They had warned me about the bedsheets.
San Antonio is infamous for high temperatures in the summer, but the dorm rooms at this particular college had some kind of air-conditioning system that cranked nonstop. The combination of the refrigerated air and the windows that had been sealed for decades coated everything in a cold dampness, including the bedsheets and pillowcases and even the twin-sized mattress. I should have been prepared. I wasn’t. I was also not prepared for what would happen in that room during the week I was there to attend a writing workshop. Now that I think about it, though, it makes sense, because dorm rooms are like a monk’s room. Or how I imagine a monk’s room to be. There’s a mattress, a pillow, and a bedsheet. There’s the floor and the single light fixture and the walls stripped of color. For teenager and practitioner alike, the room is a blank canvas.
It was the second or third night of the workshop, close to midnight, when I sat on the very cold bed in that dorm room in Texas and realized that I hated at least three of my friends and a woman I knew only marginally.
“Hate” is not the right word. “Hate” is the word I want to use because everyone hates something, like the taste of root beer, for example, or mechanical pencils when the lead jams. There are also the big-world hates we can agree on: genocide, police brutality, high carbon footprints. Hate is, in public at least, accessible and acceptable.
I did not, however, hate three of my friends and the marginal woman. I envied them. I am trying to remember all the reasons now and even who the specific friends were at the time, but the list roughly boiled down to the fact that one friend had a spectacular book deal and another had finished her first book. A third friend was about to marry the love of her life and another had good hair. (I don’t mean white folks’ hair. I mean thick wavy dark hair that she didn’t need to touch in the morning because she woke up looking that good.) I hated them all. No. I envied them. I wanted what they had.
The cold bedsheets bit into the back of my thighs while I tossed and turned that night. What makes envidia, or envy, so annoying is that it morphs. It looks like hate. It feels like annoyance. It turns into despair (I’ll never get what I want; what’s wrong with me? I love my friends, right?). And because envy is hardly ever talked about in public, it is hardly ever an isolated feeling. The moment I recognized envy that night, I felt ashamed.
In the dark, I stared at the unadorned walls, then finally sat up and doubled the flat dorm pillow. If I was going to have an envy attack, I would at least use it as fodder for practicing lovingkindness. I crossed my legs and tucked the pillow-turned-cushion under me. I did a body scan first. The envy was a knob in my solar plexus. A familiar knob. My hopes rose. Maybe it was not envy I was feeling but good old-fashioned depression instead. The moment I brought up the image of one of my friends, though, the knob turned into a knife and sent a stabbing sensation through my chest. Definitely not depression. I tried another round of lovingkindness. Nada.
At that point, I had been sitting for a little more than a decade. I considered myself a periphery Buddhist. I had my sangha and I went on silent retreats. I took copious notes at dharma talks. I saw absolutely no conflict between Buddhist teachings and my upbringing in a Cuban-Colombian home where we practiced Catholicism and the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. That night in San Antonio, however, I had to consider the possibility that Buddhism might not help me with envy precisely because I am a Latina, and my family and my culture had raised me to know that envy is not just bad—it’s real bad. It’s so bad that we have entire cultural practices set up for the sole purpose of keeping envidia out of our lives. Maybe this is what made that night in Texas so painful. I was transgressing a cultural practice dating back hundreds of years. I was courting the demon.
For years as a child, I thought all babies were born with white wardrobes and black eyeballs dangling from their shoulders.
The whiteness was consuming. There were the undershirts, the onesies, the beanie hats, the blankets, and the diapers, and in that blinding landscape, every baby had a tiny black eyeball gleaming from her left shoulder. The eyeball—a sphere made of the semiprecious stone jet—was attached to a single red bead and pinned to the baby’s onesie with a gold-plated safety pin. Sometimes the black stone had not been shaped into a perfectly round eyeball but into a fist instead, and so the baby had a black fist swaying from her shoulders or hung from a gold necklace and tucked under her onesie.
The babies never touched the amulets, but the women did. The mothers and aunties and comadres. In New Jersey, the Cuban women cooed at a new baby and asked about feedings, and all the while their anxious fingers pulled at the layers of white blankets and white sweaters until they found the gold-plated safety pin and the eyeball. They smiled and murmured about how good it was that the baby had her azabache. No one spoke of the origins of this practice, but the famed Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera attributed it to the religion called Regla de Ochá, or Santería. The azabache, though, is also used in Europe. It’s the stone that pilgrims carried for protection on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
My mother did not care about the origins of the eyeball. A Colombian married to a Cuban, she pinned the azabache to my baby sister because she appreciated hearing that the black eyeball protected infants from the worst evil possible: envy.
When I think of asking my mother if she has ever felt envy, my tongue falters. It would be like asking her if she has had sex outside of marriage.
Cubans do not believe in emotion as abstraction. When Cubans talk about envy, they talk about bad eyes, or to be exact, “the” bad eye as in el ojo malo, the evil eye. Envy, then, is the reason babies get sick for no reason. It’s the reason grown women and men lose a job or a lover or even their homes. Envy is not a feeling state; it is an eyeball no one can see. It is the look someone gives you when they want what you have. Babies, being as they are luminous, are especially vulnerable to the evil eye, and in Spanish, because we apparently do not believe that the devil comes in degrees, bad and evil are the same word: malo.
