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Adventures in Comparing Mind

posted by Evelyn Cash

by Evelyn Cash

I was voted “most competitive” in my high school senior yearbook. I
would get a 95% on a physics test and be happy with it until I saw that
a friend of mine got a 97%. I like to call this the “Comparing Mind”; it’s the state of
mind that takes a great result (hey, I’d kill for a 95% in college
physics) and makes it crap when it compares it to someone or something
else.  Comparing myself to others is a habit I have, a bad one that seems to get better and worse in cycles.

As
humans, we have a natural tendency to compare the various objects in
our lives and there is nothing inherently wrong with the Comparing
Mind.  The way I’ve sometimes heard this explained in Buddhism is
to take a an object, say a flower and hold it up on its own. Seen in
this way,
the flower is simply a flower. But when you hold up a larger plant next
to it, the flower seems small. When you hold up a tiny flower next to
the first one, that same flower seems large. The size of the flower
only exists in relation to other things. The flower is not inherently
large or small. As long as we’re talking
about inanimate objects,
comparing things isn’t so bad. It can help to say things such as “I
thought that small flower was very pretty,” or “hand me the big
marker.” Not such a big
deal.


The situation is completely different with people.
Once we get it into our head that something about us is “worse” than
another person, it can set off a chain reaction which is difficult to stop. I attended a
Dharma talk given by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche a few years ago and his talk touched on our brains’ amazing reactivity. One of the
parts of his talk that has really stuck with me was when he described the
thoughts that go through our head once we’ve decided that we’re “ugly.”
He talked about how, once that thought gets started, the neurons in our
brains start “gossiping” and talking it up until we’re positive that
we’re not only hideous but that everyone around us knows it and talks
about us behind our backs.

Comparing
Mind works
exactly the same way.  For example, I run about 4 or 5 times a week but
it never fails that on my appointed “rest day” I’ll see a runner while
I’m out walking the dog with my husband and instantly I think that not
only should I also be running but that I’m just being lazy by taking a
day off, obviously that
person didn’t take today off!  What I’m clearly not taking into account
is the fact that I have no idea what that other person’s running
schedule is like and that it’s completely healthy and appropriate to
run 3-5 times a week and take a few days off to avoid injury  If I
don’t catch it, my Comparing Mind will run through it’s program at
light speed and I end up thinking that the other person must be a much
more dedicated runner than I am.  On the flip side,
it also doesn’t help to think that you’re somehow better than someone.
You may start thinking that you’re the smartest and most
capable person in your work group and that you deserve the important
projects. Then, you get a project that’s a bit over your head and when
someone else takes it you just can’t believe it. You’re smarter than
them! You deserved that! In reality, that other person my be perfect
for the job but you were so busy thinking of yourself as “better” that
you wanted all the projects… even the ones you really couldn’t
handle. Plus, you get yourself all bent out of shape and depressed when
really it would be a lot less painful to just admit that different
people are better at
different things and move on happy that you don’t have to do the
difficult work.

The bottom line is that it’s best to
just let go of Comparing Mind as it relates to how we perceive ourselves and others. It can only lead to clinging
and
to suffering and it’s not worth it. This has been a very difficult
practice
for me. As I’ve said,  I’ve been a competitive, comparing person for
so many years that I often don’t even realize I’m doing it. My neurons
are so used to gossiping about how *other* people are better or worse
that they don’t even bother to let me know they’re doing it. I often
only
see it when I lose my cool entirely and break down into either sadness
or anger or even reticule towards another. It usually takes
an explosion for me to even realize that the reaction had been going on
at all.

I’ve decided to take particular notice of
Comparing Mind over the next week. I’ve taken up this practice before,
when I find myself falling into my old comparative/competitive habits
and I’ve noticed that it can be very helpful to be on the look out for
these sorts of reactions before they occur. I would challenge anyone
who happens to read this to try this practice just to see if that
subtle
comparison with others is causing suffering.



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Charlotte

posted October 25, 2009 at 6:24 pm


Sometimes it makes me feel so bad. My good mood is somtimes completely spoiled by my competitive mind. I especially hate it when I even compare to my FRIENDS whom I’m supposed to feel happy for when they achieve things I couldn’t. Instead, what goes in my mind is usually: “Why I can’t, when THEY can?!”



