Sunita (name changed) walked into the dojo, confident, regal and self-possessed to begin practicing Aikido.
For some people -- including me -- studying Aikido (The Japanese Martial Art, called The Way of Harmony that works as a way to polish the spirit, to turn lead into gold) is a slow, awkward, and arduous process. It can take years -- decades, even -- to master the intricate movements and achieve a level of skill and grace that would be considered "masterful."
I've been practicing this martial art for almost six years. Even though I'll be taking my black belt test in a few months, much of the time I still feel like a hulking Clydesdale, tromping around inelegantly.
Which is why I couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy (OK, more than just a "twinge") watching Sunita, the "new girl" at the dojo, pick up all of the basic moves so quickly -- and effortlessly.
As a former gymnast, Sunita already has a great deal of physical intelligence, balance, coordination, and the ability to memorize patterns and dance-like movements quickly. Oh, and did I mention that she's also drop-dead gorgeous and mesmerizing to watch?
It was hard not to feel jealous.
Jealousy is a funny emotion. I've found that -- no matter how "evolved" you think you are, and no matter how fiercely you try to deny that it's happening ("Nope! I'm not jealous, no, not at all...") it has a way of creeping back into your body and taking over -- if you allow it.
I see this happen with my clients all the time, and unfortunately, it can be detrimental to their success.
Just a few weeks back, a woman in my monthly training program confessed that she's been hesitating on moving forward with a crucial piece of her publicity plan because she feels like one of her "business heroes" is "so much better" than her, so much "farther along" with her business, with a more attractive website and legions of online fans, and polished programs -- so what's the point of even trying? She feels like, "Why even bother? I ought to just give up now, because I'll never be able to measure up!"
I probably don't have to spell out why that kind of thinking is so harmful.
Imagine if J.K. Rowling had said to herself, "Oh, plenty of other people have written stories about wizards. J.R.R. Tolkien already wrote a whole bunch of wizard-y books, years ago, and he's a much better writer than me. He already has tons of adoring fans. I have none. Plus, 12 publishers have rejected my manuscript for Harry Potter. I'll just quit now."
When jealousy turns into creative-paralysis -- freezing you in place, holding you back from doing the work you feel called to do -- nobody benefits. The world is left bereft, with a "gap" where your finest contribution ought to go.
On some level, I'm guessing you already know this. You get that jealousy can be a harmful emotion if it's left untamed and undirected. The question on your mind might be, "So, if I'm feeling jealous of someone -- say, a business competitor, peer, athlete, or even a good friend -- what can I do about that?"
Here are three acts of "emotional alchemy" (that is, transforming one emotional state into another) that I recommend trying. Or, to word it differently, three "gifts" or "opportunities" that are hidden inside of every twinge of jealousy...
1. Turn jealousy into an opportunity to "steal the technique."
Watching Sunita's graceful movements, I found myself thinking, "I want my body to move like that. I want my mind to be more still."
When there's something I want, I've trained myself to shift out of "jealous lurker mode" and into "student mode." I began to study her more closely, picking up cues, copying her subtle movements, learning through imitation, asking that I can absorb her qualities and make them mine.
Later, even though I was advising her, since I'm her "sempei" or senior (though based on years and experience that doesn't necessarily mean superior in skill), I could feel her technique and that, in itself taught me. I noticed myself improving. Just by being near her I felt myself becoming more calm.
In Aikido we call this "stealing the technique." Actually, I'm not just jealous of Sunita. I'm jealous of everyone in the dojo. Every single person who trains at Bay Marin Aikido has a quality or movement I envy.
In fact, I've written down those qualities and techniques and consciously practice them on the mat. I have a list that I review before going to training and take one per night to focus on. This is a variation on what Saito Sensei, who trained directly with O'Sensei advised.
My sensei (teacher) Hans Goto Sensei explained it this way: "Work on one thing and then you'll get it. That's yours. And then you can work on another one thing. That's what Saito Sensei said. He said, 'You can try and work on too many things each class you'll get zero. 30 days of zero still equal zero. But if you only try to get one thing out of each class after 30 days you have 30 things.' This is huge."
