Jealousy and envy are similar negative emotions that can make you miserable and spoil your relationships. Where do jealousy and envy come from, and how might Buddhism help you deal with them? Jealousy is defined as a resentment toward others because they possess something you think belongs to you. It is often accompanied by possessiveness, insecurity and a sense of betrayal. Psychologists say jealousy is a natural emotion that has been observed in non-human species as well. It may actually have had some useful purpose somewhere in our evolutionary past. But jealousy is incredibly destructive when it gets out of control
Envy is also a resentment toward others because of their possessions or success, but the envious don’t necessarily assume those things should have been theirs. Envy may be linked to a lack of confidence or a sense of inferiority. Of course, the envious also crave the things others have that they don’t. Envy is closely linked to greed and desire. And, of course, both envy and jealousy are linked to anger. Buddhism teaches that before we can let go of negative emotions we have to thoroughly understand where those emotions come from. So let’s take a look.
The Roots of Suffering
Buddhism teaches that whatever causes us to suffer has its roots in the Three Poisons, also called the Three Unwholesome Roots. These are greed, hate or anger, and ignorance. However, the Theravadin teacher Nyanatiloka Mahathera said,
“For all evil things, and all evil destiny, are really rooted in greed, hate and ignorance; and of these three things ignorance or delusion (moha, avijja) is the chief root and the primary cause of all evil and misery in the world. If there is no more ignorance, there will be no more greed and hatred, no more rebirth, no more suffering.”
Specifically, this is ignorance of the fundamental nature of reality and the of self. Envy and jealousy in particular are rooted in the belief in an autonomous and permanent soul or self. But the Buddha taught that this permanent, separate self is an illusion.
Relating to the world through the fiction of a self, we become protective and greedy. We divide the world into “me” and “other.” We become jealous when we think others are taking something we are owed. We become envious when we think others are more fortunate than we are.
Envy, Jealousy and Attachment
Envy and jealousy also can be forms of attachment. This may seem odd — envy and jealousy are about things you don’t have, so how can one be “attached”? But we can attach to things and people emotionally as well as physically. Our emotional attachments cause us to cling to things even when they are out of our reach.
This also comes back to the illusion of a permanent, separate self. It is because we mistakenly see ourselves as separate from everything else that we “attach.” Attachment requires at least two separate things — an attacher and an attachee, or an object of attachment. If we fully appreciate that nothing is really separate to begin with, attachment becomes impossible.
Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,
“[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, nonattachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?”
Notice that Daido Roshi said nonattached, not detached. Detachment, or the idea that you can be completely separate from something, is just another illusion.
What Do We Do About Jealousy and Envy?
It’s not easy to release jealousy and envy, but the first steps are mindfulness and metta.
Mindfulness is full body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. The first two stage of mindfulness are mindfulness of body and mindfulness of feelings. Pay attention to the physical and emotional sensations in your body. When you recognize jealousy and envy, acknowledge these feelings and take ownership of them — nobody is making your jealous; you are making yourself jealous. And then let the feelings go. Make this kind of recognition-and-release a habit.
Metta is loving kindness, the kind of loving kindness a mother feels for her child. Begin with metta for yourself. Deep inside you may feel insecure, frightened, betrayed, or even ashamed, and these sad feelings are feeding your misery. Lean to be gentle and forgiving with yourself. As you practice metta, you can learn to trust yourself and be more confident in yourself.
In time, when you are able, extend the metta to other people, including the people you envy or who are your objects of jealousy. You may not be able to do this right away, but when you have grown more trusting and confident in yourself, you may find that metta for others comes more naturally.
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg said, “To reteach a thing its loveliness is the nature of metta. Through lovingkindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within.” Jealousy and envy are like toxins, poisoning you from within. Let them go, and make room for loveliness.