We can’t work for long in a competitive environment and not begin to feel the twinges of jealousy or find ourselves measuring our worth by external factors. I should probably say, “I” though I suspect few of us escape the poisons of greed, resentment, and delusion/confusion on this count.
One of my patients calls it an “emotional brownout.” We feel all those tight icky sensations in the pit of our stomach, vision is murky, and balance is wobbly. It’s as if there isn’t enough juice in the veins to get ourselves out of a very familiar spiral into disappointment, self-criticism and even despair. And as the years go by, I find it harder and harder not to feel that spiral tighten into a steeper slope when I’m confronted with “things not done” or “things not unfolding.”
All this came became more of a foreground discussion between Frank and myself after a class we taught on the bhrama viharas: equanimity and compassion, lovingkindness and resonant joy. We divvy it up in pairs as a balance between healing practices and nourishing practices, respectively. Lovingkindness and Resonant Joy are the nourishment in a relationship. The keep us healthy and build strength, like vitamins. Equanimity and Compassion play a role as relationships struggle with the typical strifes and sufferings of just being humans in full contact. The four together form a health regimen that attends to building resilience and care giving.
In the class, we talked about the challenge of feeling joy in the achievements of life situations of others. You have probably read this bhrama vihara as Sympathetic Joy or Altruistic Joy. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that may be too limited in its vision. Feeling joy for another is not possible if we cannot feel joy ourselves. He teaches that joy must include joy in ourselves as well and is only possible when we feel peace and contentment. In other words, the joy we feel has to have some resonance with the other and that resonance is only possible when we feel a level of contentment in ourselves.
One of the obstacles to feeling a resonance in the joy of others arises out of our tendency to measure our worth and the worthiness of others by external means. And in that mismeasure of our true nature, feelings of resentment rather than contentment arise.
I’ve been noticing what that lack of contentment feels like each time I’m faced with something I think I deserve but didn’t get or when someone has access to something that I feel they don’t deserve. Judgments all, I know. That’s my particular take on it; your storyline may vary a bit. Nevertheless, when it is one of those autopilot stances to events, it’s like building a tent of thorny branches and taking refuge under them. For a while that may work to keep the hurt out. Build it thick enough (and I’d have to, given the huge number of events that happen in my day!) and it’s hard to find a way out from under the pile without getting even more scratched up.
This stack are the dead branches from the climbing roses. It didn’t take long to accumulate. In order to cut those branches, I had to reach deep into the bushes and lop them at the root. My forearms look like they’ve been in a cat fight – and doesn’t that just sum it all up. Resentments arise because, when the event happens, we reach deep into parts of ourselves that deliver irritation and hurt. The parts that feel “less than,” personally affronted, or judgmental about our own capacities and accomplishments. In other words, the only person we end up in a cat fight with is ourselves.
(Thanks to Adam Johnson, Mickie B., and Steven Hickman of UCSD’s Center of Mindfulness for offering great insights to this topic!)