Last summer, before Tricycle came out with the issue on envy, I did a ten day retreat on the subject. Not on purpose. The retreat was on loving-kindness.
My retreat, however, was on jealousy and envy.*
Envy is the feeling of wanting what another person has:
I envy Sasha for her respected position in the community. I want that.
Jealousy is the feeling of threat that we might lose what we have:
I'm jealous of Paula and Ray being so close. I don't want Ray to choose Paula over me.
As I headed into the mountains of New Mexico, my partner at the time was headed to his high school reunion and looking a little too much forward to seeing a dear old friend, who happened to be recently single. Just to add to my entertainment, she was going to be staying at
his house. My relationship with him had been rocky for some time so I was feeling pretty vulnerable to competition. As I took the precepts to be in silence for the next ten days, I felt my guts would burn through my insides before the first night was over.
A meditator for over 20 years now, I was thinking I had the hang of this riding the waves of experience while following the breath in and out for hour after hour. This retreat, however, was going to be different.
Some months prior, around the New Year, I had been at a gathering with my sister-in-law, the closest I'll ever get to having an actual sister. We're close. At the gathering she declared that she was going to go to Thailand for the winter to meditate. I was shocked. I felt my face grow red and my jaw clench as the thought, "
I'm the Buddhist. Who does she think she is going to Thailand to meditate?" seethed in my head. I was blanketed in emotions I couldn't sort out, many of which seemed disgusting and shameful. How could I begrudge my dear sister-in-law a little happiness? After all, she'd survived breast cancer, major disk issues in her back, and a dreadful divorce from my brother. Surely she deserved a retreat in Thailand to reflect on her life. But part of me only wanted it for her if I could have it too. Part of me didn't want to be around her if I would have to hear about this retreat that I couldn't do but she could. That's when I realized, I must explore envy, jealousy and competition. I must learn to relate to these experiences differently. I could see that these emotions were blocking connection with other people and I felt powerless to stop them. I felt that if I didn't shift this, my circles of connection would get smaller and smaller as I would only be able to connect with people who in some way had what I had or less. I was appalled to see this in myself so clearly. Though I hid it all quite well, inside I felt ashamed. Shame further alienated me from those I envied.
So the universe, generously, gave me what I asked for: A whole retreat with envy, jealousy and competitive thoughts, in August in New Mexico. Seems like the perfect summer vacation, doesn't it?
I sat. The first day was pleasant with distraction. Sneaking peaks at who was there. Taking in the incredible New Mexico wilderness. Savoring each bite of delicious food. Treasuring the thunderous afternoon downpour that offered a promise of spiritual cleansing. But not for me. Not that day.
As night fell and I made my way to my bed, the darkness of memory moved in like a fog. My heart tightened. Breath thinned. There it was. Helplessness. Despair. The impulse in my arms to reach out. No one there.
The next morning at dawn I was relieved to join the other meditators in the hall for the morning sit. Though we were in silence, the company of others felt like rescue from the abyss of fear enclosing me at night.
Usually, retreat for me is refuge. Blessed refuge in silent community. But this retreat felt like bone scraping. Sitting with jealousy. Getting intimate with the one inside that told me even
having the experience of jealousy is shameful. One of the retreat teachers referred to my experience as the suffering that ends all suffering. I could only hope.
Each morning I would see the large tree that overlooked the retreat lodge. I would name her Mama. I would go before morning meditation as the sun was lighting the sky and cry to her. This ritual became my daily crying meditation. Something was being washed out of me, though I didn't know what. It became clear that this sadness was much deeper than jealousy over my partner possibly being interested in someone else.
In meditation, I began to work with the Brahma Viharas (divine abodes) one at a time. These are said to be the best medicine in Vippassana Buddhism. The four Brahma Viharas are Lovingkindness (Metta); Compassion (Karuna); Empathetic joy (Mudita); and Equanimity (Upekka). Surely one of them would cure this poisonous craving, clinging, desperation.
I began with
loving-kindness. Silently I said for my partner and his friend, "May you be happy. May you be safe. May you live in peace." That was unpleasant. I wasn't there yet. Then I tried it for myself. "May I be happy... May I live in peace." That brought some soothing. Slightly less obsessive rumination. And awareness of a knot of resentment that hung out in my jaw.
Brahma vihara practice is used to help counter the opposite states of mind. However, before they cool the toxins, they often shine a bright light on the coals of them. So, practicing loving-kindness for ourselves, ("May I be happy,") can make us painfully aware of how we feel anything but.
During a morning question and answer period on the fourth day, I summoned the courage to ask about the best way to work with jealousy and envy in my meditation practice. Even admitting to having jealousy felt like admitting a craving for a Fenway Frank during dinner at the International Convention of Vegans. (
We're Buddhists. We don't get jealous.)
The teacher referred me to mudita, or
empathetic joy, the hardest of all divine abodes. "Oh wow, I thought. I've taken on the Everest of karma. Why didn't I just go for a spa vacation in Santa Fe?"
In mudita practice you generate a sense of gratitude for the good fortune of others. It goes: "May you always enjoy good fortune and success." I thought, "my partner may be cheating on me with someone else this very moment and I'm supposed to wish them both eternal good fortune and happiness?"
See how the divine abodes shine a light on their opposite? Gratitude for their good fortune dropped me directly to a feeling of nausea. Dizziness even. And I sat. Belly heavy. Heart heavy. Head heavy. Arms wanting to reach out. For what? Breathing. Watching the rise and fall. Eventually, many hours later into the next day, the story dulls. The object of the pain blurs. What is left is
equanimity practice throughout the ten days. Each time the intensity of rage, despair, soul hunger began to feel like too much, I tried to invite equanimity, a sense of acceptance for things exactly as they are. Giving up striving, clinging, wanting something other than what is invites a deep letting go. And shines light on what feels impossible to relinquish. I would gently say to myself over and over again, "Things are as they are. Exhale. Things are as they are. Inhale."
At some point I switched to
compassion practice for myself. As Chris Germer and Kristin Neff teach in working with self-compassion, I silently said, "This is a moment of suffering. I care about this suffering." Sensing jealousy, envy and competitive striving as
suffering instead of something to get rid of, helped the shaming voice inside soften.
Finally a shift in awareness: This was longing. This was pain. It deserved my kindness, not spiritual surgery to remove it!
For a long time, I mentally rocked the part of me that was longing for what she didn't have, just feeling into the depth of the wish to be loved. Going daily to the Mama tree, letting her witness the longing. Taking comfort in leaning against her trunk. Sensing a greater world beyond this holding on to what can't be held. Knowing for the first time, the dreaded jealousy, envy, competitive grasp as a tender longing to connect, to be with -- to not be left behind. It wasn't that it
had to be fulfilled. Only witnessed. Only accepted. Only cared about.
Opening my heart for the first time to these culturally shamed and exiled states -- sensing that they might just be an expression of an innate instinct to join with and remain included in the tribe -- helped me care for the tender part, to give it what it needed: Acknowledgment, kindness, and acceptance.
I have a new practice when I sense a pang of envy, jealousy, competitive clinging. I note: "longing." I place my hand on my heart and let it know: You want to belong. You want to be included. Of course you do. We all want to belong. And in gently residing with this wish for belonging, there is comfort, in remembering my connection with all beings, including this earth, and most especially Mama Tree.