My good friend, Kari, took a two-week vacation to Hawaii. When she told me she was going, I felt a twinge of envy, but I thought nothing of it. However, once she was there and started posting “status updates” and photos to Facebook, I found myself quickly scrolling past her name. I was so filled with envy that I couldn't bear to read about what she was doing or to look at her pictures.
I was surprised to be feeling this way. After all, in my first book, How to Be Sick, I wrote about overcoming envy. Then I wrote about it again here in, “How to Find Joy in a Vacation You Cannot Take”. And I've written about it in my new book, How to Wake Up. After over a decade of an illness that has kept me from traveling more than a couple of hours from my Northern California home, I’ve worked hard on overcoming envy because it’s a painful emotion that keeps me from feeling at peace with my life as it is.
Why was I so envious? Why couldn't I feel for Kari what is known in Buddhism as mudita—joy in another’s joy? Why wasn't I happy for her? If I look at what was going on in my mind, I see that my desire to go to Hawaii was so strong that I’d linked going there to my very ability to be happy. I found myself thinking, “If only I could go to Hawaii, I’d be happy and content from now on.” I know that sounds delusional but that’s the way self-focused desire works sometimes. We experience it as a need, not just a preference. I was also feeling possessive about Hawaii: “It’s my Hawaii. Kari and her family are in my Hawaii.”
I’ve had a love affair with Hawaii since I was twelve years old. My father died when I was 10 and, two years later, my mother took my brother and me to Hawaii. It was the first time I remember having been happy since my father died. We went three summers in a row. Decades later, when my husband and I began to make enough money to take summer vacations, that’s where I insisted we go. With the rare exception (the trip to Paris where I got sick being one of them), Hawaii was the only place we vacationed: Oahu, The Big Island, Kauai, Maui, even Lanai and Molokai.
As for mudita, I know the peace and contentment that come with experiencing joy for another person who’s having a good time. My husband just spent two weeks on the East Coast, including several days in New York City. He went to a Broadway show and to the ballet with an old friend of ours. He even visited a dear friend of mine whom I’ve never met in person because we became close on the Internet and we’re both too sick to travel. Yes, I wish I could have been there, but I never envied him. And when he got home, I wanted to hear all about the trip—every detail—and still … no envy.
But I couldn't bear to read Kari’s “status updates” or look at her photos. My desire to be in Hawaii was too strong, and then there was that feeling of possessiveness: If I can’t go to Hawaii, I don’t want anyone else to go there. How selfish is that? It may sound selfish–even absurd—but that’s how I was feeling, and I know this about an emotion: 1) when I resist it, it only gets stronger; and 2) judging myself negatively for feeling the way I do only serves to increase my suffering and misery.
Working with Envy
Perhaps you’re feeling envious of someone right now. Maybe you have a friend who’s traveling where you’d like to go. Or maybe you know someone who’s in a new romantic relationship, or who just got a great job, or who’s in great physical shape. I worked hard on transforming my own "Hawaii envy." If you follow along, you could use this as a model for working on envy yourself.
[Aside from some minor editing, what follows is a "present moment" account of the words I wrote down as I tried to work through my envy about my friend's trip.]
Whenever I’m suffering from a painful emotion, the first thing I do is address myself with compassion. If a loved-one were suffering due to envy, I’d feel compassion for him or her, so why not for myself? If you’re trying this with me, choose phrases that speak to the particular suffering you’re experiencing. As I write this, I’m saying to myself: “It’s hard not to be able to go to Hawaii when I want so badly to be there. And I’m sad that I’m unable to feel joy for Kari.” Whatever the source of your envy is, take some time to fashion just the right phrases; find words that speak directly to your pain.
Having spoken to myself compassionately, I’m already feeling a bit better. That’s because, until I started being nice to myself, I hadn’t realized that there was some negative self-judgment present along with the envy—judgment in the form of: “I thought I was over this envy stuff; I’m a lousy Buddhist for feeling envy.” But now that I’m speaking kindly to myself over how painful it is for me not to be able to go to Hawaii and not to be able to feel joy for Kari, the self-judgment has subsided.
In this space of non-judgment, I’m going to turn my attention toward feeling happy for Kari. I’ll start with an easy challenge by picturing her doing something that she particularly likes to do—hiking. When I do that, I’m able to feel joy for the good time she’s having. But as soon as I picture her engaging in my favorite activity—swimming in the ocean—the desire to be there myself is stronger than any joy I’m able to feel for her. I want what she has—which is the essence of envy. That wanting is painful, so I’m going to go a step further and try touching her joy with my words: “May you enjoy the warm water and the waves breaking over you.” “May you find the perfect wave for body surfing to the shore.”
And suddenly, I’m feeling joy for her … and I know why. It’s because I’m not thinking about myself anymore. Instead, my mind is filled with thoughts and images of Kari in the ocean, and I hope she’s having a blast.
Having evoked in my heart this joy for her, I’m even feeling okay about not being able to go to Hawaii myself. I no longer feel it’s tied to my happiness. Instead, I recognize that this is how life is: I can’t always get what I want. No one can. Going to Hawaii is simply one more desire that, given my current circumstances, can’t be fulfilled. And I’m at peace with that.
Okay. Now it’s time for the real test. I’m going to look at some of her photos:
I did okay! I’m happy for her and I think I’ll be able to enjoy reading about the rest of her trip and looking at the pictures she posts.
Responding with mudita takes practice, so please don’t be discouraged if you try this and aren't as successful as I was. I’ve been practicing mudita for many years. All I ask of you is that whenever you’re feeling envy or whenever you’re feeling envy and, despite your efforts, are not able feel joy for the person you’re envious of, you immediately treat yourself with compassion and kindness. There’s not a lot that we control in this life, but one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. There’s never a good reason not to treat yourself as kindly as you’d treat the people you treasure most.
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 17 ("Appreciative Joy: An Antidote to Envy and Resentment") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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