February 11, 2013

Green with Envy? Try Appreciation.

Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills, c. 1958. © 1978 Joe Shere

“One way to guarantee happiness, Shantideva says, is to rejoice in the good qualities of others. Not only is this an antidote for envy, it also generates warmth and brings us heartfelt joy.”

~ Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose

It’s easy to overlook envy, to mask it in something else. Envy is so systemic, so automatic, so insidious. Sometimes we have to get as far as deciding we are not worthy of whatever it is we’d like to have before jealousy rears its head, lurking under the guise of some other form of self-hatred or poverty mind.

Poverty mind—in addition to (or instead of, in some cases) actual, real poverty (lack of money, resources or support)—is the confusion that tells us that there’s not enough of anything for us, or, even more commonly, that we are not enough. Obviously, thinking we are not enough is a big root of self-hatred, and vice versa.

The thing is that all of these thoughts, all of these strange constructions within which we live our confused lives, are actually based in appreciation.

First, we see (or smell, or think about, or sense) someone else’s meal, someone’s girlfriend or car, someone else’s weight or height. We sense it and we want it, but before we want it, we appreciate it. This is fundamentally how both ego and karma are built—our direct experience is filtered through preference, then associated with passion, aggression or ignorance and finally expressed through actions that perpetuate any of these three roots of confusion.

So, by the time we get to envy, we have left appreciation behind. In envy, we have already decided we are not worthy of the object of our envy.

If we believed ourselves worthy, we wouldn’t get caught in envy. We wouldn’t feel the insecurity which is necessary to feel lacking in something we in fact are adequate enough for—whether or not we have it.

This is what makes envy so tragic. Appreciation, the kind that comes before judgment, before preference, is simple perception, direct experience. We experience—to paraphrase Chogyam Trungpa in True Perception—the rose and the dog shit equally as powerful sense experiences.

Before we back away from the tang of dog shit, there’s a moment of fully smelling, experiencing it. That is the most basic, unbiased appreciation. Out of that kind of appreciation we decide the worth of the experience and/or the worth of ourselves. Once we leave that state of appreciation, whether we admire or despise the results, we have left the ability to appreciate. We can return, but only through being fully present, perceptually cutting through poverty and preference.

Teaching creative process is one of the places I most experience envy in my students:

“He’s so good. I wish I could take shots like this.”

What a strange compliment this is. What a disassociation it truly is. We have gone from the pure experience/appreciation of the image to preferring it, categorizing it—taking attention off of the image, off of the photographer even, and putting it onto the speaker, who has decided he isn’t worthy and may never be.

This happens in my writing classes, too. Everyone seems to want to be able to write like someone else. The most ironic situations are of course when two people wish they could write like one another:

“No, but you are so good with detail. I can’t put people there in the scene like you.”

“Yeah, but I wish I had your knack for the big picture—for getting inside characters’ minds.”

You can see that the sentiment underneath these statements is genuine—digging each others’ merits. But by the time we are saying, “I wish I could do what you do,” we have already dropped our appreciation altogether, and shifted the focus onto something impossible. There is no “as good as you at writing”—there’s only your writing and my writing. If we spend our time trying to write like (photograph like, love like, live like) someone else, we will be sorely disappointed.

Of course, underneath most envy is a fundamental absence of appreciation of oneself.

And if we cannot appreciate ourselves, we certainly cannot truly appreciate others. So it is here we must really begin. What do you do well? What can you appreciate about yourself?

Start not by making some “good things about me” list, but, rather, by simply being present with yourself. Deep underneath our dislike of ourselves is actually an absolute attentiveness. We are capable of being more aware than anyone else of who we are and how we experience things. We are capable, therefore, of a deeper appreciation than anyone else of ourselves.

This is not positive thinking. This is not “The Secret.” This is manifestation the long, slow, hard way—but it’s the real thing. Working with your own struggles, your own merits, your own fears and your own benefits gives you a major advantage over all the others in the world who are focused on everyone else. When you truly appreciate yourself, and others, you know more clearly what any given situation needs. You don’t waste time hating yourself or envying others.

And it all stems from one place—your senses. Envy is a waste of time, and causes great suffering for both the envier and the envied. However, it is based, like everything else, in the same direct experiences.

Return to the source and re-wire, directing your appreciation to be of benefit to the world. Watch your envy fade and your joy increase.


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Assistant Ed.: Jayleigh Lewis

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