By Jakeb Brock
We are all familiar with the emotion that we call envy. We have all had feelings of envy, though we may be ashamed to admit it. But most often we do not take this matter too seriously. We view envy as a fleeting, almost whimsical or indulgent fancy — similar to daydreaming. We may say under our breath, “Look how much money they have; that would sure be nice,” or, “She was born beautiful, how lucky,” or, “What a lovely home they have; that would sure beat living in this tiny, noisy apartment,” etc., etc., etc. In situations like these, our envious thoughts seem harmless enough and tend to pass quickly through our mind so that we barely notice it. But the truth is that these fleeting envious thoughts are more problematic than we realize. They are really just the surface activity of a much deeper mental pattern — a conditioned mindset that became entrenched in our subconscious during our childhood.
Envy always involves a comparison with our fellowmen. As we go through life, we make choices, and our choices land us in a continuous outworking of circumstances. Some of these circumstances may be to our liking, while others we may find trying. Some we might even sorely regret. When that happens, we are almost certain to find ourselves indulging in an envious comparison with someone we know — someone whose circumstances seem to us to always be favorable and propitious.
On the surface, our feelings of envy are directed at this other person and their circumstances, but when we go deeper, we find that these do not factor into this equation as much as we initially thought. In other words, at the root of our envy, we find a deeply engrained mindset, not about the other person, but rather about ourselves — a subconscious imprint pertaining to our self-image. This imprint encompasses everything with how we see ourselves – including, and perhaps most especially, all the parts of us that do not quite measure up to the cultural standards of normalcy and success…standards that were drummed into our tender young psyche beginning from the time we were infants. Thus, nearly every person living on this planet has a deeply engrained sense that who they are is not quite good enough. This gnawing sense of inadequacy then manifests as the belief that we are lacking something and are limited in what we can do and achieve — a belief that we tend to carry with us throughout our lifetime.
This belief in our own lack and limitation has a profound bearing on how we view others. Instead of viewing others objectively and honestly, we often view them through the lens of envy, because our own sense of lack and limitation makes what they have appear better than it really is. We wrongly think that if we could only be like them and have what they have, that we wouldn’t have a care in the world. If we could be rich, beautiful, settled in a lovely home, etc., we would no longer feel that gnawing sense of lack and limitation. So what do we do? We set about trying to emulate them. We focus on what they have that we do not and then set about trying to get that for ourselves. Sometimes this envy-fueled behavior can border on obsession, so that we find ourselves making it our topmost priority. Some have spent years of their lives in such pursuits. And so we see that our casual envious thoughts are really just the tip of the iceberg — the iceberg of our conditioned subconscious self-image.
In some cases, envy-fueled obsession can become a way of life, albeit unconsciously. The best indication that this has happened to us is linked to our success at being able to achieve our goals. For instance, suppose that after considering the carefree lifestyle of some wealthy person we know, we decide that getting rich is the answer to all of our problems. So we work very hard and eventually we do, in fact, become rich. But unfortunately, not only does this not alleviate our sense of lack and limitation — like we imagined it would — it often exacerbates it. Why is this? Because looking back, we realize that we have just spent years of our life (for some it might be an entire lifetime) pursuing a goal that we felt certain would put an end to our self-image issues, only to find that nothing inside of us feels any different. The only difference is that we are now a rich person with a strong sense of lack and limitation instead of a poor one. It may sound like an oxymoron, but many rich people know this to be true by experience.
When this happens to us, when we achieve a goal that we thought would ease our sense of lack and limitation and nothing changes, there are a few directions in which we can then go. One is that we can entertain the possibility that the source of our problem is our own subconscious mind, and we can try to get to the root of it by doing inner work such as practicing mindfulness, meditation, etc. Another is that we can allow ourselves to indulge in feelings of self-pity and helplessness, thereby becoming increasingly bitter about the bad deck we have been dealt. And then there is a third way, and surprisingly, this is the way in which most of us choose to go: we try again! We do not stop envying others; rather, we change the focus of our envy and fasten it onto a new object. For instance, if we have tried getting rich and that did not work for us, we might then try becoming socially popular and well liked. In this scenario, we fasten our envy onto someone new — someone who is very popular and seems to always be happy and upbeat. Or for some, it might be power and influence over others that they are wont to try. So they fasten their envy onto someone and off they go, on a new adventure, with a new goal… becoming powerful and influential like “so and so”.
