Reviewing Aspects of Jealousy
Our discussion of jealousy now brings us on to a discussion about the self. Understanding how we exist, and how everyone else exists, is central to the issues surrounding jealousy.
As we saw, Buddhism defines jealousy as a type of hostility, an emotional attitude that focuses on other people’s accomplishments. It could be their intelligence or possessions, good looks or wealth, success or status. It could focus on their relationships, for instance that they have a partner or children, and we don’t. We can’t stand it that they have this or that, and we have an inability to bear their accomplishments.
This resentment is based on attachment to our own situation and accomplishments. For example, we look at the amount of money we have in our bank account, and know that others have more. We exaggerate the positive qualities and importance of having more money in the bank, making it one of the most crucial aspects of life, and then we base our sense of self-worth on it. We can do this with intelligence and good looks and the rest. Then, we can’t stand that someone else is doing better than we are in that area. This is jealousy, and the opposite of this is to rejoice in what others have achieved.
The Issue of “Me”
Understanding these aspects of jealousy is the first level of dealing with the problem. Underlying it all, however, is the issue of “me.” Ultimately, this is what we need to work on to make sure that we don’t become jealous. What is faulty is the way we over-exaggerate one certain aspect of life and base our whole sense of self-worth and self-value on it. It’s only on this basis that we become jealous, and it brings us to the issue of self-identity: “Who am I?” How do we define ourselves? Is it in terms of our money, or our good looks, or our position in life? Many people do, don’t they? “I’m a doctor,” “I’m a parent,” “I’m a whatever.”
In doing so, we overemphasize the “me,” defining it as one solid thing that could have one solid identity. We believe it to be the true “me,” the thing that is the real “me.” It then becomes the only thing that counts in life, and we dismiss everything else as unimportant. Only this one thing, such as how much money we have in the bank, is what really counts. For many of us, it’s what our parents told us!
It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just dealing with material things, in terms of money and position and so forth, but also with affection. Some of us might think that the most important thing in life is receiving affection or love. Then we think that someone else has this and we don’t, and base our sense of self-worth on that. This is more subtle than material things. Of course, we get insanely jealous if everyone we know has wonderful loving partners, and we’re home all alone. We also need to deal with these more subtle issues, to really make sure that we root out this problem of jealousy.
Reflection: Overemphasis of One Aspect of Our Life
Take a moment to reflect on this. Most of us have experienced moments or periods of jealousy. We’ve had phases in our life where jealousy has made us miserable. Let’s try to identify within our experience what it is that underlies it all. What was it that we considered the most important thing in life, becoming jealous if we didn’t have it or someone else had more? Reflect on it. Is this thing really the most important thing in life, and the only thing that describes me and who I am? “I’m someone who doesn’t have a partner,” for example. Is that the only thing there is to say about ourselves? Were we to die and someone were to sum up our life in our sentence, is that what we would like for our epitaph? Is it the only thing we’d like others to remember us by? Thinking like this is a good way to see the silliness of the whole thing.
By making it silly, we see the silliness of focusing on only one thing. When we think, “This is who I am. It is the most important thing and I can’t stand that anyone else is better than I am,” it will help us see how comical it all is and to overcome it. If you don’t see how ridiculous it is, then it’s very difficult to drop it. Take a moment to think like this in terms of your own personal experience of jealousy.
Covetousness, Envy, Greed, Low Self-Esteem, and Other Disturbing Emotions
If you took a moment to reflect, you might have seen what Buddhism addresses when we talk of jealousy. In the West, we also speak of envy, but there isn’t a separate word for this in Sanskrit or Tibetan. Envy adds on top of jealousy what Buddhism calls “covetousness,” where we not only overemphasize one area of life and can’t stand it when someone is better than we are, but we also want to get it for ourselves. That’s envy. We’re envious.
