Tanya, Marie, and Alice are baboons, social primates who share around 95 percent of our DNA and a lot of our psychological traits. Scientists have found that some baboons (like Marie) are extremely competitive, others (like Alice) more mellow, less worried about measuring up. The more rank-conscious baboons suffer higher blood pressure—a stress-related condition we associate with driven, competitive humans.
No wonder some Asian philosophies refer to rank-obsessed human thinking as "monkey mind" and "comparing mind"—what I call "crazy mind." Constantly measuring ourselves against others sours and shortens our lives, robbing us of the very things we think it will bring: prosperity, love, inner peace, the knowledge that we're good enough. We have advantages baboons do not, though. We can notice when we've stumbled into monkey mind, and we can think our way out.
Why "Comparing Mind" Is Insane
Comparing and contrasting is a valuable human skill—and not just during high school English exams. Our ability to rank-order things is invaluable in making choices and setting priorities. But problems arise when comparing mind is the only mode of perception we access. Every gathering, conversation, or friendship becomes a stressful contest: Will I "win" in this situation, or will someone else turn out to be prettier, smarter, richer, thinner...in a word, better?
This way of thinking is absurd, because outside the realm of human perception, the concept of better is meaningless. Here's a challenge for you: Go outside and find the best possible stick. Why aren't you going? Perhaps because the request is ridiculous. What do I mean by "the best possible stick"? For doing what? Digging? Toasting marshmallows? Poking a weasel? A stick that's ideal for one purpose might be useless for another.
This makes comparing mind a setup for failure. Even if you can be the world's best at one thing, you'll be the world's worst at something else. Supermodels make pathetic sumo wrestlers. A brilliant orator who speaks only one language sounds like a babbling fool in another. If you spent your life mastering all languages, you might still suck at engineering, croquet, watercolor, etc. Since comparing mind hates being less than best at anything, you lose. Always. The relentless search for victory, security, love, and self-esteem invariably ends in failure, insecurity, enmity, and self-hatred.
Slowly Going Bananas
It's easy to say "I should stop comparing myself to others." Following through? Ah, there's the rub. Research on animals such as baboons (and rats and apes and, for that matter, chickens) suggests that competitive urges run thick in our blood. But even if your personal genes are on the noncompetitive side, pretty much every human society will supply a big ol' dose of crazy.
In Japan, for example, overtly lobbying for attention is discouraged ("The nail that sticks up gets pounded down," a proverb admonishes). But Japanese culture is so rank conscious that until you're sure how high a person's social status is relative to yours, you don't even know which verbs to use in speaking to him or her. Western democracies exalt the ideal of social equality, but our economic system arguably emerged from 16th-century Calvinism, a religion whose members believed that God showed favor by bestowing wealth and other forms of success on what they called the chosen. Naturally, these folks (and we, their successors) tried desperately to prove innate worth by achieving more lavishly than the Joneses in every possible way.
It seems that no matter where you are on the planet, the competitive madness was bred into your cells and reinforced in countless social interactions. But you can learn to watch for monkey mind to appear, to notice when it starts tainting your life. Like a virus, it generally sneaks up on you unseen; what you'll observe are its symptoms. Here are some telltale diagnostics:
- You get irritable or depressed when someone else succeeds.
- You don't feel loved or loving.
- Meeting a successful person, you feel anxious rather than honored.
- It seems to you that a victorious end justifies morally dubious means.
- You actively hope for others to do badly or to fail.
- 6. You don't know what you like until you know what others think.
- You're dogged by shame; you never feel good enough.
- Winning creates a brief happy moment, which quickly gives way to anxiety.
- Losing devastates you to the point of despair.
- You criticize everyone and believe everyone is criticizing you.
The Journey To Sanity
A full-blown case of monkey mind makes life depressing and terrifying. Your job feels like an endless shark attack. Your relationships are shallow, riddled with one-upmanship and the fear of abandonment or betrayal. By owning the insanity, though, you can change it and enjoy the relief of realizing that you've simply gone a bit nuts, that the implacable entity judging everything and everybody is you—not God or anyone else.
