Beyond the Comparing Mind: A Meditative Reflection

Meditation Meadow


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on June 7th, 2022.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest.



One phenomenon I’m sure many of us are familiar with is the “comparing mind.”  At its core, the comparing mind uses thoughts and perceptions to compare our self-image with basically anything else.

For example, we compare our self-image with other people, like comparing our intelligence with our co-worker’s, or comparing our health to the health of that fitness geek in our social circle.  We also compare our self-image with ideals, like comparing our appearance with what the billboards tell us we should look like, or our résumé with what our culture says a person at XYZ age should have accomplished.

We likewise compare our self-image with past and future versions of ourselves, such as, “five years ago, I was really in a low place, and five years from now, I will be so much better.”  In meditation, the comparison mind comes out and says, “yesterday, my meditation was so wonderful, and today, my meditation is a mess.”

The list could go on and on—our minds are basically comparison machines! 

When we start to pay more attention to the comparing mind, we notice the impacts it has on our subjective experience.  For example, when we think we’re doing better than our object of comparison, we tend to feel pride and delight.  When we think we’re doing worse than our object of comparison, we tend to feel shame and sorrow.

And, for the most part, these self-comparisons tend to change quite a bit.  We submit a piece of work and one person says it’s brilliant, so we feel great, but when the next person says it’s rubbish, we feel dejected.

In other words, the “self” is very fickle.


Buddhist Psychology on the Self

In Buddhist psychology, the word māna translates to English as conceit, arrogance, or pride, or more clunkily, “the conceit I am.”  One of the most common ways māna is talked about is as comparing our “self” to something/someone else as better than, worse than, or equal to.

In other words, from a Buddhist perspective, it’s a form of conceit not only to think of yourself as better than someone, but also to think of yourself as worse than someone, and even more radically, to think of yourself as equal to someone.

The reasoning lies in the meditative observation that the “self” is just an imagination — there is no tangible, permanent entity called “me.”  Instead, when we look closely with mindfulness, we see that what we call “I” or “me” is just an ongoing flow of thoughts, sensations, feelings, conditions, and so on.  Truly, there is only this moment’s present experience floating through awareness.

The more we meditate and deepen this lens, we notice there is stress created when we turn those components into a self.  Likewise, we notice there is a form of stress in thinking I’m better than, I’m worse than, or I’m equal to, as all three of those comparisons require us to turn our experience into the entity of “me.”


The Alternative to Comparing Mind

For starters, when we notice “comparing mind” happening, we can acknowledge it, maybe by silently saying to ourselves “comparing mind,” and then taking a breath/relaxing, and making the mindful choice to not go down that rabbit hole.  The more we are aware of it when it occurs, the more capacity we develop to not feed those thoughts and perceptions.

From that ground, we have an opportunity to relate to life with loving-kindness, humility, and sincerity.  There no longer is a dominant sense of I’m doing poorly or I’m doing excellently  those thoughts/perceptions might still come up, but they lose their capacity to overtake our minds.

Instead, through mindfulness practice, we increasingly bring a quality of “this is how it is, and I’ll relate to whatever happens with an earnest care.”  It’s a mode of neither puffing up the ego nor putting it down.  More simply, it’s just not engaging with the ego stories altogether.  This gives us an opportunity to show up as more authentic people, as we’re not so caught in self-consciousness, and not so judgemental of others.

In other words, the ground of our being becomes less ego and more love.


But What About Wise Discrimination?

One of the most essential Buddhist teachings is on discerning skillful from unskillful — basically, learning which mental states and actions lead to suffering, and which ones lead to well-being, for oneself and others.  For example, we might note that thoughts of violence are imbued with suffering, whereas thoughts of generosity are imbued with well-being.  We start to see that practicing mindfulness leads to well-being, whereas filling our schedule to the brim creates stress.

In other words, it is important to be able to discern between what creates suffering and what creates well-being.  On the surface, this seems pretty similar to “comparing mind,” but there is a big difference — whereas “comparing mind” holds a strong sense of “I,” discernment is focused more on actions and states we have some say in.

In turn, when our wise discernment notices an unskillful action, habit, or mindstate, it doesn’t leap to “this means I’m a terrible person,” but instead says, “okay I see this, time to re-orient.”  To put it another way, wise discernment doesn’t get stuck on the unskillful action, doesn’t ruminate on it, or build stories around it.  Rather, it sees it, logs the data, and goes forward with loving-kindness and a wise aspiration.



Some of the teachings on self/no-self can initially be pretty confusing.  Obviously, you are a you, sitting in front of the screen reading this newsletter.  Obviously, my name is David and I’m fond of meditating (and going for walks!).  There is a lot of social convention in thinking in this way.

However, the more we meditate, we discover all that can be true; “self” can orient our social lives and grant us one useful map for life, AND, we can also look more closely into our minds and notice the ways we create unnecessary stress by turning our thoughts, feelings, and emotions into a “me.”  When we do that, we realize the “comparing mind” is not only optional but unnecessary and unhelpful.

In turn, I’d encourage you to start to notice when the “comparing mind” comes up in your mind, acknowledge it, take a breath/relax, and make the mindful choice to not go down that rabbit hole — what you will find is the peace & clarity of action of the meditative path!


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