Deconstructing the House of Sorrow: A Winter Solstice Reflection

At the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he reached down to the earth goddess to affirm his triumph over Mara, the destroyer. He had seen through the house of sorrow that he had built around himself. The first teaching given by the Buddha after his enlightenment was the Four Noble Truths, which lays out the construction and deconstruction of suffering in all our lives.

The Four Noble Truths start with the observation that there is suffering in life. I doubt that anyone would disagree with that idea. He submitted that this suffering is inherent in birth, illness, aging, and death. There is suffering when our experience is unpleasant and when we don’t get what we think we want. The Second Truth is that there is a cause of our suffering, namely craving and clinging to things being other than they are. It happens when we engage in various forms of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The good news is that there is an end to our suffering. The Third Noble Truth says our difficulties are “like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature.” In other words, we can deconstruct the house of sorrow and suffering that we have built. A peaceful mind of equanimity is a possibility. Then the Fourth Noble Truth tells us how to do this in the Eightfold Path. It gives us a roadmap for living ethically, developing wisdom, and practicing meditative awareness.

The program for ending suffering is described by Sylvia Boorstein here:

1. Wise Understanding: realizing the cause of suffering;

2. Wise Intention: motivation to end suffering;

3. Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity;

4. Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity;

5. Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way;

6. Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits;

7. Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused, ease-filled mind;

8. Wise Mindfulness: cultivating alert, balanced attention.

Today is the Winter Solstice, and like the Buddha, we can turn to the earth goddess to ground ourselves in the wisdom and compassion of living in alignment with our nature that happens when we practice the Eightfold path. According to Chinese medicine, the Winter Solstice is associated with the earth element. The earth element is nurturing, generous, and caring. Earth element energy helps us to be content and peaceful. All qualities which help us be wise.

During the rush of the holidays, it can be particularly difficult to stop running around enough to see how we cause our own suffering. In fact, during group sessions I have led recently, the biggest barrier to peace was an unwillingness to slow down enough to examine the contents of the mind that was creating suffering. Minds were filled with misconceptions, preconceived ideas, unforgiveness, anxiety, and fear. All these qualities built a house of suffering.

Our minds are generally out of control, and we often we live in ways that are not aligned with what we profess to care about. We don’t need to be ashamed about that. Shame only leads to avoidance and more hiding. But we can have what I’ve recently heard described as “healthy embarrassment”—an experience that can lead us to different behavior. We can wake up to what we are doing and choose to think and do something else with the help of the nurturing, generous, and caring qualities of Earth.

Moving toward the difficult aspects of our lives can be challenging and require great courage. But we must move toward our barriers to peace in order to deconstruct them. You will never be free until you can stop and be still with your pain. This is what the Buddha did. He sat under the Bodhi tree until he could see through the construction of his own suffering.

What are you telling yourself? What is your story? The stories we tell ourselves are repetitive until we see through them. Seeing with fresh eyes, you can begin to question the house of suffering that you’ve built. Instead of identifying with your story of suffering with an “I am (fill in the blank),” you can use Brene Brown’s suggestion and turn the statement into “The story I’m telling myself is (fill in the blank).” This strategy is one way of disidentifying with the story. You can stand outside the house and look at it more clearly.

Here are ten tips for deconstructing your house of sorrow:

  1. Be willing to sit quietly with your pain. If you cannot sit with your pain, you will never be free.
  2. Place your hands over your heart and breathe deeply. The warm touch of your hands on your heart begins to activate the release of oxytocin, the brain’s hormone of safety and trust. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes the body.
  3. Investigate where you feel the difficulty as sensations in your body. Make contact with it.
  4. Even though it might feel counterintuitive, welcome the difficult sensations with the earth energy qualities of kindness, caring, warmth, and compassion.
  5. Send yourself unconditional warmth.
  6. You can’t stop what you are thinking, but you can go beneath or behind or to the side of your thoughts to contact the underlying sense of being hooked (the suffering).
  7. Stay present. Keep bringing kindness and warmth to the suffering. This can soften the experience and help you begin to see more clearly.
  8. At this point, you might be able to move away from a personal experience of suffering that is only happening to you and to an understanding of how the suffering is created by you.
  9. Explore the questions: Is this feeling permanent? Is this feeling me? Is it not me? Is it an obstacle? Is it an opportunity?
  10. End the examination by sending compassion to others as a way of broadening your focus. “May I and all beings who feel like this be free from pain. May we be free from the underlying contraction and fear that come from defending our personal territory.”

When the Buddha deconstructed his house of sorrow, he saw through the stories that Mara was presenting to him as truth and very calmly said, “I see you, Mara. Come, let’s have tea.” In my experience, it’s also helpful to offer cookies! A real act of friendship.

When we befriend the moment and befriend life, just as it is, we can more clearly and compassionately take the next right step out into the world. This means not blaming our suffering on someone else and not even blaming ourselves for our suffering. But by bringing our energy to the present moment and taking wise action here and now, we construct a world from loving energy.

Today, the shortest day of the year, is a wonderful time to set your intentions—for new beginnings, hope and light.  Our own inner wisdom can be quite powerful during this time. So sit, light a candle, touch the earth, go within, and know that all is well.

If you’d like to empower your intentions even more, join me for a four-week Energy Medicine Yoga series in January called Turning Intentions into Reality. We will work with the language of energy to help you change your habit fields into reflections of your vision for 2023. Go here to register and for more information. The class is live, online and on demand.

Happy Solstice!!