Jealousy is a difficult emotion to experience, and even more difficult to admit. Jealousy has many faces: competitiveness, envy, resentment, insecurity and fear of exclusion. Buddhist psychology teaches that leaning into the experience of jealousy and not trying to cover it up is the key to transforming it and creating compassion and connection.
Jealousy and the belief that we are not good enough
Jealousy flows from believing that we are not good enough just as we are. For example, I have noticed that my jealousy rears up when I feel judged or insecure. If I’m not mindful, it becomes a swirling vicious circle. I judge myself, compare myself to others and resent them for being better than me or having more than me. I then become competitive and go overboard to try to prove my worth. To compound the problem, I then criticize myself for feeling jealous – After all, I’m a Buddhist and I’m not supposed to feel that way!
When I experience jealousy, I often shut down and isolate myself out of a fear of being found out as not enough. Not only do I disconnect from others, I disconnect from myself and my basic goodness and vitality.
Jealousy and the suffering of self-clinging
Jealousy is considered one of the “five poisons” in Buddhism, together with anger, desire, pride and ignorance. They are considered poisonous because they create pain and suffering, both for ourselves and others. The foundational tenet of Buddhism is that suffering is all around us, and that the cause of suffering is our clinging to a sold sense of self. Jealousy and the other poisons arise from this self-clinging.
The Buddhist prayer called The Four Immeasurables is a powerful way to free ourselves from the suffering of ego-clinging. It is a simple prayer accessible to all:
May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.
It is important to remember that the term “all beings” includes ourselves. Therefore, reciting The Four Immeasurables opens us to compassion for ourselves as well as others.
How to work mindfully with jealousy and transform it into sympathetic joy
Working mindfully with the tools I have learned from Buddhist psychology allows me to let go of jealousy. When I feel jealousy arise, I first lean into the experience with my felt senses. This allows me to stay with the direct physical and emotional experience and not get caught up in the storylines that keep jealousy in place.
By breathing in the painful sensations associated with jealousy and breathing out relaxation, I can create space around the experience and see it directly, allowing myself to relax and let go.[a]When I am able to do this, my jealousy transforms into compassion for myself and for the person who aroused my jealousy.
Each of the five poisons corresponds to one of the “five wisdoms” or antidotes. After experiencing the pain of the jealousy directly and mindfully, opening into compassion leads naturally to jealousy’s antidote, known as “sympathetic joy.” Sympathetic joy involves taking joy in the success or happiness of others. This corresponds to the third of the Four Immeasurables, where we pray that all beings experience “great happiness devoid of suffering.”
The Sanskrit term for sympathetic joy is mudita. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg defines mudita as “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.”[b]The cultivation of sympathetic joy is indeed a pleasure – It frees us from the suffering of our painful emotions. In addition, rejoicing in others’ happiness actually creates happiness and satisfaction in ourselves. In the words of the Buddhist master Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “When you rejoice, you really feel like you have a richness inside. Your good heart sustains your mind.”[c]
“Appreciative joy” is another translation of mudita:
Appreciation is taking the time to notice what’s already here, what we have right now in this very moment. This capacity gives us the inner strength to work with our suffering in a skillful way, and to stay connected to each other as we do.[d]
When we practice appreciation for others’ happiness and success, we come to appreciate ourselves. Consequently, the belief that we are not enough slips away, and our jealousy can dissolve. Rejoicing in others’ good fortune also opens our hearts to others as well as ourselves. Our sense of connection and basic aliveness is restored. We are well on our way to overcoming ego-clinging and suffering, and living a life of satisfaction and joy.
[a]This corresponds to the “Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in his book “Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You (TarcherPerigree 2016). The three steps are: Mindful Gap (taking a breath and feeling the emotion directly), Clear Seeing (looking at the broader picture, including triggers and habits), and Letting Go (relaxing with our senses and letting go of any residual negative energy).
© 2019 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.