Letting Go of Envy: The Secret Weapon
I started learning to play the drums in my 20s, a decade after many people I play with started learning their instruments. The common story is that they fell in love with music as a pre-teen, were given a guitar or convinced their folks to buy a set of drums, and then for years they jammed with their friends in the basement of the kid with the coolest mom, and made their way from there.
I have long envied this common background of my peers. When you learn anything early on like that, certain things are so second nature that it is unfathomable that everyone wouldn’t know how to do them. You see this in every walk of life: the kid who learns to debate at the kitchen table with his attorney parents, the artist who doesn’t remember not knowing how to draw, the skateboarder who can’t see how it’s possible that anyone could be unsteady on a board.
There is a benefit to learning things later in life though, too. One thing is that you are consciously choosing to learn, and you come to the process more thoughtful about what it is that you most want to accomplish. Things might not be as second-nature as they are in youth, but it’s almost as if what you choose know has a deeper understanding attached. I knew, for instance, that learning to swing was so important to me, as the music that I loved did that, and with every lesson I made that a goal.
When you learn something early on, you tend to take it more for granted, and there’s a chance that you won’t value it as much as if you learn later, when you’re making a sacrifice of money or time in order to practice. This has certainly been the case for me and writing, and it took decades for me to realize the value of abilities I learned before knew I was learning.
When every time you play with a musician and they have at least 10 years on you, you pretty much, early on, give up any sense that you can compete. The way I saw it, this was incredibly freeing. I got to just do what I could do, and never had a sense that it was a race with anyone else. I was in my own little universe, and could freely admire other musicians without any sense that they were taking away any spotlight from me. There was NO spotlight on me, it was always on the better players. This let me develop as a musician gratefully, thankful for the inspiration and tips of the other players I encountered, and never in a competition with anyone, except myself.
I don’t believe that it is our nature to constantly compete. This is my hippie worldview. In this society, it’s something we come to believe as truth due to the requirements of capitalism and militarism. I think “healthy competition” is a fabrication of society. Empathy is what sets humans apart from animals, so seeing competition in nature and drawing the conclusion that it is ingrained in us isn’t fair. I think we are born to cooperate, to use this natural empathy, and to want the best for everyone around us. I think it’s just some fairly new systems that humans have bought into that make us believe that’s just how it is.
That’s a big debate I know, and I imagine I will always lose this sort of argument, but I smilingly know I’m right.
Anyway. Going back to playing music, I see how we are trained to bring competition into this world as well. Why not? The belief is that everyone is out for themselves, and that our success means the failure of someone else. We think that if someone near us becomes successful, that means there is one less opportunity for us. We watch competitions of musicians, and battles of the bands, “drum-offs” and “top 50 female bass players or guitarists or drummers.” The society loves to pit us against each other. Then, if I haven’t beaten down all other drummers and emerged the victor of all the spoils by a particular age, then age becomes the competition, and I am pitted against time. I should just give it up, since apparently there is a deadline to achieve a strict idea of success, and if that arbitrary benchmark hasn’t been reached, then I have failed.
This is a way of thinking so ingrained that we never hardly ever question it. I get off stage and most nights, someone wants me to know that they like me better than another drummer, or another female drummer, or even, sometimes, my bandmates. I say this lightly, as I overhear my bandmates getting told the same thing about themselves. I remember once, long ago before I was a musician, I was schooled by a musician in a band at CBGB’s in New York. When he got offstage I told him that I thought he was such a fantastic player that I couldn’t pay attention to anyone else in the band. “Those are my mates! I’m only as good as they help me to be!” and he stormed off. Oh yeah! I was doing it too. His success didn’t have to mean that the others were diminished. His success would only bring them further into the limelight as well.
I have incredible bandmates, who are open and supportive and giving to so many musicians in their orbit. Maybe at some point they have had to work through these feelings and maybe not, but over the years, I have watched as other friends have battled these feelings in themselves. Intellectually, they know that envy or a sense of competition is not something they want to participate in, but their conditioning overwhelms them and I see them battling with themselves, trying to figure out how to let go of jealousy and envy, and yet they are unable to rise above these welling emotions.
