Lately I've been thinking about how to describe jealousy, especially when it comes to sex and love. It's a hot, visceral feeling, exacerbated by the Southern summer heat. Your heart is wrenched, like a rag full of water, and you feel your pulse pushing blood through your body.
Crimes of passion often seem outrageous. How could you let yourself end another life or ruin your own in a temporary fit of feeling? But when I feel a jealous twinge, constricting my heart like a snake, I start to understand. Drunk on that cocktail of love and hate, logic loses its grip.
Elvita Kondili is a licensed professional counselor and the education program coordinator at Charlotte's Kadampa Meditation Center, where she's been teaching and meditating for two years. From a Buddhist perspective, she says, a common mistake is to believe that our happiness and unhappiness are dependent on external factors. But these are states of mind, and their source is internal, she says. Jealousy, too, is a state of mind, and as anyone who's experienced it knows, the feeling only works to make us unhappy.
"There's no benefit to a mental state of jealousy," Kondili says. "And if there's no benefit to something, wouldn't you want to eliminate it? Wouldn't you want to get rid of it if it causes you unhappiness and misery?"
But, like finishing Infinite Jest or cooking the perfect soufflé, getting rid of jealousy is easier said than done. Part of the difficulty is that it may require a fundamental shift in how you approach relationships. Our experience of the world tends to be self-centered, which often manifests in how we build relationships with others. We look for what will benefit us, what will make us happy. As a result, our relationships are not with the other person, but with our idea of them.
"It's about the relationship you have with this person in your own mind. So if your relationship is, 'I want to own you, possess you, I want to control you, I want you to do what suits me,' this is your relationship with this person from the inside," Kondili says. "Even if they do what you want them to do for a little bit, it's just temporary. Eventually something else will come up and they're going to do something that you're not going to like because you're attached to how you want them to behave."
Paradoxically, these controlling tendencies, driven by a desire for happiness and stability, are what lead to unhappiness. Possessiveness and jealousy push those we love away.
When you look at a baby, Kondili says, you're not wondering what that baby can do for you. Instead, you're full of pure love — the kind of selfless love that we should ideally feel for everyone. But some of Kondili's examples of how this selfless love might work in a relationship defy logic — or logic as we know it, at least.
"If your partner showed up one day and said, 'I love someone else,' and you truly loved them and wanted them to be happy, you would let them go. You would want them to be happy, and you would be happy for them."
Kondili says that when she explains this idea, most people scoff. But there are easier ways to practice selfless love and let go of jealousy. One is to get in the habit of considering your partner's perspective. Two fundamental components of the meditation that Kondili practices are wisdom and compassion, both of which can be applied here.
"In a situation where someone's going off to spend time with their friends, we think, 'They don't care about us, they might be unfaithful, or they may be off looking at someone else.' And this may or may not be true, but the way it appears to us is reality," Kondili explains.
Compassion, on the other hand, can mean simply remembering that the other person is like you. They want happiness, too, and they don't want to suffer. Compassion is making an ongoing effort to encounter everyone with the same unadulterated love you feel for a baby. (Or maybe, in my case, my cat.)
Another Buddhist principle is non-attachment. "Whether it's one partner or two partners or your house, your car, or your job, the idea is to change the inside relationship with them so we're not trying to possess them, control them, or rely on them too heavily to make us happy," Kondili explains.
Wisdom, compassion and non-attachment can seem like ideals, floating like clouds, untethered to the emotional mess of everyday life. Perhaps I'll never be able to joyfully bid my partner farewell as they take off with a paramour, but the first step toward letting go of jealousy, Kondili says, is simple.
"The main message is that being happy — having fulfilling relationships — is an inside job. It's not something that anyone else can do for you," she says. "The key is to work on yourself."