This falls into two situations. Firstly, it could be that we don’t have any ourselves, and we want to get what somebody else has. Secondly, we could already have some, which in fact might be quite enough, but we get greedy. We want more because the other person has more. In this second case, that greed leads of competitiveness, where we wish to outdo the other person.
There are many other associated disturbing emotional states that arise from this very basic aspect defined as jealousy. Still, under all of these is that same problem with our concept of “me.” We think we’re special. We think we’re important. Thus, we should always come first and always have the best. We don’t consider others as equal or certainly don’t think that it would be nice if others had the same as we have. Because of this strong feeling of “me,” we have to be better.
As we saw, many aspects of our society reinforce jealousy and competition. We have the glorification of sports winners and celebrities and billionaires, with magazines that feature them getting the most publicity. Like a disease, this infects our attitude toward how we lead our lives and how we deal with work and relationships. If only the fittest and strongest survive, then we simply have to compete with everybody, and we get jealous when anybody does better.
However, jealousy isn’t always associated with competition, because sometimes jealousy revolves around our self-worth. If we have very low self-esteem, which due to various reasons is a rampant problem in Western culture, we can get very jealous of what others have achieved. This doesn’t really lead to competition, but just a feeling of “I couldn’t possibly achieve that, I’m not good enough.” We don’t even try, and end up feeling bad about ourselves. We really feel sorry for ourselves that everyone else is so successful while “I’m a loser.” This is another way in which this aspect of overemphasizing and a preoccupation with “me” manifests as jealousy.
Differences in Focus in the West
In Buddhism we analyze jealousy in terms of the focus being on other people’s accomplishments, making us hostile to them. There are other forms of jealousy that we experience, with a slightly different focus. The focus is on somebody who gives something to somebody else and not to me. It’s related but slightly different: “You have given your love and affection to somebody else and not to me.” We’re not so angry or upset at the person that received the love and affection, but instead we’re rather angry and upset at the person who didn’t give it to us. They gave it to someone else. We often experience this type of jealousy, don’t we?
This is quite contradictory if you think about it, because how could we expect the person we’re angry with to just change their mind and now love us when we’re directing all that anger and jealousy toward them? It’s self-destructive in a naive way, but it’s often our strategy. It’s really unlikely that the other person is all of a sudden going to say, “Oh yes! Sorry, now I’ll love you,” when we’re angry and yelling at them, “Why on earth are you going out with someone else?! Stay home with me!” If they do stay at home, it’ll only be out of guilt or feeling sorry for us. How satisfying is that though? They’re not really with us, because their minds and hearts are off with somebody else. In the end we’ll continue being unhappy, as our problem hasn’t been solved at all.
Spend a moment to see if you’ve followed this kind of strategy. How successful has it been? Only when we can laugh at it will we see how ridiculous it was, and recognize that it’s not the way to solve problems. Even if we feel jealous and angry, the solution is to not act it out. The point is to get rid of these feelings through other means.
Solidification of “Me” and “You”
Remember that the definition of “jealousy” in the English dictionary is “an intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness.” When someone gives something to our rival and not to us, we feel that it’s being unfaithful. Again there are two obvious variations of this. It could be that once they were giving us something and are no longer doing so, or it could be that they’ve never given it to us in the first place. It’s much more painful if they were giving it to us beforehand and aren’t anymore, which is what is more commonly meant by the Western idea of unfaithfulness. Still, we could wish that someone would love us, even if they’ve never loved us.
Again, we overestimate one aspect of life, receiving affection from somebody, making it the most important thing. All of it’s based on a super strong sense of “me.” “I” want to receive the affection and I don’t care about anything or anyone else. What might be even stronger that the solidification of “me” is the solidification of “you.” We want it only from “you,” and it doesn’t matter if ten other people love me or a hundred other people love me. It doesn’t count. “I only want you to love me.” If they don’t, then it feels like no one loves us.
