Want to feel like a loser? Compare yourself to others.
At least, that’s what I was told early on as a student of Buddhism. In that case, the teacher in question meant that if I sat in meditation and compared myself to what I thought other people were experiencing than I would be sorely misguided and feel like I was failing at it. In fact, those who I thought were resting peacefully in their own minds were actually a bunch of fidgety space cadets with a torrent of thoughts running through their heads—just like me. Somehow knowing that we all struggle in some way with the practice (and in life) was pretty helpful in keeping me feeling not so bad about my experience.
This advice about comparing mind can be applied to any number of things. Too often, when we compare ourselves to others, we focus less on what we do have and notice only the things we do not. Your career could be going well, for example, but all you can think about is how everyone you know seems to be in a happy relationship. Or you are happily married, but a visit with friends leads to discouragement because they have a nicer home than you. Or you have a comfy living situation, but you see Facebook photos of your friend on a beach and all of sudden feel like you work harder and take less time for yourself than just about anyone you know. The moment we start single-mindedly focusing on what we don’t have is the moment we spiral down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of despair.
The funny thing is that our perception of others’ successes is, generally, not based in their reality. You could turn to that close friend in a seemingly happy relationship and she might confess that she and her partner constantly fight, have an extremely unsatisfying sex life, or some other ailment you never would have known about based on how they appear in public. Ditto for beautiful homes, the perfect job, and on it goes. Add in the element of social media, where people can project a perfect life through photos and short captions containing half-truths. You might realize that much of your sense of poverty mentality comes from not actually knowing the truth about these people you are comparing yourself with.
Instead of comparing, what if we cultivated joy in the face of their perceived success? There is a Sanskrit word, mudita, which is translated as “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy.” This term was coined 2600 years ago by the Buddha himself, as he talked about the various forms of love we can offer to others.
If compassion is us opening our heart in the face of the suffering we see in others, mudita is us opening our heart in the face of their happiness. It is the idea that when we get stuck in our own negative thought patterns, we could move from focusing on our failures to a form of love that acknowledges and rejoices in the joy of the people around us. More simply put, as my teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche often says, “If you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.”
A Meditation for Increasing Sympathetic Joy
If you find yourself a victim of comparing mind, stop what you are doing. Come into your body. Take three deep breaths—in through the nose then out through the mouth. Feel the weight of your body through your feet. Transition into feeling into the natural cycle of your breathing.
Now, raise your gaze. If you are in a space with other people, look about and acknowledge them, regardless of whether you know them or not. If you are alone, bring to mind various people in your life, such as those you love, those don’t know very well and, if you would like, even those you have a hard time with. Now, see if you can rejoice in someone else’s happiness.
In this moment, it may not be advisable to turn your attention to the person you are typically jealous of. Perhaps, instead it’s an older couple sitting hand-in-hand near you on the subway or young children playing down the street. If you really struggle with comparing mind and those two things remind you that you may never meet someone or have kids, see if you can notice or bring to mind a puppy and notice how happy it is. Simply take a few minutes to notice the joy in those around you.
When you are ready, re-engage with other people. You can start conversations with those you know, and even strangers, and inquire about their recent good news, celebrating and magnifying their success. Here, we are looking for ways to rejoice in the happiness of others, including the smallest of details in their life. When we do, we end up feeling joyful ourselves and they feel supported and loved.
The more we celebrate the success of others, the more we might be inspired to look at our own successes in a new light. Instead of longing to meet that mythical Prince/Princess Charming, revel in getting to do the work that you do. Instead of feeling jealous that you don’t have a Pinterest-worthy home, celebrate your partner, knowing that home is where the heart is. Instead of being frustrated about how much you work, learn to enjoy your downtime with friends and family. Overall, the more we magnify and rejoice in the joy of others while celebrating the little things in our own life, the more likely we see happiness in the world and smile, knowing everyone around us is, again, just like me.