Jealousy doesn't have to "freeze" you. It can be turned into motivational fuel, inspiring you to study and train more precisely, more intensely. Or perhaps, simply try something new to achieve the result that you want. It can be an opportunity to "steal the technique" and learn from the best.
2. Turn jealousy into an opportunity to return to the present and rejoice in the success of others.
When I feel my mind spinning into intense jealousy, it's usually a signal that I have "left" the present moment. Instead of focusing on the Aikido technique that I'm trying to master, or the blog post I'm trying to write, or the webinar that I'm trying to deliver, or the client I am trying to coach, my mind has gone somewhere else.
My mind is caught up in what other people are doing and how they are doing it better. That kind of mental departure leads to distracted, fragmented work. It's hard to do your best work when you're not fully engaged in the present moment and it just doesn't feel good either.
When I sense that happening, I take a few deep breaths to center myself back in my body, back in the present moment. Sometimes I say silently, "OK, I'm back here now." Everything feels better once I'm "back," and in that more centered place, I let go of the envious feelings and focus on what I'm working on in the moment.
Ginny Breeland Sensei says, "The Breath provides a bridge to subtle energies that can nourish. It is the connection for the Mind to the Body and the Here to the Now. On the mat it allows us to go from tension to relaxation, from confusion to a clarity, from irregular motion to coordinated ease.
In life it can quell a sense of separation and allow us to find that comforting sense of interconnection. It can take us beyond ourselves.
Let attention allow us see ourselves with a new reverence.
Study the Breath. The most profound things lie close at hand."
So the breath can connect us to the very person we envy thus dissolving the separation between us. It brings us closer to what we want and who we want to be and gives us the chance to "see ourselves with new reverence."
Another way to look at this is that whenever jealous feelings arise for me I'm being pulled off center. One of the key principles of Aikido is to keep your center and take your attacker's center, to get them off balance so they are light and easy to throw. It's often said that someone asked O'Sensei, the founder of Aikido, "How is it you never get pulled off center?" And he replied that, just like everyone else, he does get pulled off center but he has trained himself to get back to center so quickly you can't see it. So the more you practice pulling yourself back to center the faster you'll be able to do it. And soon, like O'Sensei, your process will be "invisible" and incorporated into how you handle jealousy, and ultimately, self-acceptance.
3. Turn jealousy into an opportunity to reflect on your own strengths, skills, desirable assets, and "swallow the world in one gulp."
Curly haired women long for smooth locks. Straight-haired women spend hours trying to add curls and waves.
Skinny women yearn for Marilyn Monroe-esque curves. Curvy girls wish they could slim down and look like a runway model.
A struggling yoga studio owner might long for more money, more influence, or a big team to manage. A successful CEO might wistfully yearn for quiet days filled with minimal responsibilities, no meetings, and plenty of time to practice yoga.
So many of us crave the opposite of what we have! It's almost comedic.
I admire Sunita's instant, effortless grace on the Aikido mat. One day, in the dressing room, she mentioned that she found me a patient teacher who didn't condescend. Who knew? Another woman in the dojo startled me by saying she was studying my conversational skills. I know I'm much more fluent verbally than physically, but had no idea that someone would study what comes naturally to me.
We all have skills and strengths that other people find enviable. Sometimes, though, caught up in a whirlwind of jealousy, we can't see our own gloriousness.
Not surprisingly, self-acceptance is a key happiness factor.
Christopher Bergland, a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist noted, "A 2014 survey by psychologists who study happiness identified 'ten keys to happier living' including daily habits that make people genuinely happy. In an unexpected finding, the psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire who performed the survey found that the habit which corresponded most closely with being happy -- and satisfied with overall life -- is self-acceptance."
