A Post About Comparing: The Message is Greater Than We Are

from Danny (photos taken from a hike with Danny’s parents and nephew in the Cajas Mountains outside Cuenca, Ecuador)

I’ve said this: “The Message is Greater Than We Are”, over and over, nearly every time we’ve had an opportunity to address a group. And if ever I haven’t said it, I meant to. Really, truly, deeply, I meant it, and mean it still.

This blog is dedicated to a universal message, and to its application to all people, in every circumstance. If ever someone has found healing and peace, my guess is it has come because similar principles to what we advocate on this blog have been applied in the life of that person, in that moment. I’ve had enough personal experience, read enough books on the subject, had enough one-on-one conversations, and received enough emails to know this is true, and that it crosses all kinds of bridges you would not have thought crossable. Healing and happiness always seems to come in alignment with a few simple principles.

We are not the authors or originators of this message. It is as old as the first person who felt peace in the face of loss, who decided to forgive someone who betrayed or offended them, who decided not to be defined by a life circumstance, a disability, a personal failure, or the actions/behavior of another person.

Though we are not the originators of the message, we CELEBRATE IT and we do our best to advocate it, and will as long as we are able. I understand that due to the very personal nature of blogging, it will seem like the focus is on us. But it isn’t. It is about how these universal principles have brought peace not just TO the most difficult moments of our lives, but IN the most difficult moments of our lives. It continues to bring peace to our lives, as often as we dig deep enough to apply it.

But we are human and don’t always find the strength, we don’t always live aware of the rut we can all dig for ourselves. And even when we are aware, we don’t always find the will power or grace to apply the principles that have worked for us EVERY TIME we’ve done the work in the past. And it is work, make no mistake about it. It is the work of surrender, and it requires laying on the altar all the things you’ve been told are so important to happiness, and digging deeper and deeper to discover the true foundations of happiness. It takes work to stop looking “lo here” or “lo there”, always outside ourselves, in order to discover that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” That quote applies no matter what religion you believe in, or whether you believe in God at all.

It is work because it requires laying aside your jealousies, anger, hatred, envying, comparing, and bitterness. It requires laying aside the desire to say “if only my life were like this, or my spouse were like that, or if my parents treated me in this way, or if I had this much money or that much free time.” It requires breaking into pieces the illusion that happiness and peace and wellness in life are made up of the right set of circumstances, the perfect job, great physical health or beauty, and fulfilling relationships….which of course is the last thing our ego wants to do because it means we have to get to work on the only thing that can affect our happiness…..us. Us and what goes on in the narrow confines of our hearts and our minds.

How else do you explain a Viktor Frankl – a man who has everything stripped of him, including his name, in a concentration camp…and still finds meaning in life and inner peace? How else do you explain a Nelson Mandela, an Eckhart Tolle, or a Nick Vujicic? How do you explain a Jacques Lusseyran, a Louise Hay, or a Corrie ten Boom? How else do you explain the teachings and examples of a Job, Buddha, or Jesus?

Is the happiness that Mara and I experience based on a perfect life, or is it even based on a pretty good life? While there may be very many desirable aspects to the life we lead which could cause one to compare or to imagine that happiness could not be had unless some similar life were lived (insert here whatever list one thinks they need to accomplish to obtain happiness)…it ignores the fact that every day, decisions need to be made about what Mara and I choose to focus on if we are going to experience that happiness (some days we do better than others). None of the “things” or “circumstances” one might list are the reasons happiness will be experienced. And if they were, it would be just as easy to come up with a list just as long as to why happiness should not be experienced in this moment in our family. While one person may look at our relationship with jealousy and say that because they don’t have exactly what we have they naturally should experience less happiness, we could say the same thing to many who have children.

But that isn’t what we focus on.

Infertility may no longer be a deep struggle for either of us, but knowing how to handle this current stage of uncertainty is something that we have not fully figured out. And once we figure out how to apply the same principles more perfectly to this present moment, there will be a future moment where we may get stuck again. And yet, the principles behind healing from infertility are the same principles behind approaching this current uncertainty and finding healing and peace, and they are the same principles that will need to be applied to whatever it is that lies ahead.

