”Comparison is the thief of joy.”Theodore Roosevelt
One of the biggest wastes of our time and the quickest way for us to give away our power is through comparison. Understanding comparison is one of the simple ways to detach from it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia. That our sense of the future and what it is going to look like is extrapolated by us based on past experiences, pleasant or unpleasant. We add a layer on any possible future we imagine by comparing how a similar situation was in the past. Comparing mainly puts a filter on the whole thing by making us think that something else is better than what we’re getting now. Effectively we seem to be constantly victimizing ourselves for not getting what we imagine we could have gotten. Either through feeling like things happen to us or through the feeling of insufficiency or frustration that we get from not having what the other has.
The need to compare inherently comes from a desire to evaluate or measure our self-worth. It is not in any way conducive to our self-worth. If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree then it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. And in the same manner if you judge two different people with different capacities and innate tendencies then they will have to adhere to some rules that will limit them both. The limits of a runner are very different from the limits of a gymnast and the limits of a lawyer very different to those of an artist. If a person has mental acuity, then they would be suited to certain functions in society but if they are lacking emotional empathy then they will certainly not be able to take on tasks or roles in society that require that character trait.
When we compare, we always need a bar or a standard from which to compare. If we are comparing ourselves to others, there is always a role-model, a hidden ideal and maybe even some idea of perfection that is guiding our comparison. The higher this ideal, the more grandiose and the more impossible it becomes for anyone to meet this ideal. Let alone oneself. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, the insufficiency haunts us everywhere, in every task. No one can meet the ideal and no one can meet us in our expectations and in that – we’re trapped. Trapped in a cage of our own making which further solidifies our sense of unworthiness. The root of this comparison of self is based on a skewed idea – ‘What should I be?’. The answers are sought outwardly and from other examples, but in the deeper our own unworthiness the more perfect this ideal becomes outwardly that we need to meet. Battling insecurity and the constant need for perfection we oscillate between these extremes, in a way finding ourselves everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
If we flip this dynamic outward then we can explore how we compare others to our set ideals and that kind of violence ensues not in ourselves but in our interaction with others. The outward expression of comparison is when we compare others to our set ideals and are firmly projecting this ideal outward. “You should be happy” or “You should be kind” or “You should be like this, or like that”. We project expectations on others which causes them to feel more and more constrained in their behaviour. It is almost like we are rationally saying that ‘I have compared all possibilities and this possibility is the best. And you should stick to it.’ But in that we are negating the flow and diversity of life. And most of all, the curious element of surprise! All possibilities are good and depending on the context they are well suited or maladaptive. Comparison in this way also imposes expectations but towards others and there is a judgement, there is a criticism of who someone is. The comparer projects a model for an ideal human being and this model is not a guideline; it is a shell. Each new or existing person in their life needs to fit into this shell and its not just a one-time thing but this needs to happen constantly. Breaking out of the shell is immediately met with reprimands, disapproval and warnings. It can also be met with a victimized face, inducing a feeling of guilt that we strayed from their expectations and should find a way back to gain their approval.
Now seeing how comparison can become toxic to our relationships, we can also give credit where credit is due. Comparison in a basic sense is very normal for us all. Mirror neurons play a great part in how we learn as children and have played an enormous part in our evolution and that of language and communication. In learning, comparing ourselves to someone who is an expert or knows better can be a guiding factor and can expose gaps in our knowledge which we can work on. Additionally, if I compare myself to my teacher or mentor, I can also use this a source of inspiration by seeing how my vision is similar to theirs. I can also compare where they’re at and where I’m at thus I can see the work that I need to do. But in these examples of healthy comparison there are two prerequisites that exist.
First, the comparison comes from a healthy sense of self. There is no insecurity or lack of self-worth but rather there is a sense that ‘I am enough’ and from there comes ‘I can be better’. The effort and focus in the task make one better and learning is the aim. But the fact of not being better just yet, takes nothing away from that self-worth of being enough. Eventually the improvement comes from one’s work or creation or progress; which is a gratifying end to the process. This creates a healthy foundation for being secure in oneself.
Second, in this form of healthy comparison there is a lack of judgement. There is only the relation of where one is at and where one needs to get to. In comparing or relating to where I am vs where I would like to go, I find a path, a direction. In that direction there is no judgement that says ‘Well, why are you not there yet.’ There is a firm conviction in the joy of the journey and that “I’ll get there when I get there.” There’s no hurry. Enjoying the way is one of the most valuable and cherished aspects of any learning journey. Often getting to where you want to get to can be quite anti-climactic and if we focus on getting there too much, we arrive with a sense of being robbed, of being cheated. That we were promised this kind of ideal and the feeling that comes with – which didn’t really happen. That’s because we missed the way all along. The tunnel vision in getting to our destination blinded us to feeling the joy of the way and that’s really what it was all about.
