Zen and Jealousy

“I’m not jealous! I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have … envy is wanting what someone else has.”

Homer Simpson

Of the myriad of negative emotions that we experience as human beings, none has quite self-sabotaged happiness over the span of our existence in the way that jealousy has. Although anger, depression, and anxiety exhibit stronger physical responses — jealousy has a way of twisting our mental space and self-worth in such a way that we hardly recognize ourselves. Anger and desire seizes our thoughts and mind, which clouds our logic and affects our responses. In fact, a person experiencing high-level jealousy is so afraid of losing something they begin taking panicked actions that, ironically, likely drives an irreversible wedge between them and whatever, or whomever, they’re attached to. This attachment causes us to white-knuckle emotionally as well as physically — and will become important further in the article from a Buddhist standpoint.

Jealousy is uniquely complex in how it manifests itself. Usually, jealousy is defined as a resentment or negative emotion toward others due to them possessing something you believe belongs to you, or, someone/something posing a risk of taking something you think is yours. Often, it’s accompanied by feelings of distrust, insecurity, possessiveness, and a sense of betrayal. Not surprisingly, these emotions can quickly spiral out of control and lead to much suffering for all of those involved — never staying solely with the individual feeling jealous.

In fact, so famous are the tales of negative repercussions from jealousy that you can find folklore and theater devoted to the subject. Shakespeare’s Othello is one such play — and Noh theater in Japan speaks of women so overcome with rage and jealousy that they become demons that never find peace and forever haunt others, signified by the Hannya masks they wear. I myself wear a tattoo of a Hannya mask on my leg as a daily reminder of what unchecked jealousy can manifest as — since it has been one of my personal struggles throughout my life:

Tattoo by Zac Day at Loyalty Tattoo in Columbus, Georgia

One of the main things that Buddhism has taught me is, before we can adequately learn to let go of negative emotions and behaviors, we have to gain understanding of where that negativity comes from. The Buddha taught that our suffering has roots in the Three Poisons; greed, anger/hate, and delusion/ignorance. Delusion being the big poison — without delusion, there would be no more greed, hatred, or suffering. The opposites of the Three Poisons being wisdom, non-attachment, and loving-kindness. Jealousy, as complex as it is, exhibits all three of these poisons.

For example, if someone is jealous, they are deluded in thinking that they are an autonomous or permanent self; that is to say, the Buddha taught that there is no separate self (or any separate thing) in the universe. Every person, thing, and being in the universe is connected and dependent on another thing to exist. Your very existence can be traced from your parents to theirs, to theirs, continuously back to the very atoms of an infant universe — without our interconnectedness, we would not be here. Why is this important to realize?

It’s because of our delusions and ability to believe that we are a separate “self” from everything else that we can grow attached towards things and others. Dividing the world into “mine” and “yours” and “ours” opens the door for jealousy when we think someone is trying to take something of “ours,” be that a lover or partner’s attention or affection, a parent’s time, or praises at work to name a few examples. Attachment always requires two separate things: an attacher and an attachee or object of attachment. However, if we understand and realize that we have no separate self, and are intimately interconnected with everything else, attachment loses its grip to non-attachment:

“According to the Buddhist point of view, non-attachment 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 non-attachment, 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?”

Daido Loori

This delusion of a permanent, separate, self also allows us to experience vast insecurities. These insecurities often affect our feelings of self-worth, general standing, and other people’s love for us. This can quickly become overwhelming, leading to the panicked actions, trust issues, and destructive behaviors most are familiar with when experiencing jealousy — from all sides. Again, it’s the reduction of the universe into “mine” that causes jealous suffering — in that a single object, person, or emotion “out there” has something we lack “in here.” Now that we understand where jealousy comes from, how to we handle it when it arises?

“Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like — what you like others will like as well.”Monk, Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring

The first thing to do is be gentle and understanding with yourself — as a mother would be understanding towards an upset child. Feelings of jealousy, confusion, anger, etc. are a normal part of the human experience; however, it’s our inner and outer responses towards negative emotions that are most important. When you recognize jealousy, acknowledge the feeling and take ownership of it: nobody or thing is making you jealous; your mind is exhibiting the feelings of jealousy. Allow the feeling to be there as you let it go. Jealousy itself does not cause suffering and destruction — the response to it does.

It’s important to note that it’s not good to push negative emotions such as jealousy away. Buddhist teachings acknowledge that when we feel pain directly, our most beneficial response to ease the suffering is to let go — as we would touching a bare hand to a hot pan. Sitting with uncomfortable emotions allows us to distance ourselves from the “personal” narrative, and see the situation ahead of us more clearly. It’s in this way that we can respond accordingly, and calmly; even if our partner is unfaithful, for example, yelling and attempting to cause feelings of guilt will not help the situation.

It’s with this sitting with and allowing to be that Buddhism says we can experience wholeness with life-as-it-is. We don’t want to rush or push away these emotions and experiences, as we should be thankful that they are here as guiding teachers for our growth and ability to connect more deeply to others.

To continue to address jealousy, we should also take to heart that we all have the capacity to show and experience love towards all beings. In recognizing that we all have this ability, we can work with jealousy easier by knowing that by loving someone/something without conditions or attachment, we are expressing our own Buddha-nature. And in that, recognizing that everyone has this same Buddha-nature and the ability to extend love towards every one, thing, and being in the universe. It would be unfair to expect others to limit their own buddha-nature and deprive them of their capacity to express love and experience joys in their lives.

It’s this outward expression of generosity, non-attachment, and wisdom that shows us jealousy for what it is, and allows us to move skillfully with it. By continuously exhibiting these beneficial behaviors we can become emotionally secure, which is a large factor in the manifestation, or not, of jealousy. This is why Metta practice is so beneficial; we are able to recognize our own insecurities and shortcomings, and extend forgiveness and love towards ourselves. Over time, it becomes easier to extend this towards others — in fact, a core part of the practice is extending Metta towards someone you cannot stand! As Sharon Salzberg said: “Through loving kindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within.”

Jealousy is a difficult emotion — but it’s not one that we should allow to control or dictate happiness in our lives. By practicing generosity, non-attachment (not detachment, which is impossible, as we’re all connected!), and loving-kindness (towards ourselves and others), we can acknowledge it for the passing emotion that it is, and grow more secure in ourselves and our ability to experience and express positivity with and towards others — while allowing them the ability to do the same.

When someone new comes into our lives, it is helpful to view them like a beautiful wild bird that has come to our window. If we are jealous that the bird also goes to other people’s windows so lock it up in a cage, it becomes so miserable that it’ll lose its luster and might even die. If, without possessiveness, we let the bird fly free, we can enjoy the wonderful time that the bird is with us. When the bird flies off, as is it’s right, it will be more apt to return if it feels safe with us. If we accept and respect that everyone has the right to have many close friendships, including ourselves, our relationships will be healthier and more long-lasting.

Dr. Alexander Berzin