The musicians I love know that there is no use for these feelings, and that if you are forever looking for validation based on what is happening for everyone around you, it only diminishes your own joy in playing music. These patterns, though, are learned so young, and we are so trained to see life this way because of the society we live in, that even the most enlightened among us can have moments in which they see someone achieve something musically that they have been working toward, and a sense of failure and envy washes over them.
One way around these feelings is to believe that if the people I associate with achieve success, then I am elevated just in the association. I absolutely love it that the women in my band are so celebrated. It means I play with these badasses, and so I get to be a little more badass without doing anything. This is the lazy musician’s way to success: lie on the couch, look at the sky, and get a little more credibility because my bandmates are out there, totally rocking their careers.
I have another secret weapon against this struggle. Actually, it’s something I use whenever I have any sort of issue with a person: envy, frustration, anger, fear. I use it for people I know and for people I don’t know. A fellow musician, a jerky neighbor, or political figures.
First, I drop into my heart, that peaceful, open awareness below my thoughts and emotions.
I ask myself, “who is being injured?” I answer, “Clem is being injured,” and I list the ways.
I ask, “What if there is no Clem to be injured? What if Clementine is insubstantial, a porous, see-through being that the injury just passes through like a breath, without affecting?”
I sit for a little in wide space and stillness. I breathe deeply. I ask my self, “Who Am I?” I fall deeper beneath the ego, beneath Clementine, into that peaceful self below.
Then, I bring up the image of the person who is of issue. I see them in front of me, and when I look at them from this place. I nearly always immediately see vulnerability. Every human is vulnerable. Every human has a soft center. If I can’t see it because my vision is obscured by my feelings of envy or frustration, I reduce them to their child self, and see them as their pre-problem self. The power I give to them falls away. Now, they are just a person, like me, moving through life the best they can.
When I discover this vulnerability, I know, because my heart opens. I feel our connection, our oneness.
I open up that feeling and a wave of compassion sweeps through. I set the image of the person to spinning and I just bathe the person in this compassion. In this love. Maybe this person would change with complete unconditional love. Maybe they wouldn’t change at all. But now, I have changed in the way I see them. I have changed in how I feel about our relationship and their power to affect my life has changed. Now, I want only what is best for them. Now, I celebrate their success, and feel happy to see we are each on our own path, and validate each other purely by our common goals.
To take this exercise further out, I think about humanity. I think of the evil, the crazed, the dangerous among us. How would they change with a million people bringing them to mind and bathing them with the ocean of blissful and unconditional love and compassion? How could anyone function in the same way with the world loving them in this way, not a way that is feared or admiring, but purely as a perfect part of the greater perfect consciousness?
Further, even if someone wouldn’t change at all with this kind of energy directed toward then, we would change. Which is the big lesson I learn. It is never about what the other person is doing. The only thing we can change is our reaction to them.
This is the only way we change our world. Hatred begets hatred. Jealousy begets jealousy. When I’m envious then I’m cold and cruel and it becomes a battle in my mind and then I am in pain. The other person probably doesn’t have any idea this energy is being directed at them! They’re over there, living their life, working through their own successes and struggles, and here I am, in misery over my reaction to their apparent success.
That’s a big concept that we believe, that this is inherent in our personalities. Someone succeeds, we tear them down. Someone kills someone, we kill them right back. Someone shouts at us, we shout louder. When we see how lost we keep getting every time, when we see all the misery all this reaction creates, it is endless.
Honestly, I don’t think this secret weapon I just laid out is so strange, this exercise of opening our hearts to our perceived enemies, our rivals. Yes, I am a rock drummer with a ridiculous sense of reality and will probably die poor and alone. But here, with threats of nuclear war in the air, and streets crowded with every kind of misery in every face, from those walking to the office to those lying on cardboard in filthy clothes, with genocide and terrorism and everything on the brink of catastrophe….
What is there to lose? Base emotions, fear, hostility. When we’re open to see the reactions we have that aren’t serving us, when we see how we are creating our own misery, when we see how we are all so deeply connected and only want to cooperate and come together, everything lightens. Your happiness is my happiness. Your success lifts me up. We let go, we fall into compassion, and we see that all along, life has been bliss. I dare you to try it.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/letting-go-of-envy-the-secret-weapon