Envy: Dealing with Disturbing Emotions
Dr. Alexander Berzin
There are many forms of envy. It may simply be the inability to tolerate others’ accomplishments, or may include the wish we had them ourselves. We may covet what someone else has and wish to have it ourselves, and may even wish that they be deprived of it. Competiveness may also be involved, as well as the dualistic thinking of ourselves as absolute “losers” and of others as absolute “winners.” Underlying all of these is a preoccupation with ourselves. By analyzing all these components, Buddhism offers sophisticated methods for deconstructing our disturbing emotions and ridding ourselves of them.
We all experience disturbing emotions – states of mind that when we develop them cause us to lose our mental peace and incapacitate us so that we lose self-control. Common examples are greed, attachment, hostility, anger, envy and jealousy. They trigger various mental urges (karma) to arise, usually ones that lead to destructive behavior. The urges may be to act destructively toward others or to act in some self-destructive way. The result is that we create problems and suffering for others and, inevitably, for ourselves.
There is a vast range of disturbing emotions. Each culture mentally draws some arbitrary line around a set of common emotional experiences that most people in its society experience, decides on some defining characteristics that describe it as a category, and then give the category a name. Of course, each culture chooses different sets of common emotional experiences, different defining characteristics to describe them, and, in this way, makes up different categories of disturbing emotions.
Categories of disturbing emotions specified by different cultures usually do not exactly overlap, because the definitions of the emotions are slightly different. For example, Sanskrit and Tibetan each have one word usually translated as “jealousy” (Skt. irshya, Tib. phrag-dog), while most Western languages have two. English has “jealousy” and “envy,” while German, for instance, has “Eifersucht” and “Neid.” The distinction between the two English terms is not precisely the same as that drawn between the two German words, and the Sanskrit and Tibetan do not correspond exactly to any of the terms in either language. If, as Westerners, we experience emotional problems in this general category, designated by the categories formulated by our own cultures and languages, and we wish to learn Buddhist methods for overcoming them, we may need to analyze and deconstruct our emotions, as we conceptualize them, into a combination of several disturbing emotions as defined in Buddhism.
Here, let’s focus on the Buddhist term in its meaning as “envy,” since that is closer to its traditional definition. We have discussed jealousy, as in a relationship, separately in the “Buddhism in Daily Life” section (See: How to Deal with Jealousy in Relationships).
What Is Envy?
The Buddhist texts classify “envy” as a part of hostility. They define it as “a disturbing emotion that focuses on other peoples’ accomplishments – such as their good qualities, possessions, or success – and is the inability to bear their accomplishments, due to excessive attachment to one’s own gain or to the respect one receives.”
Attachment, here, means that we’re focused on some area of life in which others have accomplished more than we have, and we exaggerate its positive aspects. In our minds, we make this area one of the most important aspects of life and base our sense of self-worth on it. Implicit is an inordinate preoccupation with and attachment to “me.” Thus, we’re envious because we’re “attached to our own gain or to the respect we receive” in terms of this area. For example, we may fixate on the amount of money we have or on how good-looking we are. As an aspect of hostility, envy adds to this attachment a strong element of resentment at what others have achieved in this area. It’s the opposite of rejoicing and feeling happy at what they have accomplished.
Envy often also includes an element of hostility toward the person we believe to enjoy an advantage over us. Of course, the advantage may be true or not, but in either case we are preoccupied with ourselves and on what we don’t have.
Furthermore, envy, as defined in Buddhism, covers part, but not all of the English word “envy.” The English concept adds a little more. It adds what Buddhism calls “covetousness.” Covetousness is “the inordinate desire for something that someone else possesses.” Thus, the definition of “envy” in English is “a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else, joined with the desire to enjoy the same advantage.” In other words, in addition to the inability to bear others’ accomplishments in an area of life that, as Buddhism points out, we exaggerate the importance of, envy is the wish to have these accomplishments ourselves. We might be poor or lacking in this area, or we may already have an adequate or even above average measure of it. If we’re envious and want even more, our covetousness has grown into greed. Often, although not necessarily, envy entails the further wish for others to be deprived of what they have achieved, so that we can have it instead. In this case, there’s an even further ingredient to the emotion, spite.
In combination with covetousness, envy leads to competitiveness. Thus, Trungpa Rinpoche discussed envy as the disturbing emotion that drives us to become highly competitive and to work fanatically to outdo others or ourselves. It’s connected with forceful action – the so-called “karma family.” Because of being envious of what others have accomplished, we push ourselves or we push others under us to do more and more, like with extreme competition in business or sports. Thus, Buddhism uses the horse to represent envy. It races against other horses because of envy. It cannot bear that another horse is running faster.