This is false, though. If we think about it, and there may be a small possibility, but in most cases it is highly improbably that no one loves us. We still feel sorry for ourselves and think that no one loves us, even if our mother loves us, or friends love us, and our dog loves us. There are so many beings who love us in one way or another. We underestimate this when we overestimate the possible love from any one individual. We only want love from “you.”
Meditation: What’s So Special about Me, and What’s So Special about You?
This is quite problematic, especially if we’ve experienced it several times in our life, with different persons. “This is the one that has to love me.” What’s so special about this person? This is aside from questioning what’s so special about me, that someone should only love me and not somebody else. So we’ve got these two questions: what’s so special about me, and what’s so special about you?
Is there any actual basis for why this person should love me and nobody else? Is there any reason why it’s so important that they love me, and anybody else who loves me doesn’t matter? These are very deep questions that make us reconsider the way we view the world, the way we view ourselves, and the way we view others. Is there some basic confusion underlying all of these emotional problems?
This is important to recognize because then we know what we really have to work on in order to free ourselves on the deepest level from these emotional problems, so that they never arise again. We don’t want to just get rid of them when they come up, but take deeper preventative measures so that they can never arise in the first place. The only way we can really do this is to fully understand how we exist, how others exist, and how the world exists. Through this, we can stop all of our unconscious projections of myth and fantasy.
We can see that jealousy is often very much connected with possessiveness, where we want something or others to belong to us, and only us. We can use the image of a beautiful wild bird that we attract to our windowsills with seeds and bits of bread. Now what is our attitude to this wild bird?
Well, it’s a free bird. When it comes to our window, we think how wonderful and beautiful it is. We can enjoy the beauty of the time that this wild bird spends with us. If we’re really fortunate, the bird will feel so comfortable by our window that she’ll make a nest in the garden and stay for a season. We can enjoy the presence of a wild bird in our garden for a whole season. But, eventually, whether after a few moments or after a season, the bird is going to fly away. After all, it’s a free, wild bird. If the bird returns again, wouldn’t it be wonderful? Still, it’s not the only wild bird around and it’d be foolish to just want that particular bird to come back. If another one comes along we can also enjoy the beauty of that bird for the short time that it might remain with us.
If we suffered from jealousy, thinking, “I want that bird only to come to me, and not go to anyone else. And I don’t want any other birds, just that one” that would be rather foolish. From the Buddhist viewpoint, we should rejoice that in this bird’s journeys over the year, other people were also kind enough to feed it. As I said, if the bird comes back, that’s a bonus.
But if when the bird comes to our window we tried to catch it, the bird would become very frightened, wouldn’t it? It would fly away and never come back. If we managed to catch it and put it in a cage, how happy would that wild bird be? We encaged it because we want it for “me,” but how comfortable would the bird be? Will it now make a nest and lay an egg in the cage? No, it won’t.
Beautiful Wild Birds: A Helpful Image
This can be a very helpful image with loved ones who come into our lives, and even with our children. They’re all like wild birds that come into our life for a short time; but because they’re free, they go here and there. They have other friends. If they come back to us later in life and continue to visit us, that’s really wonderful. We can enjoy the time we have with each other now, and if they come back later we can enjoy that also.
If, on the other hand, we’re jealous that they interact with other people, or jealous that they don’t give all of their time to us, how does this affect the relationship? What kind of outcome can we expect if we make demands that they stay home, always be with us, and not have any other friends? If we try to catch them and stick them in cages, won’t we scare them away? If we manage to keep others in cages, how happy are they going to be? And how happy will we actually end up?
It’s really helpful to view our loved ones, whoever they are, as beautiful wild birds who come into our lives, and to simply enjoy the time we do have with them. Of course they’re all going to have other friends and interests. They might stay with us a long time, or leave quite soon. If we really love this person, we would really hope and rejoice that their friends will be as kind to them as we’ve been. Wouldn’t we?
