The moment was a perfectly ordinary one in Pat’s life. She and a friend were discussing their mutual acquaintance, Emily—a mother of two who manages a nonprofit while getting a master’s degree in psychology. “You know she’s totally ADD,” Pat was saying. “She’s living on Ritalin.”
Then, Pat tells me, she actually heard herself, heard the tone of her own voice. “It was like I stepped outside myself and went, omigod, I’m badmouthing Emily because I’m literally ridden with envy. She makes me feel inadequate. I mean, I can barely handle one job and keep my marriage together, and she’s juggling two jobs and two kids, plus she has a great husband who takes her to warm places every winter. Some part of me doesn’t think that’s fair.”
But there was more. “I have certain friends I criticize a lot,” Pat admitted. “Almost all the time, what’s behind the criticism is envy.”
In the shadowy regions of the human psyche, where buried emotions fester and attack us from behind, envy often lives disguised, never quite showing its face, surfacing instead as a critical remark, the guilty pleasure at a friend’s hard times, or a secret act of sabotage. When envy is particularly well hidden, we may not even be able to name it. We just find that certain people irritate us or “make” us feel we’re lacking.
A young graphic designer says that she nearly ended a friendship with another woman because of an inexplicable feeling of annoyance. “Finally I realized that I just envied her. She has enough money so she doesn’t have to work. She gets to do all these creative projects and go to yoga retreats, and when I was around her, I’d feel bad because I don’t have that freedom. How screwed up is that? My friend is lucky and happy, so I want to end our friendship?”
Envy is hard to look at, hard to admit. So we often let it smolder unexplored until it erupts in a broken partnership or a family quarrel. No wonder it runs like a dark thread through so many sibling relationships, sits like a secret canker in friendships and professional associations, and has fueled literary plots from the Mahabharata to Othello to A Separate Peace. Perhaps it was discomfort with their own envious feelings that prompted the Greeks to project envy onto their gods, producing a mythology filled with stories of divine retribution directed at too-beautiful or too-talented mortals. No question about it: Envy hurts.
And, for me at least, envy is also pretty embarrassing. Anger can have a certain Kali-esque cachet. Desire could be re-framed as sheer appetite for life. But envy feels like a loser’s emotion. It’s especially shameful if you’re a yogi—a person who is supposed to know better.
Because we want to keep it hidden, envy can be particularly difficult to deal with. If you’re going to work with your own shadow issues, you first have to admit that you have them. How many of us are willing to cop to the heart-twisting feeling that pops up when a friend calls to tell you she’s just received a fellowship, or the sense of injustice—the barely articulated Why him and not me? that clouds your first glimpse of your wealthy friend’s fabulous new apartment? (“It’s not about the money, ” someone told me recently. “It’s the beauty he has around him.”)
Envy so often looks like something else—resentment, perhaps, or a sense of dissatisfaction with your own life, your own income, your own family. For many people, envy simply merges with an overall feeling of not being quite good enough.
So, if you want to uncover the envy in your psyche, you may have to sift through several layers of costumes. There are clues, of course: a compulsion to find fault with someone, the feeling of depression you experience in certain people’s presence, or the whiny inner voice that says “Good things never happen for me!” when you hear of a friend’s good luck. Perhaps surprisingly, that type of discouraged resignation often surfaces in spiritual groups, which is why some spiritual teachers ask their students not to discuss their meditation experiences: “Other people can feel bad when they hear you had some kind of inner breakthrough,” a teacher of mine once explained. “And sometimes they get jealous and want to hurt you.”
For all these reasons, I was intrigued by the strategy Pat found to work with her envy. “I did the normal stuff,” she told me. “Substituting loving thoughts. Listing all the things I’m grateful for. But the main thing that shifted it for me was realizing that the people I envied were either people who had qualities I thought I was supposed to have and didn’t, or else they were expressing potentials that I knew I had but didn’t know how to bring out. And that last realization was huge for me.” She began examining the people whose radiance or skill felt particularly galling to her. In every case, they were peers.
Maybe there’s no one you envy. But if you did envy someone, you might notice this same interesting truth. I did. I’m not the least bit jealous of the president of Yale, because I’m not playing in his ballpark. Nor do I envy people whose greatness is so undeniable that I can only offer salutations. Those I envy are people just like me, whose quirks and failings I can see as clearly as my own, yet who somehow manage to express their talents in a way that I feel I should be able to do myself.
A writer friend of mine and teacher of Kabbalah who believes that all our shadow qualities are actually distortions of our soul’s unique gifts, says, “The thing that really makes me jealous is when someone else writes a book I wanted to write. I’ll see that person and say, ‘That was a really good book. I’m so jealous I can’t stand it!’”