Go back and read those love letters Mara and I exchanged that we’ve posted on the blog. Unlike this blog, those were written by two people with no idea that they would be read by anyone else accept the recipient. The main reason we posted them is because they were written by two people who didn’t have “a great life” by observable standards most people would look to. Most of the things we thought were important to happiness had by that time failed us in some way, and there was not yet some kind of “fairy tale” ending that you could say was the reason happiness exuded from either one of us. And yet, that is what you see in those emails and love letters. Happiness. Happiness that came in spite of circumstances, in spite of failed relationships. Happiness despite the fact that we still didn’t know how this new love would turn out. Happiness in nearly every word and every exchange.  Happiness was not something we experienced because we found each other, it is something we individually brought to each other.

If you can’t relate to the two people who only appear by virtue of comparison to have everything working in their favor, then go back and relate to the same two people 6 years ago who had nothing working out, and yet would tell you the same story and focus on the same tools and would insist that if they’ve experienced it in their darkest moments, so can you! (Or better yet, go read all of the authors I linked to above, and relate to them.)

I hope nowhere on this blog is it implied that Mara and I ALWAYS use the tools that lead to greater peace and happiness in life. It might be easy to read into our words something like that, but that is because we choose to celebrate the tools and the message that leads to happiness. That is what we focus on, and it is the focus of this blog. Don’t let that focus trick you into thinking we succeed at it every moment of every day. That is not our intent, nor should it be your takeaway.

What I do hope is consistent on this blog, is that if ever we find happiness, it is always found by applying certain tools that seem to work whether we are facing a break in blogging and a question of what’s next, infertility and failed IVFs, divorce, getting lost while traveling, losing sentimental and valuable items, or whatever else life throws at us. Tools that are available to EVERYONE. They are the same tools friends of mine have applied successfully to child abuse, neglectful or abusive spouses, infidelity, children who struggle and stray far from a safe or desirable path, death of loved ones, loss of jobs, poverty, misunderstanding, judgmental parents, serious physical disabilities, abandonment, friends who betray, etc….the list could go on and on and on. But it doesn’t need to.

The only question is will each of us decide to apply these tools to whatever it is that we are facing individually? Will we decide to quit comparing, will we recognize more quickly those moments when we are focused on circumstance or behavior (as happens to us ALL), and will we re-enter more deliberately the state of being that always accompanies peace and happiness?

Perhaps we can take courage and wisdom from the words of the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.

I hope no one will compare themselves to us. I certainly don’t seek to compare myself with those who have inspired me. Or if I do, the only way I compare is “What tools were they applying that I have not yet grasped or understood? And how can I learn from them and move forward in greater confidence and love?”

May you all move forward in greater confidence and love. May you never confuse the imperfect lives of people dedicated to a message with the beauty and power of the actual message itself. May you truly experience happiness, right where you are, in the moment you are in, with all of its existing circumstances. May you discover the power that is already part of you.

With Love,

P.S. – I linked to a lot of my favorite posts, and a lot of my favorite books.  If you don’t feel like you have a grasp on some of those universal principles that all healing is based upon, I hope you’ll follow each link, buy some books, and do some contemplating and start practicing these things for yourself.

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  1. Leanne Rees February 25, 2015 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this wonderfully honest and beautifully written post. I love the message in it and the encouragement you've expressed. Thank you for all the work you and Mara do on this blog and through this blog and with thousands of people across the globe. Thank you. thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    • danny February 25, 2015 at 10:09 pm - Reply

      Thank you! Thank you for being someone who is working on putting it all into practice. The shared resonance with something like this is a powerful thing. I know that hearing from readers of their many individual success encourages us, and I hope our individual successes encourage our readers.

      What I love about all this, is if anything good comes from this blog (and it already has), that it came in part because one single person transformed their own life and became a mentor to other women struggling for infertility. That woman inspired Mara to change her life, and then Mara sought to inspire others. And on and on it goes, with each person working the good they can with the people they have in their lives.

