Image: Hands (Rodin’s Le Catherdrale), Carole Clift, 1997. 14 x 11 inches. © Carola Clift

BUDDHIST TRADITION SPEAKS of four “divine abodes,” or qualities of an awakened mind to be cultivated and put into practice. Also called the “four immeasurables,” these states—lovingkindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha)—are to be aroused and radiated outward by the practitioner, without limit or exclusion. Of these, mudita is for many Westerners the least familiar, at least as a term. It refers to the capacity to participate in the joy of others, to take happiness in the happiness of others. Though practice aims ultimately to develop sympathetic joy for all beings, intimate relationships offer everyone—whether Buddhist or not—a precious opportunity to taste its experiential flavor. When we are in love, the joy of our beloved becomes extremely contagious.

This innate capacity for sympathetic joy in intimate relationships often reaches its peak in deeply shared emotional experiences, sensual exchange, and, quintessentially, in lovemaking. But what if our partner’s sensuous or emotional joy were to arise in relation not to us but to someone else? For the vast majority of people, the immediate reaction would likely be not openness and love but rather fear, anger, and perhaps even violent rage. The change of a single variable has rapidly turned the selfless contentment of sympathetic joy into Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” of jealousy.

Why should this be so? Findings in the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and zoology shed considerable light on the matter. Jealousy, it seems, likely emerged as an adaptive response in our hominid ancestors some 3.5 million years ago. In the ancestral savanna, it was imperative for males to make sure they were not investing their time and resources in another male’s progeny and for females to secure a steady partner to provide food and protection. Jealousy and the desire for sexual exclusivity developed hand in hand as mechanisms for assuring the passing on of one’s DNA. As evolutionary psychologist David Buss writes in his acclaimed book, The Evolution of Desire,      most human mating mechanisms and responses are actually “living fossils” shaped by the genetic pressures of our evolutionary history. The problem, of course, is that patterns that were adaptive millions of years ago might be anything but that today.

What does this mean for us spiritually? Based on tradition, it might be hard to say. While Buddhism has addressed in great detail the transformation of other deeply conditioned emotions—greed and hatred, for example—it has, so far as I know, not much to say about jealousy, specifically about sexual jealousy. But it seems to me that Buddhist principles can be, and should be, extended to the realm of intimate relationships.

I suggest that the transformation of jealousy through the cultivation of sympathetic joy bolsters the awakening of the enlightened heart. As jealousy dissolves, universal compassion and unconditional love become more easily available to the individual. Although to love without conditions is generally easier in the case of brotherly and spiritual love, as we heal the historical split between spiritual love (agape) and sensuous love (eros), the extension of sympathetic joy to more embodied forms of love becomes, it seems to me, a natural development. And when embodied love is emancipated from possessiveness, a richer range of spiritually legitimate relationship options organically emerges. As people become more whole and are freed from certain basic fears (of abandonment, of unworthiness, of engulfment), new possibilities may open up for the expression of embodied love, and what was once perceived as undesirable, threatening, or even morally questionable might well feel natural, safe, and wholesome. This would, I believe, include forms of sexual expression that extend beyond the constraints of conventional monogamy. In short, once jealousy loosens its grip on the self, human love can attain a wider dimension of embodiment in our lives that may naturally lead to the mindful cultivation of more inclusive intimate connections.

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