At the heart of my feeling about Burning Man before going this year was JEALOUSY. I told myself things like: I'm not welcome there. I won't be able to survive there. I can't go. I don't want anyone else to go either (especially not my boyfriend)! Who would want to go, anyway? It sounds terrible to melt in the heat and wheeze in the dusty desert for a week! And all the drugs and nudity just aren't my thing. Hmph! (Insert toddler pout here.) I've heard other non-burners perpetuate these same assumptions and stereotypes, which I do believe are simply rooted in fear and jealousy. It’s perfect, then, that one if my favorite moments on the playa was a workshop I attended called "Ending Jealousy Permanently," led by the powerful, straight-shooting Steve Bearman (of Interchange Counseling Institute).
I happened upon this 2-hour workshop by total chance. I had set aside the afternoon to explore some of the villages that offered deeply personal, confrontational, reflective courses. I came across Sacred Spaces and was enamored with the line-up of workshops, including chraka work, yoga, meditation, and other spiritual and inspirational workshops. Luckily for me, Steve’s class on jealousy was scheduled to start in 10 minutes. I removed my shoes and tiptoed my way into a small, coveted space in the middle of a geodesic dome draped with colorful fabric, which did its best to shield us from the sweltering sun. Within a few minutes, the dome was completely packed, and I was forced to surrender my selfish desire to maintain zero skin contact with the other hot, sweaty bodies around me. A ring of burners began to form around the outside of the dome too, as those who couldn’t grab a spot inside eagerly hugged the perimeter. I soon discovered why this workshop, out of the hundreds that were available to people, was so highly sought after. Steve is a big deal:
"Steve Bearman, PhD is the founder of the Interchange Counseling Institute, and a counselor, social justice educator, and workshop leader residing in San Francisco. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he also received an MS in Social Psychology. He has published articles on internalized sexism, male sexual conditioning, mentoring, and the philosophy of psychology. He receieved his BA in Individual Transformation and Social Change from Hampshire College. Steve has been teaching in the Bay Area and throughout the country for the last 20 years. In addition to teaching counseling skills classes, he has led workshops in the areas of community building, relationships, ending jealousy, overcoming anxiety, gender role conditioning, healing body shame, death and grieving, spiritual practice, and group facilitation."
A few things he started with that really teed up the discussion:
Distinguishing ENVY and JEALOUSY. Envy relates to wanting the skills, physical attributes, and/or possessions of someone else. You may be envious of someone else’s body, the way they carry themselves, or their amazing knitting skills (hey, I’m not judging). Jealousy, for the purposes of this workshop, relates to interpersonal situations (involving another person(s), or relationships). This includes the jealousy you feel when your partner chooses to go out with his friends instead of have a night with you. Or the feeling that arises when you see a girlfriend post a picture of her and another friend having a blast when you were supposed to have plans. Or when that girl of interest pulls away because she is “seeing someone else” (who IS this guy?!). Jealousy relates to human connection, whereas envy relates to possessions and characteristics.
We organize our experiences. This is an active, ongoing thing that we do. This just means that in any given situation, you focus in on certain things and not on other aspects, and that changes your entire experience. Just consider how two individuals may give their accounts of the same experience - they will each have their own "version" of the story based on what things they picked up on. Then, once you've gathered all of these details into an "experience," you apply a layer of meaning to it, such as feeling like a victim in the circumstance or feeling like the victor. In short, Steve says that the feelings we call "jealousy" indicate that we have unconsciously become programmed to organize certain experiences into a state of suffering. After all, jealousy is a form of suffering.
But, consider this: Pain in necessary. Suffering is optional. This seems to be obvious, but Steve's explanation solidified my understanding and belief of the concept. In this life, pain is a given. We will lose people to death. We will experience breakups and falling outs. Our trust will be betrayed. Our expectations will go unmet. We will argue, fight, disagree, and fail. These are undoubtedly painful experiences. Our heart will clench, our jaw will tighten, and the tears will stream. However, the part that is not a given is the suffering that comes after the experience of pain. Suffering is the wall of meaning that we create around pain. It is not real – it’s all fabricated in stories and projections. We ascribe meaning to pain and suffer as a result. YOU can actively decide to attach meaning to the pain (e.g. I am alone. I am unworthy. I am a failure.) and let this fester. Or you can acknowledge the pain and accept it for exactly what it is - a blip of loss or sadness or upset.
Name is framing. To make meaning of our world and to attempt to understand our emotions and experiences, we create frames around them. We give things names, highlight attributes, and construct frames of reference around them. I think we do this mainly to be able to describe them to others and to feel justified about our emotions. We want to have something to call the uncomfortable feelings that arise. But when we give something a name – a flimsy string of letters that is meant to connote emotion – we give it a limited frame to exist in and restrict others’ understanding of it too. Naming an emotion as "jealousy" is one example of a frame. The first *permanently* moment that Steve offered us: consider eliminating the word "jealous" from your vocabulary. By removing the word from your pool of potential words, you are forced to describe the real emotions that are buried underneath the meaning you are creating, called “jealousy.” What are you actually feeling? You are feeling left out and want to be included. You are feeling unimportant or neglected and want to connect. Really, you just want love. Now you’re moving past the frame and getting at the real emotions, which can offer a greater understanding and consequent ability to start remedying your suffering. Don’t use the crutch of “jealousy” – dig deep and get honest about what is really there for you.