Meditation: Applying This to Our Lives
This is a much healthier way of approaching relationships and helps us to avoid issues of jealousy and possessiveness, which actually prevent us from fully enjoying the time we do have. Have you ever visited someone you haven’t seen for a while, only for them to complain that you can’t stay longer, rather than just enjoy the time you do have together? Think about this and try to apply to image of the wild bird to your loved ones, especially those with whom we feel particularly jealous if they spend time with others or show affection to others.
Another Perspective on the Wild Bird
Our self-worth very much creates our understanding of who we are, of what this “I” is. Sometimes we try to put others in cages, but often we find ourselves on the other side. We are the wild bird that somebody is trying to put into a cage. How can we deal with this?
Firstly, it’s always very important to be clear about the reality of the situation. Especially in relationships and marriages, each person has a different idea of what the relationship entails and what the boundaries are. We should be clear about this, otherwise one person might expect something which is just not going to happen, or that is totally different from the way we view things.
This is important for both sides of the relationship. However we have to avoid the extreme of having to constantly negotiate the contract and then renegotiate it, and always talking about the relationship and how we relate to it, rather than just living it. It’s good to be honest and not keep issues inside, letting the other know when we’re truly hurt. But we have to try to do this without the hidden intention of making the other person feel guilty and force them into doing what we want.
This will be easy once we know the effects of our behavior, which we’re often very naïve about. Sometimes we seem to think we can act in any way we like and it won’t affect anybody, as if no one else had feelings or gets hurt apart from us. But there are certain boundaries in terms of sexual faithfulness and so on, that we might want to keep. Other boundaries can be a little more flexible.
If one area of the relationship doesn’t work out, we shouldn’t just throw the person away with the garbage. Even if you get a divorce, it doesn’t mean you need to stop loving the person or caring for them. You don’t need to see someone every day, but relationships don’t have to be all or nothing, and they can be redefined. From a Buddhist point of view, there is some karmic connection, and you can’t just throw them in the garbage.
If our partner really hurts us, for instance by cheating, we could say, “I’m really hurt by your behavior and maybe we need to break up. I don’t want to lose you as a friend, but give me time. After a couple of months, I will have cooled down and can deal with this situation, and then I’d like to continue being your friend. I care for you, otherwise I would never have gotten into this relationship in the first place.” That’s a much more mature way of dealing with it regardless of which side we’re on, because no one is ever going to be in a fairytale in which we live happily ever after. That just doesn’t happen.
If we’re not dealing with a sexual issue but a time issue, where someone is demanding all of our time, then we can give them a fixed amount of time we can spend with them. If we can be dependable on that, then it’s fine, because they still be able to count on it. They won’t feel abandoned or rejected, and if when we’re with them we’re there with one hundred percent of out heart and mind, then even better. Please reflect on that.
Accepting Another’s Currency
In order to be more secure about someone’s love, we can use another helpful image. We can think of how people express and give us love with the analogy of what kind of currency people pay us with. Just as sometimes, we need to be flexible with how people pay us, we need to be flexible with how others express their love and affection for us.
We might want to be paid in euros, but the person only has dollars, so how can they pay us? In other words, they can’t love us in exactly the way we want them to. But, we need to accept their currency, or what they’re able to give us, and realize that this is simply their expression of love. It’s what they’re able to do. It’s the same if we’re on the other side, where we have a certain currency and are unable to give the person the affection they would like in the currency they prefer.
We should be flexible enough that it’s fine when they say, “Sorry, I don’t have enough money now. I don’t have any time now. I’m too busy and can’t meet you this week.” With flexibility, we’re able to understand the other person in terms of how much money they have and how much time they have to give us. Of course the same thing applies to us when we just don’t have any currency to offer.
It’s a useful image even if love and attention aren’t commodities that we buy and sell. It can still help us with our insecurity issues. This doesn’t go to the deep root of how we actually exist, but it’s still a helpful way of temporarily dealing with a situation. The real issue is to recognize the currency the other person is trying to offer, because sometimes we don’t even know it, “I don’t want it in Polish zlotys, I want it in real currency!”
