When jealousy arises, our habitual response might be to suppress or distance ourselves from it. Perhaps we see afflictive emotions and thoughts—such as jealousy, anger, and fear—as a failing, as expressions of small mind, selfishness, or insecurity we’ve spent our whole life trying to get rid of. If we’re on a spiritual path, we might even think we’ve got past jealousy, so it can feel very discouraging to find it right here in our heart and mind again.
But we don’t have to feel discouraged. We have the opportunity, moment after moment, to reframe our lifelong habits of mind.
We can shift our focus, for example, from the sensation of jealousy to our habitual response when jealousy arises. That is, we can work directly with our impulse to scold ourselves for being petty and jealous. In much the same way that we allow any thought or feeling to enter our space in formal meditation, we can—at any time—notice the visitations of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as our responses as they arise.
We can then ask our response, whether it be irritation, discouragement, or judgment, a simple, quiet question that expresses our openness, such as, “Who have we here?” or “What is this?” We can ask the question without looking for or waiting for an answer. The energy and openness of just asking, of not knowing, is what we’re engaging as we inhabit our breath and body in this moment, in this place.
In traditional Buddhist teaching we find the concept of the kleshas, the afflictive mental states. Among these is jealousy, as well as fear, anger, and others, and they are considered obstacles to progress in our practice. The Zen contribution to this teaching, notably offered by the Zen ancestor Hui-neng of eighth-century China, is to reframe the concepts of affliction and obstacles and to engage with the teachings on emptiness in daily practice.
Hui-neng’s teacher, Hong-ren, asked his students to compose a poem expressing their understanding. Only two students responded—his top-ranked student and Hui-neng, who was at that time a kitchen worker. The top-ranked student, Shen-xiu, offered a verse describing the practice of continuous vigilance—perceiving afflictive mental states as they arise and ridding the mind of these afflictions:
The body is a bodhi tree
the mind is like a standing mirror
always try to keep it clean
don’t let it gather dust
Hui-neng, on the other hand, offered a verse expressing present moment, only moment practice:
Bodhi doesn’t have any trees
this mirror doesn’t have a stand
our buddhanature is forever pure
where do you get this dust?
Zen embraces both practices: Shen-xiu’s continuous vigilance and Hui-neng’s direct, unembellished, and unencumbered approach. In Suzuki Roshi’s words, “You are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement.”
Looking at afflictive mental states from the point of view of evolution, perhaps they are part of our survival tool kit. For example, when anger or fear arise in an unacceptable or dangerous situation, we may experience a surge of adrenaline and sometimes clarity, which assists us in our effort to escape or find a remedy.
So perhaps we can reframe jealousy in this way: “Within my human tribal group, I need to be aware of resources—how much of a resource I need and how I can acquire and maintain it. At the same time, I need to keep an eye on how much others are able to acquire and maintain compared to me. My reputation and the group’s confidence in me may suffer if I don’t keep up with others, and I may be the one who is sacrificed if the group comes under threat. This dynamic requires constant vigilance.”
Perhaps jealousy is our vigilant awareness of our standing among the tribe. This scenario offers us a different and helpful lens through which we can approach practicing with jealousy.
When plagued by jealousy, we can welcome it by saying, “Here is jealousy, my old, prehistoric friend.” Then we can allow jealousy its space, its cycle and trajectory. It will arise and fall away without our intervention. Our practice is just breathing in and out, observing tension in the chest, the increase in heart rate, the changes in body heat, and the same old repetitive story kicking in faster and faster.
Jealousy is a fact of human life. We can’t get rid of it once and for all, but we can stop believing that jealousy is the enemy and a cause for shame and embarrassment. We can simply bear quiet witness. When we stop fighting against jealousy and allow it to take its own evolutionary place in our human heart and mind, we may notice over time that it stays pretty quiet because it isn’t really needed much as a tool for survival. And when jealousy does arise, we can ask it what it needs—why it is here. That is, we can honor it by seeing it as honorable.
When jealousy arises strongly and we are just sitting and breathing in its midst, we can contemplate how many people on earth right now are experiencing jealousy? There must be millions experiencing this withering, diminishing, infuriating state of mind that seems so real and urgent. And how many people are the recipients of this jealousy, feeling the hatred and mistrust of others? Such thoughts can melt our hearts, energize our bodhisattva vow, and revive our practice of mudita, sympathetic joy.
When we glimpse the depth and breadth of universal human suffering, we see that our afflictive mental states are not personal, even though the experience of these states is deeply personal. The truth is that we are at once personal and universal; we are both particular individuals and also one boundary-less being. Our commitment to each other is to love without boundary and to celebrate each other’s happiness, accomplishments, and contributions as if they were our own, because in a sense, they are.