Unfortunately, self-acceptance was also the "happiness habit" that participants in the survey practiced the least. The new study is titled "Self-Acceptance Could Be the Key to a Happier Life, Yet It's the Happy Habit Many People Practice the Least.""
Dr. Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, said: "Our society puts huge pressure on us to be successful and to constantly compare ourselves with others. This causes a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety."
An antidote to comparing ourselves to others is a Buddhist practice that asks, "Can you be happy for their (the person you are jealous of) success?" You notice your jealous feelings. Stop. Take a breath and simply ask this question. You can do this anywhere, anytime. Can you be happy for this person's success? Even rejoice in it? At the heart of this practice is the realization that it's actually changing you. It's not just for Karma points. You are getting something from engaging in the very act of transforming your feelings from envy into good will toward another person.
We may even be able to extend this same practice to ourselves in a direct way by doing what Dr. Mark Williamson recommends, "Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you."
But don't stop there, because as psychologist Rick Hanson, author of the best-selling Buddha's Brain says, "The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones."
He references John Gottman's study that found in important relationships "a negative interaction in an important relationship is five times more powerful than a positive interaction."
To counteract this "negativity bias" effect, Hanson recommends that we really savor a person's positive words. "The way to remember something is to make it intense, felt in the body, and lasting. That's how we give those neurons lots and lots of time to fire together so they start wiring together. So rather than noticing it and feeling good for a couple of seconds, stay with it. Relish it, enjoy it, for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, so it really starts developing neural structure."
And lastly, "Sense and intend that this positive experience is sinking into you and becoming a part of you. In other words, it's becoming woven into the fabric of your brain and yourself."
When our body and mind are so full of our own happiness it leaves less room for jealousy and makes it easier to be happier for others.
Another way to counteract jealousy is to consider that that moment of "outward longing" might be your cue to pause and turn your gaze inward. Ask yourself, "What are some of the qualities that I possess that others might find desirable, enviable, or beautiful?"
Maybe you have tremendous poise, perseverance, a sense of balance, a wry sense of humor, mental grit, physical endurance, playfulness, seriousness, graciousness, an uncanny ability to say just the right thing at just the right time, or the ability to know when to listen and say nothing at all.
Return to the qualities that make you... you. Make a mental list or write them down.
Refer back to your list when feelings of jealousy are starting to feel overwhelming.
Remember who you are, beneath the noise. Remember what you add to the world.
The stark reality is that there will always be people who are more seasoned, more experienced, and more popular than you.
You might feel like you will "never catch up" with them, and you are quite right.
You will never "catch up" with people that you admire deeply, because you are not them. You are you.
You have your own stories to tell, books to write, products to launch, projects to bring forth into the world. In the end, who knows? You might become bewilderingly successful -- in the conventional, making-millions-of-dollars sense of the term -- beyond your wildest dreams, surpassing all of your personal heroes as you skyrocket ever-upwards.
Or, instead of making millions you might move millions with your words, your deeds, your presence.
Or you might achieve success on a far humbler, though no less meaningful, scale. Who knows?
One thing is certain:
True success is not about being "as good" or "better" than somebody else.
It's about using all that you have been given to the fullest and maxing out your potential.
That's the person that your clients, your customers, your fellow martial arts students, and media audiences all want to meet.
As O'Sensei says, "Never become stagnant. Train your body, forge your spirit, and swallow the world in one gulp! Stand boldly, with confidence, wherever you find yourself. Make use of all your innate power and you can accomplish anything."
On that note, it's time for me to finish this up, head to the dojo and swallow the world in one gulp.
Domo arigato gozaimashita.
(Thank you very much for what you have taught me.)
Susan Harrow is a top media coach, PR expert & author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul (HarperCollins). For 25 years she's worked with clients like rock stars and celebrity chefs to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as well as entrepreneurs, authors, coaches, consultants, speakers, healers and socially conscious businesses. Dozens of her clients have been on Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America etc. She shows her clients and course participants how to double or triple their business with PR by using sound bites effectively.
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