A common example is in a married couple with children. The one who stays at home taking care of the kids complains that the breadwinner doesn’t care about them and spend enough time with them. They don’t recognize that the breadwinner is showing care by working long hours to support the family. This is his or her currency. On the other side, the breadwinner complains that the one who stays at home doesn’t show enough care about them when they come home at night. They don’t recognize that their spouse is paying with the currency of taking care of the house and the kids. Each is using a different currency to show their care and concern, and each needs to learn to accept the other one’s currency.
The Correct Medicine
When we learn about voidness or emptiness and how to apply it, we see how this understanding is crucially important. It’s an extremely strong medicine. In many situations, however, it might be preferable to apply a weaker medicine, and then slowly, slowly go deeper.
Voidness and Dualistic Perception
The big problem involved with voidness is our projections, with which there are two aspects.
- One is that our mind automatically makes things appear in a way that doesn’t correspond to reality;
- The second is that we believe this appearance to be true and to actually correspond to reality.
This is automatic; it’s not something that we consciously do. We believe it because it feels like we’re experiencing reality. It’s how we experience it and we truly, deeply, fundamentally believe it to correspond to reality. It’s such a deep problem that we almost always think that our feelings must be true. What we feel must be true; we don’t even question that.
If we look at jealousy, the mind projects a dualistic appearance of a “me” and a “you” in solid categories. There is a seemingly concrete “me” who inherently deserves to achieve something, but didn’t achieve it. Inherently, we feel, “I deserve this and I didn’t get it. You, over there, didn’t deserve it, but you got it.” It feels like that, doesn’t it? It hurts, and that’s why we believe it to be true.
It’s really confused because unconsciously we feel that the world owes us something, and that it’s unfair when others get it instead of us. We think it’s not fair. It’s a horrible question to ask, but why should the world be fair? Is there such a thing inherent on the side of the universe called “justice”? That’s quite a Western idea, associated with “God is just” and that there is justice in the universe. But not everyone thinks or believes that.
Although this feeling of unfairness is culturally reinforced, there is an automatically arising form of it. Here, we divide the world into two solid categories of “winners” and “losers.” This is dualism. In biblical thinking, it’s like the sinners and the righteous. We’ve got the winners and losers solidly stuck in their boxes, with “poor me” in the loser box. It truly feels like that and that’s why it’s so horrible. There are just two boxes; with dualism, we’re either in one or the other.
Putting Ourselves in Solid Permanent Categories
We put ourselves into a solid, permanent category, and of course permanence means it will never change – it’s forever. We’re in the solid permanent category of “loser” and the other people are in the solid permanent category of “winner.” This makes us feel not only resentful, but we feel doomed. It’s as if we’ve been punished and it’s totally unfair. Often our perception is so out of touch with reality that we start to think we might be the only one in this loser box, because we’re so preoccupied with self-centered thinking. We feel sorry for ourselves and suffer as though there were something inherently existent about “me” that makes me a loser, thinking we have to be like that forever.
Naivety about Cause and Effect
It’s complicated not only because we don’t understand how we and others exist, but also because we’re naive about cause and effect. This is often behind jealousy and envy. That person who got promoted at work didn’t deserve it, because they didn’t earn it and there’s nothing about them that could cause them to receive this promotion that we didn’t get. We’re denying cause and effect. We feel that we should have gotten it without having to do anything or that we didn’t get it, even if we did a lot. We didn’t get our reward and it’s unfair. We don’t see the many, many other forces and causal factors involved, beyond the little bit that we did.
Sometimes, it seems as though this thinking is reinforced culturally in socialist states. Just because you’re born in a socialist country, you feel as though you deserve to get certain things from the state without having to do anything to earn it. This infects our feeling that we should deserve it all. If you look at the whole idea of what we feel we deserve, it’s quite interesting. Does someone deserve something, or do things happen with no cause? It gets deep! We can see this with teenagers testing how badly they can behave, to see if their parents will still love them.
