The great Jewish mystic, the Rabbi of Berditchev, was known throughout 19th century Europe as the Master of the Good Eye. It was said that he could see nothing of people's sins, only their virtues. He'd roust the local drunk from his stupor on high holy day, seat him at the head of the table, and respectfully ask for his wisdom. He'd noodge a man who'd publicly flouted the Sabbath by praising him as the only one in the village who wasn't a hypocrite. He extended his caring to all, whether powerful or impoverished, scholarly or simple, righteous or reprobate.
The Rabbi's inspiration was a Talmud passage that calls for eveyone to be weighted "on the scales of merit" (zechut, from the Hebrew zach or purity). The meaning of zechut, explains one scholar, is to "intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person--to see their highest and holiest potential." It is a reminder that compassion is not just a gift, but a path. The Good Eye is a shift of perception, a transformative art that takes some practice.
The 16th century Tibetan meditation master Wangchuk Dorje recommended a practice he called "the Activity of Being in Crowds." Walking through a throng, he said, is "a good opportunity to check your progress and examine the delusions, attachments, and aversions that arise." I find the bustle of a mall an especially good place to check my Good Eye for jaundice. It's not just the plenitude of people, but of everything under that fluorescent sun that pushes our buttons. With everything winking merrily, beckoning with come-ons for instant gratification, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere (it is all about me, after all!), I go into a sort of mall trance. The mind itself gets into the spirit of things, hawking its tawdrier wares; my finicky responses to the goods on display merge with my reactions to the people I pass--little covetous twinges, subtle flickers of attitude, petty judgments on how people walk, talk, dress, and chew gum. And here a surge of superiority, there a deflating thought of inadequacy; here a lurch of desire for a sleek, well turned-out woman, there a picador's lance of envy at her undeserving boyfriend in the slobby polo shirt.
I return from these shopping expeditions with a discount grab-bag of those feelings the spiritual traditions agree most occlude compassion. I'm collecting a set of action figures based on Augustine's deadly sins (and can just define sins as "biggest obstacles to selfless love"?). Yesterday I snagged Mammon, avarice (a Buddhist would call him tanha, craving), and today my favorite, Leviathan, jealousy, complete with light-up green eyes.
The Koran describes jealousy as a "veil" that beclouds the eye of the heart. Jealousy turns other people into sources of resentment: If I had what you have, Leviathan croaks mechanically when I push the little oval button in his back, then I would be happy. Jealousy tints everyone in bilious shades of envy. It presents a perfect paradigm of insufficiency: I am less because you are more. It's a zero-sum game. Jealousy's only hope is that the other person will be diminished, imagining that would free up proportionately more for itself. (It extends all the way to that uniquely German coinage, schadenfreude, gloating over another's misfortune, the Good Eye turned into the Evil Eye itself.
But just as there are emotional toxins, there are also antidotes, remedies, what the apothecaries of yore called specifics. In Buddhism, the supreme medicine for envy is said to be mudita, or "sympathetic joy," which calls on us to feel happy about another's success. Easy enough when it comes to rejoicing for those we really care about: Every parent kvells over their kid's triumphs; a teacher exults when her favorite student aces the math exam. But to expand this feeling from a narrow circle to a wider arena is like pulling wisdom teeth.
I once witnessed an exchange between a Tibetan lama and a questioner on this subject. "Rinpoche," inquired a pleasant middle-aged man in a checkered sport shirt, "I adore my son. He's a linebacker for his high school football team. I find myself rooting for him to just cream the opposing quarterback. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Of course not," the lama replied. "You love your son, and you want his happiness, and he's happy when he beats the other team. This is only natural."
There was an audible sigh of relief in the room. The spiritual path may be challenging, but it's not unreasonable.
The man smiled. "Thank you, Rinpoche," he said, making a brisk little folding gesture with his hands.
The lama laughed sharply. "I was only joking! Actually, this is not at all the right attitude. "In fact," he said, glancing at the man mischievously, "a good practice for you would be to root for the other team. See them winning, see them happy, see their parents overjoyed. That is more the bodhisattva way." The man thanked him again, this time with an ironic groan at a homework assignment that stretched past football season.
I have a wildly successful acquaintance next to whose perfectly pillowed existence mine seems a lumpy mattress. I've seen him on magazine covers, a self-satisfied, cock-of-the-walk, air-brushed grin on his face. Even worse, he's in my field, though he does ever so much better (sell-out!). I've been training myself, as an antidote to a fulminating case of green-eye, that whenever I feel that little twitch of envy, I wish for more bluebirds of happiness to come sit on his eaves. "Don't you mean," asks a cynical friend, "come shit on his sleeves? But the fact is, my good wishes provide an unexpected sense of relief. It's an unknotting, expansive feeling, as if what's his and what's mine suddenly, metaphysically, belong to both of us and to neither. I recently came across a line from Yoko Ono: "Transform jealousy to admiration/ And what you admire/ Will become part of your life." Maybe she did break up the Beatles, but I think she's onto something.
Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. Root for the other team. Visualize someone who makes you envious--someone who squats smug as a toad in what is surely your rightful place in the world. Think of them in all their irritating splendor, enjoying the perks and accolades you no doubt deserve. Then... wish sincerely that they get even more goodies.
Isn't this the mortal sin of "low self-esteem"? Well, not exactly; it's more like a metaphysical jujitsu. In rooting for someone else's happiness, we tune to a different wavelength. We feel more beneficent, less deprived, more capable of giving. The focus on another person's satisfaction becomes a lodestone that paradoxically draws us closer to our own. (Isn't most envy just our own potential disowned? We are jealous of what we ourselves might become.) Seeing the world through another's eyes (you in me, me in you) makes it feel there's at least twice as much to go around; not more money or fame or square footage, but what underlies the whole pursuit: more love.