      We can never underestimate the ripple effects of personal change.

  2. DanandEmily February 25, 2015 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    I love this so much! My natural instinct is to compare…one day I read this quote and it was a big aha! For me:) "her success does not equal your failure!" It was a light bulb going off in my head! And then this post just reminded me of how I can do it! Thank you for this beautiful post!!!

  3. Miggy February 25, 2015 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    So good Danny. Some of these words really jumped off the page for me today…so thank you.

    And I don't want to spoil it but I REEEAAALLY want you to listen to the first Invisibilia podcast. There are 2 parts and the first half is really interesting, but it's the second one I want you to listen to because this person could go on your list up there with Viktor Frankel, Nik Vijuvak, etc… truly amazing.

    • danny February 25, 2015 at 4:59 pm - Reply

      Awesome…okay, I'm literally putting it in a browser tab to remind myself and listen to it this week.

    • Jill O. February 26, 2015 at 4:22 am - Reply

      I listened to Invisibilia's "Batman" episode recently when it aired on This American Life (and LOVED it) – but totally forgot to check out the Invisibilia podcast for other episodes, so thank you for reminding me as well!

    • danny February 27, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

      Hey Miggy, I finally listened to it today, and really enjoyed it. It was actually the 4th time I've heard this guy interviewed since January (I first heard him on NPR when we were in NYC), and he totally came to my mind. I just haven't read enough of his story yet. But yes, I totally agree, he's one that could be added to the list.

    • danny February 27, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

      Oh, and I'm excited to listen to more of the podcast, it seems very interesting!

    • Miggy February 28, 2015 at 4:17 am - Reply

      Crazy that you've already heard of him. His story came off as very Job-ish. Like I can't believe someone stamped "go ahead" on his "trials to endure" paperwork in heaven or something. I really want to read more about his story….being a human is crazy sometimes. And yes I am still finding this podcast mind bogglingly interesting, so keep going!

  4. Jill O. February 25, 2015 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    This was really beautiful. It made me contemplate how it is different in tone from speakers I have heard in the past who I admire, but with whom I was unable to feel a kinship or equality. I am grateful for your wisdom, but equally grateful for your humanity. And I'm also really happy to find others who find the greatest truths are not intellectual or religious property, but can be found among so many people and so many prophets throughout time and throughout the world/cultures. Thank you so much. 🙂

    • danny February 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Perhaps that's why at this moment I am simultaneously reading 6 different books. 2 of them focus on this message from my own faith tradition, but the other ones explore it from the position of science and behavior, from philosophy, from the counseling/therapy angle, etc.

      One of my favorite recent reads was about one of the last great Lakota Holy Men, Fools Crow.

      Truly, truth is found in all corners of the world, and in every soul.

    • Jill O. February 26, 2015 at 3:58 am - Reply

      Thanks so much for the book recommendation! I would really love to know more titles of books you and Mara have read and loved. I have read some works by writers/philosophers you mentioned here and really enjoyed them. Two of my all-time favorites which you may have already discovered are Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and The Chosen by Chaim Potok. Thanks again!

    • Jane February 26, 2015 at 10:37 am - Reply

      Jill- Gilead was an incredibly gentle and lovely book! It invited me to feel grattitue in such subtle ways, where so many times I feel pressured to feel gratitude. Anyway- I second that recommendation. 🙂

    • Jane February 26, 2015 at 10:45 am - Reply

      Gratitude – not grattitue. 🙂 And I think shamed is a better word than pressured. I think sometimes I use comparison to shame myself into feeling grateful, but it is rarely effective. For example, saying to myself "At least you don't have it as bad as so-and-so" usually just makes me feel sad for myself AND so-and-so. Usually true gratitude comes to me when I realize that what I have is enough for my happiness, no matter if it is "more" or "less" than anyone else. And that was a message of Gilead that I loved.

  5. Sandra February 25, 2015 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    I am so bookmarking this post! Danny, you probably already know this, and if you don't, I wonder what you think … Comparison is a natural instinct (lots of cognitive studies on infants showing that they explore and learn the world through comparing), and not negative in itself. It's the judging, the upward or downward comparing, that sends everyone us off on difficult paths. Approaching the world from a place of open-heartedness is really tough sometimes.

