It would not be reaching to say that we live in an age that fosters comparisons more than any other time in history. Technology enables us to reach out and stay connected, but it also allows people to present only a superficial representation of who they are and what their lives are like. Then we have the opportunity to compare our lives to these carefully curated versions of everyone else. It’s no wonder we so often feel like we fall short! We’ve all had the experience of going along with our day feeling pretty good about ourselves, and then in a split second it’s gone because we consciously or subconsciously started comparing ourselves to others.
Not only do comparisons make us feel bad about ourselves, but they create separation. Once we have assessed someone as superior or inferior to us, we have distanced ourselves. We begin to peg them as a certain type, put them in a box, and stereotype them in a way that is likely not accurate at all. The more different someone seems to us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people we deem to be different. We lose sight of their feelings, their perspective, and how things might affect them. (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach) There is a Tibetan Buddhist saying describing how we often relate to each other: “Envy toward the above, competitiveness toward the equal, and contempt toward the lower.” Comparisons -- thinking we are better or worse or equal to others -- arise because we mistakenly believe we’re a separate self. When we remember our interconnectedness, then comparisons disappear.
Interestingly, comparison is about conformity and competition at the same time. Brene Brown points out that when we compare, we want to see who or what is best out of a specific collection of “alike things.” We are then required to fit in and stand out at the same time -- to “be just like everybody else, but better!” (Daring Greatly by Brene Brown) Zen teacher Ed Brown, brilliant cook and founder of the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco tells the story of his early days as a cook for a retreat center, when no matter what he tried, he couldn’t get his biscuits to come out right. He made batch after batch with no success, until one day he questioned what standard he was using to judge his biscuits. Upon reflection he realized he was trying to recreate the canned Pillsbury biscuits of his youth, to which he had attached such fond memories. Then came an exquisite moment when he actually tasted his own biscuits without comparing them to some standard. They were flaky, buttery, sunny, earthy, real. Only by comparing them to the packaged product did they seem insufficient. When we stop comparing ourselves to some assumed standard of perfection, can we fully taste and appreciate and honor the life we are living right now.
Related to comparisons, and one of the potential causes, is “scarcity.”
“For many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next one is ‘I don’t have enough time.’ Whether true or not, that thought of ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course we don’t have enough money… ever. We’re not thin enough. We’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.” -Lynne Twist.
Interestingly, the antidote of scarcity is not abundance, but rather it is “sufficiency.” (Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money) We just have to realize that there is enough, and that we are enough. Brene Brown points out the value of the ordinary. So many of us have bought into the idea that something has to be extraordinary if it’s going to bring us joy. We seem to measure the value of people’s contributions by their level of public recognition. Our culture is quick to dismiss quiet, ordinary, hard working men and women. In many instances we equate ordinary with boring or meaningless. However, if you talk to men and women who have experienced tremendous loss, like the loss of a child, genocide, violence or trauma, the memories that they hold most sacred are the ordinary, everyday moments.
Comparison is natural. Even dogs that are eating peacefully can suddenly start to compare the size of their portion to another’s and a fight can break out. The science of “envy” has shown that fairness is hardwired into our genes, so we are uncomfortable with inequality of any sort. Primatologist Frans de Waal performed a video experiment with capuchin monkeys (our distant relatives who are often used in psychological tests as proxies for humans.) One monkey gives the scientist a rock, and gets a cucumber slice as payment. He is happy to do this over and over until he sees another monkey do the same task but receives a grape. So he tries again, hoping to get the sweeter grape. When he just gets a cucumber again, he flies into a rage. The video became popular during wall street protests to show how damaging inequality can be. According to happiness research, “upward comparisons” are particularly corrosive to our well-being. Envy is addressed in every culture. The Tibetan word for envy is “trakdok”, which means “heavy or constricted shoulders,” which aptly describes the feeling of discontentment, resentment and guilt. One of the 10 commandments forbids “coveting” thy neighbor’s house. Taking it even further, In German, “schadenfreude” means taking satisfaction in another’s misfortune. This is a natural outgrowth of envy and sees us in a constant struggle with others for limited resources.