The irony about the evil eye is that while it lurked everywhere in my childhood, no one admitted to having it. Even now, so many decades later, when I think of asking my mother if she has ever felt envy, my tongue falters. It would be like asking her if she has had sex outside of marriage. A decent woman does not feel envidia. The evil eye is like syphilis or Ebola. It afflicts people who are not us, which is why at the age of 6, I thought envy was someone else’s fault, and in my particular case, the fault of Charles Schulz.
In 1950, Schulz started publishing his comic strip Peanuts, and to be fair, he probably had no way of anticipating mass consumerism. He probably did not think, while he colored in Snoopy’s black nose, that T-shirts and mugs and watches would be produced and sold at high prices based on his drawings. He probably did not think that someone would create a Snoopy telephone. But they did.
The phone, made in 1966, consisted of Snoopy standing upright, smiling and holding the yellow receiver in his right paw, while his bird friend, Woodstock, grinned, a bundle of plastic yellow feathers at his side. The phone’s rotary dial sat on a base painted a cherry red.
I was about 6 years old when I saw that telephone in my friend’s bedroom and there the problem began. I wanted the Snoopy phone. By this, I don’t mean that I hoped Santa would bring me the same phone. I mean that I needed to have the Snoopy phone the way my father needed his can of Budweiser and his cigars, the way the old women at the corner store needed their lotto tickets. I could not imagine going on another day of my 6-year-old life without that Snoopy telephone. But, according to my mother, that was exactly what I would have to do, because while my mother had never heard anyone say outright that craving is the root of suffering, she knew that it was and she was no fool. The craving would pass, and my 6-year-old self would get over it.
It’s questionable whether I ever did move on (periodically, I eye the Snoopy phones on eBay), but I do wonder now if envy helped usher me toward Buddhism. Raised in the Catholic church and on the periphery of the Afro-Cuban religion responsible for the azabaches, I never resonated with the notion of original sin; but craving? I knew craving, and for a long time I knew it as envy. After the Snoopy phone, there were the coveted stickerbooks in third grade and the Nike sneakers in high school and the things I envied that I could not name, like the girls whose parents spoke English and people whose bodies weren’t pinned to the past by trauma. I wanted it all.
It is possible that Francis Bacon got it right when he said that busy people especially suffer from envy. “A man that is busy, and inquisitive, is commonly envious. . . . For envy is a gadding passion, and walketh the streets, and doth not keep home,” he wrote in his essay “Of Envy.” When I look back at the short course of my life, I have to admit that I have been roaming the world with a lot of curiosity about how other people live. In fact, in the last couple of years, I have learned that it is even possible to be envious of what I don’t want, like a high-profile media job and being pregnant and tote bags that cost two hundred dollars. Spiritual envidia, though, might be the worst, since it’s hard to acknowledge—for example, that you are envious of your Zen teacher for waking up at four in the morning to sit and never complaining (at least to you) about her knees when you are sure she is 20 years older than you.
Pema Chödrön’s teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, used to say that we failed on the spiritual journey because if we didn’t “you would get so obnoxious and uncompassionate about other people.” I like this idea. Maybe envy is keeping me on the spiritual journey, on the literal and metaphorical cushion. It’s either that or I am the only Latina I know willing to admit that she knows where the ojo malo is located.
That night in San Antonio with the cold bedsheets and the envidia attack, I needed an azabache. That’s why I turned to metta. If I could generate lovingkindness for the people I envied, surely it would shift my feelings and thoughts. And it worked. Actually, it began to work after about three nights. For the first two nights in that dorm room, I folded the pillow, sat on it and brought my cat to mind. The image of her owl-shaped eyes was the equivalent of turning the valve on for metta. I could practically feel the biochemical start of lovingkindness. I got stuck, though, when I transferred it to my friend and her new book deal. Didn’t she already have enough good stuff in her life? The thought flared for the first two nights, and on the third, it flared a little less. By the time I left San Antonio, I knew I didn’t have a fix for envy. But I did have a way of working with it.
It’s strange to compare metta to an amulet, but that is how I think of lovingkindness now. It’s a black eyeball pinned to a baby’s left shoulder. It’s what my mother would gift me if I could ever admit to her the extent of my envidia.
The Way of the Bodhisattva
At the loss of praise and fame, my own mind appears to me just like a child who wails in distress when its sand castle is destroyed.
Since a word is not sentient, it cannot praise me. But knowing that someone likes me is a cause of my delight. . . .
If I take pleasure in that person’s pleasure, then I should take it in every single case. Why am I unhappy when others are made happy through their favor for some one else?
Therefore, it is because I am being praised that pleasure arises in me. But due to such absurdity, this is nothing more than the behavior of a child.
Praise and so on distract me and remove my disillusionment with the cycle of existence. They stir up jealousy toward gifted people, and anger at their success. . . .
It is wrong to feel anger toward someone, thinking that person impedes my merit. As there is no austerity equal to patience, shall I not abide in that?
From A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, © 1997 by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace. Reprinted with permission of Snow Lion, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, www.shambhala.com.
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