    Like today, when my husband said his mother is guilt-tripping him over something, rather than appreciating just how much he goes out of his way to visit her in Europe at least a couple of times a year, which is very expensive (otherwise I'd be flying along!). I couldn't help but compare that my parents were more understanding if I said I couldn't afford a few thousand for a flight, not even for a milestone birthday party. We'd work together on this if we could, but there was no, What? You think I'm not worth X amount of money??

    And in that comparison, my reaction wasn't loving. I saw it right away, but the frustrated feeling didn't go away. He's a fantastic son, and she barely sees what is right in front of her. Instead, with that guilt-trip, she punishes all that he has done until now. (My parents are far from perfect, by the way! I struggle with that, too.)

    I think we all have trouble sometimes seeing another as a complicated human worthy of suspended judgment, in the least. Especially online, where we fall into the hypnotic trap of persona and storytelling. I don't think the life skills you both share here are widely taught, not in an open inviting message that doesn't ask for anything in return (like membership to a group or organisation). I appreciate your two reminding us that we need to look more deeply into how we perceive our worlds. Thank you.

    • danny February 25, 2015 at 9:57 pm - Reply

      I totally agree with you! It isn't necessarily the comparing itself that is the problem. Another thing I repeat often is "it's not what you do, but how you do it"….and I think this applies here. For example, one could listen to a very inspiring speech that might naturally lead to comparing the current state of one's life with what that of the speaker or the life they are suggesting you could lead…and that path of comparing can take two different routes.

      One route follows a path of gratitude, of inquiry, of excitement over learning new things and having your mind open and empowered and encouraged.

      The other route might follow a path of discouragement, self judging or condemning, envying of the speaker, etc.

      It's that path that is almost unconsciously chosen (until we learn to be more deliberate) that determines how we experience "comparing". In that sense, comparing can lead to personal growth and improvement and empowerment, or comparing can lead to judging of the self or others, discouragement, and despair.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and for your personal insights!

    • Sandra February 26, 2015 at 12:56 am - Reply

      So true!! I like this image of choosing your path. I wonder if you'll write more about this in a post. Like, how we can be compassionate when loved ones don't want to choose, for whatever reason, the more empowering and open-hearted path. Negativity, and people with a suffering disposition, is very hard to be around.

  6. Margaret February 25, 2015 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    Ohmygod, I adore you guys. I keep coming back to your blog because of your message. Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a person who does not go to church but still seeks a strong consistent message, I find this blog has come to me during a time when I need it most. I keep thinking how my husband and I would benefit greatly from one of your workshops. Please come to SLC!

    • danny February 25, 2015 at 9:58 pm - Reply

      We are coming to SLC for a workshop. It looks like it will probably be a 2 day thing, and in mid June. We're still trying to finalize a lot of details, and when we do we will definitely announce!

  7. Amy February 26, 2015 at 1:59 am - Reply

    "Comparison is the thief of joy." Have loved your blog from day one. Keep up the great work!

  8. M. Eileen February 26, 2015 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Amazing words, thank you for sharing this! My yoga teacher always reminds us when we are in tricky poses to not compare our poses or strengths to others. Took me a while to realize you can use this in life off the mat. Lovely post on something that is hard to remember. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Jordana February 26, 2015 at 5:33 am - Reply

    I love how you say that even when we are aware we still have to find the will and strength to do the work to have peace. When I first felt these principles working for me I felt like I had just hit the jackpot and that life would be so much easier from then on. Haha! It is still a choice and still hard work every day, but I know that it does work and that it's worth it. This post reminds me of a quote from another favourite blogger who says we have to show up before we're "ready" (Glennon from Momastery). We don't have to be perfect to share this message with others because the message is greater than us. I love this post!

  10. Baugh February 26, 2015 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for the wonderful, empowering messages you two constantly send out!! I really love what this post had to say. Also, I love love love that your sweet dog is doing well! You definitely need to tell us more about your sweet puppy! Thanks again!

