Feeling Pleasure at Someone Else’s Expense
Back in the day, I had a “frenemy” who, as it turned out, was pretty hell-bent on taking me down. This person really did what they could to hurt me. I was deeply upset, I was angry, I was all of those things you feel when you find out that someone you thought you liked was venomous and dangerous. I restrained myself from fighting back. I tried to take the high road. But one day I heard that something unfortunate and humiliating had happened to this person. And my reaction was deep relief and…happiness. There went the high road. So, why does it feel so good to hear something bad about someone you don’t like? Or someone you DO like? Or someone you don’t KNOW? I once asked the editor of a tabloid newspaper why all of the stories about a famous British couple had a negative bent. He said that when the headline was positive, the paper didn’t sell. Why is that? What’s wrong with us? I asked some sages to shed a little light.
Here’s to washing our mouths out with soap..
I’m curious about the spiritual concept of “evil tongue” (speaking evil of others) and its pervasiveness in our culture. Why do people become energized when they say or read something negative about someone else? What does it say about where that person is? What are the consequences of perpetuating negativity or feeling schadenfreude?
Unfortunately, saying or hearing negative things about others not only damages them, it can have the effect of solidifying and building up our own ego. The gratification of putting someone down, or even hearing or reading such words spoken by others, gives us the sense of being better than others and pleasure at somebody else’s expense. In Zen Buddhism we have the Ten Grave Precepts. These Ten Precepts fall into three categories: body, speech, and thought. Of these ten, four are concerned with Right Speech, because negative speech seems to be one of the major traps that we as human beings fall into, and it is so detrimental and affects karma.
“The gratification of putting someone down, or even hearing or reading such words spoken by others, gives us the sense of being better than others and pleasure at somebody else’s expense.”
Participating in slander and gossip is a symptom of how inadequate we feel. If we truly felt whole, complete and okay—which is the awakened state of mind we wouldn’t need to fall into the trap of negative speech. When we see that our own true nature is not lacking in any way, we ultimately want to rejoice and celebrate other peoples’ success and well-being. When we do not see our own true nature, we mistakenly believe our ego-centeredness, which I call the small and limited self, is who we really are. We do not realize the True Self, which transcends the limited ego self and the limitless Big Mind.
“Participating in slander and gossip is a symptom of how inadequate we feel.”
When we go beyond the limited and the limitless and realize our True Self, we can embrace our own ego. Recognizing that we can’t be completely free from ego, we are no longer in denial of the ego. At this point, we are coming from an awakened state of mind that includes and yet transcends the ego.
We normally fall into the trap of either trying to get rid of the ego—which is virtually impossible because we need an ego to function—or denying the ego and believing we are selfless or egoless. And still it is ego. The key is to recognize and be aware because it is only by recognizing and through awareness that we can truly transcend the ego, which means embracing and yet moving beyond ego-centeredness.
From the perspective of our True Self, we hold no preference for our own self-centeredness or selflessness. This is what it means to include and go beyond the self. As soon as we hold a preference for one over the other, it is the ego that is at work. As long as the ego is in charge, then we delight in speaking ill of others, putting others down or rejoicing in their misfortunes because we don’t see that we are all one and connected, that intrinsically I am you and you are me, that your good fortune is my good fortune and your misfortune is my misfortune.
– Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is the founder of Big Mind Big Heart, A Western Zen Practice and head of Kanzeon Zen International. His latest book is Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way.