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Evelyn

posted October 26, 2009 at 9:30 am


I hear you. There are some people’s FB pages that I try to avoid because I know I’ll end up saying, “They live THERE?? How come I didn’t get a job in Paris? We went to high school together!”
…it’s a bad habit



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Mu

posted October 26, 2009 at 6:44 pm


The cultivation of mushotoku has been the difference for me.



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Charlotte

posted October 26, 2009 at 7:51 pm


I can’t believe the coincidence.
Just one day after I read this article, something happened that challenged me to control my comparing mind.
My friend said: “You’ll be miserable if you keep comparing.”
I said: ” I know. I’ve been miserable all this while.”
Of course I know it’s a bad habit, but what can I do to change it? It’s become my personality!! What should I do?? Or more precisely… HOW can I do it?



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Jon Rubinstein

posted October 26, 2009 at 10:44 pm


Great post. The only time I find comparing produces benefit is when I say “wow, 1/3 of people on the planet live on less than a dollar a day. i have it really good!” Gratitude is a great way to retrain yourself. When you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else and are jealous, consider interdependence. You can’t just pluck out the one piece of someone else’s life that you want. With their job in Paris came their entire life, and all the causes and conditions that led to it. Then stop and be grateful for the amazing miracle of life you do have! When you’re cursing yourself for not running enough, stop and be grateful that you can run at all, that you have the good health to run, that you live in a place that is safe enough to run, that you can afford the leisure time and the sneakers, etc etc etc.



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Evelyn

posted October 27, 2009 at 10:52 am


I think Jon brings up some good points. It certainly helps to be aware of what you *do* have and put your focus on that, instead of what you’re doing wrong.
I also have found that just paying attention and noting: “there’s that comparing mind” has also been very helpful. Slowly but surely, as you catch yourself doing it again and again you start to learn to avoid it or at least let it go more quickly. So Charlotte, my advice would be just keep working at it and try to be patient with yourself. I struggle with it all the time but that’s why we practice. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet out there.
Meditation allows us to take the time and learn how to watch our thoughts and reactions and then we take those skills off the cushion and out into the world. It’s a lot tougher in everyday life but I’ve noticed that if I just keep up the practice, the tendency to want to compare myself eventually goes down and I don’t ride that “comparison” roller coaster as often. After a while, I have a tendency to basically stop trying to notice it and it’s almost like the weeds grow back again and I fall into old habits. At that point, I’ve got to take up the practice again and try to be more mindful so it’s definitely an on-going process.



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Anan E. Maus

posted October 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm


A competitive mind may be what keeps folks striving, generally. And if that produces aspiration for higher things, than it can be used for advantage.
However, generally, a competitive mind can be the source of untold problems.
I think the way around this is to simply devote oneself to helping others..in real, direct and concrete ways.
When our lives are filled with a conscious (daily) devotion to doing good acts, it tends consume us with a spirituality that drives out all manner of limited thinking.
It is oneness with others that kills competition. If we feel all others as our own, that we are all united in our mutual struggle to find a fulfilling life…in that consciousness we find freedom.
I don’t think that the “mind” problems get solved by the mind. I think the “mind” problems get solved by awakening the heart…and allowing it to express its caring, kindness, generosity and etc.
One can whip a beast (the mind) into submission. But that often just produces rebellion. If the mind is naturally and spontaneously directed to an object it loves…then the motivation comes without strain and stress. So, when the heart’s feelings of compassion and caring come forward, the mind naturally follows in suit. But if that underlying heart is not stimulated, then the mind is just a monkey, perhaps obedient one minute, but quite ready to jump around the next.



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Evelyn

posted October 28, 2009 at 9:06 am


I happened to pick up Sharon Salzberg’s “Loving Kindness” book yesterday for some random reading and I opened up to the chapter on Mudita or Sympathetic Joy. She points out in the section on “Comparing” that comparing yourself to others for better or for worse can lead to suffering either way. Learning to cultivate a sense of Sympathetic Joy helps combat the negative consequences of comparing by allowing you to find joy in another’s success, rather than feeling bad about yourself or jealous of them. I’ve always had a tough time with Mudita myself but I can see how it can be useful in this situation. Instead of looking at my friend in Paris and thinking “shucks, why didn’t I make those choices?” I would be able to look at her facebook page and think, “wow, isn’t that great! Living in Paris must be awesome, I’m so happy for her!”
Anan, I think you’re right… it’s the heart that must open up and the mind will follow.



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