Sunday, May 25, 2014

Lessons from a Rollercoaster

Finding spiritual Enlightenment in the most unusual places.

By Jeff Skolnick, MD, PhD

My story begins with this simple fact: I hate roller coasters.

Whether you like them or not, they, like a lot of things in life, can further your spiritual development. Before I tell you why, let me back up a bit and tell you my theory of people who love rollercoasters.

Sometime I think the world can be divided into two groups. There are people who enjoy lying on a sunny beach with a fruity cocktail when they go on vacation. Then there are those who like to drink coffee and enjoy the adrenaline rush of downhill skiing or even bunge-jumping!

Seriously, there actually is evidence that people can be placed on a spectrum based on how their body reacts to sensations and stress. On the one side there are those whose bodies amplify sensations (“stimulus augmenters”). They feel things acutely. They get stressed out when there is too much happening. They prefer sedate movies and documentaries and tend to need peace and quiet to recover.

On the other side are those whose bodies dampen sensations (“stimulus reducers”). They don’t feel sensation or emotions very strongly. They like thriller and horror movies and need a lot of stimulation. They are usually thrill-seekers. They love roller coasters. (See if you can place each person in the above photo in their place on that spectrum.)

I’m far on the first side of the spectrum. That’s my constitution.

So the first thing I think when I’m getting into the rollercoaster car is: “Why am I doing this?” As the rollercoaster starts off, I flash on all the things I’d rather be doing at that moment: hiking on a beautiful mountain, playing guitar, dancing, lying on a beach…

As we start our incline up the hill with that jerky motion, my heart rate climbs with it. Close to the top of the hill, if I turn around and look down, I remember that I’m not thrilled about heights either. Sometimes I imagine that I might fall backwards out of the rollercoaster or that the entire thing might go careening down backward off the rails.

When we’re at the top, I feel like someone about to be pushed off the balcony of a skyscraper. Then down we go- often in freefall, where the rails are pulling up on the track. I have to remind myself that the odds of rollercoasters going off-track is rare. I remember (really pray) that people rarely die being thrown from roller coasters.

Plunging down, my body begins to seize up like someone constipated in the middle of trying to pass a large stool. It like being punched in the gut. My heart pounds in my throat. My breathing is so labored it feels a bit like suffocating. Then it’s over. Until we go up again…

So, why do I do it? Why go on rollercoasters? Well, when I was younger, I didn’t want to be left out when my friends went to the fair and later my kids wanted me to go with them and I didn’t want to see myself as an old fuddy-duddy. 

In the last few years I have gone on for another reason: I have been on a quest for spiritual enlightenment! Even reading the title of this blog, you might be thinking, “What in the world do rollercoasters have to do with Enlightenment?!”

The quest for Enlightenment requires you to challenge yourself—in a variety of different ways, to shake up habits so that you can learn about yourself. Meditation itself doesn’t always help you pierce through habit. Of course, there have to be good reasons for challenging yourself in particular ways.

There are many ways rollercoasters can provide a boost to spiritual realization. Here are three examples. First, they teach me how to better witness the formation of irrational thoughts that takeover my mind. I can then make a conscious choice (i.e. train myself) to let them go.  

Next, dropping down on a rollercoaster helps me, if even for a second (that is, when can do it) defocus and detach from the sensations and emotions in my body so I can better experience the totality of the moment. This is a skill central to living fully in the moment.

And then, very importantly, rollercoasters show me (i.e. train my brain) to open up to the exhilaration of being alive. That elation is always available to us. We just don’t know how to access it. It is a pleasant version of the rollercoaster drop.

Of course, there are limits to this kind of challenge. It has to be fully by choice and I have to be in the mood to challenge myself that way.

Yet, I when I do this, it is for more than the chance to develop myself. I also do it because life offers plenty of challenges that I don’t choose. Rollercoasters—for me a mini crisis—can teach me how to be more resilient to life crises that I don’t choose.

So, safely challenge yourself. For instance, join Toastmasters if you have anxiety speaking in public. When confronted with a situation where it is very hard to be honest, be different, be better than you normally would and speak out with honesty. Learn a new skill—a sport, a creative outlet—when you and others would not expect you to do that. Never stop challenging yourself…

And I’ll see you at the fair. 

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