Be careful about this: Don't judge your tendency to judge or compare yourself unfavorably to others who are better at avoiding monkey mind. That's just crazy squared. No, since comparing is a natural part of thinking, it isn't useful (or even possible) to stomp out your innate competitiveness. Instead of turning against the baboon who lives in your brain, I suggest you adopt it as a pet.
"Hello, Marie," you might say to your monkey mind as soon as you realize it's taken over your universe. "Good to see you again! You're a fine baboon with impressively swollen hindquarters, and I'm very fond of you. But I just noticed something: You are not me." This kind of inner conversation gently detaches your monkey mind from your right mind. You may feel calmer, freer, and more peaceful almost instantly. If your habit of comparing is deeply entrenched, however, you may need to apply a little more psychological elbow grease.
Once you have separated from comparing mind, even slightly, you can complete the journey to sanity by doing a few simple things your inner baboon would never even consider. Our culture does not teach these strategies, but if you try them you'll find they're as delicious to the soul as comparing is poisonous.
Have you ever wanted to hear the story of someone's least embarrassing moment? Of course not. You want to know how people screwed up and lived to tell the tale. Cheerfully fessing up to our failures turns crazy mind off, humility and compassion on. I learned this in a karate dojo that had a strange tradition. Everyone there loved recounting failure stories, and after an evening of smacking one another, we'd sit and have a beer while the students swapped tales of martial arts disaster.
"One time I was sparring with my own kid," a third-degree black belt might say. "He was maybe 7, right? He got me in a headlock, chocked off my carotid arteries—I was out cold. Lucky to be alive."
"You think that's bad?" the sensei would counter. "Five years ago, I fought this 80-year-old woman—a tai chi master, but still. The first backfist she landed was a spiritual experience. I still have the bruise."
And so on.
I've long since forgotten many of my karate techniques, but the trick of celebrating failure has proved incredibly useful. Try it yourself: Get together with a couple of friends and see who's experienced the most horrific failure. Tell your stories with gusto. Notice how the very confessions you thought would humiliate you actually boost your confidence.
Compliment Your Rivals
When you're in comparing mode, the last thing you want to do is praise anyone else. That's just handing over victory, isn't it? Consider who really wins in the scenario with our three baboons: Is it Marie, who's getting a jealousy hernia? Or Tanya, who knows her reign as top banana can't last forever? I say the winner is Alice, who simply takes pleasure in all that is good, including Marie's grooming skills and Tanya's beauty. Celebrating the efforts of people you perceive to be adversaries is a powerful way to win the real prize: happiness.
Think of someone who intimidates you. Is there anything about this person you genuinely, even if grudgingly, admire? Then say it. Out loud. To the very person you fear. For example, I once interviewed a potential assistant who was very capable but so gorgeous I could barely stand the thought of her seeing me in the morning. So I said, "You're very capable, but you're so gorgeous I can barely stand the thought of you seeing me in the morning." This blasted through so much tension that there was barely any left for what turned out to be a long and fruitful working relationship.
Play Your "Top Five" Hits
Deliberately looking for positive things in others is something that can't be done from inside monkey mind. Accordingly, medical psychologists tell us that a brain in a state of appreciation simply can't hang on to the fear and defensiveness that so often make us nuts.
Dan Baker, PhD, author of What Happy People Know, recommends accessing appreciation mind with a practice he calls top fives. (Oprah does something similar in her gratitude journal.) Try it now. Describe, in detail, five of the most beautiful sights you've ever seen. The five most joyful moments of your life. The five kindest things anyone ever did for you...you get my drift. Nice feeling, isn't it?
If you stay alert and use these tools, you'll soon feel a lot less crazy, a lot more like a sane person with a pet baboon. You'll succeed at failing, win by losing, remember infinite "top five" experiences, and also see that there are no top experiences, because comparing any two memories is always a case of apples and oranges. Each event is perfectly itself. Unique, incomparable. And—you really knew this all along—so are you.
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