Envy and Competitiveness
It’s true that, in Buddhism, envy is closely related to competitiveness, although the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. Someone could be envious of others, and with low self-esteem, not even try to compete. Similarly, being competitive does not necessarily entail envy. Some people like to compete in sports simply for fun, to enjoy themselves and the company of others, without ever wishing to keep score.
Buddhism connects envy and competition differently. For example, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, the great Indian master Shantideva puts together in one discussion envy toward those in higher position, competitiveness with equals, and arrogance toward those who are lower in status. His discussion is within the context of learning to view all beings as equal.
The problem Buddhism is addressing here is the feeling that “I” am special, which underlies all three disturbing emotions. If we think and feel that “I” am the only one who deserves to do a specific thing, such as get ahead in life, and we’re envious if someone else succeeds, we become competitive. We have to outdo the other person, even if we’re already moderately successful. Here, envy is a strong feeling of “me” and a strong preoccupation with us alone. We do not consider others in the same way as we do ourselves. We consider ourselves special.
The remedy Buddhism offers to the problems and unhappiness caused by these types of envy, competitiveness, and arrogance is to treat the underlying fallacy concerning “me” and “you.” We need to realize and view everyone as equal. Everyone has the same basic abilities, in the sense that everyone has Buddha-nature – the potentials that allow for the attainment of enlightenment. Also, everyone has the same wish to be happy and to succeed, and not to be unhappy or to fail. And everyone has the same right to be happy and to succeed and the same right not to be unhappy or to fail. There’s nothing special about “me” in these regards. Buddhism also teaches love – the wish for everyone, equally, to be happy.
When we learn to view everyone as equal, in terms of Buddha-nature and love, then we’re open to see how to relate to someone who has either succeeded more than we have or who has succeeded when we have not. We rejoice in his or her success, since we want everyone to be happy. We try to help our equals also succeed, rather than competing with them and trying to outdo them. Toward those who are less successful than we are, we try to help them do well, rather than gloat and arrogantly feel better than they are.
These suggested Buddhist methods are extremely advanced and particularly difficult to apply when our automatically arising envy and competitiveness are reinforced, strengthened and even rewarded by certain Western cultural values. After all, almost all children automatically like to win and cry when they lose. But, on top of that, many Western cultures teach capitalism as the naturally best form of a democratic society. Underlying it is the theory of the survival of the fittest, which sets competition as the basic driving force of life, rather than, for instance, love and affection. Further, Western cultures reinforce the importance of success and winning with an obsession with competitive sports, and their glorification of the best athletes and the richest people in the world.
In addition, the whole political system of democracy and voting entails competition – offering and then selling ourselves as candidates by publicizing how much better we are than our rivals for office. As commonly practiced in the West, campaigning adds to this an intense effort to find out every possible weak point in the rival candidates, even in terms of their private lives, and inflating them out of proportion and widely publicizing them in order to discredit him or her. Many people even view such type of behavior, based on jealousy and competition, as praiseworthy and just. Here, translating the Buddhist term as “jealousy” is more appropriate than “envy,” though the emotional dynamics is the same.
Tibetan society, on the other hand, frowns on anyone who depreciates others and claims he or she is better than they are. These are considered negative character traits. In fact, the first root bodhisattva vow is never to praise ourselves and belittle others to people in positions lower than ourselves – which would include, here, advertising such words to the voting public. The motivation is specified as desire for profit, praise, love, respect, and so on from the persons addressed, and jealousy of the persons belittled. It makes no difference whether what we say is true or false. In contrast, when speaking about ourselves, extreme modesty and saying “I have no good qualities; I don’t know anything” is considered praiseworthy. Thus, democracy and campaigning for votes are totally alien and do not work in Tibetan society if practiced in the usual Western form.
Even just to say that we want to run for office is taken as a suspicious sign of arrogance and of a non-altruistic motive. The only possible compromise may be for representatives of the candidates – and never the nominees themselves – merely to speak to others about their candidates’ good qualities and accomplishments, without comparing them to those of the rivals for the office or saying anything bad about them. This, however, is hardly ever done. Usually, candidates who are well known, such as from noble families or incarnate lamas, are nominated, without even asking them if they wish to run. If they say they don’t wish to run for office, this is taken as a sign of modesty, since immediately to say “yes” indicates arrogance and greed for power. It’s almost impossible for someone nominated to refuse. Voting is then done, without campaigning. People usually vote for the candidate who is most well known.
Thus, the Buddhist method of rejoicing in the victories of others – and the even stronger one of giving the victory to others and accepting defeat for ourselves – may not be the most suitable first remedy to try for Westerners who are strongly convinced of the virtues of capitalism and of the Western electoral system of campaigning. As Westerners, we might need first to reevaluate the validity of our cultural values and deal with the doctrinally based forms of jealousy, envy and competition that arise from accepting those values, before addressing the automatically arising forms.
