We know anger is painful because it forcefully separates us from threats, whatever the cost. We know that desire is haunting because we so desperately need someone or something. But jealousy is more complicated; it puts us in a quandary. When we’re jealous, say the Buddhist teachings from Asanga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya, these contradictory emotions of hatred and desire seize the mind, creating a kind of twisted logic about everything. We desperately want what we don’t have, while hating the one who has it. This twist creates cascades of reverberation that tear through us mentally and physically.

Shakespeare understood jealousy, as we can see from his masterpiece Othello. The rebuffed Iago plots revenge on Othello by sowing seeds of jealousy and mistrust toward Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Even as he hatches his scheme, Iago warns Othello about the devastating qualities of jealousy:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

It is torturous to hate when desire is at the core of the emotion. Underneath this twist of emotions lurks the mocking quality of jealousy. It is truly the “green-ey’d monster,” mocking us while feasting on our very flesh. When we are jealous of our lover or spouse, we create a wedge that makes it impossible to express love to them. When we are jealous of a colleague or friend, we alienate that person from our affections. As a result, jealousy can easily appear to be antipathy—we snap or lash out at the object of our jealousy—which separates us further from how we desired things to be in the first place. This makes jealousy particularly insidious and particularly difficult to contain.

When jealousy gets out of control, it drives us to do the most vengeful things. Actions triggered by jealousy can be disastrously damaging to our relationships, to our dignity, and to our sanity (just think of Othello). Jealous rages fuel murders and suicides, property damage, all sorts of criminal activities. Gripped in the jaws of the green-ey’d monster, we feel crazy. Our minds are barred from the rationality that might anticipate the negative consequences of our actions. Ignoring any accountability, we are caught in aggressive acts in an attempt to gain what we desire, plots and schemes that are clearly at cross-purposes, doomed to failure.

To make matters worse, when we are jealous, we feel embarrassed and lousy about ourselves, berating ourselves for having this feeling. This can effectively shut down any possibility of healing jealousy and discovering wholeness and sanity. In fact, it can make our jealousy worse: the more terrible we feel about ourselves, the less able we are to appreciate the wealth and bounty of our own lives, which makes us want even more desperately.

How do the Buddhist teachings support our working with jealousy and transforming it into goodwill? Tibetan Buddhism teaches that we find the antidotes to our most painful states of mind by leaning directly into the emotion itself. Our emotions are full of wisdom. They are the keys for deepening our practice and our relationships with our world. If we try to just paste an antidote onto our experience without truly dealing with it, we add layers of denial, artificiality, and mistrust of our goodness that can inhibit our genuine discovery of wholesomeness. The antidote to jealousy is found at the heart of jealousy itself.

Transforming the Green-Ey’d Monster
Circe Invidiosa, an 1892 painting by John William Waterhouse that shows the Greek mythological character Circe poisoning water in order to turn her rival into a monster. Courtesy South Australian Government Grant.

There are five steps to transforming the green-ey’d monster:

1. Mindfulness: When we are seized by jealousy, we mindfully tune into the very feelings that are seizing us. This is difficult to do because of the conflicting qualities of hatred and desire. There may also be feelings of humiliation and self-judgment. Whatever the feelings, we simply acknowledge them and let them go.

2. Discernment: After we have been able to tune into our feelings through mindfulness, we put aside the plotline or narrative that accompanies our jealousy. These plots fuel our jealousy to the point where we are carried away by it—we feel justified in our anger, humiliation, and desire, and cannot really touch the wisdom within the emotion. Now we step back and ask, What is jealousy? How does it feel? It might be helpful to journal during this phase, omitting the narrative. How does jealousy feel in my body? How does it feel in my mind? What is the emotional landscape of jealousy?

When journaling, we describe as I have done above. What is going on in my body right now; in my chest, my jaw, my belly, my arms? Sharp pain in my chest, clenching jaw. What images best describe this? Can’t breathe, feeling smothered, like being bound with ropes. What are the emotional flavors that are racing through my mind, moment to moment? Ragged, desperate, frightened, betrayed, humiliated. How does it feel in my mind? Thoughts racing, zigzagging between hatred and desire.

Then we ask, What is painful about this? For me, this question is a turning point. Yes, jealousy is painful, unbearably painful. But how is it painful? It’s painful in how it feels now, as I can see vividly from my journal description. Physically, emotionally, mentally painful in literal ways. It’s also painful because of what this feeling is driving me to do. I want to hurt someone; I want to hurt myself. I can hardly restrain myself.

3. Liberating pain: When we come to the clarity of the pain of jealousy, there is a moment of truth. Rather than being dragged by the plotline of jealousy that victimizes us by its torturous repetition and persistence, we feel the pain directly. It may take time, but eventually we do feel it. The Buddhist teachings say that when we can actually feel pain directly, we spontaneously let go, just as feeling the hot handle of a cast-iron skillet makes us let go. When we feel the powerful, undeniable suffering of jealousy, we want liberation in the most direct way possible. We feel it, and we let go.

4. Joy: What happens when we let go? First, the coarsest layer of the emotion, the anger, goes. We recognize that anger will not bring the result we want; in fact, it removes us quickly and definitively from what we desire. That is an enormous relief. Next to go is the attachment of desire. The Buddha considered desirelessness to be the primary mark of meditation practice. Indeed, simply recognizing pain can swiftly quench the thirst of self-centered longing.

What remains when anger and desire abate? We may think that we will be drained once hatred and desire have lifted, but that’s not the case. In the liberated space of freedom, there is a glimpse of joy. Mudita is the unselfish joy that applauds the happiness and good fortune of others. It is considered boundless because it comes from our own basic goodness and inherent altruism. Appreciative joy is a natural expression of our best humanity.

The fundamental desire and attachment that lie at the heart of jealousy have genuine love and care as their basic energy—the flame at the heart of desire. When the self-centered qualities are liberated by the recognition of suffering, love and care are freed to become generously joyful. Mudita cheers for the happiness and success of others and celebrates buoyancy, health, and happiness wherever they are encountered. But at this point we have only a glimpse of this appreciative joy—it must be fostered.

5. Cultivation: We must practice daily to stabilize and deepen our joy in the happiness and success of others. First, we bring to mind someone we know who is naturally joyous and happy. It may be a friend or coworker, a child, or a spiritual teacher. We visualize this person exuding joy and regard this joy with appreciation. What a special environment our joyful friend creates wherever she goes! Isn’t it wonderful, fantastic? Then we practice joining the joyfulness of this person, also exuding appreciation and happiness, also creating a joyful environment. We continue to appreciate our joyful friend, and we feel our world lightening and brightening as we do this. What a special gift to be able to wish others success and happiness!

As we develop the practice of appreciative joy, eventually it is important to turn to the person or situation that triggered our jealousy. Can we continue to feel joyfulness in the success and happiness of this person as well? If jealousy arises again, we return to the process of contemplation of the feeling of jealousy, its imprisoning qualities, its terrible pain. All of this may take years—it certainly has for me. But jealousy will never directly bring us happiness; it will only hurt us more. Eventually, appreciative joy is what will fully heal our jealousy and transform the “green-ey’d monster.”