In truth, this is a never-ending cycle, and it makes no difference what the pursuit is. If our deeply engrained unconscious sense of lack and limitation is what is motivating us, our envy of others will be perpetually activated. It will fasten itself onto one object after another. We might even find ourselves eventually envying those who seem to have found peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction through a spiritual path or practice. But again, if lack and limitation is the issue driving us, and envy is our muse, even this pursuit will lead to disappointment.
The good news is that there is a way to get off this treadmill of envy-induced futility. And that way is to learn the truth about our predicament and set about the work of elevating our state of spiritual consciousness.
Our conditioning has taught us that not all human beings are created equal. Some are more talented, attractive, and fortunate than others. Some have landed in situations that are more exciting, fulfilling, etc. For example, in our culture we are taught that doctors, lawyers, and politicians are greatly to be envied. Their professions are exciting, respectable, and profitable, while most people work at jobs that are considered more mundane, such as car mechanics, plumbers, or carpenters. Such social attitudes extend even into the familial arena, where we find that those with a family situation that appears to be happy and normal are more enviable than those who have landed in a bad marriage with lots of strife and acrimony. These, and a host of other similar cultural attitudes, are irresponsibly inculcated through our movies, television programs, novels, popular music, etc. Thus, we grow up believing that certain people in our society are to be greatly envied, while others are to be overlooked or even pitied.
That is how our modern culture works. It bombards us with images of normalcy and success, and shamelessly stokes the fires of our envy. It glorifies human personalities that are strong, talented, and know how to get what they want in life. It makes us think that there are actually people out there who always know just the right thing to do or say at just the right moment. That is why so many of us grow up feeling hurt and inadequate. Nobody told us that we needed to be leery about measuring ourselves against these fictional cultural icons. Is any of this harmless or entertaining? Only our unconsciousness about what is going on inside of us makes it so. And only learning the truth can heal us and deliver us from this particular brand of inner torment.
When viewing the world around us through the lens of envy, we not only see ourselves as inadequate, but we become deeply alienated from others and life in general. We become increasingly isolated and alone. We imagine that somewhere along the road we took a wrong turn and became “different.” We often feel on the outside of things, looking in. But all of this crippling psychological energy is based only on what we perceive around us, and much of that, as it turns out, is distorted by lies and pretense.
The startling truth is that human beings, when they are not pretending to be something they are not, are remarkably similar. Everyone has the same stuff going on inside of them. No one lives a carefree life, no matter what image they may be portraying to the contrary. Furthermore, no one’s situation in life is without problems. Even the super rich have problems, believe it or not. And someone with an exceptionally beautiful body might be totally dysfunctional inwardly. In short, there is not a human being living on this planet that is to be envied.
The Bible states unequivocally that all strictly human endeavor is vain and deceptive. Therefore, our ubiquitous cultural portrayals of those who appear fortunate enough to have defied this maxim are lying. In other words, our modern culture is nothing more than a big tease, and a very hurtful one at that.
Spiritually speaking, we must always cling to what is true and real. That is the only way to free ourselves from these inner demons. To envy another human being because they are presenting an image of carefree success is a deception. The truth inherent in spiritual discernment cuts through such deceptions and enables us to extricate ourselves from the intrigues of man. This is very important, for until we have overcome these debilitating social issues, we will be unable to fully evolve spiritually.
Spiritual perspective relegates the intrigues of man to their rightful place. This is not to say that human beings are to be faulted and kept at a distance. It is not to come against any person or cease to love them. Rather, it is to reject the deceptive ploys that people unconsciously embrace and wield. It also is to reject any aspects of culture that are not upright and based on the truth. That is what the Bible means when it tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, while at the same time cautioning us to love not the world or anything in the world. It is not the people we are rejecting. Rather, it is the deception that has stolen away human culture and caused so many to act duplicitously.
None of us were born inadequate or inferior. Such social stigmas are learned behaviors. This means that the overcoming of our self-image issues can be undertaken in the same way that we deal with all of our other debilitating learned behaviors. Our consciousness must not be held captive. All of our unconscious mental activity must be brought into the light of Presence, and the whole lot of it must be released. Only in this way can we become a new creation and live in an enlightened state. Can we do this? Of course we can. Is it easy? No. That is why the spiritual path demands work and perseverance.
Envy is a programmed response based on our exposure to cultural conditioning. Therefore, we are neither culpable nor condemned for this condition. But that does not alleviate us of the responsibility to deal with it. Like all other initiatives on the spiritual path, the truth principles that set us free are already in place, having come from a higher power. But the hands-on work of applying those principles is our responsibility.