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Turn envy into a positive practice for finding—and fulfilling—your potential.
If anyone should be immune to feelings of envy, it’s Sally Kempton. Having spent decades as a monk in the Indian tradition, she now teaches meditation and spiritual-wisdom workshops around the world, and is known for her ability to point out the spiritual fruits hidden inside your painful stuff. But even Kempton has experienced the undeniably earthly emotion of envy. Case in point: She once had a colleague who, she says, “spoke in such a way that her words lit people up.” Admirable—and yet Kempton found herself criticizing her colleague. Ever the self-examiner, she realized that her critical tone belied her jealousy of her colleague’s gift for using language to inspire people. “It was something I wished I had myself,” says Kempton. “And I also saw—this was the big recognition—that my feelings were hurting her as well as me. That was the moment I started investigating envy.”
Of all our human characteristics—for instance, our ability to love, empathize, and reason—envy ranks low on the popularity list. And yet it’s practically universal: At some point, rather than celebrating another’s greatness and letting it inspire our own, we feel judgmental, resentful, and even angry at her success. Fortunately, there are solutions, says Kempton. She points to clues in Yoga Sutra I.33. In this sacred teaching, Patanjali advises, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Not only do es this make good sense, it seems like it should be our natural reaction to others’ moods and behaviors. Yet when we’re stuck in negativity, Patanjali’s ideal can seem unreachable. So, how do we draw out kindness from behind the masks of jealousy? Here, Kempton offers six steps to transform our envy into a positive practice for fulfilling our potential.
6 Steps for Transforming Envy
Step 1: Acknowledge the envy.
Imagine a friend you met in yoga class is nailing Handstand, and the teacher is complimentary. Meanwhile, you struggle to kick up and are being ignored. Notice your thoughts: I could never do that. I don’t have his biceps. Or, If he weren’t always hogging the center of the room, the teacher would pay more attention to me. Thoughts like these are markers of envy, and when they arise, you’re likely to do one of four things: remove yourself from the situation; criticize the person you envy; try to get closer to her in hopes of having some of her power rub off on you; or begin competing with her in areas where you feel that you shine. According to Kempton, learning to recognize these telltale indicators is the first step toward turning them around.
Step 2: Embody your emotions.
When you are in the grip of envy, Kempton recommends getting in touch with what happens in your body as a result. Is there a burning or sinking feeling in your heart? A clenching in your jaw? After you’ve located the feeling of envy in your physical body, be still and simply feel the emotion, without acting on it, analyzing it, or pushing it away. Next, imagine a wide space around the feeling in your body. Hold the feeling in this space with your attention. Once you embrace the feeling with your awareness, it will begin to morph into something potentially productive.
Step 3: Identify the traits you desire.
Feelings of envy usually point to an aspect of yourself or a goal that is yet unrealized. “We don’t get jealous of people whose gifts are completely out of reach or interest,” says Kempton. “If you’re a ballet dancer, it’s unlikely that you’d envy a playwright—unless you were secretly trying to write plays.” But if someone has a gift, skill, or look that you want to develop, envy may arise, explains Kempton. When jealousy comes up, ask yourself: What is the quality I envy? Do I have this trait? If so, am I fully expressing my version of this attribute?
Step 4: Focus on your unique self.
The next step is to develop the envied quality more fully—but keep in mind that your expression of the trait will be unique to you. “You can look for corresponding abilities in yourself that may simply express themselves differently, or require more work on your part,” says Kempton. For instance, Kempton recognized that the trait she envied in her colleague—the ability to infuse her words with feeling—was something she wanted for herself, but talking about her emotions in her friend’s way wasn’t natural to her. Over time, Kempton found her own approach: cultivating her heart energy. She now practices pausing before she speaks to get centered in her heart, then softly breathing into the area behind her sternum to put her in touch with a feeling of tenderness that she can express in her own way.
Step 5: Realize there’s enough for everyone.
When you feel jealous, it’s often because you perceive a scarcity: You fear that because another person is doing something neat (teaching trendy yoga, for example), there’s less room for the rest of us to do so. “We all have to cultivate the recognition that there’s enough talent, skill, and love to go around,” says Kempton. Find phrases or words that help you feel abundant, and use them—even if it seems a little contrived. Affirmations like “I have access to infinite potential,” “Everything is a teaching for me,” and “I am being guided, protected, and inspired in every moment” can help foster an inner space for creative possibilities.
Step 6: Cultivate generosity.
Now you’re ready to practice Patanjali’s sage advice, found in Yoga Sutra II.33, for transforming negative feelings: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of.” The opposite of envy is generosity. One way to cultivate generosity is to offer praise to the person you envy—go ahead and compliment his effort in Handstand, or congratulate your friend for her job promotion. Another strategy is to help the person. For example, for one of Kempton’s friends, the solution to his envy of a fellow teacher was to offer to coach his rival in how to prepare for workshops. When you meet a feeling of envy by speaking and acting generously, it curtails your tendency toward envy. In time, you’ll find that your envy is replaced by a genuine feeling of goodwill toward another person’s success and gifts—and you’ll become more open to your own talents.