhaps to entire nations. Psychologist Colin W. Leach warns us that schadenfreude “has this potential to turn into something else―to be a first step on a slippery slope.” Schadenfreude is the tiny spark on the floor of a dry forest. If the air is still, the spark may simply smolder and go out of its own volition. Yet if the wind is right, the spark can fan into a raging fire that burns everything in its path.
Suffering is all around us and within us. Acknowledging the suffering of others can lessen our own. Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutras there are five causes of suffering: “ignorance of your True Self and the value of spirituality; egoism and its self-centeredness; attachment to pleasure; aversion to pain; and clinging to life out of fear of death.” The Buddha claims at the root of suffering lay attachment, unchecked greed, illusion and hatred. The Dalai Lama avows, “Love and kindness are the very basis of society. If we lose these feelings… the survival of humanity will be endangered.” If we seed the field of our hearts with ill will, our fruit will taste of ash.
Life has the potential to be magnificent. Human kindness sweetens the breath in our bodies, and connection with others renders the simplest events monumental. Ancient and modern entertainment are riddled with stories of revenge. Malice is tiresome and not only increases the suffering of others, but increases our own. The energy we devote to keeping old wounds open would be better spent healing them. In the interest of humanity’s survival and potential, it is time to transmute our tale of vengeance into one of inspiration and benevolence.
I have been watching myself for years react powerfully to the mention of my ex-friend’s name, and my subsequent delight at his suffering. He deserves it after all, I would think. He betrayed me. Through feeding the gremlin of schadenfreude, I kept a typical and unimaginative story alive. Among the many gifts a continual meditation practice can bring is the gift of insight. When I gaze into the lives of others from a neutral ground, the metaphoric seat of my meditation, I can see that most people are suffering in some way. Both my ex-friend and I suffered at the hands of the other, both feeling justified and decidedly separate. I would never behave that way, my ego would assure me. I would never do that to a friend. In the presence of witness-consciousness, I acknowledge the suffering he must have been enduring to have behaved in a way I judged deplorable. In this recognition, I offer compassion for what he must have felt, and perhaps still feels, and this lessens my own suffering. I dwell less on myself and my pain and discover more space within me. By changing our perspective, our story can unfold as one of creation, understanding and liberation from suffering.
References: 1.“Their Pain, Our Gain” by Emily Anthes, Scientific American Mind, November/December, 2010; 2. “Meeting Your Match” by Ferris Jabr, Scientific American Mind, November/December, 2010; 3. “Their Pain, Our Gain” by Emily Anthes, Scientific American Mind, November/December, 2010; 4.II, 3, Yoga Sutras by Patanjali
Halli is a Spiritual Life Coach, a yoga and meditation teacher and owner of True Self Wellness. Told she may never walk again after a near-fatal car accident, Halli began a voyage for healing and insight. Her journey led her into extensive studies of yoga and meditation, ancient and modern religions, spirituality, massage and energy work, creative movement and dance, psychology and esoteric sciences. She offers spiritual life coaching over the phone/skype and leads yoga and meditation retreats and workshops worldwide. She is also a vocalist and songwriter, a visual artist and a dancer. You can also follow her on Facebook or on Twitter. Email here.