    • danny February 26, 2015 at 7:57 pm - Reply

      Thanks! And yes, talking a little more about Sila is definitely on the list of things to do.

  11. Anonymous March 2, 2015 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Hi Danny,
    I had a question that I've been pondering for a while. I absolutely love the message you guys are trying to share here, and in particular I think your post on "Choosing Happiness" is so powerful. You mention it again here about how you choose to react to less than perfect situations with virtue – be that forgiveness, or love, or patience etc. But, other Buddhist teachers and teachers like Eckhart Tolle say that it's important to FULLY be in the moment and experience what you're feeling. So, let's say your spouse says something nasty to you…according to these teachers, you need to FEEL/ACKNOWLEDGE the sadness/anger/frustration, as only then can you move past it. But how then do you feel or acknowledge these things and simultaneously react with forgiveness, love etc.? Any elaboration on this would be so helpful. Thank you and keep up the good work!

    • mara March 2, 2015 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      Hi! Danny is at the store so I'll chime in and I know Danny will love to chime in as well when he returns. 🙂 I love your question – and I'm realizing we could maybe do better at explaining this principle. We do fully support that if one DOES feel anger/sadness/frustration – then certainly that is real. Certainly it would be very difficult if not impossible to pretend that it doesn't exist or to not acknowledge it. But what we believe can happen is that once you feel that welling up of anger, it can be a reminder to you that you can then work on something better – you can then make the conscious choice to begin the work to realign with love. I feel that work begins with BEING STILL and observing the anger in yourself for a moment (I feel this prevents you from acting on it and flying off the handle uncontrollably.) When you observe the anger for a moment or more, it seriously begins to lose power – it begins to pass away. It's like YOU are in charge of it. You are the gatekeeper of it. So you are controlling it instead of it controlling you. And in that space of being an agent of your reactions (instead of one who is just acted upon) – you can then have the power you need to make a better/higher choice – to forgive, to love, to use a calm tone of voice, to offer space to someone, etc.

      So yes – feeling and acknowledging anger/sadness/etc. is an absolute must. You wouldn't even know to choose something greater if you weren't feeling a negative emotion that you were trying to overcome.

      Also, the process described above has a very snowballing effect. Let's say your husband brings up a topic that makes you angry and it happens again and again. And you go through this process to choose love/forgiveness. Overtime, that exact conversation will no longer anger you. You can get better and better at reacting to it because you will have built up some muscle memory. Eventually, it won't even ruffle your feathers at all! And you can go quite easily and automatically to a place of love and compassion and skip feeling angry at all!

      Now – some talk about this need to acknowledge and feel anger and it seems many are saying that anger can almost be justified or deemed as healthy or necessary to play out. We do not buy that. Acknowledging is one thing. Letting it dwell or justifying it is another. We see anger as an infection. Acknowledging it is necessary if an infection arises (which is normal, of course). But welcoming an infection or letting an infection fester without treatment is about as dysfunctional as it comes. Of course life is full of these dysfunctional moments. We don't feel there is any shame in it as it's all an incredible learning process – and everything can be a teacher. But the GOAL – the highest goal we should all be going for is to treat that infection as soon as it arises – as soon as you feel it over taking you. It leads to a lot less chronic pain. And it leads to a lot more joy and freedom.

    • danny March 2, 2015 at 7:11 pm - Reply

      I think Mara's already done a pretty good job of describing how I feel about it all. I've got a post on anger that I've been working on that I wrote in response to insights during our Vipassana time. Got some tweeking to do though.

      Perhaps a little analogy will do. You have your hand over the stove and begin to feel pain. About the only "acknowledging/feeling" that is necessary is the bit that triggers your brain to get your hand away from that heat source, quickly. There is little sense in sitting with that pain for a while with your hand over the fire to really be "present in the pain", to really feel it, before taking corrective action.

      Like Mara said above, acknowledging that anger is there is one thing, stewing in it is another. I feel like sometimes people (not necessarily you), use the phrase that we really need to feel our anger as justification for actually identifying with it, even for a moment. I don't think this is useful at all.

