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.
If we want to uncover the envy in our psyche, we 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 we experience in certain people’s presence, or the whiny inner voice that says “Good things never happen for me!” when we 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 we had some kind of inner breakthrough. And sometimes they get jealous and want to hurt us.
Envy, like any other complex feeling you indulge in for a while, may have laid down enough tracks in our nervous system to have become a habitual tendency. Then it acts as a default setting—manifesting as a surge of agitation whenever we 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 our own feelings of natural abundance. The process of getting free works faster if we engage it on several levels: the level of thought and imagination, the level of action, and the level of awareness.
Ask yourself exactly what you envied in the other person. Then 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 you had been wishing you had someone else’s intelligence or wit, picture the person before you and send forth the wish that her brilliance would shine brighter. If someone’s social gifts piqued you, ask that her friends value her even more. Then think of some of your own desires for yourself: love, fulfilling work, recognition, enlightenment, mastery of a skill, a beautiful place to live, the boots you’d admired in a store window. And mentally offer each of these to the person you 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. When you offer inner gifts to others, it inspires a certain motherly fondness, as if you 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. 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.
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.”
Every deep transformation begins with a moment when we embrace ourselves even in the presence of feelings that feel stunted and shameful. One way to do this is to hold on to the Tantric understanding about shadow energies, reminding yourself 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.