Let’s recognize the projections we have of winner and loser boxes, in three stages. Firstly, do we divide the world, and is it true that the world is divided into winners and losers? Secondly, do I believe that the universe must be fair and just? Lastly, do I believe from my own side that I inherently deserve something, for instance that I should be loved for no reason at all, no matter how selfish and horrible I am?
We start to challenge our beliefs when we ask ourselves why the universe should be fair or why I deserve anything without any cause whatsoever. Why should that be the way things are? It’s difficult to come up with an answer, and many of us will just say the reason is that it “should be.” That translates as, “That’s the way I want it to be.”
The appearance doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it’s the way we think it should appear. Just because we think there should be a Santa Claus, for instance, there’s no reason why there should be one and it should be like that. It’s fantasy. When we look at the voidness of Santa Claus, though, we should understand what actually is there. When we see a Santa Claus in a store, there is someone dressed up as Santa Claus. There is no Santa Claus but the person dressing up as Santa is still there. It’s just that the appearance doesn’t correspond to reality. Voidness doesn’t negate everything, it just negates our belief in the projected appearance. To be more precise, just because a person appears to be Santa Claus, this doesn’t prove that it is Santa Claus. That’s what an understanding of voidness negates.
Meditation: Appearance Doesn’t Correspond to Reality
So, just because it feels like I’m a loser, it doesn’t prove that I am one. Even if you call me a loser, it doesn’t mean that I am one. If I didn’t succeed at something, I didn’t succeed. That’s all. I’m a human being who is trying, and this is not being negated. Digest this for a moment.
Just because a person came late or didn’t call you, it isn’t proof that they don’t love you. It might feel like that, but it really doesn’t prove “you don’t love me.” It’s garbage thinking, and there’s a perfect word for it in German: Quatsch. That can a useful keyword to remind ourselves of when we go on these mind trips. None of it refers to reality.
When someone is late or doesn’t show up, there’s this inordinate fear that we’ve been abandoned. But it’s garbage! The reality is just that they’re late, or didn’t turn up. That’s reality. We can try to find out the reason without this thinking of, “Oh, poor me, I’ve been abandoned, no one loves me. It happened again, I’m such a loser.” Quatsch!
Just because it feels like we’ve been abandoned and we’re always the loser, it doesn’t prove that we have been abandoned or that we are a loser. It only demonstrates that we feel and think it’s true and corresponds to reality, and thus it hurts. If we stop believing that it’s true, then it wouldn’t hurt so much, and eventually it’d feel like nothing. We would eventually see that the person is just late, or has found somebody else, or whatever. Then we’d deal with it. If we have a friend who is always late, we tell them to meet us earlier or set a boundary, telling them we’ll wait until a certain time, but then we’ll go on without them. Everything is clear and we get on with our life. There’s no need to make ourselves miserable believing in garbage.
Often, something that is behind a lot of this is a very culturally reinforced misconception of always wanting to be in control. I find this to be particularly strong among German people. Everything needs to be under control. If everything is in order and everything is clear, then you can feel secure. This is also absurd. Nobody can be in control of life, because life is way too complex with too many things happening and affecting everything. We need to recognize the many, many levels of garbage and unrealistic expectations.
Nearly all of us overemphasize “me.” In fact, it comes naturally that we believe ourselves to be the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around us. On top of this, we add something like our good looks, intelligence or wealth, thinking that it’s the most important thing about us. And here lies our biggest problem – the solid, beautiful, rich “me.”
When we think like this, we become possessive with our friends, becoming jealous if we see them spending time and having fun with others. If we challenge this belief, which is absolutely false anyway, we radically alter our perspective. This is why understanding voidness is seen as the strongest, most effective medicine for not only jealousy, but all disturbing emotions.