      I also don't think it is useful to mask it, or pretend it isn't there. To ignore it. That too would be like keeping your hand over the fire while pretending that you aren't actually being burned, meanwhile the fire goes on slowly damaging your body.

      The fact is, as I understand it and to the degree I believe I have experienced it, truly "present moment" awareness would actually demand of you that you not identify at all with your anger. It is a present mindset that would look at anger as simply a temporary visitor, sure to leave as quickly as it came, and not a part of who you really are. Presence would demand that you identify with that deeper, truer version of you, that self-existent whole version of you that is not diminished or engrandized by some passing moment. Kind of like the name that the old testament God chooses to use to reveal its character. I am that I AM.

      A friend of mine who was a practicing buddhist for many years (and quite a powerfully calm and compassionate individual) compared this temporary moment of anger to a bird flying by and pooping on you. The bird is the circumstance or behavior that gave rise to the anger, the poop is the anger. As quickly as the bird (circumstance) flew to you and left its mark, often just as quickly is it gone somewhere else (I realize some birds love to pester you). No where are you encouraged to not wipe the poop (anger) off as part of a healthy reaction, or to embrace the poop for a period of time in order to process the poop.

      Hopefully between analogies of birds pooping and hands over fire, you can get at what I intend to convey. As I said above, too often impressing people that they need to feel and acknowledge it is taken to mean that is required that you really sit in that anger for a while. And I just don't believe it. I realize it's often how it works for people. Many people choose not to let go of anger until they've first felt it run its course in them, as if they are telling themselves that to have not been angry would have been to almost approve of what happened. But just because the stage is one that most people follow, doesn't mean it has to be there.

    • danny March 2, 2015 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      I think this quote from Eckhart Tolle can also help:

      The Power of Now pg 192-193 – “Whenever you feel negativity arising within you, whether caused by an external factor, a thought, or even nothing in particular that you are aware of, look on it as a voice saying “Attention. Here and Now. Wake up.” Even the slightest irritation is significant and needs to be acknowledged and looked at; otherwise, there will be a cumulative buildup of unobserved reasons. As I said before, you may be able to just drop it once you realize that you don’t want to have this energy field inside you and that it serves no purpose. But, then make sure that you drop it completely…. As an alternative to dropping a negative reaction, you can make it disappear by imagining yourself becoming transparent to the external cause of the reaction. I recommend that you practice it with little, even trivial, things first. (He then goes on to describe the irritation that might arise at hearing a car alarm go off yet again outside your home). All this can be transformed into spiritual practice. Feel yourself becoming transparent, as it were, without the solidity of a material body. Now allow the noise, or whatever causes a negative reaction, to pass right through you. It is no longer hitting a solid “wall” inside you…. Instead of having a wall of resistance inside you that gets constantly and painfully hit by things that “should not be happening,” let everything pass through you.

      Somebody says something to you that is rude or designed to hurt. Instead of going into unconscious reaction and negativity, such as attack, defense, or withdrawal, you let it pass right through you. Offer no resistance. It is as if there is nobody there to get hurt anymore. THAT is forgiveness. In this way, you become invulnerable. You can still tell that person that his or her behavior is unacceptable, if that is what you choose to do. But that person no longer has the power to control your inner state.”

    • Anonymous March 3, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

      Danny and Mara – thank you SO much for your response. This is exactly what I needed to hear – especially the Tolle quote written above. It makes so much sense – as does the notion of creating a sense of space between the "You that is You" and the emotion that is arising. I am going through a particularly difficult time right now and these wise words are helping me SO so much. Thank you.

    • danny March 3, 2015 at 10:28 pm - Reply

      Anon, I'm really glad that these explanations hit home for you. I understand why it is so hard to grasp, it was one of the questions that was on the forefront of my mind during my own difficult times, and even after experiencing the truth of the concept, it can still be difficult to find the right words to describe it all. That is because, like all things that are MOST important, it must be experienced to be understood, and even the best words will often fall short.

      Good luck to you!

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