An example that may help us to see the relativity of Western culturally based jealousy, envy and competitiveness is an Indian market. In India, there are cloth markets, jewelry markets, vegetable markets, and so on. Each has row after row of stalls and shops, right next to each other, all selling almost exactly the same goods. Most of the shopkeepers are friends with each other and often sit drinking tea together outside their shops. Their attitude is that it’s up to their karma whether or not their shops do well.
As we have seen, envy is the inability to bear someone else’s achievement in an area that we exaggerate the importance of, for instance his or her financial success. Envious of it, we wish that we could achieve it instead. A variation of this occurs when someone receives something from someone, such as love or affection. We likewise wish that we could receive it instead.
This disturbing emotion of envy derives from two deceptive appearances that, because of confusion and just not knowing how things exist, our minds create and project. The first is the dualistic appearance of (1) a seemingly concrete “me” who inherently deserves to achieve or receive something, but did not, and (2) a seemingly concrete “you” who inherently did not deserve to get it. Unconsciously, we feel that the world owes us something and it’s unfair when others get it instead. We divide the world into two solid categories: “losers” and “winners,” and imagine that people truly exist and are findable inside the boxes of these seemingly solid true categories. Then we put ourselves in the solid permanent category of “loser” and we put the other person in the solid permanent category of “winner.” We might even put everyone in the winners’ box, except ourselves. Not only do we feel resentment, we feel doomed. This leads to fixation on the painful thought, “poor me.”
Naivety about behavioral cause and effect usually accompanies envy. For example, we do not understand and even deny that the person who received a promotion or affection did anything to earn or deserve it. Moreover, we feel that we should get it without having to do anything to bring it about. Alternatively, we feel that we did do a lot, but still didn’t get the reward. Our minds thus create a second deceptive appearance and project it. Our confused minds make things appear to happen for no reason at all, or for only one reason: what we alone did.
Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances
We need to deconstruct these two deceptive appearances. Our cultures might have taught us that the driving principle inherent in the world of living beings is competition: the drive to win, survival of the fittest. But that premise might not be true. Nevertheless, if we have accepted it, we then believe that the world is inherently divided, by its very nature, into an absolute dichotomy of winners and losers. Consequently, we perceive the world in the fixed conceptual categories of winners and losers, and of course view ourselves with the same conceptual framework.
Although these concepts of winners, losers, and competition may be useful for describing evolution, we need to realize that they are only arbitrary mental constructions. “Winner" and "loser" are only mental labels. They are convenient mental categories used to describe certain events, such as coming in first in a race, getting a promotion at work instead of someone else getting it, or losing a client or student to someone else. We could just as easily divide people into the categories of “nice persons” and “not nice persons,” depending on how we define “nice.”
When we see that all such dualistic sets of categories are merely mentally constructed, we start to realize that there is nothing inherent on the side of “me” or “you” that locks us into solid categories. It’s not that we’re basically losers, inherently, and, in thinking of ourselves as losers, we have finally discovered the truth – the real “me” is a loser. Poor “me.” Rather, we have many other qualities besides losing a client to someone else, so why dwell on that one as if that were the real “me.”
Furthermore, it’s only because of our limited minds and preoccupation with thinking “poor ‘me’” and “you bastard ‘you,’” that it seems like success and failure, gain and loss, happen for no reasons at all, or for irrelevant reasons. That’s why we think that what happened to us was unfair. What happens in the universe, however, happens because of a huge network of cause and effect. So many things affect what happens to us and to others, it’s beyond our imaginations to include every factor.
When we deconstruct these two deceptive appearances (winners and losers, and things happening for no good reason) and stop projecting them, we relax our feelings of injustice. Beneath our jealousy is merely awareness of what has been accomplished, what has happened. We lost a client to someone else and now someone else has this client. This makes us aware of a goal to achieve. If we don’t begrudge someone else for achieving or receiving it, we can perhaps learn how the person accomplished the feat. This enables us to see how to accomplish it ourselves. We only feel envious and jealous because of overlaying this awareness with dualistic appearances and concrete identities.
Thus, Buddhism offers a variety of methods to deal with the disturbing emotion of envy, whether we define them in the Buddhist manner or in Western ways. When we’re troubled with a disturbing emotion, the challenge is to recognize correctly the defining characteristics and our cultural backgrounds. When, through meditation practice, we have trained ourselves in a variety of methods, we can choose an appropriate one to help us work through any emotional difficulties we may be experiencing.