Comparison as Judgement
Where comparison dies for me is when I see it killing my experience of what is. Comparison only exists in my head, in my concepts and ideas. It is not something out there. It’s in here *points to head*. I feel the burden of negative comparison and I feel the crushed hope of hopeful comparison. It never really leads to any good end. The most amazing and positive moments I’ve had were a surprise, they were totally unexpected, unprepared for and yet in a way orchestrated by the stars. Not knowing is part of the joy and I’d even go as far to say that it is a fundamental part of the joy. Expected joy fails to enliven us and grows stale very fast. And it’s not even that things seem predictable, it’s that we think we know how things will play out. We’re thinking of the way things will play out when we could have been paying attention to our present and where we are. Our conviction in our imagination of the future in a way saps all the joy out of something that we just yesterday got so much joy from. We might find people or circumstances to blame but we had ourselves fooled.
We need to start to see our uniqueness as something that fits into the greater whole. The idea that we are all born equal is something that doesn’t really serve us at this point. Equity, as distinct from equality, is more of a healthy perspective to look at it from. We are all unique, just like everyone else. This puts us on a level playing ground and also celebrates our diversity. What doesn’t celebrate our diversity is comparison as a form of judgement. And we do this all the time, with others and with ourselves.
A Diverse Soil
Comparison blinds us to who we are. When projected outward, it blinds us to who others are. Constantly trying to fit ourselves in others’ molds or trying to fit others in our mold, there is a lack of appreciation. But of what? A lack of appreciation for diversity. There is an inherent diversity to all of life. If we look at agriculture and how it has damaged our soil, one of the main malpractices has been the practice of monocultures. To have one kind of vegetable or fruit on the same soil all the time. A healthy practice is to rotate crops, corn one year, rice another, beans another. Each crop takes something from the soil and gives something different back. It is in that relationship that we introduce diversity to keep the diversity of the soil healthy. Permaculture practices take it further by planting complementary crops next to each other, in addition to soil rotation. That way the soil is constantly depleted and nourished at the same time, keeping its health at an optimum level.
Why all this talk of agriculture when we compare. Because comparison in its unhealthy form is like monoculture. It’s a one size fits all philosophy and that’s not something we ever find in nature. As we are beings of nature and interdependent on nature, we can take inspiration from the processes of nature to see how health can be cultivated in our own mental soil. Yes, the soil of our minds can be fertile to that which we allow it to be. And if we get lost in the monoculture of comparison then the soil of our minds will get depleted eventually becoming dry, arid and unusable. Nothing will grow there anymore and just like natural soil; it will need to be left alone to weeds and insects for many years before it becomes usable again.
This is a grim picture I paint. It is nothing any of us want. But we need to see that if we unconsciously follow what we have been taught to do, to think and the ways of seeing the world then we are at the mercy of those who have come before us. Should we be so lucky to have had people in our lives that could feed us the right mindset and prepare the mental soil of our minds for healthy cultivation, permaculture and sustainable mindsets, then we would not need to think like this. But life isn’t perfect and we have not all been so fortunate. But what we have now, is our own autonomy and that means we can choose. We can choose to let go of comparison and in that, allow others to be who they are and allow ourselves to be who we naturally are. In that we will silently be celebrating the diverse nature of all life and especially the beautiful diversity present in all human beings.
I believe unhealthy comparison is not something we actively do but something we are taught, something we have picked up unconsciously from our environment. Krishnamurti also talks to children and students about how comparison is built into the education system. We firstly compare ourselves with the teacher and how much she knows. Then there are exams or tests to measure how well we have understood. These are still in large parts of the world mostly designed to measure how much information one can absorb or remember and often has little to do with understanding. Here students are compared by how well with did with others. Where a few might come away feeling competent and assured that their abilities are up to the mark, the majority comes away with a feeling of inadequacy and somehow thinking less of themselves. An exam was never a feel-good affair.
But I also believe that in being aware of comparison, we are granted a gift to change that dynamic. To let go of it and behold our own selves as sufficient and capable. Life is multi-dimensional and one may be suited for teaching, another for agriculture, one for fire-fighting and another for social service. We all have our natural talents and the more authentically we bring them out, the more we can offer our contribution to the world. Because god knows the world needs it.
Can we live a life free from comparison? Krishnamurti says it beautifully and likens it to a kind of meditation. I’ll leave you with this and the knowledge that you are perfect, the way you are.
“To live without comparison, to live without any kind of measurement inwardly, never to compare what you are with what you should be. The word ‘meditation’ means not only to ponder, to think over, to probe, to look, to weigh; it also has a much deeper meaning in Sanskrit – to measure, which is `to become’. In meditation there must be no measurement. This meditation must not be a conscious meditation in deliberately chosen postures. This meditation must be totally unconscious, never knowing that you are meditating. If you deliberately meditate it is another form of desire, as any other expression of desire. The objects may vary; your meditation may be to reach the highest, but the motive is the desire to achieve, as the business man, as the builder of a great cathedral. Meditation is a movement without any motive, without words and the activity of thought. It must be something that is not deliberately set about. Only then is meditation a movement in the infinite, measureless to man, without a goal, without an end and without a beginning. And that has a strange action in daily life, because all life is one and then becomes sacred. And that which is sacred can never be killed. To kill another is unholy. It cries to heaven as a bird kept in a cage. One never realizes how sacred life is, not only your little life but the lives of millions of others, from the things of nature to extraordinary human beings. And in meditation which is without measurement, there is the very action of that which is most noble, most sacred and holy.”Jiddu Krishnamurti