“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives.
Fifty years ago, the writer and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) directly linked the act of comparison with destructive emotions, particularly fear. ”Comparison breeds fear,” he remarked in a talk given in 1964. “[T]here is in our life this constant state of comparison, competition, and the everlasting struggle to be somebody . . . This, I feel, is the root of all fear, because it breeds envy, jealousy, hatred.” If such was the case in 1964, it is even more so now in the age of social media. Should we wish to compare our success, our social status, or our progress on the path of self-fulfillment, the means are readily available. Little wonder that recent studies have found a correlation between depression and the heavy use of social media.
Krishnamurti was not affiliated with any one spiritual tradition, but his view of comparison as a cause of suffering well accords with Zen teachings. “The Great Way is not difficult,” wrote Seng-ts’an (d. 606), the Third Patriarch of the Zen tradition, “for those not attached to preferences. . . . To set up what you like against what you dislike / is the disease of the mind.” Preferences arise from acts of comparison and are reinforced thereby. Having compared the flavors of white and Star Ruby grapefruits, respectively, you may decide that you prefer the latter. Such a preference is harmless enough, but should you become attached to that preference, and should you then be served white grapefruit, you may find that your enjoyment and your equanimity have been compromised accordingly. Magnify that paradigm, and expand its scope to include social, religious, political, and other established preferences, and it is easy to see how the habit of comparative thinking, in league with attachment to deep-rooted preferences, can inflict routine suffering on oneself and others.
Should we wish to live otherwise, the Japanese tea ceremony offers a useful motto: “That which is long is long; that which is short is short” (Choja wa cho, tanja wa tan). Mottoes of this kind, inscribed in calligraphy and mounted in the alcoves of tea huts, provide the wisdom of Zen teachings and the company of the ancient masters for those who have gathered to drink tea. As William Scott Wilson, an authority on Japanese tea culture, explains, this particular motto reminds those present that the “ten thousand things” are “equal in nature, and none could be exchanged for the other. . . . Each and every phenomenon is of-itself-so, and has its own virtue on the great grid of the Tao. Thus, we must get past our likes and dislikes, our opinions and prejudices, and look for the true character of things.” We must set aside, or at least hold in abeyance, our limiting comparisons and preferences.
That is a lofty and even quixotic aim. Nearly every major force in contemporary culture, whether economic, social, or political in nature, militates against it, as do our own longstanding habits of thought and feeling. It is only human nature, one might argue, to compare ourselves with others, to cherish our likes and dislikes, and to identify, proudly and inflexibly, with our prejudices and opinions. At the same time, however, even a fleeting experience of “the mind of non-discrimination,” as it is sometimes called, in which the true character of a person, place, or thing is allowed to disclose itself, can free us from the confines of ego-centered thinking. And should we choose to cultivate that mental state, over time we may find in ourselves a growing capacity for appreciating the here and now, rather than comparing our present circumstances to another time and place or to some imagined ideal. An attitude of openness toward all of our experience, rather than a selective rejection thereof, will have become our default way of being, and our lives will be the better for it. If comparison is indeed the death of joy, the mind of non-discrimination may well be its place of birth.
J. Krishnamurti, On Fear (HarperSanFrancisco 1995), 14-15.
William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea (Shambhala 2012), 77.