Focus on the universality of suffering, not its variety
Among the many games that the mind plays, comparison is one of its favorites – and one that is rarely favorable in terms of how it affects us.
By comparing our situation with that of others, the mind makes us feel superior if our situation happens to be better. Or, as is more often the case, the mind imagines the grass to be greener on the other side and makes us feel dissatisfied. What if we actually have problems that are bigger than those of others? Even then, the mind’s comparisons submerge us in feelings of self-pity, thereby undermining whatever ability we have to deal with those problems.
The mind’s comparisons submerge us in feelings of self-pity, thereby undermining whatever ability we have to deal with those problems.
More importantly, the mind’s obsession with comparison by highlighting the difference between different people’s material situations blinds us to a far more fundamental and valuable truth: the universality of suffering. When our mind fills us with thoughts of how others are wealthier, healthier or better-looking than us, then we get caught in fantasizing about how we can improve our material situation and lamenting over not being able to do so. But such comparing, craving and griping are a colossal waste, or at least a gross underutilization, of our mental energy because improving our material situation can never provide lasting happiness. Why? Because this world is a miserable place for everyone, whatever their material situation. Everyone has to grow old, get diseased and die. Before that, everyone has to undergo the three types of miseries: environmental, relational and physical. The ways in which the wealthy suffer may be different from the ways in which the not-so-wealthy suffer, but that variety doesn’t change the reality that everyone suffers.
Pertinently, the Bhagavad-gita (09.33) reminds us that this world is a perishable and miserable place for everyone and urges us to strive for spiritual improvement by practicing devotional service. This injunction doesn’t mean that we give up all attempts for material improvement; certainly, we can and should strive to do justice to our God-given talents by using them constructively, but we shouldn’t make the material improvement that may come thereof our life’s primary ambition and we shouldn’t buy into the illusion that such material improvement will make us happy. It won’t. To the contrary, as long as we play the mind’s game of comparison, we will stay miserable. No amount of material improvement will remove that misery because the mind will always find something with which to unfavorably compare our situation and thereby make us miserable. We need to cure the mind’s diseased mentality with Gita wisdom. The Gita’s unambiguous, unsentimental, uncompromising declaration that this world is a place of misery puts a brake on the mind’s comparison game. And its exhortation to practice devotional service redirects our focus from material improvement to spiritual improvement.
The mind will always find something with which to unfavorably compare our situation and thereby make us miserable.
This world is like a hospital. Just as patients gain little by comparing their ailments with those of others, so do we gain little by comparing our material situations with those of others. Just as patients can gain actual relief only by taking the treatment diligently, we too can get lasting relief from misery by taking the treatment of devotional service. The more we practice bhakti-yoga, the more we realize our spiritual identity as eternal cognizant joyful souls, beloved parts of Krishna, who are meant to find lasting happiness in loving and serving him. As we find happiness in our relationship with Krishna, we become joyful even while living in the material world and we also progress towards Krishna’s eternal abode, the place of everlasting happiness.