“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
― Henry David Thoreau
1. a small railroad, esp. in an amusement park, having a train with open cars that moves along a high, sharply winding trestle built with steep inclines.
2. any phenomenon, period, or experience characterized by intense ups and downs or fluctuations.
We often describe the seemingly endless ups and downs of life as a roller coaster. As defined above, “an experience categorized by intense ups and downs or fluctuations”. I’ve seen and lived with depression all my life – as most of us have in one way or another. I’m a firm believer that depression is chemical – that it is an imbalance, a malfunction, a misfiring of the intricacies of the human brain. Whether you suffer from clinical depression or not, all of us experience times of ascension, progress, and transformation as well as times where it seems as though everything has been torn unceremoniously from our control. The term “roller coaster” interests me because it’s such an accurate description of these sensations.
Imagine for a moment…you’ve bought your ticket and waited in line for what feels like forever. As you step into the seat and the attendant buckles you in, (you check, and re-check…and re-check that she did it correctly and that nothing is loose), there is anticipation, fear, and the breath accelerates. You see her push a big red button, or pull an ominous looking lever, and she smiles knowingly as you feel an engine start somewhere beneath you. Something is activated, turned on, sparked, in order to propel the machine into movement. There is the slow ascent – you can hear and feel how the track moves the coaster up…its gritty, its uncomfortable, and yet it feels exhilarating and your heartbeat begins to speed up. Personal transformation – growth, learning, experience, change…all of these things are associated with similar sensations.
There is, however, an attachment to results. On a roller coaster, it’s an attachment to reaching the top, and experiencing that stomach-in-your-mouth, heart-in-your-throat release of all control and complete submission to movement and gravity that occurs when the coaster crests and plummets down it’s steep decline. In life, it’s your expectation of the reward you will receive for a job or an experience completed. It’s the hope for a better future, something clearer and brighter, where you are a truer and happier version of yourself.
After the long climb – what seems like an endless ascension into the sky – much higher and more frightening than it looked from below, you grind, creaking to the beat of the track, to a shuddering stop. There is a holding of the breath, a widening of the eyes, and what seems like an endless moment of stillness. You can feel the others around you holding their breaths as well. There are always some that ignore the stillness – try to cover it up with an exhilarated scream or a challenge to their own fear. A nervous laugh, a gasp, a few sharp intakes of breath. But you are all feeling the same thing. You are all ready to let go of the work – to let go of the growth, and the challenge. You’re ready to face the fear so that you can MOVE from that place of stillness and anticipation. You are ready to submit to the whim of gravity and let it carry you (screaming and gasping mightily) all the way back to the earth below.
I think this is the moment we pay the LEAST attention to, and the moment that proves MOST important. It is in that silence that we make our decisions – conscious or otherwise. We decide that we will let go of the handrails (or not). We decide that we will scream, or we glue our lips shut in an attempt to take the plunge in wide-eyed silence as a challenge to the force of gravity and the fear we think we have conquered. How do you react in this moment? On a roller coaster? In life? Where does your mind go in that quiet space between the inhale and the exhale, the up and the down, ascension and gravity? Where does your mind go in the moments between growth and surrender? Do you submit to the whims of the universe or do you try to fight it off? If you fight, why? If you surrender, how? Can you do both? Absolutely.
There is a sound…a clank of metal, a screech of machinery in need of some serious WD40, and suddenly the breath you are holding can live in your lungs no longer. In a last-ditch effort to face the descent with conviction and fearlessness, you try to take in a tiny bit more air. And then, something gives. You can feel it in the seat beneath you, in the energy surrounding you, and in the wide eyes of tiny faces that look up from the ground below. And suddenly your breath is rushing out faster than you thought it could. You might be screaming or perhaps it’s the person behind you. Your heart has incomprehensibly traveled to the spot right at the base of your throat, and simultaneously seems to have stopped beating. For a moment, you wonder if you’ll survive. There is a sense of freedom, of being lost in an uncontrollable dive into the unknown. At some point there is the surprising realization that you are not, in fact, going to die (today).
And that’s when your brain turns back on, your heart returns to its anatomically correct location, and you begin to inhale and exhale like a normal human being. By this time, you’re slowing down. The slope has decreased in degree and the unseen speedometer begins its asperous coast to a halt. Bump…bump……..bump………bump………………….and stop. You sigh in relief, your shoulders fall from where they were frozen to your ears (you likely didn’t notice they were up there for so long) and you look for your footing on the somewhat unfamiliar ground beneath you. It seems a little bit different from it was when you left it, and you have to get used to its stillness.
We ride roller coasters all day long, all of our lives. Emotional, physical, spiritual, mental. We are challenged to ascend, to work, to grow, to transform. There is fear, anticipation, excitement, strength, determination, faith, and pure exhilaration. And then we let go – we fall – we surrender. There is relief, a sense of giving up, an emptiness, doubt, and hopelessness. There is the feeling that we will never recover, that this is the end. And then we do it all over again. How we act and react the next time around will be unmistakably different. We’ll learn from our mistakes. We’ll do better. We’ll move forward. The important thing to remember is that we will ALWAYS move forward.
The word depression refers to a void – a cavity – something missing. The antonym of depression is elevation – a lifting up, an exaltation. In order to have both of these words, and both of these feelings, there MUST be some sort of neutral, right? A balance point where there is nothing missing, but nothing extra. In order for the life roller coaster to go up and down, there must be a place where it is doing neither.
This place of stillness is always accessible, always possible. In order to find it, all we have to do is take a look at the big picture. We have to find that place at the very top of the roller coaster where everything is still and quiet. Where the world is laid clearly and expansively below us, and we can see both where we’ve been and where we are going. We have access here, to the knowledge of our past experiences. We are able to check in and remind ourselves that, as my Grandma says “this too shall pass”. Whether we are experiencing a moment of happiness, exaltation, love, or a moment of hopelessness, sadness, fear, we always have that neutral place from which there is clarity, understanding, and a sweeping panoramic of the aggregate landscape at our fingertips. As long as we can find that place, neither ego nor depression can conquer us, for we are beyond both.
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also
true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination
is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”
― Henry Miller