My friend Wendy knows how to share her experiences so openly and honestly that people love to listen to her. Sometimes when I’d hear her regaling a group, making a mundane tale seem fascinating, I’d have to suppress a sour twinge of envy. One day I asked myself, “OK, which of my unexpressed gifts does she embody?” and realized that I envied and longed for her ability to speak simply and from the heart. When I began cultivating the energy in my own heart, my spiritual center of gravity shifted as well, and my words also came from a deeper connection with myself. Once I’d learned to follow Wendy’s example, I stopped envying her.
The Fix for Envy
Envy, like any other complex feeling you indulge in for a while, may have laid down enough tracks in your nervous system to have become a habitual tendency. Then it acts as a default setting—manifesting as a surge of agitation whenever you see someone who triggers that reaction.
Because envy is rooted in the feeling of lack or deficiency, the assumption that there’s not enough to go around, its best antidotes will be practices that activate your own feelings of natural abundance. The process of getting free works faster if you engage it on several levels: the level of thought and imagination, the level of action, and the level of awareness.
When I decided to confront my own envy, I did it on a case-by-case basis, and each time I started with the same inquiry. I’d ask myself exactly what I envied in the other person. Then I’d work with one of the classical mind-training practices from Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra: “Cultivating feelings of friendliness toward the happy,” but with a twist.
Suppose I had been wishing I had someone else’s intelligence or wit. I’d picture the person before me and send forth the wish that her brilliance would shine brighter. If someone’s social gifts piqued me, I’d ask that her friends value her even more. Then I’d think of some of my own desires for myself: love, fulfilling work, recognition, enlightenment, mastery of a skill, a beautiful place to live, the boots I’d admired in a store window. And I would mentally offer each of these to the person I envied.
This practice works on several levels. First, it feels good in the moment and will often wipe out the unpleasant residue that envy creates in your own being. Second, it should improve your relationship to the person you’ve envied. I’ve noticed that when I offer inner gifts to others, it inspires a certain motherly fondness, as if I were personally responsible for making their lives better!
The third effect is more difficult to prove. But many people who practice this sort of active, specific well-wishing eventually notice that some of the gifts they’ve wished for other people begin to appear in their own lives. Another way to look at this is as an illustration of the karmic law that we get back what we give. I feel, however, that it comes from the fact that we are all, in essence, part of a single energy. The wishes we send out to others are ultimately being offered to ourselves—since in reality there is no other. So it makes sense that when we offer to others what we desire for ourselves, we attract those qualities into our lives.
Offer Your Help
Another envy antidote is one I learned from hearing about how my friend’s guru helped him work through his envy. H. is a gifted and rather competitive teacher who played contact sports in high school and brings some of that intensity to his spiritual life. For many years, he and another man were the teaching stars of their spiritual community. During much of that time, H. kept a mental score card on which he totted up his own accomplishments and compared them to the other man’s: “Two keynote addresses for him, one weekend workshop for me. A weeklong intensive for me, a weeklong intensive for him.”
During one retreat, the guru appointed H.’s rival to give all the dharma talks. H. was doing his best not to feel bad about it, and succeeding only partially. Then, the guru called him in and told him that the other man’s talks were not sufficiently inspiring or helpful.
She asked my friend to help his rival. She added, “I’m making you responsible for him.”
H. could not have been more ambivalent. One part of him had been secretly hoping that the other man would fail. On the other hand, he is an ethical person with a strong sense of fairness and service.
He devoted the rest of that summer to helping the other man shine. By the end of it, he told me, he felt that the tendrils of many years of secret ill-wishing and hidden acts of sabotage had been pulled out of his subtle body.
Finally, the real secret to working with the envy gremlin is to acknowledge its right to exist. It sounds paradoxical to say that our shadow tendencies will begin to dissolve when we begin to accept them. But anyone who’s ever worked with their inner Ugly Stepsisters knows that fighting them only seems to make those envious, angry, greedy parts of us push back. It works better to invite these inner demons to sit across the table and talk to us. “How could we forget those ancient myths…the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses?” wrote the poet Rilke. “…Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
For me, every deep transformation has begun with a moment when I embraced myself even in the presence of feelings that felt stunted and shameful. One way I’ve been able to do this is to hold on to the Tantric understanding about shadow energies, reminding myself that envy, anger, fear, greediness, are at bottom simply energies that have become contracted and fixed. Behind every inner block, every painful feeling, every surge of resentment, is a bit of life force waiting to be freed. You can start to see this once you stand back for a moment from the content of your shadow feelings.
Forget about the person you envy. Forget about what she has that you wish were yours. Look instead at the energy the feeling is made of, and you’ll notice that nothing in the feeling has any real solidity. It’s always shifting, cloudlike, in the greater field of energy that is you. Perhaps, at that moment, you might open to the insight that the energy forming and dissolving within your mind and heart is not really separate from the energy around you. Perhaps at that moment, you might realize that the person you envy is not really someone separate from you: that you lack nothing, because you are, at your deepest core, part of a vast field of energy that contains, potentially, everything you could ever want or need.