It is important to address large global imbalances, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that there will always be people who have more than we do, or who are more successful, or who are more talented or smarter or better-looking. (The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams) With this in mind, we can develop a toolbox of practices for use when we catch ourselves comparing.
Gratitude. The answer to almost any imbalance is gratitude. By appreciating what we have, we sooth the inadequacies we feel from comparisons, and realize that in this moment, nothing is lacking.
Enough for Everyone. I remember in my early 20s, I would sometimes get jealous of other women-- how they looked or what they had-- until one day I had the epiphany that there was enough beauty and good fortune for everyone! Life is not a zero-sum game -- like a cake with only so many slices, so that someone taking more means we get less. There is a limitless amount of goodness, and someone fully inhabiting their power and beauty can inspire this in others, and it can grow exponentially! This is called “Mudita,” or “sympathetic joy.” If we develop a concern for other’s well being, when someone gets something or has success, we are able to rejoice in their good fortune. If we recognize our interdependence, because we are all part of a shared humanity, when humanity is happy, we will be happy.
Look for Similarities. If we stress our differences, that is what we will be aware of, and we will create separation. When we look for similarities, we can relate to others and realize they are not as different as they might seem. The Dalai Lama says that when he meets someone, he always tries to relate to the person on a basic human level, knowing that “just like me, he or she wishes to find happiness, to have fewer problems, and less difficulty in their life.” While we can’t know another person’s experience, we can listen with the heartfelt intent of understanding. Such listening becomes the pathway to human communion. This assuages feelings of separation. In this way, we can enlarge our tribe. Our response to people with attraction or aversion is part of our biological programming for survival. How a person looks, what they say, how they smell and speak, alerts us to whether or not they are from the same tribe. When we are trapped in this biological trance, we can only read behaviors and opinions as signs of friend or foe. But we can also relax our armor and enlarge our sense of tribe. We can learn to see our shared vulnerability and realize our belonging with all beings. (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach)
The Appreciation Game. I developed a game to play whenever I feel the weight of comparisons. As I go throughout my day, each time I encounter anyone, I find one thing to admire about them. There is always something -- the way they rock their pants, their hairstyle, their fortitude, the spring in their step, how they speak their mind. Somehow this game helps me break down barriers and shifts my focus from competition or comparison, to connection.
Tonglen meditation. Tonglen Meditation eases the weight of comparisons because it is a way to make friends with yourself, and cultivate compassion for others. Tonglen keeps us feeling connected in our mutual struggles. When anything is painful or undesirable, breathe it in… don’t resist it. When unwanted feelings and emotions arise, you breathe them in and connect with what all human beings feel. Then you breathe out sympathy, relaxation and spaciousness… you ventilate the whole thing. By the same token if you feel some sense of delight, you give it away, you send it out to everyone else. You can also practice on yourself as a way to connect with all beings -- when you are suffering, breathe in your suffering, transform it in your heart, and send out compassion and love to yourself. Then extend this by connecting with all the people who have suffered in the same way, breathing in their pain, and breathing out love. You can practice this on your meditation cushion but you can also practice it in the middle of traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store. Try it and see how it shifts how you feel, inside yourself and towards others.
Use it as a motivator. Sometimes, observing what others are doing can be a helpful motivator for us to take action or initiate change. This is only productive if we manage to steer clear of self-loathing and denigration in the process. Perhaps witnessing another’s way of life might inspire us to re-evaluate our consumption, to make a healthy change, or to try something new!
As in all things, the first step on the path is awareness. Just start to notice when you make comparisons and ask how that comparison is serving you. Notice if it is creating separation, and how it feels in your body, heart and mind. Avoid beating yourself up for comparing in the first place! Remember it is natural, and if you have the time and inclination, experiment with the techniques for enlarging your perspective and your tribe. The more the merrier!
** For further reading, check out these insightful works that formed the basis for this article: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.