Roller Coaster Zen

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend with my family at a popular, local theme park.  We do this every year, and it is always a highlight.  This time, for whatever reason, I was acutely aware of the richness of the experience, and how these moments in time are a microcosm of our lives. Indulge me for a minute as I explain.

One thing we love to do is ride roller coasters.  As we were being zipped around, pulled this direction and that, lifted up and dropped, and barrel-rolled, I was filled with awe at the depth of the moment.  The deal is, that you can ride a roller coaster and be aware only of the ride itself (the click-click-click of the climb, the belly dropping descent of that initial drop, the speed with which you are whipped about, and the exhilaration at the finish), and that is perfectly exhilirating.   Based on that data alone, you can decide if this is a one-time experience, or one to be repeated time and again.  I have loved roller coasters since I was a small child, and this has been the level of my engagement for the majority of that time.

What hit me this time was a question:  “What really defines the experience of riding a roller coaster?”  Is it the anticipation of the ride as I am strapping into my seat?  Is it the combination of dread and excitement as we click to the top of that first big hill?  Is it the terror and thrill of being plunged downward at upwards of 80 mph?  Is it the amazement that humans have created such fantastic, contained experiences for so many to enjoy?  Is it the thrill felt as the ride is coming to an end?  Is it the disappointment (or maybe sheer gratitude) when the trip is over?  The fact is, it is all of these things.  And more.  Only by integrating all of it, can the true value of the ride be understood.

I realized there is also a lot more complexity there.  There is surrender.  The ride is going to take me where the ride is going to take me at whatever speed it is going to take me there, and there is nothing I can really do about it.  What I am really left with is how I choose to react to it.  How do I engage with the ride as I am being hurled this way and that?  For some, it is truly terrifying, and for others, pure delight.  In fact, for me, I was aware that there were moments of each, just in a single pass on the ride. 

Next, I was aware that the ride, like all experiences in life, is impermanent.  This can be the good or bad news, depending on where you fall on the spectrum of roller coaster riders.  It starts, happens, and ends.  In one moment there is the experience and in the next, there is only the memory.  Even the ones we rode several times, at the end of the day, this too was the reality.  The day itself began, happened, and ended with a lot of laughs and fun memories, but the experience itself was fleeting and is now frozen somewhere in time.

Another thing about rides is that they are exactly as they are.  They are consistent.  I can like or not like a ride, and it is not elevated or diminished either way. It simply is as it is.  If I get on, I know what I’m going to get.  So, in any moment, if I am displeased or horrified, I am fully aware that getting on this damned thing was fully my own choice.  The ride was simply there.  I chose to get on.  Some may like it, others may not, but the ride just goes on being the ride, unwavering.

On Sunday, our time together ended, and everyone went their separate ways.  I found myself alone in my home, with only the memories and pictures of a great time had.  I laughed at some of the reminders, and teared up at pride in my daughters for their adventurous spirits, as well as the loss of the time together.  I realize increasingly in my life that the laughter AND the tears need to be accepted for the wholeness of the experience is to be appreciated. 

This all, as I stated at the beginning of this already rambling diatribe, is a metaphor for life.  Our lives are filled with joyful and painful experiences.  We all have happy times, and times of loss and pain.  We understand the natures of togetherness and loneliness, joy and sadness, generosity and greed, feeling well and being ill, holding on and letting go.  Life is made up of all of it; the good, bad, and the ugly as we say.  The danger many of us face is in holding on to only part of the experience, while denying others.  If we hold on to only the peak experiences, we miss the little ones that make life so worth living.  If we hang on only to the happy or “good” times, the difficult ones become terrifying as we try futilely to resist them.  If we only see the darkness, we can not be simultaneously aware of the light, and so on. 

Living peacefully and with an enduring sense of contentment means embracing all of these facets of life equally.  Good times will come and go, as will painful ones.  This is the true nature of life.  We want to hold on to the good times and make them last, while pushing away or shortening the rough patches as much as possible.  Both tendencies can be equally damaging to our enjoyment of the ride.  Accepting the experiences we want while denying those we don’t want only leads to thinking there is another reality that is “supposed to be happening.”  When that reality is not the one we seem to be living, that causes stress and turmoil. 

The truth is, life is often much like the roller coaster.  Many times, it will simply take you where it is taking you at the pace it is taking you there.  The only thing you can do is buckle in, hold on, and choose how to respond while this portion of the ride is in progress, realizing that whatever it is you are going through, is impermanent.  Integrating the totality of the experience, as required for full appreciation of the roller coaster, is necessary if you are to be whole, remain empowered, understand your own strength, healing capacity, and to truly embrace the beauty of your own life.  Remember, you are perfect just as you are, and the world needs nothing more or less from you than to be exactly that.

That’s all for now, my friends.  Until next time, I hope you enjoy whatever ride you are on for all that it is, and for all that it is not.


Peter Buecker, MD

Peter Buecker