Riding the Experience Rollercoaster

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March 4, 2013
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May 17, 2013

Rollercoasters. Some people love them. Not me! Real-life rollercoasters scare me. But the rollercoaster is a perfect metaphor for noticing what we pay attention to in our daily lives.

What we pay attention to—and how– is important. What you pay attention to shapes you and your life. That is what neuro-plasticity means—your attention has the power to sculpt your brain and your experience. Your consciousness.

Let’s look at how daily life resembles a rollercoaster ride. Your morning, for example, might be described something like this:

“I got up feeling refreshed, and then I had a shower. I felt good, but then I turned on the news and got depressed. I went to make coffee but there were no more filters. Arrgh…”

“Then I remembered I had a new tea to try. It tasted good, and I felt content. I went outside; it was a beautiful day. I walked slowly, drinking in the sunlight. I checked the time, and realized I was going to be late for work! I was angry at myself as I rushed to the station. Flustered and stressed out, I made my train just in time. What a relief. The train was uncomfortably crowded and people were grouchy.” And so on.

If you were going to depict each of these morning experiences–some pleasant, some unpleasant, some “good,” some “bad”–in a drawing, you might draw hills or peaks for the pleasant moments, and valleys or “U” shapes for the unpleasant moments. If you joined the whole series of “positive” and “negative” experiences together the overall picture might look like a rollercoaster. Your morning as a rollercoaster. (I can hear you saying, “Tell me something I don’t know, Vanissar!”)

There’s more. What most of us humans do is identify with our experiences: “This is happening. That is happening.” Or our reactions to our experiences: “Now I feel terrible.” “Now I am pleased.” Our emotions go up with the peaks and down with the valleys. This is natural; it’s how you know you are alive. So that’s fine.

And there’s another option. We can pay attention to the rollercoaster car. In fact, we can identify with it. What is it like to BE the rollercoaster car? When you identify with the car that keeps moving along the track, it is easier to enjoy–and release–each experience.

I know this is a strange notion. What we are more familiar with is fixating on good or bad experiences, especially the bad ones. Rick Hanson explains in his book Buddha’s Brain that our brains are designed to pay more attention to negative experiences than positive ones.


When we get stuck in any one experience we miss the flow of life, and cause ourselves stress.

If we get fixated on a good experience, sooner or later, it inevitably changes. When the car moves on to the next experience, we feel disappointment or pain.

For example, when we are newly “in love,” we feel that zingy aliveness, that sense of knowing all is right with the world. Eventually this new-love buzz fades. This fading ushers in another season with new opportunities: for new-love to become a grounded relationship; for our other relationships to receive our attention again. Either way, some new experience, some new form of goodness can now unfold. If you try to maintain the new-love feeling, you will be disappointed. That experience is over.

We cause ourselves (and others) discomfort and distress when we cling to our experiences. So learning to stay in the rollercoaster car and surrender to the next moment is practical.

For me it’s a new option–one I noticed only recently. For most of my life I have been trying to ditch the car and squat on the highest hill. Or I’ve gotten stuck, wallowing in the lowest low. I have either avoided certain experiences, or strained forward, trying to reach a hoped-for experience. Have you ever done this?

Would you like to identify with the rollercoaster car that you are riding in? It is a learnable skill. Meditation techniques–

either spiritual


or secular


can help you master this skill.

You can also work with your breath. The breath is already a kind of rollercoaster, full of inhalation-hills and exhalation-valleys. We breathe in, reach the top of the inhale, and then breathe out and reach the bottom of the exhale. The breath arises, peaks, diminishes, and ends. And then the next breath begins.

There are many ways of working with our breath rollercoaster:

· As you breathe in, imagine your inhalation as a hill; as you breathe out, imagine your exhalation as a valley. Notice the shape and size of each hill and valley. Enjoy the ride.

· As you breathe in, slow down and savor each part of your exhalation–the beginning, middle and end–as it enters your nostrils. As you breathe out, savor the beginning, middle and end of your exhalation as it exits your nostrils.

· Inhale, paying attention to the sensations of increasing fullness in your belly, ribs and chest. Feel the turn as your inhalation becomes an exhalation, and be with the sensations of your chest, ribs and belly emptying out.

Practices like these can build your capacity to stay with your immediate experience, and let go when it ends. You can use practice to sculpt yourself into someone who flows with life as it unfolds.

But beyond any personal benefits, the rollercoaster is interesting in itself. We might, as the Buddhists do, describe that ever-moving rollercoaster car as consciousness or awareness. According to Tibetan Buddhism, all the things that we perceive (including all of our experiences) are expressions of a vast, unlimited Consciousness or Awareness at play (not at work–at play).

I found out on my recent retreat that I like following consciousness! It is pregnant with possibilities. Consciousness is always available for us to pay attention to. That awareness rollercoaster car is ready to take us on a journey to new places.

Riding in the car of consciousness, we can enjoy the beginning, middle and end of each experience. We can meet the next experience freshly: “Now I am running a bath, now I am soaking the warm bath, now I am draining the tub, now I am drying off…”

What about unpleasant experiences? Can we enjoy those, too? Is that even legal? Yes. It’s YOUR life! It is your birthright to savor each moment of your life. This might look something like : “Now I just received bad news, now I am feeling numb, now I am crying, now I am crying some more, now I feel my body shaking, now the crying is slower, lesser, now I am resting.” And so on.

Or it might look like this:


Every one of our experiences is richer than we know: if we pay close attention, we can find beautiful moments within “negative” experiences, and ugly moments within “positive” experiences.

There is something sacred about being “online” for all of our experiences. Fully present for the beginning, middle and end of each moment. There is something sacred about showing up for your life. Whether a particular moment is inspiring, boring or painful, it is your life. The only one you’ve got.

And if everything we perceive is the Play of Awareness, why not join in the play? Life is always inviting us to play. Why not accept the invitation? When your rollercoaster car plunges down a steep drop, go ahead and scream or laugh or sob with relief. Why not be fully alive in each moment? You are allowed to do that.

You can choose—audaciously, joyously—to identify with the car that carries you through the ups and downs of experience. And when you get distracted by a dramatic twist or turn of the rollercoaster, remember it’s only a ride. Remember to be grateful; sooner than you think, it will be over.

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