Taking it a step further, become aware of how you are loving people ALL of the time. Not just your best friends, your family, and your partner. But also the old man who smiled at you as you crossed the street. And the person that let you make the impossible left hand turn in front of them. And even the stranger waiting in line in front of you at Trader Joe's. We all want love. Don’t invalidate what you’re feeling for someone because of the context or length of time of the connection. Let yourself feel love, deeply and often, for as many people as possible. Because, honestly, life is more beautiful and enjoyable that way.
Now we are getting to the amazing "projects" that Steve assigned us in the workshop. He outlined three main meanings that we ascribe to jealousy so that we can better understand how to break them down for good.
You know these demons. We all hear them whisper in our ear, telling us that we don’t deserve love, or that we aren't capable of getting what we want and need. In this part of the workshop, I became very aware of just how often these insecurities spout up in my mind throughout the day. I've been living with these “beliefs” for so long, that I didn't fathom how pervasive they were. To show us the severity of the negative self-talk we lash at ourselves, Steve had us think about some of the things we tell ourselves (see I/Me/My statements above), and to choose a partner nearby to say these things to, in the “You” tense. I turned to a complete stranger and had to say things like “You’re not attractive,” “You won’t ever find someone that will love you for who you really are,” and “You aren't strong enough to overcome your addiction,” with the same cold, stern tone in which I speak to myself. This was incredibly powerful. You are immediately confronted with the question of "WHO would talk to someone else this way?" YOU wouldn't! So why would you speak to yourself this way? When someone is down, you don't hurt/shame/criticize them. You approach them with compassion and understanding, and you comfort them. We must do this with ourselves in the same way we would offer love to someone else who is hurting.
This kicked off what Steve calls the Love Yourself Project, in which you consider what you would say to a person when they were being hard on themselves and how you would console them. Then, think about when you are being hard on yourself and the kinds of things you can say to interrupt that negative self-talk. It can be as simple as, "hey, we don't use that kind of language around here," or "it's ok. I'm hurting, and I need love and kindness from myself," or "now, now. take a deep breath and think of one thing you're grateful for." Whatever makes the most sense for you. Interrupting yourself should NOT sound like, "HEY YOU! Quit that right now! Stop! You always do this!" The statement shouldn't be more criticism that perpetuates beating yourself up. Take a minute to close your eyes and practice this. Think of something that you were picking on yourself about, think of how you talked to yourself in that moment, and practice stepping in with some love. Say it aloud. If you get stuck and don't know how to interrupt yourself, just think of what you would say to someone else who was hurting - your best friend, your niece, 5-year-old you...
Then Steve made an interesting distinction. While this beautiful coping mechanism for healing our programmed insecurities is all about self-acceptance and self-love, he reminded us that this doesn't mean we can't also be committed to self-improvement. In bouts of jealousy when we're feeling insecure, it's important to exercise self-acceptance and maybe even consider areas for improvement. For example, perhaps there is a person your partner is attracted to because she is super athletic and an amazingly gregarious public speaker. You might say to yourself that, while you are envious of her body, it is not realistic or desirable for you to start hitting the gym every day, because you wouldn't be doing it for yourself. However, you might realize that public speaking is something you struggle with and a skill that is of value to you. So instead of slipping into an insecurity spiral, you decide that you would like to take some classes to improve your fear of public speaking. Self-acceptance and honest decision-making transform jealousy (and envy) into admiration and potential for growth. It's ok to consider areas that you would like to improve. However, you don't want to love yourself ONLY if you meet certain conditions. And you shouldn't forget all of your amazing qualities in the process of admiring someone else's. So love yourself now, AND after you take up whichever improvement, if you so choose.
The final perpetuator of jealousy we explored was codependence. As it relates to relationships, codependency is characterized by a person feeling incomplete without their partner. We become codependent when we are afraid of feeling alone. You are lonely when you're not with your partner and it feels impossible and miserable to be apart. Instead of enjoying the time to yourself, you agonize over the break in connection. You latch onto control and try to regulate your partner's emotions and your time together. You are not ok if your partner doesn't feel a certain way, so you manipulate them to feel how you want (need) them to. It's a mess! Hence, the Enjoying Aloneness Project. (Have you noticed that the projects build on one another?) When we love ourselves, we actually enjoy our own company. When we love others openly and allow ourselves to have intimate connections, being alone doesn't feel like loneliness, because we are aware of the connections we have regardless of not occupying the same physical space. And in this state of mind, you learn to be a whole and complete person with or without your partner. When two happily "alone," complete people come together to enjoy each other, that is the quintessential key to a magical, non-codependent relationship. There is no room for jealousy there.
This is what I was able to piece together from my memory of the class and my chicken scratch notes. I hope I did it justice and gave you at least a small piece of that profoundly resonant workshop. Deconstructing jealousy at Burning Man is an experience that I will continue to deeply cherish, given how much negative meaning I had slathered onto the perfect desert oasis that now feels like home. In addition to having a ton of fun exploring the playa and dancing until my feet went numb, I felt completely loved, embraced, and supported at BM. My camp mates and the greater community were unimaginably welcoming and open-hearted. This immense longing, warm sensation arises in my belly when I think about the friends I made. I was encouraged and inspired to be totally unleashed - unforgivably myself, loving, accepting, vulnerable, and FREE. What a completely different experience than the jealousy, fear, anxiety, and judgment that I previously layered on my uninformed idea of Burning Man. This taught me a valuable lesson about how fear can drive you so far away from the truth.
As always, I would love to hear what you are taking away from this post, and if any of the tools help you to eliminate jealousy from your life.