Overcoming Jealousy

Wrath is cruel, and anger is overwhelming; but who is able to stand before jealousy? – Proverbs 27:4

The feeling of jealousy is a deadly poison for those on the spiritual path. It disturbs our inner equilibrium and makes us irritable and restless. As the Dhammapada states:

“Let him not be jealous of others, because the monk who feels envy cannot achieve deep contemplation.” [1]


Jealousy is a powerful negative force. It can undermine the very foundation of our wellbeing. It can destroy our whole life. As the Book of Proverbs 14:30 graphically expresses it: “A tranquil heart is the life of the flesh; but envy is the rottenness of the bones.”

Jealousy is like an open sore or canker: the more we rub it, the more it irritates us. It works itself deeper and deeper into our being until we are completely devoured by its raging fury.

This is the symbolic meaning of the Biblical story of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who became covered with leprosy after she spoke against her brother. Her punishment was a physical manifestation of what was happening inside her: Just as leprosy eats away at a person’s flesh, so too Miriam’s jealousy was eating her up inside.

We see a similar dynamic in the Torah’s tale of Korach, Datan and Aviram. In their jealousy, they rebelled against Moses’ leadership, saying, “You take too much upon yourself, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: why then, do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16: 3) God’s punishment was to open up the earth and swallow them up alive. They were literally “consumed” by their envy.

How do we combat this powerful emotion? How do we overcome jealousy and envy?

We begin by understanding the nature of this feeling. Jealousy is a natural reaction of the ego. The ego wants to be top dog. It wants everything for itself. These are animal instincts that are important for our survival.

If we want to eliminate jealousy from our hearts, then we need to learn to live our life on a different level. We need to transcend our animal instincts and foster a sense of good will toward others. We need to live by the attributes of the soul.

Paradoxically, the first step in this inner transformation is to develop true love and acceptance of ourselves. The Buddhist teacher, Munindra, taught:

“If I do not love myself, I cannot love others too. If we really love ourselves, we cannot think wrongly, cannot talk wrongly, cannot act wrongly. If you know how to love yourself, then you do not bring hatred anywhere.” [2]

Jealousy arises out of discontent with ourselves and our lives. If we are happy with ourselves, then we will be jealous of no one. This is why Rabbi Hillel begins his famous saying with the words: “Im ain ani li, mi li” – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” And then continues with, “and if I am only for myself, then what am I?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14) Hillel is telling us that if we want to care for others, it begins with caring for ourselves. If we want to love others, we need to first love ourselves.

 

“As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.” [3]

The next quality that will aid us in overcoming jealousy is what the Buddhists call non-possessiveness. We do not need to own something to receive from it. In fact, by trying to possess it, we only take away from the beauty of the exchange. Instead of deepening our appreciation of and interaction with the person or object, the desire to possess builds greed and jealousy within us, and the feeling of “my and mine”.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that we desire material possessions because they give us a certain measure of happiness. This happiness, however, is only fleeting and temporal, like its physical source. As a result, we need to constantly acquire new objects to restore that feeling of joy.

By contrast, when we perform a spiritual act like giving charity, the joy that we feel is a joy of the soul.  The soul is infinite. Therefore, the more that we give, the more joy we feel, and the more the light of God floods into us. The more the light of the God flows into us, the more our desire for material possessions diminishes, until finally we want nothing at all.

Eradicating jealousy is not just a matter of giving up the desire for material possessions; it is also a question of renouncing our personal ambition and pride. We are jealous of the achievements of others. We envy the accolade and praise that they receive.

Nor does living in a spiritual community necessarily ensure an absence of jealousy. Envy can easily penetrate into the heart of a rabbi, priest or monk. The Dhammapada bluntly describes for us the thoughts and actions of such a person:

“For he will wish for reputation, for precedence among the monks, for authority in the monasteries and for veneration among people.

“’Let the householders and hermits, both, think it was I who did that work; and let them ever ask me what they should do or not.’ These are the thoughts of the fool, puffed up with desire and pride.” [4]

If we want to banish jealousy from our hearts, then we need to realize the emptiness of honor and praise. We need to recognize the temporal nature of all status and acclaim. If we go beyond name and fame, then we will have a sense of inner wellbeing.  We will feel confident and self-assured in our dealings with other people. We will naturally be generous to those around us, in thought, word and deed. This is the way to true non-possessiveness. This is the path to spiritual perfection.

The Ethics of the Fathers 4:1 teaches: “Who is rich? He who is contented with his lot.” The Kabbalah tells us that every incarnation is carefully decided, the details of each life meticulously worked out in the Beit Din Shel Malah, the Heavenly Court. Not only is each incarnation painstakingly planned, but before we are born, the Heavenly Court asks each one of us if we consent to the life that has been designated for us. Standing in the light of their awe-inspiring presence, we accept our future with trust and a tranquil heart.

God has taken care of every one of us. We each have been given the destiny which is right for us. We do not have to be jealous of the skills or talents of others, nor envious of their achievements or possessions. Everything that we need is already within ourselves. Each one of us has a role to play in the Eternal Plan of God.

Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society believed that the highest form of happiness does not come from contentment with our own lot – that is something which can be fickle and fleeting. True contentment, he explained, comes from learning to find happiness in the wellbeing of others. If we can make this mindset an integral part of our approach to life, he assured us, it will completely transform our existence.

“Learn to experience joy from the happiness of others. Instead of becoming envious, become filled with joy whenever you see others happy. Feel happy by beholding the happiness of others. Train yourself to derive happiness out of bringing happiness into the lives of others. Learn the technique of getting joy by making others joyful. Your happiness will multiply a thousandfold. At the present moment, it is circumscribed by the experiences undergone by yourself alone. But if you begin to get joy from all others, then you will be happy perpetually. Everyone’s happiness will become a part of your happiness and will go to multiply it and add to it. [5]

For most of us, the process of uprooting jealousy progresses sequentially. We begin by learning to love ourselves; then we move on to loving others. Next, we strive to be content with what God has given us, to accept our place in the world. We learn not to amass material possessions or control others’ lives. We reach beyond the desire for praise and accolades. Finally, we seek to find joy in the joys of others, to celebrate their successes and rejoice in their happiness and wellbeing. If we can live our life on this level, then we will eradicate all jealousy and envy from our heart. We will live a life of true spirituality and become a model of holiness for everyone we meet.

As Swami Vivekananda has succinctly expressed it:

“Any man may do a good deed or make a good gift on the spur of the moment or under the pressure of some superstition or priestcraft; but the real lover of mankind is he who is jealous of none… The man whose heart never cherishes even the thought of injury to anyone, who rejoices at the prosperity of even his greatest enemy, that man is the bhakta [lover of God], he is the Yogi, he is the guru of all….” [6]

Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Dhammapada 25:365, as translated by Juan Mascaro, p. 86
  2. Mirka Knaster, Living this Life Fully, Stories and Teachings of Munindra, p. 141
  3. Dhammapada 4:49, as translated by Juan Mascaro, p. 42
  4. Dhammapada 5: 73-74, Macaro, p. 45
  5. Swami Chidananda, The Path beyond Sorrow, DLS Publication, 3e 1991, WWE 1999
  6. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekanada, 3:67-68

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