2013-08-14

Faith Envy

In Joseph Epstein’s book, Envy, he observes that his greatest envy is for people who have managed to free themselves of envy. Early in the book Epstein mentions what he calls “faith envy”:
“This is the envy one feels for those who have the true and deep and intelligent religious faith that sees them through the darkest of crises, death among them.”
Then, toward the end of the book, he recounts:
“I envied people who can travel abroad with a single piece of luggage. I envied people who have exceedingly good posture. I still envy such people. And, above all, I envied – and continue to envy – those few people, favorites of the gods, who genuinely understand that life is a fragile bargain, rescindable at any time . . . and live their lives day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute accordingly.”
A strong faith does see us through dark crises, including death. If that faith is a liberal religious faith, then it is not the serene and obstinate insistence on certain incredible beliefs. Rather, liberal religion sees faith as an openness to whatever unknown the next moment may bring. Faith, in this light, is the very same thing as that genuine understanding of how fragile a bargain, rescindable at any instant, is life.

If we can envy envylessness, then we can direct our envy toward its own cure. Envy can be the "sin" that motivates us to a practice of learning to let go of envy. In the oldest branch of Buddhism -- Theravada Buddhism -- that practice is called mudita.

Mudita is one of the four Brahma Vihara -- i.e., four noble virtues or four sublime attitudes. The other three are upekkha, metta, and karuna. These words are Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist scriptures. They translate roughly as follows:

Upekkha is equanimity. Metta is lovingkindness. Karuna is compassion toward those suffering misfortune. And mudita is sympathetic joy – joy at another’s good fortune.

Mudita is the direct antidote of envy. When I truly understand that we are not separate, then I know that another’s good fortune is my good fortune, for we are one. And, conversely, when we practice this noble virtue, mudita, taking joy in the success and good fortune of others, we begin to better understand that we are not separate.

Easier said than done. Through practice, though, it is possible to strengthen our mudita. When I suffer a pang of envy – and envy is suffering – I remind myself that from the universe’s point of view, the other person’s success is just as good as my own. Indeed, the other person’s success IS my own.

When the Miss America winner is announced, and Miss Indiana, or whoever it is, steps forward to be crowned, you see the other contestants smiling and applauding the winner, the one who beat them out. You may be thinking, "They are faking those smiles. Inside, all those runners-up and also-rans are consumed with envy." I don’t know. Maybe some of them are wretched with envy. Maybe others actually are sharing in the joy.

And if a given contestant is faking, that’s not so bad. "Fake it til you make it," as the 12-steppers wisely say. Pretend to have an attitude for long enough and eventually you really will have it. In mudita practice, it doesn’t matter whether you are pretending to feel sympathetic joy, or are actually feeling it. Either way, you are cultivating that feeling, strengthening the neurons that will allow you to go toward joy at the very moment when envy pulls toward misery.

When we're in the midst of a situation that triggers envy, it's difficult to remember mudita. So it's good to practice when you aren't in the midst of such a situation. Sharon Salzberg offers this beautiful meditation for cultivating and nurturing mudita.
"We begin with someone whom we care about; someone it is easy to rejoice for. It may be somewhat difficult even then, but we tend to more easily feel joy for someone on the basis of our love and friendship. Choose a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in this person's life. Do not look for absolute, perfect happiness in their life, because you may not find it. Whatever good fortune or happiness of theirs comes to your mind, take delight in it with the phrase, 'May your happiness and good fortune not leave you' or 'May your happiness not diminish' or 'May your good fortune continue.' This will help diminish the conditioned tendencies of conceit, demeaning others, and judgment. Following this, we move through the sequence of beings: benefactor, neutral person, enemy [difficult person], all beings . . . all beings in the ten directions." (Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, p. 134)
Even if you don't think of yourself as an envious person, we could all use mudita strengthening. If you'll take 5 minutes, three times a week, to sit quiet and still and take your mind through this exercise, it will change your life. I guarantee it.

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This is part 21 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Envy)
Next: Part 22: "An Open Letter to Plato about Sex"
Previous: Part 20: "Upsides of Envy"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"